George Miller on the origins of 'Fury Road' and the influence of 'Road Warrior'
"The Warrior Of The Wasteland! The Ayatollah of rock and rollah!"
When I heard myself bellow both of those phrases into a mic on the stage of the Paramount theater in Austin, I got this weird out-of-body feeling that sometimes happens when I'm doing something that younger film nerd me would have freaked out about completely. In this particular case, I was bringing George Miller to the stage to discuss his classic 1982 film, "The Road Warrior," known around the world by its more-accurate-but-less-poetic title, "Mad Max 2."
It is safe to say that I adore George Miller. I think he's one of the most remarkable filmmakers to emerge in the '80s, and one of the things that I find most amazing about the "Fury Road" footage we've seen so far is that it feels like he hasn't lost a step. If anything, he's taking all of his experience and then applying it to something that looks wild and raw and alive, which isn't always true when a filmmaker makes it to their later years.
He told us before the Paramount screening that he hadn't seen the film start-to-finish since he went on the press tour for the film back in 1982, and he seemed to still be beaming the following afternoon. "Thank you so much for last night," he said, shaking my hand as we sat down to talk. "It was so great. It was really great." Seeing him that excited only made me even happier about getting the chance to chat about where he's been, where he's going, and why he's so damn awesome.
Drew: ["The Road Warrior"] plays like sacred text to the Austin audience because they’ve seen it and they know it inside out, and so to them, it’s about having the group experience, and we got that last night.
George Miller: Yeah. As you said [onstage]… you hit it perfectly. It was time travel. I’ve never had that experience in my life where you go back into something so intensely, into some part of your past, and the very fact that I hadn’t seen it for 32 years and then got to see it on a big screen with an audience… and not just any audience, but that audience… in a cinema… it was amazing. And having just come out of my head space with "Fury Road,"… it was...
I can only imagine, because when I look at "Road Warrior," one of the things that makes it stand out… when you’re shooting on a smaller budget, when you’re shooting something where every second and every dollar counts, most of the time you're just focused on getting it into the can. One of the things that makes your movie so great is the gravy. Those little things, those little details that push it over the top, those are they ones that just burn in. One of my favorite examples is when the Feral Kid throws the boomerang and then Wez throws it back to him and The Toadie goes to catch it. The shot of the fingers, most directors wouldn’t bother with that shot, the insert shot. They would find a way to sell the gag cheaper or quicker. But it’s perfect. The way they fly, it’s just one of those things that sticks, a detail that sticks. So, "Fury Road" started as 3,000 storyboards even before you guys technically wrote the script, right?
Yeah, we mapped out the story and wrote a short document. Then we boarded it. It was conceived visually in the first instance, and then to make it readable, we had a 170 page screenplay with text like in the usual fashion but with images from the storyboards which saved you describing things. It was often the beginning of a new scene, so you know exactly where you were and so, you know, a complex bit of action or something like that, all you had to do is put one or two storyboards side by side and the reader knew exactly what it was. It was an illustrated script.
So you think these things through visually first. Is that how you begin to think of scenes? You get those images and then you build to that, or..?
There’s a kind of a process where you think of a scene. You think, "Oh here’s a situation, here’s a scene, and then because you play it sequentially and because the language we’re working in is visual, movie syntax, so like you would write and your mind is processing and already contextualizing your words. The same thing happens as a vision. It’s not like a movie playing in my head. It’s like a dream. It’s like a not-so-real dream that goes on. Then you put it down and test it against reality, and you check out inconsistencies. You go looking for subtext and then you start sort of building it that way. But it’s first conceived in that way. Exactly as you would a sentence or a composer with a bit of music, you know. It’s no different than that, except it’s visual music.
I’m fascinated by how frequently and how fervently you guys were ripped off after this one came out. After "The Road Warrior" in particular. And I’ve always wondered… as a filmmaker, when you see your language, the things you created and the ideas that you put forward become so imitated and almost omnipresent for about ten years there… what does that feel like as a filmmaker? Because you had other stories you wanted to tell in the Max universe, I'm sure.
And to some degree they poached your territory hard for a while.
Well, the main thing we had seen was in games and stuff like that. It’s like that thing where kids used to say, "Who are the Beatles? Oh, that was the band that Paul McCartney was in before Wings," you know? I noticed that they did a promotion for "The Voice" on the Super Bowl, and they used the Thunderdome idea, and I think they’re interviewing someone working on it, and they said, "Yes, it was based on Tupac because he did a Thunderdome type thing.
[Miller's referring to the "California Love" video by 2Pac, which was shot on a set that looks like the Thunderdome from Miller's third "Mad Max" movie.]
"Two men enter, one man leaves," has entered the lexicon. I've heard it in contexts where I'm not even sure they know where it came from.
Yeah, so in a way, they poached the territory, but that’s the nature of all cultural evolution. If you look at the classic composers they borrowed themes from each other and indeed worked off of each other's motifs. The artists, the great artists, they often took an iconic painting of their time, particularly in religious art, and reworked it and reworked it and interpreted it their way. Caravaggio reinterpreted several of the classic genres as it were and so on and so on. My son is a guitarist and he can listen to music and go back and trace through its antecedents, all the way through. So it’s what we do, you know, as cultural workers.
Why "Fury Road" now? What finally came together in terms of the storytelling or your urge to return to it? Why did you finally come back to Max’s universe?
It’s been a long history. Twelve years ago, the idea came to me. I was crossing the street, and it flashed in my mind, the central idea. I said, "Oh, that’s a 'Mad Max' movie." By the time I got to the other side of the street, I said, "No, there’s no way." Two years after that, I was on a flight from Los Angeles across the Pacific at night, and I woke up in the middle of the night, and as these things do, this is when it played out in my head.
That’s a great time to think because you’ve got nowhere to go.
Nowhere to go.
Nothing to distract you. You’re trapped, and in a way, it forces you to let things percolate.
The first "Babe" was based on a book, but it started on a plane flying to London over India. It’s a privileged time. I don’t watch movies. I just sit and think, you know. And in the shower. The shower. Anyway, by the time, I landed, I said, "Look, I think we’ll do this. Then I got together with Brendan McCarthy and we mapped out the story. And the moment came when I’d said, "We’ve got to put this on the screen. I just can’t wait to sit in the cinema and watch and see what this is like." Which is the seduction of a drug, you know. I can’t wait to feel like what it would be to get a certain drug, but you know it’s going to hurt you in some way. There’s a kind of an insanity to it, but you take it.
The scale of "Mad Max: Fury Road" looks remarkable. Is there… aside from yes, there’s newer tech and things like that, is there any difference in terms of how you approached building the worlds between "The Road Warrior" and "Fury Road," or is it just size?
Oh no, I never intended for the size to happen. It comes out of story and then really we spent… I mean, when people see the film, it will look pretty straightforward and relatively simple as a chase across the Wasteland and how in that crucible all the characters emerge and reveal the backstory. One of the advantages of the delays and doing other films and coming back to it I was able to go deeper and deeper into the story in every way. I tried to indicate last night, in every way there are very specific ground rules as to the influence of everyone’s designs and big goals and even language. They have a language in many ways of found objects and repurposed. So we had to create a human ecology in the Wasteland and there was the Immortan Joe, the Warlord, and that required a certain scale to make him the tyrannical figure that he is. Therefore that required a number of vehicles and that determined the number of chases and so on and so on. Pretty soon, you’re looking at "This is much bigger than I ever intended it to be." That’s what it is, you know. That’s the scale of it. These things are very organic.
1982 was the formative year of my youth, cinema-wise, because so many talented filmmakers hit their stride that year, whether it was Spielberg with "E.T." and "Poltergeist" or Carpenter’s The Thing or Cronenberg's "Videodrome" or your film or Milius with "Conan." These were mythic giant movies that all landed on me within the space of about a year. What’s been interesting is watching how each of the filmmakers who worked in that era has then adapted as technology has changed and as the business has changed. Carpenter is essentially retired and I think happy to be so. Spielberg is still Spielberg and still turning out two or three things at any given moment, so you always feel like he’s juggling, but he's not making the kinds of movies he did back then, and couldn't, I don't think. Watching you embrace technology over the years, whether it was with "Babe" and your work with Rhythm & Hues on that. I went to that Oscar party the year they won their Oscar for "Babe." it was so great because they were the underdog. They were the little tiny upstart.
Yeah, that’s right.
I think it was undeniable. I always feel like you use effects the right way which is simply to serve what you’re doing. There’s never a sense that you stop a movie and show me a special effect and then go back to what you’re doing. They are organically blended into what you do. So often that’s not the case. It feels like with tech especially there’s that need to show it off. That’s not the sense I get from you.
It’s all storytelling. It’s all about inviting an audience into an enchantment and anything you do that reminds them too much of the technology, that’s a real problem. The big thing now is stereo, you know. You’ve got all these people working on stereo and…
Now did you shoot native 3D, or did you post-convert?
We post-converted. We built cameras. We built six cameras that were small enough to get inside the vehicle and could withstand the heat and dust. Then I chickened out because if we lost even one… we often had 15 cameras and if we lost one camera even one day, like they couldn’t cool a camera enough and I thought, "Oh, there’s one camera down." We’ve lost up to three units, you know. We can’t get a camera in that case, so we made the decision to go digital which liberated us. Johnny Seale is someone who was very happy to put cameras everywhere, multiple cameras. We ended up having cameras everywhere, and if we lost a camera, a crashed camera, we could go to the airport even in Namibia and buy another one for $1,500 to $2,000. That was big. Meantime, it took so long for these things to happen that the conversion is much, much better.
It seems to give you more control. I talked to del Toro about "Pacific Rim," and early on in his tests, he realized that if he did 3D for any of the scenes with the monsters and the robots, they looked like toys. So he would push it very shallow and then only in interior scenes with humans would he open it up.
So is that something you played with as well?
It was the biggest battle I’ve had. And I learned on "Happy Feet"…
At that point, Warner Bros. had no choice but to break things up. Miller was visibly excited by the question, leaning in and preparing to make a point, but they didn't have any time to spare. They had to get Miller to the airport, and then he was on his way to LA to finish up some of the tech work on "Fury Road." It was heartbreaking to have to wrap the conversation so soon, but Miller ended up giving me his contact information. We'll pick this up and dig much deeper, and I hope to do that sooner rather than later. In the meantime, if you want to see the actual onstage Q&A we did at SXSW, you can find it at Ain't It Cool, although I'm not sure who this Moriarty fellow is that Harry keeps talking about...
For now, there is no way I could be any more excited for "Max Max: Fury Road." I want to see it in a perfect screening room with an Atmos set-up first, then I want to see it at the drive-in about 50 times. I think it's possible I'm more excited for this film than I am for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." I am so ready to go back to the wasteland, and there is no one I'd rather have take us there than George Miller.
"Mad Max: Fury Road" kicks all the ass on May 15, 2015.