Best Film of 2015

Filmmaker of the Year: George Miller

on December 14, 2015, 12:00am

George Miller is mad.

He must be, to think he could get away with some of the stunts he pulled while shooting Mad Max: Fury Road. On the set of the summer’s least probable and most explosive action film, the Australian filmmaker blew up a 78-foot oil tanker, flipped a car at 60 miles per hour, and convinced several presumably sane humans to strap themselves to poles swinging 25 feet in the air.

Today, however, he’s struggling with a much simpler task: staying awake.

I meet Miller on a Monday afternoon at Parq Bar in Beverly Hills. He’s seated by himself, though his table is littered with empty coffee cups and spent bags of tea. The first thing he offers, after shaking my hand, is a kind of apology: “I’ve got a weird jet lag, so…” He neglects to finish the sentence, instead hoisting himself up to fetch another coffee from the bar.

At 70 years old, the director is easy to mistake as a little senile, especially when you catch him mere hours after a trans-Pacific flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. But as he sits back down and slowly pushes aside the curtain of fatigue, Miller reveals himself as something quite different. He’s funny, charming, and articulate once you get used to his bumbling manner of speech. He’s also a preternatural visionary, the kind that comes along only a few times every generation if it comes along at all.

This last quality is the most obvious, sticking out like a truck screaming across the wide-open desert. After all, this is the man who created Mad Max and the entire post-apocalyptic mythology that goes with it. Thirty-five years after the original film, Miller continues to flesh out its world, adding more contours and characters whenever a stray thought pops into his head.

Miller is still reeling from his long flight, so I ease him into our conversation by asking about another flight he took years ago. As legend has it, the idea for Fury Road came to him in a fit of inspiration while on a redeye from LA to Sydney.

The memory triggers an excited response. “So I’m sitting in this plane, and the movie’s playing in my head,” he recounts, leaning forward for the first time. When I press him to describe what exactly he was seeing in his head, it becomes clear that Miller’s imagination isn’t bound by normal concepts of space and time.

“It’s almost as if you see the whole scene in a snapshot,” he explains, or tries to explain. “You’re almost detecting, like some sort of Geiger counter, where the drama is.” Miller conceived of the film’s first two acts in this fashion, homing in on specific action sequences rather than broad plot points. Instead of a complicated struggle of wills, Miller saw a simple fistfight between Max and Furiosa. Every kick and punch played out vividly in his head, but he needed co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris to help him make sense of what he was seeing — to draw out a few seconds of violence into something that could support and sustain a two-hour movie.

The miracle of Fury Road isn’t so much that Miller had this vision, but that he was disciplined enough to mine its depths and, after 17 years of tortured development, make it a reality. Of course, those 17 years probably helped Miller in the long run, allowing him the time and perspective necessary to transform the world of Mad Max into an entire universe expanding ever outwards with new characters and post-apocalyptic settings.

FURY_ROAD

While waiting for the film to be greenlit, Miller explains, “Nico and I wrote a lot of the backstories of the world — of Max, Furiosa, and really all the characters.” He anticipates my next question before I even have a chance to ask it. “I can definitely tell you the story of the Doof Warrior and how he came to be.”

Unfortunately, Miller ends up playing coy about everyone’s favorite flamethrowing guitarist, though he does offer that the Doof is “blind and mute and has just one ability: to play the guitar really well.” You’ll have to buy Miller a stiff drink or use your own imagination if you want to fill in the gaps, but rest assured that there are no gaps in the filmmaker’s mind when it comes to the wide and desolate world of Mad Max.

I ask Miller if he thinks this might be a bit overkill, admitting that “overkill” is basically the whole point of Fury Road. After all, isn’t Max’s character just an archetype to begin with? We’ve seen this guy before and not just in the three previous movies bearing his name. He’s Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, or Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp, or John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. He’s the cultural myth that has buttressed the American Western for the better part of a century: the lone wanderer in search of meaning.

“I’m still very interested in Max’s character because he’s an everyman,” Miller responds. In typical fashion, he even takes it a step further. “So many people have called the Mad Max movies ‘Westerns on Wheels,’ but he’s also the Lone Samurai. When the very first film came out, I remember going to Japan and people saying, ‘Oh, do you know Kurosawa’s work?’ And I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of Kurosawa.” Once he finally got around to seeing Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, Miller was fascinated by the similarities.

He certainly hasn’t shied away from exploiting these similarities, but he has become more interested in the things that make Max Max. It’s the way an action hero should be written, really: Embrace the stereotypes that make him relatable, then build outward from there. The big truths inform the smaller ones, making them richer if harder to perceive.

Of course, Max isn’t technically the hero of Fury Road. He’s more of a conduit used to bring the audience into the action — “an entry into the world,” as Miller puts it. The real hero of the story is Furiosa, a female Road Warrior on a quest to emancipate the “five wives” of warlord Immortan Joe. Born into slavery, these wives are forced to breed with Joe against their will, and Furiosa’s act of smuggling them away leads to the prolonged car chase that takes up, oh, 90 percent of the film.

The focus on Furiosa and the plight of women sets Fury Road apart from other Westerns, many of which eradicate femininity altogether. Miller doesn’t mind that critics have labeled his latest film a feminist work — it is, in many delightful ways — though he does point out that the story took precedence over any particular agenda. “If I had to say one thing at all, it would be this: The story required a female Road Warrior. It couldn’t be a male stealing five wives. That’s a different story.”

Even so, an empathetic filmmaker such as Miller can’t help but pull from his own life experience. “My wife Margaret is from South Africa,” he remarks, “and in African culture, it’s the women who often lead. In one way or another, they basically shoulder the weight of things.” He acknowledges that his current outlook on women’s issues probably came to him a bit later than it might have, had he not grown up in an Australian culture where violent rugby matches and all-boys schools were the norm. “I went to medical school at a time when very few women studied medicine, but later on in my life, I had a wonderful daughter. My wife is a very strong woman, and my mother is also quite a matriarch, in her own way.”

Miller speculates that Furiosa began as a composite of all these women in his life. From there, all it took was some of his patented world-building. “Where was she from?” he asked himself. “We talked about The Green Place, we talked about her own mother, her clan … it was just exploring that character and her backstory.” And sure, maybe current cultural issues had something to do with it, too. “In an unconscious way,” he admits, “I guess I was also responding to the zeitgeist.”

This photo provided by Warner Bros. Pictures shows, from left, Abbey Lee as The Dag, Courtney Eaton as Cheedo the Fragile, Zoe Kravitz as Toast the Knowing, Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa and Riley Keough as Capable, in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure film, “Mad Max:Fury Road," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Maybe this is what’s most striking about Fury Road, aside from the pole-dancing warriors and mind-blowing pyrotechnics. The film is incredibly responsive to the present. It’s not a nostalgia-baiting reboot, nor is it particularly interested in rehashing those journeys Max took in the ‘80s. The characters — excepting Max himself — are all newcomers, and the story taps into social issues that have become a routine part of modern discourse.

The film is also responsive to the zeitgeist in a smaller, subtler way. Technology in movies has evolved to the point where we almost expect half of what we see onscreen to be computer-generated. I mention to Miller that I just recently finished rewatching George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, and I was astonished by how much of it looked fake. The same goes for most of the high-budget blockbusters of the past decade, most of which rely heavily on green-screen effects that simulate reality as opposed to actually creating it.

The problem with this technology is that it no longer impresses us. We live so much of our day-to-day lives inside computers that we no longer need movies to help us escape. In a perverse way, we now expect movies to bring us closer to reality, and we’re not as easily fooled by cheap simulations.

This is why Miller insisted on practical, real-world special effects when filming Fury Road, much to the studio’s chagrin. “The reason for doing it real-world is that we don’t defy the laws of physics,” he explains.

“There’s no flying human beings, no spacecraft, nothing like that. You can’t simulate all things. You can’t predict. You can do simulations of vehicles smashing together, but you can’t do it as well as what is real.” Miller may sound like a man who’s used to getting his way when he says, “We really had no other choice,” but he’s also right.

To get that gritty, authentic look, Miller had to haul an entire film crew out to the desert of Namibia — about the furthest place from a Hollywood studio he could find. “Being out there every day in a remote location,” he explains, “it was military in its logistics. We had to keep everyone safe, not only while we were filming but also getting to our locations.”

I ask him if that somehow worked its way under the skin of the film. “Oh, I think it had a big influence on it,” he says, citing the sheer amount of dust and debris the crew had to contend with. “The dust was everywhere, and it also got onscreen. We had a mantra: ‘Dust Is Our Friend.’ I mean, Charlize [Theron] would roll herself in it every day. And when a car rolls in the dust, well, it’s much more interesting.”

It’s worth noting that Miller isn’t some kind of hardcore old-schooler who shuns digital effects for the sake of tradition. (His last major film, after all, was the computer-animated penguin musical Happy Feet.) But he does have extremely particular ideas about what’s right for each story, and he couldn’t stomach the thought of a Mad Max that wasn’t defined by its gritty, unforgiving atmosphere.

Other aesthetic decisions didn’t always go in his favor. Miller had initially wanted to present the film in black-and-white, but studio execs balked at the idea of a summer blockbuster sans color. In explaining his rationale to me, Miller once again lands on the buzzword of “authenticity.”

“Somehow black and white distills … it abstracts the story more,” he explains. “It gives it more authenticity. Now, I don’t know if that’s conditioning from the old black-and-white newsreels, but I think if you take a picture and you render it in black and white on your smartphone, it often looks better.”

I ask if that’s just a kind of stubborn nostalgia, but he disagrees. “Nostalgia’s got a little bit to do with it, but it’s simply got less information. And in that sense, [the image] becomes more poetic. It allows the person looking at it to project more into it. You’re just seeing the form, the basic lighting, the shape and so on of the photograph. And so you’re able to then just project more into it.” He pauses briefly, as if having stumbled upon a new revelation. “I think that’s the notion of poetry.”

mad max fury road 11 Filmmaker of the Year: George Miller

Speaking of poetry, Miller also wanted to eliminate most of the dialogue from the film, reducing its central chase to a visual exercise that resonates on a purely visceral level. Again, the execs balked at this kind of art-house treatment. “But I’m definitely going to do it one day,” Miller confides, with just a note of defiance in his voice. “Black and white with just the music or black and white with all sound but the music.”

This is the voice of an artist who can’t stop tinkering, even when his finished product has been met with near-unanimous critical praise. The truth is — and Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, and others who have worked with Miller will attest to this — he’s an absolute control freak. In light of this, I ask him the simplest and most complex question I can think of: Do you have fun making films?

“It’s a military exercise,” he explains after a protracted sigh. “There’s a kind of demented pleasure in it, but you don’t have time. It’s more concentration than anything else. When you know you’ve got really good footage in the can, there’s a certain satisfaction … but you don’t have a moment to waste, because you’ve got to be thinking about the next shot and what you’re doing the next day and the next week.”

Miller learned to think in militaristic terms after shooting the first Mad Max, which he still claims is the toughest film he’s done “by far.” But Fury Road presented its own kinds of challenges — not the kind that have to do with funding and time, but the kind in which human lives actually hang in the balance.

“That was the worst thing with this movie,” he explains. “Every day, deep down in the pit of your stomach as fatigue sets in, you’re saying to yourself, ‘Okay, how rigorous have we got to be today so that we don’t hurt someone incredibly badly or kill them?’

“Live action is very much like playing a football game,” he continues. “You’ve got to prepare, you’ve got to use innate skills. You’ve got to keep playing until the end. And hopefully you come out on top of the game.” By that, I assume he means everybody keeps most of their body parts.

As we begin to wrap up, I look around the posh dining room we’ve been sitting in for nearly half an hour and can’t help but feel out of place. This is what Miller does to you. He draws you in until you’re lost in a world of his creation, whether in film or conversation. My body may be seated at a table in Beverly Hills, but my mind is darting across post-apocalyptic landscapes like Max’s famous Pursuit Special.

As for Miller, well, even he has trouble leaving his world and his characters onscreen. “They do definitely visit you in the middle of the night,” he says with a slight laugh, perhaps remembering that LA-Sydney redeye that kicked off his latest insane journey. “It’s actually quite hard to keep them away.”

George Miller is mad, there’s little doubt.

Let’s hope he stays this way.

Previous Story
Film Review: Macbeth
1 comment