Director George Miller Explains Why His Mad Max: Fury Road Deserves These Oscar Nominations

It’s been a big week for George Miller’s acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road, which has been picking up top honors from critics groups and dominated the proceedings at the recent AACTA Awards (considered by many to be the Australian equivalent to the Academy Awards). But can all that love push Miller’s masterwork into the Oscar conversation? The movie is more than deserving in a wide array of categories, and when I recently sat down with Miller in Los Angeles, I asked him to make his case for why his talented cast and crew warrant recognition in some of those key races. So listen up, Academy members, because the Mad Max drumbeat is growing ever louder (accompanied by a few flaming riffs from the guitar-wailing Doof Warrior, naturally). If you can’t come through with some of these significant Fury Road nods come January, I can guarantee you that Max won’t be the only mad one.

If Sigourney Weaver could earn an Oscar nod for her pioneering action heroine in Aliens, then Charlize Theron ought to be in contention for playing Fury Road’s Furiosa, the fierce, capable savior who can communicate an entire lifetime of hardship in one flicker of her eyes. The character has become so iconic that even Miller had a hard time reconciling his image for Furiosa with the glamorous actress he shared red carpets with this summer. “I see this glamorous creature,” he said, “and that’s not Charlize to me, because I’m so conditioned to seeing her as Furiosa.”

While Miller was wowed by the amount of women who were costumed as his heroine for Comic-Con and Halloween, he still had one affectionate nudge: “You can dress up as Furiosa, but to be Furiosa, you’ve got to be Charlize,” he said. “She carries a lot of stature, and she always feels taller to me than she really is. And she’s unmistakably a great beauty, so she doesn’t have to protect that in any way. She’ll throw dust on herself and let tears stream down her face.”

The role is an example of what Theron can do so well, bringing all her movie-star wattage to bear on a part that she can sink her character-actress teeth into. She’s helped in that respect by a cooperative Tom Hardy as Max, and when I asked Miller to evaluate his two stars and their chemistry, he had an interesting observation.

“I know there’s paradox to do with it,” he told me. “I remember Susan Sarandon said it really well. She told me, ‘If you look at the great male movie stars, they have a female quality — they’re not effeminate, but there’s a looseness to them that reminds one of the female approach to life. And the female stars have always had a male quality, which is to be very direct.’ The classic example is Hepburn and Tracy. She was very direct, and Spencer Tracy, for all his rough masculinity, has a looseness with him. The interesting thing that Susan said is that when you’re pairing couples, you always want a female to skew male and a male to skew female.” Noting that it was borne out by Fury Road’s own satisfying, subversive gender dynamics, he added, “I think that’s true.”

For Fury Road’s fluid editing, Miller called upon his wife, Margaret Sixel, who had spent most of her career editing documentaries and had never cut an action movie before. “We’ve got teenage sons, but I’m the one who goes to the action movies with them!” laughed Miller. “So when I asked her to do Mad Max, she said, ‘Well, why me?’ And I said, ‘Because then it’s not going to look like other action movies.’”

And it doesn’t. Compare the smart, iterative set pieces of Fury Road to one of the incoherent car chases in Spectre, for example, and you’ll see that Sixel prizes a sense of spatial relationships that has become all too rare in action movies. “She’s a real stickler for that,” said Miller. “And it takes a lot of effort! It’s not just lining up all the best shots and stringing them together, and she’s very aware of that. She’s also looking for a thematic connection from one shot to the next. If it regressed the characters and their relationships, she’d be against that. And she has a very low boredom threshold, so there’s no repetition.”

That Sixel was able to whittle 480 hours of footage down into a movie that sings still astounds Miller. “It’s like working in the head of a great composer,” he said. “Movies like this one — in particular this one, because it’s almost a silent movie — are like visual music. In the same way that a composer has to have a strong casual relationship from one note to the next, paying attention tempo and melodic line and overall structure, it’s exactly the same process that a film editor must have.” Sixel, surely, is one of the greats.

Fury Road
earned a lot of acclaim for its persuasive, practical stunt work, though an awesome featurette reveals just how much digital finesse went into those striking frames. “The basic thing was that the central event should be real, and not defy the laws of physics,” said Miller. “If two vehicles were to smash into each other, why simulate it digitally when you could actually make it real? Then you get all those random bits you can’t predict — the way that the dust reacts, and all that. It’s very, very difficult to create that digitally in a believable way. So having got that material, then you’re free to play around with it and use digital embellishment.”

That guiding philosophy, put to use in so many whoa-inducing shots and sequences, ensured that Fury Road had an impact on even the most jaded, action-saturated audiences. “Our brains, in a sense, jump to conclusions very quickly,” explained Miller. “So if the first central image they see is real, they will read everything else as real. If the first central image is false, then we read everything else as false. Through evolution, our survival has been based on reading things as accurately as possible — this is a big digression, but I think that’s why plastic surgery fails so often. It’s the uncanny valley. We’re reading something that’s not quite real.”

Miller managed to lure the great cinematographer John Seale (Witness, The English Patient) out of semi-retirement to shoot Fury Road, but to hear the director tell it, the film’s eye-popping teal skies and orange sands came about in postproduction. Through most of the process, Miller and Seale fashioned Fury Road as a movie so stripped down that it was nearly in black and white.

“There’s something more abstracted and more elemental to black and white — if we took a photo of ourselves here, it would always look better in black and white,” said Miller. “Color sometimes has too much information. But if we’d desaturated the movie, we’d basically have been doing what had almost become a cliché. You’ve gotta remember that the early Mad Maxes were 30 years ago, and there’ve been a lot of postapocalyptic movies since where there was a tendency to desaturate everything.”

Determined for the movie to go its own way, Miller pondered pumping up the saturation, and that’s how those striking, Seale-shot frames became even more memorable. “As I looked at the movie and sat with the wonderful colorist and talked to Johnny about it, I thought, The film was meant to be shot in Australia, where the earth is more red, and we shot it in Namibia, where the earth is more cream. So I said, ‘Let’s just tweak it up a little bit and see what happens.’ We got into the teal and orange a little bit more, and the skin colors came up a little bit richer, it made the people look more sunburned and windswept, and we found a place where it just felt richer. Johnny is one of those wonderful cameramen who’s prepared to adapt and work with anything. He’s great.”

While these categories often favor period pieces and fairy tales, Fury Road’s postapocalyptic future shock produced some of the most memorable looks of the year, from the white-painted war boys to Immortan Joe’s wild hair and formidable breathing apparatus. “You always remember those moments with an actor where the makeup goes on and they stand up and step back and become that character you’d been imagining,” said Miller, who was thrilled when Theron wanted to take Furiosa’s look one step further.

“I remember when we had our first conversations about hair,” he recalled, “and she decided, ‘Look, this is a warrior. Why is she gonna mess with hair? I’m gonna get a buzz cut.’ I thought, Gee, wow. First of all, she’s got a great sense of the character. Second of all, this means she’s really committed to the role — which I sort of knew, anyway, because she’s deeply professional. But thirdly, I thought, Oh, I hope she’s got a great-shaped head. So I texted her, ‘Brilliant, go for it.’ And a half-hour after she texts me back, and it was perfect. It was a startling moment, but I love those moments.”

Those fierce faces were perfectly complemented by the costumes turned out by Oscar winner Jenny Beavan, who made outfits that weren’t just practical and safe — “Those guys riding bikes, you can’t just load them up with clothes,” said Miller — but also adhered to the director’s strict wishes that every piece of clothing should have a backstory, especially since luxuries would surely be hard to come by in this hardscrabble world. That required a lot of cooperation between Beavan and production designer Colin Gibson, “and once everyone was working with the same sort of ground rules,” said Miller, “they were free to push it further.”

Miller developed Fury Road for nearly two decades, and several false starts delayed production until 2011. “It was a very, very long labor, and it gets quite intense at the very end because you’re working long hours and it doesn’t come without pain,” he said. “When you start getting some feedback back, you think, Oh, wow. All the stuff we hoped was there, seems to be there. And it’s palpable enough that people are really, really getting into it. You don’t know if it’ll have any resonance, but when you see people doing fan art of such a high order or doing cosplay so imaginatively with such wit…” Miller trailed off, grinning, as he remembered a Japanese critic whose passion for the film bordered on the fanatical.

“He told me that he’d read all this stuff into it — and it is, after all, an allegory, so it’s in the eye of the beholder — and I said, ‘Did you get all that from one viewing of the movie?’ And he said, ‘No, no. I walked out of the cinema, I thought about it, and I went straight back into the cinema and asked the distributor if I could see it again.’ And then he took me aside and pulled open his shirt, and he had the Immortan’s little branding symbol tattooed on him!” Miller laughed. “I thought, Oh my God, I hope this movie lasts long enough to justify the tattoo!

That, ultimately, is why this awards-season leg has been so fruitful for Miller. “You work very hard in the tunnel of the movie you’re making, and then you emerge and put some effort out there, but when you get home and now there’s all this new stuff coming back at you, it’s one of the greatest delights,” he told me. There’s nothing more gratifying for Miller than to have people realize that there’s more to Mad Max than meets the eye. “You can see it on the surface,” he said, “but we tried to put a lot of iceberg under the tip.”

George Miller on Why Mad Max Deserves Oscar Nods