At age 70, George Miller accomplished something extremely improbable: He revived a 30-year-old action franchise with a new installment that is far and away the best one yet and, by the way, won the AFI award for Movie of the Year and earned ten Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture. Oddly, Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t his most unlikely Oscar-nominated film: That might be Babe, up for Best Picture in 1996, which Miller co-wrote. (And he won an Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2007 for Happy Feet.) We spoke to Miller about his debt to silent films, his mid-career detour from postapocalyptic wastelands to dancing animated penguins, and where exactly the Doof Warrior gets the electricity to power his flame-spouting double-neck-guitar solos.
I’m sure it’s quite a busy time of year for you with all the awards attention.
Yeah. The last time I was invited to these things, I don’t remember there being … so much of it. It seems to be getting bigger all the time, with so many events and so many different awards. But it’s really good fun, so long as you don’t inhale, as they say.
Fury Road is not necessarily the kind of film people think of when they think Oscar movie. Were you surprised to get ten nominations?
Oh, yes. I was definitely surprised. It’s an atypical film, and it came out in the first half of last year, so the fact that it’s still around and people are still engaged with it is very gratifying, honestly. The critical response was extraordinary, and what particularly I enjoyed was realizing how people dug deep into the film.
It’s not as if this is your first atypical film to get Oscar attention. Babe [which Miller co-wrote] was a Best Picture nominee — and you might say a talking-pig movie is even a longer shot of getting an Oscar nomination than a film like Mad Max.
It didn’t occur to me, but yes — there’s a certain déjà vu about the whole experience, but in a different way.
There’s always been a divide between so-called genre films and films that people take Seriously with a capital S and people are inclined to give awards to. Do you feel like those boundaries are starting to break down a little bit?
I’d like to think so. I think that virtually every film is a genre film. What you try achieve in work, I guess, is something that is uniquely familiar. In one way or another, a film builds on what’s come before. I mean, all cultural evolution is based on that.
Do you have a different approach toward awards and recognition at this stage in your career than you had at the beginning?
When I first started, I thought awards were … I was very careful to not take awards too seriously. Because I thought, if you’ve done the work and it meant something to people, that’s the big thing. So I was a little bit — what’s the word — skeptical of awards, and particularly of my own response to them. And then Jack Nicholson — who for me is a great sage — said to me, “Don’t ever make the mistake of not celebrating success, or good work, because it doesn’t come along very often.” As time went on, I started to see things a little bit more accurately. Which means being very, very grateful to be invited to the party, and to enjoy it for that very reason — that it doesn’t come along very often. And the great thing about these awards is that you get to actually engage with other filmmakers. There’s a kind of collegial presence going on. For instance, I was at the American Film Institute and I had a lovely lunch and I saw Vince Gilligan. I went over and had a chat and we ended up talking for a long time, and it was just … it’s one of the great benefits of being at these events.
Speaking of Vince Gilligan, what kinds of TV shows are you drawn to watch?
I don’t get to watch as many movies as I would like, and of course I don’t get to watch as much TV. I usually wait, like all of us, for recommendations from people whose opinions I really listen to. So when I watched Breaking Bad, the first thing to say about it is, this is made by people who are very, very comprehensive in their skills, and being highly influenced by cinema and particularly the history of cinema. In terms of the rest of the shows that I’m watching, I’m one of those people who spends so much time in a kind of fictional imagination that I tend to watch documentaries way more than I do anything else.
There’s obviously a moment right now where people are celebrating TV and suggesting that it’s reached a new artistic peak. Do you feel like there’s a rivalry between cinema and TV?
It’s all storytelling one way or another. I did quite a bit of television, making mini-series, back in the ‘80s in Australia. It was a great thing to do because as a director I got to work with a lot of other directors, producers, and actors. The great thing about television is it has to be done quickly. You have to work fast.
One of the appeals of Fury Road is that it’s so fundamentally cinematic. You can get a lot out of watching a TV show, but you’re rarely going to drop your jaw and say, “Whoa, did I just see what I think I saw?” — which is what you think roughly every five minutes watching this movie.
Well, it’s a film we decided to do in a certain way, with very little dialogue. Its basic antecedents are in silent cinema, which is something I became very interested in when I started making movies. The real [visual] language was defined during the silent cinema, which brought all the action and chase movies, the real Westerns, and particularly Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. So one of the things that drew me to Fury Road was to be able to go back into that area, and see what we can do now with all the tools that are available. That was the plan — to make it cinematic in that way.
On paper this movie would seem unpromising, in the sense that people have become jaded about sequels and reboots. But you were able to revisit this world 30 years later in a way that seemed both familiar but totally new. Did you have any sort of aesthetic or philosophical approach? Like, If I’m going to revisit this world, these are the rules I’m going to give myself?
I guess some of that was unconscious, because I definitely wasn’t interested in making another Mad Max movie. But there was some strong gravitational pull to this story, and to the exercise of this film, which was to see whether we could take one continuous chase and see how much the audience could apprehend, moment to moment, about the characters, their relationships, and the world they were invited into. And I also wanted to see if I’d learned anything about making films in the interim.
Did the studio ever say, “George, you have to have a scene where someone explains how this world works”? It seems like you were able to break so many of the current accepted rules of Hollywood storytelling.
The film was storyboarded; it wasn’t just on the written page. In a screenplay, a lot relies on the imagination of the reader, but we had storyboards, and a huge amount of concept drawings, and a so-called “bible” explaining all the detail of the world. And I think it helped that people knew I had already made Mad Max movies in the past — I guess the studio thought, Well, he must know what he’s doing by now.
Do you think there’s a pressure on modern filmmakers to be too explicit, to overexplicate things, because they’re worried people will get lost?
I guess there is. Exposition is one of the most difficult things to do because it’s not dramatic, and it’s not instinct, and often we don’t listen to it anyway. But I always think that if you walk into a new culture, or you go to a new country that you don’t know a lot about, you see behaviors, gestures, and an aesthetic that you might not understand, and yet you accept it and believe that these things have meaning. If a character sprays his mouth with gold paint — as long as the audience believes the character knows why he’s doing that, and it’s consistent within the logic of the world you’ve set up, then the audiences accepts it. You don’t need a footnote to describe exactly what it means. We just had to have everybody working on the film working with the same internal logic, otherwise there’s a risk of getting very messy. So everything had to work to the same internal logic. The people designing the double-necked guitar, for example, had to be sure it was all made of found objects, repurposed. And you had to know these are objects that would last 50 years after some apocalyptic event. So the vehicles themselves had to be old-school — they couldn’t be full of modern computer technology with microprocessors and air bags and all that.
The production design of the first three Mad Max movies was so influential — in a way, it became the visual template for how people would portray a certain kind of postapocalyptic landscape.
It was very important to me that there’s a strong aesthetic. Otherwise postapocalyptic films can be very visually noisy and junkyard-y. There’s a tendency to make it look like a junkyard and chaotic, whereas I think the opposite would be true: Given enough time, people, no matter how impoverished, will still have an eye for beauty. So a steering wheel can still be lovingly made. It becomes almost a religious artifact.
How did you feel seeing your basic visual style replicated over and over again? Did you ever look at these imitations and think, No, no, no you’re not getting what’s essentially important about this. It’s not just about people with mohawks and dune buggies. There’s more to it.
I certainly wasn’t frustrated about it. I certainly wouldn’t say, “Oh no, you’re doing it all wrong.” I remember thinking, Okay, these [Mad Max] films have had some sort of resonance. That was my main feeling. But by the time we got to do Fury Road, I just wanted to make sure that we avoided what had become cliché.
The most obvious one is desaturated color. [The typical look] became all very desaturated, moody color, and as I said, that tends to look like a junkyard. That’s why we went for the saturated color. That was probably the biggest reaction to all that had happened in the last 30 years. And we worked very hard to create something authentic to all the ground rules in the world that we were creating. We have to do that as much as possible without working it too hard and overcooking it. That’s also a danger as well. To get that balance right was really tricky.
Another thing people responded very positively to in Fury Road was the fact that it had a strong lead female character. In terms of the way women are portrayed in the film, a lot of people saw it as a kind of corrective to a tradition in action films that’s very male-centric. Was that your intention?
Not consciously so. I mean, in the second Mad Max there was a character called the Warrior Woman. She appears in the movie relatively briefly, and she dies in the final battle. And I always wondered about a character like that. How does a female survive in a much more elemental world? It’s not just by aping a man. She had to be an authentic road warrior. Charlize really picked up on that early. She thought, Okay, what would I do to survive in a wasteland? One of the first things she did was she shaved her head. Then she had to have skill in driving, and with weapons, and she had to be strong, and so on. It all just arose out of the work. As it turned out, it felt like a corrective. But everything rose organically out of the story.
Given the way that your career started with the first Mad Max film, and the success of those movies, it seems like it would have been easy for you to get pigeonholed as a certain kind of storyteller. Yet you’ve had a very varied career and made all sorts of different kinds of movies, including Babe and Happy Feet. Were you conscious early in your career of not wanting to become known as one certain kind of director?
Not really at all. In fact, when I made the first Mad Max, I never even thought of a film career. I still don’t much. I’ve always intended to go back and practice medicine. But I was just attracted to the next story. It only occurred to me fairly recently that the films that they call family films — Babe and Happy Feet — came about because once you have kids, you don’t get out much anymore. You’re watching kids’ movies, which I was always drawn to. I remember my own experiences watching Disney movies like Pinocchio, and I watched them all again with my kids, and suddenly I was alert to those sorts of stories. And now my kids are grown up, and I can go to more adult subjects. So it was never a matter of, Okay, what’s the next move. It was just, What’s the next story that’s going to drag me in?
I have to ask about the character of the Doof Warrior, the guy with the flame-throwing guitar, who became, for a lot of people, an image that symbolizes a certain spirit in the movie of being delightfully outrageous and over-the-top. I’m wondering if there were any ideas or visual images that you had to throw out because you thought, That’s just too much. It’s too over-the-top.
Yes, but I can’t remember them — there were two or three images that I would have liked to have had the time to do. Always, in making a movie, at a certain point you realize, If I shoot this, there’s a reasonable chance that it won’t end up in the movie. You get to that point, so you have to make that decision. There was definitely some concept work that we did that was great to look at on the page, but it just defied physics in some way, or you couldn’t really figure out how it got from present day through all the apocalyptic events into a world 50 years hence. For example, initially, some of the early drawings of the Citadel were much more elaborate. It felt much more populated, much more epic, and it just felt like it was there because of our imaginations rather than because you could believe that it could be built. So we had to tone that down. The Doof Warrior, I always thought we could get away with him because he was just part of the Immortan’s pageantry. And there’s definitely a logic to him. There’s always been the music of war, whether it’s the bugler, the drummer, or the bagpipe player. The Doof Warrior is just the wasteland version of that.
That raises the question: Where does the electricity for the Doof’s amplified guitar coming from? I guess it’s from the car battery?
Well, obviously it comes from a car battery. They would have a big bank of batteries.
*A version of this article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.