By Iain Blair
The Oscar-winning writer/director/producer George Miller was instrumental in introducing the new wave of revved-up Aussie cinema to the world stage thanks to his seminal and highly influential apocalyptic road trilogy, Mad Max. But when the first in the series roared onto screens in the late seventies, it wasn’t just a fresh blast of non-stop action reeking of hot engines and even hotter desert winds from down under. Miller’s assured debut, a bleak vision of the future, essentially rewrote the book on how to make a successful low-budget indie action film (for 20 years it held the record as the highest profit-to-cost ratio of any film).
He then went on to create two more much-beloved franchises — Babe and Happy Feet — which did for talking animals what Mad Max did for young up-and-comer Mel Gibson.
Miller, whose diverse credits include directing The Witches of Eastwick, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Lorenzo’s Oil and producing Dead Calm, the thriller that jump-started Nicole Kidman’s career, was in LA recently to talk about Warner Bros. Mad Max: Fury Road. The $375 million-grossing smash is the fourth in the blockbuster series, which left off with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, released exactly 30 years ago.
Starring Tom Hardy in the iconic Gibson role and Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, the film was shot by John Seale, the acclaimed Aussie cinematographer who won the Oscar for The English Patient and whose credits include Cold Mountain, The Perfect Storm, Rain Man, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Lorenzo’s Oil with Miller. It was the DP’s first digital film and first time shooting with Arri Alexas (See our coverage on Seale shooting Fury Road here).
Over a nice meal, I spoke with Miller about making the film, posting Fury Road and the Oscars.
We’re heading into awards season. You’ve been nominated for three Oscars and you’ve won once, for Happy Feet. How important are they to you?
It’s a mistake to give it too much thought. It’s enough to just make a film that resonates with audiences, and I used to feel awards just aren’t important, but I’ve come to realize that culturally successful people — whether they’re directors or artists or musicians and so on — have the ability to analyze and reinforce what works. It’s always easy to see why something doesn’t work, but it’s far harder to pin down exactly why it works.
Is it true that you spent three years building 3D rigs from scratch to shoot Fury Road, and then at the last moment decided that the film would be shot in 2D instead?
We started off shooting native 3D with them, but suddenly we began to doubt that they’d hold up in all the heat and dust where we were shooting —the Namibian desert — as we only had six. And by then, stereo conversion was getting really good, so we decided to go digital with the Alexas, which were also supplemented with a Canon EOS 5D Mark 11 and an Olympus P5 used as “crash” cameras in some action sequences.
Seale told me that — amazingly, given the non-stop action — the film was predominantly a one-camera shoot.
Yeah. Roman Polanski said, “At any given moment, there’s only one perfect camera position,” and I agree. So when I went into animation with the Happy Feet movies, it became really obvious, as you can take exactly the same performance, same set and so on, and by shifting the camera, the perspective and cutting pattern, you can change a scene completely. So yes, I’m a one-camera filmmaker in that sense.
Do you like the post process?
Very much. It’s where you confront your mistakes and where you can work around them, provided you have a good editor. We posted in Sydney in my offices, in this deco theatre, The Metro, and it took over a year. Then we did some extra shooting and the bookends to the movie, back in Australia.
The film was edited by your wife, Margaret Sixel, who also cut Happy Feet. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
We shot for nine months and she was back in Sydney, getting massive amounts of footage. Initially she didn’t want to do it because she’d never cut an action film before. I told her that was a great reason to do it since she wouldn’t be following all the clichés and tropes and style of those movies.
I’d seen her work on documentaries, where she’d taken some very bland footage and shaped it into a very strong narrative. She has this great sense of structure and causality of one shot to the next, either spatially or thematically — there’s some connection.
It struck me that this is essentially a silent movie, but with great sound.
That’s exactly what I set out to make, and we did the sound mix, the DI and post-viz as part of editorial, and did a lot of early sound work in Sydney, but then we ended up on the lot at Warners here in LA, and did the final Atmos mix here, too, with a great team: re-recording mixers Chris Jenkins and Gregg Rudloff.
Obviously, a lot of the action effects were shot in-camera, but there’s also huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?
There are over 2,800 shots in the movie — which is a lot — and I’d say over 2,000 have some VFX elements. Andrew Jackson, who did 300, was the VFX supervisor. A lot of that was done as post-viz — so the team did simple comps or simple animation, erasures and so on, and if they were good enough, we didn’t pass them on to the VFX houses… Method or Iloura in Sydney.
You also brought Eric Whipp, a DI colorist from Toronto who did the Happy Feet films, down to work on it full-time?
Yeah, and in the DI he was really pushing the Baselights to do stuff like sky replacements. The problem was, we shot for nearly 140 days but the story happens over three days, so you needed consistency in the skies, and he was able to do all that very quickly and cheaply in the DI. We did a preliminary DI on the set and were grading our dailies, and we also had our own Baselights in the editing suites in Sydney.
All that was so important — having postviz, editorial and Baselight all working together. And often Margaret or her assistants would comp performances in editorial, so there’s a lot of plasticity between the cuts now that we didn’t have in the past when it was all celluloid. (See our interview with colorist Eric Whipp here)
Digital, especially in post, must really suit your style of filmmaking.
Completely. I learned so much from doing animation in the Babe and Happy Feet movies, and now nearly every film involves animation and CGI to some extent. The biggest advantage of digital on this film was safety — you just erase harnesses, wires and so on. And also being able to erase tire marks from previous takes. That was huge for us!
The film has a very gritty and over-saturated look. Was that all done in post or was it a combination?
It was a combination of design and post. We designed it to be pretty monochrome. In a way it’s all variations of reds, browns, yellows and very little color.
There are all these rumors you’re going to shoot Mad Max: Wasteland next. True?
(Laughs) All I can say is it’s not even the real title, but we are definitely talking about it.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe
George Miller photos credit: Jasin Boland