“I really didn’t expect to be talking about it at all this time of year, so I must say I’m very grateful,” George Miller says as we tuck in to a table inside the Four Seasons, the swanky Beverly Hills hotel still abuzz from the American Film Institute’s annual awards luncheon where Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road was feted as one of the year’s best.
A week later Fury Road would pick up 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Today he smiles, not for the first time or the last during the 2016 awards season. He won the Oscar in 2007 for his animated flick Happy Feet, and notched nominations for 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil and 1995’s Babe. Next month he’ll vie for the first Best Director nod of his 37-year career.
This time last year, no one expected a blistering, pricey, post-apocalyptic studio action sequel to contend for Oscar gold. Then Fury Road opened in May, wowing critics and audiences alike on its way to a $375 million global box office take. By year’s end, the supercharged flick had roared its way onto Best Of lists, lauded as much for its impossible-seeming stunts as its searing feminist streak.
“The initial idea that came was to have an extended chase in which we see how much story and subtext—as I like to say, the iceberg under the tip—as you could pick up,” recalls Miller, who first envisioned a scenario of five women escaping a warlord before dreaming up the rest on a long flight to Australia, “almost like a silent movie, with sound.”
The fact that moviegoers embraced Charlize Theron’s star turn as the steely one-armed road warrioress Imperator Furiosa delights Miller, who built the first three Mad Max films around Mel Gibson’s antihero struggling to survive in a decidedly more masculine world with far fewer strong—or surviving—female characters.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, let’s make a feminist action movie,’” Miller says of Fury Road. “It came out of the story, which was the notion that one way or another, we’re all kind of commodities.
“What was to be in conflict was to be human. [The Wives] needed a road warrior who had to be female—it couldn’t be male, that’s a different story. To have an actor like Charlize come along and really grab hold of it,” he admires, applauding Theron’s performance, “it’s not a big talky role.
“It was a tough movie to make,” Miller admits. “You’re out there, in a very remote location, doing all this stuff, and there are no protracted scenes for the actors to sink their teeth into. It’s all tiny little bits that go together to make up the mosaic, so there’s a high degree of difficulty for the actors.”
“Tough” is the understatement of the year. It took 17 years for Miller to get Fury Road made, even when he was thisclose to lensing back in 2001. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, sending the American dollar spiraling. At one point Miller met with Heath Ledger to star. By the time he cast Tom Hardy in the iconic role in 2010, the plan involved not one, but two films: a live-action Fury Road and an Akira-style anime exploring Furiosa’s tale.
By the time Fury Road was on track to film, Miller’s original plans had changed drastically. His ideal Wasteland down under became unfilmable thanks to extreme weather, leading the production to shoot in Namibia. Trades issued alarming reports of swelling budgets as the eight-month shoot wore on, sparking scuttlebutt of friction on set between stars Theron and Hardy.
Both stars and Miller acknowledged their on-set hostilities last year during Fury Road’s promo tour. In the glow of awards season, perhaps, it’s even easier to forgive the tense moments.
“I don’t know if there are many people who are so-called method, but whatever we do as human beings, if we do it passionately, it seeps into your work,” Miller shrugs. “You don’t think you’re bringing your work home with you, but we do. You’re thinking about it, you sort of dream about the work, it invades your unguarded moments. And that particularly applies when you’ve got a big, marathon-like movie. So it does happen with the actors.
“In the case of Max and Furiosa, we shot more or less in continuity, so you have two characters who begin wanting to kill each other who in a very guarded fashion are forced to cooperate, and then develop a positive regard for each other. It’s almost what happened with the actors, as well.”
The sheer size of the $150 million production, which employed over 1,700 crewmembers, is what Miller remembers keeping him up at night. His team pulled off pyrotechnics-filled stunts with an armada of 150 custom-tweaked Wasteland vehicles sans green screens and VFX—that is, with a few notable exceptions, like using CG in the first chase sequence to erase tears on Theron’s face caused by the dusty desert wind.
“One take, she said, ‘I hope people won’t think I’m crying, because I’m not!’ I said, no, no,” he remembers. “I erased them with CG, because you can do that. I thought, I don’t think the audience will think that—but we might as well.”
A figure catches Miller’s eye from across the room. He apologizes with a bashful smile. “I’m sorry. One guy I’m really kind of star struck by is [Breaking Bad creator] Vince Gilligan, and there he is over there,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “I’m a huge, huge admirer of his work.
“People come up often and say, ‘I’m a filmmaker, what should I do?’ I say, ‘You know the best thing you can do? Watch 68 hours of Breaking Bad, and watch it six times,” he marvels. “Each time, watch a different element: Watch the writing, watch the camera, watch the sound, watch the music, watch the performances, watch the structure. If you do that, all 68 hours a number of times, and you observe really acutely, you’ll learn more about making film than just about anything else.
“We all learn by watching movies,” Miller continues. “There’s no other way than by watching great movies. And I think seeped into that work is a real respect for film language and using the medium for storytelling.”
This year there are two Oscar nominees in the family: Margaret Sixel, whom Miller married in 1995 and has two sons with, also edited Fury Road—her first action movie—and is up for Best Editing.
Miller remembers how he convinced his wife to cut Fury Road. “She said, ‘Action movies are not really my thing.’ I said, ‘That’s precisely why. I don’t want it to look like every action movie,’” he explains.
“That was number one. And number two, I know my wife and I know how she thinks,” he laughs. “I know how she gardens! I know how she does everything. She’s one of those people who’s very, very rigorous. She does a lot of things extremely well, seemingly effortlessly. She really can assess stuff quickly and she’s got a very low boredom threshold, so anything that’s repetitive really annoys her.
“I’ve gone from being very male dominant to being surrounded by magnificent women. I can’t help but be a feminist,” Miller told Vanity Fair this summer. Indeed, Fury Road sparked minor outrage this summer among men’s rights hotheads who saw Furiosa’s strong female power as a threat. Miller laughs away the “fringe” criticism. “I don’t think it got much traction,” he notes. “And the logic didn’t hold up.”
He’s slightly less dismissive of backlash voiced by primarily female critics to the tie-in comics that explore how Furiosa and the five Wives escaped Immortan Joe’s rapey reproductive prison. “I didn’t really follow that too much,” he admits. “I wasn’t super involved, but I was involved.”
Furiosa remains close to Miller’s heart, even if there are no official plans to explore her backstory in the spin-off film fans are eagerly clamoring for. Miller clarifies that he may still yet direct a Mad Max spin-off, contrary to recently debunked rumors that he’d be passing the torch. Ultimately it will be his decision, he says.
What he would look for in a potential rising director, he’ll allow, is someone “who really, really has a command of film language, but brings something very specific to the work. I have a son who’s a musician. He’s a guitarist, and when he listens to a guitarist he can hear things. He can tell. For me, it’s the same. There are people who are technically good, and there are people who have that extra little bit of artistry.”
Anyway, before he tackles the Wasteland again he’s got the itch to make one of two “smaller, quicker” films. Rather than take on another huge studio film—Man of Steel 2, for example, which he turned down years after his Justice League movie fell victim to the writers’ strike—the septuagenarian’s got other projects on his to-do list. “I like the DC universe—all the superhero stories—because basically, I realize we’re all in the mythology business, in a way. They’re the modern incarnations of the Greek and Roman myths,” he says. “Unfortunately, I’ve got too many stories than I ever will have time to tell.”
Of the two projects he’s choosing between now, “one of them involves, you know, visual effects and so on,” he teases. “I’ve said it before but my favorite quote from John Lennon is, ‘Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.’ I don’t know which one, and also I always have a thing that if you talk about it before it’s real you could jinx it. I’ve always had that feeling because I thought we’d get Mad Max done 10 years ago! So I’m just grateful we got this film made at this time.”
What interests Miller now, he says, are stories like Fury Road, “in which there’s more to the story than meets the eye.”
“I don’t make many films,” Miller points out. “I feel a kind of gravitational pull to these stories, and at a certain point it feels like I don’t have a choice but to get in there and tell the story. And you don’t really think too much about the end result, particularly while you’re doing it. You’re just putting everything you know and whatever skills and basic wisdoms you might have accumulated, and try to put it into the work.
“All of us as storytellers, we’re looking at what’s out there and trying to get coherence from all of this massive noise,” he muses when I ask what themes drive him now as opposed to earlier in his career. “I think that’s one of the reasons we have stories. There are a lot of reasons why we tell stories, and one of them is to find some meaning—or, at least, an illusion of meaning.
“I’m obviously big on Joseph Campbell, and not just the hero myth,” he continues. “He was really the guy who elucidated more than anyone else why we tell stories. He had a quote which I think is absolutely wonderful, it was from this Swahili storyteller who said, at the end of each story, ‘The story has been told. If it was good, it belongs to everybody. If it was bad, it was my fault because I’m the storyteller.’
“I must say, you feel that. If somehow you tell a story, it goes out there, and people respond to it to some degree or another, you realize that it has enough meaning to people,” Miller offers. “Look at the Star Wars. There are people in census in England and I’m sure around the world who state their religion as Jedi. And some of that’s joking around, but some of it’s serious.
“Stories,” he says, a twinkle in his eye, “should have a warning sign: Hazardous material.”