Editor Margaret Sixel had a major advantage on "Mad Max: Fury Road": her candor.
"As George's editor, I am in a unique position as I can be honest without fear of being fired," said Sixel, the wife of "Fury Road" director George Miller — who wanted her sense of rigor, fluidity, and elegance for the project despite their different sensibilities. "But he has taught me that if I am going to be critical I should offer up a solution. So I never criticize unless I feel I have a better way of doing something. I have become a good problem solver."
This came in very handy during a difficult two-year post period when Warner Bros. wanted to see if the filmmakers could make the film work without them. But Sixel conceded that they couldn't. As a result, for the first year of post they didn't have the opening and closing Citadel scenes that bracket the immersive adventure of Max (Tom Hardy) and Furiosa (Charlize Theron).
"Most days we would get between eight [and] 20 hours of material: endless footage of vehicles traveling, at the most 40 kph [25 mph], and you have to turn it into a thrill ride," the editor continued. "It was a delicate balancing act, neither to shortchange sequences nor exhaust an audience. I gave each moment its best shot and only once I had a very refined cut did I feel justified in dropping material."
However, pushing back the release date gave Sixel a second wind and the stamina to keep plugging away. "There was pressure to cut the film down to 100 minutes, but I didn’t want to cut too deeply and brutally where logic and the musicality of sequences were sacrificed.
"The first attack by the ‘buzzards’ or ‘spikey cars’ was initially more extensive, as I had such great footage and felt obliged to incorporate the best of it. We also had really dynamic shots of the War Boys on The War Rig throwing ‘thunderheads,’ yelling, and screaming, but ultimately I felt that we were overcooking the sequence and decided to shorten it. I was always conscious that the third act was to be an 18-minute chase/race sequence and didn’t want the audience to be tired of cars smashing into each other right at the climax of the film."
It wasn't a question of balancing the action with quieter moments but pruning the action sequences down to their "correct" lengths. Sixel said viewers always liked the middle section of the film, especially the scene where we meet the Vuvalini for the first time. But the response suggested there too much action — that it was overwhelming.
"I constantly examined the film, questioning each shot and each moment," Sixel recalled. "Over time the cut grew tighter and more muscular. In early versions even the pre-storm sequence where we intercut the approaching War Party, the Doof Warrior, Furiosa, her henchman Ace, and Nux the War Boy, had many more loops. We eliminated a few scenes with the Immortan Joe and Miss Giddy here as well, as it felt long-winded and repetitive. I wanted to get to the moment in the storm when Max decides to break free as soon as I could. We couldn’t keep our main character bound and gagged for too long.
"So I was always mindful of keeping the story moving along and not being seduced by visually interesting footage. But even the quieter moments of the film had material judiciously lifted. We dropped a big scene with the Immortan Joe and his War Parties, as it felt better to stay with Furiosa and Max."
Sixel conceded that the last 18 minutes, a race to see who would get back to the Canyon first, was the most mentally challenging for her. There was about 100 hours of material for the section and she said they worked it to death, while always remaining mindful of rising conflict and the need to increase the pace throughout.
"All this action had to culminate in the moment that Nux overturns The War Rig. A truly spectacular stunt. The duel between Slit, Nux, and then Max where they ‘spritz their engines’ — we called this the ‘Nitro Derby’ — must have been recut at least 25 times. During feedback screenings many said it was too long, but we didn’t want to sacrifice the shape of the scene.
"Eventually, we found the right rhythms and the problem went away. With this whole end chase we kept experimenting, dropping shots and shaving off frames seeing what we could get away with without diminishing the experience. I constantly added speed ramps to increase energy but also to get through moments that were necessary for clarity but not in themselves exciting. The section where cables are fired at the War Rig and it is dragged back by the cars was originally a more complex bit of action, but it was reduced to improve pacing."
One of the key decisions was to cross-cut material more than what was originally intended but to never sacrifice clarity. For example, Max’s fight with the Doof Warrior was intercut with Furiosa attacking the Immortan Joe. They were always conscious of never resolving a moment by keeping the pressure on.
"I didn’t want this to be a string of spectacular stunts and lose emotional connection with our main characters. I scoured the material looking for shots of Max, Furiosa, Nux, and The Girls to keep them all present and humanize the action. I would do 'Max passes' of the film where I would only pay attention to him. I did the same for Furiosa, et al.
"Our test audience screenings also revealed another problem. People felt that we were setting them up for a big battle sequence once they returned to the Citadel and were disappointed when it didn’t take place, so with some subtle dialogue reworking we dampened expectations."
In the end, Sixel won the battle in the editing room — and poured more of herself into "Fury Road" than any other movie she's cut.