When it comes to the Academy Awards, voters tend to think highbrow. They like to represent the best, most humane, classiest version of themselves. But don't forget the Steak Eaters. The Academy is full of them—they're red-blooded males (not just American), often directors, writers and craftspeople. They're the guys who voted for "Argo," "The Silence of the Lambs," "Braveheart," "Gladiator," "Avatar," and yes, "Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain."
"They vote for big movies that make big money, good solid moviemaking with great actors and good storytelling," one veteran Oscar campaigner told me. "'True Grit' is for them." Last year this faction of the Academy voted for such mainstream hits as Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper."
The Steak Eaters —and many women Oscar voters as well—came through for George Miller in the same way they did Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity," which earned 10 nominations Thursday, including Best Picture and Best Director Miller. It's about the nuts and bolts recognition of the craft of fashioning cinema spectacle that makes your eyes pop.
Organic. That's not a word you hear in Hollywood very often. That's George Miller's credo. If something doesn't fit or sit well, it doesn't happen. That's why his movies are so great—the ones he actually makes, from "Babe" to "Happy Feet." (Some have been left by the wayside, like "Contact" and "Justice League.") "Mad Max: Fury Road," dreamed up on an airplane and realized by a 70-year-old director 35 years after his feature debut with the original "Mad Max," does not follow any formula that any studio executive would recognize.
It helps that Miller owns the "Mad Max" franchise. (Even if frequent distributor partner Warner Bros. is paying for it.) And he took the time he needed—fifteen years—to make it. The project was revived at Warners long after it died at Fox after Mel Gibson's troubles met the recession. We are all the beneficiaries of this. Why?
Who but Charlize Theron, in all her muscular maturity, could play one-armed Imperator Furiosa, who more than holds her own with Mad Max (Tom Hardy stepped in for Gibson, after receiving his blessing), measure for measure? (Theron wanted to shave her head.) She even shows her prowess in a key moment that defies every Hollywood convention.
"Normally the guy takes the shot," Miller told me. "But it’s her gun. She’s the one that we see using it. It seems to be logical for the character. There’s one bullet left. To survive, they’re counting the bullets.” So Max hands her the gun and lets her take the shot over his shoulder. She makes it.
"Things develop organically," Miller said. "You create the architecture for the story once. The characters almost guide you one way or the other." Throughout the film Max struggles to free himself—he’s chained to Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and his souped-up car and enclosed inside an iron face mask—and slowly builds back the wardrobe that is stripped from him.
"Max starts off with a purpose: how to become free?" said Miller. "He’s a caged animal, and bit by bit he finds some freedom. He’s always manacled to problems: 'get that thing off his face!' When he finally does, once again he’s manacled to some sense of honor or obligation, and maybe a little flicker of humanity that draws him in. Again that came out of where the character was. There was a guy who’s really damaged, literally a caged animal, he’s a commodity, a blood bag."
Max is finally set free by his non-romantic ally and kindred spirit Furiosa. (We know how they feel about each other via silent looks and reactions. Mere dialogue is in short supply.) While Miller likes to describe his vision of a non-stop silent action movie, "Fury Road" falls into distinct sequences, mapped out first on 3500 storyboards by Miller and comic book artist Brendan McCarthy and then by screenwriter Nico Lathouris, and does occasionally stop to breathe. The viewer is hanging onto to every precious word to explain and reveal what is going on. Eventually the rules and characters and vehicles and caches of weapons become clear. The movie comes down to this sage line from Max: "If you can't fix what's broken, you'll go insane."
"There’s no time for recreational talk," Miller says. "The dialogue has to be very purposeful, it carries important information. It's about who is in this battle, or pageantry or religiosity in the dialogue of the tyrant, whether oratorical or sloganeering or the war cries of the war boys. When things do calm down there’s more intimate scenes between Nux [Nicholas Hoult] and Riley Keogh [Elvis Presley’s red-haired grand-daughter]—even those moments where Max reveals a bit of himself to another. Dialogue has its function, it’s very important to make it clear, people grab on quick, a little like water in the desert."
The central images of the movie's extended chase came to Miller on a long flight to Australia. "I never intended to make another 'Mad Max' movie," he said. He saw five wives fleeing a warlord. Then on another flight when he was in a "hypogogic state between sleep and wakefulness I free-associated the whole movie through the mist of my imagination. I wanted to do a silent movie with sound."
Miller consciously follows western tropes, substituting wheels for horses and pitting his adversaries against each other in an endless desert. Given the passage of time, Miller was well aware that his early success had spawned many imitative post-apocalyptic narratives. So he decided to zig where others zagged. The cliches of the genre were to desaturate the cinematography. So he and great Australian cinematographer John Seale (dragged out of retirement and now nominated for Best Cinematography), saturated the color. "We were able to change the skies, and go against the idea that because it’s the apocalypse, there’s no longer any beauty in the world."
Thus these survivors, poisoned by radiation and riddled with tumors, struggle in a hostile environment short on resources like clean blood, fresh water and gasoline. So they come up with a religion to explain things and motivate them. And Miller’s creative team dug into the details—vehicles, props, costumes—all derived from scrap materials that would have existed before the fall. But he avoided the junkyard look of other dystopian landscapes. He looked for beauty.
It was up to Miller's humongous team—1700 crew were spread over several football fields at base camp—to realize his imaginings, from Jenny Beavan's costumes to 150 hand-built durable vehicles and multiple digital cameras shooting over 120 days. They yielded over 400 hours of footage that had to be whittled down to size by Miller's Oscar-nominated editing partner, Margaret Sixel.
Two stunning sequences involve digital enhancement. One is the massive dust storm (Miller did use animatics) that envelops the swarm of warring vehicles, which get lost in a swirling dreamy CGI haze. The other is out on the wide desert (shot in Namibia) on an eery blue night with shining stars. Like the 40s and 50s westerns that Miller loves, he shot it day for night, with light glistening on hair, skin and eyes.
"It’s very difficult to light great expanses and make it feel like night—night for night," he said. "So we went back to day for night. It occurred to me that because horses don’t have headlights, of course it had to be day for night, the war rig couldn’t put on headlights or they’d give their position away, only the war party could put headlights on. We shot headlights at magic hour when we could see the lights and still see the sky. We did day for night for the rest."
While it’s true that Miller couldn’t have made this film without digital enhancements, he goes practical when he can, with a lot of remote technology, and used CGI for wire removal, sky painting and fixes, more than the stunts themselves, which were largely accomplished live. When the actors could do the stunts they did them—but an army of stunt guys did them too. Original “Mad Max” stunt man Guy Norris broke a world record by tumbling Max's Interceptor (which started out as a 1973 XB GT Ford Falcon Coupe) in a rehearsal for the opening sequence over and over 8 1/2 times—and landed on a dime in front of the camera.
Cirque du Soleil wrangled the acrobats who execute the swoony pole vaults through the air, perfectly controlled by weights. Remote control drivers allowed the actors to look like they were steering the vehicles. Miller directed the action from inside a speeding decked out dune buggy control room, manipulating multiple stunts at a time.
The wire work on the film was not Hong Kong style, but the stunt crew used an Australian rigging crew imported from the Sydney and Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies: "they only get one take," said Miller, "so they have a lot of fail-safe systems." The VFX folks could wipe out the wires and enhance puppet work with CGI, "just to make sure people move freely on vehicles at a speed so that should they fall, they not fall to their deaths," said Miller.
At the end of the movie (SPOILER ALERT), "when we tried to have Max go up to the Citadel with Furiosa, it just didn’t sit right," said Miller. "Hardy felt it. I felt it, everybody felt that."
So where does Max go from here? Like a John Wayne hero, he's a western loner with no home, one of those "who wander this wasteland in search of our better selves." Will we follow Furiosa? Reportedly not. Miller will only do another if it sits right. The movie wasn't shown in 3D in Cannes because he took as long as possible to get the 3D conversion perfect. He shot the space instinctively in 3D anyway, he says, "at a wide angle, from the beginning, with the camera always moving, on sticks, zooming in space." Now he likes it. (Of the three versions I saw, I preferred the 2D Dolby Atmos.)