Home Editor Picks ‘Action Is Character’: George Miller on the Wild Ride of Making ‘Furiosa’

‘Action Is Character’: George Miller on the Wild Ride of Making ‘Furiosa’

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‘Action Is Character’: George Miller on the Wild Ride of Making ‘Furiosa’

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Imagine a kindly grandfather-type figure sitting by an open hotel window, staring out at the sea on the French Riviera. The early sun hits his shock of gray hair in a way that almost makes it look like there’s a halo above it. The black-on-black ensemble suggests he’s arrived in France for an undertaker’s convention. The glasses make him look slightly owl-like. As he leans forward, ready to launch into an anecdote, you feel like he’s about to wax poetic about some long-ago vacation he took here when he was in his youth. And then, when the gentleman begins amiably chatting about the intricacies of filming a gigantic 16-wheeler speeding through the desert as it’s attacked by feral, flying thugs, you suddenly remember that this 79-year-old man spent close to a year professionally crashing cars and blowing shit up in the Australian outback.

That George Miller would go once more into the breach and tackle a fifth Mad Max movie at a point when many folks would be slowing things down is impressive. Frankly, the idea that anyone at any age would return to the world of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road seemed impossible to fathom on its own, given how legendarily tough that shoot was. But the thing is: Miller had a story he wanted to tell, and when the obsession to tell a story, by any and all means necessary, kicks in, he has a way of overcoming whatever obstacles lay in his path. Furiosa focuses on the formative years of Fury Road‘s heroine originally played by Charlize Theron, starting with her abduction from a postapocalyptic paradise as a girl and ending with the now-grown Furiosa — played by Anya Taylor-Joy — scheming to liberate the harem of her employer. (You remember the warlord Immortan Joe, right? Of course you do!)

Along the way, there are chase scenes, sacrifices, Chris Hemsworth riding a chariot of motorcycles, visionquests, vengeance quests, more chase scenes, callbacks to past Mad Max movies, a variety of customized hot rods getting rolled and flipped and smashed, Tom Burke in full matinee-idol mode, numerous fuck-yous to the patriarchy, and even more chase scenes. Though Miller has had a career varied enough to include everything from comedic literary adaptations (The Witches of Eastwick) to high melodrama (Lorenzo’s Oil) to kids movies (Happy Feet and its sequel; Babe: Pig in the City), the Australian filmmaker is best known for his artisanal action movies set in a desolate wasteland, filled with road warriors and gnarly gearheads fighting over the last few gallons of gasoline. It took Miller and his loyal crew of collaborators close to two decades to create the steampunk-meets-gutterpunk aesthethic and meticulously designed desert mayhem of Fury Road. This new prequel benefits from being able to step into that full-formed universe and expand upon it. Miller himself described Furiosa as much more of “a hero’s journey” than its predecessor; it’s subtitled “A Mad Max Saga,” and it completely earns the right to call itself a saga.

The day before Furiosa was to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival — and a little over a week before the movie was set to open wide on May 24th — Miller sat down to talk about why he wanted to tell the character’s origin story, what it’s like to craft these kinds of action sequences, why he wanted Taylor-Joy to play the role and how a certain other sequel/prequel ended up influencing this one. (The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.)

There was essentially a backstory for Furiosa already written in screenplay form before you made Fury Road, right? Charlize Theron has talked about having it as a reference guide….
It was a reference for her and the crew. Yeah.

And then it almost got made as an anime feature at one point. So how close was the shooting script to that original thing that you wrote? Is there a lot of overlap? How much tinkering was done?
To be honest, the core of it was already there. A lot of it what’s in Furiosa did come directly from that. For instance, that last scene between [Chris Hemsworth’s character] Dementus and Furiosa? We used that for auditioning and live casting with actors — where you have two actors, and you want to see how they work together — for Fury Road. So my memory was that it was very similar; I’d say about 80-percent of it was there in that in that first version, because we were going to be doing it as an extended anime movie.

But it certainly changed, as it should, once we actually brought the cast in and started to design the movie. Particularly when it got to the actors. Thanks to Anya, Chris, and Tom, it really evolved, because they’re bringing their work into the process and essentially hoping for them to make it their own. We already had Gastown, the Bullet Farm — we had early illustrations and early concept art in that screenplay. We had a really good basis to work from, but everything evolved as we needed sequences to happen in a real space.

PHOTOGRAPHER

So what was it like for you to return to that Fury Road world? The first shoot was incredibly arduous, by most accounts — was this time quote-unquote “easier”?
The shoots are always hard. It was certainly easier for from the point of view of designing, however. We’d already established that world over decades of preparation. It’s just that the rules were different this time around. The story itself was different. We were exercising different muscles. We knew we wanted to have to bump up against the first film since this was a prequel, so there was some reverse engineering involved. Furiosa spans 18 years, whereas Fury Road spans three days — so the rhythms had to be different.

One film is essentially a chase scene in three acts —
— and the other is a saga. [Pause] You know, The Godfather: Part II is one of my favorite movies. Maybe my absolute favorite — I’ve seen it dozens of times. I’ve been telling people this for a while now, but it only just occurs to me know that it was very much an influence on this film. A big influence.

You’re just realizing this now?
Yes, right now, as we’re talking. I’m not saying they’re the same films, by any means! But it goes back to the childhood and earlier days of Don Corleone, and gives you a chance to see how he turns into the character that you already know. It also contrasts what you’re seeing in Michael Corleone’s story, of course, but those sequences with Robert De Niro (playing the young Don Corleone) start to inform how you look at everything from the previous film. I just realized this. Furiosa is really my way of channeling my love for that movie as much as it is channeling my love for the character.

It’s really interesting to me, because you don’t start off saying, “Oh, I’m gonna make an odyssey.” Or, “Let’s do something that’s a little bit much more allegorical, or maybe a bit more mythological, this time around.” You start off with the story. And as you’re telling the story, these things emerge. Like, for example, we did not start off on Fury Road with the idea of, “We’re going to do feminist action movie,” or whenever. It began with a very simple series of questions, which was: What happens if someone steals something from a tyrannical warlord, and he will do anything to get it back? What happens if that MacGuffin is a group of human beings? And finally: How is the story different if these human beings are all young females, and a female heroine is the one who’s going to rescue them, instead of a male one? Because that does change the story. It changes it quite a bit, actually. Then all that stuff emerges out of it.

So with Furiosa, you know, all that stuff emerges out as well, but the questions we’re asking now is really just: Ok, who was Furiosa? who is Furiosa? Who does she end up becoming? And then you say, Okay, if we do it this way, it’s a) this needs to be different, yet b) it needs to fit into the other story.

JASIN BOLAND

You may not have set out to make a feminist action movie, but it’s safe to say that a lot of folks identify it as such now. And Furiosa does feel like it doubles down on that notion. What’s it mean to tell a story about a powerful female hero at this particular moment in time?
Well, it’s certainly in the zeitgeist. I think it has been for a long while, to be honest. But looking back on Fury Road and thinking about this film now… you know, we lost our mom about four years ago. She was a truly great person, and lucky enough to live for 100 years. And having been a woman born in 1920, she kind of went through so much of what happened in the 20th century, from massive social upheavals to WWII. She had three younger siblings, all male, all of of whom went on to higher education. Because she came from patriarchal family, she was only allowed be a dressmaker. And yet she was way smarter than any of the men proved to be. She had obstacles thrown in her way, yet she still managed to attain great wisdom and respect in her life. I saw that. I was able to recognize that struggle even as a kid.

So were you thinking about your mom when you were writing this character?

I think so, yeah. Certainly for Furiosa. But this stuff really comes up unconsciously. And then… I was lucky enough to get some understanding of the indigenous Australian culture early on in my life. Which, I don’t know if you know this, is the longest extant culture that we have on the planet. There are people now still following those traditions that are close to 65,000 years old. They’re still playing out what they call “songlines.” And without going into a long dissertation on all of that, one of the prime stories of their creation narratives — their myths for explaining everything from where the nearest water is to how the stars are formed — was one of seven sisters, being chased across the landscape by a malevolent male presence. I didn’t realize until after Fury Road coming out that, oh my god, Furiosa and the five brides — it’s that story!

You were only one sister off.
[Laughs] Just one. But there’s similar stories like it in a number of other indigenous and First Nation cultures as well. It’s part of our collective DNA. I mean, I remember reading Joseph Campbell for the first time and thinking, It’s really all there in these ancient stories, isn’t it? And earlier, when we were recognizing the similarities in the Godfather films and these movies… it’s just part of this long storytelling heritage.

What sort of discussions did you have with Anya Taylor-Joy about playing Furiosa — both in terms of finding her take on the character, and having her performance sync up with both Charlize Theron’s take and what Alyla Browne (who plays the younger Furiosa) is doing?
Yeah, it’s a pretty high degree of difficulty, isn’t it?

I’d say so.
She had huge, huge shoes to fill. And yes, she had to provide a bridge between those two other versions. Look, the first thing is, you have an intuitive sense of it. I basically had a hunch that she could do it. The first thing I ever saw her in was an early cut of Last Night at Soho, and I thought, God there’s such a presence here. She kind of feels timeless. There’s an intense quality about it. There’s a ferocity when its needed, and there’s something regal, for want of a better word, about her. I happen to say to [Soho’s director] Edgar Wright, “Oh, she’d be great for…” — and without hesitation, before I could even finish what I was saying, he just said. “Do it. Do it. She’s got it all, she could do anything.” I hadn’t even mentioned Furiosa. And he’s someone I really trust. so I thought, okay, if he’s saying that…

I think that actors… they have to be that physical athletes, they have to be intellectual athletes, and they have to be emotional athletes. They have to bring it all at the right thing. So the precision of the work, it’s… I’m really shocked by how many really great actors, especially really great female actors, started in ballet when they were toddlers. They bring all that precision to the table. I’ve worked with dancers on Happy Feet, and you know… I’m the opposite of a dancer. [Laughs] But I’ve always really struck by how they have to be on the beat, in unison with others.

It’s pure physical expression.
It’s pure physical expression that somehow channels a lot of emotion. I was fortunate enough to work with Jack Nicholson back in the ‘80s, and it’s no coincidence that he’s a fan of the Lakers. Because he recognized how much the Venn diagram of their skills and effort overlaps the skills and effort that actors need to put in.

People talk about how Tom Hardy only had something like 16 lines in Fury Road. People may forget that Charlize had very few lines as well. That that’s what happened with Anya. She can play those kind of laconic characters that you associate with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood — the traditional male action figures, the “strong, silent type.” And with Anya in Furiosa… very few modern characters have to be silent. But it’s not a gimmick — it goes back to the fact that she can’t give away where the Green Place is when she’s young, she can’t give away the fact that she’s female, and when she’s a treadmill rat, she can’t give away the fact that she’s on her own mission. By the time she gets to the end, it’s all in her actions. Like we said before: Action is character.

Tom Burke, Chris Hemsworth, George Miller, Anya Taylor-Joy and producer Doug Mitchell at the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Can you talk about designing these Furiosa sequences so that they actually help guide the narrative, as opposed to eclipsing it or shoving it to the side?
Well, it’s no different than putting together dialogue sequences,, in my mind. Action has to be driven by the characters. It has to be. And it’s not just the characters doing the same thing all the time. When you’re writing action sequences, you’re still writing conflict. It’s basic dramaturgy: people having wants or intentions, and something comes along, usually another person to challenge that. If the characters are evenly matched, it’s a rising conflict that bounce up and down in the same spot. This goes back to fairy tales, mythology, all of that — you have to have the protagonist-vs.-antagonist thing going on, is no different for an action sequence. Unless it’s driven by the characters, it’s empty calories. No characters driving the action, and it’s just a lot of noise.

That still doesn’t quite explain how you put together something like that Stowaway sequence in the middle of the film. How long did that take to shoot?
Something like 78 days.

That’s a whole movie shoot unto itself.
It really is. And that was [action designer/stunt coordinator] Guy Norris shooting on the Hay Plains, which are the flattest plains in Australia. It was so intricate, planned out to the last detail. It wasn’t a cowboy kind of operation. It was just a question of execution once we had the presentation down pat.

You’ve talked a lot about silent movies influencing your work a lot. That sequence feels like it might have been made by one of those roughneck filmmakers in the early days of Hollywood, just hauling a lot of equipment and stuntmen out to the desert and risking their lives to make some crazed, truly dangerous action set piece.
That’s really interesting, coming at that scene from that perspective. First of all, there’s no question that that the language of movies — and action scenes in particular — was determined a long time ago. Kevin Brownlow’s book The Parade’s Gone By… had a big impact on me when I first read it, especially the parts on Buster Keaton. Just remember how early in the art form it was when all of that was happening. They were figuring out how to get a progression of one shot to the next and establish a connection. It wasn’t just establishing a proscenium. They were they were cutting stuff together in a way that action sequences could happen in no other way. You couldn’t do those action scenes in the theater. A car chase in the movies wouldn’t like it did in real life.

And that was the sort of stuff that really got me early on. When I was really asking myself that question, What is cinema itself? That’s what really got me. I’m still trying to fathom all that stuff.

But the big difference, as you point out, is that it was kind of the wild west then — they had none of the stuff we have today. When we did that big sequence in the middle of the film, the “Stowaway sequence,” we used a system called Proxy, which is based on the Unreal Engine. It was developed by Guy Norris and one of his sons, who’s also stunt coordinator. It’s a way of very accurately rendering previews, via animation and so on. It can be quite slow and cumbersome. But where he was able to work out a system where we were able to do this and be very precise, not only with the events on the screen, inside the car, underneath the War Rig and everything happening above. We were able to do stuff with the cameras as well — there was no point in doing anything unless it’s perfectly positioned in the camera.

So we’re able to do that and prepare it very, very precisely. Not so precisely that it didn’t give room for experimentation. But production-wise. And the big benefit of that is that when you get the footage, it’s going to sort of play one shot to the next. And the other big benefit is safety. You can really minimize risk. You know, when those guys flew in, they were on big arms, flying in lowering down. Yeah. It was stuff like that, which you can erase now. You couldn’t erase wires in those days. I don’t know how they did it.

They did it because so many of those early directors came from a rough and tumble background. John Ford started out as a stuntman. Howard Hawks was a daredevil who flew planes. Buster Keaton was part of a vaudeville act where he was literally thrown around onstage by his parents. And then it’s, “George Miller was a doctor… and yet…”
A doctor who drives an electric car, mind you. “And yet…” [Laughs]

You’ve done a lot of different types of films — but your obituary is likely to read “George Miller, Mad Max Director…”
Yeah! Most likely, yeah.

Have you ever felt like your association with the franchise has been something that’s eclipsed the rest of your work? I know some directors have had real issues with being known just for one film, or series of films…
That’s something that you almost can’t help, can you? Once you’re in that world, the stories come to you — and it’s the stories that basically demand to be told that you chase after. It’s a little like the Mad Max universe, actually, in that it’s kind of a Darwinian thing that happens: survival of the fittest. You’ll think about this world you’ve built, and then suddenly, there’ll be an interesting story to tell. And if it’s something like Furiosa… once it once it gets hold of you, you can’t stop it.

To be honest, when I started making movies, I never thought in terms of having a career. Never! I don’t think in terms of things like legacy, really. You look back occasionally, but that’s the past — the only thing you take from the past is what you learn, and what allows you to keep going into the present. There’s only one film I’ve gone back and rewatched that we’ve ever made.

What was it?
It was The Road Warrior, because I was at South by Southwest — I can’t remember how long, I think it was a couple of decades ago — but they had programmed a special screening of the film. And they asked, “Would you come and talk about it?” So it was like, well, if I have to talk about making it, I better go back and watch it again. It had been a long while. And I enjoyed the experience of being with an audience who enjoyed the film. But I’m like a lot of filmmakers, in that I don’t go back watch old work.

Why not?
Because there’s nothing you can do about it. If you’re still curious about the process, you’re not reflecting on your past. You’re really looking towards the future. That’s why I’m still doing it. I’m still curious about the process.

Do you think that the movies still have a future as a storytelling medium?
It’s only 125 years old — that’s still pretty young, compared to most art forms! [Laughs] Even narrative art forms. I mean, who could have predicted any of this? Who could seen where any of the evolution of expression through the moving image could have gone? There has been constant change in the history of the movies, and this change is now becoming more and more rapid. But the one thing that I believe is consistent is that we need stories. The more complex the world is, and the more noise there is out there, the more we need stories. It’s not something that someone is prescribing. It’s just there. We’re hardwired for storytelling. It’s a way we will make the world coherent.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
We tell ourselves stories in order to share them. Stories don’t exist in a vacuum, or with just with one person, but we tell stories in order to make a community. And the movies still do that. They still reach a lot of people. They still make meaning. I keep going back to two early cultures, especially the ones that are unique to Australia, and you begin to understand that those narratives aren’t just decorative. They’re not just entertainment. They are a way to understand the world in the absence of any other tools to do it. There’s this thing with little kids where they want the same story over and over again. You know, “Tell it again!” And then one day they move on to the next story. Guys like Bruno Bettelheim don’t ask what the kid is processing, because kids don’t have the language to explain why. But they are processing something if they want to hear, like, Hansel and Gretel over and over again. They’re dealing with abandonment, or the seduction of a gingerbread house, or how to deal the moral injury of killing a witch. All of that’s being processed without them being able to articulate and I think that happens culturally, in all cultures, as well.

So what are we as a culture processing with the Mad Max films, then? Environmental trauma? Social instability? The end of our society? The beginning of a new one?
The short answer is: yes. [Laughs] All of that. Do you know that wonderful story of someone who went to Freddie Mercury, and said, I think I finally understand the meaning of, of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And he explained it all to Freddie Mercury, this long story about what it all meant, and Freddie Mercury said at the end of it, “If you see it, Dear, it’s there.” That’s the purpose of allegory. If you see all of that in Furiosa, my dear, well — it’s there!

From Rolling Stone US.

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