Mad Max: Fury Road–George Miller’s Vision

From the beginning, “Mad Mad: Fury Road” played out in George Miller’s imagination as a visual narrative.  Rather than write a traditional screenplay, the filmmaker contacted Brendan McCarthy, a comic book author, animator and artist who had been sending him his work for years.  What began as a collaboration on conceptual art resulted in Miller asking the avowed Road Warrior fan to co-write the screenplay.

Comic Book Writer

For McCarthy, it was a jaw-dropping proposition. “I said, ‘You do realize I haven’t written a big feature film before, don’t you?’” McCarthy remembers.  “He shrugged and said, ‘Don’t worry, I have.’  So we set to work, like two maniacs inside the Thunderdome, hammering out the story.  As a fan of the original movies, it was wonderful to watch a new one taking shape in front of my eyes.  The whole time we were coming up with the initial foundation, we were very aware that this movie had to roar into cinemas with all cylinders firing.  We knew we absolutely couldn’t disappoint.”

Peter Pound: Vehicle Designer

Two additional artists joined the fray to take Miller and McCarthy’s thumbnail images and refine them into fully realized art:  Peter Pound, a “gear head” with a mind for vehicle movement and specs, who became the film’s principal vehicle designer; and Mark Sexton, with a scientific background and an acumen for world-building, who served as principal storyboard artist.  After nearly a year, the creative team had wallpapered the conference room of Miller’s studio with a 3,500-panel storyboard—the visual first draft of “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Miller enlisted Nico Lathouris to create a dramaturgical analysis of the story, but soon asked his longtime collaborator to join the screenwriting team.  “I think George has intuitively tapped into a rich vein in the human psyche with the ‘Mad Max’ story,” he says.  “Beneath the wall-to-wall action of ‘Fury Road,’ I saw a constellation of characters who are intimately affected by one another, and the story’s rich allegorical layers became a huge influence in adjusting the dramatic forces operating between them.”

Three key members of Miller’s team included PJ Voeten, Guy Norris and production designer Colin Gibson.  “If it hadn’t been for the abilities of PJ, Colin and Guy, we wouldn’t have had a hope of getting this movie made,” Doug Mitchell attests.  “And it also wouldn’t have been possible if George hadn’t taken the time to write the story visually.  The storyboards allowed him to edit the film shot-by-shot, and it became the Magna Carta at every stage of realizing ‘Fury Road.’”

Costume Designer Jenny Beavan

In the years that followed, the collaborative circle grew to encompass costume designer Jenny Beavan, makeup designer Lesley Vanderwalt, special effects supervisors Dan Oliver and Andrew Williams, and visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson.

John Seale

Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale was just a month into his well-earned retirement when the filmmakers invited him aboard.  “It was ‘Mad Max,’ and it was George, after all,” Seale says.  “So it didn’t take too long to decide.  I love working with George.  He’s the loveliest man.  You’re in the desert, the camera’s rolling, the truck’s rolling over or blowing up, the weather does not match, and he puts his hand on your shoulder and says, ‘Don’t worry, Johnny, I’ll take care of you—we’ll fix it in post.’”

Miller had planned a one-camera shoot, but by the time principal photography was underway, Seale and his team would have an average of three to four Arri Alexa Plus cameras and two to four Arri M Steadicams running simultaneously each day, plus aerials and crash-cams with retrievable digital cards.  Seale also volunteered to operate his own camera, capturing the imagery through the 11:1 zoom lens of what Miller nicknamed the cinematographer’s “paparazzi camera.”  “I love to get out there and get little close-ups,” Seale says.

The team of collaborators decided to build an off-road racing dune buggy and talk one of the camera companies into outfitting it.  Before the plan was put into action, Voeten went off to work on another film, and discovered what became an elegant and revolutionary solution.

The Edge Arm system

Voeten recalls, “The Edge Arm system gives you the flexibility to safely put a camera anywhere, and get the most amazing shots.  As soon as I saw what the Edge could do, I knew we had to have it for ‘Fury Road,’ and raved about it to George and Doug.”

On a visit to the States, Norris met up with LAMotorsports’ Dean Bailey, who offered to custom build a supercharged V-8 off-road racing truck with a roof-mounted, gyrostabilized camera crane that could extend more than 20 feet in length, rotate 360-degrees, and achieve a full range of motion in any direction.  “After George’s first ride, he proclaimed we could shoot the whole film with it,” says Voeten.  “And the Edge Arm delivered brilliantly every day.”

Bailey brought with him a team of operators, with Brooks Guyer and Michael Barnett driving the crane and camera, respectively, via remote control—all strapped into the vehicle.  The filmmakers also set loose radio-controlled “truggies”—a mash-up of a truck and a buggy—across the desert, outfitted with remote-controlled cameras mounted on Libra heads to eliminate blur.  “George is very big on safety, and we planned to have as few crew in fast vehicles as possible,” Voeten notes.

Miller spent many a day blazing through the stunts inside the Edge, directing the action on the fly via video split monitors inside the cab.  “It’s a remarkable machine,” he marvels.  “I got so addicted to it, because you strap yourself in and you’re right in the middle of the action, operating the camera like a videogame.  For a film that plays out essentially in real time, to be able to have an instrument like that is extraordinary.”

“George fell in love with it, so we ended up with two of them—one on the main unit and one on the action unit,” Norris supplies.  “You were totally encapsulated in this amazing off-road vehicle, so there was no danger, and you could literally put the camera anywhere.  I probably shot ninety-nine percent of the action units out of the Edge.”

In choreographing the stunts, Norris broke down the storyboards by set piece to design immersive action that would have multiple stunts unfolding simultaneously, and continuously, from start to finish.  “Working with George for as long as I have, I’ve learned to let the action run as long as it possibly can, all the way to its natural stopping point,” Norris relates. “With all the stunts happening at once, George is free to put his camera anywhere in the scene.”

Miller laid out three basic ground rules, or design strategies, that would dovetail through each echelon of design and creation, beginning with the tipping point.  “Imagine that from next Wednesday, all the potentialities we read about in the news come to pass at once,” the director explains.  “Now we jump 45 years hence.  There’s no mass production.  Anything that exists in the Wasteland is a found object, which has been repurposed.  And each piece has to have a logic that explained how it survived the apocalypse, whether a weapon, a pair of glasses, or Furiosa’s mechanical arm.”

It was also critical to honor the human instinct for invention and art.  “Just because it’s a Wasteland doesn’t mean that people don’t make beautiful things,” he continues.  “I’ve been all over the world and even impoverished cultures have a powerful aesthetic.  So, everything in our film had to have a function, but fashioned with great care and personalization.  These found objects have survived where human bodies fail, and they can take on a nearly religious significance because of that.”

But, as he also points out, written in the DNA of the “Mad Max” experience is its streak of deranged humor.  “Here we are in this dark, crazy world, and it’s human nature for that to bring out a kind of insane, celebratory quality.  There’s a hysteria best described by Nux’s line in the middle of a toxic storm as vehicles are being swept up into the air.  For him, dying in this tornado of dust and fire is the loveliest possible day there could be.’’

These three precepts formed the backbone for every department that worked to harmonize their specialties into a unified whole.  For Gibson, the first step was exploring what the post-apocalyptic environment looked like.  “George’s concept had always been that this was an accumulation of all possible apocalypses,” Gibson describes.  “So we had the perfect canvas on which to draw a sense of history—the black and beaten steel of a vehicle, with the occasional patina of rust, on a vast desert of nothingness.  But it’s not all battered vehicles held together.  Humankind is suffering.  There’s a sense of entropy with everything, so a bleeding out of color allowed us to use it sparingly and make it count.”

In Miller’s Wasteland, less is more, and Gibson and his collaborators worked to ensure each item could be traced back to the collapse.  He dove into the compilation of a bible Miller had initiated to formalize the histories, hierarchies, belief systems and resources of each of the various tribes that populate the film.  This would inform how they look, act and speak, as well as every mask, body modification, costume, tool, weapon, or vehicle, down to the most minute detail.

“We have reached an appalling freefall back into an almost medieval version of the universe,” Gibson relates.  “So we assumed polarization and fundamentalism due to the lack of resources—the paucity, the lack of things, where a small soda can, emptied and filled with fuel, is a treasure.  We decided that to be truthful, we’d need to use real salvage to put together all our props, vehicles, and other material items so that each piece did actually reflect the idea of the end of the world.”

The design teams set out to recycle and melt down as much as they could to fabricate the physical world of the film—making weapons from soda cans, tires and inner tubes; car accessories from melted-down second‐hand pewter tankards and trophies; and a menagerie of hand-built, customized vehicles constructed in part from the revitalized bodies of 350 salvaged cars. Gibson reveals that at the Citadel, and in all corners of the Wasteland, you use what you have for what you need.  “George was very big on what he called ‘polymorphous’.  Purpose was brutally efficient function that could be wrought from any and all things, and adapted as needed.  A stick starts out as a spear, but breaks, then becomes a crossbow bolt, and then splint, and a toothpick, and then fuel for a fire.”

The weapons derived from spears tipped with a trench warfare-style grenade and used by War Boys to pierce the armor of the War Rig.  “These are explosive devices with a detonator on the front, and the art department did them up beautifully,” Miller notes.  “If you look at them closely, the handles are very finely worked, complete with decorative tassels.  They’re not just weapons, they’re personal.”

Gibson hand-fashioned scrappy weapons that could believably exist in a diminished future. “They were all reused from different materials—spray guns and jackhammers became guns or flamethrowers,” he describes.