The fourth installment in the Mad Max franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road was a long time coming. It was in development for twelve years, was greenlit by studios and then cancelled three times, and then faced location issues when it finally did start filming. It had probably one of the biggest build ups ever, and yet, it still managed to exceed expectations. Mad Max: Fury Road follows the titular character Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) as he teams up with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to free the five imprisoned wives of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and escape the enslaved citadel. It has received international acclaim, grossed $375 million in the box office, and was recently named the Film of the Year at the San Sebastian Film Festival.
Much of this overwhelmingly positive response can be attributed to its director, George Miller, and his creative team, whose unconventional yet inspired creative process is one of the main reasons why this film is such a visual masterpiece. And that is why, on the 11th of October, George Miller and two of his creative partners, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, took part in a Q&A and discussion panel at the Sydney Opera House, moderated by Ben Marshall, as part of the 2015 GRAPHIC! Festival. Having been completely blown away by this spectacle of a movie, I went along to try and grasp how someone even manages to make such an enormous film.
The crowd goes nuts as the three men of the hour enter the stage: George Miller, the Academy Award winning director and creator of the Mad Max franchise; Brendan McCarthy, a writer and artist with a passion for the Mad Max films; and Nico Lathouris, an actor and a writer. We soon learn that, as they speak, a slideshow of concept art, storyboard panels, photos and film clips will play in the background. This was one of the best parts, because, before it was ever even a script, the story for Mad Max: Fury Road was plotted out on 3500 frames of storyboarding, a different choice yet one that paid off very well.
“I can picture whole scenes in my head,” Miller explains of his visual process. “It usually happens to me in unguarded moments; in one long flight I saw the entire movie in my head.”
But the punk-rock energy of Mad Max can be put down to Brendan McCarthy – he became an avid Mad Max fan after Mad Max 2, and wanted to return the franchise to its manic insanity.
“Something about (Mad Max 2) turned me upside down,” McCarthy tells us, recounting a feeling that most of us in the audience felt when watching the latest instalment. “I would send him letters, saying ‘whatever happened to Mad Max?’, and a lot of art of the world of Mad Max.”
“His vision was striking,” Miller adds.
As well as visual storytelling, Miller, McCarthy and Lathouris spoke a lot during this panel about storytelling in general and the compelling characters of Mad Max: Fury Road; about our human need for stories, and why we make them in the first place.
“There would be no world without story,” Miller says. “Even if a person takes one step, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Everything has a story. Story is something so deeply ingrained within us, as individuals and as a collective.”
So why make Fury Road? “An idea came when I was crossing the street: could we make a film which is almost a continuous chase?” Miller questions. Fury Road is packed with ideas about our world – the idea of man vs. the world, survival and rebellion, the power of story and myth, and humanism and feminism. But for all the meanings in this film, nothing is ever explicitly stated. George Miller likes the idea of leaving as much of the story under the tip of the iceberg as possible, and seeing how much the audience can pick up from the bare minimum – and it seems there can be a lot.
“Did you intend to create a film that demands to be seen more than once?” our moderator Ben Marshall asks.
McCarthy never even hesitates. “Yes. Next question.”
For a film called “Mad Max”, Max isn’t really the main character. Furiosa is much more the star of the show, as she leads the five wives to a safe haven called the Green Place. “The film is a revolt and rebellion against the patriarchal sensibility,” Lathouris explains. Her character arc is about redemption for herself, and bringing the wives to a place that she lived as a child, and then the devastation of realising that it no longer exists.
“The great message of Mad Max: Fury Road is ‘change where you’re at, rather than looking for the promise land’,” McCarthy explains, and this is such a central point to Furiosa’s character arc.
“For me, the biggest character arc is Nux,” Miller says of Nicolas Hoult’s character. “He goes from a war boy fanatic of Immortan Joe, to being someone who makes a choice to relinquish his own self-interest for the greater good.
“Max doesn’t have many words, but his arc is complex because he goes from being a wild animal to acquiring language and giving more and more of himself, including his blood.” Here, Miller is talking about the final scene, where he (spoiler alert) gives Furiosa his blood in order to save her life.
“That scene is like a post-nuclear Gone With the Wind,” McCarthy muses, to much laughter from the audience. “The scene where Max gives Furiosa his blood is like a love scene, it consummates their relationship. To me, it’s when Tom Hardy really became Mad Max.”
And yet, in the end (again, spoiler alert), Max doesn’t go up onto the platform with the others in the citadel, walking away instead. “In the original version, Max goes up on the platform (with them),” McCarthy says. “I had never seen the final version of that scene, so when I saw it in the cinema, I was like ‘what the hell?’ And then she’s gone. I expected him to go up with her.”
“Nico and I decided that Max hadn’t earned the right to go up there. It would’ve been cheesy,” Miller explains his choice. “He would’ve been a passenger on her journey.” Miller gives the impression that he believes Max isn’t fully redeemed yet, leaving us to wonder if the next films in the series (Miller has said, though not at this event, that he does have more stories bouncing around) will explore Max’s redemption.
Apart from Fury Road, I have never seen the other Mad Max films. Yet, as this panel wound up, I felt myself intrigued to see what the rest of this franchise is like. The visionary of the men sitting in front of me has inspired me to explore how stories can be told differently, and has shown me that films like Mad Max, which are action blockbusters on the surface, can have so much meaning and social commentary underneath. Filmmakers like George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris challenge the next generation of filmmakers to test their creative limits and create important stories that demand to be told and influence others. The GRAPHIC! Festival 2015 was my first filmmakers’ discussion panel, and a great experience for me, and I left it excited to see what film would be next to make me excited like Mad Max: Fury Road did.
“Stories are packages of meaning, which help us take the next step in our own story.” – Nico Lathouris.