Nearly 30 years after Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was released, George Miller returned in May with the long-anticipated and long-in-the-making Mad Max: Fury Road. With Tom Hardy taking on the role that made Mel Gibson a star and Charlize Theron stealing the epic in many respects as the fearless War Rig driver Imperator Furiosa, the fourth Mad Max has become one of the most-lauded big-screen efforts of 2015.
Having brought in more than $350 million worldwide, the postapocalyptic tale of murderous vehicles, water and rebellion is the subject of rising Oscar talk and, of course, a sequel. Visiting Los Angeles recently from his home in Australia, the 70-year-old Miller — who also helmed The Witches Of Eastwick and won an Oscar in 2007 for directing the animated animal musical Happy Feet — chatted about getting Fury Road on the right track, more Mad Max films, working again with Hardy and original Road Warrior Gibson and the empowering response to Theron’s Furiosa.
DEADLINE: Fury Road has emerged as one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, which is remarkable for a reset and even more so for an action movie – there’s even Oscar talk and not just for the effects. What’s your response to the response?
MILLER: One thing about this film is that you could just read it on its surface, but I’m just delighted the way that people have responded. We try to put a lot of iceberg under the tip, as I like to say, and people sort of picking up on the stuff below decks, which is really great. You’re to interpret it according to your own worldview. Obviously, there’s ideas of how dominant hierarchies work, issues of resources, and how, in many cases, it’s dominated by the powerful few at the expense of the many and environmental issues.
DEADLINE: One of the issues that is immediate is that this is essentially a female-dominated and -led film, something very rare for an action movie. Over all the years between your last Mad Max pic and Fury Road was the idea of a female warrior like Charlize Theron’s Furiosa always part of the plan for another film?
MILLER: That feminist notion arose out of the mechanics of the story. An initial idea was to see, if the film was an extended chase, how much could people pick up on the run? And the notion being that what was in conflict was to be human, and it was five wives escaping a tyrannical warlord, and needed a female road warrior. It couldn’t be male. So there was Furiosa, and the rest followed.
I’m happy that people picked up on that, but it was much more character driven. Here was a character who was really interesting, and now comes an actor in Charlize Theron who really responds to it. I’m very pleased about how the character’s been received and what happened.
DEADLINE: But you planted such notions decades ago in past Mad Max movies, didn’t you?
MILLER: Yes, you know, way back in Mad Max 2: Road Warrior, there was a female warrior woman, and she died in the final chase. She only appeared for a relatively short time, played by Virginia Hey, and I was always interested in that character.
One thing we had to really understand is how every object, or every fragment of language, or every gesture, how it survived the apocalypse, because everything is found objects repurposed. So I was very interested to see how a woman, a female, would survive in this world. That carried and grew up out of that idea and it particularly had to be one who was a hardcore road warrior.
DEADLINE: Speaking of hardcore, in the epic landscape that the film exists in literally and aesthetically, you decided to go as real as you could with the stunts and effects — no easy task in the desert of Namibia, I’m sure. It actually sounds borderline insane considering the circumstances, don’t you think?
MILLER: This is a film that’s a real-world film, that we don’t defy the laws of gravity. In Fury Road, we don’t defy the laws of physics. If you’re going to have vehicles crash into each other in a desert, you know, why not do it for real?
We have the ability as human beings to detect what’s real or not. Particularly if you’re doing things that you can at least see on television or YouTube that are actually real, you’re going to be working very, very hard to do it all CG. There are no spacecraft. There are no flying humans. So it was the logical thing to do, and also everyone was up for it.
DEADLINE: You did over the vast majority of the stunts and effects in-camera on this movie which is intense and almost always moving. I get that you could feel viewers have become desensitized by tech-created stunts in the digital age, but was there anything that you wished you had done with CGI?
MILLER: There were some stunts I thought that we couldn’t do for real because they’d be too risky. For instance, those guys on the poles, and I thought we’d be shooting guys on poles on static vehicles and then comp them in, but the riggers and the stunt crew figured out the physics of it. There was a pendulum effect.
I remember one day looking up in the desert, and this whole group of pole catchers, as we called them, were coming at us, and I realized, oh, it was real. We were able to get Tom Hardy up on top of one and so on, and it was just far better to do it for real, and it was natural, but had something more fantasy-like happened, obviously, we would’ve done it CG.
DEADLINE: You’ve mentioned in the past that in the process of getting Fury Road made, you’ve actually written more Mad Max scripts including one called Wasteland. So when are you putting pedal to the metal on a sequel with Warner Bros?
MILLER: The more I speculate about what’s happening, the more I try to avoid spoilers this far out, and also I find myself talking around in circles. So the best thing I can say is that we’re definitely in discussion about making more of these, but the timing of it, I’m really not sure. Probably won’t be called Wasteland. I can say that. It was just the working title we gave it.
DEADLINE: And in that film, whatever it is eventually called, and the fact that he’s signed to a multi-picture deal, will we see more of Tom Hardy?
MILLER: We’ll definitely see more of Tom.
DEADLINE: Then with that, might there be a return for Mel Gibson to the Mad Max world?
MILLER: Not in these movies, for a very simple reason. If Mel, who is Max in a lot of people’s memories, appeared in the next movie, it would pull audiences out of the movie for a bit, and we worked so hard to keep people immersed in the movie as much as possible. It would be like, I don’t know, seeing Roger Moore appearing in a Daniel Craig James Bond movie. It would be fun, but it would also pull you out of the experience of the movie.
DEADLINE: Bond is obviously big but even bigger are the superhero movies that all the studios are pumping out, with Marvel/Disney and Warner Bros/DC setting slates into the next decade. You once danced with a Justice League flick so what’s your feeling on the current crop of caped pics?
MILLER: I’m really, really interested in them a lot, but the truth is, and I shouldn’t be admitting this: I haven’t seen many of the recent crop for the very simple reason I’ve had my head down immersed in the process of doing Fury Road. However, stories are conducive to their time or somehow fit their time, and I think the fact that we’re seeing these films all around the world now, that kind of is an interplay between these superhero movies and what some people call the global monomyth, and the zeitgeist. And I think there’s interplay there, and I think you need to dig down deep and really understand why we need them.
DEADLINE: Sounds very Joseph Campbell in motivation. What’s that need?
MILLER: I often think that we are processing stuff through our cinema, through our television a lot through our popular media.
DEADLINE: Such as?
MILLER: A sense of empowerment, a sense of a struggle. I think we, as individuals in many ways, don’t feel we can impact the world in some way as much as we’d like to, and that’s just a stab at it.
DEADLINE: In that stabbing vein, let me take a stab at something with you. There is a lot of Oscar talk bubbling up around Fury Road. Having won an Oscar for Happy Feet a few years ago and having been nominated a few times before, how does that talk sound to you?
MILLER: I’ve learned not to buy into the expectation game. I’m seriously just happy that we’ve been able to make a halfway decent movie, and to try to sort of anticipate what happens there, it just doesn’t make any sense to go there. So whenever I’ve been nominated before, I’ve seriously never expected it. So, yeah, that’s my answer.