After 20 years of stalled development, and plenty of spirited naysaying from armchair doubters as director George Miller wrangled a complex production past the finish line, Mad Max: Fury Road was released in May to become a commercial triumph, a critical darling and the surprise recipient of 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. AwardsLine meets the 70-year-old maverick, whose film has super-charged to unexpected front-runner status above- and below-the-line, to find out how he managed to execute one of the greatest Oscar coups in years.

It’s a triumph that a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road has survived to take 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Only The Revenant has more. This movie came out in May, premiering in Cannes, and became the best-reviewed film of the year. Did you see any of this coming?

It’s a very nice thing, but it’s unexpected because it’s certainly atypical of the films getting awarded. The most amazing thing is that there was such a critical response. I mean, the best-reviewed film of the year? Wow. Then it started getting on 10 Best lists and things like that. I think that sort of triggered or alerted people to the guild awards and so on, which I never expected. You can tell we all worked so hard, and it’s such a long time ago. The fact that people are still talking about it is so nice.

When I met Nicholas Hoult on the set of X-Men: First Class in 2011, he had just returned from Australia. He made three X-Men movies before Fury Road finally premiered.

Yeah, we were going to shoot then. We were all prepared to shoot and we got rained out of Australia. It hadn’t rained as heavily in the area we were going to shoot—Broken Hill—for 15 years, and what was the flat, red earth is now a flower garden. So Warner Bros. said, “Hey, let’s give it a year and see what happens.” But it didn’t dry out enough, so we had to move. Thankfully the cast was still available at the time we were able to do it.

And that moment in the project’s history is relatively recent, isn’t it? How long have you been nursing this? Was it always Fury Road?

It’s always been Fury Road. We had the basic script back in 2001. We were going to shoot with Mel Gibson, and had it geared up with everything in line, and then 9/11 happened, the value of the Australian dollar dropped significantly—by around 25%—and it just got to the point where we couldn’t cut the budget anymore. I went on to Happy Feet, and that film took the better part of four years, and we slowly started gearing up again.

Justice League nearly happened too, right?

Somewhere in there I was going to do Justice League too, and that fell away mainly because we had to get it off at a certain time to beat the writers’ strike, and then it also required a new rebate. A new government came in and it was the first film they looked at; it was just too much for them to move quickly. After all that, Fury Road came up again, we recast as it is now and then the rains sent us to the West Coast of Africa—Namibia—where it just doesn’t rain.

Has the itch to get this movie made always been there?

The interesting thing is that you always have a number of projects that you’re working on in your innocent way of it. You know, something falls away, something new emerges, and it’s always like that. But I like to say there was something about this movie that you couldn’t kill with a stick. Now, that wasn’t necessarily due to me. My producing partner, Doug Mitchell—with whom I founded Kennedy Miller Productions—while he was working on Happy Feet and the other films, he would always be looking to see if we could get Mad Max back up again. Something about the strength of the story; it just kept coming. There was never a feeling of, “Oh, I wish I could make this film. Now I’m disappointed.” It was always a feeling that it felt strong enough to make there eventually. There was so much rich detail to prepare. It kept on insinuating itself.

People have tried to rationalize what it is—this feeling that you get when you sit through the movie. There’s a lot of talk about the drive to do things practically, and how that is so rare now, but I think that undermines the tremendous visual effects work that has gone into the film. Actually, I wonder if it’s about how much the film drags you into its world; you feel a part of it, and it’s a wholly realized place.

Oh, it’s so good you say that, because I learned to make movies basically by sitting in the cinema, predating DVDs and cable and all those things. I love nothing more than those moments where you’re dragged up into the world on screen. They’re the most memorable films for me; the ones you keep going back to. So the fact that we’ve achieved that to some degree is a really good feeling.

And you put a lot of effort into trying to make that happen. You’re putting all your craft and all that you’ve learned along the way, but you never know if you’re going to pull it off until you have all the pieces together. You can get the essential story, but in this film, which in many ways is a visceral film, until all the sound and the music and, indeed, all the visual effects were complete, you weren’t really sure. Really, we had to see this one with audiences to know that they were responding in the ways I hoped they would.

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Presumably, those edits were set early because the movie moves. There can’t be much room for switching scenes around when that would disrupt the entire geography of the film.

You couldn’t, at all. It plays out over three days and two nights and you couldn’t swap scenes around because there’s attrition to the vehicles and the characters and so on as the story progresses. And for the most part it played out in editorial. We lost some footage, but we never lost any major scenes, and there was a massive amount of footage to deal with because we had so much coverage; that’s the one thing you need with action.

At the same time, you couldn’t just set up cameras mindlessly. We had a cinematographer, Johnny Seale, who’s not at all daunted by having multiple cameras, and he’ll always find interesting angles. He’s also a great operator, and after he set all the cameras he’d go off and find a spot to shoot, and he called himself “the paparazzi”— shooting opportunistically. I was amazed by how often we’d defer to that angle in the edit.

The more I think about the movie, I think what we really tried to do was make it as comprehensive as possible, meaning that with all its layers it’s a piece of visual rock-and-roll; a visual rock opera. At every level we tried to get into the subtext so that you’re picking things up about the world. You’re picking up notions that are constant in all of storytelling, and how this world relates to humankind. In that sense it’s very allegorical. You go forward in time, but into the past. It feels very simple, but it was very complex to make.

Tell me about that world.

Well, you can read this dominance hierarchy where all the resources are controlled by very few at the expense of the many. It was very clear that everyone was commoditized and they all wear the brand of the Immortan on the back of their necks. Max is a blood bag, there are human milkers because mother’s milk is the most nourishing food left for humans, the wives are breeders and the half-life War Boys are cannon fodder. Furiosa… she’s just a hard-bitten warrior in the service of that dominance hierarchy. Until she rebels. All of that we could recognize as an almost constant narrative in any history you read, and indeed you can see it as it relates to today. That all had to be there, otherwise it would just be empty-calorie action.

The same thing with the technology; it had to be older technology because the new tech stops working as soon as the computer breaks. Cars today have so many microprocessors, and crumple technology that keeps us safe but won’t survive the apocalypse. Everything had to be found items that could be repurposed. We had to know where everything was from, and that there was a hierarchy of the privileged. Immortan Joe had the most ornate things, and his vehicle is more spectacular and so on. The Wretched down below, they’re just subsisting basically. Just hanging on.

And in a strange way I saw it as an anthropological documentary; not in the shooting, but in trying to create that world. We had to make sure that everything worked at the same logic in the same way. It’s like, if you went to a more exotic culture and you observed their behaviors, you’d understand the meaning of those behaviors even though the behaviors themselves might not make sense to you.

So you’re able to explain without explaining?

Exactly. It’s really nice to be immersed in a world without anything being demanded of you. It got to the point where I could virtually give you a backstory not just for the principal characters, but even for some of the extras as well. And for every one of the peripheral characters too, I know where they came from; like the guitarist and how that came about.

What was his story?

I wondered, okay, how does a man who is blind and mute—and basically he could only play a guitar—survive the apocalypse? It’s actually something I’d like to use if I make another film, so I’d better keep that one to myself.

I think that’s the most detail you’ve ever given about sequels.

But that’s all I can say about it now, because what’s happened is every time I’ve said anything it gets so confused and crazy. If I give even a hint of the story, people start speculating this way and that, and it’s too much. People take a little bit of information and embellish, and then if I deny it, that becomes its own story.

It’s just a world that’s so rich and it’s a very, very seductive playground, so of course I’d love to return to it. Once it’s in your head, it’s very easy to go there. But I think I’d like to do something small and quick next. My wife, Margaret [Sixel], who cut the film, said, “George, just set the bar a little lower next time.” And that’s what I’d like to do. The fact is we’re definitely talking about sequels and thinking about them, but if I could do something next that’s not so time-consuming and elaborate, that’s what I want to do; just to clear out the exhaust.

What you’re describing in your world building is actually a set of rules—of limitations—to keep that human connection. So many films just fantasize, and that approach ends up feeling like too much white noise. Why do you think that is?

Look, in the case of this world, it can’t be overdesigned because it’s not some extreme fantasy. It has to be limited by the real world. It doesn’t defy the laws of physics. You can’t suddenly find yourself in the middle of a wasteland after an apocalypse surrounded by elaborate cities. Even the Citadel itself had to go back to the 19th century with treadmills and so on, because that’s the only way they could get those great winches to function. For me, you always have to be rooted as much as possible to human behavior because the story is pretty wild and crazy on the top of it.

You don’t know what kind of film you’ll end up with until long after you’ve made it, and it’s always audiences and critics who tell you what they got from it and what it means. So I’m still processing what that is, I really am.

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One aspect of the film that certainly seems like a bold and clear statement is the agency you give the women of the story. Furiosa is really the lead, and while the wives look at first glance to be naïve and helpless, they demonstrate their power as the film goes on. That’s a level of progressiveness rarely seen from a Hollywood studio. And it feels so topical.

I’m not sure about that, but the thing is, all of the women in the film were there from the very beginning. The initial idea was the extended chase, being fought over what it means to be human.

Believe it or not, it was actually seven wives in the beginning, but we couldn’t fit them all into the cabin of the car. There’s this indigenous Australian culture—which is the longest continuous culture we have; it’s at least 40,000 years old—and they have creation stories that are fascinating because they basically map out the landscape of the real world; the equivalent of GPS. In so many Aboriginal stories there’s a tale about seven young women who escape across the landscape being chased by some sort of male demon. That’s very, very common in a lot of different tribes. And it wasn’t that I needed to follow that, but it occurred to me that this idea I’d had was a very, very old story indeed.

It’s actually one of the things you struggle with because there are aspects of storytelling in which you get the same motives over and over again, across all time and space. Joseph Campbell shone more light on that than just about anyone else, and not just the hero myth but other stories also.

But going back to what you said; in the initial idea we always had the wives and there definitely needed to be a female road warrior. In the second Mad Max, there was a warrior woman and there were all those boys. Just ask the question: seriously, how would someone survive? In a masculine environment it’d be easier for males to organize and be incredibly mobile. How do women survive and how do children survive? All those questions you ask yourself to make the world more solid, and that defines the kind of person Furiosa is. And also you end up with the Vuvalini—the remnants of a tribe of many mothers—and the Green Place and all those sorts of things. That was always there, and had the movie been made a decade or so ago I don’t know how it might have been received differently. But there have always been female heroic figures.

It was never the agenda. But with Charlize, I’m sure I couldn’t think of any other actress who could play that role in quite the same way, and she brings a stature to it and presence, but also this tremendous spirit. She really seemed to get it, and understood the character and what we were trying to do. She was the one who said, “I’m going to shave my head, because this character just wouldn’t bother with hair.” We ended up out there with Furiosa and Max and the wives and the War Boys, in the real desert in the real vehicles, and it somehow felt like making a documentary at that point.

How did you alight on Tom Hardy to play Max? 

It was never meant to be like an Unforgiven, with an aging road warrior, which it would have been if we’d had Mel when we eventually shot it. That’s a whole other story. Plus Mel had all that stuff in his life and we had to move on. But when Tom walked through the door he just reminded me so much of Mel. He was probably barely 6 weeks old when we shot the first Mad Max, and he reminded me of that fact at our first meeting, and I saw he had the same sort of charisma. It comes from this kind of wildness that Tom has, but he is, at the same time, very endearing and warm. There’s something clearly dangerous in both of them, and something volcanic. Plus they’re both incredibly skilled actors, technically and emotionally. Tom reminded me immediately of Mel.

The pairing of him with Charlize might have been tricky on set, but in the film it works incredibly well. They’re equal, but not the same, aren’t they?

That was the big trick. The characters are different. She takes on the more classic sort of role in the Mad Max stories. You’re always looking for the “uniquely familiar.” It’s got to be familiar enough, but also have its own stamp, and so I guess that was one of the interesting things about putting her in that role. Max, in this story, starts off as a caged wild animal, and over the course of these three days and two nights he emerges as a more fully-realized human being. He doesn’t even really speak at all for the first 20 minutes. He just sort of growls. 

We started this by talking about how the film has been so warmly received, so I have to ask: was there a moment towards the end of post where you realized you’d pulled it off?

I was thinking about that the other day, because we were just laboring away in the last few months of the film. I think that credit goes to a wonderful man named Massey Rafani. He’s the man at Warner Bros. who cut the original trailers. He took it on and saw a really early cut of the movie, and he was the first one who said, “You know, you’ve got something here.” The movie was still in a very crude state and there was a long road ahead, but he’s used to looking at early cuts and he said, “This is really interesting. I expected something that was going to be too similar to what you’d done before, and this is familiar, yet it’s still its own thing.” That was the moment I thought, “Wow.” I’d gotten to know him on the Happy Feet movie, so I knew already that he was one of those people you listen to. He picked something up about the film very early on and that really influenced those trailers and the way the film was marketed. Until he said it, though, I didn’t even consider that the movie had that special something. You’re just there working away in a very granular fashion, so you don’t see the big picture.

From there it’s been wonderful to see how people have reacted and to read what people have written about it, because there have been a lot of smart interpretations. The thing that always takes me aback is when people show me their tattoos and they’ve got Immortan Joe or Furiosa or Max on their arms. The Immortan brand has been surprisingly very popular for people to get.

Would you get one yourself?

Me? I don’t have any tattoos. The permanence of it frightens me. [laughs]