On the morning of the Oscar nominations, a small miracle happened. Mad Max: Fury Road, the film that had been written off before release, only to become the best reviewed blockbuster hit of the year, notched 10 nods, bested only by the 12-score of The Revenant. It was enormous vindication for director George Miller and his crew, who literally toiled in the baking heat of the Namibian desert, and over a decade of development, to realize his epic picture. Not that it wasn’t a good deal of fun, says production designer Colin Gibson, who’s amongst the film’s nominees. For months, Gibson and his team created the dystopic landscapes and far-out vehicles of the Mad Max universe. Here, he explains how he did it.
Mad Max: Fury Road was percolating in development for a very long time. Where did the conversations begin between yourself and George Miller?
Unfortunately, it would occasionally hit a granite strata and stop percolating for quite sometime until the granite eroded, but it was a conversation, and it was great that it started when it did. George introduced me to the Mad Max boardroom, which was his office, but it had been pretty much taken over—it was wall-to-wall storyboards. I said, “I’d love to read anything,” and he went, “There’s nothing to read.” He said, “You can start over there in the corner and just work your way around the room, and tell me what you think.”
It was an honor even to start the conversation, but the best thing about it was that it was a different process. It was great fun to begin the conversation at a level where George had already been thinking about it for so long, but then we got to start putting the anthropology, the philosophy, and the history layering over the chase, and that was some of the best fun a man can have without his wife.
There’s a tremendous amount of world building going on in this film, and the level of thought that went into it is very clear.
Absolutely. I think the key thing for me was that George had a line right at the very beginning of the non-script, that basically said that this was a story told by the history man—even though it’s set in a dystopian future, it’s being looked back at by someone in an even further future, which does two things. It means that we survived to look back, but also that we were still in mythomania. We were still telling a legend and a story, because we were looking back and trying to learn from what happened then. The anthropology was then to go through and divide up who the characters are and where they came from. Storyboard-wise, there was Gas Town, the Bullet Farm, The Citadel, The Buzzards, and The Vuvalini. But then to sit down and give them a raison d’être, a rationale, a place that they came from, a texture, a color, an idea, and a god (and all of them had different gods… That basically turned everything.
There’s an extraordinary attention to detail. What was the philosophy behind the vehicles?
George helped define a series of rules. To justify its existence, something had to be four or five things. It had to have a personal resonance. It had to have more than one use, because just one use is useless. I think I wrote it as “three-fifths of fuck-all posing as a Swiss Army Knife.” Also, it had fit into the new sociopolitics, the new religion. If it was something that was worth saving, then it would’ve been fetishized. And the last thing, I guess, is that it had to have an inherent beauty. That gave us the justification to choose things that deserved to be loved and brought us back to one of George’s main tenets, which is that you never lose the desire for beauty.
I’d imagine you had a great deal of fun with the research process for the film.
What was great was the storyboards and the fact that George was so on top of what he actually needed. We had done the same process ten years earlier, looking for vehicles. You find what you find. You bother to drag back what strikes a chord in your heart. You repurpose it to war. You fetishize it, because it’s more important than you are, and then you build it, stick a cup holder on it, and head out into the wasteland.
A lot of credit has been given, in this case, to all the practical work that was done by craftsmen on set, but there are thousands of extraordinary visual effects shots in Mad Max, too. What was that collaboration like?
The visual effects coordinator, Andrew Jackson, comes from physical effects, in terms of engineering and manufacturing. He used to build fantastic props, and he was the sort of guy who would sit down and work out how to do something for real. My original backup against visual effects, of course, was that it always ends up being deferred to, because it’s the easiest thing to do, and as budgets get bigger, schedules get longer, your response from a production end always has to be, “Well, we might go out there.” We were lucky that the visual effects coordinator on this was someone who really embraced, and still does, the idea of capturing reality the best way you can, and then using the visual effects to finesse.
You still need to get the hair up on the back of people’s necks. You still need real physics. It used to be when I was a kid, you pull a rabbit out of a hat, everybody goes, “Oh,” and their nipples get hard. And now you could pull Sylvester Stallone out of your hat and nobody would give a rat’s ass because you can do anything you like in post.
What’s wonderful about the film is how far it has surpassed the expectations of those who had written it off a long time ago.
The success of the film is largely due to George—it was George’s dream, George’s idea, and the way that he worked it, and the way that he and Margy edited it and put it together, so that it was this incredible, visceral experience, I’m not surprised at that resonance. It grabs you by the balls, and if you don’t have any balls, it grabs you somewhere else, and it really does hold on until you get there. It may have been just as scary to put a large billboard of Donald Trump’s head somewhere, but this was much more fun.