Punk as fuck and one of the most dangerous debuts in movie history, 1979’s Mad Max swept the sci-fi table clean. For those still in the dark, a cheat sheet: Mad Max was a proud Australian export (i.e., it didn’t come from Hollywood) and was grungy and ingenious. It didn’t feel like Star Wars and wasn’t the slightest bit optimistic. Instead, it took place “a few years from now” in a crumbling world ravaged by a global oil crisis and marauding bikers. And in its signature touch, its characters weren’t clad in “futuristic” white tunics but in leather pants and attitude.
When the studios came calling—not just for writer-director George Miller but for his handsome breakthrough star Mel Gibson—he got the opportunity to do the concept justice. The result, The Road Warrior (1981), remains a masterpiece, an instant action classic and the mythical gold standard for end-of-the-world thrills. Now, to the euphoria of fans worldwide, Miller is unleashing Mad Max: Fury Road, a new chapter in his saga and the most feverishly anticipated movie of the summer. It’s more than just a reboot of the franchise, it’s a complete visual rethink: phantasmagorical, surreal, saturated with fiery red explosions and cool-blue stunt work in an almost abstract desert landscape. We talked to Miller, 70, from his home base in Sydney.
The new movie is great and I understand it’s taken you years to make it. First, congratulations and welcome back to Max.
Oh, thank you. You're one of the first journalists who's seen it. We kind of just finished [Laughs]. After all this hard work, you're always a little tentative. You feel like one of those little kids holding up your drawing and saying, “Look, Mom, look, Dad—what do you think of my drawing?”
Maybe you're too close to it.
Well, yes. These characters live like imaginary friends in your head. And this particular film has been a crazy ride in itself.
Tell me about that. First, why did you step away from the franchise to begin with? You were having a good run there.
Well, I'll try to give you a short answer. After I finished the first Mad Max, I thought I'd never make another film, let alone another Mad Max film. The second one was a chance to do all the things that I felt I'd wanted to do in the first film. And the third film [1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome]—I don't remember a lot about making that film because at the time, my partner, Byron Kennedy, had been killed in a helicopter accident. We'd already committed to do the film. But by the time I finished, I thought I was done with Mad Max. Over the years, people would ask, “You ever want to do another?” and I say, “Definitely not.”
Do you associate those early days with Byron?
Yes, I do. You know, I grew up with a twin brother and we spent every day together, all the way through medical school. Byron became my “movie twin.” So we we were very simpatico and complementary in our skills. He did the sound; I did the picture. And we made that first film on a very low budget, which was actually the best thing that could have happened because we had to do everything. And by doing everything, you develop those comprehensive skills. It was the very first film set I'd been on—I'd made some shorts, but never a proper film set.
Did having no money force you to be more creative?
Definitely. The first Mad Max film was actually written for a contemporary world. But it occurred to me that we would never have the budget to fill the streets with people and extras and cars and so on. So I shouldn't probably admit this, but the notion of it being post-apocalyptic was driven by budget, in that I simply used a caption—“A few years from now”—which allowed us to shoot in empty back streets and decrepit buildings in the outskirts of Melbourne.
So what drew you back to this brutal universe?
An idea flashed in my mind. I kept pushing it away. I was in that sort of hypnogogic state that one gets into flying across the Pacific from Los Angeles back to Sydney during the night. And Fury Road, the film that exists today, played out in my mind like a figure in a fog—it was a very indistinct version but two thirds of it played out in my head and by the time I landed in Sydney, I said to my colleague, “I think there's another Mad Max film coming.” I didn't realize it would take me over a decade to see it finished! [Laughs]
The new film has a beautiful look—lush, colorful, not what I anticipated. Why did you change the palette like that?
If you're going to revisit a world after three decades, you'd better make it uniquely familiar—unique being the operative word. You can't simply do what was done before. It had to have a different feel. Everyone's instinct was to desaturate the movie, to make it look like a traveling junkyard. So I went counterintuitively toward heavy saturated color. I had a mantra for all the design teams: Just because it's the wasteland, that doesn't mean people can't make beautiful things. I'd traveled in Africa quite a bit and it struck me that even in the poorest townships, people were taking the most meager material and making beautiful toys out of wire, out of plastic, out of Coke cans. Aesthetics don't die in the apocalypse.
All of these Mad Max movies are well worked-out, not just in terms of action but in terms of a future psychology that feels believable. Do you have to go to a dark place to think of a Mad Max story?
It's very seductive for me because it's not back to the future—it's forward to the past. We go into a world 45 to 50 years after next Wednesday, which is when the apocalypse begins. And the apocalypse is driven by all those terrible things we see in the news—some of them come to pass. So you end up in this very elemental world. And the seduction of that world is the same that drove the American Western for so long. In the simplicity, in the reduced landscape, in their very minimal figures in the landscape, they basically become allegorical. In a sense, it's not a cautionary tale so much as a morality tale, in a world where survival takes precedence over what is humane.
Do you see that in today’s world?
Put it this way: The most unusual behavior in the Mad Max world is kindness or regard of one human to another. Whereas in the contemporary world—at least those that parts we think of as the developed world—the unusual behavior seems to be the darker stuff. It's the flip side of what we experience. That's not to say there aren’t areas in the world which are living out their own versions of the apocalypse. But here's a film in which we take those, reduce them and see what comes out of it. Without going on too long about it, I think it's what we ask of all stories and all storytellers—that amongst the noise, we're looking for some signal. We're just bombarded with data and information. I think we're looking for stories which, to some degree, can explain some of the things we feel about the world.
Did you originally want Mel Gibson for the role again?
Way back in 2001, we were very close to doing it with Mel. He'd heard we were doing another film and said, “Yes, I'm really interested.” And then with 9/11, the American dollar collapsed against the Australian dollar and our budget ballooned. Before we could regroup, we had to commit to Happy Feet because we had the digital facility booked to do it. So I spent four years on Happy Feet and when we regrouped on Fury Road, Mel had all that turbulence in his life.
Was that a factor?
Really, it was more that we were getting to the point where this wasn't Unforgiven—it wasn't about an old road warrior. So I began looking for someone to play Max, in the same way they kept on looking for new James Bonds.
Was Mel cool with that?
Mel and I never talked about making him an old guy. It was to be the same Max. And you know, Tom was six weeks old when we started shooting the first Mad Max [Laughs]. Mel was 21 when we shot that first one. He was 24 when we shot The Road Warrior. He was very mature, very manly, Mel, even when he was very young. But as the best part of a decade went on and all the other stuff happened, we moved on to Tom. Max is a kind of an everyman—in a sense, he’s a character that predates cinema. He's in much of folklore: the wanderer in the wasteland looking for meaning. And then there's the question of which actors, according to my intuition, would best fit the role. Tom was the most evident. I'd seen Bronson, I'd seen a miniseries he'd done. And then when I met him, he had that same charisma that Mel did when he first walked into the room, all those years before. So it was Tom.
Will Tom Hardy return for sequels?
Yes, if this film does well enough. It took so long, this film, that without even thinking about it, we wrote another screenplay and a novella. If this film gets enough traction, it's something I would like to try.
Did you always have Charlize Theron in mind for Furiosa?
The short answer is yes. Every time I shifted my gaze from Charlize, it kept on swinging back. She's a person of stature, both physically and in her spirit. Also, having been an accomplished ballet dancer, she’s very physically disciplined. She wasn't daunted by the nonverbal action part of it. Tom himself is extremely athletic—he's a rugby player. I think you need that quality.
Did it feel weird not making this film in Australia? The series is so associated with the Outback’s rough terrain.
It did because, for so long, we were preparing to shoot in Australia. We had close to 200 vehicles built, we had all our stunts rehearsed, we'd built roads which to run them through, with flat, red earth that seemed to go on forever. And then the rains came, in an unprecedented manner. It hadn't rained like that for 15 years. And pretty soon, it was a flower garden—an extraordinary array of beautifully colored flowers just waiting latent under the earth but for a few drops of rain. So we waited 18 months, but it didn't go away, which is great for the earth, not great for the apocalypse! [Laughs] We had to take everything from the east coast of Australia to the west coast of Africa and shoot in Namibia, where it never rains because of the cold climate that comes up from Antarctica and the desert heat.
Did you feel that might have been a sign?
I've got to say, there were so many times I thought the film would never happen. But it was a movie you couldn't kill with a stick somehow. It just insisted on being made, one way or another.
I bet a lot of your fans don’t know know you trained as a surgeon. How does your medical experience play into your filmmaking?
I've thought about the question quite a bit. It's obvious I wouldn't be the filmmaker I am if I hadn't practiced as a doctor. I did practice for a few years in between making films because I didn't really think I would have a full-time profession in making movies, even after Mad Max. In Australia at that time, there was no real continuous filmmaking scene, as it were. So the two went hand in hand for a while. A lot of [being a doctor] is observation of the world, which of course we all need to do, particularly if we're telling stories. There's problem-solving, and that's very much to do with the logistics and pragmatics of filmmaking. You're seeing patients at the moment when they're giving birth. Or the moment when they're confronting their mortality. So you're privileged by those points of view, and all that is grist for the mill. In cinema, we are, by large, looking at people in extremis, confronting each other with the big questions of life. So it can't help but inform filmmaking.
The hours must be similar too!
That's amazing you say that. You're the first person in all these years who’s picked that up. Less than 48 hours ago, we finished the stereo conversion of Fury Road. It was 11 days straight, close to 20-hour days and some of us had to take a nap. And I said to everyone, “This reminds me so much of being an intern!” [Laughs] In fact, I had a real affection for that time. We all had kind of Stockholm syndrome.
Why do people love these post-apocalyptic movies? Do they give us hope in inverse?
Two answers come to mind. One is that they help us confront our uncertainties. But the second is that they basically follow the hero myth in the classic Joseph Campbell way. You tell the story, you put it out there, and really, it's the audience over time that tells you what your film is. In some way, we tapped into that collective unconsciousness.
Mad Max: Fury Road opens Fri 15.