What George Miller Has Learned in Forty-five Years of Making “Mad Max” Movies

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George Miller’s film career began with barely averted violence. In 1971, when he was a twenty-six-year-old medical student in Sydney, Australia, he took a job at a construction site while he waited to start an internship at a hospital. One day, he was standing next to another worker when a brick fell from fourteen floors above them and hit the ground between them with a crack. “This was in the days before helmets,” Miller told me recently. “I got an existential jolt.” He and his younger brother Chris had won a student film competition at the University of New South Wales. The first prize was a filmmaking workshop in Melbourne, but George had never thought to attend it; filmmaking didn’t seem like a serious career option. It was the falling brick that changed his mind. “I thought, Damn it, I shouldn’t be on this site,” he said. The next day, he got on his motorcycle and rode the nine hundred kilometres to Melbourne.

“Violence in the Cinema, Part 1,” the short film that Miller made at the workshop, neatly summarizes the themes that have preoccupied Miller ever since. It opens with a clinical psychologist sitting in an armchair, speaking to the camera. He bemoans the “heavy saturation of violence” in modern movies, gets shot in the face by an intruder, and then commits a series of sadistic acts himself. When the short premièred at the Sydney Film Festival, in 1972, it was as shocking for its self-assurance as for its content. Miller went back to finish his internship at the hospital afterward, and, though he quit medicine eventually, his films have always been marked by both gleeful mayhem and an uncommon sensitivity to its consequences. They’re action films, as he puts it, rooted in “the bewilderment I felt at confronting the aftermath of violence.”

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” Miller’s newest film and the follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Mad Max: Fury Road,” is all about that aftermath. Its heroine is kidnapped at the age of ten, held captive at a citadel ruled by a warlord called the Immortan Joe, and spends the next sixteen years trying to fight her way back to her family. It’s a tale of damaged souls and Darwinian selection, told with monster trucks, battle zeppelins, and hot rods mounted with turbo-aspirated V-8 engines. It’s about how children learn to navigate the world, Miller has said, and how character is revealed in extreme situations. But, like most of his films, it’s also about the thrill of people and objects hurtling through space.

When Miller made the first of his five “Mad Max” films, in 1979, action scenes were the province of hacks and assistant directors. “They were a kind of slumming,” he told me. “The director would deal with the main unit, and the non-talky bits were left to the second unit.” Miller saw something more essential in them. He longed for the purity of early silent films, which could tell a story with movement alone. “How can you take a series of events, none of which are in themselves really spectacular, and create a sequence of shots like a passage of music?” he wondered. “How can you make it greater than its parts?”

Miller is now seventy-nine. He has made everything from comedy (“The Witches of Eastwick”) and drama (“Lorenzo’s Oil”) to children’s films (“Babe”) and animated features (“Happy Feet”). Yet he always returns to action films. The “Mad Max” series maps both his personal history and the blazing evolution of film technology over his lifetime. When “Fury Road” was released, nine years ago, edited by Margaret Sixel, Miller’s wife and close collaborator, it felt like the culmination of everything Miller had wanted to achieve as a young filmmaker: a gritty, fully imagined world conveyed with speed, fluidity, and visceral excitement. It went on to win six Academy Awards, including one for Best Film Editing, and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.

“Furiosa” is a very different film—or, rather, the same film turned inside out. If “Fury Road” was all action, with the backstory delivered in staccato bursts, “Furiosa” is all backstory, punctuated with moments of frenzied action. One film is seamless, the other episodic; one takes place over the course of three days, the other over the course of fifteen years. A sequel should be both fresh and “uniquely familiar,” Miller has said, and “Furiosa” is true to that dictum. As the film’s arch-villain, Dementus, says at the end, “We seek any sensation to wash away the cranky black sorrow. . . . The question is: Do you have it in you to make it epic?”

A few months after “Fury Road” was released, Miller and I began a series of long, rich conversations about his career and craft. The script for “Furiosa” was already done—Miller had written it with his longtime collaborator Nick Lathouris before filming “Fury Road”—but it would be another eight years before he completed the movie. When we finally picked up our discussion again two weeks ago, over Zoom, Miller was in Los Angeles, promoting the new film. He looked fresh and dapper in a black jacket and shirt, and said that he was feeling “a surprising degree of equanimity,” given the pre-release scramble. The exchange that follows is drawn from all our conversations and has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

You were born in the small town of Chinchilla, in Queensland, Australia, a day or two’s drive from where “Furiosa” and most of the other “Mad Max” films were shot. How much are those films based on your own experience of that landscape as a boy?

I grew up in a remote rural community with my twin brother and younger brothers. It was a childhood of play. There were schools, there were schoolbooks, and there was the outside world. I’m not saying we were terribly adventurous; we were always quite cautious. But our parents didn’t know where we were until the sun went down. And I was lucky enough that there were Indigenous kids in the town, and we would go out in the bush with them. Their culture is said to be the longest extant one in human history—sixty-five thousand years old. It was very, very connected to the land, and some of those stories are still told. They explain everything in the world—its creation, where to find water, where to find food, and the stars and constellations.

There was one movie house, and every Saturday afternoon there was a matinée. It was a kind of secular cathedral. Every show would have at least one cartoon, one newsreel, and a serial—“Batman” or “[The Adventures of] Sir Lancelot”—and they would always end on a cliffhanger. Those had a huge influence. They were the fuel for my brothers and me playing in the bush. If the serial was “Sir Lancelot,” we would make swords and paint up rubbish-tin lids for shields. We put on little shows, in a garage like a shed. I remember, if you closed all the doors and kicked up the dust, there were little shafts of light coming through the cracks. So already in childhood there was an unwitting apprenticeship for what I’m doing now. One of the guiding, organizing ideas of these films is that everything has to be made from found objects, repurposed. And we were constantly doing things with our hands.

When I got to university, I made it my job to watch everything I could, to understand how movies are put together. What is this new language that is less than a hundred years old? So I went back to the silent cinema. I had read “The Parade’s Gone By” [a seminal history of silent film, published by the British film historian and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow, in 1968]. Its basic thesis was that most of the work on the language of film was done pre-sound. All the shots in this new language—the closeup, the wide shot, the moving camera, cutting from one thing to the next—were really defined in the silent cinema, and particularly in action movies. It’s an acquired language, and it’s evolving. When sound came along, it disrupted the normal syntax of cinema. The cameras were locked down, and things became very much like theatre, like a proscenium. But all the great filmmakers—John Ford, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton—they cut their teeth on the silent two-reelers and features. So I found myself going back to those and really trying to understand them.

What films from the sound era influenced you the most?

Obviously Hitchcock, “Bullitt,” the great action sequence in “The French Connection.” I was tremendously impressed by Steven Spielberg’s early film “Duel.” I thought, Boy, he understands the syntax so well and how to construct it. And the Polanski movies were brilliantly crafted, even though he didn’t do any action films. He once said that there is only one perfect place for a camera at any given moment. I was always struck by that, and I’ve gone on to prove that for myself in animation. You can take exactly the same ingredients and by shifting the camera and adjusting the pattern of shots you can turn the scene around. You can make it something else.

The chariot scene in “Ben-Hur,” in the William Wyler version, was huge for me. It was so beautifully constructed—the contours of it and the camera positions and the cutting. It was an extended sequence, and it was very clear what everyone was doing at any given moment. They didn’t just put out a lot of cameras and decide what to do with the footage in post. And what was being played out was the central rivalry between two best friends. When we were making “Fury Road,” I kept saying that the action sequences are the equivalent of dialogue scenes in other movies. When Max and Furiosa meet, no words are exchanged—I think he says, “Water,” and grunts. It was like a dialogue scene, except where you would usually have words you had fighting. But it had to be constructed in a way where you learn something in each moment. That’s certainly what came through in “Ben-Hur.”

In “Furiosa,” Dementus rides a chariot drawn by three motorcycles.

That was based on a black-and-white newsreel from the early thirties, when the local police used to put on these big pageants on the Sydney cricket ground. There was some footage in the middle of it of a chariot race based on the silent version of “Ben-Hur.” So, in a way, “Ben-Hur” influenced the police, and the police influenced Dementus.

The director Robert Bresson, in his book “Notes on the Cinematograph,” writes that a movie “is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.” Film editing is such a mysterious art. How did you learn it?

The best school that I went to was cutting the first “Mad Max.” It was shot for three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It was very ambitious. Everything went wrong. I was completely bewildered by the project. For a year, I was confronted with all the mistakes I made: “Why did I do that? Why didn’t I do that? Obviously, I’m not cut out for this.” But, somehow, it worked. It was successful in Australia, then it became a huge hit in Japan, and then Spain and Germany—all around the world except the U.S. They did release it there, but it was a smaller distribution, and they dubbed all the voices with American accents. Even Mel Gibson was dubbed, though he was an American speaking with an Australian accent. It all came out in a badly dubbed Southern drawl.

But the movie was a surprisingly big hit. I felt a little fraudulent, but I was smart enough not to get caught up in the vanity of the artist. I realized, Wait a minute, something else is happening here. In Japan, they said Mad Max is a lone rogue samurai. A ronin. They said, “You’ve watched a lot of Kurosawa movies, obviously.” And I said, “Who’s Kurosawa?”—I probably shouldn’t say that. And immediately I watched everything that he did, and of course they ended up in the second “Mad Max.” In Scandinavia they said, “He’s like a lone Viking!” And the French said that “Mad Max” is like a Western on wheels. That nailed it for me.

By the time I made “The Road Warrior” [in 1982], I was a little more skilled. I knew a bit more about acting and writing. It was an opportunity to do the things I wanted to do in the first one and make them more conscious. We got very into Joseph Campbell [the author of “The Power of Myth”]. And I started to understand that somehow we had hit upon an archetype—that Max was kind of an aberrant version of the classic hero. A movie is a whole-body experience. You experience it in your viscera, in your emotions, cerebrally. But you also experience it anthropologically, in the way you come to the cinema spiritually—that ineffable stuff which is underneath a film—and mythologically, which is ultimately one of the most important. That’s what I have come to realize; you have to tick off all the boxes in some way.

Campbell had a wonderful definition of mythology: “Other people’s religion.” And it’s true. Humans have to make meaning out of a seemingly chaotic existence, so they find stories that help them survive in some way. It’s why people tell them. They have no idea that the Earth orbits the sun in an ellipse and on an axis, so they invent gods to explain the seasons. We all have stories, and the great ones, the powerful ones, become religions. Once you understand the seasons, those gods, those stories, evaporate and are replaced by others that are more useful.

“Furiosa” is the first “Mad Max” movie to pull back and describe the politics of this post-apocalyptic world. There are empires and nomadic hordes, trade negotiations and royal intermarriages. The wasteland is ruled by three fortresses, each of which controls an essential resource—food, gas, bullets—that the others need, and inevitably fight over.

Even though the “Mad Max” films are set in the future, they really go back to a neo-medieval time. All the behavior tends to be very elemental and, in a sense, universal. The MacGuffin is to be human. The thing that people are struggling over is to be human. And the film takes on a kind of authenticity, because we sense that this is how it has been throughout time. You have a dominance hierarchy with the powerful sitting on top of all the resources, trying to keep the people at the bottom from making their way forward. We see that play out over and over and over again.

I remember going to the citadel in Salzburg [the Hohensalzburg Fortress], and it’s amazing how similar it is to the citadels you’ll see all over India. The architecture of power is always the same. The great fortress is usually on high. The pathway narrows until you get to the pinnacle, where it’s almost impossible for anyone to get through. At one fort in India, it was so narrow that only one person could get through at a time. Its height and width were such that you couldn’t swing a sword or draw a bow. It’s the same in the cities where we live. We have gated communities, and the higher up you live in a big building the more powerful you are. Those constants are always there, and we keep finding new ways to express them.

When you made “Fury Road,” you hadn’t done a “Mad Max” movie in nearly thirty years. What persuaded you to dive back in?

Each time I finished a “Mad Max” movie, I said, “I will never make another one.” There always has to be some reason to revisit it. Something that really gets my juices flowing again. In the case of “Fury Road,” it occurred to me: How much of a story could you tell if the movie was constantly on the move? If you make an extended chase film, how much can you get across? How much subtext could there be? For any story to have any worth, there must be more to it than meets the eye, there has to be a lot of iceberg under the tip.

There is a kind of anthropological authenticity that we work really hard to get in there. Everything that is on the screen—not only the character but each piece of the wardrobe, each prop, each bit of language—has to have a backstory. The guy who plays the guitar—I can tell you who his mother was, how he survived the apocalypse and came to work in the service of the Immortan Joe. I can tell you where his guitar came from; it’s made of a hospital bedpan. And everything has to be multipurpose if it is to survive, so the guitar is also a flamethrower.

There has to be a backstory to that, and it’s not just frivolous. It’s the only way to keep the thing coherent. All the designers, everyone who worked on the film, whether they were making cars or masks in wardrobe, right through to the digital people, had to work to similar strategies. You’ll notice that the cars themselves are not modern cars, because those are very, very dependent on computer technology; they crumble under impact. The ones we have are much older, from the sixties through the eighties. Their bodies are much stiffer, much more likely to survive the technology; they were made way more simply, and with very basic mechanics.

Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Furiosa in the new movie, didn’t have a driver’s license when filming started, but she had to learn to handle a car like a race-car driver. She later said that making the film put her in better shape than the year of fitness training that she had done to prepare for it. She and the other characters do extraordinary things in the film, but they’re never really superhuman.

Even fantasy stories have to have some underlying authenticity. You have to have a skill set to survive in this world, in which there is really no rule of law. When you meet another person, you’re asking yourself, Is it conducive to my survival to kill them and take what I can from them, or is there any value in working together for our mutual survival? If any of the characters had done something like fly through the air or done an outrageous flying kick in the middle of a fight, that would have pulled the audience out of it. If you establish it, in something like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or in “The Matrix,” the audience can enjoy it. But these films can’t do that. If you have a car flipping into the dust, you’d better do it as realistically as you can.

“Fury Road” and “Furiosa” were both composed on storyboards before they were shot—more like graphic novels than traditional scripts. How did you come to work that way?

When I was working on “Fury Road” with [the artist and writer] Brendan McCarthy, we sat down, mapped out the story, and wrote a quick, hurried version with no dialogue—or only snippets. But then I thought, If we are really going to make a silent movie that isn’t dependent on dialogue to get the exposition across, let’s do it in its proper form. So the real first draft was done in storyboards. We were designing and writing the movie all at the same time. We had two very fine artists, Peter Pound and Mark Sexton, and we would sit in the room together and sketch. It was all done visually. We had quite a large room, and the storyboards accrued all around it. We ended up with three thousand five hundred panels. They were very fleshed out; you could follow the whole sequence of the movie. A storyboard is a much more efficient production document. A designer can look at it, a camera operator, an actor, and they can see who is in the shot, and what angles they are in, and where everyone is in relation to everyone else.

On “Fury Road,” we had a big table where we would play out the shots before a stunt. Everyone had a toy to represent their role. If you were on a bike, you would have a little toy bike, or a cameraman would have a toy camera car. And everyone would say, “I’m moving this way.” “I’m coming in from this side.” “The camera is swooping down from this side and the second camera is coming in from there.” It was almost like a war exercise.

You are doing as much as you possibly can to fill in the story. What you can’t add is time. You can’t give an impression of how it unfurls rhythmically. So, on “Furiosa,” Guy Norris, the second unit director and stunt coördinator, and his son Harrison developed a proxy engine—almost a fast animation of the storyboards—to do things way more quickly. You can motion-capture the events happening onscreen and put in [virtual] cameras to build a sequence with a high degree of accuracy. We called it Toybox.

I remember going back to Hitchcock, who storyboarded his movies. He would say that, by the time you start shooting, all the work has been done. All the rest is execution. You try to get to that point, but of course it never happens. When you’re finally shooting, you get reality checks, and then when you get to the cutting room it’s even more brutal. You have to confront your failures. But you should go into the shoot thinking you’ve licked almost every problem.

Ingmar Bergman likened filmmaking to building a cathedral—an immense collaboration of mostly anonymous artists, workers, and master builders, dedicated to a common art. A film like “Furiosa,” in its sheer scale and numbers, fits the analogy even better than Bergman’s work: two hundred and forty days of shooting, ten camera trucks, nearly two hundred stunt performers, eighty-seven wigs, thirty-five sets of false teeth, fifty-five hundred sheets of tattoo paper. The film’s seemingly endless credits include an earthworks manager, salvage artists, corpse designers, a bird wrangler, a dog wrangler, a sidecar fabricator, a didgeridoo player, and a contact-lens technician.

Yet “Fury Road” was an even more complicated production. It was shot in Africa, rather than Australia like the other “Mad Max” films, and it was the first one that your wife edited.

In “Fury Road,” we had a chaotic relationship with the studio, and the two [lead] actors, Tom [Hardy] and Charlize [Theron], didn’t get on. Margaret was in Sydney and I was halfway across the Southern Hemisphere, in Namibia. We didn’t shoot as many scenes as in “Furiosa,” but we had multiple cameras on everything. Some were just little 2K cameras that we bought at the airport, but every vehicle had one somewhere. So there was a ridiculous amount of footage, and Margaret had to trawl through all of it. I would send voice notes, and in some cases I would do some very crude cuts while we were shooting, just to give a guide. Margaret was doing rough cuts and filling in holes with the dailies as they accumulated. Most of the footage had the sound of engines, or people shouting instructions—there were very, very noisy vehicles or wind machines—so we had temp dialogue that we knew would have to be replaced. If anything was confusing, Margaret knew we would wait until I got to Australia. But, by and large, she was working by herself and just trying to assemble the movie, not cutting it in a fine way.

I really thought we had so much done in the storyboard stage, but then you have this massive amount of footage and you have to forge a movie out of it. And that is a herculean task. What some editors do is just put everything in, and you end up with a five-hour movie, and then it becomes a struggle to edit that down. All the fellow-collaborators—everyone has an opinion and an approach and their favorite points in the movie. They’re saying, “Why did you cut that? That was my favorite shot!” We had to just forget all the noise. I’m pretty good at that, but Margaret is fantastic. She has a very, very low boredom threshold. She will sit in a movie with me and I’ll see her fidgeting and I will ask her what’s wrong, and she will say, “My God, we already know this! We’ve already been there.” She was the only one who could say this to me. Because I completely trust her. And, I have to tell you, I think it made the movie.

George Miller on the set of “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.”Photograph by Jasin Boland / Courtesy Warner Bros

How did you know that Margaret could handle such an enormously complex film?

I had seen her cut “Happy Feet,” and I saw that she had an astute, inherent understanding that film narratives have a kind of musicality to them. They unfold in time, at rhythm. And she also had the granular skill of being able to make micro-cuts. Margaret just has something. There’s something about the way she thinks, which I’m still trying to process. I find that I’m pretty meticulous, but I get lost in the weeds where I can’t see [a film] as if for the first time, or see the opportunities where by one gesture you can solve a lot of problems. Where everything slots in and feels self-evident. She’s just one of those people who can do it.

Margaret will read the script once. But she won’t look at the storyboards or read the script [after that]. Because the film is in front of her. If you get caught up in what the intention was, you’re not seeing it dispassionately. And that ended up being a very important part of the process.

A really good example is when we made the film “Babe.” We had just got together, and she wasn’t working on the film at all. So I showed it to her, thinking, Ah, she is going to be charmed by this. She sat down and watched the film, and I turned to her and said, “What do you think?” And she was silent. She said, “You’re not going to release it like that, are you?” And I said, “What’s wrong with it?” And she said, “George, it has no dramatic tension, and it’s very episodic.” This was after we had locked the cut. And I realized she was absolutely right.

It’s one thing to diagnose a problem. We can all do that—This is too slow, etc. It is very, very hard to actually define the cause of the problem—It’s too slow because of this. But the thing that’s rarest by far, is being able to come up with the remedy that cures the problem. And she did that. After about twenty minutes of discussion, she said, “Why don’t you use chapter headings? Just own up to the fact that it’s episodic.” And that was the cure.

There is a long tradition of women editors in film: people like Anne Coates, who edited “Lawrence of Arabia”; Dede Allen, who edited “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Dog Day Afternoon”; and Thelma Schoonmaker, who edited “Raging Bull” and “GoodFellas.” In Michael Ondaatje’s book “The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film,” Murch, who worked on “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now,” among other classic films, says that editing was once seen as a woman’s craft: “You knitted the pieces of film together.” How does Margaret fit into that tradition?

Margaret herself says that it’s not driven by gender. I think it’s intrinsic to how she views the world. She happens to be a really great gardener, on any scale—whether a big thing like a farm or a small back-yard garden. And she’s comprehensively good: everything is taken into account. I think that is where the same skill sets overlap. To make a great garden, you have to understand all these hidden processes and dimensions to a ridiculous degree: the soil, the geology, the sun, the light, the weather. You have to know the plant and when to put in the seed or seedling. But here’s the thing: somehow, in that process, you have got to anticipate what will happen a year down the line, or five years down the line, and how all those variables will fit into a graceful whole. I knew that’s how she approached gardens; I have seen gardens that she has done that are twenty-five years old. And I knew that is how she approached editing.

How often do you and Margaret disagree on a cut?

When something works and there is an elegant solution to a problem, it’s unmistakable. It’s usually the problem scenes where debates happen. In the past, I’ve always been the one who has to go off and worry and solve those problems. I usually see the best solution available, but I am always delighted when an editor can see something I didn’t. With Margaret, that happened a lot. It’s like someone showing you a magic trick and then showing you how they did it. And I think, Oh, my God, that is so obvious now. Why couldn’t I see that?

We didn’t drop many scenes in “Fury Road,” because everything was so hard won, but everything had to be interrogated. It’s very Darwinian: it won’t survive unless it earns its place. By that stage, you pretty well know every frame of the movie. You can tell whether you have to cut off one frame, two frames, or three frames; when you are cutting for action you have a strong sense of that. It’s fine, granular work, and I find that it takes a particular kind of neurology to do it—to bounce back and forth between the holistic view, the bird’s-eye view, and the detailed, microgranular view—because fatigue steps in. You need someone who has a great sort of creative stamina to do that.

You do all sorts of tricks. In the old days, painters used to look at screens in a mirror. I do that. It drives people crazy. I’ll flip the screen a hundred and eighty degrees. And it’s really interesting. When you play a bit of music, you know which notes are coming next: once you have heard it, your brain is already anticipating the next moment. Well, it’s exactly the same thing visually and dramatically. You’re ready to see the next bit of information, and you don’t because it’s flipped around. It’s quite an aggressive assault.

What you are trying to accomplish is to have the audience lean into the film. So that you are there. But, as scenes progress, you can’t repeat the same shot. There has to be something new so that there is a progression, a crescendo and decrescendo. The moment you get a repetition or redundancy—that is a signal to the audience that, O.K., you can back off. I call it falling off the wave. I used to surf, living in Sydney, so I know that if you stay on the wave it will take you all the way to the beach. You say, “I got from here to there and I don’t know how it happened.”

It’s not just in the formal progression of shots but also in the content, which is the more subtle thing. You’re always thinking, How does this action inform the character in whom we’re invested? How does it inform what we’ve seen before? It can’t just be empty action—noise and movement without any shift in dynamics. That can fill up the space and be very distracting and engaging, but it doesn’t follow you out of the cinema. And, to me, the measure of a film is how long it follows you out of the cinema.

Michael Ondaatje writes that, when he watched Walter Murch editing “The English Patient,” he knew “that this was the stage of filmmaking that was closest to the art of writing.” Murch goes on to tell Ondaatje a number of his tricks of the trade: lingering on a character’s face after he speaks a line, to show the audience that he’s lying. Adding a reaction shot of an actor forgetting her lines, to add an embarrassed, vulnerable honesty to a scene. Cutting right after a character blinks, because it signals the end of a thought.

The big moments are important, but it’s the precursor shots that really make a dramatic effect. That is where a movie can be made or lost, and there is often a better movie there than you think. It’s really a cumulative effect. We call it referred pain. If you have something wrong in your diaphragm, you might feel it in your shoulder. It’s the same in movies. The scene might feel slow, but it’s not the scene itself, it’s what came before. A critical scene might seem boring, but it’s usually because you’ve given that information earlier.

There is a tendency in people to base their cutting patterns on already established tropes. They do action sequences with fast cutting, where the scene is refreshed every two seconds without any causal relationship between one shot and the next. Margaret won’t stand for that. The pace has to be narratively based. It has to be character-based. It’s not just refreshing the scene for its own sake. The final version of “Fury Road” has more than two thousand eight hundred cuts, but you’ll see there is a tremendous effort to have some connection between one shot and the next. Just as in music there is almost a mathematical relationship between a chord and the progression. That is why we experience it as music and not noise. If you change your rhythm in the middle of a song for no good reason, it’s the same thing. Once you cut your early scenes and you develop a pace, it’s really interesting how quickly a perfectly good scene can become boring if it doesn’t follow that pace, or build or enhance it.

I’ll give you an example. At the beginning of “Fury Road,” all the wretched people who live below the citadel, in this dominance hierarchy ruled by the Immortan Joe, they all scramble toward the platform that rises up into the citadel. There was a scene that I had to cut, where a woman holds up her baby and says, “Take my baby! He has a warrior’s heart!” And one of the masked henchmen, the gatekeeper, looks at the baby and says, “It’s got lumps. It won’t last a year.” And he throws the baby back. Then she hands the baby to someone next to her and says, “Take me, I’m a milker!” and exposes her lactating breasts. And he says, “Yes you are, little mother! Come up.”

It’s a very cynical scene, but it was useful, in that it said that humans are a commodity, and mother’s milk is important. Now the problem was, we also have a scene where we see the milking mothers, and they’re referred to later. If we added this scene, it made those other scenes a little redundant. Plus, you’ve just met Max; you’ve met Furiosa briefly. You can’t stop for incidental characters or moments. You want to get on with the principal characters. The scene itself was done well, but devalued what was done later. It tells you a lot, but it’s not moving forward.

“Furiosa” was shot back in Australia rather than Namibia. Did that change the way it was edited? Eliot Knapman is credited as the lead editor, rather than Margaret.

We had bought a farm in a valley outside of Sydney, and Margaret had been working strenuously on it during severe flooding. So that held her up from coming to the shoot. I remembered Tilda Swinton showing me a picture of Bong Joon-ho [the director of “Parasite”] working with his editor on set. They assembled the film right there. I thought, O.K., Eliot was Margaret’s assistant on “Fury Road” and “Three Thousand Years of Longing.” So, during the shoot, he assembled the film, and then Margaret came in and did her part. It was much more efficient.

Halfway through “Furiosa,” there is a pivotal scene in which Furiosa stows away on the War Rig—a monster truck filled with “two thousand tits of mother’s milk”—only for it to be attacked by a band of hijackers. The sequence has a hundred and ninety-seven shots and took seventy-eight days to film, but the most startling moment may be when it’s over, and Furiosa gets thrown off the truck.The din of war drums and gunfire suddenly stops, and she stands and stares at the empty horizon in total silence. She has finally escaped, but now what? The world is still a wasteland. “Where did you think you were going?” her co-pilot asks, when he comes back to get her. “There is nowhere else.” “Furiosa” has a number of moments like this, when the pace slows and the silence is more dramatic than any music. It’s a startling change from the headlong rush of “Fury Road.”

You can say that “Fury Road” was a presto movement, for the most part. “Furiosa” has a few more moments of adagio.

How did you approach the sound design of these films?

Too often, people cut with sound in action sequences mainly to overcome visual deficiencies. Quite often, you can see things with your ears. With the right punching sound, we really do think someone punched someone. But, if you are doing without sound and someone punches somebody, you’d better make sure that the punch looks real. When we were doing “The Road Warrior,” the theory was to cut the film as a silent movie. If it plays silent, it will play with sound. But, in those days, I was less confident as a director. So, when the score would start, it was the full orchestra.

In “Fury Road,” the initial idea was to have only music that was practical. In a lot of cases, the music arises imperceptibly out of the ambient sounds you’re hearing in the movie—the music of the vehicles, and all those people fighting. So it was much more integrated. That’s why we had the drummers in the back of the truck and the guitarist. And then, once there was some humanity creeping into the story, when Max was finding his better self again, we could bring in some orchestral music. If you use music at these moments, it does something very important. It allows the audience to take the specific reality of what they’re seeing on the screen and put it in a larger context. It allows them to accept that it’s allegorical. It’s not just that event. It represents all such events. It goes from the specific to the general.

I remember, in a relatively early test screening of “Fury Road,” the guitarist tested poorly. Every time we saw him, he would be playing the same guitar riff all the time. People thought he was annoying. Why was he here? The temptation was to cut him as much as possible out of the story. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the repetition of the music, in a movie that wouldn’t tolerate repetition. Again, it was a kind of referred pain. Now, Margaret and I knew that the music hadn’t been orchestrated yet. It was temp music. So I kept on saying, “It’ll be all right, it’ll be all right.” And, of course, when we did the final test screening, he scored incredibly high. In fact, he is one of the iconic characters. Had I been less experienced, I might have panicked. Oh, that’s not working, let’s get rid of it. Usually, it’s not working for a reason that we can solve. But it’s amazing how often people throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The “Mad Max” films trace not only the evolution of filmmaking and special effects but the evolution of our ability to watch films—to absorb more and more information.

When Warner Bros. remastered a print of “The Road Warrior” [a few years ago], it was wonderful to see it again, like time travel. I was surprised at how it still played after all this time, and how much cinema has changed—the agility of the camera, and the plasticity of the images. You can change the colors, change the framing, and add so much digitally. But the biggest thing is the way that audiences can read films. We are actually speed-reading movies compared with those we saw in the past. “The Road Warrior” had twelve hundred shots in ninety-six minutes. “Fury Road” was a hundred and twenty minutes, yet it had two and a half times the number of shots. I think the average shot in “The Road Warrior” lasted four seconds or even more. The average shot in “Fury Road” was two seconds.

How do you decide how long you can linger on a shot? In “Fury Road,” there is a quick shot of a tattoo on Max’s back that says “O-Negative. Universal Donor.” This is a vital piece of information—it explains why he is used as a blood donor by his captors and why he can later save Furiosa’s life with a transfusion—but it goes by in a flash.

That shot of the tattoo was in the storyboard, and all that information was designed to be in there. But, if I held on to that shot a lot longer, and gave the audience fifteen seconds to read it, it would be terrible. You’re trying to invite them into a moment they’re sharing with the character. I do hope that most of the audience can read the tattoo—and later on it’s reinforced a little more in two scenes—but you can’t stop to do that.

When you are watching a movie like “Fury Road,” it sort of hurtles forward, and you can only pick something up in passing. How do you learn things on the fly? That is really, really key. Storytelling is the well-orchestrated withholding of information. It goes back to: What does the audience need to know, and when does it need to know it? Time goes forward at sixty seconds a minute, and most of us are going to watch the movie in one pass. You are tyrannized by time. You have to orchestrate the information as you proceed through it. That is one of the biggest tasks of a movie like this.

Is there a limit to how much information a viewer can process?

That is something that Margaret I constantly discuss in the editing room. Deep down, you don’t know. You have to take your best guess. You are thinking of the audience all the time, and somehow have to trust your own instincts. How do you take a series of shots that are very, very fast and cut very, very short and still make them coherent spatially in terms of the events? You spend a lot of time talking about “eye scan”—knowing exactly where ninety per cent of the audience will be looking on a big screen. You’re trying to avoid eye jerks, often by reframing a shot, vignetting a shot, or sharpening a part of the screen, so the scan across the cut is going to be smooth. That is something Margaret is really very strong at. If you put a lot of effort into that, so that from one shot to the next you are not jarring the eye, you can make it quite creamy.

Do you think the pace of film editing will continue to accelerate?

I don’t think that this will naturally lead to faster and faster films. But you should be aware, as you are making the film, that the audience is capable of understanding things that it couldn’t in the past. I remember a quote: “Individually an audience might be comprised of idiots, collectively they are never wrong.” I really think that’s true. People come to cinema loaded to the gills with all this learning of a relatively new language. They watch movies and pick up the rhythm of them. They are visually literate. They are narratively, dramatically literate, but not necessarily in a way they can articulate. And, collectively, it is quite astonishing.

Very early on, I made a point of rewatching films in the cinema when there were lots of people. One film that had a lot of influence on “Mad Max” was “What’s Up, Doc?” Every Saturday night in Melbourne, I would go and watch the film, because I just loved the audience’s laughter, and knowing exactly where that laughter is. Then I went to Hong Kong, in a packed cinema with standing room in the aisles, and the laughing was consistent with Melbourne. There is a collective response of audiences that is constantly playing in the back of your mind. You just have to trust it.

You want a film to be all there in that first impact. But that’s not to say that if you go back to it, you can’t pick up more. If a film is rich enough, multiple viewings will be rewarded. Every time I put on “The Godfather: Part II,” which is my favorite movie, I can’t stop watching it. I know exactly what’s going to happen, but it’s like hearing a great song or symphony. There is pleasure each time. Why is that? It’s extraordinary that it doesn’t diminish in any way. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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