The Australian director returns with renewed ‘Fury’ to the character that put him on the map 36 years ago

Story by Scott Foundas 
Photograph by Brent Humphreys

George Miller has
unfinished business
with Max Rockatansky.

It is early March, and Miller is sitting on a Warner Bros. mixing stage in Burbank trying to rid his long-awaited fantasy epic “Mad Max: Fury Road” of “red-tailed hawks” — industry slang for sound effects that have been overused to the point of cliché, like the aforementioned bird of prey whose familiar cry routinely accompanies establishing shots of picturesque wildernesses. Miller asks if one such sound might be the squeal of feedback heard as the film’s principal villain, Immortan Joe, picks up a microphone to speak to his followers — a cult of starving peasants and sycophantic “war boys” living in a futuristic desert outpost called the Citadel. It’s an auditory beat most moviegoers wouldn’t consciously register, but which Miller weighs as seriously as any piece of action or performance.

For hours, Miller goes through the already-mixed film reel by reel and, at the end of each, without having jotted down so much as a word on paper, gives detailed notes on the changes he wants to make: the voice of a young girl in a hallucinatory flashback should be less sharp; the sound of a swinging metal chain should be “more subjective.” “There’s a phenomenal amount of wisdom and artistry in this room,” the 70-year-old Australian filmmaker says of his mixers. Less than 24 hours earlier, he stepped off a plane from Sydney, but shows no visible signs of fatigue.

It was on another transpacific flight 15 years ago that Miller first dreamed — literally — of making “Fury Road.” As the 747 jumbo jet soared into the night sky, a movie began to play out vividly in the director’s mind. He saw a vast ocher desert and a caravan of vehicles moving across it — one of them a large tanker truck being driven by a futuristic warrior goddess. Also along for the ride was an old friend Miller hadn’t seen or thought about in decades: Rockatansky, the post-apocalyptic soldier-of-fortune played by Mel Gibson in Miller’s 1979 debut feature, “Mad Max,” and in two sequels that had set a daunting high bar for the modern action movie. By the time Miller landed back home in Australia, “Fury Road” had willed itself into being.

What Miller couldn’t imagine at the time was that the road to making and releasing “Fury Road” would prove nearly as long and perilous as the one traveled by the movie’s desperate characters, paved with multiple false starts, cast and crew changes, wars, natural disasters, a ballooning budget, and an increasingly nervous studio.

At the center of it all was a visionary, detail-obsessed director determined to bring his genre-defining world into the 21st century while still doing things very much the old-fashioned way. The movie’s elaborate stunts (more than 300 of them) would all be performed live on set, just as Miller had always done them. CGI would be employed only to remove unwanted elements from the frame rather than painting things in. “We don’t defy the laws of physics — there are no flying human beings, no spacecraft — so it doesn’t make sense to do it as CG,” Miller says. “We’ve got real vehicles and real humans in a real desert, and you hope that all that texture will be up there on the screen.”

Now Warner Bros. is banking on “Fury Road” (which opens worldwide May 15) to be a giant summer hit both with older audiences and younger moviegoers who weren’t born when the last “Mad Max” movie — 1985’s “Beyond Thunderdome” — was released, gambling hundreds of millions of dollars on the production, marketing and global release of the R-rated film, which officially cost north of $150 million, and some say as high as $250 million (not counting P&A). Miller’s first live-action outing since his 1998 box office dud “Babe: Pig in the City,” Fury Road” is also being released into a much-more crowded modern era, where it will compete with a slew of other tentpoles including “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the earthquake thriller “San Andreas” (also from Warners), Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” with George Clooney, and “Spy” starring Melissa McCarthy.

“There were 10 pole cats swaying, coming down the road at speed, all of them on cars, and Guy was on one of the poles filming them,” Miller recalls. “I choked up. I thought: ‘Wow, it’s real. It’s absolutely real.’ ”

The making of “Fury Road” wasn’t supposed to be such a saga, but then, where Miller is concerned, projects tend to mushroom in their ambitions and logistical challenges as fast as his mental synapses can carry them. “It’s so easy to write something on the page or do a drawing of it,” the perpetually cheerful filmmaker says on a recent morning, speaking by phone from his Sydney office, where he has just signed off on the 3D conversion of “Fury Road” the night before. He notes that when he first conceived of his 2006 animated hit, “Happy Feet,” “it was going to be a small thing, and it ended up with a lot of penguins” — and so many computers that IBM had to build him a server farm to accommodate the data needed to render the film’s motion-capture animation. The production process, always comparatively long in animation, stretched on for four years.

“He doesn’t set himself easy tasks,” says Margaret Sixel, Miller’s editor and wife of 12 years. “I always laugh and say, ‘George, why do you make it so difficult for yourself? You could shoot a nice little biopic that someone else wrote.’ ”

Talk to Miller’s closest collaborators and words like “forensic,” “granular” and, yes, “exhausting,” frequently enter the conversation. In the “Fury Road” editing room, he insisted on looking at every take of every shot, and every possible combination of those shots, before signing off on a scene. On the scoring stage, composer Tom Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL) and his musicians nicknamed the movie “There Will Be Notes.” Yet, the director is anything but a tyrant, which may be one reason why he inspires such fierce loyalty in his cast and crew. “He’s such a good general that he can push people and they will go with it and embrace it and then they miss it,” says Sixel. “For those who don’t like it, they leave early.”

Still, if “Fury Road” was never going to be a walk in the park, it was meant to arrive much sooner. Shortly after the idea first came to him, Miller approached British comicbook artist Brendan McCarthy to collaborate with him on a screenplay — one quite unlike anything Miller, or anyone else in movies, had ever done. A passionate believer in cinema as a visual medium, Miller wanted to forgo a conventional script, and instead draw “Fury Road” as a series of detailed storyboards, a screenplay in images. McCarthy, who revered the director’s films, was game for the challenge (he had, in the ’80s, co-authored a comic series, “Freakwave,” described as “Mad Max Goes Surfing”). Their collaboration would eventually produce some 3,500 panels, which took up every inch of available wall space in one large conference room of Miller’s office. A bound copy of the drawings, known as the Comic Book, was the closest thing “Fury Road” would ever have to a conventional shooting script.

That was enough, however, to secure a commitment from Gibson, then still very much at the height of his box office powers, and well before his notorious 2006 Malibu arrest. In December 2002, it was announced that Miller and Gibson would make “Fury Road” as a co-production between their respective banners, with a $104 million budget, a $25 million payday for the star, and 20th Century Fox footing the bill. Shooting was scheduled to begin the following spring in Namibia, where Miller had scouted a desert location worthy of his grand designs — not a patch of green anywhere in sight, and certainly no green screens. A summer 2004 release was planned. But Miller’s vision of a future world ravaged by gas wars and depleted natural resources soon became a bit too prescient: By the spring of 2003, a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq seemed imminent, and Fox, citing general concerns about international travel and shipping restrictions, delayed the film’s start until fall. “What we do have firmly in place is Mel and George,” Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos told Variety at the time.

But fall came and went, and Miller, who was being pressured by Warners to fish or cut bait on “Happy Feet,” threw himself into that project instead; it went on to earn $384 million worldwide, win the animated film Oscar, and spawn a Miller-directed sequel, “Happy Feet Two” (2011), that also ran years behind schedule. In the interim, news of “Fury Road” went cold, save for Miller’s occasionally stated intention to still make the film, and a flurry of unsubstantiated rumors: that he would shoot two “Max” films back to back; that he had scrapped plans to make a live-action “Max” altogether, and was instead developing the project as a Japanese-style anime.

In 2009, shortly after plans collapsed for Miller to direct a $220 million “Justice League” movie, a new incarnation of “Fury Road” came together at Warners, which had released two of the previous “Max” films and enjoyed a longtime co-financing deal with Australian production and exhibition giant Village Roadshow. Gibson was now out of the picture, having grown some combination of too old, too cold (at the box office) and too controversial. Instead, Miller chose Tom Hardy to step into the title character’s iconic leather boots, after seeing the relatively unknown British actor in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” and in a 2007 television film, “Stuart: A Life Backwards,” where he played a mentally disabled homeless man opposite Benedict Cumberbatch. Charlize Theron would join Hardy as the one-armed mercenary named Furiosa, Max’s distaff doppelganger. Production was now set to start in early 2011 in Broken Hill, the remote Australian mining town where both 1981’s “Mad Max 2” (released in the U.S. as “The Road Warrior”) and “Beyond Thunderdome” had been filmed. Construction commenced on sets and the dozens of custom-designed vehicles that would careen, cartwheel and otherwise collide in the latest iteration of Miller’s dystopian demolition derby.

And then the rains came — unprecedented flooding caused by tropical cyclone Yasi and a La Nina weather pattern that battered eastern Australia throughout the austral summer. Over a four-day stretch in January 2011 alone, Broken Hill received more than half its usual annual rainfall, turning the usually arid land into a verdant golf course. The movie gods seemed to be laughing at Miller’s well-laid plans. But where most directors might have high-tailed it into a studio and created a virtual desert, Miller asked then-Warner studio head Jeff Robinov for another postponement, and to relocate the production back to Namibia — a decision that would mean shipping all the sets and cars halfway around the world via the Indian Ocean. Robinov, who was no stranger to betting on the visions of maverick auteurs (including Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuaron, the latter of whom was making “Gravity” for the studio at the time), gave his blessing.

Refining the Story

In some respects, Miller says, the delays were fortuitous. With each new setback came a chance to re-examine and refine the “Fury Road” script. That included enlisting a friend of more than 40 years, Greek-Australian actor and drama coach (but novice screenwriter) Nick “Nico” Lathouris, to add thematic weight to the story Miller and McCarthy had already mapped out visually. As a drama student in 1971, Lathouris had been cast by Miller in the first film he ever directed: a comic short made for a revue at Sydney’s St. Vincent Hospital, where Miller was completing his medical residency. In a sign of the Miller oeuvre to come, Lathouris was filmed by the director peddling a brakeless bicycle down a steep hill while being chased by a gang of medical residents, who were costumed in nuns’ habits and riding motorbikes. Eight years later, as a budding film star, Lathouris played the role of Grease Rat in the original “Mad Max,” fondly remembered for uttering the line, “Speed’s just a question of money. How fast you wanna go?”

“He’s one of those people who digs very deeply into material, and that’s exactly what ‘Fury Road’ needed,” says Miller. “Otherwise, it would have been just a surface action movie. To the extent that you detect any subtext, that’s stuff I really worked out with Nico.” That subtext included a strong feminist slant, including a topical discussion of women’s reproductive rights (in the film’s inciting incident, Theron’s character breaks a group of pregnant “breeders” out from under Immortan Joe’s ever watchful eye). “So much of extreme world poverty is really, truly because of the lack of empowerment of women, and if that were to change one day, a lot of those problems would be solved,” observes Theron. “I think George is really aware of that stuff in the world, and I think he’s truly interested in women.”

Although the “Max” films were never long on expository chit-chat — in “The Road Warrior,” Gibson had less than a dozen lines of dialogue — with “Fury Road,” Miller envisioned taking an even bolder leap into the realm of pure action cinema. Whereas most big-budget franchise movies labor exhaustively to establish the mythologies and ground rules of their fantasy realms, “Fury Road” would effectively unfold as one continuous chase sequence, dropping viewers right into the thick of things, and only gradually explaining itself as it went along. Some details — like the backstories of the Max and Furiosa characters, and the exact nature of how the world ended — would remain intentionally vague, to be expanded upon in future “Max” adventures. The goal, Miller says, was to give the viewer the sensation of being anthropologists confronted with some strange nomadic culture. “You wouldn’t understand initially what was going on, but you would never doubt the authenticity of, say, a native people’s behavior,” he says. “That’s what we were striving for.”

The additional down time also allowed action unit director Guy Norris to further refine the movie’s car stunts, which would require dozens of custom-built vehicles to appear in the frame at any given moment. Norris, too, came to “Fury Road” with deep “Mad Max” roots; 30 years earlier, as a young actor and stuntman, he’d played a henchman of the villainous Lord Humungus in “The Road Warrior,” and had collaborated with Miller many times since. For one of “Fury Road’s” most complicated sequences, Miller envisioned human “pole cats” perched high on lookout posts attached to cars speeding across the desert — an effect the director initially thought would have to be achieved at least partially through CGI. Then, during one pre-production lull, Norris sent Miller a videotaped surprise. “There were 10 pole cats swaying, coming down the road at speed, all of them on cars, and Guy was on one of the poles filming them,” Miller recalls. “I choked up. I thought: ‘Wow, it’s real. It’s absolutely real.’ ”

When you meet Miller for the first (or even the 10th) time, it can be tough to reconcile the soft-spoken man in curly, graying hair and spectacles with the strange visions that emanate from his mind. That is as true of the “Max” films as it is of “Happy Feet,” an ostensible children’s entertainment in which the young penguin hero eventually finds himself imprisoned in a zoo, suffering the psychological effects of institutionalization; and “Babe: Pig in the City” (1998), Miller’s phantasmagorical sequel to the beloved 1995 Oscar-winner, which begins with the porcine protagonist nearly causing the demise of the kindly Farmer Hoggett, and gets progressively weirder and more nightmarish. Even Miller’s one straight adult drama, “Lorenzo’s Oil” (1992), depicts the decline of a young boy suffering from a rare neurological disease in the kind of disquieting detail usually reserved for full-fledged horror movies (one possible reason why, despite its considerable acclaim, the movie failed to connect with a large audience).

Miller gets asked about this contradiction between the man and his art a lot, and he has no answer for it, except that as a junior medical resident in a neurosurgical operating theater, he saw more than one exposed human brain sitting inches from his face, and it made him wonder. “Having had that unique intimacy causes you to ask a lot of questions about who we are as humankind,” he says. He saw a lot of carnage too, working in an emergency room — visions that would eventually inform “Mad Max’s” macabre fusions of metal and flesh.

But Miller’s singular imagination is also the byproduct of a childhood spent roaming the Australian outback town of Chinchilla, Queensland (the self-proclaimed “Melon Capital of Australia”), where he was raised by Greek immigrant parents who had anglicized the family name from Miliotis. “It was mostly just bush bordering on desert — that in-between sort of world,” recalls Miller, who would spend Saturday mornings indulging in one of Chinchilla’s few cultural pastimes: the local picture show. Young George was particularly fond of Westerns, and spent much of his free time reenacting on horseback, under the desert sun, the stories he’d seen onscreen with his friends. “I realized a long time later that it was an invisible apprenticeship for filmmaking,” he says. “When I make a film, it feels very familiar to that play we had inspired by the cinema.”

With his twin brother, John, Miller went on to medical school at the U. of New South Wales, but never lost his appetite for movies. While still in his St. Vincent’s residency, he enrolled in a monthlong filmmaking workshop at Melbourne U., where he met the 21-year-old Byron Kennedy, a technical whiz who’d been making 8mm films since high school. “We both recognized in the other, to some degree, an outsider who didn’t think too much inside the box,” Miller says. Together with a small crew, they went on to make “Violence in the Cinema, Part 1,” a wry, 20-minute parody of educational films, in which an academic lecturing on the titular subject drones on and on, even as he’s attacked by a shotgun-wielding maniac. Miller wrote and directed, while Kennedy produced, shot and edited. When the short premiered at the 1971 Sydney Film Festival, it created a mild scandal, and announced the duo as prodigious young filmmakers to be reckoned with.

“Every day, we were doing this very hard, physically complex and risky stuff. There was always that anxiety of something going wrong.”
George Miller

'mad' Beginnings

Australian cinema was just then beginning to reawaken after a decades-long slumber in which national film production had almost come to a complete stop. Now, with renewed government support for production, and a national film school to foster talent, a “new wave” of young filmmakers, including Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi and Peter Weir, began making movies that put Australia back on the map, with prominent berths at international festivals and worldwide distribution. Miller and Kennedy saw their opportunity and, together with co-screenwriter James McCausland, began to conceive of “Mad Max” as a low-budget action movie that would combine elements of the classic Western — “a Western on wheels,” Miller termed it — with various social anxieties of the moment (including the 1973 oil crisis) and Australians’ innate love of the open road. The title character of the film , set “a few years from now,” would be an honest cop in a land descending into lawlessness, driven over the edge when his wife and infant son are murdered by a deranged biker gang. Both the good and bad guys would wear black — black leather, to be precise.

With funds scraped together from Miller’s medical rounds, private investors solicited by Kennedy, and Roadshow Entertainment (the precursor to Village Roadshow), the first-time feature filmmakers managed to assemble an A$380,000 budget — shoestring, even by 1970s standards. Gibson, then finishing his studies at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, found himself cast in the lead after accompanying a classmate, Steve Bisley, to the audition on a lark. “George asked whoever came into the room to tell him a joke,” Gibson remembers. “I don’t think my joke worked. I don’t think it made him laugh, even. But he gave me some pages, and said, ‘Can you come back and spit this out?’ I took it, read it, and it was pretty instant. George said, ‘Do you want a gig? Can you drive?’ ” The day after his graduation, Gibson was en route to the film’s Melbourne location.

The movie was made fast and cheap, but never out of Miller’s meticulous (even then) control. Instinctively, he staged almost all of the action in sharp diagonal movements, hurtling toward the camera like 3D without the need for glasses — the same kind of effect that, 75 years earlier, had reportedly panicked a Paris audience attending one of the first exhibitions of moving pictures made by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere. At the end of a day’s shooting, Miller and Kennedy would sweep broken glass and other debris from the road so that the Melbourne police would allow them to return for the next day’s work. When the movie was released in 1979, it became a global phenomenon, entering the Guinness Book of Records as the most profitable film of all time relative to cost, a status it would retain until “The Blair Witch Project” came along in 1999. (Although Internet sources claim the worldwide gross for “Mad Max” totaled $100 million, Miller’s office places the figure at closer to $35 million — still an impressive return on investment.)

Wherever the film played, the locals seemed to recognize Max as a variation on their own iconic warrior heroes. “When it went to Japan, they said, ‘Oh, he’s the lone samurai,” Miller says. “The Scandinavians talked about Viking folklore.” Even in America, where “Mad Max” was released as a grindhouse attraction by B-movie impresario Samuel Arkoff’s American Intl. Pictures, with a re-dubbed soundtrack (to expunge the Australian accents), “Mad Max” struck a chord. “Stunts themselves would be nothing without a filmmaker behind the camera, and George Miller, a doctor and film buff making his first feature, shows he knows what cinema is all about,” opined the original Variety review.

As a teenager, Guillermo Del Toro had first noticed a “Mad Max” poster while on a family vacation in San Diego. “I don’t remember the slogan exactly, but it was something like, ‘When the Whole World’s a Highway, Pray That He’s on Your Side.’ It was the very dynamic poster that they used in France, with this airbrushed figure holding a sawed-off shotgun and his visor down. I just thought, ‘My God, this is the most amazing movie ever made.’ When the movie eventually opened in Mexico, everybody turbo-charged their cars,” the director recalls. “I turbo-charged a small Nissan.”

Del Toro and his friends saw the movie three or four times in a week. “As a budding filmmaker, it was the first time I started noticing concrete camera moves,” he says. “I thought I had understood the alchemy of cinema.” When the movie was released on VHS, Del Toro obsessively freeze-framed a copy in order to study some of Miller’s crudely effective special effects. He told his girlfriend that, when they married, he wanted to move to Australia and make movies there. “Australia became a place of mythical proportions,” he says. When he met Miller for the first time decades later, “I just started hugging him irrationally tight and trying to rationalize his movies to him and telling him what they did to me. I think he found me puzzling, but endearing.”

Del Toro is hardly alone in his sentiments. When James Cameron was directing “The Terminator,” he told his crew that the movie he wanted to make was equal parts “Alien” and “Mad Max.” Quentin Tarantino afforded Miller special thanks in the credits of his own car-chase quickie, “Death Proof.” And when Miller showed up at Austin’s SXSW festival earlier this year to screen a restored 35mm print of “The Road Warrior,” Robert Rodriguez (who had spent the afternoon interviewing the director for his “Director’s Chair” series on the El Rey cable network) made a beeline to the microphone during the audience Q&A. “I’m an independent filmmaker here in Austin,” he said. “I was inspired by you."

With “The Road Warrior,” Miller was able to let his fervid imagination burst fully into full bloom. Though the budget was still modest (A$4.5 million), it was large enough to accommodate more vehicles, bigger stunts and a rogue’s gallery of motorcycle marauders in bondage gear and punk-rock hairdos. (Fashion, for better or worse, had clearly survived the apocalypse.) We were several years on from the events of “Mad Max,” the world was now a barren wasteland, and the road stretched toward infinity. The movie was like some unholy cross between John Ford’s “Stagecoach” and Tod Browning’s “Freaks.” As he had on “Mad Max,” Miller achieved many of the film's most ingenious effects using fast-motion photography and “simulated travel,” which gave the impression of cars and trucks whizzing by at breakneck speeds when they were, in fact, not moving at all. So impressed was Steven Spielberg that he invited Miller to Hollywood to direct the fourth (and best) episode of the 1983 omnibus film, “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”

Flush with success, Miller and Kennedy bought a shuttered 1930s Sydney movie palace, the Metro Kings Cross, and transformed it into the headquarters of their Kennedy Miller Entertainment, complete with soundstages and office space. They developed a busy slate of movies and miniseries for Australian television, giving important early directing breaks to emerging local directors like George Ogilvie and Chris Noonan (who would go on to direct “Babe”). The sky seemed to be the limit — and for Kennedy, tragically, it was. On a Sunday afternoon in July 1983, he took a 15-year-old family friend, Victor Evatt, for what was supposed to be a one-hour flight in his Bell JetRanger helicopter. But the engine failed mid-flight, and Kennedy crashed into Lake Burragorang in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. He broke his back on impact, and Evatt dragged him more than 200 yards through the icy water to shore. When rescuers came upon the pair the next morning, Kennedy had died of his injuries in the night. He was 33 years old.

For Miller, it was a devastating blow. “I went through medical school with my twin brother, and Byron felt like my movie twin,” he says. Already in pre-production on “Beyond Thunderdome,” Miller distanced himself from the project to grieve, enlisting Ogilvie to share directing responsibilities. Today, he says he can’t remember how much of the movie he actually shot himself. Curiously, “Thunderdome” partly revolves around the survivors of a plane crash — a group of feral schoolchildren, pitched halfway between “Peter Pan” and “Lord of the Flies,” who mistake Max for their long-lost pilot. Max himself seemed less mad than mildly annoyed this time. And while the softer, Spielbergian movie — the only series entry to earn a PG-13 rating — had its admirers (including Roger Ebert), for many fans it was an inglorious end to a glorious franchise, remembered today mostly for the appearance of Tina Turner as the tyrannical despot Aunty Entity, and for the two ’80s power ballads she contributed to the soundtrack.

'fury road' lifts off

Shooting on “Fury Road” finally began in June 2012. Cast and crew were lodged in Swakopmund, an off-season beach town on the Namibian coast. The production’s base camp took up the equivalent of six soccer fields, and had to be relocated a half-dozen times during the filming as the action, which Miller shot chronologically, fanned out ever further across the desert. Miller likens the process to “a military exercise” in which basic communication among the massive crew proved a formidable challenge. Some days, three separate units shot simultaneously, utilizing up to 20 different cameras, including Miller’s favorite, the Edge Crane, a 360-degree mobile, remote-controlled arm mounted to a Toyota Tundra that could weave in and out of the chase, capturing visceral action shots from within the eye of the storm.

“You would often have 60 to 80 vehicles in a chase, and every one of them had a stunt driver,” he says. “You had the stunt guy reading the stunt cues on one audio channel, you had me talking to the actors on another channel, you had the a.d.’s talking to each other on yet another. A lot of movies have the talky bits and the action bits, but here they were conflated; the drama and the action were one and the same. Every day we were doing this very hard, physically complex and risky stuff. There was always that anxiety of something going wrong.”

For Theron, life on the set came a bit too close at times to imitating art. “Being out there in the middle of the desert will make you mad after a while,” says the actress, who had adopted her first child, son Jackson, four months before the start of the shoot. “I had originally said yes to this movie when I had just left a nine-year relationship, and I didn’t have any children, and I thought, ‘Yeah, I need to go sit in the desert for a year and find myself,’ ” she continues. “Then the movie finally happens, and I’m like, ‘I found myself and I have a baby now, so it’s a little different.’ It was really hard to move my newborn son out there and give that much of myself for that long to a film.”

Even with such a long schedule, however, “Fury Road” started out of the gate in a deficit position. To offset the cost of moving the shoot to Namibia, Miller had to agree to cut the shooting schedule by nearly a month, to 120 days. That compression ultimately meant scrapping two crucial sequences: a prologue and coda set inside the Citadel, which would provide much-needed narrative bookends to the central chase. Since those scenes didn’t require the desert, Miller reasoned they could shoot them later on soundstages back in Australia. Getting Warners to agree with them would prove to be one of “Fury Road’s” most daunting challenges.

The movie’s unconventional script also resulted in an unconventional system of production reporting. Whereas most movies measure a day’s work by the number of script pages shot, Miller and company were keeping a running tally of storyboard images they’d gotten in the can. But the reports confused Warners executives back in Burbank, and by early September, Robinov had become concerned enough to dispatch producer Denise Di Novi & to help right the ship, though accounts differ as to how long she remained in Namibia and how much influence she wielded. (She receives no credit on the finished film.) Eventually, though, a more traditional reporting system was instituted that helped, at least for the moment, to calm the studio’s nerves. Neither Di Novi nor Robinov would comment for this story.

“A script can have a lot of pages if it’s a dialogue-heavy movie, and this wasn’t,” says Doug Mitchell, a gregarious, curly-haired Scotsman who came to work at Kennedy Mitchell as an accountant in the early ’80s, and found himself thrust into the role of Miller’s producing partner following Kennedy’s death. (The company name was officially changed to Kennedy Miller Mitchell in 2009.) “Our objective might be: We’ve got a vehicle assaulting another vehicle,’ ” he continues. “You can write that in one sentence, but it could mean a week’s shooting.”

Meanwhile, back in her editing room in Sydney, Sixel greeted each new day with a mix of awe and trepidation. The footage coming in from the set was duly spectacular, but there was so much of it — anywhere from three to six hours’ worth per day, nearly 500 hours in all — that it took a herculean effort just to catalog it all. And with the nine-hour time difference between Sydney and Swakopmund, Miller would already be immersed in a different part of the shoot, and disinclined to look back, when Sixel would be ready to discuss a scene. “We did talk every night on the phone,” she remembers, “but he’d say, ‘I can’t think about what I shot five days ago. Just do the best you can.” .” Much that footage consisted of short bursts of action corresponding to the storyboards, which were easier to string together in theory than in practice, especially given the lack of master shots — or dialogue — to use as reference points.

It also took time, Sixel says, to find the right balance between the lead performances. While Theron was consistent from one take to the next, Hardy would play many variations on a scene, sometimes more seething and introverted, sometimes wildly animated. That clash in acting styles may have been partly responsible for rumors of off-camera friction between the performers, both of whom are now quick to downplay any such suggestions.

“Charlize is one of the most instinctive, dangerous and beautiful actors of her generation, and someone I greatly admire,” says Hardy. Adds Theron: “We had some rough spots in this movie. I don’t think any actors would have not had some rough spots. But at the end of the day, I got to work with one of the greatest, and I’m really grateful for that.”

Editing room challenges

When the Namibia shoot finally wrapped, Miller took a short vacation, then turned his attention to Sixel’s assembly. It was more obvious now than ever that, without its opening and closing scenes, “Fury Road” was an incomplete film. Then Robinov called to say that he and other Warner executives would be coming to Sydney to see the cut. But Miller’s preference for editing his movies without temp music or sound effects, in order to concentrate fully on the visual storytelling, meant that “Fury Road” was, at this point, effectively a two-and-a-half hour silent film with no beginning or end. Sixel finally convinced Miller to let her add a soundtrack for the studio preview. But the screening was, by all accounts, a spiritual low point.

Miller, however, charged ahead undeterred. “George is like a force of nature, and he manages to put the negative aside” says Sixel. “He talks a lot about the negativity bias of people, how we always tend to focus on what’s wrong and not what’s right. So we basically just hunkered down in that cutting room and were determined to get the studio to like this film.”

Over the next months, Miller and Sixel played a game of inches. “We felt, by the end of it, there was not a frame in the rushes that we hadn’t thought about or tried, and that takes a long time,” says the editor. Miller would literally look at scenes backward and forward, insisting that each new shot bring with it some new information that the audience didn’t already have, and that the viewer’s eye be able to track the action easily from one cut to the next. Max, who spoke no dialogue in the original version of the film, was gradually given a smattering of lines, which Hardy looped on a dubbing stage and the filmmakers inserted wherever they could detect lip movement.

“George needs to absorb material in his own time,” Sixel says. “He is just … so rigorous. I’ve found a way to work with him, and then I come home and we’re just fine again.”

After a second executive screening, Miller finally got the green light to shoot the movie’s missing scenes. Production recommenced in November 2013 at the Fox Studios in Sydney, and at last, light began to flicker at the end of “Fury Road’s” protracted tunnel. The studio, too, began to realize it had something rather remarkable on its hands.

With a May 2015 release date now locked in, Warners marketing chief Sue Kroll ramped up a marketing plan designed to re-introduce a brand that had been absent from the marketplace for the past 30 years. “Where there was an existing fan base, we needed to reach them, and it was also this incredible new opportunity to let younger audiences who are unaware of the original films in on the quality of the material,” she says.

In July, she dispatched Miller to his first-ever Comic-Con in San Diego, where the director unveiled a four-minute “Fury Road” sizzle reel that sent a seismic shudder through the San Diego Convention Center’s stadium-sized Hall H. It was the first step in a campaign that would cannily position the new film as neither sequel nor remake nor reboot, but rather a “revisiting” (Miller’s preferred term) of Max’s world — a new tale, but one with enough sly call-backs to the previous movies to appease longtime fans: a music box; a misfiring, sawed-off shotgun; and, in the role of Immortan Joe, veteran Australian character actor Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the sadistic Toecutter in the original “Mad Max” nearly 40 years ago.

From the Comic-Con stage, a visibly moved Miller snapped a cell phone photo of the 6,500-capacity crowd. “I never dreamed that people would come from all over the world for something like this,” he told them.


Mad Max (1979)

$380k* Budget
$8.8m Domestic

Miller’s debut feature held a two-decade Guinness Book record as the most profitable movie of all time relative to cost (it made $35 million worldwide), until “The Blair Witch Project” displaced it in 1999.


The Road Warrior (1981)

$4.5m* Budget $23.7m Domestic

“It’s one of the five greatest action movies of all time,” says Guillermo del Toro of Miller’s hard-driving sequel, whose car stunts remain the standard by which all others are judged.


Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

$12m Budget 
$36.2m Domestic

Max battled Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity in this PG-13 adventure, on which Miller, still grieving the death of producing partner Byron Kennedy, shared directing responsibilities with George Ogilvie.


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

$150m - $250m Budget

Neither sequel nor remake nor reboot, Miller’s self-proclaimed “revisiting” of his iconic franchise is the biggest-scale “Max”& to date, and a huge summer-movie gamble for Warner Bros.

*Australian dollars Sources: Box Office Mojo and Variety

Nine months later, with “Fury Road” finally out of his hands, Miller sounded understandably relieved, if somewhat wistful for the process. “There’s that other anxiety that you get when you can no longer do anything to improve the film,” he says. “Now it goes out there into the world, and as people have so often said, it’s like a child leaving home, and you hope you’ve given it the wherewithal for it to make its way.” He added that he hopes to be back at work soon, and to not take quite so long about it this time. “I’m not sure what the next film is, but I’ve got several to do, and it’s the story that insists on being told that’s the one you do next.”

That may even mean more “Max.” Miller and Lathouris have already conceived of two additional stories set in the desert wasteland (one fully written, the other in treatment form), and Hardy is committed to star in both. “Now having watched what he’s come up with, what he’s created, I realize it was probably impossible to explain to us on the floor as we were doing it,” Hardy confided after seeing a nearly finished version of “Fury Road.” “It was a big, vision to articulate — a huge orchestration of surrealism and action.”

And Theron says she would relish the opportunity to return as Furiosa — with one condition. “We’re just going to have figure out a place for the desert that’s closer to home this time around,” she says. “I love Namibia, but it’s like, ‘Can we just be somewhere where there’s a functional airport?’ Just to escape the madness, every once in a while.”

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