9 things we learnt from George Miller and the Mad Max: Fury Road co-writers at GRAPHIC Festival

When the fiery orange dust settles at the end of 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road will undoubtedly be named as one of the biggest and most notable cinematic triumphs of the year. The revival of the classic 80’s film franchise may have come after over a decade of false-starts and meticulous planning, but fans and critics around the world embraced it almost instantly, praising not only George Miller’s stunning direction, but the contribution each and every cast member made; not least how well written and densely layered with social criticism and commentary the film was.

It was then a sure-shot for Sydney Opera House’s GRAPHIC Festival that the organiser’s managed to secure Miller to come and talk in the iconic concert hall, along with co-writer & illustrator Brendan McCarthy and co-writer and dramaturge Nico Lathouris. These three creatives sat down with the festival’s co-curator Ben Marshall in an in-talk format session that lasted almost two hours, diving deep into the minds of all three individuals and how they worked to create this enormously popular film. Those in attendance also witnessed the first time these three figures have discussed the film since it was released, with the interplay between all three providing a world exclusive look at not just the film, but how these people approach storytelling in general and the importance they place upon it.

A special mention must go to Marshall, who facilitated the discussion and gave enough space to allow some really profound insights to flow from this highly regarded trio. His timing and questions, many sourced from fans around the world prior to the event, were smart and open, genuinely engaging the three guests who would take the topics and build upon them, giving us quite a few lessons on film-making, storytelling, and more.

millertalk3madmaxcreditprudenceupton

While the entire talk was much more complex than just eight take-away lessons, these are the ones that stood out for us:

1. “There would be no world without stories.”

“I really think this collective endeavor that we have as humankind to understand why we’re here usually starts with a great question”, Miller said when focusing on the topic of what the world would be like without stories. “The more you dig down into that question, the more you can understand that there would be no world without stories. Everything has a narrative, but the key to it is that it needs an audience. There is no story without someone to present it to.”

Miller referenced the great stories of our time, the great mythologies, religious traditions, and scientific narratives, as all examples of how stories have become so “deeply ingrained in us as individuals”.

Lathouris also built upon the question, citing stories as a “form of communication, a language by which we give to each other packages of meaning from which we can complete or take the next step in our very own story”.

Miller continued, “We live in a world where there is a massive amount of info..we use stories for survival, looking for signal in the noise. We use stories for coherence. People are attracted to alogory and symbol stories…all good stories ultimately are about survival…and they are used for survival, classically the pedagogic value is to map out your world and tell you how to survive. We do that still in the modern world. A lot of times stories can also be dangerous, I’ve always been aware that we should have a label on stories reading ‘hazardous material’, because they really can be.”

2. The film was definitely designed to be watched numerous times

Marshall began the fan-sourced questions by asking a fairly simple one, directed at McCarthy: “I found Mad Max Fury Road dramatically satisfying after a single viewing. But simultaneously, the film was so rich in small details that I kept finding new parallels, arcs, and inter-relationships even after seeing it 9 times in the cinema. Did you intend to create a film that demands to be seen more than once?”

McCarthy’s response: a brief, emphatic “Yep”, to which the audience roared with laughter.

3. The characters will finish the story for you

Marshall referenced a quote from McCarthy in a Mad Max art book that read along the lines of: “Mad Max is like an epic visual poem where it’s beautiful on the surface but the resonance goes much deeper”. This led to McCarthy reflecting briefly on the writing process and a valuable piece of advice given to him by George:

“There’s a core story there, but one of the things that happened is that what we thought the story was about started to shift and by the time we got to the end George told me that there will come a point where characters will start to live and they will take the story where it needs to go.. if we’re doing our job properly.”

4. Change where you’re at and stop looking for a place out there

One of the most profound messages of Fury Road which resonated the most with McCarthy is detailed in the following quote from the talk:

“To me, when I saw Fury Road for the first time as someone in the audience, very strongly there was this theme, it was like ‘change where you’re at rather than looking for the promised land’. That really came to me in the end, they reverse and go back to the only green place they know which is where they were. But in the destruction of the warlord and the liberation of the citadel…this whole revolution happens…suddenly the citadel has become the green place. I thought that was the great message of Fury Road: change where you’re at and stop looking for a place out there.”

5. Fury Road belongs to the fans now

“One of the most gratifying things by far when you make a movie like this and it goes out into the world is to get reviews and people stopping you and talking about it,” said Miller, remembering the strong reactions he received post-release, and in particular what one Spanish reviewer said to him a few weeks ago:

“You make stories and you really don’t know how they are going to be received. You can put everything you know, all your skills and wisdom, and you’ll never master this process in your mind. You put it there and you really don’t know what you have, often it takes 5 or 10 years to really understand. That’s the key to this thing. All narratives have to be in the eye of the beholder. I’ve never had quite the response to something I’ve made before, like this. A Spanish reviewer said to me something really interesting, he said ‘you realise now that this story no longer belongs to you guys, it belongs to everyone'”.

Of course, this is in reference to all the fan art and discussion surrounding the film, continuously building upon the story and interpreting it in various ways.

Further in the session, Miller recalled a quote by rock legend Freddie Mercury. When asked about the meaning of his work, Mercury famously replied “if you see it darling, it’s there”.

“I think that’s true about anything that has a poetic dimension”, Miller continued. They all agreed: “it [Mad Max] belongs to the audience now”.

millertalk2creditprudenceuptonmadmaxfuryroad

6. Brendan McCarthy’s fandom made Fury Road happen

When asked how all three came to be involved, Miller deferred to McCarthy almost straight away, citing his involvement as one of the very first steps. McCarthy was more than happy to recall how he become involved in Fury Road, from the very beginning:

“With Mad Max, I had come to Australia when I was a younger guy and wandered into a cinema on a sunny afternoon to see Mad Max 2; I thought ‘I’d watch that, why not?’. I walked out shaking thinking ‘what on earth have I just seen’. I bought another ticket and walked back into the cinema…I watched the movie 20 times over the next few weeks.

The effect of Mad Max 2: Road Warrior on me is very profound….there’s something about this Road Warrior film that turned me upside down and I couldn’t work out, how could a film take me into itself so much and just turn me around. So I wanted to somehow meet the people who did it and I eventually I met a few of them, except for George. So every now and then I’d send George a letter about Mad Max, he probably thought I was a crazy fan or something like that. But 15 years later I did a TV series and wrote an episode that was like a pastiche of Mad Max and sent it to George with a little note on it saying ‘whatever happened to Mad Max?’

Low and behold, the phone rang a couple of months later and it was George’s producing partner who said ‘we’re going to be in L.A next week and would like to talk to you about some art for a project’. So obviously I came along and chatted to George about the Mad Max film thinking that I’ve got to put it into his head that there’s loads of people who would love to revisit the Mad Max world, not having any idea that one day I might end up writing the thing. It was a very strange route I took to actually get to see another Mad Max film.”

It seemed like this was the first time McCarthy had recalled the story to George, because George had something very important to remind him of:

“Somewhere along that story you sent me about three pages of drawings, images from the Mad Max world of characters that didn’t exist, and they blew me away. So it wasn’t as if we were like ‘this guy is interested in Mad Max, let’s bring him in and see what we can do together’, it was those drawings and your particular vision.”

Getting to his more general love of fans, Miller added, “there’s some fantastic artists out there, one of the great joys of Fury Road is seeing all the art people come up with… I can still remember Brendan’s drawings.”

7. Nico Lathouris used numerology to make sense of 3500 storyboards

When it came time for Nico to share his initial stages of involvement, he told us:

“I was very fortunate to receive the legacy of 3,500 storyboards already done. I looked at this like ‘oh my god, what am I going to do with this’. So I worked by myself for about 10 months before I really started engaging George at an intimate level, but during that time I had to find a way of understanding this totality bit by bit so I laid out a huge sheet of paper and drew a timeline and began looking at the different things that were going on in the script and putting down where they were happening, knowing that there were 120 deaths. It finally came up to be about 22 sections and I thought ‘uh 22, I wonder what that means’.

I knew it was a story about a man who is going from being alone to belonging, about a man running away from his better self and his better self catches up to him. A man who starts off as a wounded animal and ends up as a highly socialised human being capable of love. So I had these tools to work with, and I found in Carl Jung this idea of individuation, and individuation accounted for the process of a human-being starting as a wounded animal and becoming a fully socialised, fulfilled human-being. So then I looked further, looking for the number 22, and I found the number 22 in the Hebrew alphabet; I found the number 22 in the 22 paths of the tree of life of the Kabbalah which also co-related with 22 cards of the Tarot. So I used these models to understand and to calibrate the journey of this man through the chase and race back. That took me about 10 months to do that work, and then I was able to meet George and talk to him and have some understanding of the work. The next 12 years after that, we got into interrogating the script.”

Miller was as impressed and surprised as we all were, turning to Nico and saying, “I didn’t know you were using numerology to make sense of this.”

8. There has to be a powerful causal relationship between one shot and the next

“It had to be very rigorous otherwise it’s just noise,” Miller said about the exhilarating fast pace of the film, before moving into a more general discussion about the moving image and how it is it’s own language:

“A little kid can read a moving image before they can read a book. So it’s an acquired language…a language that was defined pre-sound,” Miller continued. “Movies are getting faster and faster too. It starts in the writing; in this case, the storyboards which carry an enormous amount of information very, very quickly. The way a storyboard is constructed is different to a graphic novel. We use exactly the same language and process that a composer uses. The great thing about that is there has to be a powerful causal relationship between one shot and the next, just as a composer has a powerful casual relationship from one note to the next. It’s not chaos but it looks like chaos, and one of the things you must hold onto is that everyone must move to the same logic.”

9. George Miller’s work on Happy Feet may have influenced his direction of Fury Road

Toward the end of the session, Brendan asked George a question he had planned for the event:

“When I saw Fury Road, I noticed that one of the big things you’ve done since the Mad Max films, is that you’ve got into computer animation, like with Happy Feet. Doing alot of CGI myself, one of the things is that it’s totally different, with what you do with the camera, to live action stuff. Those great, big camera sweeps like in Happy Feet allow you to do things like really wide arctic landscapes that track right into the eye of a penguin in one move. I started to see that in Fury Road, the big tracks over the canyon… I’m wondering if you feel that directing animation has changed the way you direct live action

George replied:

“I hope it has, because you hope that you’re learning your craft as you keep going. There’s two differences on that observation, the first is triggered by a quote from Roman Polanski, ‘there is only one perfect place for a camera at any given time’, and it wasn’t until we got into Happy Feet where you could take exactly the same performances, the same voice, movement, character, the same landscape and, just by changing where the camera was and the synatax of the cutting, you could change the scene significantly. And it made me really aware that you really have to think about where you place the camera.

When you do a live action it’s quite different than animation. With animation you have time to figure everything, it’s an intellectual exercise more than it is intuitive – even though it’s part intuitive. When you’re shooting a [live action] movie it’s like a wild game of football, you’re right there on the field you have no time to reflect on what you’re next move is going to be. You just simply have to respond purely on right or wrong and you’re doing as much as you can in the moment.

Also…technologically, even if I have had the wit to do these shot in the past, they would have been impossible, even 10 years ago. One of the benefits of the delay is that back then we didn’t have what we have today. That camera can go in and out of changes, go right up over the vehicle and into the face of the character. It’s like literally living in the middle of a video game, you couldn’t do that 10 years ago.”

Mad Max: Fury Road is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and HD. Our film review can be found HERE.

Images provided and credited to Prudence Upton