Of the many roads to the Academy Awards, none is as unlikely as the one taken (at ferocious speed, with engines roaring) by George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Whatever one’s concept of “Oscar bait” is, it does not include action-movie dystopias with face-painting kamikazes and blind, fire-shooting metal guitarists who answer to the name of “Doof.”
“There’s a great quote from Hunter S. Thompson where he said that when something turned right for him unexpectedly, it was like falling down an elevator shaft into a pool of mermaids,” Miller says. “It’s been a little bit like that.”
Despite Fury Road being far from the usual Oscar-friendly costume drama, Miller’s fireball of a film heads into Academy Awards on Feb. 28 with 10 nods (second only to The Revenant), including best picture and best director for Miller. Nominated in every technical category, Mad Max stands a good chance of being the night’s most-awarded film.
It’s a gratifying if utterly unforeseen outcome for the 70-year-old Miller, who spent more than a decade trying to get various iterations of a Mad Max sequel off the ground, not to mention months of shooting in the Namibian desert and several years in post-production — along with the bad word-of-mouth that accompanies such delays.
But when Fury Road was finally unveiled in May, the response was rapturous. Here was not the average, bloated summer sequel at all. Here was a blisteringly cinematic movie stuffed with allegorical meaning, with much to say about gender roles and power.
“I treat action movies very, very seriously,” Miller says. “It’s not something like: Here’s a movie with talkie bits and now some action. We were trying to conflate the two.”
The multitude of Oscar nominations for Fury Road speaks to the widespread admiration for the movie’s old-school craft. Though it includes extensive visual effects, Fury Road was shot with real vehicles at a real location.
Miller is the rare action filmmaker who speaks of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd as inspirations.
“It finds its antecedents in those early films, those pre-sound movies where arguably the film language, this very new language we had, was forged,” Miller says. “When I first came to cinema that’s where I first went to with a pretty strong sense of inquiry as to: What is this new language? It’s not much more than 100 years old and we can read it before we can read books.”
The language of Fury Road — an essentially nonstop chase through a post-apocalyptic wasteland — is wildly kinetic. It’s expressed almost entirely through imagery rather than dialogue. Tom Hardy, who inherited the role of Max from Mel Gibson, described Miller’s movie as “if Obi-Wan Kenobi could make an action movie.”
It’s composed of approximately 2,900 shots. The average shot is two seconds and 9 frames. “Film is a mosaic art and this one had many pieces,” Miller says.
The mammoth task of assembling footage from scenes sometimes shot with a dozen cameras fell to Miller’s wife, editor Margaret Sixel. She received daily footage at home in Australia while shooting continued in Africa. She, too, is up for an Oscar.
It’s Sixel’s first nod, but several of Miller’s films have previously been Oscar nominated, including 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil, 1995’s Babe and 2006’s Happy Feet.
It’s a jarringly varied filmography bookended by Mad Max, the franchise Miller first introduced in 1979. The story has remained a constant in Miller’s life, an omnibus onto which to latch ideas pulled from the real world. In the ‘70s, the problem is an oil shortage; in Fury Road, it’s water scarcity.
But for many, it’s the film’s story of female empowerment, led by Charlize Theron’s one-armed warrior Furiosa, that’s makes Fury Road exceptional. Some have called it a feminist action film.
“It was really, really gratifying when people did respond and saw all its resonances and really picked up on it,” Miller says. “The attraction of something like Mad Max: Fury Road is basically allegorical. You’re trying to find those things in the story that seem to be constant in humanity.”
Fury Road, which made $376.7 million globally, was named best film by the National Board of Review, and won four BAFTAs. The American Film Institute named it one of 2015’s 10 best films, hailing it as “a journey of fire and blood through which the action genre is razed to the ground and reborn.”
Fans old and new should take heart: Miller has two ideas for further installments based on the backstories of different characters.
“I always thought that you really don’t know what your film is until some time passes and it’s reflected back at you by the audience,” he says. “That process seems to be accelerated now. It’s been surprising and gratifying.”