George Miller Can’t Quit Mad Max

8 minute read
By Eliana Dockterman
George Miller in Cannes, France, on May 22, 2022.Violette Franchi—The New York Times/Redux
8 minute read

George Miller has spent more than 40 years swerving in and out of the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max. It’s an unpleasant place: dry, barren, and violent, but Miller can’t seem to stay away. And he had a compelling reason to return after 2015’s hugely successful Mad Max: Fury Road. In preparing to bring that story to the big screen, Miller wrote not just one movie, but three.

The first film was, of course, Fury Road. The film introduced a new protagonist, Furiosa, a one-armed road warrior played by Charlize Theron. She betrays the dictator she serves, a man obsessed with big muscles and bigger car engines, by smuggling his wives out of their prison. Furiosa ended up eclipsing the franchise’s titular hero, with Tom Hardy in the role made famous by Mel Gibson.

But in the nearly two-decade-long development process for Fury Road, Miller also sketched out two more films: an origin story for Furiosa and what happened to Max a year before Fury Road. Miller shared concept art for the Furiosa movie with Theron so she could better understand her character. “She said, ‘Oh, gosh, can we do the Furiosa story first?’” Miller remembers. But that train had left the station—or in the parlance of Mad Max, that war rig had left the Citadel.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga will finally debut on May 24, but with Anya Taylor-Joy replacing Theron as the solo lead—there’s no Max in this movie. The prequel chronicles 16 years of its hero’s life, from the moment she’s kidnapped as a child from her idyllic home by the henchmen of a crazed biker named Dementus, played by Chris Hemsworth sporting a consciously comic prosthetic nose. (Miller’s character names, which include Rictus Erectus and Doof Warrior, are rarely subtle.) Furiosa spends the rest of the movie trying to return to her native land, though she’s occasionally distracted by fantasies of revenge.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Furiosa in 'Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga'
Anya Taylor-Joy in FuriosaJasin Boland—Warner Bros.

Expectations for Furiosa are sky-high after Fury Road won six Oscars and became a cultural phenomenon: its high-octane action scenes, shot largely without CGI, were so original and unrelenting that the movie left audiences dazed. Fury Road’s shoot was legendarily long and troubled—there’s an entire book chronicling the on-set feuds and chaos at the studio. Despite all that, Miller is upping the ante with Furiosa. He employed 200 stunt performers, topping Fury Road’s 150. And the new movie boasts a 15-minute sequence that took nearly nine months to shoot. “You can’t anticipate how that effort will be apprehended,” Miller says over Zoom from his native Australia. “It’s in the hands of the audience now.”

Fury Road is essentially a 120-minute extended chase sequence with almost no dialogue. Furiosa is structured more like a traditional hero’s journey. The cars sometimes stop and park. The characters occasionally have conversations. Early reactions to the trailer critiqued the film’s use of CGI. Some fans suggested Miller should have left his classic alone. But he couldn’t. The script was there. With red-tinted glasses that wouldn’t look out of place in the retrofuturistic world of Mad Max perched on his nose, Miller explains that he was determined to complete the story.

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And that third film? The one that covers a year in Max’s life before the events of Fury Road? It’s tentatively titled The Wasteland, and Miller says it’s ready to go. “Depending on whether Furiosa gets traction or not, that movie is on the horizon,” he says. Will Hardy return to play Max? Miller smiles conspiratorially. “If the planets align.”

Furiosa has become an iconic action hero, up there with John McClane and Ellen Ripley. It’s hard to imagine anyone besides Theron embodying her. “With Charlize, the Venn diagram of actor and character overlapped a lot,” says Miller. He briefly considered using technology to make Theron appear younger. “But the de-aging just wasn’t working, even in the hands of really masterful filmmakers like Martin Scorsese on The Irishman and Ang Lee with Gemini Man,” he says.

Miller would have made the film sooner, but he spent years tied up in litigation with Warner Bros. over Fury Road. The director claimed the studio hadn’t paid his production company a promised bonus; the studio countersued because Miller delivered a 120-minute R-rated film instead of the 100-minute PG-13 movie he was contracted to make. (The suit went into arbitration, and Miller and WB are partnering again on Furiosa.) “By the time it came to it, we had to go with a younger actor,” Miller says.

still from FURIOSA
(L-R) Anya Taylor-Joy, Tom Burke, and Chris Hemsworth in FuriosaJasin Boland—Warner Bros.

Taylor-Joy is a slighter if equally mighty Furiosa. Miller asked the actor to send him an audition tape and let her choose from three monologues, including Peter Finch’s famous speech from Network in which he unravels on air. Taylor-Joy recorded the anchor’s ravings directly to camera. Though she would speak very few lines in Furiosa, she conjured the intensity needed to convey the mentality of a survivor living in a depraved world.

It may seem bold that this franchise, defined by monster trucks and machismo, now has a female hero at its center. Fans spent years arguing about the message behind Fury Road. “There was a cohort of males who said, ‘Oh, you can’t have a female action hero,’” says Miller. “There was a cohort of feminists who said, ‘Why does she need Max at all?’”

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But for Miller, choosing to make Furiosa the hero of a Mad Max movie was a practical decision, not an ideological one. “When you tell a story, you don’t say the story is going to be about this particular theme,” he says. He conceived Fury Road during a dream on a transpacific flight. But he needed characters to put inside the cars.

“In the case of Fury Road, I thought, ‘What if the MacGuffin, the thing everyone is chasing, were human?’ And that led to the wives being stolen from the warlord. And it couldn’t be a man taking the wives because that would be a different story. It would have to be a woman.” And so Furiosa was born.

Miller has always been a visual filmmaker. If Furiosa was conceived because Miller needed a hero to drive the war rig of his dreams, Max was born from grisly images Miller saw in real life. Before he became a filmmaker, Miller was an ER doctor who treated the victims of car accidents in rural Queensland where, in the 1970s, driving laws were lax and the consequences horrific. That gore inspired 1979’s Mad Max. Made on a shoestring budget, the production couldn’t afford a photocopy machine for the storyboard pictures. “I wrote out descriptions of every scene and every camera move for everyone working on the movie,” says Miller. “The screenplay was 274 pages long for a 90-minute movie.”

The film became a sensation. The original Mad Max held the Guinness World Record for most profitable movie of all time. Miller completed a trilogy with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985. He took a detour into children’s films, including scripting the classic Babe and directing its sequel, Babe: Pig in the City.

Everett Collection (3); Warner Brothers

When he was ready to turn to Fury Road, a series of calamities delayed shooting, from 9/11—and Miller’s decision in its aftermath to pivot to the Oscar-winning animated film Happy Feet—to a rainstorm that turned the barren desert where Miller had planned to shoot into a flowering oasis. The cast and crew filmed for 138 grueling days in the desert. Theron and Hardy have both said it was a frustrating and stressful experience: Theron has said they had no script, just pictures, and Miller responded to any direct questions about the plot with thesis-length answers. (During our interview he apologized multiple times for his lengthy, discursive responses.)

Miller describes Fury Road as an “anthropological documentary.” The audience catches glimpses of specific behavior, like soldiers called War Boys spraying chrome paint into their mouths. “We get the sense that the spray paint has a meaning to the boys,” says Miller. “But you have to pick up on the run because we never stop to explain.” 

Furiosa fills in the blanks of Fury Road. And Fury Road, a movie with famously few lines of dialogue, left a lot of blanks. How did Furiosa lose her arm? You’ll find out. How was her war rig built? Get ready for a montage.

Part of what distinguished Fury Road from the other franchise films of its era was Miller’s refusal to weigh down the movie with lore. But Miller chafes at the notion that Furiosa could be accused of fan service. “In terms of choosing what to tell of her story, it wasn’t sitting down and making a shopping list,” he says. “It was character-driven.”

For all the dirt that Miller’s tricked-out motorbikes kick up, his films are ultimately character studies—and Furiosa is an indelible one.

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