Ultimate Summer Movie: George Miller on ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Sixteen films enter; one film leaves.

In Week 3 of the Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown, one of the greatest sci-fi sequels ever, “The Empire Strikes Back,” was crushed in the Thunderdome by another of the greatest (sort of) sci-fi sequels ever, “Mad Max: Fury Road.” To celebrate the triumph, “Fury Road” auteur George Miller joined The Times’ film journalists Justin Chang and Glenn Whipp by video conference from Sydney, Australia.

Miller might be one of the better filmmakers to ask about his observations of the current pandemic, considering the post-apocalyptic settings of the four Mad Max movies; he noted how nature seems to be reasserting itself while humans take a time out and compared reactions to the pandemic to reactions to the science of climate change:

“To have people basically become partisan about it is really, really scary, and interesting and really dumb,” he said, seated before a poster for “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome,” starring Mel Gibson and Tina Turner.

“Fury Road” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won six, including two for sound. The audacious, wildly imaginative film is often noted for its assault on the senses, but as Whipp pointed out, it also has “beautiful, transcendent moments of quiet” amid its sound and “Fury.”

“I’ll tell you a story about quiet,” Miller said. He recounted the film’s frenetic first act, with its “protracted chase” culminating in mass destruction in a toxic storm, then cutting to black. He was eager to see early test audiences’ responses to the sequence.

“If we’re really lucky, they might, as a catharsis, even clap. So I watched it and there was this very tentative clap. I should have been grateful for it but I was disappointed.

“Then I went back and listened to it … there’s a sustained note, just a little high-pitched drone across it, anticipatory. The idea was we could fade it out whenever we wanted to. It was barely audible, but it stayed. And it cued the audience that this is not over. And I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, all we have to do is pull the fader down to complete silence.’ And we did, and the next screening, that applause was there. I was so grateful. It was so subtle, we could have missed it. That’s the thing I’ve learned as I go on: Everything matters to some degree.”

Chang noted the film’s strong feminist bent, embodied by Charlize Theron’s now-iconic performance as Imperator Furiosa. “Fury Road” was made before the #MeToo movement began. Chang said, “You sought the help of the playwright Eve Ensler of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ to inform the accuracy of the movie’s treatment of trauma and sex slavery … the movie really set a standard.”

Scene from George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Miller said when the idea was germinating, he wasn’t setting out to make a feminist film. The seed was that the resource warlords were battling over was human, which led to those “resources” being female: “There should be a female warrior who was their champion. It wouldn’t make sense if it were male — just males fighting over the females as chattel. That simple, practical idea, as we reflected on it, had an enormous number of resonances.”

He referred to his upbringing — surrounded by brothers in a rural community, went to a male boarding school, almost all the faculty at his university was male, he was involved in rugby and “all the things males do” — only later on seeing the world through the eyes of his daughter and being shaped by having a partner (his editor, Margaret Sixel) “for whom I have the most, not only love, but tremendous admiration.” He also cited his 100-year-old mother as the “most wonderful sort of matriarch, tremendous wisdom in the way she has conducted her life.”

“So I’ve got these exemplary women in my life, and I saw that. And I must say, I sensed it in the zeitgeist, and it was a natural extension of the story we set out to tell. So Furiosa emerged out of that.”

Follow Times movie critic Justin Chang on Twitter (@JustinCChang) to vote in future showdowns.

See previous Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown chats below.

Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang and Glenn Whipp discuss Marvel’s “The Avengers”