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George Miller’s Fascinating Masterclass Is a Lesson in Storytelling and Filmmaking

It’s impossible to be into filmmaking and leave a screening of Mad Max: Fury Road without having an urge to know more about how this movie happened.

Mad Max: Fury Road has been often criticized for being too silent and linear, while praised for its pace, and carefully crafted visual and sound narrative that kept you hanging at the edge of your seat, and it’s impressive editing.

I definitely feel into the last category and kept wondering during the film that this is very high quality action film, but why all of them are not like that?

The reason why becomes obvious when you listen to Miller’s masterclass: because it isn’t an accident.

Everything in Mad Max was not only a labor of love over decades, but was also carefully and purposefully thought about. Most action scenes feel like the editor chopped shots to give a feeling of action when you’re not really seeing anything that says something, while Miller tackles action scenes as crossroads between homage to silent films and composing music, where each shot must reveal something, and/or lead to the next one.

Listening to the masterclass, I couldn’t help but writing down everything that felt interesting, and that resulted in… almost the full talk.

I can only recommend you to watch the full video below, as there is something about listening to George Miller and feeling how genuine and transparent he is about his process, setbacks and intentions that will leave you energized and inspired.

A lot of what he says mirrors or adds to previous conversations on this site, so check below the video as well to go one step further on specific topics with extra links.

Breakdown and Highlights of George Miller’s Masterclass:

 

 Some Technical  Facts 

 

About Using VFX

“This film is not one that defies the laws of gravity. Everything was real world. It was real people, in a real desert crashing real cars. So the primary image tended to be real and organic and then it was supported, virtually in every shot, by some visual help.

It might be replacing a sky to keep the sky consistent. It might be the simple erasure of tracks across the desert, so you don’t see if you it was take one, two or three. You basically can do that now. In the old days if you were shooting in snow or sand you had to move each time in some way.

It means erasure of harnesses on your actors and stunt performers and keeping them very very safe.

Digitally you’re able to do that, but the essential image was always real. Unless something was impossible, the big storm sequence, obviously we could not do that.”

 

About Storyboarding the Film

“Essentially with the storyboard, as we all know, when you actually get into the real world, on a set, confronted with real issues, you use the storyboard just as a plan. You adapt it. And it’s very carefully choreographed.

I would say that 65 to 75% of the storyboards kind of got there on the screen, and the rest was adjusted according to what we were confronted with in the moment.”

“Storyboards are hard to read because they are missing the more valuable dimension which is that of Time, which basically creates the narrative. There’s a huge amount of information with storyboards. You know where the actor is sitting or standing, where the camera will be, the events happening in that storyboard, so it was done to that detail, and then we would revise depending on what the stunt people felt that they could do, or the camera crew and so on.

It’s a very useful tool when you’re basically describing events and behavior.”

 

About Embracing the Composer Mindset

“For me [filmmaking] is visual music, and it’s very analogic to what the composer goes through in terms of the causal relationship between one shot to the next, one note to the next.

I’m not musical but composers have to think about the melodic line, chord progression, tempo and all of those things, and I think that’s the exact equivalent to cinema, particularly in so-called silent cinema with sound.

So it’s not just shooting a whole bunch of action and people fighting and so-on and hoping that in the editing-room we can cut it all together. It’s rather saying ‘How does one thing lead to the next, and what does it reveal about the characters, or the relationship between characters?”

So in a kind of incremental way, that’s how we built the mozaic of the film.

 About Trusting Your Vision 

“In a film like this, you can’t really have a room read, you can’t really sit down and read the film to have a sense of what it’s like.

You can talk about it but it’s not until all the pieces come together and literally all the pieces, literally all the sounds, the music, which as we know carry so much information, particularly in a very minimal piece like this, because ultimately it looks like a very minimal piece even though it was very complex to get together.”

“You have a vague sense in your mind of what it might be, but you don’t really know until you sit back and watch is as dispassionately as you possibly can with an audience.”

 

About First and Second Units

“When I first started making movies, there was a sense of if you were making action movies you were kind of slumming, particularly in Australia. In the 70s we were doing period pieces and basically revisiting our History through our cinema.

At that time there was always the main unit, which was dealing with the ‘Talky bits’ and the action Unit which was basically the ‘Action bits’.

In a film like this, the Talky bits weren’t very much so the two [units] were very integrated.”

 

About Creating and Knowing the Background of Every Single Element 

“My job was basically to unify everybody’s work into the one piece. There were very very rigorous design principles. Every single object, every single weapon, every gesture, every bit of wardrobe, every vehicle had to have a backstory.

It had to be found objects repurposed, and you had to be able to trace it back until Next Wednesday. Next Wednesday is when the Apocalypse starts and you had to track every character and everything so that in the chaos of this sort of rather rambunctious story, you ended up with something, some sort of cohesion.

That’s what we tried to do. (…)

That’s the only chance you have for a movie to feel coherent because otherwise it’s just too crazy.”

 

 About his writing process for Mad Max

“I’m sure it varies with everybody.

In this case, I love collaborating. I have a twin brother and we spent the first 24 years of our lives together and so I’m very use to having someone else to work with. (…)

It’s a kind of a sounding board and there’s a kind of synergistic thing that happens when you’re firing with someone with whom you have a like-minded sort of approach to thing so, in this case, I definitely did not want to do another Mad Max movie. But ideas live like imaginary friends in your head, I’ve been hard-wired after all these years to tell stories. (…)

I came across Brendan McCarthy, the wonderful graphic artist from my island, who sent me some beautiful drawings. I said ‘Come along this is going to be a very visual film.’

We worked with a writer who is more senior. The writer looked only at the surface, Brendan was someone who dugg deep into it, and when Brendan criticized his writing and said ‘It’s too superficial’ the writer said the fatal words ‘What would he know, he’s just a fucking cartoonist.’ And he was gone.

And Brendon and I storyboarded the film with other storyboard artists, and it was just to-and-fro, tossing it around and so on.

The film just kept on falling over, things just got in the way of the film being made. Nick Lathouris came along, he’s spent a long-time in the theater, and we then dug down deep into the subtext so it was a process of conversations, iterations after iterations, and that’s how we ended up with the story.

It’s collaborative in these extremes, except ultimately I get final cut.”

 

About Miller’s Biggest Anxiety While Shooting

“My biggest anxiety by far was safety.

For a 138 days, with stunt days every day, I was just thinking about what do we have to do today not to kill anybody. That was the worry.”

 

About the Influence on Silent Films

The silent filmmakers were hugely influential because I saw how they connected one shot to the next. Causality between shots is really important in action.

On Saying that There’s A Perfect Place to Put the Camera

“That’s borrowed from Roman Polanski, who when you look at his work, he is basically saying ‘There’s only one perfect place to put a camera at any given moment.’

And I learned that by doing animation.

On Happy Feet it was extraordinary and quite intimidating to know that you could take exactly the same animation, the same sound performance, the same lighting, and by just adjusting the camera and adjusting the cutting pattern, you could influence and shift a scene quite dramatically.

So the camera does tell a lot of story. I’m not saying in every kind of films, there’s a classic mise-en-scene movie where you can just observe with a one shot scene, keep a static camera and it could be a powerful scene. And some of the greatest filmmakers could do that, Sydney Lumet, John Ford and so on.

But you can influence it, and so by the time I came back to Live Action on Mad Max I was really, really worried because you never really knew if the camera was in the right place because it was always so kinetic. So that’s why we had so many cameras.”

 About the Finished Film Compared to the Storyboard 

“The finished film was surprisingly closed to the storyboard we took to the studio. Even though we shot a massive amount of footage, there was no extra scene, only a couple of small moments within scenes that are on the current DVD.

Probably of all the movies I’ve made, including the animations, it was closer than I expected and it’s probably because the film is very linear, it’s a very simple chase one way, and then the other way, and then you’re just trying to pick up subtext, characters, characters interactions, backstories on the way, and you just have to trust that the audience can pick it up.”

 

About Waiting for the Planets to Align 

 

“We started the movie before I even knew what previs was. We storyboarded it during the last Millenium, in 1999. I mean this film ultimately you couldn’t kill it with a stick but it kept on falling over.

It went to three studios.

I just had to wait for the moment where all the planets would align and suddenly we had a film that was green lit.

It was green lit three times but there was always something getting in the way.

Initially it was with Mel Gibson in 2001. 9/11happened. The American dollar collapsed against the Australian dollar close to 30%. We couldn’t recover from 30% of the budget.

I went on the Happy Feet.

Then Mel had turbulences in his life.

Then we were going to do it at one point with Heath Ledger. Heath was lost.

And then Tom Hardy walked in the door, he reminded me so much of Mel Gibson when he walked in the door 30 years before.

And then we were to shoot in the outback of Australia, and for the first time in 15 yeas, it rained big time, and what was a flat river was now a flower garden, a lake here, the big salt lake in the center of Australia had pelicans and believe it or not, fish. Where the fish came from, I have no idea.

And Warners was great, they said let’s wait. We waited eighteen months.

Then I did Happy Feet 2 and it didn’t dry up.

So we had to pick everything up, all our vehicles and get over to the West Coast of Africa.”

About the Importance of Pace

 

“Pacing is critical, as I said it’s visual music and that’s what was so difficult. I basically asked Margaret Sixel, who is my partner, to edit the film, precisely because I knew she had a great ability and kind of a super brain but she had never cut action before.

And precisely because of that, she was ruthless with it, she wasn’t going to be beguiled by precedents. And she had a very strong sense of rhythm and a low boredom threshold, and was very impatient for repetition.

So exactly like music and phrasing in music, you’re looking at sequences.

If it was the same beat all the time it just would drive you nut, and you can risk doing that, time and time again. Quite often the remedy would be extending a shot a little bit more. It might be done with sound, to literrally just take away all the music and go almost to silence.

And you know, if we are attentive to film, we almost read them with such fine ability really.

And you know going through the test-screening process, a slight adjustment in sound would make a quite significant difference, once the film was mature.

To give you an example, in the early two screenings, the guy playing the guitar did so very low. People would say “What he’s doing there, and why?”

One of the main problem is that every time you saw him, he was playing the same guitar riff until it drove you nuts. Because we hadn’t paid attention to that, Tom Holkenborg, one of the composer who worked on it, didn’t have time to do anything, so we did some sound, some person put the riff.

All we did, same footage, was create an arch to his music, and suddenly he tested really, really high. So, it’s fine calibrating after a while, it’s just like music.”

On Happy Accidents 

 

“There’s that scene where Furiosa is talking to Max about her redemption. What she is looking for. And it’s quite an enigmatic scene. And when we were playing it, it just seemed very slow to me.

You know that great book by Frank Capra, ‘The Name Above the Title‘, I picked that  up, I was lucky, on my first feature, just before Mad Max, and he said “Always plays something a third faster than you think” because on the set there is a lot of energy and adrenaline but the audience watches in repose. So they are able to absorb it a lot more quickly.

And I kept telling to Tom and Charlize, let’s try it again but faster, but we ran out of time. And that was just a great blessing in disguise because it allowed the composer to actually fill in the gaps and actually make a lot of subtext, more than it ought have to be in the scene, through the music.”

 On The Process of Creating Strong Female Characters 

 

“Mainly it was there purely because of the basic premise of the story.

The first idea, the first notion of the story was that a) it was going to be an extended chase of people fleeing across the wasteland, and secondly, the MacGuffin was to be human: five wives or brides of a tyrannical warlord looking for healthy heirs essentially.

It couldn’t be a male road warrior because that’s a different story, stealing five wives, it had to be a female.

I was very intrigued by a character we had in the second Mad Max, called warrior woman, who appears briefly and dies in the final sequence. And it started from there.

Once you start that, the rest kind of emerges and then you have an actor like Charlize, who has the discipline. She was a ballet dancer, physically she had the discipline, and who relishes doing something like that, and the character emerged.

So it came out of the story.

What happens unconsciously in our storytelling, you don’t know.

For me personally, I grew up only with brothers, I went to boarding school, I went to medical school at the time where only 30% were female but then I had a daughter, I had a very wonderful and powerful mother, and I have a fantastic life-partner and suddenly I’m reading the word differently and that unconsciously gets into the work.

And plus we are servants of the Zeitgest I think, we storytellers, and it’s out there now. And was there in the last two decades. So all those things kind of conspire to tell the story but I won’t say that was the agenda.

I’m happy that people responded to the feminist theme but it wasn’t conscious thing, it was more something that arose out of the story.”

Watch the full video below:

[thanks to DirectorsUK]

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