Just Kidding, He Probably Won’t Win

Not long ago, I wrote about my least favorite of this year’s nominees for Best Director at the Academy Awards, Alejandro González Iñárritu. That was a negative piece, so I wanted to contrast it with something more positive by highlighting one of the nominated directors I do like. With Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller, an unassuming auteur amid a sea of directors clamoring to be recognized as such, worked quietly to create a big, loud film. Not just big and loud because of its daring stunt work and roaring muscle cars screaming across the wasteland, but because of its thematic notes and searing visual style. It’s a film that will pierce straight through your skull and brand itself directly onto your brain. This all starts with Miller, who co-wrote and directed the film, leading a team of talented actors, stunt coordinators and post-production units through the creation of the year’s most smashing successes.

Part of Miller’s genius is associated with the unseen aspects of his work — decisions he made during the production that may not show up on the screen, but influenced the direction of the picture all the same. The expert-pacing, a preference for practical effects over digital (outside of useful compositing work), the layered subtext weaved throughout the screenplay — these are all elements of the film hidden beneath the surface.

Fury Road is nominated for a remarkable ten Academy Awards (remarkable because Mad Max is not the kind of film the AMPAS generally anoint as an “Oscar Picture”). This is one of the rare instances when the Academy got a nomination right (in a year, no less, when they got so much else very, very wrong), because it’s a masterpiece with no qualifiers like “genre” or “blockbuster” required.

For starters, Fury Road succeeds unequivocally at what it aims to do. On its surface, the film is a thrilling chase adventure set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland — a world filled with fire and flood. But the movie is so much more than that. Critics and audiences alike have deemed the movie’s action “non-stop” and it is, for sure, but that kind of statement has the tendency to understate just how effective the move is overall.  

George Miller - long shot

Image: Warner Bros.

There are a lot of modern movies that are paced to provide non-stop action. Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, the Liam Neeson “Action-Dad” vehicles that have become vogue as of late, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens all embrace this approach to pacing. The difference between those films and Mad Max is in the way the action is spaced out. Because there are quiet moments in Fury Road, despite what the marketing and blurbs claim. Used mostly as reprieve from the action — moments for the audience to catch their breath — the slower beats also provide characterization and emotional context for the plot.

Moreover, one of Miller’s greatest strengths as a director is his grasp of visual storytelling. This doesn’t just refer to Fury Road’s precisely staged and visceral visual effects, but also  to Miller’s dedication to telling a story by favoring visual language over written exposition. Miller has confirmed in interviews that Fury Road was planned primarily on storyboards with a sparse shooting script. This harkens back to an older style of movie-making when “the movie” was an emerging art form and audiences were most interested in the spectacle that the cinema offered more than anything else.

Perhaps George Miller’s most valuable quality as a director, however, is that he knows when to step back and cede authorship over the work. Miller possesses the intuition to know when to embrace the collaborative aspects of filmmaking — he knows when to ask for help. There are two ways in which this quality manifests itself within Fury Road that deserve highlighting.

This iteration of Mad Max is no brainless exploitation flick (I must stress that not all exploitation films are brainless — such as Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), which is a spiritual remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring — but most definitely are, like Beware! The Blob (or, The Son of the Blob), which is a really fun film, but one that was made to cheaply and poorly to cash in on The Blob); it’s layered with nuanced metaphor. This in part is due to Miller’s aforementioned emphasis on visual storytelling — there’s less explicitly stated in the text, so there’s room for viewers to infer on behalf of the director. One of Fury Road’s more prominent thematic subjects is that of the women and the way they are often portrayed in these kinds of action blockbusters.

Many have rightly praised the film for its strong feminist undertones, which certainly did not make their way into the picture by accident. I suspect that undercurrent stemmed, partially, from Miller’s decision to bring in feminist playwright Eve Ensler (Vagina Monologues) to act as a sort of motivational speaker for some of the actors.

Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is an unconventional action hero; one that subverts the very perception our culture has of what an action hero should be (Furiosa certainly isn’t the first female action hero, but Mad Max made a ton of money, so she was highly visible). One of Fury Road’s more discernible statements relating to feminism occurs when Max fails repeatedly to hit a long range rifle shot, forcing Furiosa to take the gun and show Max how it’s done (this, I might add, is one of the film’s many, mostly dialogue-free exchanges). There are also Immortan Joe’s wives, who were the primary recipients of Ensler’s wisdom. Initially, the wives act as the film’s McGuffin — just a plot device, really. However, over the course of the story, they grow into substantial and developed characters, each getting their own moments of glory.

It’s clear that Miller inserted this feminist language into his film intentionally. Obviously, these ideas are meaningful to the director, but, knowing that his many female actors needed a sense of empowerment — a perspective that he himself could not provide — to effectively play their roles, he stepped aside and asked Ensler to bring that viewpoint to the picture. Ensler, of course, has been a critical voice in the second-wave feminist movement, and her contributions to Fury Road, though unseen on the surface, went a long way in fleshing out characters who might otherwise have just been cardboard cutouts of real people.

George Miller - ladies

Image: Warner Bros.

Although Ensler’s time spent on the production was minimal — just about a week spent on set — her input was invaluable. The wives — The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee Kershaw) and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton) — are central to Fury Road’s narrative. We need to believe in their quest and their ability to succeed for the film’s plot to work. This is the invisible work of a brilliant director: knowing when to get out of the way of those who know better, ceding some control over the work to help build a better whole.

Similarly, Miller’s second unseen decision, which influenced Fury Road, occurred during the film’s editing. For any movie, editing is vital. The editor gives a film its rhythm, more so than even the screenwriter who plotted the script. With action flicks, the tempo of the piece is even more crucial. The audience must be consistently thrilled, but the action can’t become overwhelming.

Interestingly, Miller brought in his wife, Margaret Sixel, to cut the picture. Sixel is certainly an experienced editor (she even worked with her husband in the past on two of his family films, Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City), but throughout her career, she hasn’t done anything even close to a monster-budget blockbuster like Fury Road nor did she have any interest in working on an action film in the first place.

It turned out, however, to absolutely be the right decision. Sixel’s editing here is nearly flawless and she has dozens of awards and nominations — including an Academy Award nomination — to prove it. Regardless, there’s no way Miller could have known that at the time, so it was a huge risk.  Whether Miller asked his wife to edit the picture as way of subliminally injecting another layer of feminist language into the film, or if he was just seeking an outsider’s perspective on the action — or both — matters not. What matters is Miller knew that his editor must possess a grasp of the story, the characters and the overall aim of the film in the same way that he did. By all accounts, Sixel certainly met those requirements.

I don’t really have any faith that George Miller will win Best Director come this Sunday. He hasn’t been campaigning for the film in the media the way other directors have (*cough* Alejandro González Iñárritu *cough*), and the Academy so rarely gets it right, so why would they here? No, I don’t think he’ll win, but that doesn’t change anything. He’s still the year’s Best Director, no matter what the Academy’s outdated voting body has to say about the matter.