When Mad Max: Fury Road sped into cinemas in May, NME called it “the most exhilarating film of 2015 so far”. Since then, director George Miller’s high-octane chase movie has grossed $375 million at the global box office and become one of the most analysed blockbusters in recent memory. Everything from its punky aesthetic to its supposed feminist agenda to its freaky flamethrower guitarist has prompted a breathless internet thinkpiece. With Fury Road now being released on DVD and Blu-ray, NME sat down with Miller to find out his take on the theories surrounding the film.
NME: Mad Max: Fury Road has been hailed as one of the best films of 2015. Were you expecting such a positive response?
No. I’ve never made a movie that’s been so positively reviewed. The big danger with a film like this is people could just read the surface and think of it as a simple chase movie. Because of the pace, there’s no time for exposition and you have to pick up everything in passing: story, character, interaction of characters, the world itself. But we tried to put a lot of iceberg under the tip and what’s so gratifying is that people are digging down into the subtext in a way that I never imagined. They’re bringing up stuff that I was barely conscious of. They’re reading it as a very dense film even though it looks very simple.
Did you expect it to be read as such a feminist story?
No, though I was aware it had a very powerful female character. There were a couple of reasons behind that. One, I was always fascinated by a character who appeared in the second Mad Max film, a warrior woman who’s only there very briefly and dies in the final chase. Second, the basic idea was that everyone in this movie is a commodity: there are five wives, the breeders, who are fleeing the warlord and they need a road warrior. That couldn’t be a male character because it would make for a very different story, so it had to be a female. And then you cast someone like Charlize [Theron] who I see more as Furiosa than Charlize. The Charlize we see in the Dior ads is a fraud to me! The real Charlize is Furiosa! And the rest followed from that. Unconsciously though, I’m definitely aware of female power because I have a daughter, a wife and a mother who are all very strong, wonderful women. But there was never an agenda, it arose purely out of the mechanics of the story.
What did you think when certain “men’s rights” groups in the US spoke out against the film?
Well, the story is allegorical and therefore it’s in the eye of the beholder – it’s open to everyone’s interpretation. Obviously you’re going to get fringe opinions and that was just one of them. I don’t think it had any particular weight; it was noisy for a while and then it died down. It’s a little bit like song lyrics: they can mean different things to different people. My favourite story is to do with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. This person was convinced he had a really good idea of what the song was about, and he presented his theory to Freddie Mercury. After hearing the theory, Freddie Mercury just said, “If you see it, dear, it’s there.” And I think it’s the same with the movie.
Furiosa’s prosthetic arm has also caused a lot of debate online. It’s been widely hailed as a powerful and forward-thinking depiction of disability because Furiosa doesn’t let her missing limb hold her back, and she never seeks to explain it. Was this something you were conscious of when you created the character?
It’s just part of the character. She’s a warrior, a survivor, and this is a wasteland. In our backstory [that we created for the film], we know how she lost her arm, but there’s no time in the three days in which this movie is set to have a recreational talk about how she lost her arm or how Max got shot in the knee. It’s just part of who she is. But let me just say something really interesting about this. What I didn’t realise was that in some cultures, the left arm is the female arm and that’s the arm Furiosa has lost. My reason for making it the left arm was to to save money on CGI: she’s driving on the left-hand side, so that’s the arm that’s seen less. It was a purely practical thing but in some cultures it has this extra symbolism. See what I mean about the eye of the beholder?
A lot of critics have called the film “punk”. Do you like that description?
I like it a lot. The reason I love these hard-action movies is they’re virtually silent movies with sound. There’s very, very little dialogue and in a way it’s visual music. You could almost call it a visual rock opera. So I love that description. And there’s also no question that the Mad Max films are westerns on wheels. The French said that about the second Mad Max film very early on, and they’re definitely right.
What was the thinking behind the Doof Warrior character – the flamethrower guitarist on top of the truck?
Well, even before amplified sound there was always the music of war – to stir people up and signal different phases of the battle, there would be drums, bugles, bagpipes. Because all the vehicles in this movie are so noisy, we needed something that puts out a lot of noise, so that’s where the guitar with the amplifier comes in. Everything in this movie has to have a dual purpose and be made from found objects repurposed. So if you look at it carefully, the guitar has a hospital bedpan in the middle, and obviously it’s also a weapon, a flame-thrower.
Is it true you already have screenplays for two sequels?
What happened was the film was green lit three times over a decade. And things kept on getting in the way. So in the process, we wrote a lot of backstory and two of those stories have become screenplays already. And we didn’t even set out to write screenplays, we were just telling the stories. It’s a very fully realised world. You could point to any object in this film and I could tell you its backstory. And I could do the same with the characters. I know who the Doof Warrior’s mother was, and I know how this blind, mute man who could only play the guitar has been able to survive the wasteland.
Have you thought about when you’ll make the next film?
Right now I don’t want to go back into the wasteland. They’re very tough movies to make, mainly because of the stunts. If you’re doing stunts for 138 days, there’s always that dread in the pit of your stomach that you could really hurt someone badly. We had a fantastic crew and incredible stunt riggers and there was a big, big emphasis on safety. But even so, fatigue sets in and you’re in a remote location with all the heat and the dust, so there’s always a risk. I’ve got to whip myself up to do that again, I’ve got to psych myself up.
Mad Max: Fury Road is available on Blu-ray and DVD now.