Few films in recent memory are quite as visually explosive as Mad Max: Fury Road, which makes any of the men and women behind its images an immediate point of interest. But for all the talent that’s on the screen, and for all the effort it must have taken to make that come through, cinematographer John Seale will tell you the process wasn’t always conducive to innovation — if only because George Miller and his team of confidantes had been waiting to go for so long.
This, I think, is all the more reason to sit down with the director of photography, whose enthusiasm for the project was so strong that it forced him out of retirement. Fury Road is being celebrated at Poland’s Camerimage International Film Festival — several months after its U.S. release, but not enough time for our curiosity about the picture to die down. To get a deeper understanding of how that unique beast was created, read on.
I read an interview you did right around the time this movie came out, when you hadn’t yet seen it. So I’d like some description of your thoughts upon viewing it for the first time — after all those years of work, having it right in front of you.
Oh, gosh, you know, it’s always a very pleasant surprise, because you work hard with a director to shoot the film. You know, basically, in the direction, which direction the director wants to take it, but you’re shooting really broad brush strokes of the film, and it’s not until the editor gets a hold of it and ends up trimming it down and getting it down to a reasonable length, and the director and him fine cut, and it gets tighter and tighter. Then the music tracks are laid and the extra voiceovers go on. The polish of the film is then completed.
So, when I go along to see them, I am most surprised how they turned out. It’s never a surprise that it’s not the way I thought it would turn out, because I’ve obviously talked with the director in the shooting of it to know which way he wants to take it. The surprise is how well they’ve done it, so that’s generally the surprise. More so on Fury Road, because I knew George would cut it pretty fast in the editing — but I didn’t think it would be quite that fast. But I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that it was, because I’ve always believed that a lot of the earlier films that I helped to make in Australia were very slow, and could be tightened up and still tell the same story. George, with his experience and age, I think understood that as well, and he cut it very tight. That was the pleasant surprise.
The last time you worked with him was Lorenzo’s Oil, from 1992; Fury Road shot in 2012. I don’t think it’s unfair to say those are different kinds of films. But even with that and the twenty-year separation in mind, what makes George Miller consistent?
I’ve got to say one word: boldness. He’s a very bold filmmaker. He fears nobody, from critics to studios to audience to whatever. He makes his films. And that boldness came through on Lorenzo’s Oil, and I thoroughly enjoyed that boldness and working for him on that. Years and years later, when Fury Road came up, I knew enough about Fury Road on the grapevine — I could hear they were talking about problems in pre-production — and I remember thinking, “That’s going to be a big movie.” Then, all of a sudden, I get the phone call to go onboard, and it was that boldness that really made me decide to go on it — because I knew that George would end up with a very bold film, and I think he has. I’m glad he has.
He storyboarded the entire film before it was shot, which I imagine is an interesting scenario for a cinematographer to enter. Apparently he’ll set up an entire room that you can walk around and “observe” a movie from.
So were you concerned as far as autonomy goes — that you won’t be able to even express yourself?
Well, yes, I would be normally worried, but once I came onboard at very short notice, there was no script. So I didn’t have anything to read; all I could do was study the storyboards and do a lot of listening to all the guys talking. Because they were ten years in pre-production, so, for ten years they’d been honing the storyboards, they’d been rehearsing way out in the desert back out in Australia; they had been rehearsing all the stunts, all the car choreography, where the cars would be at a certain moment to set up this stunt. All of that had been done, and you couldn’t change it, because so much training had gone into each action scene, you couldn’t change it.
So I didn’t have any input on that, and, quite frankly, realized it was far too late to have any, if I did, because it was all rehearsed. So I really kind of came in and just did a lot of listening and doing exactly what George asked me to do, because I’ve made a lot of films and I just knew that George had that storyboard patent in his mind — everybody had that in their mind — and so there was no changing of it. I just went along with that and tried to catch up, really, because there were so many stunts, so much action — it just kept rolling from one scene to another — that it was quite a difficult thing to catch up with the intricacies of every stunt. So I was more trying to catch up with the whole movie rather than trying to contribute anything.
Did you have downtime during production, maybe between takes, where you could observe something and turn it into a suggestion? Were those conversations had?
They were — up to a very small degree. Because, once again, the whole thing was locked in, and even if I had an idea, generally I rethought it, and by looking at the storyboard book, realized that you couldn’t change any of that. I didn’t mind that because the pre-production had been so intense that I figured everybody else had smoothed that storyboard down to exactly what the film would be, and I was right: we literally shot the storyboard. So I didn’t mind. The only thing I brought to it, I feel, was that George and Guy Norris on the action unit had the very distinct feeling that they only needed one camera to cover the scenes and the stunts. But I’m willing to multiple cameras. I get frustrated if I can’t put in six, looking for little cutaways that the editor might need. So, with George, I did put more cameras in, and I operated one because I was able to, and I think we helped a bit by doing that.
Because, later, George was very complimentary to the camera crew for persevering with more cameras on the ground, and he got into editing and did get into trouble. When he did, they could go back through the digital records and find that, “Another camera covered that? No. Another one did that? Well… Another one did that? That’s perfect.” They used that to save them in the edit, and he was very complimentary to them in the end. I felt I was able to contribute at least that to the overall production, yeah.
You’ve talked about getting joy from being a camera operator. Could you expand a bit on what pleasures are specific to that position?
Yeah, I do love operating. I really started as an operator; I worked my way up through the ranks. I worked as an operator for a long time in Australia, because I just love operating the camera. In Australia, we worked kind of the English system, where the director would talk to the operator and the director of photography would be listening in. But the contribution of the operator was large, and the director needed that, so you really had a good say as to helping to make the film. So I enjoyed that thoroughly, and as I went into lighting as well, I found that I really loved lighting and operating, much as a lot of people say that it’s not a good, professional way to make a film, because you must be sacrificing a bit for the lighting and to the operator. But I don’t agree. I think that I worked quicker as a lighting cameraman, because I knew the parameters of the shot, and therefore I only lit that area.
So I was quicker lighting, because I only lit where the camera needed to go; the rest of it was patched-in, ready to go, but I didn’t have to trim it, so I saved a lot of time in lighting. And then I concentrated on the operating, because I believed that the size of the frame is really a lot of the psychological message to an audience, as to how dramatic the film is. You can disturb the audience, or you can make them feel relaxed. You can help to make them cry or laugh by the size. Why is the camera here? Why isn’t it there? Why is it this big and not that big? There’s a whole lot of questions to ask, and you’ve got to keep the editor in mind, that every shot except the first one and the last one has another in front of and behind it, and the editor has to cut those in. So the flow of the film is in your mind: that the last shot that the editor used that way, this should be that size. So it cuts nicely and the continuity is good. All of that’s racing through your mind, and I just love doing that as an operator. So, as I said, I can happily light and operate, so I’ve continued to do that all my life.
I’d like to know a bit more about the post-production process. You’ve described the color grading as “George’s manipulation,” but were you consulted or coming into the studio to look at material?
No. I went it as much as I could and had a good look at material, but it took about eighteen months to cut the film and down to fine cut. George put a DI colorist on for eight months, so he was grading the picture for eight months. I couldn’t go in there all the time and be there on the grade, so I did leave an awful lot to Eric Whipp, our colorist who was very good, and I’d go in and have a quick look at things, make a few suggestions, whatever, and never really knew whether they were taken into account or not.
But, in the final result, I also knew George well enough to know that he would take a long time to make sure it was going really well. We talked on set about what we thought the final image should look like: grainy; he didn’t want to go a kind of blue-gray-black post-apocalyptic standard look, desaturation of color. He didn’t want to do that. He wanted to keep the desert color in to the point where it might almost be construed as a scorched-earth syndrome — but we don’t know what happened. So I knew all that, and I knew he was going to degrade the image, so I was never perturbed about whether or not I had the best cameras or the best lenses, because I thought, “It doesn’t matter. It’s what we’re going to do in post.”
I think, to this day, I would have liked to see even more grain left in the film — or put into the film — and I might also like to have seen the night work a little darker. But the final result is George’s, and the final result is always with George — I think, a good decision. I always knew I was in good hands, and, whenever I could, I’d go in to have a look. George and I would have a talk about it, and George always had the final decision, so I was happy with it.
Mad Max: Fury Road played at the Camerimage International Film Festival and is now on Blu-ray.