*This review may contain very light spoilers
Mad Max: Fury Road is currently the king at the box office (except for being hilariously trounced by Pitch Perfect 2 at its opening) and it seems like there isn’t a media outlet or moviegoer out there that didn’t absolutely love the crap out George Miller’s epic post-apocalyptic comeback. Ok, so there are a few contrarians and bloggers servicing the minority of viewers that hated the movie, but as a whole , your ears are probably falling off from the praise that Fury Road gets from virtually everyone you talk to. Truth be told, I didn’t write this piece to join the haters or to add very unnecessary fuel to the fires of adulation; the fact is that I had a good time and got to see the movie in wonderful and intelligent company. My problem is that this film pissed me off and I needed a platform to really get to the bottom of that feeling.
Fury Road is a visual masterpiece, from its gorgeous art direction, to its intricate costume design, to perhaps its most awe-inspiring feature, those ridiculously badass vehicles (and vehicle battles). The film actually starts off on a high note story-wise. The tension is there, the strangeness, the maniacal rush of imagery and sound; I was probably under its spell for a good 10-20 minutes until Max started to actually speak, and then it seemed to go everywhere and nowhere for the next hour-and-a-half in deafening, confusing, and frustrating fashion.
I guess this is where you have to choose a camp as an audience-member. Are you a seasoned Mad Max enthusiast that’s seen the entire series and recognizes Road Warrior as a quasi-masterpiece? Are you a casual viewer who’s definitely heard of the franchise but otherwise came into Fury Road with a clean slate and an appetite for some Tom Hardy/Charlize Theron? For myself, being part of the former and a little bit the latter, the Mad Max saga is simply iconic. It’s not a Star Wars or Lotr type thing, Mad Max is more of a cultural staple, a series of films that changed the game in cinema and fashion and pretty much gave birth to the post-apocalyptic genre as whole, while also plunging North America into a wonderfully strange obsession with Australians that would culminate with Crocodile Dundee and that freaky Energizer guy. For the record, I love Aussies.
So if you’ve seen at least one of the original Mad Max films, even the saxophone-infused Beyond the Thunderdome, you might have noticed while watching Fury Road that this film seems to take an almost complete departure from the universe set down in the first three films. Max’s wasteland was a strange and enigmatic frontier of killers, survivors, and weirdos, but in Fury Road we seem to have left this planet and landed somewhere between John Carter’s of Mars and Tatooine. George Miller’s dark post-cataclysmic universe may have always been filled with outlandish things, but they had always made sense up until this point, at least they were based in the realm of the plausible.
Sure, Lord Humongous (the baddie from Road Warrior) was absolutely bizarre. This well-spoken tyrant trapped in the body of hockey-masked WWE wrestler who liked to preach through a loudspeaker while his indian-punk wasteland biker gang roasted their victims alive, but the whole thing was still possible in an extreme setting. Everything technological was cobbled together, ugly, barely functioning. Fury Road seems to be vaguely exist in this space, but then there’s a guy with steampunk respirator, an impossibly sophisticated water pumping system, dieselpunk stock cars, super speed bikes, and wasteland gangs that all seem to employ the services of very talented costume stylists. These same gangs like to attack in waves using an assortment of Cirque du Soleil acrobatic stunts that end up costing the lives of their soldiers more than giving them any kind of edge.
The film is also impossibly loud an obnoxious-sounding with a score that is neither memorable or fun. I hoped that Miller of all people, having mostly stayed true to his films at in the special effects department, would opt for a more subtle score, or something that meshes with the previously established bleakness of Mad Max. Instead we got ear-shredding tent pole noise the likes of which made me want to vomit during the last 20 minutes of Man of Steel and The Dark Knight Rises.
I could pick out several other problems I had with Fury Road, but I think there was one detail above all that deflated this film for me; they screwed up Max. The character development was nearly absent from the film entirely (Charlize Theron in particular is to be lauded for breathing any life into her character), but nothing stung me as much as George Miller’s apparent amnesic treatment of Max. Mel Gibson’s Max was a deeply burnt soul, a total PTSD case who had to make a concentrated effort to form words and eye-contact when he was forced to socialize. He was a lone wolf with a broken spirit that just wanted to drive on into the unknown and never feel again. This portrayal is what made Max so compelling when he would be forced into the role of a saviour and protector. He was the quintessential reluctant hero who would never fall in love again, never become your friend because he knew that eventually he would be the only one to survive the NWO. He didn’t have music video flashbacks or supernatural ghost apparitions telling him which way to go. He didn’t smirk and do physical comedy.
This Max, as little as we get to experience him in Fury Road, is a bad pastiche of the original. One minute he’s a silent madman, then a mumbling lunatic, then a bumbling hijacker, and suddenly a touchy-feely hero that warns Furiosa, “I’m so sorry about this” as he performs a completely ridiculous blood transfusion in the back seat of a truck. I think I could deal with all the other inconsistencies that Fury Road threw at me during its exhausting two-hour romp, but how can I get behind a film that couldn’t even get its protagonist right?
There seems to be something profoundly off about what we all consider entertainment these days. Don’t get me wrong, we are living in exciting times when comes to cinema, television, and content in general, but the popular themes of the day are cause for a bit of concern when one takes the time to look under the surface. If you don’t believe me just take a moment and consider the kind of programs that are currently dominating our imaginations:
Game of Thrones: A riveting, character-driven swords & sorcery epic drowned in death, intrigue and sex as various clans brutally compete for supremacy while they await a great cataclysm.
Dexter: A charming serial killer that conveniently directs his murderous impulses at “bad people” while the audience cheers on his profoundly problematic system of justice and morality (or lack thereof).
Mad Men: The depressing life and times of a handsome womanizing sociopathic charlatan and the spiritually bankrupt society that’s collapsing around him.
Breaking Bad: The rise and fall of a mundanely detestable everyday man whose dishonesty and desperation take him to the top of the criminal world, cruelly destroying everything and everyone in his path.
House of Cards: The story of reprehensibly charming manipulator and his machiavellian ascent to the highest seat of power in the free world as he routinely breaks the 4th wall to make us his unwitting conspirators.
The Walking Dead: Post-apocalyptic zombie survival porn designed to celebrate the inherent greatness but also the abject horror festering inside every human being’s psyche.
These are all brilliantly written, directed, and acted shows with lavish production values that showcase the very best storytelling in the business today, but what also binds these hit shows together is a kind of stark portrait of our modern-day preoccupations as a society. Vigilantes, antiheroes, and lovable criminals are obviously not a recent invention, but it’s hard to deny that they are more popular than ever and that their current supremacy speaks volumes about our collective state of mind.
Are we making these shows and watching them religiously because we are subconsciously praying for the world to end? Maybe we just want an end to the way things are at the present with mass corruption, war, staggering economic disparity, disease, hunger, apathy, environmental catastrophe everywhere. Storytelling has always been a kind of social therapy where we could, as a people, debate and dissect our hopes and fears. Maybe all this dark subject matter is healthy in the end, maybe we just are exorcising our social demons.
Team sports, like cinema, are often home to unsung heroes who toil in obscurity while the higher-profile players make passionate speeches on the awards stage. Location managers/scouts can definitely be counted among these “shadow warriors” that operate under radar while still being extremely vital to the success of any production.
By the time the cast and crew have arrived on a location set, location managers have already made contact with proprietors, checked security, electricity grids, parking spaces, logistics, informed neighbors, and dealt with all the other minutiae that most people take for granted. This work may seem somewhat routine and straightforward, but it is everything but.
Depending on the location you may be dealing with a listed building (historically protected under a heritage act), a lived-in house where the residents remain even during shooting, a high-value property, or even a location with specific conditions like a halfway home, hospital, or university. All of these locations come with their specific challenges, but as far as the crew is concerned there are a set of very basic rules to follow that will minimize any potential issues.
There is nothing worse than burning a location. Burning means ruining the relationship with the owners or operators of a given location by being disrespectful, reckless, or generally inconsiderate of the environment that has been put at your production’s disposal. Burning a location will not only hurt your reputation and create an unpleasant atmosphere in general, you are potentially destroying further opportunities for yourself, and possibly worse, you have stunk up a location for everyone in the business from now on.
Burning a location can happen very easily, even without bad intentions or lack of professionalism. Maybe you forgot to plug back the fridges (that you had unhooked for better sound) at a soup kitchen location and end up spoiling precious food that was meant to feed homeless people. Maybe you forgot to drop sound blankets on the hardwood floor of a posh house or apartment and your grips and gaffers have scrapped the floor because they didn’t feel like taking their boots off every time they come in from the truck. Trouble can spring from anywhere if you don’t take precautions.
These things will happen even if you and your team prepare, so try to cover some of these basics in your pre-prod meetings or pre-shooting general announcements:
1. Respect the location as if it were your beloved grandmother’s house, a church, or a museum. Consider the crew, the shoot, the people who live or operate in the location on a regular day, and if all else fails, remind the crew that individuals can and will be held financially liable for recklessness. Injury or fatality is another potential danger.
2. Think about your fellow filmmakers who might one day have need of that location. You are an ambassador for the art of cinema and you should act accordingly, especially if you live in a small city where word gets around. Think about your reputation as well.
3. Consider the incredible sensitivity of your shooting schedule and what potential distractions can develop if the location is compromised by recklessness and neglect. The last thing you want is a screaming match between your AD, location manager, and proprietor as the crew looks on. Shoots have been shut down completely in this manner.
4. Assign someone, if you can afford it, to set-security to help out here-and-there while keeping an eye on the well-being of the location. They can look out for potentially dangerous obstacles, clear out clutter or garbage, and direct foot traffic in a way to minimize any chance of damaging the space.
5. No matter how tired you are at the end of the shoot, call all hands on deck for a full location check and wrap-up sweep for any remaining garbage, forgotten phone chargers, clothes, etc.. The place should look like you were barely there, if at all. It’s a small gesture but it will pay off in dividends in the long-run.
Many theorists believe that there exist a set number of possible plots for any given story. The number of possibilities will vary somewhere from 7 to 20, but the main idea is that every novel or film inevitably follows one of these core concepts regardless of how they re-arrange the details.
Logic dictates that to attain any semblance of originality in storytelling today, one is better served focussing on their unique perspectives rather than trying to re-invent the proverbial wheel. This is perhaps the reason why modern storytelling seems to have veered significantly toward character-driven plots where the individual perspective/experience may provide a far fresher canvas of possibilities than the continual revisiting of man vs nature, man vs man, and other redundant scenarios.
That is not to say that we don’t crave the classics; if the track record of cinema and art in general has proven anything it’s that nostalgia never goes out of style. We love to see the medium challenged from time-to-time, but audiences will generally want a steady stream of the kind of stories they already know. There is a warm, fuzzy feeling we get from knowing that the next hour or two will be spent alongside a rugged hero that will be put to the test, but ultimately send the bad guy tumbling into a chasm with a well-placed one-liner and a devastating karate kick. It offers a kind of satisfaction akin to booting up a video game you’ve already played through a dozen times; it’s really about being in control.
Horror films, perhaps more than any other genre in cinema, rely on a very fundamental and repetitive set of directives that haven’t changed very much since their inception. The formula has been played with considerably, but the basics remain strikingly the same; the key is addressing mortality and the fragile nature of the human body/spirit. This is a prime example of a type of storytelling that does not need to be re-invented so much as infused with more character-driven plots that surprise and challenge the medium.
Horror films have unfortunately been in decline for some time now, mass-produced and diluted into tween exploitation schlock cinema with endless sequels and prequels. Even good exploitation horror in the tradition of Wes Craven’s The Thing or Hellraiser has been supplanted by hollow, mediocre franchises like Paranormal Activity and SAW that do little beyond serving up the same tepid soup of tropes and cliches with few discernible elements of originality or substance.
All is not lost however; the advent of the HBO-led television renaissance, that has been yielding potentially the most worthwhile storytelling in recent memory, is breathing life (or death?) back into the horror genre with breakthrough series like American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful, and host of other chilling series that seem to be getting back to basics. Many of the tropes and cliches can be found in these shows as well, but the style and finesse of some of these programs proves that you can go home again, hit up all the familiar spots along the way, but somehow discover entirely new frontiers of terror and entertainment.
Cinema cannot exist without mechanical or digital technology, but what is the impact of technology in film itself? Films often serve as society’s unofficial historical records with their emphasis on current events, trends, and prevailing ideologies (or the rejection thereof). The futuristic science-fiction of the 1950’s, for instance, gives us much more insight into the 1950’s themselves than any truly sensible portrait of thing to come.
Films have always had this power; to illustrate what the current dialogue is in a given society. Even present-day exploitation films like Sharknado and Snakes on a Plane will provide, years from now, valuable information about what we were thinking about during the first two decades of the new millennium, or at least an idea about the things that made us laugh.
The point is that in a technologically-driven society it is useful for a filmmaker to be conscious of how technology occurs in his/her work because it will communicate a story of its own, beyond the plot itself. Technology talks, it has an audible voice and you need to make sure that it is serving your story, not limiting or railroading it by being topical.
The Usual Suspects (1995) is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Most people remember the climactic ending of the film where the Verbal Kint leaves the police precinct as Agent Kujan and his associate are left to ponder the dubious testimony he has given. The tension is built in this scene through a series of cuts showing the FBI agents looking over the police portrait of Keyser Soze from a surviving witness while Kujan begins to suspect that something is not right. The police portrait is then faxed from the hospital to a neglected machine in the police precinct and haphazardly picked up by Kujan and his fellows as the terrifying realization sets in about Soze’s true identity. Verbal meanwhile is given ample time by this process of portraits and faxes to clear out and make his getaway. How would this scene have played out in 2014 with instant picture messaging? What about a decade from now?
Technologies are rarely timeless and very unpredictable when it comes to what we as a society decide to embrace and what we leave behind. If you want longevity for your story then make sure the focus remains on what is fundamental in the plot. By gambling the climax of your story or crucial turning points on specific technologies, you run the risk of become dated within a matter of months. Think about what is at stake for your characters, about the human drama behind all of the artifice and pour your energies into cementing that core.
While we used The Usual Suspects as a case-study, the fact is that it is a classic now, remembered fondly by all who have seen it and never derided because of it’s glaring early 90’s feel. The story is organic, human, fundamentally timeless.
Michael Hession and Nicholas Stango
for Gizmodo / 2014
Music: Twinkie by Podington Bear
Published on 21 May 2012
Screenwriter and producer Damon Lindelof sits down with Josh Topolsky to talk about Prometheus, Lost, sci-fi, and viral content.