Culture

​Visual music: The graphic novel roots of 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

For all its explosive energy, "Mad Max: Fury Road" found its genesis on the page as something quite different. The film's director George Miller tells how the road warrior journeyed from graphic novel to celluloid, and what lies beneath the bluster.

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When "Mad Max: Fury Road" hit screens in May, the stakes were high. After three high-octane films in the late '70s and '80s, fans could be forgiven for fearing a gritty next-gen reboot that failed to live up to expectations.

Instead, "Fury Road" was met with resounding praise, grossing more than $300 million worldwide (to date) and making its mark as a film that was nuanced and almost balletic, despite its explosive, teeth-bared ferocity.

Now, director George Miller is returning to the "spiritual home" of the film with illustrator Brendan McCarthy and dramaturge Nico Lathouris, both of whom co-wrote "Fury Road", to share the story of taking Max from the story board page to the screen.

The three creative leads will take to the stage at Sydney's Opera House this week as part of Graphic, a two-day festival dedicated to graphic art, animation and comic book creation. And the Australian location certainly makes sense for a film that Miller describes as being "as Australian as a dead kangaroo on the side of the road."

There has been plenty said about "Fury Road's" 12-year development process, tough filming conditions and spectacular physical effects. However, this event will give Miller and his team the opportunity to crack out unseen footage and designs, and talk about the comic book-style universe they created for one of Hollywood's most eagerly anticipated sequels.

A blueprint for 'Fury Road'

Speaking to CNET in the offices of his Sydney production house, Miller said his graphic novel-style film was really the culmination of a life-long fascination.

"I was always a comic book kid," he said. "When I grew up in the country in Queensland, they were quite illicit comics, you couldn't take them to school. Your parents thought something was wrong with you if you were reading comics rather than books."

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A story board sketch of one of the "Fury Road" armada vehicles. Brendan McCarthy

But what began as with a forbidden fascination with comics has grown into one of the most successful film franchises of all time. Released 36 years after "Mad Max," the original Ozploitation cult classic, "Mad Max: Fury Road," is a masterpiece of what Miller calls "visual music."

Eschewing any form of traditional script in the early stages, "Fury Road" was built from 3,500 individual sequential art storyboards, crafted by Miller and his co-writers McCarthy and Lathouris.

Each panel shows an individual moment of the film, following the journey of lone wolf Max Rockatansky and warrior Imperator Furiosa on a guzzoline-charged, cross-desert car chase through the Wasteland -- a kind of "There and Back Again" for the post-apocalyptic era.

According to Miller, for a film that was essentially "a silent movie with sound," a focus on visual storytelling made sense for "Fury Road."

"Its first iteration was an extended story board, which is the perfect way to get information across on an action movie, because people can see exactly what's happening at any moment," he said. "They don't have to read words and create an image in their head, the image is right there for them to work with. And it's just a blueprint, it's not the final thing."

That blueprint became a bible of sorts for the cast, crew and stunt performers, as well as the hoards of designers who were charged with creating the post-post-apocalypse that followed behind the original "Mad Max." From the chassis of the jury-rigged V8s and the explosive action sequences, down to the tattoos and scarification on the bodies of the War Boys, everything had its roots in the original graphic concept art.

Origin story

These storyboards became much more than a visual script for the cast and crew. The images became narratives, the narratives were spun out into a dense web of backstories and mythology, and before long, even the most minor characters had taken on a life beyond celluloid.

"Take Coma for instance," says Miller. "Even though he appears only briefly throughout the movie, I know who his mother was, I know how he survived the apocalypse, I know how a man who is blind and mute and really can only play the guitar, how he actually survived and got to be where he was."

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The Coma-Doof Warrior. Roadshow Entertainment

While the audience may only see characters such as Coma-Doof Warrior or the People Eater on screen for short stints, and though their salvaged cars may explode back into scrap, each one of these set pieces was fully fleshed out in Miller's mind. More than a decade of delays on "Fury Road" may have helped the cause, giving Miller and his team plenty of time to build an entire universe, adding distinctive details to even the smallest moments in the story and lending the film a gravitas shared by few in the blockbuster set.

According to Miller, the team set out to "create as much iceberg under the tip" as possible. By the time "Fury Road" hit screens, there were complex threads of back stories, hinted at in even the smallest set pieces and costume accessories.

"It happened with everything. Not only with Max's mask, which is a garden hoe, or taking [Coma-Doof Warrior's] guitar, it's a hospital bedpan at the base of it. Every vehicle every steering wheel was in a sense almost a religious artefact...[they were] basically found objects, repurposed."

Helter skelter

The Buzzard. Brendan McCarthy

That scavenged aesthetic extended all the way down to the language used in the film. With its graphic novel underpinning, it's easy to see how dialogue takes a back seat in "Fury Road," but Miller says words became another form of found object in the Wasteland.

"At a simple level, you're not trying to use dialogue as exposition, you're using it as part of behaviour, and language itself is distorted," he said. "The one thing I will say about a movie like this is it's basically visual music. So the vision has primacy."

With a whole universe of material to draw from, the team has also expanded the "Fury Road" universe into a series of comic book prequels, published by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. Written by Miller, Lathouris and the film's lead story board artist Mark Sexton, the "Mad Max: Fury Road" comic series fleshes out what Miller calls "all the stuff below decks, all the stuff you hope is being read by the audiences."

But building up Max's world beyond the screen is the kind of fan service that has been warmly received by lovers of the film.

"It's a pretty helter skelter story for two hours, and what really has delighted me so much is that, in reading so much of the response to the movie...people are picking up the resonances and the references and recognising them," he said. "It's like they got inside our heads as we were writing it and witnessed that.

"As I travel around one country to the next, when people stop me occasionally and they show me their tattoos of the characters, I think, 'I hope this movie lasts!' Because someone's got a tattoo of Immortan Joe or Furiosa or Max, or they've got the Immortan's brand tattooed on their chest and their arms and things.

"I hope this movie stays in the zeitgeist for a while."

"Mad Max: Fury Road -- Creating the Apocalypse" featuring George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris in conversation will take place at theSydney Opera House Concert Hall on October 11.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" is available on Blu-ray and DVD.