In honor of the recent Blu-ray release of Mad Max: Fury Road, we spent some time with veteran storyboard artist Mark Sexton to talk about the insanity of the post-apolocalyptic project as well as the recent series of comics written by Sexton and published by Vertigo Comics.
Take us through your role on Mad Max: Fury Road. From every report, it sounds like an intense production.
I worked on Mad Max: Fury Road as Lead Storyboard Artist, working directly with George Miller and Brendan McCarthy to essentially help write the film through the storyboarding process. There was a plot outline but no script at that point. Because the film was almost all action, George wanted to write the film visually first through boards, as it is very hard to coherently write action in a traditional script (and usually it makes for a very dry read).
We all sat in a room together for over a year and sketched out the film up to the end of the second act. At that point Brendan McCarthy moved onto another project, and the other storyboard artist Peter Pound went on to work on vehicle designs (his speciality!) So I worked on boarding out the entire third act – the whole end chase sequence – directly with George for another six months or so.
I also did some conceptual art for the film and for the early stages of the Mad Max computer game, back when George Miller’s company was developing it themselves.
From a design and storytelling perspective, how did you honor the legacy of the previous Mad Max films while still pushing into new territory.
All of us – Brendan, Peter and myself – were big Mad Max fans, having grown up with it, and so the original films were very much a touchstone for Fury Road. But we all wanted it to be its own film, as each of the Max films essentially are. You don’t NEED to know who Max is and what his story is in the films (other than the first one), you just need to stay true to the character. The world around him is crazy post-apocalyptic madness, and he is the device that carries us through the world and all its insanity, whilst never really changing. Max always sacrifices his own needs in the end to help others – it’s the thing which makes him a pure action film hero.
The look of the world needed to reflect what had come before, and of course we needed to have insane vehicles that the audience would always remember. However, it has been thirty years since the last Mad Max film and filmmaking technology has obviously massively progressed in that time. But what we all always said was the Fury Road would never be a massive CG effects fest. It should always feel like a movie that was shot for real back in the 1980s. Those classic camera angles, the crazy action, the dead world – all of that needed to be as real and believable as possible. With the exception of one sequence – the Fury Storm sequence – the entire film was thought out as things that could actually happen for real, nothing that would cause the audience to think “that’s clearly not real” and lose their suspension of disbelief. Stunts, vehicles, crashes, characters – they all had to be actually done for real.
What were the primary design influences and how did they affect story and character development?
The original films were very much the starting point. But the thinking from very early on was that the Fury Road world had to be more elemental, more tribal – a world teetering on the precipice. Water is scarce, the world is dead and nothing green grows. Humanity is literally at the tipping point of extinction. Many of them are cancerous and diseased, and people generally die very young. So there isn’t much to live for. That’s how a man like Immortan Joe is able to thrive and become the power that he is – through controlling what few resources there are, and by harnessing the doomed masses to service his needs by giving their lives some meaning – to die in his service in order to go to the Gates of Valhalla.
Once you have that as the common thread that ties everyone and everything in this world together, the designs flow from that. There are no resources other than what was left behind before the Fall so people repurpose anything and everything that they can find to make it into something useful, something that will help keep them alive. Costumes, vehicles, weapons – everything is a derivation of things that we might recognise ourselves, but given new purpose. So the design had to to look like this was a found object culture, where new things are created from the old in an entirely practical and believable way. Nothing that strayed too far into the unbelievable.
A perfect example of this is the mask that Max wears for the first part of the film – a muzzle that’s crafted from leather and metal straps welded to a garden fork to stop him biting people. And things still have beauty as well. Humanity have always crafted things with an aesthetic of beauty to them, and even when things are as grim as they are in the world of Fury Road, there’s no reason why people would stop doing this.
So, in a lot of ways, there was no primary design influence other than the extension of the aesthetic of the original films. You can certainly say there was a element of Modern Primitivism in there – a lot of body modification, keloid scarring and the like. And Mad Max has always had a strong comic book feel to it – particularly anarchistic titles like the British comic 2000AD. The original writing and design team of Brendan, Peter and myself were all comic artists in the past, so that would also be a major influence.
Mad Max: Fury Road has been in development for quite a few years. What were the biggest hurdles in getting this film up on screen?
The challenges were many and varied, and they’ve been reported heavily elsewhere. I guess the first challenge was back in 2002, when the film first went into active production – Mel Gibson was attached then to play Max. The film was going to be shot in Namibia then too, as it gave the filmmakers all the locations they needed within a reasonable distance from a major population centre with all its support mechanisms and infrastructure.
But then 9/11 happened, then war in Afghanistan and Iraq kicked off and suddenly shooting overseas in relatively unknown locations were considered risky – so the film was shut down, and we went off and did “Happy Feet” instead (trying going from the Apocalyptic desert to dancing penguins – it’s quite the mindfuck…)
Then in 2009, the film went into production again – Tom Hardy was cast, as was Charlize Theron – and we were going to shot at Broken Hill in Australia. But then it rained massively and suddenly the Outback was green and lush and covered with wildflowers. Not quite the look of a dead, blasted desert. So everything shut down again while they waited for things to dry out and die away – but it didn’t! So we did “Happy Feet 2” and then tried for the third and final time… and as we all know, the third time’s the charm.It was a grueling shoot in Namibia, and very painstaking. George is a very meticulous and careful filmmaker, so everything took a long time. And then back in Australia for the shooting of the Citadel sequences as the beginning and ending of the film, and a long and exhaustive editing process.But the end product speaks for itself!
With so many huge, practical stunts, what were the biggest challenges from a storyboarding perspective?
The biggest challenge was to come up with stunts and action that was both coherent and believable. Nothing was to be too fantastic, and the audience always needed to know where they were at any given time, to never get lost and disoriented within the action. It’s very easy to just shoot the crap out of a stunt with multiple cameras and then assemble it in editing – but to make sure that there is a strong visual narrative and through line that the audience can always follow without being confused? That takes a lot of preplanning and careful thought. And that was done very largely within the boarding process. Without the boards, it would have been so easy for the filmmakers to lose control of what they had to actually shot. That’s why, for instance, boarding the final act of the film took so long – because within the boards, we always needed to know exactly where all the players were at any given moment. Those boards are very detailed. I needed to keep track of the 80 or so vehicles, and all the characters that were involved throughout the action and to show their constant involvement wherever possible. That way, during the planning and shooting of the sequence, everyone in the crew could look at the boards and have as many answers as they needed to know so they could be prepared. Boards are, in the end, a communication tool that the whole crew can use to know what is required of them during the shoot. If they can’t get that information from the boards, then the boards are not really doing their job!
When you look at the final film, what aspect makes you smile every time you see it?
To be honest, most of the film makes me smile. It’s certainly one of those rare films that I’ll be proud to have worked on. So much of it is very much like the original boards we drew up. The story certainly developed during the 17 years or so since its development began, but much of it is unchanged – and the material that did change only improved the film further.
In the end, I think what makes me the proudest is that the film has resonated with so many people. It hasn’t just been a bit of ephemera that was in the cinemas for a while then was quickly forgotten. It seems to be sticking in people’s minds. That is fantastic, and I certainly get a thrill when I see another bit of Fury Road out there in the world, whether it be an amazing bit of cosplay, or a quote used in social media, or even a T-shirt! People seem to hold the film in high regard, and that makes it all worthwhile.
How does the comic book fit into the film world of Fury Road? How do you translate the style, tone and characters?
The comic books we’ve done with DC are very much developed as part of the Fury Road story. Each tale we’ve done have evolved from discussions with George Miller, and many of them are actually stories that were developed during pre-production through George and the other writer, Nico Lathouris, working with the actors – the Nux and Furiosa stories particularly. Because the writing team were all heavily involved in the actual production of the film, and because we had intimate knowledge of all the material from the film, we really tried to emulate the style and tone of the world that had been created.
There was the challenge that the film was still being worked on when we started the process of writing and illustrating the books, so we couldn’t show actual footage from the film outside trailers to the other artists that worked on the series. But we tried to give them as much reference material as possible, to keep it all as authentic as we could. We also tried very hard to do different types of stories for each of the characters. Nux was a short but poignant tale that hopefully evoked the cruelty of the world, and set the tone for the others. The Immortan Joe tale was a pretty straight telling of his history and his rise to power. The Furiosa tale – which ended up being rather controversial within some circles – was essentially like a stage play, set almost exclusively in a single room, and was basically a political debate. And the Max tale was very much conceived to be as close as we could to emulating the feel of the original Mad Max films, using the same pattern of Max being drawn into the world against his will, only to be battered and damaged by the ensuing destruction and loss. And lots of action…The main challenge, particularly the Furiosa and Max tales, is that there are scripts for two other Fury Road films, and we didn’t want to enter into the material that is dealt with in those stories. So we were a little hamstrung in some ways in terms of what we could actually tell.
Hopefully most people enjoyed the books, and if the Film Gods smile, they may get a chance to see those film scripts on the big screen in the future, and see more of those fantastic characters. More Mad Max! That would be a lovely day….