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MAD MAX: FURY ROAD & The Engine of Structure
By Jacob Krueger
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Hello! I’m Jacob Krueger and welcome to the Write Your Screenplay podcast. As you know, in this podcast, rather than looking at movies in terms of two thumbs, up two thumbs down, loved it, hated it, we try to look at movies in terms of what we can learn from them, as screenwriters. We look at good movies and we look at bad movies and everything in between.
This week, we’re going to be looking at one of the most critically acclaimed action movies in recent history: Mad Max: Fury Road.
Now, forget for a minute whether you love action movies or you hate action movies. Forget whether ultra-violent movies make you happy or they make you want to run for the hills because I want to talk about Mad Max: Fury Road in terms of the things that we can all learn from it, as screenwriters, regardless of the genre that we are writing in and regardless of the challenges that we’re having in our writing.
So, the first thing that you should notice when you’re watching Mad Max: Fury Road is that it ain’t about the plot. The actual plot of Mad Max: Fury Road is ridiculously simple: they drive out into the desert in search of the green place and then they drive back in the other direction. Literally. The only thing that really happens in this movie is that Mad Max and Furiosa head in one direction and then head back home.
Along the way, as they are trying to get to their own personal Valhalla – that green place that they dream of; that place in the desert that they’re navigating toward – they are attacked by the most horrific figments of director George Miller’s imagination. Every path has a road block or an obstacle worse than the one that they imagined before. And this simple trick of structure is a trick that you can use, regardless of what kind of movie you’re building.
Oftentimes, as writers, we get obsessed with plot. We start to think that our movies are about the things that happen, but the truth is that plot is interchangeable. Who really cares if you’re in a desert or driving through the mountains or navigating a salt flat or a bog? Structure is not about plot. Plot is just the things that happen to happen to your character. Structure is about choices. And it’s not just about any choice. It’s about choices driven by the primal needs of your characters. It’s about choices that matter. It’s about choices that your characters pursue against tremendous obstacles – obstacles that seem too big to be navigated. Obstacles, in fact, that are so big that they force your characters to change who they are in relation to them. They force your character to change their relationship to the world in relation to them.
The reason that Mad Max: Fury Road works is not because of it’s plot. It works because of its structure. And that structure begins with the primal needs driving its main characters. Interestingly, Furiosa really is the main character in Mad Max. She is the character who drives the story. At the center of Furiosa’s drive or struggle in this movie is a desperate need to hope. A desperate need to believe in a better place. And desperate need to build that better place, not only for herself, but for the five concubines/wives of the evil, tyrannical, cultish dictator by whom she was taken captive. She is driven by a primal need to find that green place that was taken away from her when she was a child. That green place in the desert – that personal symbol of hope. And underneath that need is a need for justice. A need that we can all connect to, whether we have ever been trapped in a desert wasteland, chased by Cirque du Soleil performers or not. We all know what it’s like to feel injustice. We all know what it feels like to feel like the world is not fair. And we all know what it’s like to hope against hope to somehow, in some way, return to that better place.
George Miller (the writer/director of Mad Max) has actually spoken about how the engine behind Mad Max: Fury Road for him, as a writer, is exactly the same engine behind movies like Babe, Babe 2: Pig in the City, and Happy Feet. Now how is that possible? Because the engine driving all these movies is the engine of hope. This is an engine that is connected to George Miller. He speaks of all of these characters as agents of change.
So, what you’re really watching when you watch Mad Max – or Babe or Happy Feet – is George Miller struggle with his own desire to hope. His own intensely painful desire to hope against hope in a world that is filled, for him, with horror. It’s driven by his desire for a better world, even as he sees a world filled with ugliness. And though he may have a playful, fun, adrenaline-pumping take on that feeling, the core emotion at the heart of that is something that is essential to George Miller.
Back in the ‘70s when Miller made the first Mad Max movie, he was inspired by the oil wars. He was inspired by the things that people were willing to do for oil for their cars. And that was the thing driving his writing. And now, more than 30 years later, the same oil wars are still happening. More than 30 years later, religious leaders are still using the promise of Valhalla to perpetuate violence and horror. More than 30 years later, women are still being traded like objects. We still live in a world of human trafficking. And more than 30 years later, we find ourselves not only still involved in the same oil wars but also looking toward the horizon of new wars over water.
Against that backdrop, George Miller is asking himself “do I dare to hope or is hope going to actually destroy my chance at survival?” Is the answer in the face of the ugliness of the world, in the face of this bleak desert where the same problems are haunting us for generations? Do you risk your life and the lives of those around you to turn that war rig sharply to the left and head out toward an unknown Valhalla that may not even exist? To strive for a utopia that every force in the universe seems to be fighting. Or do you accept your role in a broken society and allow yourself to be part of the problem?
Mad Max: Fury Road works because it is a personal movie. It starts with an emotional need that wells up from inside of the writer and a landscape that (as sci-fi and imagined as it may be or as much of a psychedelic mixture between burning man and Cirque du Soleil as it may appear) is really just an externalization of the madness that he sees in the world. And the structure is simply the writer wrestling with the question that Mad Max poses to Furiosa: “do you dare to hope? Or is hope actually something that will destroy you?”
Once you know what your character needs and once you know what your character wants or what your character is seeking (with every part of their body) your job, as a screenwriter, becomes very simple. Attack that desire with everything you’ve got. Don’t pull a single punch. Allow everything that can go wrong to go wrong. In fact, allow it to go wrong even worse than they imagined.
If you’ve ever written a screenplay, you probably know that this is a lot like the writing process. Especially on your excellent work. On our best screenplays, we often have to go literally into the heart of darkness. On our best screenplays often, along the path, everything goes wrong. In fact, it is the act of us wrestling with the things that go wrong that actually make the movies great! This is even true for Mad Max: Fury Road. And Mad Max was written by one of the hottest writer/directors in Hollywood. Even Mad Max almost died multiple deaths: a death in development hell; a death when 9/11 happened and it was not only considered too dangerous to shoot in Morocco but also considered too politically volatile; a death when Mel Gibson dropped out and didn’t want to play the lead anymore.
All of our projects can feel like wandering in a vast desert, wondering if we dare to hope. And it’s the way that we wrestle with those challenges as writers that actually allows us to get to our own personal Valhalla – whatever that may be.
The process of writing your movie should be hard because the process of writing your movie should allow you to change as a writer. It should allow you to make choices that you could not have anticipated when you first sat down to write. It should allow you to wrestle with questions to which you thought you knew the answers and hopefully arrive at a more profound place. And it should propel you to come up with moments of beauty and horror for your character. Moments that transcend even your own expectations when you first sat down at your computer.
In order to get to that point, there needs to be something driving you that’s as powerful as the thing driving these characters. There needs to be an emotional need in you, driving your writing. And that need has to be a lot stronger than “I want to win an Academy Award” or “I want to make a lot of money.” The movie needs to be about something for you. And that something has to matter to you. For George Miller that something is about creating a better world. And for you it may be something different. It might be about believing in love. It might be about taking a chance on yourself. It may be about breaking through something that you feel is limiting you. It might be about wrestling with your own deeply held beliefs or with questions that you don’t understand about hope, about life, about death.
This doesn’t mean that your movie needs to take itself seriously because certainly Mad Max: Fury Road does not take itself seriously. Mad Max is a playful adventure through a deeply felt landscape, just as Babe is a playful adventure through a deeply felt landscape. But you’re going to need that thing driving you because this is going to be hard. It’s going to need to matter to you just as much as finding that green place matters to mad Max, Furiosa, and poor deluded Knox – the warboy who just wants to see Valhalla, just wants the validation of martyrdom, all shiny and chrome. It needs to be driving you as strongly as it’s driving them. Otherwise it’s too easy to just lie down and die in the desert.
Now, the way the George Miller constructed Fury Road is really interesting. Rather than starting with a screenplay, he actually started with a storyboard. His vision began with the images of his structure, rather than the story of his structure. He knew he wanted the whole movie to be a chase. And he knew it was going to be difficult to construct that chase clearly until he had seen it in his own mind. Now, if you’ve studied with me, you know that this is one of the techniques that I teach in my classes. Not storyboarding your whole movie but beginning with visuals, even if they are visuals that you don’t understand; even if they are images that you’re not sure how they are going to fit into your movie.
George Miller has a great quote about the pole cats – the men swinging back and forth on poles as they are being driven through the desert. This was an image that came to him and he talks about the first time he saw it because he did all of these effects practically – these are not CGI. Even Tom Hardy was really on one of those poles. Miller saw all of these poles driving through the desert and his feeling as he did this was almost a feeling of disbelief. He couldn’t believe it was actually happening. This is often true in the way that we put together our movies as well. Oftentimes we are inspired by images that we don’t even really know how they fit, if they make sense or if they’re possible at all. There are different ways that different writers find these images. And part of this depends on your learning system.
Some writers are primarily visual learners for whom writing a screenplay might starts with an image. It might start with a crazy image of a swinging pole cat. It might start with an image of a spear that blows up or of motorcycles flinging themselves off of the sides of mountains. It might begin with an image of a man in a horrifying mask. Or an image of that mask being pulled off and taking his face with it. It might be an image of a fat, bulbous, overgrown thigh. It might be an image of a man with his eyes shot out, blindfolded, shooting madly, declaring himself justice. Oftentimes we don’t even know what these images mean. We just know that we see them. In fact, you can sometimes start to build your structure simply by navigating from one image to another image that feels different from the one you started with.
The structure of the primary relationship in Mad Max is actually a movement from an all out fight sequence to a nod of mutual understanding. And you can see that structure kind of transcends all of the formulas. There are no sex scenes in Mad Max. There is no traditional love story. But there is a story of two people (Mad Max and Furiosa) who start off at war with each other and reach a point of mutual understanding.
The structure of Mad Max is a journey toward an impossible dream. It’s a journey not only through horrific obstacles but ultimately toward the death of that dream. It’s ultimately a return home to find hope at the place where you felt the least hope remained. It’s a journey to find resources that are already there for the taking if only we can learn how to use them properly.
The structure of your movie is the journey of your characters and the relationships that develop between them. And all the plot is – whether it’s driving out and driving back – the catalyst that forces them to go on that journey and forces them to change in their relationship to each other and their relationship to themselves. In relationship to your theme – in this case that theme is hope. And in relationship to where they began their journey.
So, one way that you can build is simply by coming up with the most spectacular possible images you can build from, whether you understand them or not. And if you’re primarily a visual learner, this may be your way in. The image might be of a pregnant wife being driven over by the car of her cult dictator husband. It might be the image of this man, in a horrifying mask, holding the dead body of his pregnant wife. It might be the image of the battle sequence between Mad Max and Furiosa or the image of Mad Max, flung Christ-like onto the front of a moving car, serving as human blood bag for a sick warboy. You can begin with these images and then construct those images into structure, even if you don’t know exactly what they mean or exactly where they are when they start. Just by knowing that this image is cool and true and the most spectacular way within the world of your movie that you know how to build.
But not all of us are primarily visual. Other writers are primarily kinesthetic. A kinesthetic writer is not going to start with images. They are going to start with feelings. For a kinesthetic writer, they might start with a meditative writing approach. And that meditative writing approach, instead of leading them directly to visuals, might lead them directly to feelings. They may track the feelings of the character at every stage. They might track the emotional needs that are driving the characters and the choices the characters are making. They might know the scene is working when it feels right. when they can feel the pressure, when they can feel the drive, when they can feel the obstacle.
A writer who is primarily auditory might begin with the sounds. They might begin by hearing the dialogue or how the characters talk to each other. Or they might begin with the sounds of the road in a movie like Mad Max where there is virtually no dialogue.
Every writer has their own learning style. And of course there is one other: digital. The digital learning style is the one that we’re most seduced by. The reason for this is because this is the learning style that we’re taught from the time we’re children. This is the learning style that pretends that we’re robotic or that we’re thinking in terms of zeros and ones. That we are thinking in terms of numbers, that everything is like a computation. This is the learning style that pretends that you need to plan out everything that happens in your script and that you’re actually going to be smart enough to do that. It pretends that writing and art is a linear process rather than a spiritual one. It approaches writing like math. Or that structure is like formula. This is the learning style that confuses plot (the things that happen in your movie) with structure (the way plot changes your character).
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the digital learning style. It’s just that very few people are actually digital learners. Studies have been done that show that even in economics – the most rational of areas – people don’t make rational decisions. We’re not actually fueled by the rational side of our brains. We’re fueled by the visual, kinesthetic, and auditory sides of our brains. And yet we’re trying to write through the mode where we’re usually weakest: that planning mode. And because we’re in that planning mode and refusing to follow those real, visceral instincts, we don’t find that Fury Road in ourselves, we don’t find that mad adrenaline-pumping drive that fuels a movie like Mad Max. We don’t allow ourselves the loss of control that will ultimately allow us to write a movie that astounds, not only ourselves, but also anybody who watches it. We don’t allow ourselves the real journey.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t uses digital techniques. That doesn’t mean that we can’t apply craft to our writing. But these digital techniques should be a way of shaping the raw material of whatever your primary learning style is. If you’re primarily visual, start with the visuals. If you’re primarily kinesthetic, start with the feelings. If you’re primarily auditory, start with the sounds. And use your primary strength as a way in. A of envisioning the world. A way of discovering the images. A way of discovering the feelings. A way of discovering the structure.
You can then use the craft of writing, the digital learning style to invite your editing brain to the table. To invite the part of your mind that does think rationally to make shape of that beautiful raw chaos of your subconscious mind. And in this way, you can develop a 3-pronged approach to you own writing. You can develop your skills as an artist, tapping into the visual, kinesthetic and auditory feelings and the madness of your own subconscious mind, letting yourself and your characters go for the things that you want in spectacular fashion and letting things go wrong in and equally spectacular way.
You can work from the outside in using craft to shape that raw subconscious material. You can use your conscious mind to shape that material, building your craft and your technical skill as a writer in order to capture those visuals, sounds, and lines of dialogue, and the structure of your film. And finally you can learn how to fuse the two, fusing that art and craft to become a full artist and to create the story that best captures your vision.