It was a mix of the old and the new Monday night as SXSW held a screening of the 1981 film "The Road Warrior" with director George Miller in attendance. His upcoming "Mad Max: Fury Road," the fourth in the series and the first in 30 years, opens May 15, and Miller treated the enthusiastic crowd to two brief selections of footage from the new movie.
Miller received a standing ovation when introduced before the South by Southwest show. He noted that the screening would be of a new 35 mm print of "The Road Warrior" and that he would be sitting through to watch the film from beginning to end on the big screen for the first time in 32 years.
The film itself was spellbinding, having lost none of its power to startle and amaze. The film opens with a prologue explaining more or less the end of the world and then charges viewers into a post-apocalyptic wasteland where Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) wanders in search of fuel for his V-8 Interceptor to keep wandering. He happens upon a functioning oil refinery under siege by a band of marauders and is convinced/forced to help those stranded inside to drive an oil tanker out to safety.
"I have to say I felt a lot of emotions, memories," said Miller, 70, after the screening in a Q&A moderated by journalist Drew McWeeny. "And then comparing it in my head, kind of twisted in knots comparing it to what we've just done on 'Fury Road' and seeing that it's so similar and so different at the same time. You're watching a very kind of bewildered man right now. I'm trying to process it."
Having the film play on the same screen where one night before the modern car movie "Furious 7" had premiered served to underline the distinctiveness of "The Road Warrior" in editing style and effects work. As much as "The Road Warrior" is filled with wild and frenetic action, there is also something hypnotic in its pacing and portrayal of endless barren roadways and the relentless quest for fuel and freedom. It remains an essential template for contemporary action cinema, but it also works on the same dramatic terms as any classic settlers-under-siege Western. (At one point Miller noted the influence of the western "Shane.")
A clip of six to seven minutes from "Mad Max: Fury Road" gave some sense of the style of the film, and keeping up with Miller's comments, it seemed somehow both familiar and entirely new. The clip featured Tom Hardy as Max alongside Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult and Abbey Lee Kershaw, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Courtney Eaton, Riley Keough and Zoe Kravitz.
After the clip, Miller noted two similar touches from "The Road Warrior" ("I swear this is true," he said) that he had not recalled from the earlier film but are used in "Fury Road."
"It's just recycling," he said, laughing. "But it is different. It's not the same story."
Asked to explain the chronology of the films, he explained, "It's sort of a revisit. The three films exist in no real clear chronology, because they were always conceived as different films.
"The way we all thought about it, is next Wednesday, all the bad stuff we see in the news comes to pass, where we have economic collapse and oil wars, water wars and stuff we didn't even see it coming and we jump 45 years into the future and in a sense we go back to a dark age without rule of law."
The second clip, Miller said, was a trailer cut especially for the Austin event. Though it may also be shown at an upcoming event in Las Vegas, it won't be available online or released to theaters. The footage featured various images from the film but focused on a particular scene involving Theron and Hardy.
After the second clip, the first question was asked by no less than local filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.
"I'm an independent filmmaker here in Austin," said Rodriguez, the director of films such as "Desperado" and "Sin City." "I was inspired by you, I grew up watching your movies. I guess my question is how the hell did you make this? It's go-for-broke cinema, it feels real."
"Robert, coming from you," Miller said, "I'm serious, if you want to know how I made it, you just look in the mirror and answer the question yourself."
Miller continued, "I think what happened is I spent a year editing 'Mad Max' virtually by myself and I thought of all the things that I failed to achieve then, so this was a second chance. But it was so frenetic, this, it kind of came out of my gut."
Another question referred to Miller as a "cinematic icon," which seemed to make the director uncomfortable.
"The problem is I can take myself too seriously," Miller said. "And the big thing that drives you to make a film is that sweat that you say 'it's just not good enough.' And you do drive people nuts trying to get it as best as you can. By the time we got to 'Fury Road,' we finished the movie two nights ago, and I said to everyone thanks for staying around because I know I can drive people nuts. Because we try to get it right."
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