Next Stop FURY ROAD – Part Two: The Road Warrior

I moonlight as a writer over at Movie Moron, and when I found out my pal and fellow writer David Williams (DNWilliams) hadn’t seen the original Mad Max trilogy, I shot him in the heart I insisted that he watch them so we could geek out together.

Now he’s racing to finish them before the fourth installment FURY ROAD (all CAPS mandatory) hits theaters this Friday. This is the result. Enjoy!

(for part one of this series, CLICK HERE)
RW_epic
DJ:  Still waking up.
(Sent at 5:04 AM on Sunday)

DNW:  I’m not a morning person, I sympathize.

DJ:  Plus I’m doing a diet so I’m calorie starved and grumpy as hell.

DNW:  I should be watching my food right now, trying to hit the gym a bit, I suck at it.

DJ:  Gotta be lean and mean when the Pockylypse happens (a reference you’ll get when you watch Thunderdome).

DNW:  Pockylypse sounds pretty freaky

DJ:  You know who doesn’t diet? Mad Fucking Max.

DNW:  Everything is pretty scarce in his world as it is.

DJ:  In the space between movies they’ve gone from “terrible recession full of nutjobs” to “scavenging in the desert for oil” and they justify it with a little intro montage with voice-over.

DNW:  That info dump is perfect.

DJ:  It’s a jump that confused me a bit when I was younger, honestly, but that’s because I saw Thunderdome on TV first then went back and watched the first two. But yeah, I love the idea that each time you tune in to a new Mad Max film you’re going to see the next stage of a falling society.

DNW:  If it weren’t ostensibly a sequel they could dump you right in, but they have to present that connective tissue really, because it is quite a departure. Like I mentioned last time around though, the expository montage at the beginning really helps The Road Warrior to work as a standalone movie.

DJ:  But yeah, Road Warrior reminds me of Evil Dead 2 in that regard. They have that great intro to catch you up … and flat out lie to you about the first one to retcon the details. I wonder if that’s a bit what happened here. “I wonder if we can sell them on the fact this is the same world …”  They do say in the intro that Max wanders into the desert, so maybe the original idea was that the desert was worse and it was hard to travel into the city areas.

DNW:  I feel like with Mad Max, because of how self-contained they seem to be, you can pretty much get away with it. But yeah, the tonal shift and the change of setting makes The Road Warrior jump up notch right away.

DJ:  Instead of slight western influence they almost go full Western. After the intro we jump into the story mid-chase, which is great.

DNW:  Speed! Dog! Coolness!
roadwarrior
DNW:  I really like Max’s character design, we’re getting the Asymmetrical 80s to the max.
(that to the max pun was unintentional, if you can believe it).

DJ:  Keep it. Own it.

DNW:  And you’re right, there’s the sense that what happened in the previous movie has had a lasting effect. I also enjoy the fact that he’s picked up a dog, not just because dogs are great, but because the fact that he lost everything and picked up a companion signals that he’s that same guy, somewhere.

DJ:  Yep. It’s a simple, subtle stroke of genius. He wants to be good. You also see it later with the feral kid … he shows compassion but in a  gruff way … so I was looking up the mohawked villain’s name on IMDB and I found this DVD cover photo with the dumbest quote line ever:

RW_dvdApocalypse … POW!

DNW:  Brilliant. “Apocalypse Wow” was right there, but this guy was like “no, I’m better than that.”

DJ:  Hahahaha, villain’s name was Wez, by the way.

DNW:  Not as great a name as Toecutter, is it?

DJ:  But Wez is basically Toecutter on crack, with an ’80s punk hairdo, and Max just stands up to him like he’s nothing. It’s Miller going “trust me, this ain’t the same movie, shit’s gonna go down before that last fifteen minutes.”

DNW:  I love his look. My appreciation of these films is mostly on a visual level, and whoever decided a mohawk, part of an American Football uniform, and feathers was the way to go has my respect.

DJ:  Wez backs down while Max collects gasoline in a bike helmet that failed to save anyone’s life. I love the stories and character work in these films (surprisingly subtle and done with absolutely no back story which is astonishing)  but yeah the look and general vibe really make them the most memorable.

DNW:  It’s a bit New Romantics as well, like if Adam Ant and Tim Tebow had a baby. Probably not a great reference, but he’s one of the few American Football players whose name I know.

DJ:  And I only know his name and there was some controversy that he prayed or something like that … I have no idea what he did or who he plays for. Also, I have no idea what New Romantics is or who Adam Ant is … so pretty much total fail on my part to get that reference. And you tried so hard!

DNW:  I think these films live and die on their worldbuilding and atmosphere, which I’m totally cool with. The plots are minimal, but that minimalism works with the right approach, and this film is more interested with capturing your imagination than anything else.

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DNW:  I think it’s great that on the one hand you’ve got these crazy, wild thugs, but they care a lot about their appearance, and there’s a degree to which it’s pretty flouncy.

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DNW:  Sorry if I’m derailing the convo: but they contrast incredibly well with the mostly-white and tan clad good guys too.

DJ:  Agreed on the color contrast with the good guys. I think the wild costumes are an outpouring of the craziness. They’re similar enough that it’s kind of tribal, but different enough to know they put a LOT of thought and effort into how they come off to new people. Mostly to strike fear … but also bright and colorful and kind of dandy-ish almost.

RW_amazon
DNW:  Really sells the tribalism, yeah.

DJ:  So after the Wez confrontation, we follow Max to meet another iconic character: The Gyro Captain. Who is so awesome and iconic, when the same actor shows up in Thunderdome, also with a flying machine, but playing a completely different character you’re going to be VERY confused. I sure was.

DNW:  Max does the impressive snake-snatch thing, and then yeah, we meet this guy. I love him, he’s such a zany presence. I retroactively recognized him as The Trainman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGl_W_7tfNI) from The Matrix – he’s WAY too distinctive to play multiple roles

RW_Gyro
 DJ:  He’s also the Mouth of Sauron in the extended version of The Return of the King. And they actually CGI’d his mouth larger.

DNW:  Dude was also in Star Wars, so you know he makes a mint signing a whole bunch of stuff on the convention circuit. The Gyro Captain owns though, not to harp on the costumes again but he has a very iconic look. Also, he manages to stand out as the guy that looks like he walked in from a cartoon in a movie filled with characters that seem to have walked in from a cartoon. The lankiness, the goggles, everything.

DJ:  Yep. And even though he’s kind of a buffoon you also get a sense that he’s smart enough to survive. The snake thing would work with anyone but Max.

DNW:  You just have to assume that everyone in this movie has a a skill set of some kind, or else they’d be dead or will die.

DJ:  And I love that Max treats him like a dog, even putting him on a leash, but treats his dog more like a friend.
RW_gyro and dog
DNW:  That dog is cute, man.

DJ:  So cute, it has to die.

DNW:  Didn’t even have a name, poor thing. It’s so weird that I saw The Rover before either of these films, because the Mad Max influence is so strong.

DJ: Yeah, pretty much all Ozploitation owes something to Max, especially ones about a rogue dude in a post-apocalyptic world.

DNW:  Right, I can’t claim to have been exposed to that sub-genre really, but it’s striking how much that movie is like Mad Max 2.5.

DJ:  Then we get a long sequence where our hero camps out on mountain and watches a new movie unfold on the valley before him, with huge well-orchestrated action scenes that we see in wide screen that makes me shudder when I think about what a nightmare it must have been to organize for those filmmakers.

RW_on hillside
DNW: I like the bit with the binoculars and the telescope in that scene.

DJ:  It’s surprising that it works at all, to sideline your hero like that … but it does. And these character moments like the binoculars and the tin of dog food are totally part of the reason why.

DNW:  I like that Max can be along for the ride, as opposed to always the driving force. It seems like Fury Road is going to be that way to an extent. It’s also a smart thing to do, the crazy world Max lives in should throw him into situations.

DJ:  Even though he’s so capable he’s still out of his element.

DNW:  Is there anything better than a hero being in over his head? Indiana Jones style.

DJ:  I was just gonna say Indiana Jones

DNW:  So there’s this post-apocalyptic gated community that Max finds himself in, are we there yet?

DJ:  Yep. And shit is so terrible that Max is willing to make a run for it through all that insanity just go fill up his gas tank. And his mad dash gets some folks killed. No one trust him of course. Not even the hot Amazon lady.

DNW:  This whole setup is not like anything you’d have seen in the first movie.

DJ:  It feels right but it’s a whole new plot structure.

DNW:  It’s a strikingly different vision of the future that feels like it was borne out of what was setup previously, but when you think back to Max’s virtually contemporary home life in the last movie you realize what a strong move away from that all of this is.

DJ: Around here we get our first close up look at Lord Humungus, who is just so freaking awesome, and the first of the masked villains (who we’ll see again in Thunderdome and Fury Road).

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DNW:  I think they went a bit too Sex Dungeon with this guy, if I’m honest.

DJ:  NO. UNACCEPTABLE.

DNW:  😦
Bellflower

But he’s so iconic he inspired glorified fan films!

DNW:  I was more impressed with the stuff around him than I was by the character himself. the people-strapped to the front of cars, the weird and wonderful gang members…

DJ:  The bean-counter dude who gets his fingers sliced off by the Feral Kid and everyone laughs at him.

DNW:  Yes, that! What a dumbass. The boomerang was lodged in someone’s head MOMENTS before.

DJ:  I love the sex dungeon vibe though … there is a sexual undertone to all of these hyper violent male tribes though (hence why Miller is addressing it head on in Fury Road): Toecutter gets super touchy feely, Wez has his bleached blonde boy toy, Humungus has his tight abs and leather speedo.

DNW:  Maybe I shouldn’t have said “too Sex Dungeon”, but more “only Sex Dungeon”. It’s the range of influences working together that makes the other stuff work for me, whereas this wouldn’t feel out of place in a gay panic scene from a 2000s teen sex comedy, it’s Sex Dungeon and only Sex Dungeon.

DJ:  I can see that. But it also makes him stand out. Everyone else is eclectic, he’s a single driving force of muscle and greased-up sex.

DNW:  Right, he needs to be separated in some fashion, sure.

DJ:  Just watching that clip it’s easy to see what makes this movie stand out. The plot is so simple: 1. good guys have oil, bad guys want it. 2. Max can help them escape with fuel. 3. Max helps but gets wounded. 4. Max helps them escape again. END. But all the moments are stretched out and filled with little beats.

DNW:  That’s part of the reason I find it hard to talk about in anything other than aesthetic terms. The plot is 100% in service of the vibe.

DJ:  When Humungus threatens them you’ve got the little bits where Wez kills a rabbit for no reason. Then the feral kid kills Wez’s boy toy, which leads to this little dark comedy break where the bean counter gets his fingers cut off and everyone takes a break to laugh at him … including himself. This is a lived-in world, with all these character dynamics behind the scenes.


Uh oh. Someone took Mel Gibson’s rant and put it over Lord Humungus’s dialog. And it’s creepy how well it works.

DNW:  Of course they did. It’s actually a better villain speech. “THE GAME IS OVER, LET THE NEW GAMES BEGIN!”

DJ:  So Max sneaks out of the compound to steal the tanker truck he found earlier, returns, and there’s a big battle where Wez gets trapped in the compound and no one is able to kill him. A scene that was totally stolen by Waterworld. Then Max tries to flee (again, a more brutal version of him fleeing his destiny with his wife in the first one) and gets his ass kicked and his car blown up. Then the cool helicopter shot.

DNW:  The “Max gets wounded” part gave me my favorite part of the whole movie, which is that shot of him flying with the landscape moving beneath his head. It’s SO cool, it’s artistic as hell in the midst of all this straight-forward action stuff, you’ve got this really abstract moment, it’s portraying the reality of the situation, but it reads like a dream sequence.
 
DJ:  Yep. And it works because he’s so dazed. And the audience is taken aback because he’s been so capable up til now and just got his ass handed to him.

DNW:  Rock bottom for Rockatansky.

DJ:  He’s got no other play. He’s forced into being a hero.

DNW:  I’m re-watching it now, it’s really great. Miller really isn’t a afraid of having a lot going on visually, it’s the polar opposite of what he’s doing with narrative.

road-warrior-mad-max-2-car-chase
DJ:  It takes all the brutal real crashes from the first movie and throws more money at them.

DNW:  Trucks, bikes, flying machines, explosions, crashes, feral kid having to grab a bullet from the front of a vehicle…

Mad Max 2  Chase
DJ:  He keeps plot simple and goes deep into the design, character moments, and weirdness. It’s all the brutality of the first one with a lot of grandness added.

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DNW:  Doesn’t get more ostentatious than this.

DJ:  The real reason all the action works so well is that they carry through the character stuff. When the feral kid is going for the shotgun shell, that’s not just a random plot moment, it calls back to the music box when he’s scared of it. He’s a wild child, buthe’s totally still just a kid.

DNW:  The 80s loved that kid sidekick thing. Newt, Short Round…

DJ:  There’s like ten kid sidekicks in Thunderdome.

DNW:  Haha. George “Double Down” Miller.

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DJ: Then we get the final chase scene to end all chase scenes. How do you feel about the final reveal at the end. The “ole switcheroo”

DNW:  The reveal that the kid is the narrator you mean?

DJ:  That the oil was in the school bus.

DNW:  Oh, that was of less consequence to me, the oil is the MacGuffin here, I’d stopped worrying about it by that point.

DJ:  But it plays into Max’s character, right?

DNW:  How so?

DJ:  I mean, if he knew about it than he’s super selfless and a “good man” again. If he didn’t, they totally screwed him over. I think the idea is that he knew about it (it’s been a while since I’ve seen that part).

DNW:  Huh. I’d need a re-watch to look at it from that perspective, I think. Either way, he’s putting himself out there to help these guys, I don’t think his heroism is in much doubt.

DJ:  It’s got some issues plot-wise for sure (why replace it with sand when that would just make them go slower … but that cinematic reveal of the sand pouring out is fantastic). But he could just be putting himself out as a Hail Mary. What else choice does he have, to sit there while they leave and let Humungus come get him?

DNW:  Fair point.

DJ:  I need to watch it again, but that’s been my take on it for years, that Max knew about it and it was sort of his redemption. I’m totally gonna watch all three again this week before Fury Road. Best week ever.

DNW:  I’m glad I’m catching  up on these, because I’d probably have skipped Fury Road in theaters otherwise, and it looks like a treat.

DJ:  Yay! I’ll take the honor of forcing you to watch them.

DNW:  Haha, it’s one of those List of Shame movies that I feel like I should’ve checked out long ago. But yeah, credit goes to you for kicking it up to the top of the list.

DJ:  Any final thoughts?

DNW:  Well I kind of ruined my take on these films up to this point by opening with it in the last recap, but this works for me as a film all on its own, with or without being part of a series, and it’s a notably stronger vision from Miller, who had a pretty strong vision to start with. It’s also the movie I wanted/expected the first film to be. It’s almost the sequel to a film we didn’t quite see.

DJ:  Yep, I think that’s the general take from most audiences as well. And it looks like Fury Road is the movie we’ve all built Road Warrior up to be in our nostalgic minds in a lot of ways.

DNW:  Excellent dude, thanks. Will let you know when I’m beyond Thunderdome.

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Next Stop FURY ROAD – Part One: The Original Mad Max

I moonlight as a writer over at Movie Moron, and when I found out my pal and fellow writer David Williams (DNWilliams) hadn’t seen the original Mad Max trilogy, I shot him in the heart I insisted that he watch them so we could geek out together.

Now he’s racing to finish them before the fourth installment FURY ROAD (all CAPS mandatory) hits theaters this Friday. This is the result. Enjoy!

MMfinale
DNWilliams:  Hey dude! I didn’t get a chance to check out Beyond Thunderdome yet.

DalmatianJaws (me):  No worries! That can be its own thing or we’ll make a joke about refusing to talk about it.

DNW:  I actually watched a little clip or two, and I really like the aesthetic progression of this series based on what I saw of Beyond Thunderdome, but we’ll get to that. It’s a shame to hear it doesn’t quite deserve to look so good by most people’s estimation.

DJ:  Yeah, I actually love Thunderdome, it has some flaws that people cling to because they stick out in comparison to Road Warrior, which is nearly flawless. But taken on its own it’s quite good. I have theories about why it is the way it is, but that’s down the road.

DNW:  Okay, interesting. There’s every chance I might like it quite a bit then.

DJ:  It’s this franchise’s Return of the Jedi. Amazing parts strung together in a clumsy way. Still awesome, but not as finely tuned as the first two. And all the fans hate the cuter aspects of it.

DNW:  I’m down for some cuteness after the harshness of these first two! Hopefully I haven’t spoken too soon…

DJ: You ready to talk about Mad Max … who doesn’t become Mad Max until the last fifteen minutes of the movie?

DNW:  Yes, let’s talk Mr Rockatansky. I feel like the name of the character is a pretty clear indicator of the kind of movie Miller is interested in making.

DJ:  Yep. Right away this movie is set in a world that makes no sense to the audience’s real life experience, but makes sense in its own right. People call this a “post-apocalypse” movie but it’s not. It’s a world on the brink of apocalypse, and society is fraying so everyone’s a little bit bonkers.

DNW:  That term rarely makes sense, we should really be calling them “apocalyptic” movies for the most part, but yeah. We’re immediately greeted with a bunch of weird stuff, which is the kind of plunge-you-right-in world-building I tend to enjoy. There’s just a barrage of off-key things that pretty much no other movie would present you with unexplained: Anarchie Road, a sniper looking at a couple having sex in public, and then there’s the police. These are like no police you’ve ever seen in anything, ever. I mean, I’m sure it has its influences but these are like … how would you describe them? Biker-gang/greaser cops? Sorta?

MadMax_GooseDJ:  It’s weird, but weird in a way that feels purposeful so you trust the movie knows what it’s doing. It’s not just that the world is weird and the cops are weird, you get the feeling the cops are that rough in response to the roughness of the world, so you sense a cause and effect. Helps you accept it as real. At least it seemed that way to me. To an Aussie audience it probably felt less sci-fi. In an interview, Miller talks about how the movie was inspired by all the brutal road fatalities in Australia at the time.

 DNW:  What you’re saying regarding “it seems like a dystopian future, but also kinda just…Australia”, I totally see where you’re coming from.

DJ:  Haha, yes. There’s a brilliant Australian movie called Wake in Fright that feels like it could take place in this first Mad Max movie almost. During the first screening someone stood up and yelled “that’s not us!” And one of the actors stood up and yelled back “shut up mate, it IS us!”

DNW:  That recent Guy Pearce movie The Rover went for the same thing, where it evoked a hellscape by just finding the most dilapidated and unwelcoming things that exist today and portraying it as the totality of society. It’s something similar to what I love about Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, where his version of this shiny awesome future is just all of the most modern buildings in Paris.

DJ:  That’s a great comparison!  And just as you’re going “WTF is going on!?” then we get the wonderful, controlled calmness of Max’s intro. Don’t worry audience, here’s your hero. Who we are going to totally destroy at the end of the movie.
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DNW:  He gets the long, extended, mysterious figure that you know is cool and important intro too. Very Bond. It did surprise me watching the film just how functional “Mad” Max was.

DJ:  Very sure of itself considering it came from a young filmmaker too.

DNW: And Mel Gibson sounds Australian, which is just surreal. He doesn’t even sound Australian in real life anymore.

DJ:  Yep. This movie did well internationally, but in the States it didn’t do so hot. They dubbed over all the Australian accents to make them sound American. I’ve seen clips of it, it’s awful. Anyway, two years later that’s why they took the “Mad Max 2” title and turned it into Road Warrior, because of us dumb Americans. Everyone went nutso over Road Warrior but never saw the first one. Years later home video goes boom, people rent it, and go “what the hell is all this lovey dovey stuff with the wife and kid?!”
MadMax_JessieDNW:  The Road Warrior deserves its own title honestly.

DJ:  DISAGREE

DNW: It doesn’t rely on the original movie to be enjoyable at all.

DJ: Well, enjoyable … I can totally get that. But there is a LOT more emotional resonance if you know what he used to be and what he lost.

DNW:  I dunno, it feels almost like a prequel, it’s backstory stuff for a character who’s cool in the next movie because of this aura around him. We know everything has been taken from him in that movie, but I don’t feel like it’s necessary to have seen it all unfold. The Road Warrior is fairly standalone, and Max in that movie is very reminiscent of The Man With No Name.

DJ:  I was just about to make that reference!

DNW:  This first film is more Mann than Leone, with a protagonist that’s a gruff beast of a man when he’s out doing his thing, but he has this really stable home life that anchors him. Until, you know, it doesn’t.

DJ:  But I still think you’re wrong. It couldn’t be a prequel, otherwise why is he soft in Mad Max? The greatest thing about the two is that you start him off a softie, make him hard and brutal … then in the next movie he’s gone too far down that road and by the end he’s redeemed himself by helping strangers.

DNW:  He’s not really soft through and through though, there’s just a duality that evaporates.

DJ:  This is one of my favorite franchises because the character evolves but the plots are totally new. But I agree on the duality.

DNW:  I get that. I’m not claiming there’s no benefit to having both movies exist the way they do, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that people were satisfied by The Road Warrior alone. The Road Warrior is more immersive too, in that it’s even less recognizable as our world than Mad Max is.

DJ:  Absolutely, you’re totally right about that. It obviously did just fine on its own. In talking about this it’s so clear to see the Western influences on these movies. Mad Max has a lot of High Noon, Road Warrior has a lot of Sergio Leone.
 
DNW:  The impression I have of this series (having seen half of it, and seen footage from the next two installments) is that George Miller made Mad Max and was like “well, I can do that better”, so he had a sequel that refined what made the original work, and did it with more flare. The visuals of Beyond Thunderdome signal the same approach, whether he was successful or not. The steps moving from the overcast skies, green roadsides, Hot Wheels-looking cars and tarmac roads of Mad Max to the arid landscapes, ever-more outlandish fetish gear and monochromatic production design of Fury Road make it seem like Miller treats each Mad Max movie as some kind of do-over.

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DJ:  Absolutely. Things get bigger in each one. And they actually acknowledge the evolution in the story directly, because in each one the world gets harsher and deeper into the apocalypse (nukes go off between Road Warrior and Thunderdome, for example).  So I’d say less of a do-over and more of “how can I get this next one closer to what’s in my head?!”

DNW:  Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at.

(*Editor’s Note* So was Miller, per this interview in Heavy Metal back from 1985.)

DJ:  Maybe that’s why Fury Road looks like the Mad Max we made up when we played with our G.I. Joes after watching the first three movies. He’s finally got the things he needs to get to that absolute HOLY SHIT stuff he’s been building towards.

DNW:  It’s interesting, because it’s within the one franchise. It’s like if the Wes Anderson of Grand Budapest Hotel were still telling stories about the characters and situations of Bottle Rocket.

DJ:  Yeah, totally! So after that great slow reveal of Mad Max we get more awesome crashes. Let’s talk about those crashes a bit.

DNW:  There’s some really good stunt work at play here.

DJ:  Yeah, they’re so small by today’s standards, but so obviously real that they’re way more gripping in a lot of ways. It might be later in the film, but at one point a biker eats it and his bike rolls over him in slow motion and he bashes his head on a curb … watching it bend his neck and knowing it’s real … just so intense. You can’t fake that.

DNW: Because this movie doesn’t really live or die on its plot. It’s very streamlined.

DJ:  So, after this opening where Max and his crew take out this nutso driver called Nightrider, we’re treated to a little break with our friend Toecutter, the first of incredibly memorable Mad Max villains.

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DNW:  One-eyebrow dude.

DJ:  Played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who is also Immorten Joe in Fury Road only with a mask on so we don’t recognize him.

immortan-joeDNW:  You know, for a guy with one eyebrow to be called Toecutter, and for the name to stick, there’s got to be a serious story there because surely the go-to would be Left Brow or something similar.

DJ:  I love character names like that, especially when the go unexplained. Even if it’s not a name … I love the idea that Brad Pitt’s character in Inglorious Basterds has a noose scar on his neck but never talks about it. Anyway, Toecutter and “The Acolytes” come riding into a railroad town to get the dead body of their friend Nightrider … it’s right out of a Western!

DNW:  Totally.

DJ:  They see a young couple drive away because they’re scared and the gang goes after them. Almost like wild animals. Move slowly you might be alright, but if you run it triggers their chase instinct and they take you out. SO TENSE!

DNW:  It’s the logical extreme of these leather-clad gangs that have been seen onscreen since at least The Wild One.

DJ:  Yep.

DNW:  The results of this pursuit though… I feel like the narrative doesn’t really take care to address it, it just kind of happens and is horrific.

DJ:  Isn’t it a major plot point though? They rape the girl, the cops arrest the guy … but the town is so scared that no one shows up for his trial so they let the rapist go? And this sets the cops off on their mission on the roads to take the gang out?

DNW:  That’s what I mean, it’s a motivating factor for our heroes. When something this brutal is used in a story, it’s just more palatable when it’s not presented so graphically.

DJ:  That’s why Max’s cop buddy (named Goose in a prescient steal from Top Gun) pulls out the Supercharger! Iconic ride, yo!

MadMax_gifDNW: When something like this is presented graphically, I feel like it needs to be more than a plot device.

DJ: So you mean it needs to create a thread that carries through the movie? Like the movie becomes about avenging the girl?

DNW:  It’s not just a gender thing, they rape both of them, right? Or at least I thought that was implied when the guy was running away with a bloodied rear (hope I’m not confusing scenes). But yeah, there’s something inherently more personal about this kind of of thing when depicted to this extent. It’s the face vs statistic thing. I think this is why Miller pulled in Eve Ensler of Vagina Monologues fame to consult on Fury Road, because he’s concerned with things like this, but I don’t know how naturally handling it all comes to him as a storyteller

DJ:  That’s a fascinating point, actually. If it happened off screen it’s kind of like marking it off a list, but by making it more personal it’s more powerful, but somehow feels off when they just move on from it? I have to say I agree, even though it didn’t bother me when I watched it. Although using rape (especially the rape of women) to motivate men to action is bothersome.

DNW:  Coming at it with fresh eyes, having little idea about the content of the movie doubtless had an effect on my perspective.

DJ:  Absolutely. Then we get into this back and forth between cops and gang … until the gang sabotage’s Goose’s motorcycle, which leads to his terrible disfiguring death.

DNW:  Some of the lead-up to that is my favorite stuff in the film. There’s the line “so long as the paperwork’s clean you boys can do what you like out there” which is so defining of the whole status quo, I love it. Then we get that pier scene with the gang that’s just chilling. When the camera is looking out over the water it feels otherworldly. Goose gets that nightclub scene too.

DJ:  Yep, this movie slows down for tone, tension, and world building. It’s not all adrenaline. This whole sequence leads to that powerful scene where Max looks at the disfigured face of Goose.

DNW:  The Max looking at Goose in the hospital thing is over the top in the best possible sense.

DJ:  Then he totally runs away! And then quits his job! And then runs away even more to get ice cream with his wife!

DNW:  That sequence of events totally deserves an exclamation point after each moment. It’s the not unfamiliar “you killed my partner” moment (though I struggle to think of where I’ve seen it elsewhere, it’s just ingrained) amped up.

DJ:  How about that scene where he quits? Staging it in that rotting stairwell, with his boss shirtless and watering tiny plans while that music plays … so genius. So weird. I’ve heard a lot of conversations about whether or not his boss is gay, and I just read online that his name is Fifi … so I think that decides it. But I love that they never talk about it, it’s just there (and the actor talks about the audience reaction to that scene in this reunion video).

DNW:  His orientation never occurred to me. There’s just so much fetish and sado-masochistic iconography in play I didn’t really think of it in terms of character as I probably should have. I just figured it was era-appropriate.

           MadMax_Fifi “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore.
Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!”

DJ: Amazing line of dialog. And he’s totally right and totally wrong at the same time.

DNW:  That line – you mean he’s right and wrong in terms of the lack of purity/righteousness in the hero, or something else?

DJ:  They totally give the world a hero, but he’s damaged and terrible and not heroic at all at the end. And in terms of cinema as a whole, the movie starts out building a true hero and then totally blow him up into cinema’s most iconic anti-hero. I think it’s why the ending is so powerful and spawned three sequels spanning decades. The irony is that Max totally wins and finally defeats the gang, but the world totally wins because it destroys him in the process.

DNW:  He’s a terminal crazy with a bronze badge to say he’s one of the good guys.

DJ:  So the rest of the movie is pretty simple. Max sees where his life is headed so he quits and runs off with his wife.

DNW:  Having him quit is an interesting move.

DJ: He doesn’t feel like a coward, he feels smart. But at the same time you want your action! But that sequence works because you know all that time that something’s gonna happen. Something terrible.

DNW:  Really reminded me of Michael Mann’s Thief, where James Caan has this dream life for one brief sequence. It’s a departure from the story that’s been told in a way that makes it foreboding.

DJ: I haven’t seen Thief, if you can believe it, but that sounds about right.

DNW: You’d love Thief. Have you seen Manhunter? There’s commonality with the beginning of that film too. Only without the tragic element.

DJ: All this time with the wife works for me too. There’s good chemistry. It’s super hokey and a little dated … but let’s face it most guys want this at the end of the day. It’s totally not true to life (she’s always happy and gorgeous, the kid’s never crying) but with all the talk of heroes and all the nutso stuff we’ve seen out in the world, you know it’s all just glamor.

DNW: Max’s wife, Joanne Samuel, is pretty good. The ‘crazy about you’ callback works, and the fact that they went with the word crazy there is cute.

DJ: And I love that instead of just running afoul of the gangs, she encounters them, gets away, and THEN they track her down again. They just keep ratcheting tension.

DNW: Fills you with dread, for sure. It makes the “victory” feel so hollow too, with the loss coming so late in the game. It’s so brutal.

DJ: Yeah, it’s really not a revenge film, it’s a weird mix of Western, cop drama, and action flick that coalesces into a fifteen minute revenge film that everyone remembers. I love the shot when they kill Max’s wife and child …

MadMax_wifedeathDJ: … but it makes no sense that they could do that on motorcycles without falling off. Also, why didn’t she run into a field where she’d have a better chance.

DNW: Yeah, I think they abandoned logic a little there, but it’s an okay point to abandon it at. Like we said, the focus is already on the dread of the situation, how it’s executed is less consequential, at least for me.

DJ: Agreed, it was powerful when I first saw it and it’s only on re-watches that you think about it.

DNW: Right, I can’t claim either was a concern for me having only seen it once. And it’s so late in the story, there’s not really anything left afterwards for it to undermine.

DJ: After that I love  just how dark they go and how clever they get. Max just destroys this gang in a long sequence. And Toecutter’s not last either. He goes out with a great eye-popping moment …

MadMax_eyesLiterally.

DJ: … but the last and most brutal death is at the end with Johnny.

DNW: The hack-through-your-own-leg-or-explode kill?

DJ: Max could just kill him, but instead he gives him a “choice’ which really isn’t a choice at all. He just gets the dude to torture himself before the car blows. Freaking incredible scene. It would fit right in with Road Warrior.

MadMax_Johnny
DNW: I don’t have a huge bloodlust or anything, but I could watch a whole movie of Max just giving scum horrible ultimatums like that. And it’s not something they had to show to sell. It’s damn gruesome in my mind alone. The finale of this film is essentially an extended prologue to The Road Warrior.

DJ: I think it sells because of how much time you’ve spent in the world and with Max and family. A lot of people call this first film “boring” until the end, but don’t realize the whole ending works because of all the “boring” stuff.

DNW: I see where people are coming from though, just looking at the poster for Mad Max – that could be a poster for The Road Warrior rather than this movie.

MadMax_posterDNW: It looks like it’s going to be a more Awesome with a capital A film than it is. JJ Abrams had a similar feeling about the Escape From New York poster- that film never shows you the Statue of Liberty’s head in the middle of the street despite the really iconic imagery the movie was sold on, which is why Cloverfield gives us that visual. I think if you saw The Road Warrior first as well, that would mess you up. Mad Max is so procedural by comparison.

DJ: I can totally get that. I had a similar issue with Escape from New York … only I thought it wasn’t just misleading but also boring (there’s that word again).

DNW: It’s like the poster artist got closer to where Miller’s head was at than Miller did, but like you said, this movie functions

And that’s about it! Later this week I’ll post our conversation about The Road Warrior.

Interview: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Directors: “Resolution” and “Spring”)

When Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead met, they were interns at Ridley Scott’s commercial production company. Soon they were working with each other on a variety of short films and spec advertisements, and when Justin approached Aaron with a genre-bending horror script called Resolution, they decided to pool their talents and resources to get it made.

Shot in 17 days on a tiny budget, the film snagged the attention of the Tribeca Film Festival and has since garnered rave reviews. Now available on iTunes and Netflix streaming, Resolution is scary, funny, conceptually unique, and definitely worth a watch.

I recently had the chance to speak with Justin and Aaron about the making of Resolution as well as their upcoming film Spring.

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So you guys just got back from Italy?

Justin: Yeah, we just got back two weeks ago. We were there for six or seven weeks, shooting Spring.

So you’ve just shot principal photography then?

Justin: Yeah, we just finished. And we did a few days in the U.S.

Let’s talk about your first film, Resolution. What was your budget, how big was your crew, and what were the day-to-day logistics like?

Justin: Uh … I don’t remember, actually.

Aaron: I think we had ten people on set most of the time. For the final scene of the movie we were up to about eighteen people.

Justin: It was really small. The entire budget of the movie was tiny. Tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny. It was just our checking account.

That’s impressive. It really does not look or feel so cheap.

Aaron: The budget on Spring is literally … twenty-seven times the budget of Resolution.

(laughter)

Justin: But I think we can honestly say, from Resolution to Spring, you can tell on set we were getting more because we had more money. It looks like a much more expensive movie.

So on Resolution did you just have crew camp out at the cabin, or did they stay nearby and that place wasn’t as remote as it seemed?

Aaron: We actually worked out a deal with a Christian children’s camp. I’m not joking, they put us all up for some really, really dirt cheap price, I forget what it was. Like, $1,500 to house the entire crew for the whole entire shoot. Something like that? And it was a five minute drive to set. We got really lucky on that one.

Tell me about how you did sound on a shoestring budget.

Justin: What sound?

(laughter)

Justin: You’ll notice Resolution doesn’t have any score, so that approach required incredibly crisp sound. So we had this incredible field mixer, who is also a composer, named Dan Martinez, who rocked it. And we had another guy who was our re-recording mixer. Nobody worked entirely for free, but they might as well have, basically. So our re-recording mixer was this guy named Yahel Dooley who is like a third director to us, to be honest. He is one of the “must haves.” Some people don’t understand our movies until Yahel gets to it. Really, his sound is so critical and crucial to everything that we do, we absolutely need him. So he designed everything. Resolution had almost no ADR (Additional Dialog Recording), it had like a couple lines here and there. And it was all for clarity, it wasn’t even for beefing up the quality of the audio. Sound is of paramount importance to us. The mix was like fifty hours long because we were pulling a favor. We were sneaking into a post house to do it. So it was an insane thing. And Yahel just went with it, he was right there with us.

Aaron: He’s incredible, he’s our secret weapon.

You shot on the RED. At any point did you discuss using DSLRs to save money?

Justin: We did. We use DSLRs all the time for new media stuff, but there are things for example … actually, I’m going to let Aaron answer this.

Aaron: There are disadvantages to those little cameras. You can shoot features on them, The Battery was shot on one and it looks awesome. You can barely tell that it’s not a RED. But I love shooting features in 4k. Especially low budget indie stuff, because if you need more coverage you can punch in to a close up, or if something is too dark you can move stops … you just have more freedom going into post production than you would on a DSLR. And with DSLRs … you need other pieces of equipment to make them look good, you can’t just grab one and go shoot with it.

Justin: There is something about the small camera look that seems campy … it’s almost silly to debate the differences between DSLR and RED, nobody is going to say a DSLR is better than RED.

Aaron: When we were making the choice it was all just coming down to budget. I’ve shot five or six features on RED and we’ve shot about a million different things on DSLR, so it’s not even a choice beyond “can we afford it?” And we got it hooked up.

Justin: Also, as a story reason, Michael is also holding the film you’re watching on 35mm film. So there could have been a story reason as to why it’s not on film, but it’s a lot easier to swallow if it looks like film, and RED looks a lot like more like film than DSLRs.

What are some things you learned from Resolution that you’ll take with you on future projects and what are some things you’ll never do again?

Justin: Well, we had a script supervisor this time.

Aaron: Usually it’s more like we’ll pick up something during the process that we’ll take to the next one.

Justin: With Resolution there were no big continuity errors by some miracle, but there was one scene where we realized we had shot the end of the movie without Chris wearing the bandage he should have been wearing. It was like amateur hour.

Aaron: Our script supervisor was this document we made way in advance that listed the things we needed to watch out for in a scene. And we could just check it before every scene.

Justin: Sometimes we wouldn’t check it.

(laughter)

Aaron: Just dumb shit.

Justin: With production you don’t think, “oh I need a script supervisor!” you think “oh, I need a camera!” But our script supervisor on Spring was … I’m not shining anyone on, but I don’t think there are better script supervisors out there. I don’t think they exist, we got the best one.

Resolution was totally your movie but I’m assuming Spring had more outside funding. Did other people have a say in the finished film?

Aaron: That’s a great question because that was our worry. Resolution turned out well because we got to do what we wanted. We took whatever risks we could and tried to make a really interesting film. So on our next film, it was like “how are we going to do this without getting into bed with the wrong people? Do we want to make another film or hold on to our scruples?” And we ended up getting really lucky by not having any outside interference again. We have a financier that pretty much lets us do what we want and a cast that’s incredible. There’s always the game of casting for sale value versus talent and stuff like that. But Lou Taylor Pucci (Thumbsucker, Evil Dead remake) is the most talented mother f*cker on the planet and he’s awesome, really awesome. He just dives right into the role. In many, many ways we got super lucky. And we just have to keep hoping we get as lucky as we keep getting.

Talk about how the next film happened, since you made Resolution completely on your own. Did it help you get an agent or manager that hooked you up?

Justin: For Resolution we got really lucky and made it into a major film festival just by submitting. And then you end up surrounded by people on the business side of things that you build relationships with. Most of the people we did Resolution with were people that we ended up making Spring with, on the business side of things. As far as agent and manager, not so much. We have kind of a manager now but the thing is, as far as making stuff like Resolution and Spring, you make that stuff outside the system and it’s kind of separate from your agent and manager stuff, in a lot of ways. There’s basically a budget range at which you can make … let’s call it “unique material.” And once you go over that it’s like … you’ll get offers for remakes or things that are a very slight variation on something that already exists, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you definitely can’t make stuff like Spring or Resolution within that system.

If someone offered you one of those remakes would you make it and learn on their dime, or would you rather plow ahead with your own stuff?

Justin: Honestly, it’s a delicate game of playing in both worlds because they both have their advantages.

When I watched Resolution I was really taken with how you used different types of scares … do you have a philosophy about what types of scares to use? And why? Or do you just go with your gut about what’s scary?

Aaron: There’s a little bit of theory behind it. We have kind of a cowboy approach when it comes to the tone of our films, where we just kind of go and make whatever the moment is work. If it’s scary we make it as scary as we can, if it’s funny we make it as funny as we can. And for scares … it’s very rare that we’ll time a jump scare. That’s not really our thing. Sometimes it happens, but if it happens every five seconds and the person (in the movie) is like “damn, you’re always trying to fool me!” to be honest that’s like the worst jump scare in the world. And it happens way to often. But if you can get it right it’s just awesome. Our favorite thing, honestly, is just tone. When you can scare people with just the tone of dread and building unease and combine that with something that is conceptually unique and frightening, that’s our favorite thing. If we can find that and really scare people with it, that’s really cool.

The one jump scare that stands out is when Michael (Peter Cilella) goes into the cave, but even though it’s not “the monster” of the film, it’s still a scary scenario.

Justin: With supernatural horror, the hardest thing is to sit there and try to come up with new things that are scary. It’s really tough. Even if you watch something like The Conjuring which is effective, but every single thing in it has been done before. It’s tough to break new ground. When you really think about it, we’re living in a world where people have been trying to make myths since [civilization] has existed, so 4,000 years of people trying to outdo you and you have to sit at your desk and try to think of something that is hopefully not derivative and can still scare people in a new way …

Aaron: Or if not scare you then resonate with people and make people think a little bit about their humanity. Anything that can turn that on its head … and that’s the thing about Justin’s writing, he’s always trying find a way around what’s already been done. That’s one of the reasons we both get along so well, because we both mutually feel like you could do things that have been done before really well and people may like it, but it’s just already been done so it’s uninteresting to us. Not that we’re the most original filmmakers in the world, though we strive to be, but you can never get away from your past.

(pause)

That sounded way more epic than I mean, but you know what I mean.

*laughter*

Aaron: It’s always funny when people say our stuff is original and we say that’s what we’re striving for … but on the poster is a cabin in the woods.

tad-resolution

It’s a tough balance, because the audience does come back to see tropes. I remember seeing the poster with the arm handcuffed to the wall and thought it might be “torture porn” (which it isn’t). But while having a character handcuffed to the wall is a major element in the story, it’s not the whole movie, though I can see why they chose that image to promote it.

Justin: We mostly made that poster ourselves and we were trying to get something that was very evocative, that you’d look at and have kind of a visceral reaction. In hindsight it might sell the movie differently than it is, but what it does do — because right now it’s the DVD cover — is that it intrigues a lot of people. And even though that’s slightly different sometimes than you’re expecting, how do you sell the visual of Resolution? What is THE visual of the movie? Well, it’s a voyeuristic mind twist … how do you find the visual for that? You know?

Absolutely. To be clear, I didn’t know you guys designed the poster and I wasn’t trying to critique the quality.

Justin: No, we feel the same way! It’s totally fine.

It’s so true that Resolution has a complex idea behind it. Can you talk a little bit about how you juxtaposed the supernatural force in the movie with the addiction of Chris (Vinny Curran)? Was that your plan from the start or did it develop along the way?

Justin: The supernatural mythology came first and the character drama came second, just in the writing process. But then in the total making of the film they’re of equal importance. But to be totally honest the first thing that came to my brain was the mythology. And it’s weird. Aaron and I have made three of four things now with some kind of supernatural mythology, and with two out of those three there’s so much done with suggestion. There are whole worlds of mythology we’ve developed in at least two projects — one is a short film we’ve got coming up — that go really deep and there’s a lot suggested … but it’s fun not to get too far into it in the actual story. In Spring we get pretty far into the mythology. We talk about it explicitly quite a bit.

So much of horror is about what you don’t know and mythology is a tool we use to explain things. Do you fight for the balance to have enough info for the audience to make sense of things while keeping things vague enough to be scary?

Justin: With everything in film making you have the issue of how much you are showing and how much you are telling. I think what Aaron and I have found with the last few projects is that you just have to do both a lot. You can do the kind of film school thing where it’s just showing and you end up with something like “wow, it’s so Lynchian!” And that’s great, but if you’re not doing a story about a vampire or a werewolf or something, with a mythology that people have engrained in them, if you’re not talking about what you’re showing it’s a very different experience. And the degree to which people comprehend what is going on will be much lower. But that’s always a challenge, showing versus telling, and how much to do each.

Aaron: Whenever you think about a film with no dialog you think “impressive! Cool!” But every time I’ve ever watched a film with no dialog, I think “this is weird and they trying really hard.” The only time I’ve seen it work is in like the first nine minutes of There Will Be Blood. And why? Because he’s alone! Then as soon as he’s with people he starts talking.

Justin: At this point you could probably do any variation on the zombie mythology without dialog and people would get it. (laughs) That might be kind of an interesting thing, a really meditative, poetic zombie movie. People would totally get it.

I think a lot of indie films get basic coverage of a scene but don’t have the time or money to select shots that really get the film to the “next level” and have meaning to them. Were there sequences in Resolution that you wanted to film but couldn’t?

Aaron: Honestly, that was one of the reasons when Justin came to me with this script, that I came on board. We weren’t going to be like wearing our father’s shoes with the story, because it required the aesthetic. If we had a hundred million dollars to shoot this movie, it would have looked exactly the same. It’s the only way it could have looked.  It has to be this kind of voyeuristic, naturalistic thing. It has to look this way because there’s a story reason for it. So when Justin and I were talking about how to approach the movie, we spent a lot of time on location and we figured out what looks the best. At least so we’re not looking at garbage, you don’t hate looking at the movie because it’s a bunch of plaster white walls and shitty lighting. We were designing an approach of beautiful naturalism. We didn’t actually reference any movies, but the one person who does this really well is Terrence Malick. Now the movie doesn’t look anything like Terrence Malick, but his approach is the same. You don’t think “oh, that was well done lighting” or “oh, that gaffer was great!” instead it feels like “oh, that gaffer didn’t have to work very hard because the lighting was already beautiful.” Now our gaffer did work very hard, but we worked to make it look as natural as possible. The camera work had to have a natural point-of-view look that actually was in the script. It was written as “halfway between Steadicam and handheld” and we got this big rig that kind of looks like a scorpion that hangs the camera off my shoulder and we were able to kind of get that look. Here and there the rig doesn’t hold up, but mostly it did. And we shot Spring the same way, we ended up liking it that much.

 I’ve read that you had three months of rehearsal time with your main actors. How essential was that to the finished product?

Justin: Yeah, I think the most important part leading up to production is the rehearsal time with the actors. We actually re-write the script, the dialog, and tailor fit it to the actors. That’s how you get it looking like it was improvised. There’s almost nothing improvised, we just go through a really long rehearsal process and make sure everything is really naturalistic and conversational. Actually, it’s a thing that’s kind of scary, because as we move up in budget we’ll have to go to producers one day and say “we want to bring our actors to set three weeks before filming.” I think we save our producers money, though. Everything is really worked out before we get to set.

Aaron: It’s no joke. I don’t think any producer would believe it but that’s only because they don’t ever actually get three weeks of rehearsal so they don’t see the results. But we barely ever have to clear the set for blocking or work out kinks, because they’re already worked out a week ahead of time. It sounds like we’re just being idealistic, but actually as producers ourselves in addition to directing, we would insist on it not just for the performance but it also saves a lot of time on set.

Justin: We did nine hour work days in Italy. That’s just what they do. Normally it’s twelve over here, twelve plus, so losing one quarter of our day, the only reason we were able to make it was because our actors were so on point. And the same thing with Resolution, we had short days on Resolution. They just knew their character and walked right into it with very little adjustment. That was worked out so much earlier they had been able to think about it and process it. Honestly, I’ll say it again. With Resolution and Spring we just got super lucky because with Resolution we had that cabin accessible, so we’d just go block it out in the cabin. And even if we couldn’t, the guy’s handcuffed the whole time, you know? In Spring we took over that little city basically, that little town we were shooting in, and we were able to just go to every single location to block it out. That said, we know we can’t always block it out, it’s just always preferable.

Aaron: And it’s better for the actors, not just for timing but to be able to actually see where we’ll be shooting.

Justin: I wanted to say another thing about the way Aaron lights, is that it’s doubly impressive. I think as far as the realm of indie film goes, he is in my opinion the best DP. Everything looks amazing. But what’s especially impressive is that when we get to set he lights in such a way that he’s thinking about how we’re not going to be able to do a major relight as we establish all these things, yet he’s still making it look really good.

Aaron: The reason Soderbergh shoots all of his own stuff is because it’s just one less conversation. In our case, obviously both of us are really into aesthetics, as a filmmaker you have to be, but always when a choice comes down to more time shooting an actor’s face or more time lighting, the good news is that because I’m directing and shooting and Justin is right there with me, we can always make the right choice which is shoot more time with the actor’s talking. The actors are going to look beautiful because they’re beautiful people, and as long as my lighting isn’t garbage then we can do something for them. But, getting them more takes, letting them “feel it” is so much more important than saying later “at least it was lit beautifully but the performance was off.” No one ever says that.

Speaking of which, I thought the acting from secondary characters in Resolution was very good, notably Zahn McClarnon who played Charles. Did you have to change your approach with him given the fact you didn’t have three months of rehearsal?

Justin: Always with day-players or people that come for just a couple of days, you spend a lot of time casting. What is that saying, 90% of directing is casting? In the case of day-players you just do a really thorough audition process and hope you get your first choice (which in that case, Zahn was our first choice). And then you pray and then they come to set. You can say a few things to them, but there’s to trick to directing. You need to speak clearly and be a good communicator, but once you tell them what you want … you just hope.

Justin and Aaron are currently in post-production on Spring. If you’d like to watch their current work, check out Resolution via iTunes or Netflix streaming, or check out their short films on YouTube:

The Science of Story: Talking about Gravity with a NASA Engineer

I had the opportunity to watch Gravity this weekend with Robby Stephenson, Senior Engineer in the Mechanical Engineering Division at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Afterwards we talked about the science on display in the film, what they got right and what seemed off. More importantly, we talked about how these things affected the story.

We also poked fun at George Clooney a little bit, just because.

Joining us in the conversation was Regan Hutson, a photographer and science buff who had some great things to contribute.

Warning: This article is for folks that have already seen the movie. We jump around a lot in the chronology of the movie and give major SPOILERS.

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James Roland: Okay, tell us what was fake. Or what stood out to you, not just the science but whatever.

Robby Stephenson:  I’m not usually an emotional person for a movie, but my emotions were all up and down. In a regular blockbuster or something, it’s like “yeah, things are blowing up but they’re not in danger” but I guess the realism was just so good … I was getting tense and I would catch myself not breathing and gripping my arm rests.

James: I did that too and it was my second viewing.

Regan Hutson: There were points with all the debris that it almost felt like a Michael Bay film.

James: Like the second time the debris comes she doesn’t get hit at all but everything around her gets destroyed.

Regan: Right.

James: Which they kind of had to do because if that capsule even gets pierced once she’s be out of commission, so they kind of had to fake it.

Robby: The biggest thing that sticks out to me was when Sandra Bullock lets George Clooney go … there’s nothing that pulls him away. They’re in space, they’re just floating. They’re not on the Titanic!

James: I was curious about that, because they stop sharply …

Robby: Yeah, so once you stop, you’re stopped. Nothing’s gonna make you move any more.

James: Clooney says the ropes are too loose and then you see her giving way …

Robby: But there’s nothing pulling on him.

James: My thought was they did such a good job with the physics in the beginning  …

Robby: I had the exact same thought.  When they were on the space shuttle everything looks really good, with the bolt floating away and her twisting around … but once they got on the space station I felt like the quality suffered a little bit.

James: A little bit, yeah.

Robby: All they would have had to do was have something hit the space station and it was rotating, then you’d have the centrifugal force. That would have been enough to pull him away. But it was fairly stable from what I could see.

James: Yeah.

Robby: But they got a lot of stuff right.

James: What about the fire, did that seem realistic to you?

Robby: Yeah, fire is one of the biggest dangers up there and they’ve had a couple of small ones.

James: And it’s orb-like?

Robby: Yeah, you should watch some of the videos they have with the physics of flame and candles and water in zero gravity.

James: Someone pointed out to me that even though you have pressure from your body, your intestines are used to the pull of gravity so they are affected as well. They’re essentially floating inside of you, something I hadn’t thought about.

Robby: Space is a constant feeling of falling.  It’s like going down the side of a roller coaster.  Something like half to two thirds of astronauts get sick, they expect it.  I think they don’t plan anything for their first day up there.

Regan: One of the things I couldn’t get out of the back of my head was  out of the entire international space station … nothing breached it. So the entire thing is still full of oxygen.  Which is kind of necessary for there to be some hope for her to survive, but it seems really, really unlikely.

James: Unless there was a hose inside she could plug into for oxygen, but I don’t know if that even exists.

Robby: Yeah, I don’t know a lot about the suits. But I do know you can’t take them off that fast.

James: That’s a good example though of where they needed to fake some things for the sake of story.  Later she sees she has seven minutes before the debris comes again, and in the next scene she’s outside the ship and I’m thinking “just seven minutes to get the suit on and get outside, you’re gonna rush and forget something.”

Robby: Yeah, everything was really compressed.  They don’t do anything fast.

James: To me, stuff like that is a given in a movie. If you go in nitpicking that then you’re missing the point.

Robby: I’ve observed space walks and it’s corn growing … I mean, it takes two hours to do anything. You want to see the highlights!

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James: It’s interesting. You could argue that because the whole movie evolves (or devolves, depending on your world view) into a story of faith, that as she goes along it gets more and more incredible and less realistic.  I don’t know if that’s intentional or if I’m just reading into it.  Like, what do you feel about the re-entry scene? Sandra Bullock’s character says she has a fifty-fifty chance, but I think I remember learning it’s a lot less than that … isn’t there a really narrow window where you won’t burn up?

Robby: Yeah, there really is.  I think the Soyuz are fairly foolproof, I mean they’re Russian so they’ve been flying them for 40 or 50 years. It’s an automated system. But you gotta hit a narrow window and get everything oriented the right way.

Regan: Wasn’t there a mission where just a small piece of damage to the shielding caused the entire thing to collapse during re-entry? Just knowing that, the probability seem very low [she’d survive]. But I guess the capsule was internal through the whole thing until she starts to re-enter so the shielding could have been protected.

James: My take on it was that wasn’t how it was supposed to go down, but because it was already falling she went down in the wreckage and then it broke apart around her. But then she was spinning and it righted itself, so I’m assuming that’s automated.

Robby: It is designed to right itself, a heavy side down kind of thing.

Regan: So the aerodynamics keep it oriented so the shielding carries the brunt of the heat.

James: What did you all think about the fire extinguisher scene? In a way I think the filmmakers fought against themselves because they did such a good job showing how fast they are moving and how hard it is to grab on to another moving object that it ultimately seems impossible.

Regan:  I think the question in that scenario is would a fire extinguisher have enough thrust?

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Robby: At the end when she ran out, she threw the can away from her to get a little extra thrust, I thought  that was a nice touch.

James: So that would actually work?

Robby: Yeah, it’s a change in momentum. You can throw anything and you’d get somewhere.

James: When she launches from the ISS and goes to the Chinese space station and makes the leap … presumably that’s incredibly fast, right?

Robby: If you think about it … it took her about an hour to get there so … orbital dynamics are funky.  Once you point in the direction you’re going you just coast. You see that when the two astronauts are tethered together.

James: Is there a certain amount of friction from solar winds?

Robby: There’s enough friction that you have to care about it when it comes to satellites, but it’s minimal. It would take like a month to slow down.

James: So how fast would you say that they were going?

Robby: Relative to each other? They’re all going 20,000 miles an hour. But the relative rate … a couple miles an hour? One to ten miles per hour, something like that? Which is enough to jerk your arm pretty good, imagine trying to catch someone rolling down a hill.

Robby: So what happened to the Chinese astronauts? Did they evacuate?

James: I assumed so, but why did they leave an escape pod?

Regan: Wouldn’t you want any evacuation system to be redundant in case the first didn’t work?

James: Good point. As near as I can tell, because I’m not an expert, all the points where they fudged the science were for story points.

Robby: Yeah.

James: Like when she gets thrown off at the beginning, the chances of him finding her seem so slim.

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Robby: Yeah, you couldn’t see anything out there.

Regan: Maybe the way she was spinning she was the only intermittent light source.

Robby: Yeah.

Regan: One thing that bothered me … do you remember the Radiolab episode where they’re talking to the astronaut, and he talks about how black the shadows are?  Having a photography background and paying attention I kept thinking “there’s definition in those shadows, that shouldn’t happen!”

JamesBut that’s just such an amazing opening and they have to get themselves out of it somehow. Probably every step of the way the filmmakers would ask “can we do this?” and the science adviser would say “no” and they’d say “well … we’re going to do it anyway.”

Robby: They don’t really have a jet pack like that, though.  I mean, they have maneuvering units but you don’t have nearly that capacity for flying around.  I don’ t even think they use them anymore.

James: The key word is “prototype”, George Clooney calls it a prototype.

Robby: Yeah, they throw that in there to justify it.

James: My thought was that it’s such a big deal to un-tether, what if the jet pack failed? But that’s sort of George Clooney’s character in this, he’s really out there. Kind of one note.  It’s maybe the most one note character he’s played … when they get to the dream-version of him, there isn’t even any hyperbole, that’s just him!

Robby: I have to admit (regarding the dream sequence),  my first thought was “he couldn’t have done that, that’s really stretching it!”

James: And at first you can’t see the astronaut’s face, so you think maybe it was another survivor or a rescue mission … then they open the hatch.

Robby: And you can’t do that!

James: And I thought “are they really doing this, going for a bleak, dark humor ending?” He climbs inside, looks at her dead body, and goes, “whoops.” At first you can’t figure out what’s going on, then as he starts to talk it dawns on you that there’s only one option … and it’s cheesy.

Robby: Yeah. I half expected her daughter to appear.

James: She’s hanging outside the window, “Mom! Mom!”

*Laughter*

James: From then until the end is where they just pour on the cheese.  I actually felt the earlier stuff is more powerful. When they’re just floating by and he’s talking to keep her sane, and she has that little monologue about her daughter dying. It’s so incredible.

Regan: I think one of the things I appreciated because it was in the same tone but it doesn’t hit you over the head as much was when she gets to the ISS and she takes off her spacesuit and just floats there.

James: So beautiful.

Regan: The shot turns into her as a fetus in the womb, down to even the umbilical cord!

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James: And it’s a shedding of the cocoon with the space suit … I felt that shot was powerful and earned. I thought the one at the end that didn’t work as well, because it was kind of a repeat thematically, was the “evolution” shot when she crawled out of the water.

Regan: Her struggling to get up on her feet was pretty justified.

James: True, but the angle they chose to film it was very specific.

Robby: Then they shoot up at her as she staggers off.

James: You half expect to see a monolith and she starts dancing around it with a bunch of apes.  It’s a beautiful shot, but it seemed a little on the nose to me.

Regan: That’s funny, that association didn’t occur to me until you said it.

James: I’ve heard other people talk about it, but maybe it’s more subtle than I thought.

Robby: I just thought it was cool they acknowledged how hard it is to walk after being in space because of the muscle loss.

James: I love when Sandra Bullock laughs because of the irony of the moment.  She has some good dialog and some cheesy dialog throughout the movie, but she owns all of it.  There’s so much talking to herself.

Robby: That’s got to be hard for an actor.

James: It is. And her character changes SO much by the end, she’s great.

Regan: It’s like a miniature version of Castaway with a female lead once George Clooney is gone.

James: George Clooney is Wilson?

Robby: “I’m coming for you!!!!!”

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James: She goes and buys a cardboard cutout of him when she gets home.

Regan: So that’s why his character’s so one-dimensional.

Robby: There it is!

James: Wow. Ouch. 

Regan: I wondered about when they get back to the space shuttle after everything’s destroyed, it didn’t make sense to me that there would be things floating around inside. I thought every loose object would have been evacuated when the hull was breached.

Robby: They do keep things tied down.

Regan: But there were little things like the Marvin the Martian doll and pens, all floating freely.

Robby: Yeah, so that should have been blown out, I think you’re right.  I will say this, the realism that they miss, which most people won’t notice …  is the orbital dynamics. The space stations aren’t all that close to each other.  The Hubble is in a completely different orbit.  And orbital dynamics are weird. I took classes in this. ‘Cause to go faster you first slow down and get in a lower orbit, then speed up and get to a higher orbit. When you trade altitude for speed, it’s all completely counter-intuitive.  So flying an approach vector, when they dock to the space station or something, it’s very non-intuitive.

James: So you go faster when you’re lower? In the same way that the outer edge of a record is moving at a different rate of speed from the center?

Robby: It’s the reverse of that, because on the outer edge of a record you’re going faster,  but in space when you’re in a higher orbit you’re actually going slower.  So to go from a low orbit to a high orbit you speed up, but by the time you get to the other side of the orbit you’re going slower and you would shoot your rocket in the opposite direction of what you might think.  It’s weird.

James: Wow.

Robby: So they dock from beneath, from the Earth direction, but it’s counter-intuitive, you can’t just point where you want to go and shoot your rocket.

James: And [the space stations are] at different altitudes.

Robby Yes. But even if they were, you can’t just speed up and go there, because as you speed up you’ll change orbit.

Regan: It make sense to me that something orbiting at a lower altitude needs to be moving more quickly so that the centrifugal force is countering gravity, but if you are at one orbit and you just push yourself down, are you going to increase in speed for some reason? Or do you have to push yourself to increase speed so that your orbit doesn’t degrade?

Robby: The weird thing is that it’s a little bit of both. So if you’re in a circular orbit your speed is the same everywhere.  But if you’re in an elliptical, if you go oval, your speed varies quite a bit.

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James: In the movie they make it seem like they could just shoot around and visit each other up there.

Robby: And that was definitely necessary for part of the story.

Regan: We’ve all been watching movies set in the future where they fly around in space like they’re in planes.

James: I’m curious. Everyone’s been talking about the realism and all the things they can find wrong … but I don’t remember people talking this much about the realism of Apollo 13 when it was released, do you?

Regan: Oh yeah, I do.

Robby:  I read things about how they had the wrong patch on their suits!

Regan: Do you mean picking it apart the same way?

James: Yes. Or lauding it.

Regan: I remember seeing an interview with Ron Howard where he talked about the premier and how they invited folks that worked on the Apollo missions and how they couldn’t believe some of it was done with computer.

James: Not to knock Gravity at all, but when everyone was talking about how realistic it was I just thought “well, Apollo 13 did it years ago.” But they also  had actual events to build on, Gravity is a fictional event.

Robby: That debris problem is very real up there, though.  There’s lots of junk up there.  And NORAD has to track everything down to the size of a basketball or something like that.  And every now and then they have to move the space station out of the way to keep it from getting hit.

James: Does the Earth’s rotation affect all this? Can you put something in orbit counter to the Earth’s movement?

Robby: Yes, but it just takes a whole lot more fuel.  Launching eastward is a whole lot easier than launching westward.

James:  So [in the movie] the debris is traveling the same direction as they are.

Robby: If you have an explosion it’s going all over the place.  The movie said something about the debris moving at 20,000 mph relative speed, which means it’s actually going about 50,000, I don’t know if it could have gotten that fast. But if you go look at the Endeavor space shuttle down at the science center and look at the windshield, it’s pitted.  That’s specks of dust going 20,000 miles per hour.

James:  Seeing it a second time I was determined to figure out how they did certain shots, but it’s a testament to the story that I got sucked in again and forgot to do that.

Robby: They got the northern lights in there.  That made me catch my breath. A lot of astronauts talk about seeing that. *pause* It really is a great movie.

James: Despite how terrifying it is, there’s gonna be a huge influx of applications to NASA.