Under any normal circumstances, you would expect that a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, which was an ’80s bastion of testosterone, would continue to be virile in all its components.
However, it may surprise you to learn that even on the 1979 original Mad Max, there were some women carving out design and production roles, but few in a decision-making capacity. This year, the BAFTA nominations pointed out a pleasing shocker. Mad Max: Fury Road is a female-driven movie in more than one sense. Not only is the protagonist and hero of the film a woman this time around (Charlize Theron), but the highly nominated team behind the scenes is, fittingly, full of women as well.
They include Margaret Sixel for editing, Lisa Thompson for production design, Lesley Vanderwalt for makeup and hair and Jenny Beavan for costume design.
While individually these are all women of great accomplishments, with many awards and major successes in their industries, taken together they represent a united force as a solid block of women rather than a parcel. Many have been successful for decades, but have been the minority from film set to film set.
Costume designer Jenny Beavan, who has 11 previous BAFTA nominations, including two wins (A Room With A View, Gosford Park) has been humbly quoted as saying, “As a costume designer, you should not be concerned with putting any personal stamp onto your work. You should only do whatever is right for the particular project.”
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Production designer Lisa Thompson won an Emmy in 2010 for her work as the art director of another very male-dominated film (cast and crew alike), HBO’s The Pacific. Lesley Vanderwalt, also known for Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, assembled a crew of makeup, hair and prosthetics pros totaling 35 people for Mad Max: Fury Road. She said that it was difficult finding people who were willing to travel to Australia and South Africa to work so hard for so long. “Every day, we would do 60-120 of the background ‘War Boys,’ mainly stuntmen.”
Before the film’s release, and during my interview with Charlize Theron, she made it clear that there was no agenda with Mad Max: Fury Road. She insisted that the intention of the filmmaker, George Miller, was to just portray the truth of his characters regardless of what gender they happened to be. Theron has also been quoted as saying, “When we use the word ‘feminism,’ people get a little freaked out.”
Is it likely that the film was subversively intended toward a female audience by intentionally employing a collective of female producers, designers and editors who had a universal vision? Action films do well, for the most part, but with so much at stake with a box-office franchise, perhaps Miller didn’t want to take any chances. Ironically, Theron’s ex, Sean Penn, had a big-budget flop in 2015 with The Gunman, which earned $15 million against a $40 million dollar budget. Then there was the $176 million dollar budgeted Jupiter Ascending, which took in a paltry $181 million, comparatively, representing a profit of less than 3 percent. Miller knew that with a $150 million dollar budget, he needed a female-driven Mad Max: Fury Road to be both aspirational and multilayered to be the success he was looking for. In the end, Mad Max: Fury Road took in over $375 million.
Maybe this is a lesson to be learned by action filmmakers: add a woman’s touch and you broaden your appeal.
The BAFTAs will take place on Sunday, Feb. 14 at the Royal Opera House in London. We’ll certainly be watching and cheering on all nominees.