What Writers Should Learn From Mad Max: Fury Road

Even though Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the best films of all time, it’s hard to say that it is well written, because the movie wasn’t written, at least not in the traditional sense anyway. It did not have a screenplay, and if it did have one, that screenplay would probably have been horrible. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s give it a shot. Let’s try to capture this adrenaline-pounding, insanely detailed, gut-punching madness in words. Let’s start… here. Interior: The Citadel – Throne Room. Servants cover up their master’s mutilated skin ravaged by radiation with plexiglass armour moulded to give the illusion of an alpha male physique he no longer possesses. The armour is covered in military medals, badges and salvaged microchips. A giant belt buckle shaped like a skull on a flaming gear is attached to his waist. He puts on his breathing mask. This is Immortan Joe and…oh my God that took a lot of space and there’s so much detail in everything in this movie. Every car, every weapon and every character is just loaded up with these little hints about their histories and personalities. There’s no way we can describe all of them in any adequate amount of detail in a script or there’d be nothing else in the script. So what should we do? Well, maybe if we find a script of a movie that also has a villainous character with a crazy costume and breathing device, we can find some inspiration. There we go! Okay, so in the script for the original Star Wars, Darth Vader is described as… wait, that’s it? That’s Darth Vader the Darth Vader the script only mentions two details and one of them got cut. Well… yeah, it’s not that surprising because a screenplay should only include the most essential elements of the story while maintaining the pace of the film. The average for most films is that one page of screenplay equals one minute of screen time. Which is why it’s risky to pause the action for half a page to describe a costume when the audience is going to see and understand it all in a nanosecond. And besides, all of the stuff will be added in by costume designers and set designers later. So, a few sharp words are enough to guide them in the right direction. At least, that’s the idea in most scripts. With Fury Road, so much of the appeal is in the depth of its world building that it’s hard to separate the physical details from the story. And we haven’t even gotten to the real trouble yet: the action scenes, otherwise known as – the rest of the movie! So, scrolling up the side here is a my attempt to put the first phase of the first action scene of the movie into words. So, this is where Furiosa and the War Boys fight off a few of the little buzzard cars. It’s about a minute long and it took me a full page of description to write, even though it is by far the most simplistic chase scene in the film with only two or three cars to keep track of. I can’t imagine trying to write this for the finale, when the scene is 17 minutes long is fully three-dimensional and has about a million stunts. It’s absolutely enthralling cinema, but it would make for a pretty boring read. Okay, well…think. What’s another movie with a really tense action scene that we can use for inspiration? Maybe even one that I’ve praised on this very channel before. Yes, that’s perfect! All right, what does the script say? Wait, that, that’s it? Now the script does have a couple of lines about jumping a chasm, which includes this little moment from Gimli but it feels like it might have been a separate scene from the stairs and even with that bit the section is sparse. The whole thing is just a third of a page even though it takes up two and a half minutes of screen time. But just like listing every description of the physical world will make for a boring overwritten script, so will listing every minute action taken by the characters. Except, hold on. There’s gotta be a better way to write action in a screenplay than to just skip it. I mean, maybe there’s another universally acclaimed, action-heavy movie released in the past few years that figured this out? Perfect! Okay, so this comes from the script for John Wick when it was originally titled Scorn and isn’t reflective of the final film, but it is still useful. I mean, take a look at all of them em dashes and ellipses sprinkled everywhere. Your eyes just glide across the page when reading it, and it’s almost like the writer is directing the edit by breaking up his sentences this way. Every time there’s something that makes you look in a different direction, there’s a break in the prose. It helps keep this pulsating energy continue throughout the entire story. And even though the events changed from script to movie and there’s a lot more action added, that feeling is captured in the film. But as with a lot of scripts, it’s really the directors and other members of the production that fleshed out the blow-by-blow of the action scenes. So, it feels like all the reasons most frequently cited as the reasons Fury Road is good: the detailed world building, the visceral action, the visual storytelling, are all aspects that would, by the conventions of most screenplays, have been left out or downplayed. Things that someone else down the line would figure out. Which is why it makes sense that this movie did not have a script. Instead, it had storyboards…lots and lots of storyboards. So, I think that if you’re going to figure out why a particular piece of art is good, it’s just as important to look at the process used to create it as it is to analyze the finished product. What you’re looking at here is one of the earliest storyboards for Mad Max: Fury Road made in 1999. What’s interesting about this is that the underlying plot is virtually the same here as it is in the film. It’s got all of the major battles and characters with only some minor details like names changing over time. But the heavy lifting of the writing for this story is all in the details. Miller brought on storyboard artist, Brendan McCarthy, to help him flesh out the world and the narrative. They winded up making 3500 storyboards that captured just about every element at every shot of the film and McCarthy got a writing credit on the movie even though he mostly drew stuff instead of wrote stuff. So, the movie benefited by having this prolonged and hybridized process where the writing concept art and storyboarding were all done simultaneously. This movie is not a series of conversations interrupted by fistfights, it’s fistfights and gunfights and car chases that function as conversations, arguments. “A lot of movies have the talking bits, and they have the action bits. In this case, they were happening together.” Just look at this little scene. Okay, so Nux is trying to blow himself up and Max is trying to stop him. Now we could have just had these characters screaming “I’m gonna do it!” and “Don’t do it!” but that wouldn’t tell the story visually. Instead, there’s a very clear chain of action and reaction in the scene. So Nux prepares to martyr himself but Max sees him. Therefore, he punches the rear window out and tries to grab Nux, but Nux yanks on Max’s chain. Therefore Max can’t grab ’em. But the roof gets blown off by the wind.Therefore Max prevents Nux from killing them both. This clear focus on moves and countermoves continues throughout the film and is much more engaging than just miscellaneous punching. Also, it’s not just that these exchanges are clear and understandable but that they are meaningful, too. Consider the relationship between Max and Furiosa, who go from strangers to enemies to unlikely allies and trusted friends. The shifts are all communicated to us visually and often through the symbolic exchange of guns. So, in their first scene together, they nearly shoot each other with the other person’s weapon that they’ve forcibly taken. When Max gets the upper hand, he makes sure to completely disarmed Furiosa, stealing all of her weapons. But once they’re in trouble, he gives her a weapon. And then there’s this little shot that lasts only six frames but is enough for the audience to register that they are equals now. This is reinforced in a later scene when Max gives Furiosa the sniper rifle, which cements their trust in one another. Whenever an object associated with one character is taken or given to another character, it’s meaningful. And I think when you’re telling a story primarily through the visuals, it solves a lot of problems to emphasize the role of these objects. You couldn’t replace any of this with a line like and then the Fellowship ran down the stairs because you’d be deleting important plot points in character development. All of this makes me wonder: why don’t more m ovies do this or at least, why don’t more action movies do this? Well… Because it’s hard, dummy.
Yeah, I know, but the results are worth it right? The most famous screenwriters in the world are usually famous because of their unique dialogue. But there’s more to writing than just words and cinema has so much more to offer than recording conversations. Mad Max: Fury Road can’t be called well written but it can be called well told and it is. Now, it is a miracle that Mad Max: Fury Road was ever made given that it took so long to get the production going but it was only ever greenlit because it was an entry in a long-standing franchise by an established director. In today’s Hollywood a new story from an untested creator would not get the chance to make it to production based off of storyboards instead of a script. And I think because of that we’re losing out on a whole world of potentially engaging films from some crazy kids out there who can put it down in pictures, but not in words. So if you guys are interested in storyboarding you can learn more about it on Skillshare. Skillshare is this great education platform with more than 17,000 classes in design, motion graphics, writing and more. For storyboarding you can check out Ryan Faulkner’s classes. And personally I’ve been using the courses on the platform to learn about video editing and motion graphics so that I can keep making better videos for you guys. So, use my link in the description to get your first 3 months for only 99 cents. Yes, 99 cents for 3 months. It’s only $10 a month after that so it’s a really affordable platform for what it’s offering. There’s just a lot of really good in-depth content on Skillshare. That offer is good until February 15th so give it a shot and let me know how it goes in the comments. If you like what I do, don’t forget you can support this channel on Patreon, to help ensure that I’m able to keep making these videos and I can give each one the time it deserves to be as good as possible. Lastly, in my previous video, I mentioned that this one would be about Harry Potter, so I just want to say don’t worry. It’s coming next and soon. Keep writing everyone!

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