It came after 90 minutes of wall-to-wall post-apocalyptic action, jaw-dropping smash-em-up stunt sequences peppered with sparse, pragmatic dialogue amid a pounding electronic score.
We watched as the eternal wanderer Max (Tom Hardy) and the rogue Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) fled from their pursuers across a barren desert, barely surviving one wreck after another, in search of the fabled “Green Place of the Many Mothers” — Furiosa’s home from which had been stolen as child. Yet the film’s most powerful collision wasn’t a car crash, but rather a devastating emotional impact after all the vehicular action came to brief halt; a sequence that combined director George Miller’s genius storytelling, Theron’s performance, and a stroke of luck.
First came the reveal: Furiosa is told by the few remaining Mothers that her Green Place sanctuary has become a useless toxic wasteland. Miller cleverly stages this in a whirlwind of overlapping voiceover while the camera stays fixed in a closeup on Furiosa as she realizes her home is gone.
“When anybody receives really devastating news it gets a little fragmented,” Miller says. “You’re picking up enough of the story so you understand something bad had happened without giving an environmental report on the place, and it was played on her face.”
Then came Furiosa’s response. Miller did not write a script for Fury Road, but rather storyboarded the action from start to finish. For this scene, however, his plan was sketchy — he only knew he wanted Furisoa to take a moment for herself, and that he would shoot her reaction from a distance. Yet on the day of shooting, the African desert wind had become so strong it threatened to ruin any take.
“When making movies you got to ‘surf the problems,’ as it were,” Miller recalls. “So instead of cursing the wind, I looked behind us and saw the sand dunes had this wind blowing sand across it. And the sun was getting low in the sky. And I thought, ‘She could walk across the bridge of the dune and into the sun and just respond however she would, having now have completely lost all hope.’”
The team had very little time to get the shot. Miller’s only suggestion was for Theron to remove her prosthetic mechanical arm to become more vulnerable. After a single false start of a just few steps, Theron staggered out onto the dune like a wounded animal, dropped to her knees and screamed into the sunset amid the blasting sand. In just one take, Miller got it; a moment that not only capped his film’s second act, but became the surprise hit’s most epic shot.
“I’m pretty sure it was one take,” Miller said. “I learned this with Jack Nicholson, a very wise man, that actors are like elite athletes — they have to nail the performance right there in the moment regardless of what’s happening. Great performance artists have all the skills of an athlete but also need those emotional human skills they have to convey. I knew in an action film like this Charlize had all those attributes … Charlize is very precise; having been a very fine ballet dancer she understands space and how to move in space, and it was basically us watching her do it. I thank the movie gods all the elements were in place. We were lucky to get the wind, but there wasn’t any luck in getting the performance.”