Hats off to Margaret Sixel, the South African born editor of Mad Max: Fury Road. Up to that point, George Miller’s long-term editing partner (and also his wife) had never edited an action film before. And now she’s turned in the adrenalin main-lining film with surprising characterisation and depth, all told on the move in service to story, that leaves all other action flicks choking in its Namibian location dust.
When Miller broached the subject of taking it on, she questioned his choice in her (and probably sanity in doing it as much “for real” himself). “Because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie,” he replied. He didn’t make it easy on her:
“In the old days, you had a very short time to get your crew out of there — the guy who starts the explosion has to get out of the explosion. Now we leave the cameras on. They have a chip that runs 40 minutes. You might only get three seconds of footage. There were massive amounts of footage. Margaret had to find two hours to make it work. Mad Max 2 had 1200 cuts. This has 2700 — and it’s not much longer. She’s got a low boredom threshold and she’s a big problem solver.”
Margaret told The Huffington Post:
“It wasn’t that it wasn’t my genre. We have two boys together; George would be away for eight months. It’s a lot to take on — almost a three-year job. In that context, I had to figure it out. Once I decided, I was determined to finish.” She laughs, “I haven’t gone out for almost three years. I’ve been sitting in a room. It’s the least glamorous side of the industry.” “My boys were very into the film and supportive. If they saw me stressed they’d say, “Mum, you are the only mother in the world cutting an action film. Do you know how many people want your job?”
“Editing this film was tough because there’s very little dialogue, which is how scenes are structured, so the options are endless. It was a relief to find a scene with dialogue. You cut them in a day. It’s ridiculously easy. The biggest challenge are notes from test screenings. You can’t get defensive. You focus and try and address it. But there are times when you have to say, ‘I’m not doing this.’ There was a point in the last few years where I decided I didn’t mind not being liked. It gave me courage. You can’t lose your integrity because someone in the test audience didn’t like it.”
Margaret Sixel was challenged with anything up to six hours worth of footage per day arriving at her edit suite at their home in Australia.
“I kept everything to the bare minimum. It came down to keeping the boys happy and getting the film done. I’d rise at 4:30, so by the time I got to the cutting room at 8:30, I’d already done everything to keep my life rolling. Filmmaking is not for crybabies. There’s no, ‘I’ve got a school concert,’ or ‘I have to go to the doctor.’ You are on call 24/7.” “But I have an editorial team — 25 percent are women — and a very good assistant editor. Your workflow has to be very well organized. You have to be obsessive. You assemble the footage so you can follow the action, rather than make it good. If you have a picture of Charlize looking out the window, then you make your choice, but add all the options, so when George looks at it, he knows he’s mined each frame. He’s forensic about it.”
She doesn’t have a strong opinion on whether or not women make better editors (she of course follows in a strong line of women in her field, from Thelma Schoonmaker (pick a Scorsese) to Anne V. Coates (Lawrence Of Arabia), Verna Fields (Jaws) to MaryAnn Brandon (JJ Abrams editor, also on upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens) – she works alongside men and women:
“I work with a lot of guys in the cutting room. We don’t think about it. I’m really into cutting film, and while George likes to think it’s a positive, I don’t feel very female about it. You’ve got to want it, and you’ve got to like sitting in front of a computer.”
What she does agree with is the core of feminine strength at the center of Max’s “wild dog” journey in Fury Road:
“There’s a zeitgeist out there that resonates, of women healing the world. It becomes the subtext of the story. The idea that men and women have to find accommodation. It’s not war. It’s by mutual regard that those characters survive. I’m still coming to understand what we have done.”