Mad Max and The Female Editor
Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie made in the editing room. With very little dialogue, lots of complicated action scenes, a near-endless car chase, and many mostly-unnamed characters to connect with and keep track of, the movie’s editing made the difference between a gripping action movie and an incoherent mess.
So it’s odd, perhaps, that director George Miller chose Margaret Sixel as the movie’s editor. Not only had she never worked on an action movie before, instead working on movies like Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City, she didn’t even particularly like action movies. Yet she made the movie a triumph, and became the 12th woman in history to win the Oscar for best editing.
People have attributed her success to the fact that she’s a woman, working in the action genre. Miller himself said he wanted her to work on the movie “because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie.” But Sixel denies that, telling The Huffington Post: “I don’t feel very female about it.” And I think it does a slight disservice to Sixel’s talent to attribute her success to the fact that she’s a woman, as though all male editors edit in exactly the same way, and all female editors bring more emotion and empathy to the equation. Sixel didn’t create an Oscar worthy movie out of over 470 hours of footage because she was a woman.
But I think it helped that she brought a different perspective — not necessarily the perspective of being female, but the perspective of someone who’s not seen a lot of action movies. She hadn’t internalized a sense of how these movies “should” be done, and so was able to bring something new. Her fresh perspective made it easier for the movie to avoid tropes and narrative laziness, and that’s not a case of gender, so much as a case of bringing a different eye to the project.
That isn’t to say that gender doesn’t matter at all. Editing, along with other technical fields with directing and cinematography, force the viewer into the perspective of the artist, even if we never think of them as we watch. They decide how a moment is framed, what angle is used, what’s left in the movie and what’s left on the cutting room floor — we see the entire movie through whatever perspective they create. This means that we often see movies through that straight white male gaze, leading, intentionally or unintentionally, to significant differences in how male and female characters are presented, such as where viewers’ eyes are drawn in each shot. One of the cinematographers for Mad Max even commented that he struggled to follow Miller’s directive to keep the focus of the scene in the center of the shot, because his instinct told him to include the beautiful girls in the back of the cab in the shot too. We need different perspectives in film, and having more women behind the camera and in the editing room is an important part of that. It lets us see movies we’ve all seen before — action movies, superhero movies, any kind of movie — with different eyes.
But gender isn’t the whole story. The success of Mad Max: Fury Road wasn’t just because Margaret Sixel was a female editor. It’s because of the magical combination of her female perspective, and her non-action-movie perspective, and her unique world perspective, and her immense talent and hard work and dedication. It’s not an “oh it was done by a woman” thing. It’s an “it was done by Margaret Sixel” thing.