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'Mad Max: Fury Road' - Stop the Presses! A Woman Edits an Action Film

05/19/2015 01:53 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

"Filmmaking is not for the faint-hearted," asserts South African-born film editor Margaret Sixel. The mother of two boys, Buda (19), and Tige (15), is one of a growing number of women editing the male domain of action films. Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth in the franchise that began back in 1979, and made Mel Gibson a star. But this isn't your father's Mad Max. Gibson has been replaced by Tom Hardy and joined by Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa. Geopolitical issues like dying to live a better life in Valhalla, and lack of water, intertwine with a feminine warrior motivated by revenge, a desire to protect abused women, and an opportunity to start fresh beyond the yoke of a diseased male oppressor. The parallels to modern-day feminism, a woman fighting to be respected for more than she is perceived, aren't hard to make. And while director, George Miller, operates at video-game intensity, jamming the action-packed chase movie in a desert with surreal vistas and jaw-dropping stunt sequences -- which caused the audience I saw it with to burst into spontaneous applause and whoops of adrenaline approval -- he has also created a believable female action star of the caliber of Alien's, Ripley, (Sigourney Weaver). When Charlize hangs from speeding trucks, handles guns, fights, and holds her own with our hero, we buy it. As the star herself says, "I hate nothing more than little girls fighting muscle bound men and beating them. It's not believable."

"It's like a massive Rubik's Cube, this movie," admits Miller, who gave the daunting task of editing 480 hours of footage -- that would run for three weeks if played uninterrupted from a 135 multiple-camera shoot -- to his wife. A product of Australia's Film School, Margaret Sixel initially turned her husband down, asking, "why do you want me to do an action film?" George's eyes dance as he repeats his reply triumphantly. "Because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie." He elaborates. "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 Sixel tells it differently. "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?"

While women in entertainment have been making strides in domains thought to be off-limits to them -- women-driven comedy (Bridesmaids), directing (Kathryn Bigelow picking up an Oscar for The Hurt Locker -- a critical and commercial success) -- editing has been gaining in women cutting together visuals men think of as uniquely their own. Scorsese has long worked with Thelma Schoonmaker in films no one would call soft. Dede Allen helped make Bonnie and Clyde's final shootout unforgettable. Verna Fields edited Jaws, and Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon have edited all of JJ Abrams' features since 2006, including Mission: Impossible and the upcoming, Star Wars.

But in an industry where flextime is not a consideration, and the editor is 'manning' the household while her husband is on another continent, how does it play out? "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."

"Being his wife helps only in that when we make something better, 98 percent of the time we agree on the choice. We understand each other's sensibilities. That's important because when you are not in sync, lots of people have opinions in the editing room and you can really go off in the wrong direction."

"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."

With women making up 20 percent of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, Margaret doesn't consider gender relevant to editing. "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." When her husband discusses the subtext of the film he mirrors the importance of gender cooperation. "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."