Behind the Scenes: Mad Max

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Writer-director-producer George Miller has created four action-packed, car-centric Mad Max movies, so it’s a surprise to discover he was a practicing doctor in his native Australia when he made the first of them in 1979. He had become fascinated with silent-film storytelling of people like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and he wanted to combine that with the car culture of the bush country where he grew up, as well as his experiences in treating road trauma.

Made on a slim budget, the first Mad Max earned AU$100 million, the biggest-earning Australian movie ever at that point and inspired sequels The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). After a few decades and several false starts, the fourth movie, Mad Max: Fury Road opened in 2015, earned $378 million at the box office and won six Oscars.

The first Mad Max opens with the title card “A few years from now.” Cars and motorcycles are an important part of the culture in the near-future. But in the next three films, vehicles are not just important, they’re central to the characters’ lives.

“Every vehicle is an extension of the character,” Miller says. And his ecological concerns are central to the stories.

To film Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller used 20 cameras during nine months of filming in the desert of Namibia. Dozens of vehicles were created for the film.

Nearly four years after the film opened, Miller and production designer Colin Gibson spoke with Variety-Petersen from their Sydney base about the Mad Max films, focusing on Fury Road.

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TG: Why did you set your first film in the future?

MILLER: It wasn’t philosophical. It was necessity, to keep the budget low. We couldn’t afford to block off streets or rent buildings that were in use. Byron Kennedy, my producing partner when we made the film, and I decided to make it post-apocalyptic; that was sort of accidental in the first one, and it was a lucky accident.

Our budget was 350,000 Australian dollars. A lot went into Max’s vehicle. Byron was obsessed by that particular car. It’s a Ford made in Australia and a lot of them turned up in rural towns. By the time we got to the second and third films, we had more money to make vehicles. But there wasn’t an overall design philosophy. It was what the production designer and art directors wanted to do.

“With the last film, it was a completely different approach. Of all the films, Fury Road was the most carefully considered.

“These are cautionary tales, but they’re more about who we are in the present, and what we might become if we’re not attentive. All the things we see in the news comes to pass: environmental catastrophes, economic collapse, resource wars, and all the rest. Fury Road basically takes place over three days. The audience learns about the world without our pausing to explain it to everybody. That’s why the design of the film was very important.

TG: How many vehicles did you build?

GIBSON: There were 88 ‘car-actors,’ as we called them, instead of ‘characters.’ Even the lowliest motorbike had a name. But we had doubles and triples of certain vehicles. I think there were 132 actual vehicles that we fabricated, decorated, recycled, built and mostly destroyed.

MILLER: We had some simple organizing principles: First, everything is made of found objects that have been repurposed. Second: Everything should have more than one purpose. For example, the Doof Warrior’s two-neck guitar is also a flame-thrower. The third rule: just because it’s the apocalypse, people don’t stop making beautiful things. It shouldn’t look like a junkyard. No matter how impoverished people are, they take found objects and turn them into beautiful things. That is constant throughout history, going back to early man with rock paintings.

GIBSON: With every decision, there had to be an internal logic — which George was very keen on.

MILLER: Any vehicle after the mid-1970s was probably not going to be reusable or repurposed — vehicles with computer boards or that rely on computing and circuit boards. No one could work with them in a post-apocalyptic world. Our (modern) cars are designed to absorb impact if they crash. They crumple. So you can’t restore them in the same way as the older ones. Also, in Fury Road, the cars had much less regard for safety. The characters’ human resources were less valuable than material resources in the world.

GIBSON: Part of the Mad Max look and feel is a certain muscle-car aesthetic. I added the hot-rod and rat-rod world to it. Vehicles in the 1970s were built fast and macho, a much heavier and stronger weight, and the chassis were sturdier. We wanted something that could be repurposed as a battle vehicle and that could survive in the desert. If the world has come to an end, and you can only drive one thing across the desert, I don’t think it’s going to be a Camry.

MILLER: In the fourth film, the vehicles are definitely weapons — and defensive. Furiosa’s War Rig has all sort of defensive devices, a flamethrower, spikes — it’s a mobile fort. Also, vehicles are not only weapons, but almost sacred artifacts. The War Boys have a shrine where they do a V8 salutation, kind of a shrine of steering wheels. The vehicles are fetishized and even sacred artifacts to these War Boys, who have no other context.

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TG: What was the workforce like to create the vehicles?

GIBSON: We had about a dozen mechanics, half a dozen steel workers and eight salvage artists. We divided into teams and worked one character or ‘car-actor’ at a time, worked on what their story was.

The detail and caring were important, with each team told ‘This is your car, put as much as possible into it.’

When we were preparing, George was also busy on Happy Feet 2. Then he arrived one day, pulled his head out of a vehicle and said, ‘Gee, so much detail on the interior, but we’ll never get to see it.’ I said ‘You’re the director. Make sure we do!’

Outside of the core crew, who helped me build, manufacture and work the 88 different cars and bikes, we were trying to find local mechanics who could work on these vehicles and keep them running, plus schlep 50-60 vehicles between locations. Plus there were drivers and transporters.

TG: Americans and Australians seem to have a different relationship to cars than people on many other continents, such as Europeans.

MILLER: That’s true. The car culture in Australia is significant. Much of the country is a fragile desert and there are vast distances. Growing up in rural Australia, it was nothing to travel 150 miles to visit a friend or go to another township. It’s just what people did. When people got a job, the first thing they did was to buy a car and fix it up. Our school friends were always in cars, in an era when seatbelts and safety technology were very different.

Plus we were always watching American movies. As far back as the Mack Sennett silent comedies, movie characters were always in cars, and that was true throughout films in every other decade — for example, Rebel Without a Cause in the 1950s, then over the years Bullitt and American Graffiti, and so on. Watching those movies, their car culture was all very familiar to Australians.

TG: Designing a vehicle is hard, making it functional is even harder. But to survive brutal conditions must be off the charts.

GIBSON: As far as I’m concerned, the methodology actually helped. The production design is all about how you make it and why you make it.

Every stunt required the interaction of four or five vehicles, and you could only be as effective as the slowest vehicle. George had ‘suggested’ it would be ideal if every vehicle could do 100 km per hour, off-road, while carrying 5-12 actors. Those parameters forced us to think like the War Boys, to think about what these characters had to do. It was great that those parameters were worked into the methodology of the film and we let them lead us to make the vehicles better.

We built the story and its requirements right into the vehicles themselves. That made it mechanically, logistically and truthfully a better way to operate.

MILLER: These are all cautionary tales, worst-case scenarios. With all these movies, even though you go into the future, which is an elemental and decayed world, you’re really going into the past, to a medieval structure. There is a dominant hierarchy, where Immortan Joe controls all the resources. It’s a pre-technological age, with power structures that derive from the past. Behaviors have always been the same. We’re using those different lenses to look at what we are now, to pull us out of the present, and to show where it could go wrong.

By Tim Gray, Variety Senior VP