'Mad Max: Fury Road': driven to the edge
Mad Max: Fury Road has garnered critical acclaim and global box office of $375m and counting. But it was an arduous journey, as director George Miller, producer Doug Mitchell and production designer Colin Gibson tell Tom Grater.
It was during an overnight flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia, in 1997 that George Miller began to conjure images for a return to his beloved Mad Max franchise, the last of which, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, had been released 12 years previously.
At the time, the Australian film-maker — director and co-screenwriter of all three Mad Max instalments — was working on sequel Babe: Pig In The City, having taken a five-year hiatus from directing after Lorenzo’s Oil, which had garnered him an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. But as he flew over the Pacific Ocean, his imagination wandered into the post-apocalyptic wastelands inhabited by Max Rockatansky.
“It played out like a misty vision,” the director recalls. “The first two-thirds of the final film are surprisingly similar to those thoughts.”
Until the 1990s, Miller and his production company Kennedy Miller Productions (originally set up with producer Byron Kennedy, who was killed in a helicopter accident in 1983) had consistently worked with Warner Bros, releasing the Mad Max trilogy alongside Dead Calm (1989) and Flirting (1991). The studio also hired Miller to direct The Witches Of Eastwick (1987), starring Jack Nicholson and Cher, which received a Bafta award for its special effects.
Warner Bros next lined up Miller for an adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact but, after more than a year of development, the studio parted ways with the director and handed the reins to Robert Zemeckis, cooling relations between the two parties.
Miller took his company’s next three projects - Lorenzo’s Oil, Babe and its sequel - to Universal. It took time and lawyers to reach a settlement with Warner Bros over the Contact dispute but part of the eventual outcome was Miller reacquiring the rights to the Mad Max franchise, thus paving the way for a return to the Wasteland.
By the new millennium, the director had fleshed out his ideas and drawn up a firm outline; rather than writing a conventional screenplay, Miller used whiteboards to map out plot points and hired graphic artist Brendan McCarthy to create a series of illustrations that would tell the film’s story (see right).
Armed with their storyboard script, Miller and producer Doug Mitchell felt confident they could get the film financed, but had yet to firm up interest from a studio. (Mitchell joined Kennedy Miller in the mid-1980s; in 2009, the company was renamed Kennedy Miller Mitchell.)
With tensions resolved, the duo even considered taking the project back to Warner Bros — the two sides were about to begin collaborating on animated feature Happy Feet, which would go on to win the best animated feature Oscar in 2007 and take $384m worldwide.
When Mad Max’s original star Mel Gibson expressed interest in reprising the role in 2001, the fact that the actor had a deal at 20th Century Fox led Miller and Mitchell to approach that studio. “We fully intended to make Fury Road with Mel Gibson at Fox,” confirms Mitchell, who says the idea was actively discussed for two years.
At this stage, Miller and Mitchell enlisted another key creative who would have a substantial influence on the look and feel of the final film: production designer Colin Gibson. Having worked as an art director on the Babe films, Gibson was initially brought on board to assist Miller with building the film’s lore.
“My first job was to play anthropologist,” recalls Gibson of the early stages of his decade-long odyssey on the project. “I went through the storyboards with George and wrote a sort of tribal bible of who’s who in the zoo.”
The pair created a complete back-story for the film’s world, expanding on the pre-existing Mad Max universe. Miller remembers the process: “We dug down deep into the subtext. We had to explain how everyone survived the Wasteland: how could a blind, mute man [referencing the film’s guitar-playing Coma-Doof Warrior] possibly survive? We needed to explain everything.”
By the book
The Mad Max bible included backgrounds for all of the film’s characters and objects, notably the multitude of war vehicles that Gibson would go on to design and construct. “We built them out of very basic tenants: that they were suitable for battle; that they were repairable; and that they had an aesthetic created out of a longing for a misremembered past,” he says. “A bit of heart, a bit of art, a bit of guilt — a nice Catholic apocalypse.”
Once the concepts for these cut-and-shut cars and trucks were finalised, the designer embarked on a quest to realise his gargantuan vision, which encompassed 150 vehicles in total: 137 that were functional and a further 13 purpose-built to break up or explode in a particular way.
When it came to sourcing the vehicles, Gibson embraced the mind-set of a post-apocalyptic survivor and decided to build only from salvaged materials. That required a search-and-rescue mission to South Africa, where the country’s apartheid history meant people had been forced to horde “amazing vehicles”. Gibson says of his finds: “I’d come upon men who had warehouses full of cars that they’d kept hidden. Part of the salvage process was discovering people’s dreams and then taking them away and using them for our own nefarious purposes.”
In early 2003, with Mad Max: Fury Road gearing up to go into production in Namibia later that year (the west African country, which borders South Africa, had been identified as a potential shooting location, and is where Fury Road would eventually be shot nearly a decade later), Gibson was hard at work in his workshop there when the call came through from Fox: “‘Don’t spend any more money’,” he recalls being told.
The studio had decided to put the brakes on the project.
According to Miller, “9/11 had blown the film out of the water. The American dollar had collapsed against the Australian dollar, meaning we’d lost 25% of our budget.” But a weakened currency wasn’t the only reason Fox didn’t move forward on the project. “There were also aspects of Mel’s deal that were never closed,” says Mitchell. “It was difficult.”
The film was temporarily shelved, much to everyone’s chagrin — not least Colin Gibson, one of the only crew members already in Africa.
“Much to my sadness, some of the vehicles were scrapped. I had a great day and night out there; me and 12 guys with grinders and gas axes chopped up a lot of the vehicles that were uninsurable and therefore had to be destroyed,” Gibson recalls. “We sold everything else to Flight Of The Phoenix [the 2004 adventure film directed by John Moore], including my workshop, so we recouped some of the money.”
Fury Road spent a few years wandering the wilderness. Miller and Mitchell once again pondered a return to the franchise’s original studio, Warner Bros, but without a lead actor attached the proposition was no longer as firm. Intriguingly, one actor Miller was potentially interested in casting as the new Max was rising Australian talent Heath Ledger. “By this point Mel was really too old for the part,” says Mitchell. “George was interested in Heath, but sadly that never got further than just a chat.”
“Every time Heath came to Australia, we’d get together,” says Miller of the late actor, who passed away in 2008. “I got to know him quite well.”
When Tom Hardy subsequently entered the frame, Miller felt he finally had his man. “Tom walked in the room and it absolutely reminded me of Mel when he had first walked into the room, 30 years before,” he says with a smile. “Tom was just six years old when we first started shooting Mad Max. He has a kind of animal magnetism, a wonderful sense of accessibility but also mystery, a softness but also something volcanic inside. That paradox gives him his charisma.”
In 2009, Hardy was officially cast as Max, along with Charlize Theron as Furiosa, and confidence in the project was restored.
Warner Bros came on board and set a start date of June 2010, this time in the Australian Outback in a mining town called Broken Hill, which had previously been used as a location for Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Seven years after he’d been forced to scrap his previous creations, Gibson was once again hired to craft the vehicles for the film. “I’m glad in many ways that it was put off,” he says. “The time changed what was possible with the vehicles in terms of control. I also believed that we needed to have the special effects guys work along with us as we built.”
This time around, Gibson’s workshop was in Australia, and his team set about building the 150 vehicles needed to realise Miller’s vision. Simultaneously, costumes were designed, props were built and character looks were conceived. The film’s cast also became fully immersed in their preparations, with group sessions involving intense physical training to prepare the actors for their adventure into the Wasteland. With the production looking set to go, however, another setback occurred.
Following a sustained period of record rainfall, what had once been the bare, bleak Outback was now a lush, green meadow. “The Wasteland became a flower garden, the salt lakes had pelicans and fish in them,” recalls Miller.
“The deserts were suddenly turned into flower fields,” adds Mitchell. “We had to pull the plug. We looked at other locations in Australia but it was complicated. We ended up not having a choice.”
For the next 18 months, the team scoured deserts in Chile and the US before deciding to revisit the idea of filming in Namibia. Warner Bros were hesitant. “We had to persuade them that we could still make the film,” says Mitchell. “They were scratching their heads and saying: ‘But all of the vehicles have been built in Australia, it’ll take four months to ship them. Where’s Namibia again?’”
Fortuitously, the production was still eligible to take advantage of certain Australian tax incentives due to a clause stating that if their newfound location could be perceived as the Australian desert, it could still qualify. “That was fantastic because it would have been the death knell otherwise,” says Mitchell. “We were given a lifeline there.”
The fleet of vehicles were subsequently put in containers, along with wardrobe and props that had already been designed in Australia, and placed on a cargo ship delivering mining equipment to the west coast of Africa. On arrival, another workshop was set up so that Gibson and his team could retool the vehicles for the new climate, which involved higher temperatures and softer sand. Miller waxes lyrical about Gibson’s efforts to get the production ready: “Colin brought it all together, it was herculean. He’s some sort of superhero guy.”
In June 2012, principal photography on the long-gestating project finally got underway in the Namibian desert. Unusually for a production of this magnitude, filming was done in sequence. “We had to do that, because whatever attrition there was to the vehicles and characters couldn’t be anticipated,” explains Miller.
As the shoot progressed, the oppressive heat and bleakness of the desert began to take its toll on cast and crew. Sometimes referred to as “the land God made in anger”, the west African nation offered little respite for the makers of Fury Road. “It doesn’t rain in Namibia, it’s so dusty and there are no trees to speak of,” notes Miller. “It was strenuous.”
Towards the end of filming, Miller says a sort of “desert madness” began to set in. “Hugh Keays-Byrne [who plays antagonist Immortan Joe and also played the villainous Toecutter in the original Mad Max] would walk onto set in costume and all the war boys had to do the sign of the V8 and start chanting,” says the director. “It happened naturally out there in the desert. You’re out there every day, in a very remote part of the world, and you’re in the heat and dust; it seeped into all of us.”
Mitchell confirms how testing the production was: “We had more than a thousand people on the crew. It was like a basecamp which we moved four times. You have to imagine the daily reality of supplying food, sanitation… it was fraught with difficulties.”
With reports of the production’s troubles filtering back to the studio, Warner Bros Motion Picture Group president Jeff Robinov flew out to the set to evaluate the situation. He decided to dispatch veteran producer Denise di Novi to Namibia to operate as the studio’s eyes and ears and make sure everything ran smoothly. However, there were no major traumas and the production wrapped not far off schedule in December 2012 at the end of a 120-day shoot.
Following a handful of reshoots in Australia in November 2013, the film entered post-production. Due to the creative team’s determination to do things for real, the CGI work was kept to a minimum: visual effects were primarily used to create the chaotic storm sequence, enhance backgrounds and crowd scenes outside of the citadel, and to digitally remove safety rigs and harnesses from stuntmen (notably the precarious polecats). By early 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road was complete.
The film premiered in Cannes to enthusiastic reviews before going on to gross $375m worldwide, eclipsing the combined lifetime grosses of the previous films in the franchise. This number could have been even higher, had the film managed to secure a release in China — a disappointment that Mitchell calls his “only real regret”. (China doesn’t give reasons for rejecting films from its annual quota.)
Fury Road still has a bright future ahead. Awards are being touted, particularly in the technical and directing categories. It has already been named best film by the National Board of Review, and won eight Academy of Australian Cinema and Television Arts awards, including best director and best film.
In 2016, there might also be a black-and-white version of the film, which Miller confirms was his original intent. A greyscale and silent version was leaked online in September, although it has since been removed. Mitchell says that an official version exists and could yet receive a theatrical release.
Looking further into the future, Miller has once again begun dreaming: “We ended up unconsciously creating two other [Mad Max] screenplays. A second trilogy could happen, if I’m willing to go back into the Wasteland.”
Design for Driving
George Miller and graphic designer Brendan McCarthy’s visual storyboard was originally drawn in the late 1990s. Comprising more than 3,500 panels, many of the designs are startlingly similar to the final film. “George hired me because I was the world’s number one Mad Max fan,” recalls McCarthy, who also illustrated concepts and storyboards for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) and Lost In Space (1998).
Producer Doug Mitchell recalls how important the visual storyboard was when he and Miller were shopping the project to studios. “People are comforted if they think they know what they’re in for,” he says. “Nobody likes surprises.”