When Australian director, George Miller, embarked in 1979 on making the futuristic action thriller “Mad Max” with an unknown actor in the lead, Mel Gibson, and with less than a $1 million budget and with the help of his friends, he didn’t expect the phenomenal critical and commercial success that ensued. In spite of the simplicity of the story, which revolved around a police officer avenging the murder of his wife and child by a criminal gang, the film became a landmark in the history of action cinema and catapulted Miller and Gibson to international stardom. Courted by Hollywood, who showered them with as much money as they needed, Miller and Gibson made two successful sequels: “Mad Max: the Warrior Way” in 1981 and “Mad Max: beyond Thunderstorm” in 1985. “, turning Mad Max into a cult and a source of inspiration for many directors such as James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and David Fincher.
Mad Max is chiefly known for its groundbreaking suspenseful car chases, but what distinguishes it from other futuristic movies is that the action is believable and logical, and doesn’t defy the laws of physics, in spite of being set in a fantastical post apocalyptic world, where the rules of civilization have crumpled, rendering it more accessible and visceral to the audience.
Furthermore, the film’s protagonist, Max, is a regular guy who deals with his life’s challenges and overcomes obstacles like the rest of us without resorting to super powers. And he is not preoccupied in saving the world but rather protecting himself and his family. And although it’s packed with action, Mad Max is emotionally compelling and thought-provoking, dealing with issues such as the morality of revenge, despair, solitude and nihilism.
Hence, it’s no wonder that there has been such high anticipation for the release of the fourth instalment of the franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road“, which premieres in Cannes Film Festival on May 13. But the path to making this movie was long, arduous and mined with obstacles, according to Miller, who told me in an interview in Hollywood that he was ready to shoot the film in 2001 with it’s original star Gibson, but the collapse of the US dollar against the Australian currency following the September 11 terror attacks led to the ballooning of the budget, rendering the making of the film impossible. So he busied himself with directing the animation “Happy Feet,” which garnered an Oscar, until time was propitious to revive his Mad Max project at the end of the 2000’s. However, a new hurdle had emerged. Gibson was too old and his life was too troubled to be able to star in the movie, so he had to find a suitable substitute, which he eventually found in British actor, Tom Hardy, but at a cost of over one year of searching.
“When Tom walked in the room, he reminded me of Mel Gibson when he walked in the room 30 years before. Tom was six weeks old when we shot the first Max,” chuckles 70-year-old Miller. “But they are both extremely talented actors. I mean they are both creatures of the theatre and they are both very lovable and at the same time there is that quality of mystery or danger that they have got, which in a sense we see in all charismatic actors, and Tom is a guy that is prepared to try any sort of role.”
Later Hardy told me that Miller didn’t ask him to read any lines when they met, instead they talked for two hours about his theatre work, character analysis and his perspective on life. Only after contacting Hardy’s previous directors, who approved of him, did Miller offer him the role. “When I got over the immediate jubilation and excitement, I suddenly realised that actually Mad Max was synonymous with Mel Gibson, and everybody loves Mel being Mad Max, so that was a little bit daunting being the new boy at school and want to be liked,” says Hardy. But these doubts and trepidations evaporated after meeting Gibson, who gave him his blessing.
“Mad Max: Fury Road,” opens with the capturing and imprisonment of Max by the vampiric War Boys of Immortan Joe, who controls whatever is left of natural resources in a post apocalyptic world, where water, oil and ammunition are currency. Max is held in a citadel, but eventually he manages to escape and teams up with a renegade War Rig trucker Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who smuggles out Joe’s enslaved wives and heads to “the Green Places.” Joe and his gang chase them in their bizarre-looking vehicles, engaging them in ferocious battles.
While Fury Road retains the hallmarks of the previous Mad Max films in terms of stunning visuals and thrilling cars chases, colourful characters and arid landscapes, there is a perceptible difference in its shooting and editing style. Unlike the previous films, where action was driven by the plot and character, here the action is everything; it’s thunderous, unstoppable and breathlessly fast pace, leaving little time for the characters to develop and for the audience connect with them. We don’t get the chance to spend time with Max reflecting or planning his next move and don’t get to familiarise ourselves with his foes, hence the suspense doesn’t rise from plot or from our care for the characters, but from the thrilling stunts. In addition, the slow-moving wide-lens shots that enhanced the drama in the previous films, gave way to fast long-lens shots that made the action even dizzier. Has Miller deliberately changed his style in order to satisfy the taste of the new generation of cinemagoers, who are accustomed to the contemporary CGI-driven blockbusters?
“Yes, definitely. The first change that I have noticed is that audiences in the three decades since then, can read movies faster, they can speed read movies. And that’s because of commercials and video clips and just movies in general,” explains Miller and reveals that this part of the Mad Max series is made of 2700 cuts, while the second part was only 1200 cuts. This perhaps explains why the pace of movies has doubled in recent years reaching 2000-3000 cuts/film. For instance, the original “Jurassic Park,” was made of only 950. Miller attributes these changes to the advances in digital technologies.
“Things have changed quite a lot,” Miller continues. “And I think digital technology allows you to do that. The cameras are much more flexible. You can have more cameras and lights and it’s not expensive. And if something, a bit of a light stand or another camera happened to be in your shot, you can erase it. Film can be much more polished digitally. So all these things in small increments do influence things.”
Indeed, the availability of small cameras in large numbers enabled Miller to shoot scenes from a multitude of different angles and capture over 480 hours of footage, which undoubtedly contributed to speeding up the film’s pace and enhancing the intensity of the action.
Nevertheless, unlike many of today’s action directors, Miller resisted the temptations of computer-generated special effects, which could’ve produced most of the action scenes in the safety and comfort of a lab, and remained loyal to the principles that guided him in the previous parts of Mad Max, namely shooting all the action, even the most perilous ones, on set in order to retain realism and credibility. “This is a movie in which we don’t defy the laws of physics. There’s no flying men or spacecraft; it would be crazy to take real cars and have real crashes and do them CG,” Miller remarks.
Indeed, in spite of its complexity and eccentricity, the action in the movie seems real and not illogically impossible, because Miller utilized real cars and professional stunt crew, stunt riggers, practical effects and an athletic cast. Of course, this shooting style is fraught with risks and danger and is time-consuming, given the amount of time required to plan and execute a complex stunt, which pushed the shooting schedule to 135 days in the scorching heat of the Namibian desert. “Every day was a big stunt day, many stunts, and when you are there, the heat and the dust and the fatigue sets in. So these days it’s hard for people to believe that you do this stuff. And that’s they way we shot it in the old days.” adds Miller.
The importance of realism and credulity for Miller is also manifested in his casting Charlize Theron to play one-armed bandit Furioza. No doubt that Theron’s tall figure and broad shoulders have contributed to the believability of her portrayal of a fearless warrior, who seems more ferocious than her male counterparts. But when I later spoke to Theron, she revealed that doing the movie was the hardest task she ever had to do in 20 years, because she had to work out at least one hour a day, commute 2 hours from her home to the film set and work 14 hours a day for 135 days, sometimes without sleep at night because she had to care of her baby. “Everytime I watch the movie, I see my own pain on the screen,” she chuckles. “But I knew I had to get the strength in order to get the feeling across. The physical part for me is just for my own truth. I am not a fan of scrawny little girls kicking pretend butt in movies and I just don’t buy it, and I hate those moments in movies where the tiniest little arms are hitting a guy who is four times her size and we are supposed to believe that that happened.”
Unlike many of the contemporary action movies, that offer nothing more than frivolous entertainment, Fury Road has weight and substance, touching on overdependence on oil and weapons, and delves into sexual slavery and objectification of women.
Undoubtedly, the film will satisfy and thrill its fans, who have waited anxiously for its release for many years. Even before its release, there was a talk of a potential a trilogy. Miller doesn’t discount the idea. “We never set out to write a trilogy, but it took so long to make the movie and we started to write back stories that we ended up with other scripts that we didn’t intend to do so. So if this does well enough and I have got the appetite to go back into the wasteland, (laughs) I have other films I would like to make and we will see. But that’s entirely in the future,” Miller concludes.
So judging from the critical and initial commercial success of Mad Max: Fury Road, we will probably be indulged with two more Mad Max movies.