Can a film be 30 years in the making? For a man like George Miller, the answer is yes. The Australian doctor-turned-filmmaker, now 70, has never done things in half-measures during the length of his directorial career, which began in 1979 with the original Mad Max (starring a then nearly unknown Mel Gibson) and now comes full circle with Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth and biggest film in the franchise and its first since 1985. But even though it’s been three decades since Miller last visited the post-apocalyptic wasteland that cop-turned-survivalist Max Rockatansky endlessly roams, the character always haunted Miller the entire time.
“Haunted is a good word,” says a jetlagged Miller as he sits down with Den of Geek in a Los Angeles hotel room, fresh off a plane from his homeland. “They live like imaginary friends, no question, in the back of your brain. They can’t help it. I mean all I’ve done all my life is come up with stories. I’m hardwired for that now, don’t have any choice really. But the idea for this popped into my head. I thought, ‘Oh. That’d make a really good Mad Max movie.’ I definitely didn’t want to do another one. Like a lot of these things, I kept pushing it away and it kept on insisting. I kept on thinking about it and the scenes kept coming pretty easy.”
Mad Max: Fury Road takes place some 45 years after civilization as we know it has collapsed and the world has turned tribal, with water and fuel its most precious commodities. When we meet Max (Tom Hardy), he’s consumed by demons from his own past but having to deal with a vicious present: captured by the War Boys of the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), ruler of the mountain-carved fortress known as the Citadel, Max faces the bleak prospect of becoming a human blood bank for Joe’s ravaged minions. Until, that is, fate intervenes in the shape of the Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), whose plan to liberate Joe’s most precious property — his wives — accidentally gives Max a chance to escape and, perhaps, reclaim his soul.
“The essential architecture was always there,” says Miller about the basic storyline, which really began to coalesce in his mind around 1998, 13 years after the third film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, arrived onscreen. “It fills in. It’s like looking at a story through the mist and then it becomes clearer and clearer. Even when you’re shooting, despite that I carry storyboards and stuff, it’s not until the final movie is there that you actually really know what you want.”
What Miller first wanted was to make the movie in 2001, with Gibson returning to reprise the role one more time. But apocalyptic events in the real world shattered that prospect, as the terrorist attacks on September 11 and the resultant geopolitical aftershocks had the side effect of causing the American dollar to collapse against the Australian one, leading the budget for the movie to rocket upwards. “We couldn’t regroup,” recalls Miller. “I had to move onto Happy Feet (his Oscar-winning 2006 animated film) because that was scheduled. That took 3 ½ years.”
By the time he was done with Happy Feet and ready to return to Max, Gibson had moved on. “It was time for recasting,” continues Miller, whose first prospect for an actor to replace Gibson in the role was another intense Australian. “Every time Heath Ledger came to Sydney, he’d call in and we’d talk about it. He had that same quality that Mel had all that time ago. Then we had the awful tragedy of him being gone.”
Even before Ledger’s untimely death, the idea of replacing Gibson in a role that had been so identified with him was not an intimidating one. “I wasn’t daunted because of the James Bond movies,” affirms Miller. “If you ask someone, ‘Who is James Bond to you,’ us older guys will say Sean Connery. And then more middle-aged people will say Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan. And the younger people say Daniel Craig. So it’s the same thing, really; it’s the mini version of that.”
By 2009, Miller had begun pre-production on Mad Max: Fury Road, and by 2010 he had his new Max. “Tom walked in the door,” he says about landing Hardy — who was just six weeks old when the first Mad Max came out — for the role. “I’d seen Bronson. And just as important, I’d seen a two-part miniseries he did with Benedict Cumberbatch, Stuart: A Life Backwards, in which he plays an intellectually disabled character. I could not put Bronson together with this Rain Man type guy. I thought, ‘Wow. What an actor.’ Then, when I met him for the first time, I just got exactly the same vibe as I’d gotten 30 years before from Mel as a young man.”
Although his range is astonishingly diverse, Hardy has more recently amassed a string of physically intimidating characters in movies like Warrior and The Dark Knight Rises — roles that seemed to point the way perfectly to Max, who says little in the film. “(Tom) is very physical,” Miller says. “Really fast and a quick study in the fight scenes. When Max is hanging upside down inches off the ground between the wheels of a spinning vehicle, that is Tom.” But Miller also found a co-lead in Theron who was able to match Hardy move for move. “Charlize is a ballet dancer, so we also had her physicality, which she’s never really been able to use in the movies.”
Miller put both his stars, along with the rest of the cast and his large crew (which climbed to 1,700 at one point), to the test when Mad Max: Fury Road finally commenced principal photography way back in July 2012, with much of the 120-day main shoot taking place in the grueling environs of Namibia’s vast Namib Desert. Some 150 custom-made cars, trucks and motorcycles — all designed to function in the desert while looking like they were pieced together from other salvaged vehicles — were also deployed for the film’s nearly nonstop chase and action sequences, all of which were done with practical effects.
“We don’t defy the laws of physics,” explains Miller about his resolve to keep as much of the film happening right in front of the camera as possible. “There are no flying humans. There’s no spacecraft. So it’s not a green screen, CG movie. It’s analog compared to digital. You go and crash a car, no matter what simulations you do, you are never going to get the detail of the fragments and the way the sand behaves. It will look fake. Why not do it for real when you can and you’ve got the people who can execute it? We had a really fantastic stunt crew, and a rigging crew, and special effects team. Why not do it for real?”
Miller says that even some of the elements that he thought would have to be done with CG ended up surprising him. “Those guys on the polecats (War Boys strapped to long poles that dipped and swung between the moving vehicles), I thought would be in some parts CG. I thought it would be too dangerous to have them up there on moving vehicles, so we’ve got to shoot the vehicles and then comp them in. But as time went by, as we tested everything, suddenly one day I looked up when the guys actually had eight vehicles coming towards me doing that. And it was real. Not only that, Tom Hardy got up on top of it.”
The result of all this was 400 hours of footage whittled down to a two-hour movie (featuring around 2,700 cuts) that is not just eye-poppingly beautiful to look at, but features some of the most incredible action sequences ever attempted for a film. It’s taken 30 years, but Mad Max: Fury Road may well become the gold standard for any future movies involving extensive chases, stunts and post-apocalyptic imagery. “I don’t make many movies, but I always want to try to go in and do something that just shifts things a little bit,” admits Miller. “Otherwise, it’s very hard for me to make a movie. I just have to push the envelope a little bit, and I don’t know why. I often say to myself, ‘Why do I try things with a high degree of difficulty?’”
Mad Max: Fury Road is out in theaters Friday (May 15).