Mad Max: Fury Road: An Anarchic Action Classic 5 Years On
Five years after Mad Max: Fury Road, we celebrate and remember one of the all-time greatest action films and exercises in controlled chaos.
“I live, I die. I live again!”
It’s been 5 years since the Mad Max franchise roared into back life, as George Miller’s return not only breathed new life into the franchise, but also the action genre as a whole. But at the time, the revival of a once-popular series that had been long dormant felt quite inescapable. At the time, we were about to get new entries to the Star Wars and Jurassic Park franchises, which would have a vital effect on the box office. Alongside that, we were also getting a regularly scheduled return to the Terminator series, and even follow-ups for National Lampoon’s Vacation, Dumb and Dumber, and somehow, Joe Dirt. While the responses varied from audiences and critics, barely anybody was saying these films were better than their predecessors. But when the fourth part of the Australian dystopian series sped onto screens, all shiny and chrome, it brought a message which everybody understood; THIS is how you revitalise a slumbering franchise.
“I exist in this wasteland, reduced to one instinct: survive.”
But what led to this series rising out of the sun-swept surroundings, persevering against all odds? It’s an understatement to say the film was in development hell for a while, and the project hit many dead ends in its long journey.
As part of a settlement with Warner Bros, George Miller re-acquired the rights to the franchise in 1997, after the director agreed to detach himself from the Jodie Foster starring film, Contact, so Robert Zemeckis could helm the project. The idea for the project occurred to Miler in 1998, struck by an idea while walking across a Los Angeles intersection. He has a kernel of a story by the time he reached the middle of the road, and swore to abandon it by the time he reached the other side. Cut to a year later, while on an LA-to-Australia flight, high above the Pacific. The idea coalesced, and Miller came up with a story about violent marauders who were fighting, but not over oil or for material goods. What they were fighting for was human beings.
The year is 2001, Mel Gibson was interesting in making the movie, which was to be made at 20th Century Fox, but then disaster struck. In Miller’s words to the Hollywood Reporter, “When 9/11 happened, the American dollar collapsed against the Australian dollar, the budget ballooned, and it fell apart.” He then had to move on to Happy Feet, as the digital unit doing it was ready.
After starring in the original trilogy, Mel Gibson would not be returning to play the titular role. Miller envisioned the character as “that same contemporary warrior”, who would live on by various people handing over the mantle. One person considered for the lead was Heath Ledger, as part of the plan to make the film in 2003. The script had been written, and the green light was given to start filming in the Australian desert in May 2003, with a budget of $100 million (American currency). However, the impending Iraq war threw a wrench in the works, and in the eyes of studio execs and insurers, planned locations in Namibia were off-limits. That version of the film died there.
Over the next few years, Miller would reiterate his intentions to make the movie, which would not include Gibson reprising the lead role. Over this time, the film’s screenplay was co-written with cult British comic creator, Brendan McCarthy, who also designed many of the new characters and vehicles. At one point, Miller was looking to go a different route, as an R-rated anime flick in 3-D. He saw anime as an opportunity to shift a little about what anime was doing, and help make a hybrid which shifts closer to Western sensibilities. Akira Kurosawa was cited as his inspiration, and how he “was able to bridge that gap between the Japanese sensibilities and the West and make those definitive films.” He was also interested in developing a tie-in video game.
On 18th May 2009, it was reported that location scouting was underway for the fourth film, and was decided to shoot as a live action film instead. Production had moved to Warner Bros, and in October 2009, Miller would end years of speculation, and announce that principal photography would commence at Broken Hill, New South Wales, in early 2011. That same month, British actor Tom Hardy was in negotiations to take over the eponymous title of Max, while Charlize Theron would play a major role in the film.
What Miller had wanted to make a movie which was “a full visual exercise”. To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, he wanted the film to be understood in Japan without the use of subtitles. In keeping with the spirit of the series, Max would remain a journeyman who ventures into others stories, and help them out. He would also be haunted by the spectres of his past, those he failed to save. This “show, don’t tell” style would benefit the film really well, adding to the refreshing simplicity of the plot. Styled as a continuous chase, with little dialogue, where the visuals come first, it was akin to a Road Runner cartoon.
After so much speculation, it was all coming together; the fourth Mad Max film was going to be made.
“Out here, everything hurts. You wanna get through this? Do as I say. Now pick up what you can and run.”
This time around, George Miller was working on a grander scale than the franchise had ever seen. This was best exemplified in the travelling set-up for Coma Doof Warrior, the war-horn for Immortan Joe’s army, who bungeed away in front of a mobile speaker unit, while his electric guitar shot flames. The increase in budget certainly helped, as the $150 million allocated dwarfed the prior instalments budgets, which ranged from $350,000 to $10 million.
Principal photography began on 26th June 2012 in Namibia, and filming wrapped on 17th December 2012 (reshoots would be undergone nearly a year later, in November 2013). Miller never felt as though he had to top himself compared to the previous films, his intention was to harken back to the franchise’s past, and reflect the changes of the past 30 years. The production designer, Colin Gibson, said they developed an internal history which was consistent, in an effort to explain the films look and justify its use of hot rods. All of the film’s vehicles were fully functional, with some having been constructed as early as 2003. This includes the Doof Wagon, and the Doof Warrior’s guitar, which weren’t rendered in CGI during any of the characters scenes.
In fact, Miller claims that 90% of the effects were practical. Part of that was down to Guy Norris, the films second unit director and supervising stunt coordinator. Norris was in charge of over 150 stunt performers, which included Cirque du Soleil performers and Olympic athletes. In spite of this, the film contained extensive effects work, which included replacing the sky, and removing Charlize Theron’s arm from the scenes (aided by the actress wearing a green cover over her left arm).
Cinematographer John Seale came out of retirement to shoot the film, his first film since 2010’s The Tourist. Because of the fast nature which was needed for the edits, Miller asked that Seale keep the focus of the shot central to the frame for each scene. This was so the audience didn’t have to search for that scene’s point of interest, so their eyes didn’t have to move whenever the cut rapidly occurred.
Tensions were apparent on-set, as Theron and Hardy had a rocky relationship behind the scenes, resembling their characters initial struggles with one another. Between the isolation, how tough the shooting conditions were, and the extreme weather occasionally shutting production down, it’s no wonder there was extra stress for everybody involved. Thankfully, the feud has long dissolved, and any animosity being long gone.
Both a PG-13 and R-rated version had been shown separately, in different test screenings. It was found that the R-rated version was better received by test audiences, leading that version to be the one Warner Bros released.
When the critical response was released, the floodgates opened for the sheer amount of praise heaped upon it. To look at the aggregator scores, Metacritic gave it a 90, while Rotten Tomatoes awarded it 97% rating (with an average of 8.59/10). Judging by the sheer amounts of adoration the film was receiving, George Miller’s perseverance had certainly paid off. Later that year, numerous critics and publications would name it one of the best films of 2015, but the story doesn’t end there. In what was a pleasant surprise, Fury Road received 10 nominations at the 88th Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. While it didn’t win either of those big prizes, the film was the nights big victor, winning 6 Academy Awards (double the amount won by the next big winner, The Revenant).
But what about just five years later? As the 2010s came to a close, the film appeared on numerous best films of the decade lists, and Empire Magazine even voted it as the best film of the 21st Century. It’s also managed to be even more relevant as the years pass by. There’s just something about a story of a female-led revolution, intent on overthrowing an outdated patriarchy with regressive ideals, that’s become even more relevant as time goes on. The figurehead of that awful regime? A power-mad tyrant who manipulates the susceptible, while denying the suffering people the basic things they deserve, such as clean water and rights for the oppressed, all for personal gain (and to likely compensate for their dreadful hairstyle). A precursor to the Me Too Movement, this tale of abusers, and those others who are culpable, getting their just desserts is all the sweeter to witness.
George Miller has every intention to continue on the franchise, with plans for two Mad Max stories, and a Furiosa spin-off. After the magnificent reception, continuing on this series seems like a no-brainer, but these plans hit an unfortunate delay. In November 2017, it was reported that production of the sequels would be delayed, as Miller’s production company filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros, over a disputed $7 million bonus. Recent revelations have emerged that the Furiosa spin-off would be a prequel, with a younger actress to take the lead role, which may mean the lawsuit has been settled. Its doubtful Miller would let this stop him from continuing on a series so close to his heart, which he has full authorship over, and cemented his name as a director many times over. The idea of him directing at least one more entry? It feels like hope.
Written by James Rodrigues