‘A fetish party in the desert’: the making of Mad Max: Fury Road (2022)

Plenty of movies claim to be mad and filled with fury, taking it to the max. Very few make good on that promise. Like everyone else at the time, my gob got smacked and stayed smacked by George Miller’s deranged post-apocalyptic convoy-chase action spectacular Mad Max: Fury Road. It was so over the top that the top was a distant memory, far beneath my feet.

This was a 2015 revival of Miller’s 70s/80s punk-western franchise Mad Max, taking it to a new level of strangeness and delirium. Tom Hardy plays Max Rockatansky, survivor of a global catastrophe that has made oil and water rare commodities: he does battle with a hateful warlord called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and makes common cause with a one-armed warrior bearing the gloriously Latinate name of Imperator Furiosa – an amazing performance from Charlize Theron. Monstrous 18-wheeler rigs scream across the scrub, with guitarists aboard playing thrash metal.

With the dedication of the entrepreneur Fitzcarraldo in Werner Herzog’s classic movie, transporting a steamship through the jungle, Miller dedicated himself for decades to making this film happen, eventually decamping to the desert in Namibia. As with so many movies that involve a tough location shoot, the atmosphere was rancorous. According to a new book, Blood, Sweat and Chrome by Kyle Buchanan, Hardy was persistently late, making everyone wait in the burning sun, and when Theron confronted him he was “aggressive” so she requested a female producer as “protection”. But Hardy’s alleged behaviour did not seem to affect the finished product, and may even have bolstered the defiant disdain in Theron’s performance.

What I didn’t grasp at the time is that the stunts weren’t CGI. They were real. And that’s what made audiences react so passionately. Most action movies take place in a notionally rational present day world and they are about crime and violence. Mad Max: Fury Road is weirder, more irrational: more dreamlike. Staggering out of the cinema in 2015, I mentally compared Miller to Hieronymus Bosch. But that’s not quite right. With his delirium in the desert, Miller is more like crazy-genius site-specific artists such as Robert Smithson, creating monoliths in the wilderness, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping the Arc de Triomphe in fabric – for the sheer devilment of it. And the wordless chase scenes have something of Buster Keaton. What a rush.
Peter Bradshaw

‘A fetish party in the desert’: the making of Mad Max: Fury Road (1)

‘A fetish party in the middle of the desert’


In this extract from Blood, Sweat and Chrome – an oral history of Fury Road – its cast, crew and creators look back at a one-of-a-kind shoot

Tom Hardy (actor, Max) Day one was: “This is a beast.” How do you eat an elephant? I suppose, metaphorically speaking, it would be a mouthful at a time.

George Miller (director) I remember the day well, and I was happy to get to it. But also, I’m one of those people who has no sense of celebration at the beginning of something. It’s only at the very end, when you see that at least some of what you set out to do has some resonance with the audience – that’s when I allow myself to celebrate.

Robyn Glaser (second assistant director, action unit) You’d be driving down toward the base camp, and it looked like a hovering spaceship of lights, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It wasn’t just a little tent – it was huge, and the logistics of it were amazing.

Tom Hardy What you saw was some kind of Hells Angels, S&M, Cirque du Soleil fetish party. In the middle of the desert.

Chris DeFaria (executive producer) It looked like Burning Man on a post-apocalyptic movie set.

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Doug Mitchell (producer) Basically, our lives became locked into this circus tent with a thousand people in the desert. You would drive over the hills of these sand dunes, over a little lip of sand, and look down at this huge tent city with these vehicles that were massive and extraordinary. It reminds me a bit of Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade: “Cannon to the left of them, cannon to the right of them / Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.” We were a thousand people in the middle of a desert doing this damn thing.

George Miller Look, the best analogy for making films is that it’s a military exercise. You’ve got to go in with the mentality that you don’t know where the landmines are, you don’t know where the snipers are, but you’ve got to execute it faithfully and you’ve got to bring it home as best you can.

PJ Voeten (producer, first assistant director) George had heard a story on a Peter Weir film where he had music on set, to set the mood and the tone, so our very first day we had [the actor and musician] iOTA, who played the Doof Warrior [a blind militiaman who plays a flame-throwing guitar], riffing.

Brendan Smithers (construction manager) He was doing a solo as the sun was rising over the desert. It was truly a hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment: the sun’s coming up on all this madness, these big tents and trucks, and George Miller is fixing someone’s scarf with this guy in the background playing a heavy rock solo. It was wild.

Riley Keough (actor, Capable) The desert is strange. It does things to your sense of depth perception to be out there in the middle of nothing.

Andrew AJ Johnson (camera operator) There was a place we shot in the desert called Blanky Flats, which is six square kilometres where you could close your eyes and drive for 10 minutes and not hit anything.

Mick Roughan (stunt rigger) Then the sandstorms would come rolling through.

Petrina Hull (production and development executive) It was the most intense thing. Literally, sand whipping through the air, around you everywhere, it’s hitting you and flying at you in all directions.

Colin Gibson (production designer) My feeling is, if you encounter a freak dust storm, you should be slapped if you don’t take advantage of it.

Andy Williams (special effects supervisor) One of the first things I asked George Miller when he got to Namibia was: “George, are you going to need us to control the dust? Because the Namibian desert is 60% silica, which is not good to be breathing in.” He said: “No, dust is our friend.” Now, it isn’t very friendly at all. Apart from the fact that you shouldn’t be breathing it in, it gets into everything, it ruins every piece of equipment, it’s a nightmare. But he was actually correct. The end result, the cinematography, was fantastic.

George Miller Charlize had this aversion to dust, so I said: “Well, why don’t we have tissues? You can wipe your hands all the time.” And she said: “No, no, no. I want to use that.” Indeed, she would walk out of makeup and wardrobe and would roll around in dust as a preparation every morning.

Eugene Arendsen (stunt driver) If you were ever in a scenario where you were driving in the armada, you could never see anything, because as soon as the cars in front of you start moving, it’s a wall of dust. And in the scene, I’ve got no windscreen, no goggles, nothing. After every single take, both my eyes were completely full of sand, and I could barely see. Medics would come over and wash my eyes out with some saline, and we’d do that over and over and over again.

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Kelly Marcel (writer) And weird things would happen in the desert. Everybody’s choking on the dust, we’re fighting to get these shots before the sand kicks up again, and then a Rastafarian on a bicycle would cycle through set, giving people ice-creams. Literally, he would appear in the middle of the desert, hundreds of miles from anywhere. It’s not possible that he was there, but he was!

‘A fetish party in the desert’: the making of Mad Max: Fury Road (2)

Fury Road was acclaimed for its action scenes, which relied on real stunts rather than computer-generated imagery. But that approach wasn’t without its risks …

Colin Gibson With Fury Road, if we were gonna make an action film, this was gonna be the last great action film.

Nicholas Hoult (actor, Nux) On a lot of big productions, they don’t let actors do stunts, but I remember one day turning up and they strapped me under the War Rig [Furiosa’s formidable-looking 18-wheeler] in a harness. It’s not something you’re used to: hanging underneath a truck, five or six inches off the ground, driving in the desert. The stunt team, how they managed to keep everything real, it’s just incredible.

George Miller If two vehicles were to smash into each other, why simulate it digitally when you could make it real? Then you get all those random bits you can’t predict: the way that the dust reacts, and all that.

Tom Hardy I watch CGI superhero movies, and I get lost. I love playing Xbox games, and even some of those get to be too much to follow. I know that when I play my computer games with my son or my friends, I can immerse myself in that world and I’m actively participating in that game. But why would I go to the cinema to watch a computer game?

George Miller Through evolution, our survival has been based on reading things as accurately as possible; this is a big digression, but that’s why plastic surgery fails so often. It’s the uncanny valley. We’re reading something that’s not quite real.

Tom Hardy Your eye can immediately tell. Because these things actually have happened, there’s a viscerality where you go: “Oh shit, I felt that.”

Brendan McCarthy (writer) To me, the sheer poetry of George Miller doing vehicular destruction, it’s a bit like Jackson Pollock doing his drip paintings or William Butler Yeats writing Easter, 1916. There’s something about George Miller doing vehicular destruction that rises to the level of art.

Guy Norris (second unit director/stunts) I’ve chatted a lot with the stunt community about older films such as Red River and Ben-Hur, or the John Wayne westerns. They’d all go out there and spend months just living it and riding it, and the amount of time they had was incredible. We had the luxury of time on our side that hasn’t happened since those eras, and other than maybe our next one, I don’t see it happening again.

Tom Hardy As we dug in, it was dangerous, or certainly could have been extremely so, if it weren’t for the methodical professionalism and planning and preparation of the experts: stunt coordination, stunt team, and riggers.

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Colin Gibson George was a doctor, and he takes that Hippocratic oath seriously. He’s desperate to not cause harm. Apparently, that means you’re not meant to go out and hurt anybody on purpose, which was a little antithetical to the idea of three hundred stunts at high speed.

George Miller The biggest anxiety by far was safety. One hundred and thirty-eight days, big stunt days every day, and I was thinking: what do we have to do today not to kill anybody?

Scotty Gregory (stunts) I can say that pretty much every day, someone was in danger.

Iain Smith (producer) For that kind of material, you can imagine it’s a health and safety nightmare. But we were helped hugely by George, who lost his producing partner [Byron Kennedy] in a helicopter accident. And so he was very, very strong about this with the crew, that no one should take risks, everything should be planned, and if anyone saw anything that was out of order or untoward, then they raise their hand and yell and we would stop production instantly. And that saved a few dangerous situations.

Tom Clapham (production runner) No matter how many protocols you have in place, it’s still a big, heavy piece of metal colliding with something.

‘A fetish party in the desert’: the making of Mad Max: Fury Road (3)

While Hardy played the film’s titular character, for many the star of Mad Max: Fury Road was Theron as Furiosa, a one-armed warrior who turns against the film’s villainous warlord and frees his concubines

George Miller You can dress up as Furiosa, but to be Furiosa, you’ve got to be Charlize. She carries a lot of stature, and she always feels taller to me than she really is. And she’s unmistakably a great beauty, so she doesn’t have to protect that in any way. She’ll throw dust on herself and let tears stream down her face.

Charlize Theron (actor, Furiosa) I talked to George a lot about the pain of what this character went through when she was kidnapped, and it has to be somewhat a story of revenge. She was somebody who has survived tremendous abuse. She was stolen from her family and the place that she knows, and she was placed into this world where she was owned, where she was a commodity. Once she couldn’t produce babies, she was worthless, and she worked herself back into that community to get her revenge. I always felt like she took those girls not because she wanted to save them but initially because they were his prize possession. She wanted to hurt him as much as he hurt her and ultimately, along the journey, they became closer.

My first baby was four months old when we went out to Namibia. When Jackson came into my life, the more nurturing side of me came into play. That made the performance feel more layered: it was going to either be a really bitter woman who was just saying: “Fuck you”, or it was going to just be a hero rescuing four beautiful girls, and somewhere in between all of that, circumstance brought me to this place where I could play both.

Justin Chang (film critic, Los Angeles Times) The movie feels like to me very much a spiritual heir to Ripley and the Alien movies, and Charlize Theron is one of the few action stars, male or female, who can absolutely hold up to that comparison.

James Cameron (director, Aliens) I would concur with that. She’s a world-class actress, as Sigourney is. Even in the middle of an action scene, she’s acting.

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Charlize Theron When I look back at the hair and makeup tests when we first started … oh my God. It was nothing as grounded as what we ended up making. Furiosa at first was this very ethereal platinum blonde, with long hair and some African mud art on her face. It was a different costume designer, and the costume felt a little more Barbarella-y. When we came back three years later, and I tried to imagine us going back to that look, I worried about it.

Lesley Vanderwalt (hair and makeup designer) If she had long hair and she was fighting, those guys could grab her by the ponytail and swing her around. There would have been nothing she would’ve done to accentuate her femininity. She was a warrior but had to be respected in that world of all men.

Charlize Theron George was really, really incredible in hearing me out. I called him and said: “I don’t know how she’s getting by in the mechanics’ room with all this hair. I think we need to shave my head and she needs to be a more androgynous, grounded character.”

George Miller I thought: Gee, wow. First of all, she’s got a great sense of the character. Second, this means she’s really committed to the role, which I sort of knew anyway, because she’s deeply professional. But thirdly, I thought: Oh, I hope she’s got a great-shaped head. So I texted her: “Brilliant, go for it.” And then an hour or so later, she sent me a picture of her buzzcut, and it was perfect.

‘A fetish party in the desert’: the making of Mad Max: Fury Road (4)

One of the most memorable moments in the film comes when Furiosa learns that the idyll that she and the concubines were escaping to no longer exists. Utterly broken, she falls to her knees and screams

Charlize Theron So that was never in the storyboard. That scene was always supposed to end on her realisation that the Green Place was gone, and the camera would start spinning around her while she was in utter shock. I said to George: “I feel like we need to have a moment where she’s completely lost, completely vulnerable. We’ve seen this woman be so capable, so let’s have a moment where she’s none of those things.” It’s a character at the cusp of, I’m done. I’m not going on. There’s a Mandela quote: “Don’t judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” That was an important moment to me because then the stakes of her turning around and going back feel so much higher. Imagine the disappointment of doing all this to get to a place that doesn’t exist any more, to have spent all this time thinking this thing would fix everything for you and then it doesn’t fix anything. I felt very strongly that we had to take her to her rock bottom.

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Justin Chang There’s something very subversive about that in the context of it being Mad Max, where he is basically turned into a sidekick in his own movie. That’s one of the great, stealth surprises of the movie, that it’s all about Furiosa.

Tom Hardy Charlize laid down the finest lead character in an action movie, and that credit is much deserved; both to her as a phenomenal talent and to George for recognising from the very start of the process that it was time to pass Mel [Gibson]’s shoes on to Furiosa, which was not only refreshing but incredibly smart.

Blood, Sweat and Chrome – The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road as told to Kyle Buchanan is published on 17 March (HarperCollins, £20). To buy a copy for £17.40 go to guardianbookshop.com

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FAQs

Is Mad Max: Fury Road based on a true story? ›

Mad Max: Fury Road and the whole franchise is based on the real-life apocalypse that happened in the 1970s. Here are the real-life origins of the franchise. Mad Max: Fury Road is considered one of the greatest movie series of all time.

What is the message of Mad Max: Fury Road? ›

Miller describes the film's key theme is survival, and his reason that is "why the American Western was such a staple for the better part of a century in American cinema." The primary theme of Mad Max: Fury Road is survival and retention of humanity in the face of apocalyptic events.

Is Mad Max: Fury Road appropriate for a 13 year old? ›

however, it is in no way a kids film. i watched it when i was around 14, and it was ok for me because i had been exposed to some more violent films. it really depends on the kid, but in general i wouldn't recommend it for anyone under the age of 18.

What is Mad Max aesthetic called? ›

Steampunk is about a world waiting to happen. Dieselpunk is about a world that's about to self-destruct. Much has been made of the visual aesthetic of Mad Max: Fury Road, from its orange and blue saturated landscapes to its dramatic special effects.

Why did Mad Max leave at the end? ›

Even Max feels a sense of purpose after using his blood to save Furiosa. Still, Max can't escape his past, which is both a curse and a remedy, and so he leaves. Hardy's character needs to roam this world alone, as he doesn't know any other way to survive.

What caused the apocalypse in Mad Max? ›

Apocalypse After the economy collapsed and the fabric of society disintegrated across the world, the remaining governments were still trying to secure the last oil reserves. This had led to a global nuclear exchange. It is unknown who struck first, but everyone had suffered. Nuclear winter followed shortly after.

Why do the people in Mad Max look weird? ›

Many War Boys referred to themselves as “half-lives” as they were practically dying, and the use of white powder, along with grey clay pigment around the eyes, mouths, or foreheads gave them a skeletal and intimidating look.

Why do they need blood bags in Mad Max? ›

Most of them are plagued by cancer, the most common one being lymphoma, others resulting in partial or complete blindness. They require blood transfusions to prolong their lives and it's one of the reasons they hunt for unsuspecting wanderers of The Wasteland such as Max.

How is Mad Max: Fury Road feminist? ›

Mad Max: Fury Road includes obvious feminist statements which does add to its clarification as a feminist film; but the real feministic qualities lie not in its representation of sex slaves refusing to be treated as property, but on the overwhelming presence and power of women in the film, standing alongside as well as ...

What is Decopunk? ›

Decopunk. Decopunk, also known as coalpunk, is a recent subset of dieselpunk, centered around the art deco and Streamline Moderne art styles. Other influences include the 1927 film Metropolis as well as the environment of American cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston around the period between the 1920s and 1950s.

What kind of punk is Mad Max? ›

Dieselpunk is a retrofuturistic subgenre of science fiction similar to steampunk or cyberpunk that combines the aesthetics of the diesel-based technology of the interwar period through to the 1950s with retro-futuristic technology and postmodern sensibilities.

Did Mad Max affect fallout? ›

The Fallout series of video games, which has a post-apocalyptic world as their setting, lists Mad Max as one of its influences. For example, in the first and second games, one of the first available armors is a one-sleeved leather jacket that closely resembles the jacket worn by Mel Gibson in the film.

Are there nude scenes in Mad Max? ›

There is a brief scene with a naked woman, but she's only shown at a distance. Once the camera begins to zoom in on her, everything important is kept covered by her long hair. There's one use of the “f” word, and some other very mild language, but it's infrequent.

Is Mad Max child friendly? ›

Outlandish post-apocalyptic action is too brutal for kids.

Why is fury rated R? ›

Fury / Rated R for war violence, psychological torture and gore.

Do you need to watch the original Mad Max before Fury Road? ›

It's not necessary that you should watch the previous ones before watching Fury Road. Consider, Fast & Furious movies, they've been making movies for more than a decade but each movie comes with new plot and additional characters.

Is Tom Hardy returning to Mad Max? ›

Although a prequel is on the way, Miller mentioned that he is still looking to bring fans a sequel, and although Tom Hardy isn't confirmed to return, it's possible we will be revisiting Mad Max again soon: What is this? “We do have another story but it's still not fully evolved We'll see further down the chain.”

What is the spray in Mad Max? ›

In case you have not seen Mad Max: Fury Road, the War Boys are known to spray their mouths with silver spray paint before shouting “WITNESS ME!” and sacrificing themselves for their leader Immortan Joe, on the promise of an eternal trip to feast in Valhalla. Buyers beware.

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