One week from today, Mad Max returns to our screens in Mad Max: Fury Road. But that post-apocalyptic road-rage survivor wouldn’t be around today if he hadn’t starred in two incredible movies, decades ago. Here are all the weirdest facts you never knew about the making of Mad Max and The Road Warrior. Plus an exclusive video!
Mad Max (1979):
Director George Miller grew up in a small town in Queensland, Australia where he saw a lot of car accidents. The subculture around cars and violence became an early subject of preoccupation for him, especially after he lost three friends to accidents in his teenage years. Later, as a doctor working in a casualty department, he would see numerous road accident victims, practically on a daily basis. These concerns and images accumulated to provide the raw material for the film. As Miller put it in a 1979 interview with Cinema Papers, “The USA has its gun culture, we have our car culture.”
Another major inspiration was Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, which sparked the Toecutter gang’s distinctive dialect. Miller wanted to avoid contemporary-sounding dialogue and, with the help of a movie-obsessed Irish journalist named James McCausland whom he met at a dinner party, he wrote a script littered with outre linguistic flourishes.
Miller’s medical background also came in useful while funding the film. The pre-production funding was secured partly via earnings from three months of intensive work as a traveling emergency physician (with producer Byron Kennedy as his driver). In the process, they also collected many anecdotal experiences from road accident victims and incorporated them into the film.
Source: Cinema Papers, Issue 21 (May-June 1979)
The then-unknown Mel Gibson was cast when he dropped his drama school friend/housemate Steve Bisley (who landed the role of Goose) off at the auditions. His face was swollen and littered with bruises, thanks to a drunken brawl he’d gotten into the week before. The battered look intrigued the casting agents (“We’re looking for freaks”) who took Polaroids and asked him to return once he’d healed up. When he returned weeks later, the producers didn’t recognize him until he pointed out his Polaroid on the casting board. He got the part after winning the people in the casting office over with a joke, and confirming that he could indeed drive.
Funnily enough, there’s a rumor that this particular story is just a tall tale cooked up by Gibson and that his matinee idol looks were the deciding factor in winning him the part. There’s a version of the casting story that simply has Miller going to a play in which Bisley and Gibson were starring, and being won over by Gibson’s physicality and the pair’s onstage chemistry.
Given his career-long preoccupation with Catholicism, it’s also no surprise that Gibson returned to the role twice. Terry Hayes, co-writer of The Road Warrior, says that when he first spoke to Gibson about his returning to star in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, he described the character as “Jesus in black leather.”
Source: Hero Complex
George Miller was worried that he wouldn’t have the money to hire Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Hugh Keays-Byrne to play the villain, Toecutter. After much back and forth, Keays-Byrne agreed to join the cast but only if he could bring along the group of actors that would go on to play the Toecutter’s gang. Miller didn’t have the money to fly them all in from Sydney so he paid for their motorcycles (all Kawasakis) to be shipped to Sydney by train.
Keays-Byrne and his cohort then rode the bikes all the way from Sydney to Melbourne, where the film was being shot. Oddly enough, that journey became an inadvertent bit of method preparation as the days on the road helped them bond and get into the biker gang mindset. Miller also had an arrangement with the local police, giving every actor a letter on studio letterhead, certifying that they were with the production. This group also lived apart from the actors playing policeman (who were derisively dubbed “the Bronze”) — and in inferior accommodations to boot. This was by design on Miller’s part, helping create tension both on-camera and off. According to Keays-Byrne, there was a lot of “illegal activity” being perpetrated and the studio letters were basically “get-out-of-jail-free cards.”
Source: Empire Magazine, October 2002
Thanks to the meager $350,000 budget, many aspects of the production were cobbled together on the fly. Real bikers—including members of a biker club called the Vigilantes as well the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels—were used in several action scenes. Some of these bikers—as well as a few drivers—were paid in ‘slabs’ (slang for 24-packs) of beer.
Art director Jon Dowding stole the signage and props that can be seen outside the store where Jessie gets ice cream, making off with them in the morning and returning them at night after the shot was complete.
Given how expensive actual leather costumes were, only Gibson and Bisley got to wear the real thing. Everyone else was sporting vinyl outfits.
Most of the film was shot using an old beat-up lens that Sam Peckinpah once used for The Getaway. Miller himself went above and beyond what’s generally expected of a director. He personally swept glass off the roads after shots were completed. He edited the film by hand in his kitchen. He even sacrificed his old Mazda Bongo, the blue van seen totaled in the opening chase.
Despite the shoestring budget, however, Miller and company were all about verisimilitude. Many of the action scenes were shot at real speeds. The one shot of Goose’s speedometer reading 180 km/h is a real one, filmed by brave DP David Eggby as he clung to the back of a bike with a 35mm camera.
Given all the risks taken by the crew, it’s ironic that the most significant injuries suffered during the production were not incurred during filming. Lead stuntman Grant Page (paid all of $1000 a week for his work on the film) and Rosie Bailey, the actress originally cast as Max’s wife, were speeding to the set on a motorcycle, trying to make an early shooting call. They were cut off by a sixteen-wheeler and crashed the bike. Both suffered broken legs, causing Bailey to be replaced by Joanne Samuel and Page to be sidelined for a little while.
Broken leg notwithstanding, Page still performed some of the most impressive stunts in the film, including one in which he jumps the Interceptor through a caravan during the opening chase. Another stuntman—Gerry Gausla—broke a world record when he rode his four-cylinder bike over 28 meters and jumped off it mid-flight.
Then there was the filming of the Nightrider’s death, four seconds of screentime that took three days to film. The process involved the use of a military booster rocket to propel the souped up Holden Monaro to speeds of 75 mph over 36 meters before terminating in the required fiery crash. By the time filming was done, fourteen vehicles had been destroyed and every crash was shot in one take. These stunts were so impressive that they prompted a bit of professional jealousy in international quarters—there was a rumor later spread by American stuntmen that a rider was killed in the shot during the bridge sequence where a biker gets hit on the head by a flying cycle. Grant Page would like you to know this isn’t true.
Sources: Mad Max DVD commentary, Empire Magazine article
Max’s yellow Interceptor was a 1974 Ford Falcon XB sedan with a 351 cubic inch Cleveland V8 engine. Roop and Charlie’s “Big Bopper” was also a ‘74 Falcon but had a 308 cubic inch V8 instead of a 351. Both were decommissioned Victorian police cars. Max’s famous black Pursuit Special was a 1973 Ford XB Falcon GT351, modified by crew mechanic Murray Smith, Ford Australia’s Peter Arcadipane, and others. Modifications include the non-functional turbocharger (added for its cosmetic appeal) and the Concorde front, a relatively rare accessory that later went public thanks to its increasing popularity. After the shoot wrapped, the car was taken around the country as part of the film’s promotional campaign and, then put up for sale. There were no interested buyers, and it went back under the care of Murray Smith.
Most of the bikes used in the film were Kawasaki Kz1000s donated by a local dealership called La Parisienne.
Source: Mad Max Movies
The Road Warrior (1981):
A core inspiration for the sequel stemmed directly from the reception to the first movie. Miller found that Mad Max seemed to translate seamlessly across cultures, super-imposing itself on the mythology of every country it was popular in. As he often observes, the Japanese would equate it to samurai films, Europeans would compare to spaghetti westerns and so on. Miller realized that in making the first film, he had—unknowingly—reinterpreted some universal definitions of heroism.
For the second film, he decided to explore that concept further and, this time, by design. This endeavor led him to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a book about the classic hero figure that has transcended historical and cultural differences. Miller believed that the heart of the first film’s success was summed up neatly by Campbell’s book. “So we decided to expand on it,” said Campbell in a Films in Review interview. “We decided to see if we could create a real hero.”
Source: Films In Review, “George Miller” by Pat Broeske
Part of Miller’s pre-production strategy was to concoct background stories for all the characters. Lord Humungus’ backstory was that he was a horribly injured senior military officer and master strategist. Wells recalls that “Wez was an ex-Vietnam veteran who had fought his way through many battles…I considered him an innocent swept up in all this, defending what he believed in.” Bruce Spence said that he and Miller pictured the Gyro Captain as “venal, a good talker with absolutely no self respect…We seem to agree that he was possibly a used car salesman or a PR consultant. If George Bush Jr. was around then, I probably would have modeled him on that bastard!”
Sources: Hot Dog Magazine: “Still Crazy After All These Years” by Pavel Barter
Fantastic Films #30, “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” by Blake Mitchell and Jim Ferguson
The film was shot in the winter of 1981 in a remote mining town called Broken Hill, 800 miles west of Sydney. The town’s reserves of ore had dried up, causing much of the population to relocate. This made it a source not just of cheap housing but of a certain air of post-apocalyptic desolation that couldn’t be replicated on a studio lot. The result was a ghost town turned surreal by the twelve week occupation of a gang of wild-looking, adrenaline-junkie film people.
Mel Gibson would tool around the town in his Mini, wearing (for some reason) bedroom slippers, an affectation that the town’s inhabitants found odd but soon got used to. They also got used to half-naked men wandering around in S&M gear. Virginia Hey, the actress who played the Warrior Woman, remembered arriving in the town in the middle of a storm, only to be greeted by the sight of Vernon Wells striding through a dust cloud with a mohawk and protruding buttcheeks. Extras were recruited from the town populace but, apparently, not everyone heard about the filming. A mailman once blew through the stop signs while a chase was being filmed, only to encounter the gangs of marauding punks and flee in terror.
Source: Hot Dog Magazine: “Still Crazy After All These Years” by Pavel Barter
Costume designer Norma Moriceau was inspired by the offerings on display at an S&M boutique store that adjoined her Sydney home. Much of the wardrobe was cobbled together over the course of numerous trips to junk shops, second-hand stores and various special-interest leather outlets. Moriceau originally wanted Wells’ butt to be bare but a flap was deemed necessary, due to his need to jump on and off motorcycles constantly. Gibson called Wells “Barometer Bum” on set. Why? Wells recalls, “When my butt cheeks went purple on set, they’d send everyone into the bus so we could warm up.”
His wasn’t the only blue rear end on view. The Broken Hill locals had promised warm weather through to the middle of the year but this was not to be. Co-scripter Brian Hannant recalls, “We had maybe six or eight clear warm days. It rained; the wind was abysmal. The costumes were all designed for warm weather, just G-strings some of them. I never saw so many blue bums in my life. Genuinely blue. The local army disposal shop didn’t have a greatcoat left. All you’d see on the set were these rows of greatcoats.”
Sources : Hot Dog Magazine: “Still Crazy After All These Years” by Pavel Barter
Starburst Magazine, Vol 4, No. 9, “Mad Max 2” by John Baxter
Max’s dog, (actually named “Dog”) was a Queensland Heeler rescued from an RSPCA pound the day before he was set to be euthanized. Dog stood out of the crowd by picking up a stone in his mouth and dropping it at Miller’s feet. Unfortunately, given the subject matter of the film, it turned out that Dog was terrified of cars. This issue was bypassed by plugging Dog’s ears with cotton during the louder scenes. He also spent his time on set showering affection on Bruce Spence (“Gyro Captain”) whose character he was actually supposed to attack. Spence recalls, “The only way I could get him to go for my throat was to play with him for hours on end, getting him to bite my scarf. That was what he was doing when we shot it.” Dog was handled by stuntwoman Dale Aspin, who also later adopted him.
Source : Hot Dog Magazine: “Still Crazy After All These Years” by Pavel Barter
Fantastic Films #30, “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” by Blake Mitchell and Jim Ferguson
The second film had its own share of crazy stunts and spectacular accidents. One of these accidents is actually in the film—a scene featuring a bike-riding raider slamming into a car, flying off his motorcycle, smashing his legs into the car and then hurtling before the camera. The stuntman—Guy Norris—was not supposed to bounce his legs off the car. Unfortunately, upon impact, the car rose into the air and met Norris’ legs full-on. The poor man had just recovered from a previous leg injury and this particular incident bent the steel pin in his leg 20 degrees in the wrong direction. A slow playback of the scene actually shows his leg at an unnatural angle.
The next day, stuntman “Mad” Max Aspin shot a scene in which he rammed a vehicle at 50 mph through a wall of pre-wrecked cars and tumbled end over end through a ditch. He performed the stunt unharmed the first time but, unsatisfied with the result, tried it again. This time, he broke a vertebra and a heel as the car rolled over.
Accidents also happened off set. Stuntwoman Dale Aspin (Max’s wife) took a few days off to work on another production. She fell from a wire suspended between two buildings and ended up breaking the same vertebra as her husband.
The most unusual accident, however, wasn’t even related to filmmaking. Stuntman Kim Noyce was bored on his day off and decided to ride his motorcycle to the set to see what was going on. Max Aspin recalls, “Out in the bush…he passed a camel train…He pulled up to say hello to the camel driver and forgot that the camels might not like the high-revving, noisy motorbike engine. One of them kicked out with both legs and knocked him ten feet through the air, breaking one of his ankles. The guy’s so embarrassed he’s telling people he did it rolling a car at 90 mph.”
Fortunately, the most dangerous stunt in the entire film—the rolling of the tanker in the climactic scene—went off without a hitch. Dennis Williams, driver of the truck, was not allowed to eat for 12 hours before the scene was shot, a precaution designed to reduce potential complications if he had to be rushed to emergency surgery. A helicopter and ambulance were kept standing by and many members of the production refused to come watch. It was something Williams had never done before and it had to be executed in one take. Thankfully for all involved, he managed it.
Sources: Starburst Magazine, Vol 4, No. 9, “Mad Max 2” by John Baxter
Truckin’ Life Magazine, “Lights, Camera, Action…Roll ‘Em” by Mark Gibson
The same black 1973 Ford Falcon coupe that was used in the first film was also brought in for the second. Kennedy and Miller reacquired the car for the new production and had it further modified, adding big gas tanks in the back while also giving it a generally battered look. Thanks to the larger budget for The Road Warrior, the production could afford a duplicate car. It was used for most of the driving sequences while the original features in most of the interior and close-up shots. It was the duplicate that was destroyed when the script called for the obliteration of Max’s car. The original remained intact and changed hands several times over the years. It spent some time in the Cars of the Stars Motor Museum and, according to madmaxmovies.com, is now part of the Dezer Collection in Florida. Fans have, since, built hundreds of replicas.
Source: Mad Max Movies
The Mad Max Movies by Adrian Martin
Blu-Ray Commentaries: Mad Max and The Road Warrior