In 1971 George Miller was a doctor in residence at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. While working in the emergency ward, Miller witnessed the aftermath of many car related injuries. This wasn’t the first time he was exposed to such horrors. Growing up in rural Queensland, Miller also witnessed many car accidents, and had also lost friends in some of them. If there was such a thing as a boot camp for making a Mad Max film, George Miller certainly attended.
In the summer of ’71, Miller and his brother had won first prize in a short film competition and a place at a summer film workshop in Melbourne. Shortly after attending Miller met Byron Kennedy and it was the start of a very productive and successful partnership. Kennedy and Miller began making short features and experimental films which were shown at a variety of film festivals, and won several awards. During this time Miller was still supporting his film career by working part time as a doctor. Miller got his hands on a script by James McCausland, a first time screenwriter, called Mad Max. Miller immediately suggested that audiences would find his violent story to be more believable if set in a bleak, dystopic future. McCausland drew heavily from his observations of the 1973 oil crisis’ effects on Australian motorists. “There were further signs of the desperate measures individuals would take to ensure mobility. A couple of oil strikes that hit many pumps revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank. Long queues formed at the stations with petrol – and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence. … George and I wrote the [Mad Max] script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late“.
Miller felt that he would not be able to raise money from the government bodies “because Australian producers were making art films, and the corporations and commissions seemed to endorse them whole-heartedly“. So Miller and Kennedy designed a 40 page presentation and it was circulated among a number of different financially affable parties. Kennedy and Miller even contributed funds themselves by doing three months of emergency radio locum work,with Kennedy driving the car while Miller did the doctoring. Eventually they managed to raise around $400,000.
A further medical association to the project would be the name of the hero himself; Max Rockatansky. This is a reference to Baron Carl von Rokitansky, who developed the most common procedure used to remove the internal organs at autopsy, still called the “Rokitansky procedure”. A nice nod by Miller to his previous life.
But who would play Max? Kennedy and Miller decided that they would cast lesser known actors (and with that budget one could argue they had no choice). So they held auditions. Mel Gibson came to the audition with no expectations whatsoever. The night before he had been involved in a big fight at a party and arrived looking like a (according to Gibson) “black and blue pumpkin“. Gibson had mainly come to accompany his friend Steve Bisley (who won the role of Jim Goose), however the casting director was taken with Gibson’s battered look and asked him to come back as they “needed freaks”. When Gibson returned, all healed, he was given the part immediately. Quite right too.
Filming took place in Victoria during November and December 1977. There were then further shoots the following May to pick up second unit shots and stunt work (Mad Max was the first Australian movie to use a wide angle anamorphic lens). Of the motorcycles that appear in the film, 14 were Kawasaki Kz1000 donated by the industry. All were modified in appearance by Melbourne business La Parisienne – one as the MFP bike ridden by ‘The Goose’ and the balance for members of the Toecutter’s gang, played in the film by members of a local Victorian motorcycle club, the Vigilantes.
Aside from Gibson, the real stars of Mad Max are those gorgeous Ford Falcon interceptors. The camera work during the driving sequences are also beautifully shot. It is very easy to forget that this is an independant film with a tiny budget, such is the dexterity on show with the camera. There is no doubt that the driving action sequences in Mad Max are some of the best comitted to film up until that point. Yes, Bullit had car chases, but Max had chaos on a grand scale and a sheer bloody mind. By the end of filming, 14 vehicles had been destroyed in the chase and crash scenes, including the director’s personal Mazda Bongo (the small, blue van that spins uncontrollably after being struck by the Big Bopper in the film’s opening chase). All the crashes had to be taken in one shot. The film’s post-production was done at Kennedy’s house, with Miller and Kennedy editing the film in Kennedy’s bedroom on a home-built editing machine that Kennedy’s father, an engineer, had designed for them. They also edited the sound there.
Mad Max is not unique on paper. Ostensibly It’s a revenge flick, however one element that stands it apart is the nature of the wrongs that need righting. Firstly Max’s best friend is maimed, and then burned to within an inch of death, which is more than enough to get your blood boiling. Secondly his wife and young son are murdered by the gang in a shocking scene that convinces the audience to reach into the screen and sign the death warrant of each and every gang member. This is more than revenge, this has now become duty.
Another singular element to Max is the world that is engineered around it. Gorgeously realised and uniquely fascinating It has been copied, but never bettered. In much the same way as Blade Runner managed to stick in the brain of all sci-fi futurists, Max has influenced every dystopian futurist. The future will always either be a raining, neon landscape with Chinese people on bikes, or gangs of fevered lunatics roaming the wastelands in custom built death machines. This is not so much production design, but world building, and on this budget it is even more impressive.
When Max gets his revenge, it is delicious and satisfying. Stealing himself the Pursuit Special Interceptor he goes after the gang and runs them off the road one by one. Saving the best for last Max finds Johnny, the root of all the problems, looting from a crashed car. Max handcuffs his ankle to the crashed car and gives him a hacksaw and two options: To cut through the handcuff (slow work), or his own ankle, before the car explodes. It’s a truly classic and memorable scene, and delivers tremendous closure.
Mad Max was initially released in Australia through Roadshow Entertainment (now Village Roadshow Pictures) in 1979. The movie was sold overseas for $1.8 million, with American International Pictures to release in the US and Warner Bros. to handle the rest of the world. Criminally, when shown in the U.S. during 1980, the original Australian dialogue was dubbed by an American crew. Since Mel Gibson was not well known to American audiences at the time, trailers and TV spots in the USA emphasised the film’s action content.
Though the film had a limited run in North America and earned only $8 million there, it did very well elsewhere around the world and went on to earn $100 million worldwide. Since it was independently financed, it was a major financial success. For 20 years, Mad Max held a record in Guinness Book of Records as the highest profit-to-cost ratio of a motion picture, conceding the record only in 1999 to The Blair Witch Project.
After the dust had settled, George Miller was hot. He was offered the chance to direct First Blood and turned it down. He instead wanted hone his skills and learn more about directing. While working with the writer Terry Hayes (who wrote a novelisation of Mad Max) on a horror film, Miller became more interested in doing something else entirely. A project with more ambition and a bigger budget.
It would be all about a Road Warrior. A man we called “Max”. In the roar of an engine, he lost everything. And became a shell of a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again…
Originally posted 2013-07-17 20:10:37. Republished by Blog Post Promoter