When’s the last time you saw a truly epic car chase in a movie? No, not the mostly computer-generated scenes from the “Fast & Furious” series but rather a classic in the spirit of John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin”?
George Miller, the creator and director of the “Mad Max” movies, is staking his reputation and likely a $100 million-plus budget on a movie that is almost entirely a car chase. Miller says his new film, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which hits theaters May 15, begins with a chase that doesn’t end until the movie does. The chase is the movie.
“Ronin” was all Audis, Peugeots, and Benzes barreling through France. The vehicles of Miller’s “Fury Road” are far different—dozens of bizarre and reimagined muscle cars and rat rods bashing their way through a barren desert wasteland. There is very little in the way of dialogue. The nonstop four-wheeled action does most of the talking.
“If there’s going to be a war, you want real steel to protect you. And at the end of world, you can’t fix a computer. What would you salvage, a Corolla or a 1973 Falcon?”
Even better, the cars, stunts, and crashes are real. Miller has shot CGI films before (bizarrely, he’s also behind both “Babe: Pig in the City” and “Happy Feet”), but this wasn’t one of them. In order to execute his vision for the film, some 150 vehicles were built in all. By the end, only one survived.
“Fury Road” is a “reboot” of the “Mad Max” franchise, movie speak for “doing whatever the hell we want.” And what Miller wanted was the same grim mood and the theme of rampaging hooligans out for gas and blood that punctuated the previous films. But this time he jettisoned Mel Gibson for a younger actor (Tom Hardy from “The Dark Knight Rises”) and added a crew of lithesome
ladies headed up by a buzz-cut Charlize Theron. Most important, Max’s Australian-made Ford Falcon XB GT coupe—the famed Interceptor—also makes a return, as does a general reliance on cars and trucks from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Miller is Australian and made the first three films in his home country. The original, “Mad Max,” released in 1979, was a straight-up indie film shot for around $350,000. The follow-up, “The Road Warrior,” has become the classic you think of when you think of “Mad Max.” In essence it was a Western recast as a postapocalyptic tale, with hot rods and motorcycles replacing horses and a big-rig tanker serving as a speeding steam train.
But by the third installment, “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” the Aussie indie spirit had gone Hollywood. The vehicles took a back seat to a gladiator cage and Tina Turner’s crazy 1980s hairdo. No wonder it was the last “Mad Max” flick for 30 years.
“I hope it reinvigorates doing stunts for real because the audience can feel that.
It’s more emotional.”
This time, Miller didn’t write a script. Rather, he and his collaborators created storyboards—thousands of drawings that serve as a testament to the all-action movie. The original vehicle concepts were especially fantastical, including a 747 jumbo jet welded to a train, pulled by a half-dozen semitrailers. Awesome, surely, but it would have made little sense in a world where gas is precious.
The design of the real-world vehicles fell to the film’s production designer, a gearhead named Colin Gibson. “We tried to take the flavor and coolness of those ideas but make them real and believable,” Gibson says. “The supervising stunt coordinator, Guy Norris, and I were desperate to cling to physics.” What they wanted to avoid was the “Fast & Furious” fantasy. “Lovable as those films are, you can’t drag an 8-ton safe between two cars and then turn a corner.”
And so began a yearlong construction of the movie’s 88 character vehicles. With duplicates, they made closer to 150, says Gibson.
The results are fabulous. They include the main villain’s ride, dubbed the Gigahorse, which is actually two 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Villes mounted on top of each other. “We built a chassis to suit, added two big-block V-8s connected to a planetary gear, special cooling, and a handmade gearbox. Something for the real motor freak,” says Gibson. Other rides include a 1940s Dodge body married to the chassis of a monster truck—in one stunt it actually jumps over a moving big-rig tanker—and a hot rod covered in spikes. (That zany vehicle was surely influenced by a car seen in another early Aussie film, 1974’s “The Cars That Ate Paris.” Look up the YouTube trailer for a laugh.)
“Fury Road” is set in the near future, so why the reliance on old cars? Says Gibson: “If there’s going to be a war, you want real steel to protect you. And at the end of world, you can’t fix a computer. What would you salvage, a Corolla or a 1973 Falcon?”
Norris was in charge of all of the stunts that took place during 10 months of preproduction and shooting in the desert environs of the southern African country of Namibia and directed many of the action sequences as a unit director. “I was 21 during the filming of the ‘Road Warrior,’ and I turned 50 during ‘Fury Road,’ ” says Norris. “I doubled as Max during the crash of the Ford Falcon in the ‘Road Warrior,’ and here I was all those years later, sitting in essentially the same vehicle, and rolled it again.”
“Everything we did on ‘Road Warrior’ was real, as there was no other choice,” Norris says. “At the time we weren’t really sure what we were making. But then it came out and hit a nerve with fans of car and action films. Since then, it’s inspired a lot of other vehicle films.”
But the art of car stunts has waned as the reliance on computer graphics has grown. And that was a direction the filmmakers largely didn’t want to take. (There’s a monumental desert storm that is too huge to be anything but CGI.) Instead, Norris’ team relied on a camera crane mounted to a trick Toyota truck, often driving at 100 mph and swerving among the other vehicles as the crane did 360-degree turns. “We put the camera inches away from other cars in places you could never get it before.”
Some sequences involved more than 100 trucks, cars, and bikes converging in a mad armada. Norris refers to it as dance choreography with each vehicle moving to a different beat. “We drove every crazy vehicle that Colin Gibson designed,” he says. “Those are all real people on real vehicles, and we pretty much crashed every single one of them.
“I hope it reinvigorates doing stunts for real because the audience can feel that. It’s more emotional. And our guys were in honest jeopardy: no crash helmets, no body protection, everyone was bare-chested.” Thankfully, there weren’t any major calamities despite all the vehicular mayhem.
Norris says many films will prepare months for a single crash. “We crashed two or three cars every single day; we’d crash something in the beginning of day, at lunchtime, and in the afternoon,” he says. “For a red-blooded stuntman, every day was pretty much Christmas.”
As for Gibson, when asked if the wholesale destruction of his concepts broke his heart, he’s firm. “Absolutely not,” he says. “You don’t make a Frankenstein and not expect that the villagers will attack you with pitchforks. The cars were built for the purpose of mayhem, and mayhem they got. In the story, the only vehicle that makes it back is the Gigahorse. The others meet a glorious, if pandemonious, death.”
Check out the trailer for the new movie below.