Punk as fuck and one of the most dangerous debuts in movie history, 1979’s Mad Max swept the sci-fi table clean. For those still in the dark, a cheat sheet: Mad Max was a proud Australian export (i.e., it didn’t come from Hollywood) and was grungy and ingenious. It didn’t feel like Star Wars and wasn’t the slightest bit optimistic. Instead, it took place “a few years from now” in a crumbling world ravaged by a global oil crisis and marauding bikers. And in its signature touch, its characters weren’t clad in “futuristic” white tunics but in leather pants and attitude.
When the studios came calling—not just for writer-director George Miller but for his handsome breakthrough star Mel Gibson—he got the opportunity to do the concept justice. The result, The Road Warrior (1981), remains a masterpiece, an instant action classic and the mythical gold standard for end-of-the-world thrills. Now, to the euphoria of fans worldwide, Miller is unleashing Mad Max: Fury Road, a new chapter in his saga and the most feverishly anticipated movie of the summer. It’s more than just a reboot of the franchise, it’s a complete visual rethink: phantasmagorical, surreal, saturated with fiery red explosions and cool-blue stunt work in an almost abstract desert landscape. We talked to Miller, 70, from his home base in Sydney.
The new movie is great and I understand it’s taken you years to make it. First, congratulations and welcome back to Max.
Oh, thank you. You're one of the first journalists who's seen it. We kind of just finished [Laughs]. After all this hard work, you're always a little tentative. You feel like one of those little kids holding up your drawing and saying, “Look, Mom, look, Dad—what do you think of my drawing?”
Maybe you're too close to it.
Well, yes. These characters live like imaginary friends in your head. And this particular film has been a crazy ride in itself.
Tell me about that. First, why did you step away from the franchise to begin with? You were having a good run there.
Well, I'll try to give you a short answer. After I finished the first Mad Max, I thought I'd never make another film, let alone another Mad Max film. The second one was a chance to do all the things that I felt I'd wanted to do in the first film. And the third film [1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome]—I don't remember a lot about making that film because at the time, my partner, Byron Kennedy, had been killed in a helicopter accident. We'd already committed to do the film. But by the time I finished, I thought I was done with Mad Max. Over the years, people would ask, “You ever want to do another?” and I say, “Definitely not.”
Do you associate those early days with Byron?
Yes, I do. You know, I grew up with a twin brother and we spent every day together, all the way through medical school. Byron became my “movie twin.” So we we were very simpatico and complementary in our skills. He did the sound; I did the picture. And we made that first film on a very low budget, which was actually the best thing that could have happened because we had to do everything. And by doing everything, you develop those comprehensive skills. It was the very first film set I'd been on—I'd made some shorts, but never a proper film set.
Did having no money force you to be more creative?
Definitely. The first Mad Max film was actually written for a contemporary world. But it occurred to me that we would never have the budget to fill the streets with people and extras and cars and so on. So I shouldn't probably admit this, but the notion of it being post-apocalyptic was driven by budget, in that I simply used a caption—“A few years from now”—which allowed us to shoot in empty back streets and decrepit buildings in the outskirts of Melbourne.
So what drew you back to this brutal universe?
An idea flashed in my mind. I kept pushing it away. I was in that sort of hypnogogic state that one gets into flying across the Pacific from Los Angeles back to Sydney during the night. And Fury Road, the film that exists today, played out in my mind like a figure in a fog—it was a very indistinct version but two thirds of it played out in my head and by the time I landed in Sydney, I said to my colleague, “I think there's another Mad Max film coming.” I didn't realize it would take me over a decade to see it finished! [Laughs]
The new film has a beautiful look—lush, colorful, not what I anticipated. Why did you change the palette like that?
If you're going to revisit a world after three decades, you'd better make it uniquely familiar—unique being the operative word. You can't simply do what was done before. It had to have a different feel. Everyone's instinct was to desaturate the movie, to make it look like a traveling junkyard. So I went counterintuitively toward heavy saturated color. I had a mantra for all the design teams: Just because it's the wasteland, that doesn't mean people can't make beautiful things. I'd traveled in Africa quite a bit and it struck me that even in the poorest townships, people were taking the most meager material and making beautiful toys out of wire, out of plastic, out of Coke cans. Aesthetics don't die in the apocalypse.
All of these Mad Max movies are well worked-out, not just in terms of action but in terms of a future psychology that feels believable. Do you have to go to a dark place to think of a Mad Max story?
It's very seductive for me because it's not back to the future—it's forward to the past. We go into a world 45 to 50 years after next Wednesday, which is when the apocalypse begins. And the apocalypse is driven by all those terrible things we see in the news—some of them come to pass. So you end up in this very elemental world. And the seduction of that world is the same that drove the American Western for so long. In the simplicity, in the reduced landscape, in their very minimal figures in the landscape, they basically become allegorical. In a sense, it's not a cautionary tale so much as a morality tale, in a world where survival takes precedence over what is humane.
Do you see that in today’s world?
Put it this way: The most unusual behavior in the Mad Max world is kindness or regard of one human to another. Whereas in the contemporary world—at least those that parts we think of as the developed world—the unusual behavior seems to be the darker stuff. It's the flip side of what we experience. That's not to say there aren’t areas in the world which are living out their own versions of the apocalypse. But here's a film in which we take those, reduce them and see what comes out of it. Without going on too long about it, I think it's what we ask of all stories and all storytellers—that amongst the noise, we're looking for some signal. We're just bombarded with data and information. I think we're looking for stories which, to some degree, can explain some of the things we feel about the world.
Did you originally want Mel Gibson for the role again?
Way back in 2001, we were very close to doing it with Mel. He'd heard we were doing another film and said, “Yes, I'm really interested.” And then with 9/11, the American dollar collapsed against the Australian dollar and our budget ballooned. Before we could regroup, we had to commit to Happy Feet because we had the digital facility booked to do it. So I spent four years on Happy Feet and when we regrouped on Fury Road, Mel had all that turbulence in his life.
Was that a factor?
Really, it was more that we were getting to the point where this wasn't Unforgiven—it wasn't about an old road warrior. So I began looking for someone to play Max, in the same way they kept on looking for new James Bonds.
Was Mel cool with that?
Mel and I never talked about making him an old guy. It was to be the same Max. And you know, Tom was six weeks old when we started shooting the first Mad Max [Laughs]. Mel was 21 when we shot that first one. He was 24 when we shot The Road Warrior. He was very mature, very manly, Mel, even when he was very young. But as the best part of a decade went on and all the other stuff happened, we moved on to Tom. Max is a kind of an everyman—in a sense, he’s a character that predates cinema. He's in much of folklore: the wanderer in the wasteland looking for meaning. And then there's the question of which actors, according to my intuition, would best fit the role. Tom was the most evident. I'd seen Bronson, I'd seen a miniseries he'd done. And then when I met him, he had that same charisma that Mel did when he first walked into the room, all those years before. So it was Tom.
Will Tom Hardy return for sequels?
Yes, if this film does well enough. It took so long, this film, that without even thinking about it, we wrote another screenplay and a novella. If this film gets enough traction, it's something I would like to try.