'Mad Max: Fury Road' The oral history of a modern action classic
The characters were intriguing, the stunts were exhilarating, and every frame was bursting with incredible, how’d-they-do-that nerve. “Mad Max: Fury Road” set a new high-water mark for action filmmaking when it came out in 2015, and no summer blockbuster since has been able to match its turbocharged ingenuity.
Even Oscar-winning auteurs have been awed by George Miller’s operatically staged spectacle. “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho said last year that the scale of the movie brought him to tears, while Steven Soderbergh put it more bluntly: “I don’t understand how they’re not still shooting that film,” he said in a 2017 interview, “and I don’t understand how hundreds of people aren’t dead.”
So how did Miller and his cast pull it off and survive to tell the tale?
Five years after “Fury Road” was released, I asked 20 of its key players what making it was like. Though its post-apocalyptic plot is deceptively simple — road warrior Max (Tom Hardy) and the fierce driver Furiosa (Charlize Theron) must race across the desert to escape the vengeful Immortan Joe and his fleet of kamikaze War Boys — filming the movie was anything but easy.
“Like anything that has some worth to it, it comes with complicated feelings,” Theron said. “I feel a mixture of extreme joy that we achieved what we did, and I also get a little bit of a hole in my stomach. There’s a level of ‘the body remembers’ trauma related to the shooting of this film that’s still there for me.”
After making three progressively bigger “Mad Max” movies — the 1979 original as well as “The Road Warrior” (1981) and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) — Miller let the franchise he created lie dormant until 1998.
GEORGE MILLER (director) For so long, whenever the idea of another “Mad Max” movie came up, I thought there wasn’t much more I could do with it, but I specifically remember the moment that changed. I was crossing the street in Los Angeles and this very simple idea popped in my head: “What if there was a ‘Mad Max’ movie that was one long chase, and the MacGuffin was human?” I was flying back to Australia a month later, ruminating on it, and by the time I landed, I called Doug Mitchell and said, “I think I’ve got an idea.”
DOUG MITCHELL (producer) There were a number of names thrown out for the female lead back when we first started, [like] Uma Thurman.
MILLER I remember we were talking about Charlize even then. Her agent said she wasn’t interested, but I mentioned it to her over a decade later, and she said, “No one ever told me!”
With the series’ star Mel Gibson set once again to play Max, the plan was to shoot “Fury Road" for 20th Century Fox. Dozens of expensive vehicles and set pieces were built for a shoot scheduled for March 2003.
MILLER Then 9/11 happened and everything changed. We couldn’t get insured, we couldn’t get our vehicles transported. It just collapsed.
COLIN GIBSON (production designer) I was in Namibia in 2003 when I got the call to stop spending money. I don’t know whether [the studio] decided to reroute their money back to the Iraq war, or if it was the email I got from Mel Gibson’s wife asking me how many Muslims there may or may not be in Namibia and, therefore, how interested she may or may not be in the whole family coming to visit.
Miller pivoted to directing the animated film “Happy Feet,” and when it proved to be a box-office success for Warner Bros., he was able to convince the studio to take on “Fury Road.” Still, his longtime leading man Mel Gibson was now in his 50s and considered a Hollywood pariah. Miller and Mitchell decided to search for a new Max.
MITCHELL Mel is obviously blighted by a number of things that everyone in the world knows about, even though he’s a highly gifted filmmaker and a brilliant actor and a lovely guy behind that demon that sometimes pops out. But he was too old at that point. It just didn’t make sense.
ZOË KRAVITZ (Toast, one of the five “wives” fleeing Immortan Joe) I did a chemistry test with Jeremy Renner reading for Max, because they hadn’t hired Tom yet.
MILLER I had the same feeling about Tom that I had when Mel Gibson first walked into the room: There was a kind of edgy charm, the charisma of animals. You don’t know what’s going on in their inner depths, and yet they’re enormously attractive.
TOM HARDY (Max) I hadn’t done that much action at that time, certainly not with this level of involvement. The nature and sheer scale and volume of action set pieces was unlike anything I had experienced.
CHARLIZE THERON (Furiosa) I grew up on all the “Mad Max” movies — they’re very popular in South Africa. I remember being 12 and my dad letting me watch it with him. So I was like, “Oh yeah, I wanna be in a ‘Mad Max’ movie. Are you kidding me?”
RILEY KEOUGH (Capable, another one of the Immortan’s escaped “wives”) They were holding crazy, nontraditional auditions in Australia. They’d have bunches of us, five to six girls, go through this audition process with no scenes from the film but a lot of improv, a lot of acting-class stuff. We had no idea if we’d get chosen or not, and out of my group, I was the only one who got selected.
KRAVITZ When they cast me, I was brought to a room that I wasn’t allowed to leave, and I sat there and read the script. It was one of the strangest scripts I’d ever seen, because it was like a really long comic book.
JOHN SEALE (cinematographer) I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, so I gave up. I thought, “They’ve been in preproduction for 10 years, let’s just go make it.”
With his cast in place, Miller set a late-2010 shoot in Broken Hill, Australia, the desert mining town where he had filmed the first two “Mad Max” movies.
THERON The roughest moment was when we were in Australia, two weeks away from shooting, and they pulled the plug on us.
MITCHELL During preproduction, the weather pattern changed in Australia and it rained and rained in Queensland, the sort of weather that happens once in a century.
GIBSON Slowly, what was desert turned into beautiful flowers. So we put everything into storage and slunk away yet again.
KEOUGH It was the first time I had experienced a big push on a film, and I was heartbroken. I was like, “Is it really because of the weather? Am I fired?”
MITCHELL We were basically defeated. How do we move on?
But Miller refused to give up on the film.
MILLER I said, “Let’s wait a year and see if it all dries up.” And when we saw that it wouldn’t, I decided we should to go back to Namibia, where it never rains.
MARGARET SIXEL (editor and Miller’s wife) It was kind of nuts to take all those people and all those vehicles to Namibia. Who would do that? I guess that’s George. He isn’t like other people, really — which is what I love.
In July 2012, a year and a half after the planned Broken Hill shoot, filming finally commenced on “Fury Road” in the Namibian desert.
KEOUGH It was the craziest thing you could imagine, and the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced. For one, it felt very real, which is why it looks so incredible. Everyone in this film was so excited to be their characters that walking around on set was like actually walking around in that world. It was almost like a cosplay thing.
NICHOLAS HOULT (Nux, one of the Immortan’s War Boys) Hugh, who played the Immortan, would put photos of himself all around the stunt gym where the War Boys trained.
HUGH KEAYS-BYRNE (Immortan Joe) It was a wonderful thing to feel everyone around me crashing about in their costumes and absolutely living it.
COURTNEY EATON (Cheedo, another “wife”) I had never acted in my life before, except for drama class in school. When I got to set and they asked me to stand on my mark, I turned around and said, “I don’t know what that means.”
KRAVITZ There was something really beautiful about how inexperienced a lot of us were — we were so down for the cause. I don’t know what it would be like if you had five actresses who’d been working for a long time that would call their agents and be like, “What the hell is going on here?”
ROSIE HUNTINGTON-WHITELEY (the “wife” Splendid) I’ve lived with Jason [Statham] for 10 years, and I’ve never known him to have an experience like it. I remember explaining it to him, and he said, “Wow, this is so different from how I’ve ever gone to work.”
The spectacular action sequences were difficult to stage, but they had a sense of actual weight and physics that had been lost in a decade and a half of CGI spectacle.
GIBSON All the action had to be real. The hair can’t stand up on the back of your neck — not for me, anyway — watching Vin Diesel drag a three-ton safe down through perfect right-angle turns on the street. The whole rationale was to make it as real as possible so that as much as possible was at stake.
HARDY As we dug in, it was dangerous, or certainly could have been extremely so, if it weren’t for the methodical professionalism and preparation of the experts: stunt coordination, stunt team and riggers.
BEN SMITH-PETERSEN (stunt performer) On most films like this, you’re working your way up to a stunt — maybe there’s one a week. But on this film, from the time your day starts, you’re already doing a stunt and then there’s another one on top of that. It was a stuntman’s dream.
HOULT I remember turning up one day, and they strapped me under the War Rig in a harness.
KRAVITZ Everything you see is really happening, there’s no green screen. I’m really being pulled out of the truck and going super high in the air — and I’m pretty sure that’s Riley’s husband, Ben, who grabbed me and pulled me out. They met on the movie.
KEOUGH We ended up falling in love. So my husband’s a War Boy.
Many of the young actresses were cast as the sex slaves Furiosa was trying to smuggle to freedom. To help them better understand their characters, Miller engaged a surprising recruit: “The Vagina Monologues” playwright Eve Ensler, who was working with Congolese survivors of gender violence.
EVE ENSLER It was really surprising for me, too! George would send me pieces of the script for feedback, and we began to get into a dialogue about the women who were going to play the sex slaves and how they would know what that lived experience was. Eventually, he invited me to Namibia to spend time with them in workshops, and my contribution was really to help those actresses become confident in that world. I think it was a really radical thing that he asked me to do that.
KRAVITZ Even if a lot of the women’s history wasn’t in the dialogue, it was really important to George that we understood what we were running from.
HUNTINGTON-WHITELEY The workshopping process was really emotional. Having grown up with a very pleasant childhood in a middle-class family in the U.K., it was a big shock to the system.
KRAVITZ We would do exercises like writing letters to our captor, really interesting stuff that created deep empathy. I’m glad we had that, because it was such a crazy experience — so long and chaotic — that it would be easy to forget what we were doing if we didn’t have this really great foundation that we could return to.
KEOUGH I thought it was amazing that George cared so much. It could have just been like, “This is a big Hollywood movie, now put on your bathing suits and get outside.”
But the film’s centerpiece character was the determined, resourceful Furiosa.
HARDY Charlize arguably laid down the finest lead character in an action movie, and that credit is much deserved, in my opinion; both to her as a phenomenal talent and also to George for recognizing from the very start that it was time to pass Mel’s shoes onto Furiosa.
THERON At first, Furiosa was this very ethereal character, with long hair and some African mud art on her face. It was a different costume designer back then, before Jenny Beavan, and the costume felt a little more Barbarella-y. I worried about it.
JENNY BEAVAN (costume designer) I am not into fashion, and I don’t particularly care what people look like — the clothes have to come out of the stories they tell. Since she travels long distances, Furiosa needed very practical clothing, and when I met with Charlize, that was one of the things we talked about. That, and what on earth would she do with her hair?
THERON George was really incredible in just 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.” You know, he trusted me so much that it kind of makes me emotional. In that sense, I feel like I let him down.
Tensions could run high on the set, where the principal cast was crammed into one vehicle for most of the blockbuster-length shoot.
THERON The biggest thing that was driving that entire production was fear. I was incredibly scared, because I’d never done anything like it. I think the hardest thing between me and George is that he had the movie in his head and I was so desperate to understand it.
SIXEL It was very difficult for the actors, because there’s no master shot, no blocked-out scenes. Their performances were made of these tiny little moments.
SEALE (cinematographer) It was tough for them. The crew can be protected by the elements — the cold and wind and sand — but they can’t. They’re wearing a wardrobe that is very specific.
ABBEY LEE (the Dag, another “wife”) It looks warm, but we shot it in the winter and it was blisteringly freezing. Us girls weren’t wearing much, and Riley got hypothermia.
KEOUGH There were night shoots that were brutal, and there was so much dust that your face would be covered with three inches of sand by the end of the day. We kept it together pretty well, I think, for the first five months.
KRAVITZ By the end, we wanted to go home so badly. It had been nine months, and not nine months where you’re in a city and you hang out in your trailer. It was nine months of the environment you’re seeing in the movie, with nothing around. You really do start to lose your mind a little bit.
MILLER There was a high degree of difficulty on the film, and unless you are entirely rigorous about safety, something is inevitably going to go wrong. That was my biggest anxiety — it’s something I’d experienced before [when a stuntman broke his leg], and it gnaws at you. I guess the actual working process of the actors, I probably should have paid more attention to.
THERON All of those young girls kind of turned to me as someone who would problem-solve for them, and this is not anybody’s fault — I only say this now because I know George and I’ve experienced this with George, so I’d fully trust him. But I’ve also trusted directors fully when I didn’t comprehend what they were trying to do, and it just turned into a mess.
HUNTINGTON-WHITELEY There was a lot of tension, and a lot of different personalities and clashes at times. It was definitely interesting to sit in a truck for four months with Tom and Charlize, who have completely different approaches to their craft.
HARDY Because of how much detail we were having to process and how little control one had in each new situation, and how fast the takes were — tiny snippets of story moments were needed to make the final cut work — we moved fast, and it was at times overwhelming. One had to trust that the bigger picture was being held together.
KRAVITZ Tom really had moments of frustration, of anger. Charlize did, too, but I feel like he’s the one who really took it out on George the most, and that was a bummer to see. But you know, in some ways, you also can’t blame him, because a lot was being asked of these actors and there were a lot of unanswered questions.
THERON In retrospect, I didn’t have enough empathy to really, truly understand what he must have felt like to step into Mel Gibson’s shoes. That is frightening! And I think because of my own fear, we were putting up walls to protect ourselves instead of saying to each other, “This is scary for you, and it’s scary for me, too. Let’s be nice to each other.” In a weird way, we were functioning like our characters: Everything was about survival.
HARDY I would agree. I think in hindsight, I was in over my head in many ways. The pressure on both of us was overwhelming at times. What she needed was a better, perhaps more experienced, partner in me. That’s something that can’t be faked. I’d like to think that now that I’m older and uglier, I could rise to that occasion.
LEE The grueling nature of the shoot really served it, in my opinion. The characters are supposed to be exhausted, they’re supposed to be searching for strength. I just don’t think that any of the performances would have been the same had it all been green-screen and we did it in a controlled environment. The fact that it was a huge mess is why it’s so brilliant.
As the shoot continued into late 2012, the Warner Bros. studio head Jeff Robinov prepared to intercede.
GIBSON There’s a lack of control you have when you’re sitting in Los Angeles and 600 people are wandering the desert with what’s left of your money.
KRAVITZ We were behind schedule, and we heard the studio was freaking out about how we were over budget.
SEALE The president of Warner Bros. flew to Namibia and had a gold-plated fit.
MILLER Jeff was in a bake-off with Kevin Tsujihara about who was going to head the studio, and he had to assert himself to show his superiors that he was in command and a strong executive. I knew what he was going through, but it wasn’t going to do anybody any good at all. [Robinov could not be reached for comment.]
MITCHELL He said, “The camera will stop on Dec. 8, no matter what you’ve got, and that’s the end of it.” We hadn’t shot any of the scenes in the Citadel yet, where the opening and closing book ends of the film are set, and we had to go into postproduction without them. It was almost incomprehensible.
SIXEL I was worried about George. You wouldn’t even know the half of it, let me tell you. You should have seen him by the end of the shoot, he was so thin.
IOTA (the Doof Warrior, a War Boy who wields a flame-spewing guitar) I saw him deteriorate over that six months. He looked so shattered by the end.
Still, Miller could not lose faith: He had to continue searching for a way to complete his film.
MILLER A younger filmmaker who has done very well called me before his first feature and said, “Any tips?” I told him, “The day will come on the shoot when you think you’re completely crazy and what you’re doing makes no sense. Just keep going.” When he finished that film, he told me, “Remember what you said? What you didn’t tell me is that it’s going to happen every day.” And it’s true.
SIXEL It was really difficult to spend that year cutting a film that didn’t have an opening or closing. I kept thinking, “How am I going to make this work? Are we going to write voice-over and try to fill in all the gaps during the opening chase?”
MITCHELL What happened then is that Jeff lost his job and Kevin Tsujihara was appointed, and he decided later that year, “You know what, let’s do this properly. We need to shoot these scenes at the Citadel.” So we brought back all these vehicles from Namibia, reassembled the team in late 2013, and brought Tom and Charlize to Australia. It could have been completely different, had the gods not been shining down.
Though Tsujihara permitted Miller a month of additional shooting, studio executives remained skeptical as he worked on the final cut.
SIXEL There was this constant thing from the studio: “How much shorter is it?” That’s all they wanted to know. I just got so sick of it. They were just obsessed with getting the film under 100 minutes, which I knew was impossible.
MILLER When someone is directing a film, they’re thinking about it every waking hour, and even processing it in their dreams. The problem is, if you’re a studio executive, you tend to think about it for 10 minutes on a Wednesday.
SIXEL It was an incredibly painful film to cut. I think the studio didn’t believe in it, so it was really difficult to keep going. Eventually George and I decided, “We’re just going to make the film we want to make, and if no one else likes it, that’s fine.” And that last four months is when the film really came together.
In May 2015, “Fury Road” was released to rave reviews, starting with its Cannes Film Festival premiere. At a news conference there, Hardy apologized to Miller for the times he felt frustrated during the shoot: “There is no way George could’ve explained what he could see in the sand when we were out there. I knew he was brilliant, but I didn’t quite know how brilliant.”
HARDY As the reality of his accomplishment soaked in for me, I felt it was the right thing to say in the moment.
KRAVITZ As an actor, you make a lot of movies — some of them are good and some of them are bad, and you have to kind of let that go. But with this one, it really felt like we put our actual blood, sweat, tears and time into it, and if it hadn’t been good, I would have been devastated. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, but it was absolutely worth it, and I would do it again if George asked me to.
SIXEL When we actually finished the film and it was a success, that was the best year we ever had. We’d repeat the stories of making the film to each other over and over again: How did we get to the other side? We still kind of marvel at it.
MILLER In Japan, there was a critic who was telling me about the film, and I was astonished by the degree to which he read the subtext, all the stuff you hope is there. I said, “How many times did you see the film?” He said, “Only once. Can I show you something?” And he opened up his shirt, and he had the logo of the Immortan tattooed in red on his chest. So when you see things like that, you’re sort of humbled by it.
“Fury Road” earned $374 million worldwide and was nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture and best director. Though it didn’t win either of the top prizes, the film took six Oscars in categories like editing, production design and costume design.
MILLER Not for a moment did we think “Fury Road” would be anything like an Oscar movie.
SIXEL Half the time, I thought I was going to get fired off the film, and then I win an Oscar! How about that? We were just disappointed that George didn’t win, but basically, they were all his Oscars in a way.
SEALE We had a lovely guy in England come up to us and say, “I voted for you guys, and I’ll tell you why: I look at a film and think, ‘In 20 years’ time, will I remember that film?’ And in 20 years, I know I’ll remember ‘Fury Road.’”
Years after its release, the film’s themes of female empowerment, class inequality and environmental collapse are more relevant than ever.
MITCHELL What an extraordinary experience to have a film that was so difficult, that may never have been made, and at the end of the day it wins Academy Awards and is called one of the best films of the decade.
MILLER When the ideas that you start off with are then comprehended by an audience at large out there, that’s ultimately what redeems the process for you. The Swahili storytellers have this quote: “The story has been told. If it was bad, it was my fault, because I am the storyteller. But if it was good, it belongs to everybody.” And that feeling of the story belonging to everybody is really the reward.
A picture caption with an earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of an actress: She is Abbey Lee, not Abby. The caption also misspelled another actress's surname. She is Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, not Huntington-Whitely.