The grandaddy of all dystopian action extravaganzas, Mad Max burst into cinemas in 1979 in all of its super-charged, leather-clad glory, changing genre cinema forever. Influenced by the 1973 oil crisis that turned many motorists all over the globe to violence, Mad Max depicted a desolate world with long stretches of highways interrupted only by derelict signs of civilization. The remnants of a once strong police force, the Main Force Patrol do their best to maintain law while wild gangs of outlaw bikers loot, rape, and siphon their way through society. One of these officers, Max Rockatansky, looses faith in the justice after his best friend, wife, and infant son fall victim to the nastiest gang of them all, led by the Genghis Khan of the wasteland, the Toecutter.
Shot over 12 weeks in and around Melbourne with a humble budget of $350,000 (Australian), the making of Mad Max was sometimes just as chaotic and dangerous as the world depicted in the film. Director George Miller, making his first feature, pulled together every resource imaginable making his mean-spirited opus. The birth of Mad Max was filled with broken bones, military rocket boosters, and suicide missions to get the most insane shot that was as close to the action as possible. These were real men doing real stunts in real cars going over 100 mph. Sure the stunts and car chases in Mad Max‘s arguably superior sequel The Road Warrior may be more impressive at times, but that movie had a lot more support behind it with over 10 times the original’s budget. How did Miller and his crew get it all done? Let’s take a look with 10 things you didn’t know about Mad Max.
10) Mel Gibson Busted Face Got Him the Role
21-year-old Mel Gibson only went to the audition to support one of his friends, Steve Bisley who would score the role of Goose. Gibson was in a bar fight the night before and his face was a swollen mess of black-and-blue. Seeing something behind the bruises, one of the casting agents spotted the battered Gibson and told him to come back in three weeks because they needed “freaks.” Three weeks later, a healed-up Gibson returned and charmed the pants of the filmmakers with his pretty-boy ruggedness. They asked him to read for Max and you know the rest (the above pic is from The Road Warrior, but it works for this entry).
9) The Art Director Was a Thief
Art director Jon Dowding and his prop department had to make the most of their low budget — even if that meant stealing just a wee bit. On the DVD commentary, Dowding confesses that he stole most of the props and signage seen outside the milk bar (convenience store) where Jessie goes to get ice cream. He stole everything early in the morning, they shot the scene, and he put everything back where he found it during the night. Don’t worry, Dowding offers a sincere apology in the commentary.
8) Beer Went A Long Way On Set
And I don’t mean Mel Gibson got drunk and berated the Jews. Director George Miller bribed a lot of people to work on the film with “slabs” of beer. In Australia, a “slab” is a case of 24 cans. Slabs were used to pay ambulance drivers, a tractor driver, and it’s safe to imagine some of the bikers as well. Sounds like a fair deal to me.
7) It Was Inspired by Car Accident Victims
Writer and director George Miller used some gruesome inspiration for Mad Max. Miller was a medical student and completed his residency at a Sydney hospital in 1972. As a doctor in the ER, he would see a constant influx of mangled car accident victims — these would later leak into Mad Max’s universe and aesthetic. In the film, an ambulance is referred to as a “meat truck”, a term Miller picked up in the ER. And did you know that Max has a last name? It’s Rockatansky, after Baron Carl von Rokitansky, the Bohemian pathologist who developed a procedure for removing internal organs at autopsy.
6) Without Mad Max, There Would Be No Saw
The end of Mad Max sees our anti-hero in full vengeance mode. After taking care of the Toecutter, Max finally catches up with Johnny the Boy, who is looting a crashed car. Max handcuffs Johnny’s ankle to the overturned car, which is rapidly leaking gasoline. He rigs a lighter near the leak and throws Johnny a hacksaw – giving him the “option” to saw through his own ankle or the cuffs, which he’ll certainly never accomplish before he goes ka-boom. Sound familiar? Saw series creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell (Australians themselves) have credited this mean little finale as the inspiration behind the Saw franchise.
5) The Toecutter Was a Shakespearean Actor
It’s easy to tell that the Toecutter is a classically trained Shakespearean actor, right? Versatile actor Hugh Keays-Byrne was born in India, raised in England, and moved to Australia in 1973 with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Before Mad Max he appeared in the classic biker film Stone and Mad Dog Morgan alongside Dennis Hopper. Keays-Byrne got to flex his classically trained muscles in Mad Max — improvising different accents in nearly every scene and hamming it up when threatened by May at the country hoome. He later appeared in two episodes of Farscape as slimy businessman Grunchlk.
4) The Front of the Truck Was Fake
When the Toecutter barrels full speed into the huge truck at the end, right after his eyes literally bug out of his skull, look closely. The entire front of the truck is a painted “shield.” Miller paid a truck driver $50 (and probably a slab of beer) to run over the motorcycle and the Toecutter dummy, but the driver didn’t want to mess the front of his rig up. So Miller had his prop department painted a big sheet of metal to resemble the rig’s front, headlights and all. Once you see it (1:08 in the video above) you’ll kick yourself for not noticing it before. It’s wonderfully obvious how fake the rig’s front is, but it never takes away from the awesome brutality of the collision.
3) They Used Real Biker Gangs
A lot of the extras in Toecutter’s crew were from real biker gangs – many of them even performed stunts. The crew recruited from a local Australian gang called the Vigilantes and from the Australian division of the Hell’s Angels as well. Because they were asked to show up on set in costume – prop weapons and all – Miller was afraid they would be stopped by the police. In case this happened, he gave the bikers “get out of jail” letters, which were basically typed statements on studio letterhead explaining that the bikers were movie extras. One of the members of the Vigilantes was the guy who gets hit in the head with the motorcycle during the bridge crash. Don’t worry, apparently it looked a lot worse in slow motion than it actually was. The biker brushed himself off and continued the shoot.
2) The Stunt Man Did His Best Work with a Broken Leg
Legendary Australian stuntman Grant Page coordinated and performed stunts in dozens of films in the ’70s and ’80s. He even starred in some films, including Roadgames, where he stalked Jamie Lee Curtis, and Stuntrock, where he did ridiculous stunts while a cheesy rock band called Sorcery performed. Page had a big hand in the stunts for Mad Max — doing both car and motorcycle work. His most clean looking stunt in the film is jumping the Interceptor through the camper during the film’s opening chase with the Nightrider. Even more badass than the actual car jump is the fact that Page did it with a broken leg.
As the story goes, Page was on his way way to the set when a semi-trailer cut off his motorcycle, causing him to swerve underneath the truck’s wheels. He made it beneath the truck safely, but the motorcycle collapsed on him and broke his leg. After getting it put in a cast, Page made it to the set to perform one of the best-looking stunts of all time. What did you do today?
Actually, there’s more than one broken leg story from the set of Mad Max. Sheila Florance, the actress who played shotgun-toting old May, stumbled over a rabbit hole during filming and broker her leg. She got a plaster cast on her hip and was on set the next day.
1) They Put a Military Rocket on the Nightrider’s Car
Stunts aren’t what they used to be. On Mad Max, the fearless stunt department decided it would be a good idea to put a military booster rocket on the Nightrider’s car – set to go off right before he explodes in a ball of glorious flame. On their one and only try at getting the shot, the booster rocket put out 6,500 pounds of thrust in 1.8 seconds. A car doing a 180 degree turn at 150 mph isn’t the easiest thing to predict and it ended up chasing the camera crew for nearly half a mile before it hit a ditch. After finally towing the car out two days later they were able to film the explosion. No way in hell a crew would be able to get away with attaching a military issue rocket to a stunt car nowadays. They’d have to settle for Bay-ified CGI.