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A Post Apocalyptic Fuel Injected World: Max Max – 40th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “I am the Nightrider. I’m a fuel injected suicide machine. I am the rocker, I am the roller. I am the out of controller!”. A 40th anniversary celebration of George Miller’s post apocalyptic fuel injected “Mad Max”. Director George Miller’s “Mad Max” is two B-movie genres mashed together that were popular in the 70s: the car chase film and the vigilante revenge film. The Australian film is what made Mel Gibson an instant star, before becoming the biggest star in the world seven years later in “Lethal Weapon”. It’s memorable, groundbreaking and one of the finest low budget exploitation films that established a certain set of rules for action movies and inspired many sequels and knock-offs. George Miller’s sequences still dazzle, and his cinematography captures the thrill of speed in a highly effective way. It stands the test of time, not only as a piece of entertainment but also a work of art.

Director George Miller, who directed all four “Mad Max” films and went on to direct “The Witches Of Eastwick”. Had worked as a medical doctor in Sydney Australia, working in a hospital emergency room where he saw many injuries and deaths of the types depicted in “Mad Max”. He also witnessed many car accidents growing up in rural Queensland and lost at least three friends to accidents as a teenager. 

While in residency at a Sydney hospital, Miller met amateur filmmaker Byron Kennedy at a summer film school in 1971. The duo produced a short film “Violence in the Cinema, Part 1”, which was screened at a number of film festivals and won several awards. Eight years later, the duo would produce “Mad Max, working with first-time screenwriter James McCausland (who appears in the film).

Miller’s intention for “Mad Max was to make a silent movie with sound, by employing highly kinetic images while the narrative itself was basic and simple. Miller did just that, going basic and simple. In watching “Mad Max” we wonder how did we get to this dystopian wasteland in so short a time? Why has the highway turned into this throbbing artery of death and destruction? What explains these virtual ghost towns where the few residents left are tormented by deranged marauders? What has happened to the police force? The justice system? The basic fabric of everyday life?

Here we are 40 years after the original film was released, we are four films into Miller’s “Mad Max” series, his vision of a near future of an Australian no man’s land has since been better defined and expanded. With the first film, George Miller had little interest in exposition or conventional world building within “Max Max”. There are clues to suggest that society has collapsed, but no straight explanation of what brought it to this place. Miller wouldn’t start giving answers until the opening narration of Mad Max 2 (AKA The Road Warrior) in 1981.

Miller set “Mad Max” in a post apocalyptic setting, believing that audiences would find his violent story more believable if it were set in a bleak dystopian future. Screenwriter McCausland drew heavily from his observations of the 1973 oil crisis when Arab oil producers cut off exports to the US in protest of its military support for Israel in the war against Syria and Egypt.

Kennedy and Miller first took the film to Graham Burke of Roadshow (which is now Village Roadshow Pictures, owned by Warner Bros), who was enthusiastic about it. They designed a 40-page presentation, circulated it widely, and eventually raised the money. Kennedy and Miller also contributed funds themselves by doing three months of emergency medical calls, with Kennedy driving the car while Miller did the doctoring. Miller claimed the final budget was between $350,000 and $400,000. His brother Bill Miller served as an associate producer on the film. 

Director George Miller had considered to cast an American actor to “get the film seen as widely as possible” and even travelled to Los Angeles, but eventually opted to not do so as the whole budget would be taken up by a so-called American name. Instead the decision was to have the cast deliberately feature lesser known actors. Miller’s first choice for the role of Max was the Irish-born actor James Healey and was seeking a new acting job. Upon reading the script Healey declined, finding the meager, terse dialogue too unappealing. 

Casting director Mitch Mathews and director George Miller held auditions for the role of Max Rockatansky, highlighting that they were looking for “spunky young guys”. A young and an unknown Mel Gibson, got the part thanks to taking his friend at the time to the audition. When Mel Gibson went to the “Mad Max” audition to accompany his friend, he went in with his face all beat up and bruised because he had got into a fight the night before. Because he looked the way he did and since the agency was also casting roles for “freaks”, they took pictures of Gibson and asked him to come back when he healed. When he did, Miller gave him a monologue to perform. Gibson went off into the other room, memorized what he could and ad-libbed the rest and won the role on the spot.

Gibson had only starred in a popular Australian version of an “American Graffiti” knockoff called “Summer City” two years before “Mad Max”. Miller treats Gibson and his character of Max Rockatansky, like the hero of a Sergio Leone western, introducing him through his black leather get-up and profile before giving the audience a fuller view.

Most of the biker gang were members of actual Australian outlaw motorcycle clubs and rode their own motorcycles in the film. They were even forced to ride the motorcycles from their residence in Sydney to the shooting locations in Melbourne because the budget did not allow for aerial transport. 

Three of the main cast members (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Roger Ward and Vincent Gil) had previously appeared in “Stone”, a 1974 film about biker gangs that is one of the films said to have inspired Miller. Playing the main villain of the film Hugh Keays-Byrne, was casted thirty five years later in George Miller’s sequel “Mad Max: Fury Road” as main villain Immortan Joe. 

Just as important as the cast is the films vehicles, that play as characters themselves. Max’s yellow police Interceptor was a 1974 Ford Falcon XB sedan (previously a Victoria police car) with a 351 c.i.d. Cleveland V8 engine. The vehicle known as The Big Bopper, was also a 1974 Ford Falcon XB sedan and a former Victoria police car, but was powered by a 302 c.i.d. V8. Another vehicle The March Hare was an in-line-six-powered 1972 Ford Falcon XA sedan (the car was formerly a Melbourne taxi cab).

The most memorable car, Max’s black Pursuit Special that was a 1973 Ford XB Falcon GT351. The main modifications are the Concorde front end and the supercharger protruding through the bonnet (for looks only; it was not functional). The Concorde front was a fairly new accessory at the time, designed by Peter Arcadipane at Ford Australia as a showpiece, and later became available to the general public because of its popularity. After filming of the first movie was completed, the car went up for sale, but no buyers were found.

When production of “The Road Warrior” began, Miller brought the car back for use in the sequel. Once filming was over the car was left at a wrecking yard in Adelaide since it again found no buyers, and was bought and restored by Bob Forsenko. Eventually it was sold again and was put on display in the Cars Of The Stars Motor Museum in Cumbria, England. When the museum closed, the car went to a collection in the Dezer Museum in Miami, Florida.

The Nightrider’s vehicle, another Pursuit Special, was a 1972 Holden HQ Monaro Coupe, also tuned but deliberately damaged to look like it had been involved in crashes. The car driven by the young couple in the sequence that is vandalized and destroyed by the bikers is a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air Sedan, also modified to look like a hot-rod car with fake fuel injection stacks, fat tires, and a flame red paint job.

Of the motorcycles that appear in the film, 14 were Kawasaki Kz 1000 donated by a local Kawasaki dealer. By the end of filming, fourteen vehicles had been destroyed in the chase and crash scenes, including the director’s personal Mazda Bongo. 

Originally, filming was scheduled to take ten to six weeks of first unit, and four weeks on stunt and chase sequences. Four days into shooting, Rosie Bailey, who was originally cast as Max’s wife, was injured in a bike accident. Production was halted, and Bailey was replaced by Joanne Samuel, causing a two-week delay.

In the end, the shoot took six weeks over November and December 1977, with a further six week second unit. The unit reconvened two months later, in May 1978 and spent another two weeks doing second unit shots and re-staging some stunts. 

The film’s post-production was done at a friend of George Miller’s apartment in North Melbourne, with Bill Wilson and Byron Kennedy editing the film in the small lounge room on a home-built editing machine that Kennedy’s father, an engineer had designed for them. Wilson and Kennedy also performed the sound editing there. 

Tony Patterson had done editing for the film for four months, but had to leave because he was contracted to make another film. George Miller took over editing with Cliff Hayes and they worked on it for three months. Kennedy and Miller did the final cut, in a process Miller described as “he would cut sound in the lounge room and I’d cut picture in the kitchen”. Professional sound engineer Roger Savage would perform the sound mixing in the studio he worked after finishing his work with Little River Band. Miller has employed a time coding (an electronic signal which is used to identify a precise location on time based media such as audio or video tape or in digital systems), technique that were unseen in Australian cinema at the time. It was also the first Australian film production to be shot in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio). Miller’s desire to shoot in anamorphic made him seek out a set of Todd-AO wide angle lenses used by director Sam Peckinpah to film Steve McQueen’s “The Getaway” in 1972. 

Miller described the whole experience as guerrilla filmmaking, where the crew would close roads without filming permits, not using use walkie talkies because their frequency coincided with the police radio and after filming was done Miller would even sweep down the roads. Much of the Australian slang and terminology was replaced with American usages to avoid possible confusion when it was released in the United States. Examples: “Oi!” became “Hey!”, “See looks!” became “See what I see?”, “windscreen” became “windshield”, “very toey” became “super hot”, and “proby” (probationary officer) became “rookie”. 

Since Mel Gibson was not well known to American audiences at the time (seven years later he become a superstar when “Lethal Weapon” was released), the trailers and television spots in the United States emphasised the film’s action content. The original Australian dialogue track was finally released in North America in 2000 in a limited theatrical reissue by MGM, the film’s current rights holders. The Australian dialogue version has since been released in the US on DVD and Blu Ray, along with with the US soundtrack on separate tracks.

Mad Max” was first released 1979 and released in the United States in 1980. The movie was sold overseas for $1.8 million, With American International Pictures releasing it in the U.S. and Warner Bros handling the rest of the world. The film was banned in New Zealand and Sweden, because of the visceral violence and a sequence that was unintentionally mirrored an incident with a real gang shortly before the film’s release. It was later shown in New Zealand in 1983 after the success of the sequel. The ban in Sweden was removed in 2005, and it has since been shown on television and sold on home media there.

The film initially received a polarized reception upon its release in April 1979, although it won three AACTA Awards and attracted a cult following. Filmed on a $400,000 budget, it earned more than $100 million worldwide in gross revenue and held the Guinness record for most profitable film. The success of “Mad Max has been credited for further opening up the global market to Australian New Wave films. The film became the first in the “Mad Max” series, giving life to three sequels: “The Road Warrior” (1981), “Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) and “Fury Road” (2015). 

George Miller had his eye on American gearhead road movies and demolition derbies. One reason why “Mad Max” became an international sensation, because it synthesized so much of what was happening in Australian and American genre cinema at the time. Miller just had cranked up the intensity, amid the noise of shotgun blasts and souped up, nitro-charged muscle cars and motorcycles. Miller’s camera work is beautifully flows as he follows the chase scenes with the camera at top speed and keeping it low to the ground. 

“Mad Max” has good guys and bad guys, and once it gets personal for Max Rockatansky in the final act, it becomes a crude vigilante thriller about a family man mowing down the horrible brutes who destroyed his family. It all leads up the beautiful symphonic mayhem of “Mad Max: Fury Road” five years ago. “Mad Max” was produced before Miller secured bigger budgets and refined his technique. Looking back at it’s place in film history; it’s memorable, groundbreaking and one of the finest low budget exploitation films that established a certain set of rules for action movies. It inspired many sequels and knock-offs, but George Miller’s sequences still dazzle, and his cinematography captures the thrill of speed in a highly effective way. It stands the test of time, not only as a piece of entertainment but also a work of art. It’s a landmark achievement

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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