Saturday, March 14, 2009

Getting Nostalgic For A Post-Apocalyptic Aftermath

By Darryl Mason

I've already covered the coming Mel Gibson-free, anime, Mad Max 4 movie and videogame(s), here. As promised, I've dug out a story I was working on in late 2002, for a mag in London, about the then live-action, Mel Gibson-featuring Mad Max 4 that was gearing up to start filming in mid-2003.

I never did get to interview Mad Max creator-director George Miller, and any info about what he was planning to do was thin on the ground indeed. There wasn't really enough detail for a decent feature length story, even though the editor said I could waffle on for a few hundred words about the 'Mad Max Legacy'. And so I waffled, for a few thousand words instead.

A few observations, that seem important now, from my notebooks of 2002 that I never managed to shoehorn into the dumped story :
It is fantastically curious, on viewing the Mad Max trilogy again in total now, that despite his reputation for extreme violence, Max is only seen firing his sawn-off shotgun a total of six times in the course of the three films, and, overall, there are remarkably few scenes of explicit gore or hardcore physical abuse.

Much horrific violence is certainly implied, instead of being seen, which can sometimes be much worse.

Something else I never noticed before, Max saves himself at the beginning and the end of Mad Max II with the one simple trick that is rarely seen in American car chase movies - Max simply slams on his brakes. Brilliant!
The live action Mad Max 4 was cancelled in early 2003 when it became clear that the Iraq War was about to get underway, causing big problems for Miller's plans to shoot his new Mad Max movie in the deserts of Morocco and the United States. Miller moved onto Happy Feet instead.

There's plenty of Mad Max history and waffle to soak up below, if you're a bit mad about Max, but there's also some interesting detail about what is very likely going to be the key plot of the Mad Max 4 movie (Miller said recently the anime script would be mostly based on the 2002 screenplay, which I managed to read a summary of).


Mad Max 4 Feature Story

Draft Two : October 29, 2002

By Darryl Mason

Almost fourteen years after he last slipped on the torn, dusty leathers of 'Mad' Max Rocketanski for Beyond Thunderdome, Mel Gibson is set to return to the role that made him an international star. But only for half-an-hour or so of screen time, and yet it will earn Gibson the biggest paypacket in cinema history.

Although Gibson was only paid $15,000 for the original Mad Max movie, way back in 1979, this time around he will score one of the largest paydays in the history of Hollywood. A reported $40 million is on offer to Gibson, who is still not happy with the script. It's also rumoured Mel's Max will only appear in the first 30 minutes of the new movie, before being killed off to make way for a new generation, much younger, Max. His son, or it should be said, his genetic offspring.

Mad Max 4 is set to begin filming in desert locales in Australia, Morocco and North America in May, 2003, under the directorship of creator George Miller.

The new film is set two centuries on from where we last left Max, wandering the wastelands at the end of third instalment, Beyond Thunderdome.

While the first two films saw women and gasoline as being the most precious resources left to be plundered by biker road armies, and water became a plot catalyst in Beyond Thunderdome, this time around the unpolluted DNA of human 'pure breeds' will be the treasure all seek to possess.

Gibson's Max is expected to show up in the new film in flashbacks, to reveal what happened to him in the last years of his life, before the new Max, a 'son' derived from his DNA, takes over the story.

The new Max's mission will be to act as a 'protector' and escort a group of non-mutants across the wastelands with their precious stock of unpolluted DNA. This pure DNA stock is desired by the mutant hordes, as it can be used to clean up their genes, and make them resistant to the radioactivity that still infects the land.

The infamous post-apocalyptic wastelands this time, however, won't just be the ochre flats of outback Australia. One major chase sequence will be set on the floor of the Grand Canyon.

The Mad Max trilogy is generally recognised as being amongst the most, if not the most, influential action-adventure film series ever made, and three of the most successful films to ever come out of Australia.

But it was the first, low-budget Mad Max that was the most successful of the three. It's profit-to-budget ratio reined long as one of the highest in motion picture history. The first Mad Max movie cost less than $600,000 and took in more than $100 million at cinemas and drive-ins across the planet. This monumental cost-obliterated-by-profit performance was only recently eclipsed by The Blair Witch Project.

It seems almost incomprehensible, today, that the original Mad Max outgrossed such super heavyweights as Kramer Vs Kramer and Apocalypse Now in its first year of release in 1979/1980. And in the US, this Hollywood-busting feat was accomplished with American accents dubbed in over all raw Australian ones.

And, unlike most of today's filmic heroes, who come supplied with a bothersome back story, personal history, we were only ever given the most fleeting glimpses of Max' personal life, outside his role of vigilante and wasteland warrior, in any of the three films.

In the first film, we knew Max was part of a renegade cop outfit, trying to reign some law and order over the biker hordes who terrified country Australian communities. We knew there had been some kind of war, of the nuclear kind, that devastated vast portions of the world (or at least Australia) and resulted in an anarchic state quickly replacing one of law and order.

We knew Max was married with a wife and child, who were then killed by the biker leader ToeCutter, himself seeking revenge for the death of his friend NiteRider, who rocket-car'd his way to oblivion during a police chase.

The murder of his loved ones sent Max on an illegal mission of revenge, and on through The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, the few, brief family and love scenes are the only glimpses we get into his personal history. We liked this. It was easier than to project ourselves onto him, to imagine it was us roaming free and dispensing the justice that crumbling civilisation was cyring out for.

At the end of Mad Max, we know almost nothing about the state of the world outside the cops-vs-bikers road war. So little in fact, that Miller had to use the first five minutes of Road Warrior, and an appropriately dodgy montage of historical stock footage, to bring us up to speed and explain the backstory of the first film so we might better understand the second.

Most fans of the Mad Max trilogy would agree, however, that the films were richer and far more involving because we didn't hear Max recounting his personal life for anybody who was interested in hearing it. Of course, Max barely speaks at all across the three movies. Gibson was given less than fifteen minutes of on-screen dialogue in the first film, only fourteen lines in total for the second, and barely triple that in the third.

It was always Miller's intention that everyone else did all the talking while Max bided his time, and then took care of the necessary business at hand.

With Max you didn't want to know what he'd done, or what had happened to him, or even what he was thinking, you only wanted to see what he was going to do next.

As is industry-standard for such a phenomenal success story, the Mad Max trilogy had the most painful of births. Miller was repeatedly laughed at by executives within the Australian film industry when he tried to shop around his Mad Max script, hoping to raise something close to a budget so he could begin shooting.

Like those who said no to Star Wars, there are people still working in the Australian film industry who had the chance but chose to say no to one of the most profitable films in all cinema history. The half-million dollar budget was eventually raised by Miller and producer Byron Kennedy through investment schemes, film funding bodies and personally guaranteed loans from friends and family.

Miller and Kennedy pieced together Mad Max over the course of six months; shooting chunks on weekends and three day bursts when cast and crew could be drawn, and coerced, away from their more secure, better-paying day jobs.

There was no budget, nor time, for any rehearsals, and stunt co-ordinator Grant Page had to make do with a stunt crew that comprised of, for the most part, himself and a few offsiders. Page turned up for the first day of shooting with his leg in plaster, and there was a long list of broken bones, fractured ribs and dislocated shoulder blades before the arduous shooting was finally finished. The chaos and tension of the movie shoot became the chaos and tension of the movie itself.

When Miller took a good long look at all the footage he had, and compared it to his mind-movie that he had set out to make, he thought, for many weeks, that the film would unsalvageable, that nothing would save it. It was a total bust. But something did save Mad Max. The same thing that saved Jaws. Brilliant editing.

There was no money for reshooting scenes, and some of the more impactful stunts and chase scenes were shot in only one take, with next to no other shots to cut to. When stunts went wrong, or did not go as planned, the changes were incorporated into the final storyline. So Goose breaks his leg, because his stuntman had a broken leg.

And although it appears that dozens of cars were crashed and trashed, and long, superfast, highly dangerous road chases were staged, most of the true action was pieced together in the editing suites. The car carnage poetry of Mad Max is more illusion than minutely staged, massive scale, crash and smash scenes.

After almost two decades of international silence, shattered only by the curious success of the fair-dinkum fare of The Adventures Of Barry Mackenzie in 1973, most in the Australian film industry in the late 1970s expected it would be the refined, deeply artistic works of directors Fred Schepisi and Peter Weir that would crash US and European screens, not some, ahem, car chase movie.

Few involved even considered, during its shooting and lengthy editing stages, that Mad Max would even make it into Australian cinemas, let alone find international release.

How very, very wrong they were.

Hobbled by the indignity of being entirely redubbed by anonymous American actors, Mad Max crept out across only a handful of screens in the US, UK, Europe and Japan. Few critics (even in Australia) bothered reviewing the film, and those that did were mostly, absolutely, scathing.

But the word-of-mouth on this unknown Australian action spectacle was red hot. Mad Max stayed in cinemas long after Academy Award winning vehicles like Kramer Vs Kramer ran their course. In some US cinemas, Mad Max was still showing in mostly packed midnight sessions two years later when the sequel The Road Warrior blasted onto screens.

By the time it was done, Mad Max had clocked up more than $100 million at the international box-office, dropping jaws throughout the Australian and US film industries. For a time, in 1979, Mad Max was turning a higher profit as an Australian export than the wool and coal industries, combined.

It was only while living in California, in 1980, writing the screenplay for The Road Warrior with Terry Hayes, that Miller stumbled upon one of the key secrets why his low-budget, revenge flick had performed so well.

The less venomous reviews from countries like Japan, Norway, Scandinavia would repeatedly cite how much the Mad Max character reminded them of their own historical, legendary warriors, be they Vikings or Samurai.

Miller's original intention was that Mad Max would leave audiences "exhausted, like they'd been on a really great roller-coaster", but he wound up unconsciously transposing into Max the tale of the Hero's Journey that appears to run like a seam through the cultural myths of every indigenous race on the planet, from North American Indians to Australian Aborigines.

As Miller and Hayes drafted the screenplay of The Road Warrior, they read up on the myth-deconstructing works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, confirming what they had learned from the international reviews of the first film, : Mad Max, his character's story arc, was the absolute epitomy of the classical, and worldwide familiar, Hero's Journey.

Max was an everyman Hero, equal parts lone-gunman, shaman and mythical saviour, and Miller and Hayes quickly decided they had no intention of messing with the formula as they set about scripting the sequel.

The plotline of Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) was even more simple than the original. Max roams the wastelands, looking for fuel, and meets up with an assortment of outcast characters, for adventures and brief friendship, before having his loner status tested one final time. He ultimately, willingly, sacrifices himself for the survival of the next generation, and is left alone, once more in the wastelands, his honour restored, ready for another adventure.

Beyond Thunderdome (Mad Max III), despite its larger budget and the addition of an international star to the cast, Tina Turner, did less box office business than either Mad Max or The Road Warrior, and it barely rates a mention now when passionate film-geek discussions turn to Mad Max.

Beyond Thunderdome was filled to the absolute brim with sub-plots, fights, chases, a chorus line of new characters and even more frenetic action scenes. But Max purists say it failed because it broke the golden rule. It took Max out of the wastelands, his home, and brought him into the societal madness of Bartertown. You don't take Rocky and send him to Japan to teach kids how to box.

There was that, and then there was the whole Peter Pan thing with the feral kids. Max is not a townie, and he's not a childcare worker. He's supposed to be out there, on the crumbling highways and dusty tracks, running down the bad guys.

Miller is not expected to make that same mistake in Mad Max 4.

As the Mad Max 4 crew readies the production to begin shooting, George Miller won't spill too many details to the media what he intends to do with the fourth instalment, only ready to reveal "it's going to take Max in a new direction".

Miller admitted last year, to the New York Times, that he found it remarkable, although equally amusing, that after all these years, there is still such a huge audience waiting for Max' return.

"People get nostalgic about the strangest things..." said Miller. "But who'd have ever thought the apocalypse, and its aftermath, would be one of them?"