The art of making independent films has been around for as long as cinema has existed. Most people will have heard the story in one form or another: a ragtag group of actors and moviemakers band together to make a movie on next to nothing. In some cases, they fail and are never heard from again. In other cases, they become the stuff of cinematic legend. One of the most well-known classic examples, the 1979 film Mad Max, celebrated its fortieth birthday on the 12th of this month.
The Australian dystopian film follows the story of ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky as he dispenses justice against a biker gang known as The Acolytes in a tale of societal collapse and revenge. Some reviewers at the time tore this film to shreds: one notable comment from film producer Philip Adams described it as having “all the moral uplift of Mein Kampf”.
However, the film would be an explosive success, doing so well that it grossed over $100 million worldwide, earning it the Guinness World Record for the highest box office to budget ratio, holding this record until the release of the Blair Witch Project. Since then, it has only grown in popularity, becoming a cultural phenomenon, spawning multiple sequels, video games and even a festival in the middle of the Mojave called Wasteland Weekend. Modern audiences may recognize the name from the most recent instalment in the franchise, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, also directed by George Miller and starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron.
George Miller directed Mad Max and it was his first feature film project. At the time of filming, he was working as an emergency room doctor in Sydney, where he dealt with all manner of injuries and deaths like ones shown in the film every single day. Growing up in Queensland, he witnessed a lot of car accidents as a teenager. Three of his friends lost their lives in such crashes. It was while he was at a summer film school, he would meet Byron Kennedy – who would become the film’s producer – in 1971, and the amateur film duo would go on to make this film eight years later, cementing themselves in cinema history. To help pay for the film, he would work as a travelling emergency physician for three months, being driven around by Kennedy. A lot of the anecdotes they collected from this time actually would end up in the film.
Mad Max’s production is full of interesting stories, not just Miller’s own experiences. The director described the process of creating this film as ‘Guerilla filmmaking’, where his crew would close roads without permits, and would even sweep down the road after filming a scene. However, as filming progressed, even the Victoria police they were trying to sneak around became interested in the project, and eventually started helping the crew close down the roads for them. The film was also extremely low budget, with George Miller claiming that the film received $350,000. With barely enough money to finish the project, he offered to pay some of the drivers and bikers in ‘slabs’ (slang for a 24 pack of beer). Some of the biker gang extras were members of an Australian outlaw motorcycle club called The Vigilantes. Upon release, it was notably banned in New Zealand because a scene of one of the characters burning to death unintentionally mirrored a similar event with a gang. It was also banned in Sweden and the ban wouldn’t be lifted until 2005.
It was also the film that kickstarted Mel Gibson’s career, even though it wasn’t supposed to be that way. He was actually accompanying his drama school friend to his audition and being bruised from a fight, got offered a script since the crew were also looking for ‘freaks’. He would return for Mad Max: Road Warrior – a film where his character is famous for having a grand total of sixteen lines – and Beyond Thunderdome. While Gibson did not return for Fury Road, one actor did: Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the main antagonist Toe Cutter in the original Mad Max, returned to star as the main antagonist in Fury Road 26 years later.
Mad Max has some of the most iconic car/bike chases in cinema. Of all the motorcycles that were in the film, fourteen of them were donated by a local Kawasaki dealer. However, Max’s black v8 Interceptor steals the show and is one of the most iconic cars in cinema, returning along with Mel Gibson to star in the sequels. By the time filming was done for Mad Max, fourteen vehicles had been destroyed in the film’s crash scenes, including the director’s own van in the film’s opening chase. Each of the crashes had to be done in one take, and there was even a rumour started that one of the stuntmen actually died during the filming of one of these scenes.
Mad Max is a testament to independent filmmaking and while it has easily earned its place in movie history, the making of the film is a compelling and wild story on its own. While its sequels would grow bigger and badder, it all started with a small crew of amateurs and bikers who were paid in beer. This is a film for audiences who love testosterone filled action or who enjoy classic cinema.