Charlize Theron on the making of Mad Max: Fury Road
There’s a small secret about to be revealed in Mad Max: Fury Road: it’s not really about Max. The creator of the seminal Mad Max trilogy, Australian filmmaker George Miller, wanted to create an alpha female character who could hold her own against the new-generation of road warrior.
That character is Furiosa, a shaven-headed ball of fury who rages against a post-apocalyptic world in which women are enslaved. And the actress who plays Furiosa happens to be Academy Award winner Charlize Theron.
As actress and character, South Africanborn Theron dominates a film that is an extraordinary two hours-plus of wanton action, and she drives the bus at the focus of the narrative — literally and metaphorically. Furiosa is behind the wheel of the War Rig, the most valuable battle machine and vehicle at the service of the warlord of the Wasteland, Immortan Joe (played with verve by the original Toecutter, Hugh Keays-Byrne).
In this elaborate chase film, Furiosa spirits away the Wives, a group of concubines (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Courtney Eaton, Zoe Kravitz and Riley Keough) from the Citadel, a daunting rock camp, and reluctantly carries Tom Hardy’s taciturn Max along for the ride.
Theron is the star. She, however, humbly deflects any notion she may have seen the film being led by her character.
“To me it felt very much like an ensemble piece, and I had read (it) that way right from the beginning,” she says. “Talking to George, it just always felt like an ensemble piece in that we all kind of informed each other in what the story needed in order to be told.”
Theron contends the “strength of Furiosa” comes as much from the people around her in the thrilling chase, including Max (played with a strange brooding physicality by Hardy) and the accelerated, tense environment of the chase.
“All of that makes (Furiosa) as great as I thought she could be and (equal to) the potential I saw in the script,” Theron says. “But I watch the movie and I feel like it is — that’s a really nice thing you say — but I think it is very much an ensemble film.”
Theron’s relationship to the film appears as complicated as the film’s own drawn-out development. She has been quoted in US press as saying she would be reluctant to return for an obvious sequel, and on-set gossip had it that she and Hardy did not see eye to eye.
Indeed, the film itself has stumbled through years of uncertainty towards its thrilling denouement. The final act is likely to be consummation of a box-office blockbuster, despite its early tracking not promising such in North America.
Theron’s star turn is likely to see Hollywood accelerate its push for more female action stars. Angelina Jolie’s successes as an action star in films such as Tomb Raider and Mr and Mrs Smith were deemed something of an aberration by the studios. The surprise success of Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s Lucy last year showed female — and male — audiences will embrace a female action star (as if it needed to be proven). And several female-led action films are in the works. But Theron’s dominance of this film does more than validate a trend.
She drives this most male of film series. (The first woman in Mad Max was the lady he left at home; though by the third instalment, Beyond Thunderdome, Tina Turner’s mighty electromullet was central.)
Theron must feel confident knowing not only a female can lead such a male-dominated film but that studios are opening up to the potency of women in such roles and their audience appeal?
“I feel like women have always been represented in these movies, it’s just how they’ve been represented, right?” she says.
Consequently, Theron searches for filmmakers in whom she can believe. And she believed Miller, whose first Mad Max with Mel Gibson was released in 1979, wasn’t going to misrepresent her character.
“I really believed him when he said to me he wanted a female warrior who can stand alongside Max and who can ride the same way he can and fight the same way he can, and at the same time also put what she has as a woman into it. And that she can be just as broken as he, and she can have just as much anger as he, and as much need for revenge,” she says.
“So the idea of creating a female character who would be just as conflicted, if not more, as Max in the movie. That happens very rarely in film. And I think it’s not just studios, I think it’s just a lack of filmmakers who really want to go and explore that (idea).”
Miller, Theron says, is unique in that respect. “I have to give him most of the credit,” she adds. “At the end of the day you’re at the mercy of the filmmaker and they’re going to make the movie they want to make. George ended up making the movie he told me about 3½ years ago at a dinner. He made that movie and never veered from that.”
That in itself is the film’s greatest achievement. The fourth Mad Max film did not come easily. It was much delayed, relocated, recast and mightily expensive (it reportedly had a budget of $150 million — a far cry from the original in the series that was made on a $400,000 shoestring). The return of the Road Warrior, Max Rockatansky, to cinema screens after a 30-year hiatus could have been a bold, big-budget venture in anachronism.
Miller’s original trilogy was a high-octane visceral ride into a dystopian future full of fast cars, violence and retribution.
The main attraction of Mad Max in 1979, and subsequently Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in 1982 and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in 1985 was they were real films. The stunts, the outrageous sets, the glorious muscle cars, the mad costumes were real. The films were so homemade, Miller sacrificed his own car to be trashed for a crash in the original.
Three decades on, cinema audiences have become inured to spectacle that is primarily created on computers. Mad Max: Fury Road will be a violent shock to them. This film contains about 300 stunts, all performed by real people and not reconstituted with digital effects (other than erasing safety wires securing the actors). The effect is obvious on screen; the scale is eons away from the original but the bumps, scrapes, explosions and destruction are as tangible and affecting as they were in 1979.
That homespun authenticity came at a cost. The fourth instalment in Miller’s series was always going to be expensive and complex, but the film’s development hell was a continuing saga.
Once the kernel of an idea for the film came to Miller as he crossed a road last decade, hurdles kept appearing. Gibson initially was on board in the early 2000s but subsequent delays meant he became too old and too contentious to return as Max, despite his desire. Miller looked to Heath Ledger, who died in 2008. Briton Hardy was cast, well before he became known for a string of charismatic art-house turns, including in Bronson and The Dark Knight Rises.
Meanwhile, the project passed through three studios for various reasons — Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox and ultimately Warner Bros. Then the new Australian producer offset financing scheme, for which the film was anticipated to be a stunning early example, had to
I REALLY BELIEVED (GEORGE MILLER) WHEN HE SAID TO ME HE WANTED A FEMALE WARRIOR WHO CAN STAND ALONGSIDE MAX
wait as Broken Hill experienced unseasonable rainfall in 2008 and 2009 that meant Fury Road would have looked a pleasant drive through a bountiful flower-filled landscape rather than a strip of hopeless wasteland, wrought with chaos and carnage.
The decision to film in Namibia in southern Africa was a costly one. (Filming also took place at Sydney’s Fox Studios and in Cape Town.)
It meant thousands of props and costumes and 150 hand-built drivable vehicles would be shipped to the desert. At the height of filming, the company topped 1700 crew, although an average 1000 people were on set at any given time.
Five 8m x 8m former German military transport trucks hauled the gear from location to location. Cinematographer John Seale came out of retirement for the film, operating three to four cameras, two to four Steadicams, a series of expendable “crash-cams” with retrievable digital cards and their revolutionary “edge arm system” in which a gyro-stabilised camera crane that could extend more than 6m in length and rotate 360 degrees was mounted on the roof of a specially built supercharged V8 off-road racing truck.
That’s just off screen. On screen, the actors did their own stunts on the roofs and hanging off the sides of their vehicles by wires. And all of it was done across 120 days in excruciating con- ditions. “Yeah, it’s definitely the longest shoot I’ve ever done,” Theron says, matter-of-factly.
The actress didn’t need much convincing to work with Miller, the Oscar-winning director of the Happy Feet series, Lorenzo’s Oil, The Witch
es of Eastwick and Babe: Pig in the City. She says the Mad Max films had a “huge impact” on the culture of her homeland, South Africa. “My parents always talked about it,” Theron says. “I guess the Australian culture and the South African culture are very similar and the essence of that culture really resonates.” The Academy Award-winning star of Mon
ster, Prometheus and The Italian Job adds she was prepared for the extremities of the shoot because Miller was clear about how he wanted to shoot the film and what he expected of his cast.
“Then it was just showing up every day and getting through it,” she says. Nevertheless, word from the set suggested days of chaos in which elaborate stunts were blocked and call sheets were strangely vague. In one regard, the actors were puppets on a broader stage; Hardy utters barely 40 words in the film. Theron speaks 100. The production was an elaborate opera, not a stage play.
Theron admits “the logistics of it and the technical aspects were really hard”, although she contends “George thrives in that environment”.
“Everybody signed on for this through the excitement of knowing that it was going to be (tough),” she adds.
“There’s something frightening and scary about that but also really exciting about the idea that a filmmaker wanted to do a film like this and shoot it as practically as he wanted.”
Everyone in the cast and crew was challenged, Theron says, but “ultimately that’s what we’re all looking for in our careers, to find a filmmaker who will actually push you in that way.”
They were pushed in every which way. Rumours of Hardy’s and Theron’s frosty on-set relationship leaked, although Theron won’t speak to it. Perhaps it was method.
The press notes for the film emphasise the antipathy between Max and Furiosa because, as Theron says, “There is no room for relationships in this place.”
Theron’s relationship to Mad Max will be intriguing to watch in coming weeks. The success of the film, and the likelihood of sequels and spin-offs, will be known within days as the film opens simultaneously in almost every global market with the exception of Japan and China. Theron’s recent interview with Entertain
ment Weekly — before this one — suggested she was not willing to engage with such chaos again.
But Mad Max: Fury Road places Theron’s Furiosa at the centre of its universe and Max as a wandering, unfulfilled malcontent.
Miller and co-writer Nico Lathouris have two more stories imagined, and Hardy has revealed he signed a three-picture deal. But is Theron prepared to return?
“Look, I am up for anything in my life,” she says.
“It’s very hard for me to talk about things that are not even real, and I feel like we haven’t even released this film, so to start putting the cart before the horse is not how I live my life.
“I loved this experience and am incredibly grateful to be given this opportunity by George and to work with George, and if the chips fell in the right place I would, of course, entertain the idea.”
She must. She has created a female hero of some consequence for cinema. It would be a shame to let the boys fill the space again.
Clockwise from left, Charlize Theron as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road; in glamour mode; Tom Hardy and Theron in a scene from the film; Hardy’s Max; director George Miller and Hardy on the set