Max fac­tor

Char­l­ize Theron on the mak­ing of Mad Max: Fury Road

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FRONT PAGE - Mad Max: Fury Road opens na­tion­ally on Thurs­day.

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

CHAR­L­IZE THERON

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

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