Mad Max movie poster image
Mad Max movie poster image

How ‘Mad Max’ Went From Critical Bomb to One of the Biggest Sagas in Film History

It’s become one of the most respected film franchises in history, with an unbelievable vision and spellbinding atmosphere. But behind the scenes of the 1980 film Mad Max is a scrappy idealist and a troubled production that nearly never got off the ground.

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The Humble Beginnings of Mad Max

George Miller didn’t set out to be a director, at least not as first. He was a doctor with a focus on emergency room medicine. That background gave him particular insight to the devastation and gore caused by cars. Through a chance meeting, Miller met filmmaker Byron Kennedy in the early ’70s, and together they made a short film about violence that was met with critical acclaim.

Miller set out to make what he called “a silent movie with sound,” which is certainly evident in the final product. It works perfectly well without dialogue. Inspired by silent movie heroes like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, they constructed a vision of a violent future; an apocalypse hastened by the human addiction to vehicles powered by polluting energy. It must have seemed gloomily pessimistic at the time, but by now it’s grown closer and closer to a sensible prediction of what lies ahead.

Screenwriter James McCausland wrote that it was “based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.”

And here we are, 30 years later, with humanity proving that observation completely true.

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Mad Max: A Troubled Production

Producing the film was a challenge, since most funding sources were interested in art films. The budget wound up being less than a half-million dollars, raised largely from exhausting medical services rendered by Miller.

They cast Mel Gibson almost by chance. He was unknown at the time, and his real-life violence and strange beliefs were unknown back then. They found him at an acting class and were impressed by how he managed to inhabit the desperate character of Max. The reasons he was so good as Max would become clearer as Gibson’s personal profile rose.

The rest of the cast was assembled in part from actual motorcycle gangs.

Mad Max had to pay particularly close attention to automotive detail, a sad irony considering the grim link between cars and death. It featured a limited-edition Ford vehicle that’s since become iconic.

Filming was grueling. The process took far longer than it was supposed to due to the injuries sustained in crashes caused, unsurprisingly, by cars. With few available resources, they filmed without permits, dodged police and obtained damaged lenses with which to shoot. The entire film was shot through a broken 35mm lens.

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Mad Max Was Panned by Critics

Unfortunately, Mad Max was met with a frosty reception. Many critics derided its violence and bleak vision of what was to come, unable to see (or perhaps shaken by) how accurately it would predict what lay in humanity’s future.

Despite that initial response, it quickly spawned visionary sequels. The latest installment is the most apocalyptic yet. But it’s also the most optimistic about humanity’s ability to persevere through the disaster towards which we have been spinning ever closer since the first film’s debut.