Editor’s note: The following is an edited excerpt from “Miller and Max: George Miller and the Making of a Film Legend” by Luke Buckmaster.
The George Miller of the 1970s would never have believed he would one day be spearheading a production with a budget estimated at a staggering $150 million. Miller had made the first three movies when he was in his thirties. At sixty-seven, when “Fury Road” commenced principal photography, those days were far back in the past. Shooting the original film in Melbourne felt like a lifetime ago.
For his first “Mad Max” movie in close to three decades, Miller wanted to be on the frontline at all times. But he soon realized that was impossible given the scale of production: a 138-day shoot with complicated stunts occurring on a near-daily basis. State-of-the-art technology made the job easier — or at least improved communication. High-definition video reception was broadcast in multiple locations, including inside vehicles following the action. This was dubbed “Fury TV.”
Crashing the War Rig
A hulking truck charges down a narrow red dirt road, so fast you can almost feel the scorched desert dust filling your nostrils. Flanked on either side by jagged mustard-brown mountains, it moves like a rocket, with a momentum seemingly impossible for such a bulky contraption. Even when stationary this fuel-guzzling monstrosity still cuts one hell of a sight—it’s hard to say whether it would make a grease monkey’s best dream or worst nightmare.
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Technically speaking, this is a 78-foot, six-wheel-drive, eighteen-wheeler based on a Czechoslovakian Tatra (a truck designed for extreme off-road conditions) crossed with a 1940s Chevrolet Fleetmaster (a sleeker and more suburban vehicle, popularised after the Second World War). It carries a huge cylindrical fuel tank with a cowcatcher at the front. On the back are what its creators call rear-hinged “suicide doors.” To put it another way, this is not the sort of ride you buy off the lot on a Saturday morning.
It is Furiosa’s War Rig, a moving stage on and around which much of “Mad Max: Fury Road” takes place. Pursued by Immortan Joe and his minions, the whale-like War Rig is a sort of Moby Dick on wheels. George Miller, sixty-seven years old when principal photography commenced, would appreciate the literary comparison to Herman Melville’s seafaring classic, having long extolled the virtues of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”
Literary precedents, however, are certainly not on the mind of Lee Adamson, the person driving the War Rig. In the film Furiosa has exited stage—or in this case, vehicle—left. The character behind the wheel is Nux (played by Nicholas Hoult) who is a bad-guy-come-good with a smoothly shaved scalp, wild eyes and severely chapped red lips. One of the War Boys. But in real life it’s Adamson. In true Mad Max tradition, “driving” will soon mean “crashing.” This beast has got to flip—and Adamson is the guy to do it.
The War Rig crash scene was not filmed in the deserts of Namibia during “Fury Road”s stressful and action-packed shoot. It was shot in Penrith in Sydney a year after principal photography wrapped. The delay came about in part due to uncertainty over how this big climactic moment would be staged. The cinematic world had progressed in leaps and bounds since the 1980s, when Dennis Williams roared down the Mundi Mundi plains to park a semitrailer on its mirrors.
Miller had considered filming the “Fury Road” tanker roll using a miniature: a toy-sized War Rig not unlike the one that adorned a meeting table in one of the conference rooms where much of the planning and preparation for the film took place, at Kennedy Miller Mitchell headquarters in Sydney. This proved tricky for several reasons. Miniatures look most convincing during scenes that take place at night, but demolition of the War Rig needed to occur during the day. Another possible technique was using a remote-controlled vehicle. Trials concluded that with a remote control the vehicle could move OK but it couldn’t flip. The other logical option was CGI, and for a while things appeared to be heading in this direction. But what effect would creating a tanker roll entirely using computers have on “Mad Max”s gritty realism? Fans would probably have considered it a travesty: a deathblow to the hope “Fury Road” might rekindle the gonzo crash-and-burn spirit of the originals. Miller later said, “We thought having all that CGI at the end of a movie with very little CGI would be cheating.”
So, long after he had put it out of his mind and given up his hope of crashing the War Rig, Lee Adamson got a phone call from Guy Norris. A decision, said Norris, had been made. They would be crashing the thing for real and Adamson would be the driver. The truckie was stoked but George Miller was anxious. He had seen a lot of close calls in the past, including several while making “Fury Road.” Should they risk a more or less clean safety record at the last minute? He thought the War Rig had too much mass, too much energy, to put a human being in it. Even if the team assured him otherwise, you can never fully rely on best laid plans. As Adamson says: “On the day there’s a lot of things that have got to go right. You don’t put it all down to skill. It’s a matter of you doing your bit and everybody else doing their bit.”
For the shot to work the eighteen-wheeler has to drive between what appear on screen to be two massive rocks (they are fake in reality) and start rolling at exactly the right time so it can flip, land upside down and stop a few feet before the camera. Something Adamson has that Dennis Williams did not is a cannon on the side of the vehicle that, when activated by the driver pressing a button, helps the car to roll. (Williams, on the other hand, performed a “natural roll”). These cannons, which are about one and a half metres long and look like portions of telephone poles, are filled with nitrogen gas. One is attached to the War Rig and is pointing downwards. Once Adamson presses the button a high-pressure slug will fire against the ground and lift the truck into the air.
During an initial practice routine, on a day prior to filming, the philosophy the crew went by—according to the truck driver—was rather simple: “Let’s just see what happens.” A series of witches’ hats was placed strategically on the ground to provide marking points. Adamson, tightly belted in a more secure and compact roll cage than Williams’s, would swerve around one of the hats. Then, when the next approached, he would swing back in the other direction. In the middle of making the second turn he’d take his hands off the wheel, press the button and very shortly later find himself upside down.
Before the first run Adamson asked what would happen if the War Rig didn’t roll. Guy Norris and another crew member assured him it would. They didn’t realise that the front of the cannon had a safety valve that restricted its performance. “When I pushed the button it only released a tiny bit of the pressure it was supposed to, so it only lifted me up a little,” remembers Adamson. The trailer shot off and the tumble spat Adamson out near where the food catering was. The truck driver thought, Shit, so much for “It’ll definitely roll!”
On the second time—again, a practice routine—it rolled. However the vehicle came too far forward and too far to the left, slamming through one of the dummy rocks. Measurements were taken and the witches’ hats moved back a little to compensate. Adamson knew the trick to this was about precision and repetition. Get to speed (80 kilometres an hour) quickly. Stay perfectly straight. Swing at exactly the right time. Swing back. Hit the button. It was a simple sequence but it needed to be performed with split-second accuracy. On the third go, he nailed it. That massive monstrosity of a truck flipped over and slid through the gap just where it needed to be, perfectly in place.
Around a month later it was time to do it for the cameras. The wait between rehearsal and go-time felt like an eternity for Adamson. When the day came the crew arrived on location and assumed positions. Adamson waited as the necessary checks were conducted. A nervous George Miller sat in a nearby tent-like structure and watched via a wall of monitors. Radio silence was called. The director yelled “action.” The driver was signalled.
Recalls Lee Adamson: “I got the thumbs up and then it’s like yee-hoo, here we go, don’t fuck it up! I get up to speed as quick as I could. I had probably 100 or 150 metres. I sit right on that speed, with the perfect line up. Then I swing at the right time and hit the button. When you hit the button it’s very very quick. The moment you push it you’re upside down, basically. It’s that fast.”
Everything seems at first to be going to plan. Miller, watching on his bank of monitors, observes the vehicle charging down. Adamson appears to have hit the sweet spot. The cannon launches the War Rig into the air. It starts to roll. It tumbles. Rolls. Crashes. Comes to a screeching stop. The vehicle lands only a few feet from the primary camera on the ground—just where it needs to be.
But at the last moment the director sees something go horribly wrong. He rises from his seat, fearing the worst. After all these years of observing the people working for him cheating death, it now looks like a nightmare scenario. When you’ve directed as much road carnage as Miller—three previous “Mad Max” films, a veritable demolition derby of crashes, explosions, burnt rubber and twisted metal—you know what to look for. But what the filmmaker observed would have raised alarm bells for anybody. It was the sight of Adamson’s head connecting with the roof of a now-upturned War Rig, his body somehow dislodged from his seat belt.
“Did he land on his …” Miller’s voice trails away. He clasps his hands on his hips and watches the monitors as the dust begins to settle. A group of men race over to the War Rig. Guy Norris, with his black baseball cap and long streaky grey hair, is one of the first on the scene. A handful of staff from Fire and Rescue NSW have been standing by. One of them uses the jaws of life to pry open the cabin. When the dust dissipates the figure of a man emerges from the truck. It’s Lee Adamson, and he’s smiling ear-to-ear. Applause bursts out on the set. From the nearby bunker, a deeply relieved George Miller puts his hands together.
The director soon realises the person he saw connecting with the vehicle’s roof wasn’t actually a person at all—it was a dummy fashioned to look like Nux. “As I watched on the monitors, I glimpsed Nux, who I thought was Lee. I thought he’d shaved his head,” Miller later recalled.
“What I’d forgotten was that was Nux’s dummy. [Adamson] was on the other side with a full helmet and cage and so on. When we looked at Nux’s dummy, it shaved off the top of the rubber latex of the top of the dummy.”
With a grateful-you’re-not-dead look on his face, he shook hands with Adamson then gave him a hug.
Both principal and pick-up photography of “Mad Max: Fury Road” had been completed without serious incident. There were a number of cuts and bruises and more than a few close calls, but not a single broken bone—a remarkable achievement for such a stunt-heavy production.
Edited excerpt from “Miller and Max: George Miller and the Making of a Film Legend” by Luke Buckmaster, published by Hardie Grant Books November 2017, RRP $24.99 paperback.