Mad Max: the original movie
It's hard to overstate the influence of Mad Max – on filmmakers, action cinema and the course of Australian movies.
Made for a paltry AUD$380,000 by George Miller in 1979, the independently-funded film for a time held the Guinness World Record for the highest box-office-to-budget ratio of any motion picture.
It also launched a long-running franchise and was a pivotal stepping stone to international careers for Miller and star Mel Gibson.
Mad Max audiences respond enthusiastically to its dystopian vision, extraordinary stunt work and especially the souped-up motorbikes and cars.
This curated collection features a selection of interviews, posters and clips from the film, introducing us to George Miller's Mad Max universe.
George Miller discusses what influenced him in making Mad Max. In particular, he talks about his childhood in the flat, lonely landscape of Chinchilla in rural Queensland and the car culture in that region.
As a director, the silent films of Buster Keaton and others have had a profound effect on how he approaches filmmaking and he describes here his intention to create 'pure cinema' with Mad Max (1979).
Paul Byrnes interviewed George Miller for australianscreen online in 2006.
In this excerpt from an oral history interview with actor Steve Bisley, he talks about playing the role of Jim Goose in Mad Max (1979).
‘It was Mercutio on wheels’, says Bisley, in reference to Romeo's best friend in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
Unlike Mercutio, Goose survives and there was early talk of him becoming the antagonist Lord Humungus in Mad Max 2, although this was not developed further.
Bisley also describes first seeing Mad Max at the premiere and the overwhelming reaction the film received from audiences.
Lorna Lesley interviewed Steve Bisley for the NFSA Oral History program in 2015.
Image: Mel Gibson (Max) and Steve Bisley (Goose). NFSA title: 571355
This home movie documents a stunt filmed for Mad Max on the western plains just past Werribee, Victoria.
Peter Kamen, who shot this film, was best friends with producer Byron Kennedy and they grew up making home movies together.
Kamen visited the set of both Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max 2 (1981) and shot footage. Here he offers a fairly meticulous record of how a spectacular car crash stunt featuring Nightrider was created.
The clip has surprisingly professional camerawork and editing for an amateur recording. It is fascinating to watch director George Miller, cinematographer David Eggby and the rest of the crew on location setting up to film the rocket-propelled car and ensuing explosion.
'When the gangs take over the highway … Remember he’s on your side', reads the tagline on this Australian one-sheet poster for Mad Max (1979).
The tagline is both disturbing and reassuring. This paradox is illustrated by juxtaposing the defiant calmness of Max (played by Mel Gibson) standing before a threatening spiked gloved grasping a steering wheel.
Max is an example of the classic lone hero in cinema. That archetype is often seen, for example, in the films of Clint Eastwood from his Spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s to the Dirty Harry franchise (1971–88).
In this excerpt from an oral history with veteran make-up artist Vivien Mepham, she talks about developing the look of the characters in Mad Max.
‘It had some magic’, says Mepham, while conceding that the film was created on a very small budget.
Some ‘leather’ costumes were actually made out of plastic, and actors' heads were shaved and hair coloured by a local Melbourne hairdresser. ‘It was punk before punk’. For wounds, Mepham sometimes used real meat and tripe!
Another indication of the low budget was that Mepham’s make-up caravan was memorably destroyed in a spectacular stunt.
Lorna Lesley interviewed Vivien Mepham for the NFSA Oral History program in 2018.
Image: Vivien Mepham’s make-up caravan is destroyed during a stunt in Mad Max, 1979. NFSA title: 763283
'The entire budget was $350,000', says George Miller in this interview with Paul Byrnes for australianscreen online in 2006.
While $350,000 in 1979 is roughly $1.8 million in 2020, it's still a pitifully small amount of money for a feature film.
To cut costs it was a case of 'all hands on deck'. Both Miller and producer Byron Kennedy would personally sweep the debris off the road at the end of the day after a stunt scene.
Miller calls it 'guerilla filmmaking' and you can see from this clip that he looks back at the production of Mad Max with great fondness.
Pobesneli Maks (literally 'enraged Max') headlines this poster for the release of Mad Max in the former Yugoslavia.
The poster features a bold central image of the armed Max above his Interceptor car and with the English title of the film spelled out on the highway.
The excessive grey space around Max gives the odd impression that he is floating in space and works against the dynamism of the overall design.
A crazed joyrider (Vincent Gil) and his girlfriend (Lulu Pinkus) lead the highway patrol on an extended chase. Their luck runs out when they come up against Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), the best cop on the road. Summary by Paul Byrnes
Max’s friend and fellow patrol officer Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) opens the throttle on a morning ride – unaware that his bike has been tampered with by one of the Toecutter’s gang. Summary by Paul Byrnes
Family friend May Swaisey (Sheila Florance) helps Max’s wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and child (Brendan Heath) to escape the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his gang, but they soon catch up. Summary by Paul Byrnes
In this radio interview with director George Miller from 1979, film critic Tom Ryan (3RRR, Melbourne) initially suggests Mad Max (1979) is a comedy more than a horror film.
Miller sounds understandably bemused at first but concedes there is an element of humour in the film. He considers it 45% suspense-horror and 45% action movie with the leftover 10% being black comedy.
It's also surprising to learn that one of Miller’s models for Mad Max was the 1972 Hollywood romantic screwball comedy, What’s Up, Doc? (directed by Peter Bogdanovich).
Ryan suggests that, like What’s Up, Doc?, Mad Max is crazy and occasionally goes over the top to become funny. Miller agrees his film is stylised and deals with hyperbole, caricature and black comedy.
Image: George Miller, 1979. NFSA title: 446263
'The streets were transformed into an instrument of revenge, justice was only a distant memory, they prayed only not to meet him' is the literal translation at the top of this poster for the Italian release of Mad Max.
In Italy, Mad Max was released as Interceptor, which was the name of the police pursuit vehicle in the film.
With a leather-clad figure standing atop a car and brandishing a shotgun, this poster dramatically conveys the explosive action in the movie. It’s a very effective design.
Jessie Rockantansky, portrayed by Joanne Samuel, is the wife of Max and mother to their son, Sprog.
The deaths of Jessie and Sprog by the Toecutter's gang are the catalyst for Max becoming 'mad' (which can be read as both angry or insane).
The Mad Max universe, especially in the later films, is one of mostly unrelenting brutality. To offset this, or perhaps to emphasise it, Jessie and Sprog provide a softer and more vulnerable presence. Their demise, however, is inevitable; we know Max will be powerless to prevent it.
This production still – with Jessie in soft focus with furrowed brow and perfectly styled perm – effectively illustrates the gentler quality that Joanne Samuel's Jessie brings to Mad Max.
Toecutter, portrayed by Hugh Keays-Byrne, is the main antagonist in Mad Max and the ruthless leader of a merciless motorcycle gang terrorising the outback roads.
His penultimate act of savagery is tracking down Max's wife, Jessie, and their son and mowing them both down on the highway in cold blood. This is the incident that incites Max's path of revenge.
This production still effectively captures Hugh Keays-Byrne's characterisation of Toecutter. His villain is eloquently spoken, almost Shakespearean with Messianic pretensions, but always with a simmering menace.
In short, Keays-Byrne's Toecutter is affably evil. His flowing robes in this image suggest a Christ-like figure and he holds his rifle in an oddly mannered, offhand fashion.
Keays-Byrne returned to the Mad Max franchise in 2015 to play Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road.
This poster is a bold image of Max Rockatansky's iconic, souped-up black car.
The poster has a satisfying menace to its design with the word 'Interceptor' written across the top as if scrawled in neon.
The location seems to be inside a graffiti-adorned cave or underground lair, effectively illustrating the post-civilisation setting of the film.
A production still of the Mad Max crew on location. Director George Miller is visible at far left wearing an overcoat.
This photo succeeds in demonstrating the production's limited budget. The whole film was made for about $350,000.
This is a layout for a newspaper advertisement for Mad Max screenings at Birch, Carroll and Coyle drive-in theatres.
In the 1970s, drive-ins were a popular form of entertainment for families and young people with cars. When Mad Max was showing, it wasn't uncommon for patrons to perform burnouts in their cars following the screening.
Drive-ins usually screened double features. Here Mad Max is paired with Final Chapter: Walking Tall (Jack Starrett, USA, 1977), the true story of the last days of Buford Pusser, Sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee. Both movies share a similar theme of one man standing in the face of crime and injustice.
The other double features in this advertisement are: Papillon (Franklin J Schaffner, USA–France, 1973) and Grizzly (William Girdler, USA, 1976); and Love at First Bite (Stan Dragoti, USA, 1979) and Elvis the Movie (John Carpenter, USA, 1979).
This advertising flyer is for the 1983 cinema re-release of Mad Max in Australia.
To emphasise the point the film's title is accompanied by a dominating number 1 and the addition of prominent text, 'The Original' and 'In the beginning'.
In contrast to posters from the first release in 1979, the re-release also highlights the plot points that led to Max becoming 'mad' – 'Max had a wife, a child and a job' – which gives the character's narrative arc more depth.
After it found international success, Mad Max for a time held the Guinness World Record for the highest box-office-to-budget ratio of any motion picture.
On its first release in the US in 1980, the film was dubbed for American audiences unused to Australian accents! Mad Max 2 was retitled The Road Warrior for its American release in 1982 so as not to alienate audiences that had not seen the first film.
After The Road Warrior became a sizeable international hit, Mad Max was re-released in US and UK cinemas in 1983 before finding an even bigger audience on home video in the 1980s.
This production still from Mad Max (1979) shows a motorcycle stunt rider creating a perfect 'donut' burnout.
With the film's gang cheering him on the image is an almost beautiful celebration of the motorbike and the skill of the rider.
Cars and motorcycles were as much characters in the Mad Max films as the people themselves. Other notable Australian car and bike movies of the 1970s include The Cars That Ate Paris (Peter Weir, 1974) and Stone (Sandy Harbutt, 1974).
This production photo of Mad Max features, from left: Chic Stringer (stills photographer), Garry Wilkins (sound recordist), Harry Glynatsis (camera assistant), John Hipwell (unit manager), David Cassar (grip), George Miller (director) and David Eggby (lighting cameraman).
This behind-the-scenes production still reminds us that there is a lot of waiting around on film sets. It takes time to prepare a shot with numerous crew members needing to be on hand.
Also evident in this photo is the often casual and informal culture among the crew on set, particularly when not filming. It makes for an interesting document.