That rumbling you hear is the sound of Mad Max: Fury Road heading into theaters this week. A long time in the making and highly anticipated, the film promises a return to form for the director of the original Mad Max trilogy, George Miller. Its imminent arrival has sent many of us back to those older films for a refresher course in the kind of vehicular mayhem he pioneered 35 years ago.
Miller and cinematographer Dean Semler (Dead Calm, Razorback, Dance with Wolves) sat down in 2007 to record a commentary for the trilogy’s best entry, The Road Warrior. The track serves as a reunion for the pair who last worked together on 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (although Semler did act as director of photography on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.)
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for George Miller’s The Road Warrior.
The Road Warrior (1981)
Commentator: George Miller (director/co-writer) and Dean Semler (cinematographer)
1. Miller says the “top cinematographers” in Australia were busy so he met with Semler and one other guy. The interview included him asking Semler who his favorite cinematographers were, but Semler blanked and couldn’t think of any. Luckily, Miller watched his work in the short “A Steam Train Passes” shortly afterward and realized Semler had severely undersold his talents at the meeting.
2. Since filming was frequently out in the middle of nowhere they usually weren’t able to see the dailies until two or three days later. They still called them dailies though.
3. For as much as the film is known for its vehicular action, Semler says they simulated a lot of travel too. “If you can see the road moving behind, we’re moving. If you don’t see anything moving behind, we’re not moving.”
4. The Blue Heeler cattle dog in the film was picked up from the pound shortly before filming began. He stood out to the trainer by initiating a game with her involving a small pebble. Miller says the dog retired after filming to an exciting life on a cattle ranch.
5. Miller points out an early crane shot (“cherry-picker”) during the introduction of Bruce Spence’s character. “I use it most films where I can get away with it,” he says. “It’s just such a great way to keep the tension going.”
6. The insert shot of Max starting to pull out the knife hidden beneath the rear bumper is actually producer Byron Kennedy’s hand. Similarly, the hand seen when the Gyro Captain (Spence) tries to take the food away from the dog actually belongs to the key grip, Graeme Mardell.
7. “What was Mel actually eating here out of these tins?” asks Miller. Neither man knows, but they’re pretty sure it wasn’t actually dog food.
8. Many of the extras were initially embarrassed by their apocalyptic haircuts and would wear beanies between takes to cover them. They eventually grew more comfortable and learned to embrace their appearances.
9. David Slingsby was a stage actor cast here as the “quiet man,” but he hesitated on accepting the role as he was concerned about the scene where the rabbit was killed. Miller respected his principles and promised to shoot the scene in such a way that a rabbit wouldn’t actually be harmed or killed. Miller adds though that the rabbits are vermin who’ve ruined the Australian desert with their burrowing and eating and rabbiting.
10. “Where did the Humungus come from?” asks Semler. Sweden is the answer. His name is Kjell Nilsson, and he was an ex-Mr. Sweden. They attached a “throbbing vein” prosthetic to the back of his head, but it broke partway into filming.
11. Emil Minty plays the “feral kid.” “When is a meal not a meal?” Semler asks. “When it’s a Minty.”
12. Miller made this film in part to “overcome all my frustrations on the first Mad Max because that was such a low budget and such a tough movie that I had all this sort of pent up energy for the story and the filmmaking.”
13. The gyro copter only holds one person, so the shot showing two people in it is actually just the pilot and a life-size dummy.
14. Miller says it only took one year from the point where he began writing the screenplay to its theatrical release. As a fun point of contrast the initial script that became Fury Road was written in 2003, the film was greenlit in late 2010 and is finally due to open this week.
15. They filmed mostly in sequence, but the dailies from the scene where Max brings the tanker truck into the compound was the first time the producer looked at Miller and said “I think we have a movie here.” Parts of the sequence required Semler to be secured to the outside of the truck with bungies as they drove along a bumpy road, and one of the shots – the one from the front of the truck as the mohawk guy smashes the side window – “was so violent I had to take the camera away from my eye, and I just aimed it.” The violent jostling looked so good that Miller actually applied the “wobbling” look to several of the other shots via optical effects or by literally jostling Semler’s camera.
16. Miller loves the bit with the mechanic (Steve J. Spears) in the swing evaluating the truck the engine and the blond guy repeating it much louder. It wasn’t planned, and the pair just started doing it on their own. “This is nice,” says Semler. Miller agrees saying it’s one of the lighter moments in the movie. On that same topic the duo count how many times Max smiles throughout the film, and they get as high as three.
17. Both men express their love for first assistant director Pat Clayton. Miller recalls how at the end of each day, while the rest of the crew were dusty and dirty Clayton always looked impeccable in his cravat and cap.
18. When Max leaves the compound in his car we see the chase begin between him and the bad guys, and the film appears sped up a bit. Miller says he dropped it to 12 frames per second because the terrain prevented the cars from actually going as fast as he wanted them to.
19. The dog’s offscreen death prompts Miller to say that he prefers violence to be suggested as opposed to shown onscreen.
20. The only thing Gibson complained about during production – or at least the only thing that gets mentioned here – was the fake blood he had caked to his face for much of the third act. It was made from coffee and cochineal. Miller didn’t get the issue until he applied some to his neck and went through a day with the irritating mixture drying on his skin.
21. The ground-facing shot of Max on the gyro copter being flown to safety after his accident was done with Gibson lying on a plank secured out the door of a Jet Ranger helicopter. “That’d be a green screen if you did it again today,” says Semler. Miller agrees, saying that these days they wouldn’t have gotten dirty because digital work means they wouldn’t have been in the middle of the action.
22. The compound explosion was so big that they had to notify airlines in advance in case of any jets passing overhead.
23. The big chase at the end required a section of road be blocked off from traffic, but a mail truck ignored the production assistant’s blockade and drove in anyway. They stopped him, but he was insistent that “the mail must go through.”
24. The scene where the guys in the buggy attach a grappling hook to the basket at the back of the tanker trunk initially had Miller thinking the stunt driver had fallen out of the tumbling car. He called “cut” in a panic before realizing it was actually just the dummy passenger.
25. Miller recalls meeting Joe Dante and having the Gremlins director tell him he could tell The Road Warrior was low budget because of how frequently it moves between sunrise, sunset and everything in between all during the same scene. “You certainly can’t wait for your light,” Miller says, “you just have to keep shooting.”
26. The two guys strapped to the front of the car who smash into the back of the tanker were actually dummies with watermelons. “Watermelons with wigs,” says Semler.
27. Miller embedded himself into the chase for much of it including as a passenger on one of the buggies. He was in costume and tasked with turning the car-mounted camera on and off. “On the first take instead of turning the camera on at the right time I actually turned the camera off when I called action. And then when I said cut I turned the camera on.” Semler removed Miller from the buggy seat and replaced him with an actual camera operator.
Best in Commentary
- Miller: “They were cold too. Their little bums were cold.”
- Miller: “To kill an animal for a film is so wrong, because it’s just a film.”
- Miller: “We got more comments about shooting this dog than we did about anything else in the movie.”
- Miller: “Great day being out there with a mad crew and nothing else.”
Both men enjoy the trip down memory lane – Miller even remembers a couple things that didn’t quite happen as he describes – and they share some laughs along the way. The pair do grow silent a few times, but for the most part they keep a dialogue going peppered with anecdotes, technical info (cameras, lenses, lights) and compliments for each other and other members of the cast and crew. In the five years since Miller began active production on his latest film Semler has served as director of photography on ten movies. Sure the last three were Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, The Ridiculous 6 and The Last Witch Hunter, but at least he’s keeping busy.