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Mad Max: The Heroes of ‘Thunderdome’

On the road with Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Mel Gibson in a scene from the film 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome' in 1985.

Warner Brothers/Getty

Mel Gibson wants a beer. Maybe several beers. He is sitting at a table in the canopy-shaded area adjacent to a small catering van, and he is sweltering. A thermometer in the van’s cramped kitchen reads 118 degrees, but that is only because it goes no higher. According to a sweat-dappled cook, who is deftly cropping string beans for a salad, the actual temperature – out there, that is, under the brain-sizzling sun of South Australia – has got to be a good 125. Gibson, unseasonably attired in dusty road leathers and mismatched biker boots, sips glumly from a cup of tepid apple juice. He bums a smoke. He runs a hand through his brown hair, now streaked with blond along the sides. A trickle of blood is painted down his left temple, and a similarly fake abrasion adorns his right cheek. He checks the time: almost an hour till his next camera call. In the distance the desert horizon dances madly in the midday heat. God, a beer would be good.

But George Miller, the director of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, has decreed this a dry set – nothing stronger than fruit juice. It is a cruel but probably necessary deprivation. Alcohol dehydrates the body, an unwise thing in such a sun-baked locus as this. It is late November – summer in Australia – and the heat out here, 400 miles north of Adelaide and the nearest balmy coastline, is homicidal. So far today eight crew members have dropped from sunstroke and dehydration, and last night another camel died, joining two previously deceased beasts. Nine of the surreal, custom-sculpted hot rods that populate the picture have blown out under the broiling sun, and it’s a struggle just keeping the others gassed up (the fuel tends to vaporize before it can reach the tanks). Staffers with spray bottles circulate among the cast of discreetly gasping, black-leather-clad actors, spritzing their reddened extremities with a cooling mixture of cold water and cologne. A unit nurse, ministering to new arrivals at the remote site, dispenses vitamins for the depleted and lozenges for parched and swollen throats. “Don’t worry,” she says brightly, “everyone gets it. You’ll start spitting blood soon.”

Gibson smiles – a dewy, blue-eyed grin that’s been known to induce lewd musings among the soberest of female moviegoers. He stubs out his cigarette and sighs. Thunderdome is the fourth movie Mel has made in the last year, and frankly, he’s a bit frazzled. He needs a break – some time back at the beach house in Sydney with his wife, Robyn, and their four kids. And yet, here he is, roasting once more in the lunar scrublands, playing again the part to which he’d previously determined never to return.

The role of Max, warrior of the wasteland, has confirmed Gibson as the most charismatic slam-bang action hero to emerge since Clint Eastwood snarled into view 20 years ago in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. But after making two hugely successful Max movies with Miller, Gibson felt there was nowhere left to go with the material. He had subsequently won a more elevated sort of critical approval for his performance in Peter Weir’s film The Year of Living Dangerously (1983), and after starring with Sissy Spacek in The River and Diane Keaton in Mrs. Soffel, he could take his pick of more dignified projects (at a reported per-picture fee of more than $1 million). Miller and Terry Hayes, who wrote Thunderdome together, won Gibson back with a more humanized approach to the Max character and his apocalyptic world.

“There would have been no point in doing it again if it was gonna be the same thing,” Mel allows. “However, it isn’t. I think George and Terry are getting better as they go along. They’ve actually taken the whole Max concept a step further. They’re traveling, making more of a journey with it. I thought the first film was quite relentless in its violence. The second one was much more stylized, more clownish. Oh, it had that hard feeling – so will this one. But now it’s going from that toward… well, something perhaps a bit more hopeful.”

Like many Max fans, Gibson sees the Miller movies as “a sort of cinematic equivalent to rock music. It’s something to do with the nihilistic sentiments of the music of the Eighties – which can’t continue. I say, let’s get back to romanticism. And this film is actually doing that. It’s using that nihilism as a vehicle, I think, to get back to romance.”

Over the last six years the saga of Max Rockatansky, a decent highway-patrol cop driven berserk by the bike-gang murder of his wife and child and fated to roam a squalid post-holocaust landscape in search of Redemption (and the precious gasoline required to keep seeking it), has become a cult epic of imposing international proportions. The mutant look of the movies – with elements lifted gleefully from punk rock, professional wrestling and S&M pornography – reverberates in everything from Amoco commercials and Billy Idol videos to a slew of inferior wasteland wheelers. And Miller’s headlong editing style and affinity for the mythic have become touchstones of the action genre. You could feel some of the influence of Miller’s furious autokineticism in the truck-chase sequence of Steven Spielberg’s 1981 action hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Spielberg later hired Miller – they are mutual admirers – to direct a segment of his thriller anthology Twilight Zone: The Movie.) James Cameron’s brilliant 1984 film The Terminator, with its motivating messiah myth and its sense of embattled humanity amid postnuclear desolation, likewise struck a Millerian tone.

The kernel of the story was presented in Mad Max, released (over the grave doubts of its first-time director) in 1979. Filmed around Melbourne in nine weeks, Mad Max cost $400,000 to make. In two years it grossed more than $100 million. The Japanese saw it as a samurai movie. To Scandinavians it was a Viking bike flick. In stripping the action tradition down to archetypes and setting them amid flat, unsignifying Australian expanses, Mad Max unwittingly tapped into a near-universal crash-and-burn consciousness.

At the time Miller was a hippie M.D. whose only formal cinematic training had been a summer university film course of one month’s duration. (“I learned the best way there is,” he says, “by going to the movies.”) His film-course pal and production partner, Byron Kennedy, was a self-educated entrepreneur, a car nut, film buff, airplane pilot and the builder of his own rockets, robots and cameras. This unlikely pair suddenly found themselves handsomely established as independent filmmakers – a toy store for the taking!

Miller had met Terry Hayes, a gregarious Australian journalist, while the movie was still being edited and had hired Hayes to write a quickie novelization. Hayes remembers Miller then as “this funny Greek doctor. I thought he had to have talent – who’d give up medicine to go into movies unless they did? He showed me a very rough black-and-white video of the work print. Whole chunks of it were missing. He tried to explain what was happening in the story – I didn’t understand any of it. But I wrote the book – very, very quickly – and George liked some of the things in it. He asked how I’d like to write a script with him. I said I didn’t know anything about script writing. He said that was okay. Later I realized he didn’t know anything about it, either – he didn’t have the first idea!”

Miller had spent so much time poring over Mad Max in the editing process that he’d come to hate the film. It was not at all what he’d seen in his head while making it. For his next project he decided to do a rock & roll movie, to be called Roxanne. He and Hayes would write the script in Los Angeles, affording themselves an opportunity to observe how real movies were made. This proved an unenlightening experience.

“Hollywood,” says Hayes, “is an institutionalized form of conflict. The writer fights to defend his work against the director; the director fights the producer; and the producer fights the studio.” By contrast, the younger Australian film industry seemed open and wholeheartedly collaborative. “In Australia,” Hayes says, “you get a chance not just to be a writer or a director. You get a chance to be a filmmaker.”

Work on the Roxanne script proceeded fitfully before being shelved indefinitely. Miller was still puzzling over the widespread success of Mad Max, and still frustrated by its failure to depict his vision. Reading Carl Jung and a book by Joseph Campbell called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he became intrigued by the deep and resonant commonality underlying the world’s mythologies. He went back to the films of favorite directors, to John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, and he became fascinated with the work of such Japanese masters as Akira Kurosawa. They, too, he realized, had had to surmount the sort of creative stymies he had encountered in making Mad Max. Reassured, and convinced he was onto something with this mythological tack, Miller returned his attention to the Max material.

Kennedy-Miller (as George and his partner had incorporated themselves) took nine weeks and $4 million to shoot 1981’s Mad Max II – released in the United States and some other markets the following year as The Road Warrior. The film far outstripped its predecessor. Whereas Mad Max had been a dark and sometimes unpleasant picture to watch – a straight revenge fantasy with interludes of unusual emotional brutality – The Road Warrior took wing. Norma Moriceau, a London-based Australian designer, contributed punk-conscious costumes and a bent satirical approach to the macho posturings of the action genre. And Miller, working with Hayes, lightened up on the sadism. At the end, as the settlers Max has reluctantly saved drive off across the wasteland to reinvent civilization anew, the receding image of Max, standing in the wreckage-strewn roadway, suggests semi-Redemption. Half barbarian himself, Max has nonetheless assisted the survival of humanistic values with which he long ago lost touch.

No one really wanted to make a third Mad Max movie. Kennedy-Miller had purchased an old art-deco theater on Orwell Street in King’s Cross, the red-light district of Sydney, and had begun producing a series of highly successful TV miniseries there. The peripatetic Hayes had been away in Europe. In early 1983 he and Miller rendezvoused in Los Angeles.

“George was sitting and talking to me about… quantum mechanics, I think,” Hayes recalls. “The theory of the oscillating universe. You could say he’s got a broad range of interests. And I said something about “Well, if there was ever a Mad Max III…’ And he said, ‘Well, if there was…'”

In 90 minutes the two men came up with a concept: a tribe of wild children. They live at the bottom of an idyllic tropical crevice called the Crack in the Earth and revere tribal memories of a Captain Walker – the pilot of the crashed 747 that had left their like stranded in the desert many years before. Walker had set off in search of help and never returned, but his memory was venerated in the churchlike hulk of the now long-dune-bogged aircraft. As the kids grew beyond, say, Peter Pan age, they would propagate, then eventually set out across the surrounding wasteland on their own quest for the skyscraping cities of which Walker had once spoken – cities long since reduced to rubble, along with everything else, by the oil-sparked superpower conflagration that is prologue to the action of the Max movies. When Max himself is discovered perishing in the desert – a victim of the harsh justice of Aunty Entity, the ruler of far-off Bartertown – the kids decide he must be Captain Walker returned to rescue them. They implore him to take them back to the nonexistent cities. Max, however, weary from his years on the road, would prefer that they all remain at the Crack in the Earth, which appears to him a paradise. The kids prevail, and soon they are all entangled with the formidable Entity.

Thunderdome was to be a tale of human renewal amid the gaping realities of death and decay. It would be codirected by Miller and George Ogilvie, a well-known Australian stage director who’d worked in the past with both Miller and Gibson. (Byron Kennedy died in a helicopter crash in July 1983.) Gibson liked the new Max story enough to agree to star in it. Angry Anderson, leader of the Sydney-based hard-rock band Rose Tattoo, was recruited to play Ironbar Bassey, Entity’s pugnacious major-domo. And Angelo Rossitto, a dwarf actor who appeared in the 1932 cult film Freaks, would portray the Master, the scientific brain behind (or, actually, beneath) Entity’s Bartertown: a primitive economic community powered by methane gas extracted from the subterranean excretions of 400 pigs. An elaborate, neomedieval set for this settlement would be built in the Sydney brick pits: There Entity would rule, consigning the luckless to Thunderdome, an arena for hand-to-hand murder conceived as part hard-rock show and part pro-wrestling match.

But who would play Entity? Miller is said to have casually considered such actresses as Jane Fonda and Lindsay Wagner. While in London, Miller had seen Tina Turner on TV discussing her desire to act. In developing the Thunderdome script with Hayes, he began to refer to Entity as “the Tina Turner character.” Finally, with production nearing, he flew to Los Angeles to test Tina Turner herself.

A real Miller moment this afternoon: burning piles of tires, noxious fumes and billowing black smoke, a truck-mounted wind machine whipping up a hot sirocco of blinding dust. Tina Turner, in a chain-mail minidress and a flaring blond wig, is sitting at the wheel of one of the film’s fantastic wasteland vehicles – in this case, a two-ton truck that has been stripped to its chassis and rebuilt with two Ford V-8 motors, a serpentine array of pipes and hoses and an actual jet engine attached at the back. As the dust and smoke swirl around Entity’s bizarre automobile, a crewman in the rear, out of camera range, manipulates a long pole wedged under the bumper, causing the mighty machine to buck and rumble as though it were actually clattering across the flatlands on some unmerciful mission. “Simulated travel,” George Miller calls it. It’s one of his favorite old-time techniques.

Miller sits off to one side of the action, peering into a laughably low-tech black-and-white monitor housed in a crude pine box. In his voluminous desert whites, blue-tinted wind goggles and safari helmet with a little solar-powered face fan built into the brim, he looks like some silent-screen eccentric beamed in off a Biograph back lot. This is appropriate: Miller edits his images without sound and feels that “silent movies are the pure film language.” He re-cues the wind machine, and his shoulder-length hair begins flapping in the squall.

When a break is called, Tina climbs down from her car to talk to Norma Moriceau, the costume designer. A Sydney native, Moriceau moved to England in 1964, working as a photographer and teen-mag fashion editor amid the heady pop clamor of Swinging London. A decade later she was in on the birth of punk. In 1975, while living around the corner from Malcolm McLaren, she began shooting ad photos of the strange new clothes he and his partner, Vivienne Westwood, were selling in their protopunk boutique, Sex. When McLaren concocted the Sex Pistols, Moriceau was on hand at their earliest rehearsals, shooting crude Super-8 footage that later turned up in the Pistols movie, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. Moriceau subsequently met Miller during a brief return to Australia and saw his then-current hit film, Mad Max.

“I thought it was great,” she says, “the essence of moviemaking.”

She and Miller kept in touch, and he later invited her to work on The Road Warrior. She characterizes the slyly unsavory style of her wasteland costumes as “male trouble.”

“It’s all to do with male sports and the medals men give each other in clubs and things,” she says. A pack of passing Mohawked warriors illustrates her approach: shoulders bulked out with black-sprayed football pads; leathers accessorized with bike reflectors, rearview mirrors and metal automotive logos; butts a-swish with horsehair tails. “Big Butch Business,” Norma chuckles.

Moriceau has had wardrobing offers from Billy Idol, Duran Duran and other rockers aspiring to her fashionable wasteland look, but has turned them down. (“Too much trouble,” she says dismissively.) Now Tina wants her, too. The dress Moriceau concocted for Entity is an expressionist classic: a 70-pound soldered amalgam of dog muzzles, coat hangers and chicken wire, the whole overlaid with gleaming chain-mail butcher aprons and accessorized with pendulant auto-spring earrings. The accompanying wig, styled to echo the movie’s male plumage, required Tina to shave her head for proper fitting. She offered no protest.

“This is the best possible movie I could’ve done,” she says, popping a catered strawberry into her mouth. “It follows up on my stage image, and it’ll show the world that I can act. I’m not terrific, but I’m good enough for this part. And the training I’m getting from George is opening me up. I know that this is the brink – this is what I want to do.”

Tina thought she had blown the initial audition. “I speak very fast,” she says. “I’ve been a singer all my life, not an actress. And I knew I was speaking fast, so I wasn’t pleased with the reading.”

But Miller was willing to take a chance. “Ostensibly,” the director says, “Entity is the bad guy of the movie. If she were dark and one-dimensional, she would be a very clichéd character. But Entity is a survivor; she isn’t one-dimensional. And that’s what struck me about Tina, that her persona is very strong, very good. Very positive. And that was the main thing. We recognized that it was going to be difficult for her – as difficult as an actor singing a rock concert. So we insisted that she come over for some workshops. And one of the most exciting things for us was to see her intense learning. She just sucked it all up.”

Now Tina’s talking about doing her own stunts, too, but Miller’s not buying that yet. So when Entity is required to lead a charge of Bartertown war wagons down a plunging desert slope, Tina must watch from the sidelines as a stunt double climbs into her imperial machine. But Tina is herself a major Road Warrior fan, and as the growling sand buggies go barreling over the lip of the incline and screaming down the hill, she can’t suppress an excited whoop. “Was that great?” she says. “Shit!”

Each evening at dusk, a caravan of Thunderdome workers rattles back into Coober Pedy, the isolated opal-mining town where the company bunks. Coober Pedy is a strange place – a sort of Dodge City down under. Its attractions are quickly enumerated: two Greek restaurants – one “full of hookers,” according to Tina – and, of all things, a disco: Porky’s. A sign on the wall at Porky’s sets the tone for the town: ‘Patrons, check guns and explosives at the bar.’ The crowd is mostly opal miners, a curious breed.

According to George Mannix, Miller’s location manager, the distribution of opals in the earth is too scattered to be of interest to large mining concerns. The business attracts loners and outlanders – Yugoslavs, Greeks, Italians – who, to avoid the vicious summer heat, must make their homes in windowless underground burrows into which sunlight never reaches. After a while they may start acting rather strangely. About a year ago, says Mannix, a miner decided to blow up his girlfriend. He came running up to her residence with six sticks of gelignite, and then, being seriously drunk, he tripped. The local cop who related this story had been laughing when he recalled how they found the man’s backbone a block away. “Coober Pedy,” says Mannix, “is the perfect place for a Mad Max movie.”

The heat and the boredom conspire to lure restless Thunderdome-ers to Porky’s, Mel Gibson among them. Rather late one night he is still stretched out in a dark booth, knocking back beers and contemplating the future. Eight months hence, when Thunderdome is released, he will again be importuned to embark upon a promotional press slog, and the thought does not flood his heart with warm feelings. “Gene … Shalit,” he says, savoring the name of the Today show’s movie maven as if it were some sort of turnip-flavored breath mint. “What is that guy on?” He dislikes the avidity of the American media for celebrity revelation. “You can’t live up to what people expect,” he says. “Nobody can. But I guess that’s my problem, not theirs.”

When Porky’s closes, Mel heads somewhat unsteadily up the street toward his motel room, stopping en route at the more high-toned of the two Greek restaurants to pick up a box of gyros – greasy chunks of spit-roasted lamb – and a container of black olives and feta cheese. It’s so hot on location during the days that he finds it impossible to eat. Back in his room he goes straight to the refrigerator and extracts its sole contents: two bottles of beer. One is open and half-empty, the other fresh. With an ambiguous snicker he offers the flat one to a visitor.

“Reclusive?” he says, in response to an inquiry. “I’m not reclusive. I’m a guy that dances on tables, puts lampshades on his head, sticks his dick out in crowds. But I’m married now, got kids. I figure, stay healthy, live longer.”

Certainly there’s little time for dissolution in Gibson’s heavily booked film schedule. In the years since his Mad Max breakthrough, he has striven assiduously to enhance his born-hunk physical equipment – 160 pounds appealingly arranged on a five-foot-10-inch frame, topped with the sort of guileless good looks that can make women whimper in appreciation while at the same time striking men as matey and unaffected – with an acting style so subtly naturalistic as to sometimes seem transparent. Off the set, Gibson, who’ll be 30 next January, exhibits little interest in his abiding, poster-boy perfection.

“The camera likes some people,” he says simply. “Some people it doesn’t. The most beautiful woman in the world can look like dog shit on camera. Fortunately for me, it also works the other way round.”

One of Gibson’s most intriguing qualities as an actor is his ambiguous accent, a product of his divided nationality, which adds an understated tension to many of his performances. Born in Peekskill, New York, the son of a railroad brakeman, he’s lived in Australia since 1968, when his parents decided to emigrate there rather than lose any of their 11 children to the Vietnam War. He has maintained U.S. citizenship, but also a decided cultural ambivalence.

“There’s an element of the hybrid nature in me,” he says, swigging some beer. “I’m aware of it, but I don’t really have any burning desire to identify myself one way or the other. If you’re a hybrid, you’re a hybrid, you know? You’re pieces of this and that. I like it because you can really be a lot more objective, more of an observer. To be uprooted from one place and put into another, you really have to watch stuff. You observe, and then you begin to adapt – and that sounds like an actor to me.”

Acting, Mel suggests, is the art of “lying convincingly.”

He kills the beer and stuffs several chunks of lamb into his mouth. The talk turns to Miller and the raw vitality of his style, particularly compared with Spielberg’s more polished Hollywood approach.

“Yeah,” says Mel, “and Spielberg knows that.”

Obviously, says his visitor – meaning, just look at the Indiana Jones movies. But Gibson’s red-rimmed eyes swell paranoically.

“Whatta you mean, obviously?” he rasps. “Has Spielberg got money in this? I heard he had! It’s hard to find out with George. But I don’t care anyway – as long as I’ve got my cut!”

He cackles maniacally, then slumps back in his chair. “I didn’t realize I was so intoxicated,” he says, suddenly looking very tired. He cups his face in his hands. “I’ve been out here for 10 fucking weeks.”

Will Thunderdome be the last of the Max movies? Don’t bet on it. Commercial pressures to extend the saga will certainly be strong; while Miller would love to do a comedy, the Max chronicle, he admits, seems to have a life of its own.

As for Gibson’s continued participation, the actor – in a less wired moment – is also unsure. “If they could come up with an even better story than this one,” he says, “I might be in on it. But I think they should leave it alone; they’ve done their dash.”

And so has he. “It can be pretty tough saving the world sometimes,” Gibson says, smiling again. “It’s a special branch of work, isn’t it?”

In This Article: Coverwall, Mel Gibson

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