Miller and Max by Luke Buckmaster – Review
By Roger Crow
I was a fan of Mad Max before I even managed to see any of the films. In the early eighties, a time before I could watch what I wanted, when I wanted, I wondered how good Mad Max was based on magazine photos and movie posters.
When the sequel was released in 1982, the 14-year-old me was given tantalising glimpses of the stunning production design and explosive action sequences. In an age of video nasties, Mad Max was lumped along with other notorious offerings such as The Evil Dead as a movie which would corrupt youth and ’was capable of bringing down society as we knew it’.
Of course there was far more to the Max saga than just amazing stunts and cool costumes. Thanks to Miller and Max, Luke Buckmaster’s book about creative genius George Miller and the movies which made his name, I finally get a warts-and-all insight into one of the most influential movie sagas ever made.
Without Mad Max, there would’ve been no ‘Wild Boys’ video by Duran Duran; Gary Numan’s early 1980s look would have been very different, and pretty much every post-apocalyptic straight-to-video offering would have been erased from history. (Give Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone a look, and ignore the rest).
Like Star Wars before it, the first two Max movies rewrote the book on fantasy cinema. Understanding how it came about is a compelling read. Buckmaster, like any good biographer, starts his tome with an action scene (involving an out-of-control rocket car) before flashing back to Miller’s youth.
It’s occasionally a hard read because of the Australian slang that slips in, but as someone who’s loved Aussie cinema for decades, it’s great to get a fresh, Antipodean take on a filmmaker and franchise that changed the world.
Buckmaster’s tone at times is ‘telling you over a pint down the local’ rather than some highbrow document designed for academics, though he does slip into the realms of purple prose occasionally.
In retrospect, the ‘pub chat’ is exactly the right way to go even if it lacks the panache of superior director biogs such as Dale Pollock’s George Lucas tome Skywalking, or Peter Biskind’s peerless Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (a must for any fan of seventies cinema).
Miller and Max is also a fascinating guide on how to get a low budget movie off the ground, though more photos would help boost the book immensely (there are a few colour stills in the middle). The Mad Max saga has never been something which can be assessed entirely in words. Action scenes are a purely visceral experience and translating them for novelisations, for example, is often a futile experience. (Amazingly Terry Hayes, who wrote the first movie’s novelisation, was hired to co-write film two).
I love other nuggets of trivia gold, such as the fact that when actor Tim Burns auditioned for a part in the first movie, he told a Tommy Cooper gag. Miller’s casting process involves actors telling him jokes so he can see whether they understand structure, drama and the climax of a story. Smart move.
I’m also amazed by the chaos that ensued in October 1977, the first day of shooting, when around a thousand cars had to be stopped on the Geelong Freeway for the inaugural scene. The man in charge of doing so had not figured out where the production crew were going to park, let alone deal with such an enormous logistical nightmare.
It’s stories like the Cooper joke and this nightmare scenario that help Buckmaster’s book come alive. He’s certainly interviewed plenty of cast and crew for the 273-page offering, and for the most part, the whole thing ticks over like a finely tuned engine.
I love the fact a 21-year-old Mel Gibson, fresh out of drama school, was genuinely scared of his ‘villainous’ co-stars. They took method acting to another level by biking huge distances before day one of filming, and staying in character when the cameras weren’t rolling.
Like any first time filmmakers, thanks to a huge amount of naïveté, getting that modestly budgeted action thriller from script to screen involved a lot of blind luck, hard work and occasionally life threatening mistakes, but while cast and crew may have suffered a steep learning curve, they also raised the bar to stratospheric levels for the sequel.
Film one became a monster hit, and until 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the most lucrative movie ever made based on the tiny budget and huge box office returns. A sequel was inevitable, and seeing how that was put together, inspired by Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (which also inspired George Lucas while making Star Wars) is fascinating.
Until 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road was released, Mad Max 2 was easily the finest post-apocalyptic action adventure ever made. Renamed The Road Warrior for America (as many folks in the US had never seen the first Mad Max), it left audiences around the world gobsmacked. The mash up of Road Runner, Peter Weir’s cult seventies movie The Cars That Ate Paris, and classic Western Shane fast tracked Miller and Gibson into the big leagues.
A shame film three was more style than substance, and Miller’s career in the 30 years between Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road was an unusual mix of Faustian fantasy (the excellent Witches of Eastwick), little-seen medical drama Lorenzo’s Oil, (based on the pioneering work of Hull biochemist Don Suddaby), and kids’ offerings such as Babe 2 and the Happy Feet movies.
Given the fact Fury Road was another huge success, and both Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron gave such terrific turns, I, like countless fans, are desperate for a fifth Max film.
For a man in his seventies, George Miller is still showing up-and-coming film makers how to make the best action movies on the planet, and I’m thrilled there’s finally a book that pays tribute to his work.
Just a shame Miller himself doesn’t shed any light on his oeuvre, like one of Faber and Faber’s excellent film biogs, but this is still a well crafted tome which is well worth the investment.
‘Miller and Max’ by Luke Buckmaster is published by Hardie Grant