A third sequel that mostly consists of car chases is not where you usually look to find a masterpiece. But as C.G.I. superhero movies dominate an airless blockbuster landscape, the achievement of Mad Max: Fury Road becomes all the more important. Winner of multiple Oscars, the 2015 critical darling ranked on “best of the decade” lists by putting risk, grit, and bonkers excess back into action filmmaking. Fan reactions came straight from the gut. “It makes me feel more alive just watching it,” wrote one besotted admirer. “Pure cinema,” declared New York Times co–chief critic Manohla Dargis.
The fact that Mad Max: Fury Road exists as more than a mirage in the desert is a miracle. George Miller’s glorious post-apocalyptic action epic died a thousand deaths before shooting even began, in a desolate corner of Namibia. Head-spinning stunts on monstrous speeding vehicles, polar-opposite leads who acted as if they loathed each other, and a directorial vision hard to fathom in the absence of a traditional screenplay—these were all in a day’s work.
But we don’t have to imagine what happened out there amid the sandstorms, thanks to Blood, Sweat & Chrome, Kyle Buchanan’s deft and rollicking assembly of recollections by cast, crew, studio suits, and more.
Oral history is perfect for chronicling a film where the extreme is the norm. Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a land ravaged by drought and ruled by a warlord, Immortan Joe, who commands a kamikaze army of “War Boys” who resemble albino mosh-pit ragers. He maintains a harem of wives, not a feature you’ll find in most Disney Marvel movies. The plot follows one of Immortan’s enforcers, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), as she tries to spirit these women away to freedom. Mad Max (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson) joins forces with Furiosa, turning from rival to comrade.
These wild imaginings were nearly moot when the production sputtered out for the first time, in 2003. George Miller, riding high from directing Babe (years after the original Mad Max films), took a meeting about a Mad Max TV series with merch tie-ins. He ended up pursuing a Furiosa feature, which Fox picked up, only to walk away when the budget for its far-flung shoot ballooned.
Any prospect of Gibson’s triumphant return vanished after his notorious 2006 D.U.I. arrest. When Mad Max found a new home at Warner Bros. (thanks to Miller’s hit Happy Feet), the production faced a biblical scourge on the eve of its 2010 shoot in Broken Hill, Australia: a once-in-a-century flood of rain that left the sandy location filled with water, flowers, and pelicans.
You begin to get the picture. Nervous execs imposed Procrustean cuts on the scheduled shoot, which Miller’s bulldog producer, Doug Mitchell (nicknamed “the Honey Badger”), consequently simply moved to Namibia. Cast and crew sound alternately intoxicated from letting their imaginations run wild under the creative leadership of the kindly Mr. Miller, and haunted by doubt in the woebegone village where they stayed.
Miller’s granular shooting style, sometimes filming for seconds at a time, could make his genius hard to see. The stuntmen didn’t mind, happy to leap off swaying 20-foot poles during high-speed chases like bugs on a blade of grass. “Shit was just happening and dudes were coming in through the roof” in the words of Theron, who drove the mutant tractor trailer known as the “War Rig.”
Theron is a star in the book too, dishing with integrity and humor. (She calls the War Rig as familiar as “my first apartment.”) Her disciplined, cold-fire performance as Furiosa faced friction with the tardy, sulky Hardy. Tempers exploded when Hardy arrived hours late one morning, while Theron gritted her teeth in the boiling War Rig. As the book tells it, Theron chastised him and demanded the production fine him for delaying everyone; Hardy strode over and confronted her, and she later requested protection.
Hardy’s behavior gets chalked up to Method acting, and the mood improved after a reunion scene. (Or maybe, per one Aussie crew member, he’s a “larrikin.”) On the plus side, Theron’s stuntwoman and Hardy’s stuntman from their grueling first fight scene went on to get married.
Buchanan rounds up more curiosities and what-ifs: Miller’s tapping Eve Ensler for workshops, the unsung influence of dramaturge Nico Lathouris, a cut scene of Mad Max giving birth to himself in a dream.
Alternate-universe Furiosas under consideration: Uma Thurman, Bridget Moynahan, Gal Gadot. Alternate Maxes: Heath Ledger, Michael Fassbender, Eminem. Harem wife manquée: Rihanna.
But the thrilling climax comes in true, crass Hollywood fashion when simultaneous test screenings pit the studio cut against the killer version by Miller’s editor and life partner, Margaret Sixel. When the rubber hit the road, Mad Max: Fury Road won. And when Mad Max: Fury Road wins, we all win.
Nicolas Rapold is a New York–based writer and the former editor of Film Comment magazine