Tuesday 1 February 2022

White Line Nightmare: The End of the World and MAD MAX II:THE ROAD WARRIOR (Part Two) - THE MAN FROM CHINCHILLA - John Baxter remembers the birth of Australia's most iconic film creation

Editor's note: This is the second part  of a short series by John Baxter devoted to the production of Mad Max and the work of the film's co-creator George Miller. The first part can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE


George Miller

In Melbourne in 1977, Richard Franklin was completing the psychic thriller Patrick, featuring Australian-born dancer/actor Robert Helpmann and British actress Susan Penhaligon. The city had little editing space, and he rented cutting rooms over a suburban pizza restaurant. One night, the only other director in the building, George Miller, a stocky young man, conservatively dressed, but with a flowing black beard and long curly hair, asked Franklin diffidently to give his opinion of the sequence he had just cut for his first feature Mad Max

Local film-makers held Franklin somewhat in awe, since he’d studied at the UCLA film school, interned with Alfred Hitchcock and subsequently penetrated the American market with a pseudonymous soft-core porn feature, Fantasm. Patrickwas widely regarded as the film that would buy his entree to mainstream Hollywood. (He later directed Psycho II, FXand Linkthere.) [For a tribute to Richard, see this Film Alert post by  clicking here] About Miller, Franklin knew only that he was a medical doctor who’d quixotically decided his future lay in movies; that he was financing the film himself, and had chosen, against all advice, to shoot in 35mm Cinemascope and six-track stereo sound. 

Richard Franklin

Miller showed Franklin a chase between motorbikes and cars, culminating in a  stunt, spectacular for the time, in which an airborne car sliced through one wall of a mobile home and out the other. The visual style was savage, relentless, but never exaggerated. Rather, it exhibited an almost forensic detachment. Disapproving of gratuitous camera effects, Miller shunned zooms and even telephoto lenses unless legitimised by the action. (In The Road Warrior,to rationalise a long-lens shot of an event happening a kilometre away, he would equip Max with binoculars, and his companion, the Gyro Captain, with a large telescope through which they might logically observe the incident.) 


Franklin recognised something new in Mad Max. Mating the mayhem of the biker film with the spaciousness of the western, it synthesised the urban and the pastoral – Hell’s Angels met The Wild Bunch

“What do you think?” Miller asked when the sequence ended.

“I think you’re going to be very rich,” replied Franklin simply – a prediction which, since, as William Goldman said of the film business, ‘Nobody knowsanything’, proved remarkably prescient.

Miller (known as “Doctor” George Miller, to distinguish him from the namesake who directed The Man From Snowy Riverand The Aviator) was so obviously destined for the movies that it’s surprising he ever bothered with medicine. In Chinchilla, his small home town in the northern state of Queensland, films and comics were his only link with the outside world, and  Saturday afternoon matinees at the local cinema - traditionally a mix of cheap westerns, serials and cartoons - the week’s big cultural event. By the time he moved to Sydney at 11, he was a creature of the movie and comic book world. 

Like Steven Spielberg and many other directors thrown up by the movie boom of the sixties, Miller was also, he admitted, ‘not very literate at all. I am an incredibly slow reader, and have difficulty organising words,  so I was visually adept rather than verbally adept, which I always took as a sign of mental inferiority.’ In the late sixties, however, a career in comic books or movies was all but impossible for a young Australian, so both Miller and his twin brother bowed to family pressure and studied medicine. 

[Though it’s been said that Hollywood in the eighties can’t be understood without reference to cocaine, dyslexia and other reading difficulties hch have been even  more influential. Many directors, including Steven Spielberg, don’t simply dislike reading; they can read only with difficulty, and find writing equally taxing. Spielberg “wrote” screenplays by sitting down with one or more writers next to a tape recorder. After they had kicked around ideas, the writers retired with a transcript of the discussion and worked up a screenplay. JB]

Filming Mad Max

Sport is the state religion of Australia, self-gratification the ruling ethos. In so physical an environment, automobiles play a central rôle. Restoring, repairing and souping-up old cars is an  Australian pastime, particularly in suburbs and country towns. A flat landscape and long distances encourage speeding, which in the sixties was exacerbated by lax laws on alcohol. Most towns boasted a stretch of road on the outskirts where drivers  pushed their cars and themselves beyond limits. Such strips were  usually christened ‘the mad mile’ – a term which would resonate with Miller.

In hospital trauma wards, the cost of high-speed drunk driving was appallingly on show, and as a young doctor Miller saw it at first hand. ‘I developed a morbid fascination with the autocide we practice in our society,’ he wrote. ‘Every weekend I’d see so many young people who’d been killed or maimed for life on the roads. You’d see the road toll in the paper on Monday morning and it was accepted with a shrug. It was almost like a weekly ritual,  with people being randomly selected out as victims, as sacrifices to the car and the road.’ 

Mel Gibson, George Miller, filming Mad Max

Miller’s attitude to such deaths was ambivalent, some part of him regarding its victims as almost exalted by their encounter with the voracious god of the road. He wasn’t unique in this. Author J.G. Ballard explored the aesthetics of the car accident in his novels Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, and even staged an exhibition of smashed cars as objects of aesthetic appeal. In George Lucas’s American Graffiti, John Milner, Modesto’s premier hot-rodder, takes his date on a tour of its auto graveyard, pointing out relics of particularly grisly accidents, and speculating (correctly, as we learn in the sequel, More American Graffiti)  that he may be fated to die in such a crash, and be immortalised in films shown in Driver Education class.


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