Oscars: 'Mad Max' Producer on the Most Stressful Stunt in George Miller’s Film
"You start seeing this vehicle careening toward the cameras — and you know a friend is inside — you think, 'F—, what are we doing?'" says Doug Mitchell of navigating production challenges for 'Fury Road.'
A version of this story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Doug Mitchell, a longtime producing partner of director George Miller’s, was excited to take on an action movie as involved as Mad Max: Fury Road.
The reboot of the postapocalyptic Mad Max franchise, which originated with Mel Gibson during the 1980s and has been reinvigorated by Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, was lauded in equal parts for its grand storytelling and mind-boggling use of practical effects.
From the spike-covered vehicles careening across the desert to the stuntmen on poles and that flame-throwing guitar, Mitchell, 63, had a lot of moving parts — and actors’ safety — to manage on set. One of his biggest production problems? Flowers.
How does production commence on a film as big in scale as Mad Max: Fury Road?
The start of Mad Max was delayed. We were going to shoot at a string of locations in the desert and in the same venue where [1981's] Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was shot. But the floods in Queensland filled up the water table. A phenomenon happens in the desert once every 100 years, or whatever the statistic is, and it flowers. The desert just became the most glorious color [from the flowers], and although it was gorgeous, we had already started building the infrastructure for a shoot down there. We had to pull the plug, and that was just a massive disturbance. But the Australian government continued to support us, and we found a desert that would equate to the Australian desert, which was in Namibia. It’s very difficult to make any film in the desert, it requires different resources to accommodate the crew, which grew to 1,000 people — not just for feeding them but keeping them sane. We ended with the equivalent of three football fields of base camps that moved six times across the shoot. You come into the desert and there’s absolutely nothing, and then you have this massive tent city — this massive refugee camp — where it’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the film crew.
You’ve been working with Miller for so long, have you noticed any change in his directing style?
What he’s done across the years as I’ve known him is that he’s not sat back with a little bit of success and glory. He’s hugely interested in many things and really quite intelligent and educated. He likes to tell his own stories from what he’s understood from his early days as a doctor doing emergency work — before he became the filmmaker he is today. You can discuss just about anything with George and he has a view on it — but it’s not just a view, it’s an educated view. He has the ability to translate action and make it real. I’ve noticed him hone his skills but never lose his ability to direct with humor. He doesn’t put himself in an ivory tower or allow himself a pat on the back; he’s always willing to get in there. His ability to enhance that action with audio, with music, with sound effects, it’s massive, even the throttle of the engines behind the cars. I think George is one of these Mozarts of our time that has film as his medium, and light and color, and he rallies around him a band of very talented people, and he’s quite happy to let them do their best and encourages that. I always worried about him on this shoot because everybody got tired, but George got exhausted.
Was there one stunt or practical effect that was the hardest to bring together?
The one that stood out for me was the very first one, in which Guy Norris, the additional unit director and stunt coordinator — who is also a performer — put himself in Max’s vehicle. The stunt was prepared very carefully, and the guy is very well trained, but it’s still him in the car strapped in. When he ignites this explosion that throws the car off a ramp, into the roll, and you start seeing this vehicle careening toward the cameras — and you know a friend is inside — you think, “F—, what are we doing?”
Was there any stunt that you couldn’t pull off that you wish you could have?
No. We had the advantage that George had elected this time to create the script or the blueprint in which the film was broken down and prepared for. Not only did he have all the images he wanted storyboarded, but you had images, like a comic book, of the whole film as George perceived it. He kept editing and editing until he eventually ended up with 3,000 panels of storyboards, 1,600 strip boards, so what the ADs and what the stunt department had was this visual reference as to what George was going to do in the filmmaking. It was extremely easy to see what the intent of the action was. A piece of action is meaningless unless you can link it to the next piece, or the next piece, or the next piece.
Fury Road is not a typical Oscar best picture contender. Why do you think it is receiving so much attention in this year’s awards race?
It’s just a film that is very pure. I think it’s a beautiful film, in the sense that is has this woven imagery that moves and that works against it. Plus it’s got a strong story. Why has it been nominated? I think when I see the other films around it, I think it deserves to be [there]. I wouldn’t presume to judge why action films haven’t been nominated this way every time, but I’m very proud of George and what he’s done for all of the films we’ve made. I think it’s such a validation for a director, at 70 years, to be recognized in this way and with a film that deserves it.
• Studio Warner Bros.
• Release date May 15
• Worldwide box office $376.7 million
• Director George Miller
• Cast Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult
• Top awards and noms Globe and PGA best pic noms; National Board of Review best pic winner; Globe, DGA and Oscar noms for Miller