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'Mad Max: Fury Road': How 15 years of design made 'the last real action film'

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"We wanted to make it the last real action film, and to do the stunts as real as possible. And so we designed all of that into the vehicles as we went."

"Mad Max: Fury Road" production designer Colin Gibson says director George Miller's last post-apocalyptic vision has been a long time coming.

"George first took me into a small room filled with storyboards in the year 2000." 

Finding the right desert

Gibson was tasked with finding a desert that was just right for "Fury Road." They'd wanted to shoot in Australia, but found that what they called deserts had enough scrubby vegetation that they weren't quite right.

"[George] was looking for dead, flat, absolute nothingness on which to play out his story. So I got to go to pretty much all the places no one else wanted to go to, which suited me fine — I love deserts. For those of us who are already sure of our own insignificance, there's nothing like it being confirmed again."

Potential deserts include Chile's Atacama Desert, Tunisia's Chott el Djerid salt lake and a location in Azerbaijan. The desert he found for the film ended up being in Namibia, with four different kinds of desert near a seaside town that Gibson notes came with its own brewery.

The production had previously looked at Broken Hill in Australia's New South Wales, but a flood of rain ruined that plan.

"The heavens opened up and the inland lakes filled, and the sea that people imagined existed actually formed, the desert bloomed, flowers were everywhere, the pelicans were dancing, and we had to go looking for somewhere else."

The film's cars were initially designed for that area, so they ended up being put to the test in a new environment.

All real — sorry 'bout your luck, CGI

"Fury Road" features a huge number of practical stunts, with real things happening in front of the camera rather than CGI. Sometimes harnesses holding the actors were removed in post-production, but the film is basically what you see is what you get.

"I was with the director on that. He had spent far too many years with pixels that did anything he wanted — tap-dancing penguins and pigs whose lips moved," Gibson says, referring to Miller's work on two "Happy Feet" films and two "Babe" movies. "And so we wanted to make it the last real action film, and to do the stunts as real as possible. And so we designed all of that into the vehicles as we went."

Gibson says that one problem they ran into was that Miller is, in addition to being a director, also a certified doctor who'd signed on to the Hippocratic oath.

"Apparently that meant you're not meant to go out and hurt anybody on purpose. Which was a little antithetical to the idea of 300 stunts at high speed. So each of the vehicles was designed with safety in mind, but also with each and every one of their specific stunts — their deaths, their character arcs, built into the design, into the very DNA of how they were put together."

That meant different departments working together to make vehicles that could fly through the air at high speed, ultimately delivering an explosion "safely but spectacularly."

Rebuilding the past for battle

The movie is built on the idea of found objects, with recycled items being made new again.

"All the objects became a fetish," Gibson says. "There's been a lot of degraded use of the idea of the apocalypse — anybody thinks you can weld a piece of barb wire to a Camaro and, my God, it's the future. So what we wanted to do was to build up a stockpile of things that had inherent interest or beauty, and that we could then take out of context and reuse."

They wanted objects that were beautiful enough that people would want to salvage them, and inspire people to think about those items' histories.

"I wonder what that was? What did they use it for? And now I'm going to repurpose it for war, for battle, for thirst, for the end of the universe. So all that flotsam and jetsam that washed up at the end of the world, we just put it to new and slightly brutal use."

One of the key parts of how the film was constructed, Gibson says, was designing the design process.

"We designed everything the way they would have come to it. We went out, we found things that were beautiful in and of themselves — now whether that's the curve of an airless spray gun, or a hills hoist, or a small jackhammer, but we'd repurposed them to weaponry, or to the forks of a motorbike, or to something else."

Another one of the deserts Gibson visited: Burning Man's outpost in the Black Rock Desert.

"We did tell the Burning Man people, for when the apocalypse does come, I think hiding in a concrete bunker with 64,000 cans of baked beans is far less exciting than going out and building a V8," Gibson says. "A lot of the people who worked for me in Africa, their next job after we finished was indeed going to Burning Man, stealing whatever they could from what was left over from our pile of salvage, and turning it into something fantastic, and I believe they all had a glorious time exploding things."

The War Rig

One feature you'll see on the film's vehicles, particularly "the War Rig," is a so-called "cattle catcher" on the front.

"Sadly, come the apocalypse, for those who like their burgers, there are no cattle, so the cattle catcher was already out of context. It was there basically as an impact. It was there to give everything head-on collision abilities," Gibson says — especially that War Rig, which in the storyline is required to be able to smash through.

The vehicle also features a turret built out of the shell of a Beetle.

"The War Rig is somewhere between an 18-wheel leviathan and hot rod," Gibson says. It's covered with a variety of violent imagery, with skulls and more. "They're also mixed with the heads of babies and dolls that have just been from toys — things that have no context anymore, but appear to be human-like."

Gibson says that nothing they built was just for looks — it all moved.

"I embrace physics, and that was one of things that we loved about this," Gibson says. "The design process was to design them the way they would. Take salvage, put it together, fetishize it, and give it the most power it could possibly have, because you are then sending it off to do glorious battle in the Wasteland."

The Gigahorse

The Gigahorse is made up of two 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Villes, which Gibson says he imagined as being two cars in the process of, ahem, making love.

"The idea was always that in a world where there was barely one of everything, the only one who would have a pair, if you would pardon the expression, would be the lead villain, and indeed he does have a pair."

Mad Max's Interceptor

The original Interceptor, a 1974 XB Ford Falcon Coupe, makes a cameo at the beginning of the film, as Tom Hardy takes over as the new Max. It gets destroyed — but not completely, as it does make a later comeback.

"This is a recycled universe that we live in, and nothing goes to waste, and it comes back jacked up on a new off-road set of wheels, tires, new suspension, new chassis, double-aspirated and weaponized to hell, and Max is forced to do battle with his own past."

Doof Wagon — the one with the flamethrower guitar

The film's craziest vehicle: The Doof Wagon, which comes with its own array of loudspeakers, spotlights — and a guitarist whose guitar shoots flames.

"George figured that every army has a little drummer boy, and his little drummer boy just required being slightly louder to be heard over 150 V8s, V12s, W16s, etcetera. And so it became instead Spinal Tap on wheels, with everything turned up to 11. So basically we took an 8-wheel-drive rocket launcher truck, stripped it back, rebuilt steel air conditioning ducting from the insides of a couple of large buildings, turned that into the reverberating drums of the taiko drummers on the rear, and then the last Marshall Stack before Hell screwed to the front of the unit."

The motorcycles

A group of older women in the films, the Vuvalini, ride motorcycles which Gibson says are the camels of the film's new desert.

"Yamaha supplied an awful lot of bikes for us kindly, which we unfortunately stripped down to component parts and made them almost unrecognizable. But the Vuvalini, the biker women at the last sand dune before the end of the universe, basically, their bikes were more fully formed out of history. So rather than completely rebuilt and remade, they were repurposed to a bedouin if slightly manslaughter-minded existence."

What vehicles didn't make the cut

While "Fury Road" has a lot of cool cars, you won't see many current vehicles. The Camry and the Prius don't look to have a ton of appeal after the apocalypse. Gibson says there were three reasons for that.

"George said everything had to earn its right to exist in our universe. And frankly, carbon-fiber bodies don't lend themselves to battle so well. The computer chip makes almost all modern vehicles fairly useless, whereas a decent, grunty V8 you can fix with a stick and a torn pair of pantyhose. And thirdly, I can't see anybody going to the trouble of schlepping a Camry halfway across the wasteland and salvaging it. So it didn't pass the beauty process. Which is not to say that come a prequel or sequel the Prius wouldn't make a proud entrance."

Seeing the vehicles he so carefully crafted be blown up could be seen as sad, but Gibson says it absolutely wasn't.

"That's what they were designed for, and to bring that to fruition — to watch the huge explosion that took out the People Eater's horizontal fracking tower as it hurtled across the desert made it all worthwhile."

Gibson says that there could be either a prequel or a sequel on the horizon. He says the stars are already looking forward to them, and judging by the hugely positive response to the current film, that's one to keep your eye on.

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