A FEW DAYS ON THE SET OF MAD MAX III BEYOND THUNDERDOME
(First publication, STARLOG #95, June, 1985; reprinted in SCIENCE FICTION FILMMAKING IN THE 1980s, McFarland, 1995.)
Dateline: Bartertown. Somewhere in the wastelands on the edge of hope. Time: the future. A bleak future where a nuclear war has forever changed our civilization. A future where one lone man becomes the agent of change. This is the world of Max, once known as the Road Warrior.
Cut back to reality. Bartertown sits in the center of the Homebush State Brickworks, the oldest brick factory in Sydney, Australia. Yet, sitting in the middle of this desolate quarry, surrounded by over three hundred extras, all dressed in post-apocalyptic clothes, not to mention the numerous goats, chickens, pigs and camels wandering about, it is easy to project oneself into the future, and imagine what life in Max's world might be like.
The first day on the Bartertown set is only slightly short of being as crazy as the future it portrays. The cast and crew of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome has just returned from five harrowing weeks on location in Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is a mining town located at the edge of the Great Stony Desert. According to the Australians, it is the opal capital of the world. Of it, Grant Page, stunt coordinator on the film, says, "It is one of the most notoriously desolate places on Earth. Any desert that won't even support flies (Australian flies can lay claim to being the world's most pernicious, enduring and aggressive!) is pretty bad!"
The Coober Pedy location was used for most of the car stunts, which were carried out in broad daylight. Some days, the temperature was measured at as much as 146 degrees Fahrenheit. People lucky enough to stay in the shade of the tents still had to suffer a temperature of 117 degrees. "The first day we worked there," comments Page, "we had eighteen open vehicles, and the people wore black leather and vinyl uniforms, with most of their skin bare. The cars were out, working shot after shot, and so were the drivers! It inevitably puts a load that normally wouldn't exist. It's got an effect on your judgment. It's got an effect on the way you pad yourself. Normally, in a cool temperature, you pad yourself with wet suits and all sorts of things until you're so well protected that you won't get hurt. But out in 146 degrees, you can't do that because you'd last three minutes and you'd be dead. We had ten people collapse with exhaustion, and twelve cars collapsed too." After such an experience, the 90 degrees-plus heat in Bartertown seems almost like paradise to everyone!
Still, the first day back in the "civilization" of Bartertown starts slowly. The visiting STARLOG reporter fortunately manages to enliven everyone's morning by taking an unrehearsed pratfall in a large and deep on-set mud pit. The sympathy of cast and crew is now acquired, but at what price!
Terry Hayes, co-producer and screenwriter, shares his excitement when telling the so-far secret story of the film. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome starts fifteen years after Mad Max II: The Road Warrior. As Mel Gibson later comments, "All the juice is now gone. What is left of society has reverted to an even more primitive level. Max himself is older, and more world-weary. He survived any way he could. He led basically a nomadic existence, coming across people and trading a few things..."
While traveling in the desert in his camel-drawn vehicle, Max is overtaken by a small methane-powered plane flown by the freewheeling bandit Jedediah and his son. Although the two characters bear no relation to each other, Jedediah is played by Bruce Spence, who was the much-loved Gyro Pilot in Road Warrior. Jedediah succeeds in taking off with all of Max's worldly goods, leaving the hero to perish in the desert.
Max manages to survive until he comes to a sign that points towards "Hope," which in turn leads him to the city of Bartertown. Bartertown sits on top of "Underworld," a giant pig farm cum methane plant, which provides power to the city. According to Production Designer Graham "Grace" Walker, the central core of the plant is an old truck on rails, covered with a huge boiler and pipes going every which way.
Entrance to Bartertown is gained only by bartering rare goods against the town's supplies and services. Fortunately, Max, who has nothing but his skills, eventually succeeds in getting himself admitted. He is then hired as a mercenary by Bartertown's Queen, Auntie Entity, played with gusto by rock star Tina Turner. Entity wants Max to kill her rival, a two-man team called Master Blaster (Master is a little person who sits on giant-sized Blaster's shoulders) who runs Underworld.
Max first agrees, but finally refrains from killing Blaster after he makes a startling discovery. "He just cannot do something like that," comments Gibson. "It's something that would bother his conscience. It may be the only thing that singles him out from the rest of the scum."
Entity's chief henchman, Iron Bar Bassey, played by Australian rock star Angry Anderson of Rose Tattoo, has Max expelled into the desert, where he is found by the feral children of the Crack In The Earth, a deep crevice which contains a lush paradise at its bottom. (For the Crack, Grace Walker found a location in the Blue Mountains, sixty miles from Sydney. Only a few skin houses and cave walls had to be built, as well as the rear of an old 747.) To the children, Max is "Walker," a legendary figure that will lead them to salvation -- in the guise of civilization.
In spite of Max's efforts, several of the children sneak away from the Crack to find Bartertown. In order to rescue them, Max must decide to leave his newly-found haven...
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome sports a much more complicated storyline than the previous two movies. It takes Hayes over two hours to narrate it, or more accurately act it out. He succeeds admirably in conveying his sense of wonder and excitement, changing the level and pitch of his voice to suit the action. Although he prefers to let audiences judge the picture by themselves, Hayes even admits that there is a message in the film, for any who care to find it. A rare admission in Movieland, where few people these days seem to care about a story's moral content.
Whether or not Beyond Thunderdome has a message is not important to those on the set who scurry around, trying to set up a location that has not been used for five weeks. The "town" itself is an odd collection of adobe-like, rounded huts and old, used metal bits that have been cannibalized from ancient machines. Parts of derelict automobiles are built into the sides of buildings. Everything looks so dirty and worn that it seems it has been there forever.
Grace Walker explains the evolution of Bartertown's shabby appearance. "In the beginning, George (Miller) sort of mentioned that it had a kind of African feel, and the design of the buildings came out that way. But then, it all changed and the crazy chimneys went up."
Because Beyond Thunderdome takes place fifteen years after The Road Warrior, there was no desire, or need, to keep any similarities in design to the previous film. "We didn't want to make anything similar," explains Walker. "That's why our cars are the way they are. They've gone a bit further. Now, they're just engines with a skeleton frame. There are no auto bodies left, just bits of scrap. People live in them."
Building Bartertown was the responsibility of construction foreman Max Worrall, a tall, engaging man sporting a mohawk. "The usual rule when you're building is that it should be plumb, square and level, and you can't go wrong," he says. "Well, in Bartertown, nothing is plumb, square or level! On the other hand, that also means that you've got a little to play with. The finish is not so important, because the town is supposed to have a rough, medieval, post-apocalyptic look -- sort of like The Flintstones!"
Although no one really lives in the strange buildings of Bartertown, Worrall made sure that people could walk on some of them. He explains, "The demands of the shot quite often mean that you have people where they shouldn't be. So, you have to overtrain for that. The town is made of light steel frames with chicken wire, covered with hessian, and then sprayed with concrete."
Spectators with good eyesight and quick reflexes will spot some in-jokes thrown to the fans and hidden among the various decorations of Bartertown. For instance, on a wall is a picture of a Gremlin, and the feed and grain store has the words, "Proprietor: E.T. Spielberg" painted over its front entrance!
Dominating Bartertown, and located at its center, are two important structures. One is Auntie Entity's fifty foot high penthouse, reachable only by a rickety, open-sided elevator. The other is what looks like a huge jungle gym. This is Thunderdome, the arena where all Bartertown disputes are settled in an exciting contest of strength, ability and pure determination. The battles there are always to the death. There is only one rule in Thunderdome, "Two men go in -- Only one comes out!"
It is in Thunderdome that Max battles Blaster. Hanging from the topmost metal bars on elastic ropes, the two men fight with such exotic items as a sledge-hammer and a chainsaw!
Today, Thunderdome lies dead, waiting. The scene that is being filmed is one where Master Blaster demonstrates his power over Bartertown by causing the lights in town to flicker. The crew loves it, because it is being shot inside Bartertown's entrance tunnel which is also the only cool place on the set, as it is located inside a concrete and aluminum foil tunnel. In fact, everyone who doesn't have to be somewhere else crowds into the tunnel to watch the shooting.
The Collector, (played by veteran actor Frank Thing) the impressively big man who guards the entrance of Bartertown, several guards and Ironbar Bassey are in the scene. Quiet is called for, but someone forgot to cue the chickens, which, tensing with anticipation, begin to cackle wildly. Throughout the shooting, animals will display that uncanny sense -- making more noise as the humans get quiet!
For almost every scene, the special effects team is called on to provide smoke and dust, making breathing in the cave difficult for everyone. On top of that, the ground is littered with sharp, pointy rocks. It can only be assumed that the extras really want to be in the film, since most of them walk barefoot, even between takes.
The mixture of these strangely-garbed extras and casually garbed crew gives the place an aura of otherworldliness -- a little like a particularly overworked immigration office of the future! Auntie Entity's punk-haired, leather-clad Imperial Guards lend a slight touch of menace to the whole scene. That is, until they start talking about the mundane realities of everyday life! Included in the Guards is Max Worrall, whose impressive height caused Grace Walker to suggest him for a role in front of the camera as well -- as long as he would agree to shave his head!
There are also women members of the Imperial Guards. One of them is Geeling, a beautiful, young oriental actress who starred opposite David Bowie in his recent controversial video, China Girl.
Max Worrall is not the only extra to have come to his part in a rather unusual way. Brian W. Ellison, for instance, started with the film as one of the night-time security guards. Now, he also plays the role of a knife twirling, snakeskin-dressed bodyguard to the Collector, the man who guards Bartertown's entrance. One night, as Ellison practiced a self-taught method of knife twirling, which he calls BAOKOS (Brian's Art Of Knives On A String), he was unknowingly watched by Frank Leonard of a company called Movie Stunts. Leonard told Ellison that his technique was good, but the young guard was still reticent about his skill and continued to practice in seclusion. Until stunt coordinator Grant Page asked him if he would be interesting in displaying his technique in the film.
"I was quite amazed," recalls Ellison. "But eventually, I went to see George Miller, who was impressed and said he'd like me to be in the movie. Then, I started to practice in earnest and try to make my stunts as good as possible." Ellison warns audience members not to try doing what he does with apparent ease in the film, "It's pretty dangerous. I've got the scars on my hands to prove it!"
Ellison describes his part with gusto, "I attack Max with the knives, swishing them around, trying to cut him. He sees me coming, quickly draws a gun and shoots me. Then, of course, I'm subdued!" Although his character is not killed, Ellison says, "It makes me very aware of the fact that knives are no match for a shotgun!"
Being shot calls for Ellison's elaborate feather head-dress to explode, while it's still on his head. The first tests done with the explosives were tried on dummy heads and proved to be much stronger than expected. Finally, to Ellison's relief, a safe procedure was engineered.
While Ellison demonstrates his skills for STARLOG, the second scene of the day, a direct follow-up to the previous scene, is being set up. Out of camera range sit the make-up people, the technicians and several visitors. One of the extras wanders over and talks quietly with some of the crew. A double take later, it becomes apparent that the scruffy, long-haired, bare-chested stranger is none other than Max himself, Mel Gibson.
By five, the scene has not yet been shot. Cast and crew start to show signs of battle fatigue, with the exception of co-director George Miller, whose boundless energy makes him forget about time when he works. The scene is finally done, and a tea break is called. In the tea tent, when teased about almost spilling coffee on his leather pants, Gibson laughs good-naturedly and jokes that nothing can make them worse at this stage.
At 7:30 p.m., a third scene, where some of Bartertown's "hopefuls" line up outside the cave entrance, in order to gain admission to the city, is set up. Included in the group are the noisy chickens, which show no signs of exhaustion, two goats and a large dog that has been conscripted to pull a cart.
The scene is rehearsed and rearranged several times, as are indeed most of the scenes on the film. Miller is open to suggestions from anyone who has a good idea, believing that film-making is a collaborative effort. This attitude carries over to the crew who display immense loyalty to the film, and strive to do their best under difficult conditions. At least, most of them do, for at 9:15 (shooting is scheduled to go on for at least another half-hour), several animal actors go on strike.
The dog, an Irish wolfhound, exhibits a perverse and so far hidden aspect of his personality, laying down every time Miller calls for "Action!" instead of pulling its cart as it is supposed to do. Not to be left behind, the goats plant their feet in the ground and refuse to be moved. Since there are twenty-five or more people who have to walk behind the obstinate animals, this quickly causes a massive traffic jam in the tunnel. Rather than fight the strike, Miller eventually decides to accept the goats' suggestion and calls it a day.
For the Australian film industry, a typical work week is six days, ten hours a day. So, although the next day is a Saturday, the Bartertown set is brimming with activity. Today is the day when Max's arrival to Bartertown is being shot. Although mostly undramatic to watch, the agenda for the day includes the scene where Max fires his gun at the knife twirling Ellison. Great care is taken in setting up the shot. Shielding is being carefully placed, and all personnel have to stay in the safety zone.
All is finally made ready. Everyone is warned not to make any noise when the gun goes off. Gibson is prepared. He reaches into his costume -- but finds no gun! One retake later, the scene (and the gun) goes off without a hitch.
Safety is a foremost concern on the set. While working with the cars in Coober Pedy, seven hours were spent in setting up one stunt. And because there was still doubt as to its safety, it was scrapped in the end. Perhaps a great loss of time and money, but an admirable show of concern for safety over the exigencies of film-making. Page comments, "We're at the end of the heavy stunts now. So far, there's been only one minor burn, and the man was back driving three days later. We've had a very, very good safety record on this film, same as on Mad Max where there wasn't one single injury."
On Monday, everyone returns to Bartertown, feeling refreshed after a day of rest. This is Tina Turner's last day, and the production schedule calls for three important scenes to be shot. All deal with the eventual destruction of Bartertown.
The first one calls for four hundred extras, a variety of animals and multiple explosions. At 8:00 a.m., the extras wait outside the make-up tents. Some of them were found wandering around on Sydney's streets and are extremely proud of the fact that they do not need any make-up or costumes to look their parts!
At 9:00 a.m., the special effects crew starts setting up their explosions on the hillside above Bartertown. Once everybody from cast and crew is present, a small demonstration of the explosive devices to be used is given. Three types of explosives will be employed: sound bombs, debris bombs and fireballs. When the fireball blast goes off, it is much bigger than originally planned. Miller shows concern and eventually decides that its size will have to be cut down.
Because of the large amount of action scheduled to take place in the shot, as well as the danger, the set-up is being very carefully prepared. The extras are rehearsed over and over. The animals are their usual uncooperative self. The pigs, in particular, object to being kept in line by a dog and eventually turn against it and chase it away - temporarily.
It actually takes seven and a half hours before everything is made ready. Several firetrucks are present should any of the fires get out of hand. The time is now 4:30 p.m. and there has been no break at all. The temperature is well over 90 degrees, and there is no shade. Everyone wants the shot to be over with, but no one forgets that it must be done right the first time, because there will be no chance for a retake. On top of that, there are still two more scenes to be done with Turner, before the sun sets in, approximately three hours from now. The race is on.
Miller calls for action. Immediately, Bartertown takes on the appearance of a true post-apocalyptic hell. With the explosions, the fires, the smoke and the screams of animals and people, even the set observers begin to feel involved in the action.
"Cut!" is called. Miller immediately rushes to the side of an extra who fell and might have twisted an ankle. All the planning paid off. There has been no real injuries, except for a stuntman whose bare toes were stepped on by a horse.
Excitement runs high on the set, as everyone breaks for a much-delayed lunch. Miraculously, Turner's last two shots also wrap without glitches, making good use of the last of the sun's rays. As the singer actress says her good-byes to the cast and crew, everyone breaks into spontaneous applause.
Tuesday calls for the filming to be done on the quarry floor, outside of Bartertown itself. It is so hot that crew members pour water over their heads in an unsuccessful attempt to keep cool. The rebellious Irish wolfhound is back, but after several hours of grueling heat, her owner finally takes her away. To make matters worse, there is a hot wind blowing dust in everyone's eyes...
All of the methane-powered cars have arrived from Coober Pedy by train. According to Page, many of them are on their last legs. "We got half of them to a degree where, if it weren't for continuity, we wouldn't be driving them at all," he explains. Strangely enough, one of the vehicles is a left-over from The Road Warrior. Humongous's car has been carefully refurbished into a vehicle that now looks like a lobster pot!
Although the day's scenes are far less dangerous than the previous day's, the same attention to details and safety is given. Page watches carefully although, technically, no stunts are being done. With an eye to the set, he sums up his feelings as to the differences between Beyond Thunderdome and the earlier Max films. "Funnily enough, this one doesn't have as much car stuff as people would think. In fact, I think some of the traditional Mad Max fans might even wonder if this film belongs to the same series. It's broadened out a lot more, and there's more comedy.
"Being in the stunt game, one tends to be involved in a lot of very heavy movies. If you're involved permanently in death, destruction and horror, it starts to get to you after a couple of films. It's really nice to do something with a bit of comedy in it. I must admit I've come out of the end of this, after many months, with a much lighter spirit than after Mad Max or The Road Warrior. I hope it will have the same effect on audiences."
© 1999 Randy & Jean-Marc Lofficier