“Make it cool or I’ll kill you.” That’s what director George Miller told Colin Gibson, the production designer responsible for all the cars in Mad Max: Fury Road. Gibson did one better: he made every single one of them functional, because the desert doesn’t suffer mechanical fools lightly and CGI is bullshit.
Gibson picks up the phone at the Montage Beverly Hills in the midst of an endless string of press interviews with clueless hacks like me. He’s been asked the same questions about motivation and character development and external and internal truths all day. I just want to know how the hell he made these things work.
He pauses when I introduce myself and asks, “Wait. What’s the name?”
“Um. Damon… Lavrinc… from Jalopnik.”
There’s uproarious laughter on the other end of the line.
“Jalopnik?! If I would’ve heard that before I would’ve named one of the cars Jalopnik,” he says.
“Hey, if there’s a sequel, we should talk.”
Gibson has a long, sordid history in production design and art direction – “from talking pigs to tap dancing penguins,” he says – not exactly the kind of dark, gritty post-apocalyptic hellscapes of a world gone mad for gasoline.
But his first real introduction to the mechanics of movie cars came with – of all things – The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
“I first discovered how to build mechanical drive units when I discovered none of my drag queens could drive,” Gibson says, referring to the external controls that allow someone outside the vehicle to drive cars remotely.
Over two decades later he and his crew found themselves scavenging junkyards around Australia to find the right cars with the right personality for Miller’s reboot of Mad Max, a movie that’s been in development since Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving were donning wigs and mascara in the desert.
“We wanted to find things that were iconic,” Gibson says. “Cars that had a particular resonance in Australia, and then design them as the boys would’ve.”
That meant cars brimming with personality and with an absolute minimum of technology. They had to be shells to impose and convey each of the character’s motivations – stars unto themselves that could stand alone, and also stand up to the sheer lunacy of what Miller had planned.
What kind of lunacy? You’ve probably already seen a few trailers and assumed that Mad Max is yet another in a long string of CGI-addled action flicks. That’s where you – and I – were wrong. Nearly all the stunts in the movie were “practical,” meaning everything you see was done in real life with real humans and real cars.
Here’s an example.
This is Imperator Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron with a bionic arm) War Rig being attacked by men on long, high-tensile steel poles that basically act as metronomes. Those are stuntmen. Not mannequins or CGI’d humans.
“George has an enormous imagination,” says Gibson. “But he’s also a doctor. He took the Hippocratic Oath” to make sure no one was harmed during the filming.
So what about the War Rig itself? Well, it’s a Tatra with six-wheel-drive powered by two supercharged V8s, a 1940s Chevy Fleetmaster welded to the back of the cab, and a Beetle cabin mounted to the tanker. And it’s the least insane thing in Gibson’s armada.
Gibson and his crew made 88 vehicles for the movie, but actually produced 150 since some were split in half, ripped apart, blown up, or had to have doubles or triples in case of mechanical problems. When you’re shooting in the middle of Australia or – later – Namibia, it’s not like you can roll into the nearest Pep Boys for parts.
And again, they all had to be functional.
“Just because it’s an 18-wheeler driving through a sand dune at 45 degrees, that’s not an excuse for slowing down,” says Gibson.
In this case, he’s referring to a scene where the War Rig is chased through a bog by what’s arguably the most bad-ass vehicle of the bunch, the Peacemaker.
The body kinda-sorta resembles a mishmash of a mid-70s Chrysler Valiant Charger, but it’s been draped over Howe and Howe’s latest Ripsaw treaded mining rig.
“It needed to keep up with 100 KM/H chases,” says Gibson. “So we ditched the diesel engine and replaced it with a water-cooled Merlin V8. And we strapped some leftover sections from a Cessna up front.”
Here it is in action, sans bodywork:
If the Interceptor was the hero car in the original movies, then the Gigahorse is the anti-hero car in Fury Road. It’s driven by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who was actually in the first Mad Max film) and it’s made from a pair of 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Villes mounted on top of each other.
“It’s a throne,” says Gibson, with two V8s with over 600 cubic inches of displacement locked into one driveshaft, 120 meters of “garden hose irrigation”, and took over two months to make operational.
The Doof Wagon is a personal favorite, based on a MAN and outfitted with a supercharged V8. It’s purpose: lead troops into battle, with a half dozen Taiko drummers slamming away as a guy is strapped to the stage above the cab wailing a dual neck guitar that shoots flames. Yes, all those speakers are functional, and would make a perfect addition to your next Molly-fueled desert outing.
As for Gibson’s personal favorite, he’d pass on the original Interceptor.
“I’d take Nux’s car with me,” says Gibson. It’s a five-window Deuce Coupe with hand-beaten metal and a supercharged V8 with nitrous. “It’s the most comfortable of all the cars.”
The team also used Gibson as the stand-in driver during the build, so it was basically made for him. Unfortunately, he’s not the tallest guy, so when the actor driving (Nicholas Hoult) got in, they realized they had to raise the roof a few inches.
Of the 150 vehicles used for the film, the production team destroyed more than half during shooting. And as for the original Interceptor, Gibson didn’t want to spoil it for me during our interview. “You’ll have to see it,” he says. “But Jalopnik, yeah, we definitely want that in the sequel.”