“Why do these people invest so much of their love in turning it almost fetishistically into a thing of art? Well, it’s the only thing they done got.”
Production designer Colin Gibson might’ve been talking about the desperate and cancer-ridden War Boys populating director George Miller’s post-apocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road, but he could’ve just as easily been describing those he worked with on the film itself. Where Immortan Joe’s testosterone-fueled kamikaze zealots enhanced their vehicles—which act as both their sole symbols of self-actualization and their final resting places—with skull steering wheels, revolver-and-femur gear shifts and electric guitar amps, Miller and his team of obsessives were cannibalizing hot rods and engineering steel acrobatic poles in order to realize their own fetishistic art. Only one of these groups had shaved heads and spray-painted faces, but if you’d told me they’d shared that too, I wouldn’t have thought twice.
Over the course of Fury Road’s lengthy and troubled production, a heat-seeking dedication to perfection (in translating Miller’s vision to the screen, if not a platonic car-chase ideal) was something to which everyone could cling. In Kyle Buchanan’s Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road, the New York Times journalist expands his oral history of the acclaimed 2015 action movie to a similarly detailed extreme that the ambitious, cut-no-corners Miller would find kinship with.
Nearly 400 pages of interviews document the highway to hell taken by everyone working on the film, ranging from stars Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron to VFX data wranglers affectionately nicknamed “Toast.” Buchanan tracked everyone down and got everyone to talk—something difficult to do in modern Hollywood, where interviews are notoriously hedged and industry players remain tight-lipped lest their verbal indiscretions go viral. But when a high stakes, low odds bet like Fury Road pays off at the box office ($375M), Oscars (10 nomination, six wins) and history books (topping dozens of “best of the decade” lists), some of the pressure is off of the underdogs. The results are gripping, candid and charmingly still flabbergasted that they were able to pull the whole thing off. Let alone pull it off without many, many casualties.
“I can say that pretty much every day, someone was in danger,” testifies stunt performer Scotty Gregory. Part of getting swept up in Blood, Sweat & Chrome’s magic is that, not only do you believe him, you also have full faith that Miller truly prioritized safety during the manic shoot (the production had no major injuries). The pacing of the book—structured like the production of a film, moving from Miller’s pre-Mad Max career through Fury Road’s decades-spanning pre-production, heartbreaking variety of cancellations and delays, production, and marketing—indoctrinates you. Miller and the movie become long-suffering messiahs of what Hollywood can accomplish, even under the thumb of an IP-obsessed industry that, in 2022, seems far more likely to reboot the franchise with a TikTok star.
But Buchanan doesn’t milk the unlikely success story that’s ironically often at the heart of most making-of books (the only other kind are unlikely flops, which are the other side of the same coin). There are earthier, more relatable ways into the production, which raised its scrap-metal, fire-spouting middle fingers at The Man at every opportunity. Even if you’re not immersed in the film world or bristling against the flood of studio unoriginality, the palpable, nearly oblivion-seeking excitement of the below-the-line crew draws you in. It’s clear that Fury Road was something special to everyone, something torturous and foolish, only achievable through the kind of cultishness developed by a shared artistic faith. You’ll drink the Kool-Aid and ask for seconds.
While the film’s major behind-the-scenes dramas are delved into—giving more than tabloid headlines to stories like the professional friction between Hardy and Theron, Hardy and Miller, and Hardy and…basically everyone else—the real treat of Blood, Sweat & Chrome is, just like the film it covers, the detail. Those with enough interest in Fury Road can find out about the movie’s tumultuous relationship with Warner Bros. and that long brawl’s parabolic testament to trusting in art for art’s sake over commercially constructed entertainment. That’s easy enough. But the nitty-gritty campfire stories about grizzled stunt coordinator Guy Norris doing the film’s most dangerous driving stunts himself (earning himself a crash rig retrofitted into a rocking chair), or about Miller and some of the burly stuntmen sitting in on Vagina Monologues playwright/Fury Road consultant Eve Ensler’s discussion of feminism—these are what transport you, Mad Max fan or not. Dramaturg Nadia Townsend discusses her work turning the stunt team into a group of ride-or-die War Boys, the non-actors forged into a dramatic whole by their heightened emotions. What Buchanan accomplishes in his documentation is similar: His subjects’ connection to the film still feels raw, and with each electric quote, we fall deeper and deeper into their shared past. At its best, Blood, Sweat & Chrome engrosses as a collaborative production diary—you’ll be shaking Namibian sand from your shoes each time you set the book down.
A dedication to mystic minutiae, sometimes betrayed by too-modern reads on a film that’s allegorical potential is seemingly endless, carries Blood, Sweat & Chrome across the desert and back again. The book didn’t have to dig up anecdotes about Hardy and Theron’s stunt doubles falling in love. Miller and team didn’t need to suffuse Fury Road’s rumbling War Rig with whale sounds to give it an almost subliminal vitality. Your everyday action fan or behind-the-scenes enthusiast wouldn’t mind if things had taken the easy way, simply making big booms and crashes or interviewing the top-billed stars. But where Blood, Sweat & Chrome rises to its subject matter is in its dedication to getting “the only thing they done got” right, simplicity be damned.
Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road is out now.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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