‘Mad Max’ Forever Changed Broken Hill
The Story Of A Young Director, A Small Town, And A Big Movie
Mad Max 2 is Broken Hill, and Broken Hill is Mad Max 2 — the apocalyptic, burned-out, tar-streaked Western holds much of its power in its sand-blasted vistas, carefully chosen by some of the most talented location scouts working in ’80s Australian cinema.
But the brief they were given was not an easy one. After all, the first Mad Max had, despite accumulating a small cult following, been a risky proposition. Indeed, its most ardent (and famous) supporter almost turned down the opportunity to watch the film.
It was the 1970s, and Kurt Russell, star of The Thing, found himself in the most unpleasant of circumstances. On tour in Australia, he was cornered at a party by some guy — “a dentist, or a doctor” — who wanted the famed genre actor to watch the movie that, Russell assumed, the young medical professional with the big circular glasses and the wild, wavy hair had produced.
Of course, as anyone in the industry knows, there’s nothing quite as hard as being hounded by a budding creative, desperate to use your star power to leverage their own burgeoning career. Consider it a sign of Russell’s kindness then that he, against the odds, agreed to be driven by the excitable young filmmaker to his house, for a private screening of a movie that had been inspired by time the former doctor — not dentist — had spent witnessing the horror on Australia’s roads.
“He puts a tape in, and up comes the title, and he directed it,” Russell later told Empire magazine. “Now I’m really stuck!” As Russell suddenly knew, proceedings could have gone very badly — how do you break the heart of a young creative, and tell them that the work they have made is, in a word, shit?
Luckily, Russell didn’t have to. “So, about three minutes into Mad Max, I turned to George Miller and said, ‘Motherfucker! This is great!,” Russell explained. Turns out that Miller, the young Brisbane-born ER professional, had real talent — it just took someone like Russell to see it.
Indeed, the unassuming nature of the Mad Max franchise — and its affable, if a little eccentric — director, would haunt the production a few years later, when Miller and his crew descended on the town of Broken Hill to film its sequel. Sure, the first film had worked for Russell, and for a young Quentin Tarantino. But it hadn’t exactly been a breakout hit.
Famously dubbed with American accents when it was rolled out overseas for fear that international audiences wouldn’t be able to understand the Ochre voices, the film had been a moderate grindhouse success, relegated to scummy all-night theatres and drive-ins. So when Miller, only one feature under his belt, began to prepare to film Mad Max 2, the red carpet wasn’t exactly rolled out for him. He was still an outsider, unable to easily convince the residents of Broken Hill that he had the requisite vision to transform their little mining town into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Shooting over the course of 12 weeks in brutal weather, Miller and his strappy, resourceful crew tasked themselves with the job of slicing budgetary corners wherever they could. The director’s desperate vision was to expand on the relatively moderate ambition of the first film. Whereas the original had been, in essence, a stripped-down revenge thriller, in which the titular cop (Mel Gibson) hunts down those who have murdered his wife and children, the sequel was a grand story of brutality and civilisation’s downfall. Mad Max is a pinprick from a poisoned blade; Mad Max 2 is a slash from a machete.
Key to the film’s grandiosity is twofold: the sheer scale of the wasteland, and the astonishing attention Miller pays to the faces of his heroes and villains. Mad Max had been stylishly directed, sure, elevated by surrealist touches like the close-ups of the popping eyes of its villain, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). But Mad Max 2 was a different proposition altogether. It was here that Miller developed his most famous techniques — a cross-cutting between lived-in, sand-blasted close-ups, and astonishing wides; a baroque, always fluid camera style.
Miller didn’t just film Broken Hill. He transformed it. To the puzzlement of the residents of the scorched mining town, Miller pointed his camera at those dusty corners that even the locals had stopped noticing. Rather than picturesque, rolling landscapes, he searched for the downtrodden horror; the strange, snaking mysteries that lay on the outskirts. He wasn’t filming Australia. He was grinding away the distinctive qualities of the country, making something universal in its viciousness and horror.
Indeed, so unique was Miller’s vision that the residents of Broken Hill only properly appreciated what he had done until the film was screened. Bemusement turned into begrudging, subtle affection. And even then, it took years until they fully embraced him. It wasn’t for some time after production that locals opened the “Mad Max 2” museum, located in the charming yet somewhat sinister confines of the Silverton Hotel, where visitors can traipse through the corridors and squint at set photos of the film.
Now, Broken Hill is Mad Max and Mad Max is Broken Hill. Miller had proven, against the odds, that a bunch of rag-tag creatives had the power to make something distinctively Australian for the Australians, and recognisable and relatable for the Yanks. Turns out that Russell was right — that doctor (or dentist) really has what it takes.