The year was 2015, the set was somewhere in Africa and the “powerhouses” of Mad Max: Fury Road, Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, were at breaking point in an atmosphere of tension, feuds and bad blood.
It has been an open secret for years but only now has The New York Times‘ Kyle Buchanan released details of the “clash of the titans” in Blood, Sweat and Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road.
Buchanan retraces the history of the Mad Max franchise, concentrating on the catastrophe that was unfolding on and off set on Fury Road, with budget blowouts, movie-house politics and stars who just didn’t get on.
In 130 candid interviews from cast and crew, including director George Miller, Hardy and Theron, it’s apparent the very nature of their icy relationship in the desert heat of Namibia may have been what led to the film grossing $US375 million ($518.4 million) worldwide and scoring 10 Oscar nominations (winning six).
Available in paperback from March 2, the book’s synopsis says “production stalled several times, Hardy and Theron clashed repeatedly in the brutal Namib Desert, and Miller’s crew engineered death-defying action scenes that were among the most dangerous ever committed to film”.
“Even accomplished Hollywood figures are flummoxed by the accomplishment. As director Steven Soderbergh has said, ‘I don’t understand how they’re not still shooting that film, and I don’t understand how hundreds of people aren’t dead,” it read.
Miller explains to Buchanan that the story is all about self-preservation.
“If it’s an advantage to you to kill another character, then you should do it and you don’t think twice about it,” he says.
“I think that crept into the actors.”
For Theron, she admits they were “functioning, in a weird way, like our characters … everything was about survival”.
From fellow actors to assistant directors and camera crews, they all recounted how Hardy, who played warrior Max, and Theron who played the courageous one-armed Furiosa, had such different acting styles.
Both stars will not reprise their roles in the prequel Furiosa, which is set to start filming in regional New South Wales in three weeks.
Australian actor Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Extraction) has said he’s “damn fired up” for the job, which co-stars Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit).
And it’s all on home soil with a huge injection of funds from Screen NSW.
The film is expected to be the biggest ever made in Australia, creating 850 jobs and injecting at least $350 million into the economy.
So what happened on that Mad Max set?
In a Vanity Fair extract published on February 23, British actor Rosie Huntington-Whiteley sets the scene, saying “it was very interesting to sit in a truck for four months with Tom and Charlize, who have completely different approaches to their craft”.
He’s a method actor, “very physical and all over the place”, while Charlize is “cerebral and very consistent in the way she approaches a character … they’re both powerhouses but in their very different ways of working. Which, weirdly, is why the film works: It’s all pouring out on the screen”, says screenwriter Kelly Marcel.
English actor Nicholas Hoult, who played Nux in the film, describes a “tense atmosphere”, where it was “like you’re on your summer holidays and the adults in the front of the car are arguing”.
Theron agrees: “We were either fighting or we were icing each other … It was horrible! We should not have done that; we should have been better. I can own up to that.”
So they hated each other, couldn’t even look at each other.
But what led to the explosion on set?
Theron was described as being easy to deal with and would turn up on time to shoot. Hardy was a “larrikin”, who spent way too long in his trailer and was always late.
It was a recipe for disaster. Then they finally came to blows.
Theron turned up to the set at 8am sharp on a day of shooting and sat inside the so-called war rig where she waited and waited.
Three hours later, here’s how cameraman Mark Goellnicht “vividly” remembers it: “Eleven o’clock. She’s now in the war rig, sitting there with her make-up on and a full costume for three hours. Tom turns up, and he walks casually across the desert.
“She jumps out of the war rig, and she starts swearing her head off at him, saying, ‘Fine the f–king c–t a hundred thousand dollars for every minute that he’s held up this crew’, and ‘How disrespectful you are!’ She was right. Full rant.
“She screams it out. It’s so loud, it’s so windy—he might’ve heard some of it, but he charged up to her up and went, ‘What did you say to me?’
“He was quite aggressive. She really felt threatened, and that was the turning point, because then she said, ‘I want someone as protection’.”
A producer was assigned to stay at Theron’s side.
“There were several weeks on that movie where I wouldn’t know what was going to come my way, and that’s not necessarily a nice thing to feel when you’re on your job. It was a little bit like walking on thin ice,” Theron said.
And with the beauty of hindsight, Hardy agrees.
“I was in over my head in many ways. The pressure on both of us was overwhelming at times. What she needed was a better, perhaps more experienced partner in me.
“That’s something that can’t be faked. I’d like to think that now that I’m older and uglier, I could rise to that occasion.”
Either way, there’s an epiphany towards the end of the film. They’re both on a bike and everyone witnessed a shift.
Says Goellnicht: “That scene was probably the biggest change in seeing Tom really soften to Charlize in real life.”
“We were all unprepared for how he performed that, and then I walked off and Charlize was walking back, and I said, ‘Geez, Charlize, that was amazing. Did a light switch go off? He was great.’ She was quite taken aback by it, too.
“But it was great because that’s when you can see that Max and Furiosa really are a team.”
As Marcel said, it was a really “intense, intense, intense period in an intense, intense place”, but “family was made there, and family loves and hates each other”.