“My name is Max. My world is fire and blood.” So began George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, a modern masterpiece that is as daring, audacious, and immaculately crafted as any film ever made. But the creation of this follow-up to Miller’s Mad Max trilogy was, shall we say, complex—and for most viewers, difficult to even imagine.
Enter Kyle Buchanan. The ever-quotable reporter and awards-season columnist for the New York Times was at Vulture when Fury Road made its long-awaited debut following whispers of on-set trouble. Years later, Buchanan wrote an oral history for the Times to commemorate the film’s fifth anniversary. Now comes a book-length oral history featuring all major players (Miller, Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy) and all behind-the-scenes controversies. That book is Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road (William Morrow; released on Feb. 22), and it is a genuine must-read.
As Buchanan explained during a recent interview with The Film Stage, writing a book was a uniquely different experience than writing an article for the Times.
“In my line of work, you write something and it’s out there almost immediately,” he explains. “This is a book where I turned in the first draft of it a year ago. And of course there are subsequent drafts and editing that goes on. But I’m so ready for people to actually get their hands on it.”
The result is an essential filmmaking text, one that inspires appreciation for the years of effort that went into the making of Fury Road, and also enhances the viewing experience. Here Buchanan discusses the impetus for the project, why the time was right, and how the COVID-19 pandemic indirectly led to the book’s genesis.
The Film Stage: Let’s go back to the first time you saw Mad Max: Fury Road. How did it impact you then, and why do you think it resonated with audiences so strongly?
Kyle Buchanan: I had already been very excited about it from the trailers. I was covering Comic-Con when the first trailer came out, which was the first footage of it at all. And I was very much like, “Oh, I’ve heard this is troubled, this is not going to be that big of a thing”—and I watched that footage and I was blown away. I thought, “Wow, OK. This is something completely different in the action space.” And that’s a pretty remarkable thing, to be different when it is the resurrection of a series. And then there was that incredible first teaser trailer that I still put on to get hyped.
So I definitely went into it with high expectations. I remember I watched it at a preview screening; Edgar Wright was there, but it was mostly press. I was blown away from the jump, the first 15 minutes alone—seeing things like the Doof Warrior, the guy playing a guitar that shoots flames. It was so wild, so over-the-top, so creative. There were constantly things that were producing a visceral reaction from me. I remember there’s a scene fairly early on where practically an anonymous War Boy falls off the war rig. And I jumped in my seat as he hit the ground because it felt real. This is not even a named character, just a day player/stunt man, but it felt so much more real in this fantasy world than any action movie I’d seen in ages. [It felt like] a true corrective to all the poorly shot, CGI, franchise shit of the time.
All those things were so inspiring and you could tell that there was so much more going on even outside the borders of the frame. I mean, there’s the scene in the swamp where you see these creatures, basically on stilts. And it’s just one shot of the film! You see that and you think, “There’s so much thought put into this world and I want to know more.”
How did things move from being a fan of the film to deciding to document its creation?
I sort of backed my way into it. In the spring of 2020, as everything was locking down, the movie calendar fell apart and there were no new movies to cover. But that is my job, so I thought, “What can I write about in April / May / June with nothing out there, no fresh product?” I remembered that it was about to be the fifth anniversary of Fury Road. So at my day job at the New York Times I said, “Why don’t we do some sort of fifth-year anniversary thing, maybe even an oral history?” Because I felt that enough time had maybe elapsed since the movie was made and since it had come out for people to be a lot more real about what that experience was like. You want enough time to have passed that it’s still fresh, but also that people are willing to talk more candidly. They haven’t forgotten—those moments still feel burned into their brains and their bodies.
So I thought, “Well, if nobody’s doing anything then maybe in the next few weeks I can get about 20 of the major players and interview them for an oral history in the Times.” I’ve interviewed Charlize Theron a bunch and I thought she’d probably say yes. And if I could get her to say yes, then maybe everybody else will. And that is what happened. Over those next few weeks I interviewed a bunch of people and put out an oral history in the Times which was a little less than 5,000 words. It’s crazy now because I just went back and reread it, and it did super well at the time, but it does just scratch the surface of what I could include.
A lot of people—including Manohla Dargis, my colleague at the Times—said “There’s probably a book in this.” And I thought so, too, but I had no experience in this realm. Fortunately a man named Rick Richter, who’s my agent now, got in touch and he has a lot of experience adapting articles into books. He saw that [possibility] in this, and once I put the proposal together and HarperCollins picked it up it was off to the races. Then it was, “OK, how do I get in touch with all the people I didn’t talk to?” And there are so many. I mean, that end credit scroll on Fury Road is amazing. How do I track them all down? And what’s more, how do I write this during a pandemic?
What was George Miller’s response to the idea? Was there any hesitation?
It was complicated. I mean, to talk to him for the New York Times oral history was very simple. At that point he had been planning to shoot his next film with Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton but everything got shut down. So he was at home, probably looking for ways to occupy his time as so many of them were at that point. He was very forthcoming when I initially spoke to him. Then I got in touch and I said, “I’m turning this into a book; I’d love to speak to you again.” And he was very good about allowing all sorts of collaborators to speak very freely with me, including people whose contributions to Fury Road had never been publicly acknowledged. So he was very kind about that.
The tricky part was twofold. One is that his film did go back into production, so it wasn’t easy to get pieces of him; sometimes I would talk to him when he was in the car on the way to a location. But the really big “let’s talk about everything I’ve learned that I’ve never heard you discuss” conversation kept getting pushed back because of production, but also: I honestly think he had a little bit of hesitance. It was becoming such a big deal, and I was talking to so many people, and it was—and hopefully is—a pretty comprehensive, big document on this movie. He has an incredible eye for detail and an incredible personal passion for what he does. So to have another guy doing something that exists alongside his movie, but that he has no oversight on whatsoever, is probably a tricky thing.
The process of securing him for that final interview went on for a long time and I sensed a little bit of trepidation: “What’s he going to ask me about? What’s he uncovered? Do I want to participate in this to an extensive degree when I don’t know what it’s going to look like and I don’t know what it’s going to be?” But the great thing about George is that—once you can secure him—he’s just a wonderful font of information, philosophy, stories. He’s a born storyteller so it doesn’t take much to get them going. The tricky part for me, and I think for a lot of his collaborators, is just getting that time.
You mentioned working on the book in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. How did you manage to piece together such a complex project during this time?
It was hard. Listen, I would have loved nothing more than to have flown to Australia to have these conversations face-to-face but also to be able to go through old documents and old boxes and find things. I had to rely on a lot of the people I was interviewing to do that for me, which is not ideal for either party. It was a lot of Zooms, a lot of WhatsApp calls, a lot of phone calls. And almost everybody was in a completely different time zone from me. My days would be occupied with New York Times stuff, and my evenings and nights—sometimes late at night depending on when someone was available—would be spent interviewing people. And these were lengthy interviews with almost anyone, even if it was a set PA or somebody whose contributions were less-known. You could talk and talk for hours because everyone has stories about those experiences.
I spent just about every day during the writing process spending hours talking to one or more people who worked on the film. The silver lining is that I definitely would not have had the time in my life to take it on and finish it in the time frame I did were there not an essential lockdown. It was a lot of work in a small time frame. And also I wanted to get it going and get it out there, at this moment in time, when they’re about to start––God willing—shooting Furiosa. This felt like the right time to take that comprehensive look back at Fury Road, before we go into whatever the next chapter of the franchise is going to be.
You were able to get both Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron to discuss their on-set battles, and one fight in particular, to a degree we’ve never heard before. How did you approach the topic with each of them?
Tom spoke about it via email. But I thought what he said was both kind of funny and wise and also poignant, about wishing he could go back and be an older, more experienced, uglier actor—maybe less invested in his nascent movie stardom—so that he could be a more giving co-star to her. The real key to unlocking that was Charlize. I spoke to a lot of people who were on that set, who all had their opinions and would all say their thing, but you want to hear from Charlize. The thing that I will credit Charlize with, having interviewed her a bunch of times both prior to the book and now, is that she does not want softball questions. She’s very engaged by a deep dive into anything you’re talking about. She wants you to go deep and challenge her with your questions; she thrives on that.
So it was an interesting thing because, as I think you can tell in the book, she’s not thrilled to have to talk about it again. I think she sensed innately that when this book comes out it’s going to reopen that can of worms. It goes way more specifically into it than she or anyone else ever has before. But Charlize will not shirk a difficult question, and she really was candid about how that felt and how she didn’t feel completely taken care of and safe in the aftermath of their big blow-up. With a giant production like that you’re bound to have some issues that, when you look back and you’re not in the heat of the thing anymore, you say, “Ah, we could have done that differently. We have perspective on that now, years later. Culture has changed.” Charlize was the female lead of this very macho franchise, with a very macho co-star, and her experience is worth noting—even if it somewhat complicates the hero narrative of the movie being made.
Another memorable section of the book focuses on the late Hugh Keays-Byrne, who so memorably played Toecutter in Mad Max, then Immortan Joe in Fury Road. He passed away a few months after your interview. Does the book feel like a tribute to this iconic actor?
I hope so. I mean, that’s such an indelible performance. And what a wonderful thing for his film career to be bookended in that way; for that to be his last credit is a pretty incredible way to go out. There was a story told to me that I thought was really moving. He had this knack for whipping the stuntmen and actors who played War Boys into a fervor. And there was one day on set where he took a stumble as he was climbing down this very rocky hill. The War Boys had been taught to kind of treat him like a God on and offscreen. They made the V8 symbol with their hands and were cheering for him, calling his name to sort of buck him back up [after] this kind of embarrassing stumble that he’d made. What an incredible thing, and one of the fascinating ways that the tone of the movie really bled into—and was encouraged to bleed into—people’s real lives in that world.
Over the course of your many interviews with the cast and crew, did you learn anything that surprised you?
Oh, gosh. A lot. I mean, I had no idea that essentially the seeds were planted because a bunch of Warner Bros. executives were looking to turn Mad Max into a syndicated TV show. They kind of got George’s brain thinking about it again and matched him up with a writer who I had no idea worked on this film until I started digging—Eric Blakeney, who was the showrunner for 21 Jump Street. There were a lot of writers who worked on Fury Road whose contributions were not really known. I actually spoke to one who’s not in the book. His name’s John Collee—he wrote Master and Commander, among other movies. He was hired, at one point to try, to essentially wring an actual screenplay out of the storyboards. He sent it to me, and it reads really well. That was just really for the benefit of Warner Bros. executives; it was not something that George Miller was referring to as he made the film. It’s such an unconventional movie and he wrote the conventional screenplay version of it, which is a nifty thing to just sort of peruse. But the real version of it was in those storyboards and in George Miller’s head.
Kelly Marcel’s contribution [was unknown]. She’s a writer who works frequently with Tom Hardy, but she’s never spoken about having worked on this movie. She didn’t just work on it—she was on set, in the desert with them for months and acting as a go-between George and Tom, and even sometimes Charlize. She would write long monologues for Charlize to help Charlize kind of ground herself in that character, and they wouldn’t be used, but you could almost feel them in moments like that primal scream that Furiosa has the desert. It’s informed by not just the backstory of the Furiosa screenplay that George gave to Charlize, but also the work that he and Charlize and Kelly and all of these people would do. For me there were a lot of surprising twists, definitely. But the most surprising thing for me is just all the people who were involved that we didn’t know about, and whose contributions to the movie were significant.
Near the end of the book is Oscar night, which saw Fury Road do quite well. Looking back, do you think it could have gone all the way and taken Best Picture?
I think that the biggest chance it had was winning Best Director. Best Picture might have been a taller order, but Best Director often goes to what’s considered the greatest technical challenge. And there’s just nothing that compares to Fury Road. Probably the only real comparable thing was The Revenant and Alejandro Iñárritu. So much of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar campaign that year was predicated on what an incredible physical challenge it was, so you had two people essentially selling that narrative, and Miller was just selling his by himself. I think that if Iñárritu had not been in the game that year, that George Miller absolutely would have taken Best Director.
Would Fury Road have won Best Picture? I mean, it’s tempting to think about that utopian alternate universe where Fury Road won and started a butterfly effect—no pandemic, better Presidents maybe! But I think it’s unlikely; there just hasn’t ever been anything like it that has won. But to be fair, there really hasn’t been a movie like Fury Road in the Oscar race to the degree that it was. There really hasn’t been a movie like Fury Road, period. What I do appreciate is that Oscar voters did recognize that and did nominate it for so many things and gave it so many Oscars.
The thing that I would hope, looking back—and maybe if they were doing it today would be different—is that Charlize Theron absolutely deserved a nomination for Best Actress. I don’t think they completely got their gear together on that one until it was late and she was busy shooting. It was not one of those movies where, when it came out in the summer, they were already planning the Oscar campaign for the winter. It was very ad hoc and came together very organically. But the result of that is that those cases couldn’t be made: “This is why it’s more than just an action hero performance, this is what she brought to it,” etc. I mean, it’s one of the most iconic female performances, certainly in that genre, and maybe period. And, in the past, you’ve seen Oscar voters reward them; Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Aliens. This is absolutely shoulder-to-shoulder with that.
Speaking of the character of Furiosa, you learned quite a bit about the upcoming film, which is set to star Anya Taylor-Joy as a younger version of the character. Did you walk away excited for Furiosa? It’s a tall order to follow Fury Road.
It’s the tallest of orders. I remember joking to Jenny Beavan about it and she said, “Can you imagine they’re going back and doing it again?” You wouldn’t think Fury Road is a movie that could be topped. What gives me confidence is that they wrote the screenplay for Furiosa ages before they started shooting Fury Road; it’s been percolating for nearly as long as Fury Road was. So it’s not a simple matter of, “Well, we had this hit. What do we do next?” It’s always been locked and loaded, and so many of the people that I spoke to had nothing but praise for that screenplay. I remember I even spoke to somebody who said, having read the screenplay for Furiosa at the time he was perusing the Fury Road storyboards, thought Furiosa was the more compelling screenplay.
Though it will have action, though it will have war rigs, though it will have characters from Fury Road, from what I understand it’s a much more dialogue-driven enterprise. People speak a lot more, there’s more going on, it certainly isn’t just a chase scene the whole time. So it should be really interesting. I’m very hyped. Miller is bringing back just about all of the incredible department heads who worked on Fury Road. They certainly know what they’re doing. And one hopes that this time, because of what they delivered with Fury Road, there won’t be this feeling that they have to be on the defense as much as they had to be during Fury Road with executives and actors who didn’t understand the vision. The vision is clear now, so they deserve to have that wind at their backs. I’m excited to see what they can do with it.
Have you watched the film again since finishing the book? Does it play differently for you now?
I watched it a lot during the writing of the book, and I actually just watched it again a few weeks ago with some friends who had never seen it, but wanted to see it before the book comes out. And it’s just an incredible movie. You would think having written this book about it that maybe it would be demystified somewhat, and it just isn’t. It’s a movie that’s so incredibly compelling that it sweeps you up in what it’s doing, no matter what. You’re not thinking about the outside world at all because the world of the movie is so incredibly persuasive. I don’t get tired of watching that movie, and it’s a real testament to what was accomplished that I never got tired of talking about it.
I can’t even [imagine] the total number of hours I spent discussing it with people. But it never was boring and repetitive, because whether you’re talking about what was made, or whether you’re talking about how they made it, it’s incredibly fascinating and constantly rewards your scrutiny. It couldn’t have been a more fertile topic as an author, and I’m happy to say that the movie withstood all of my interest and still delivers as a cinematic experience.
Is there another film that you are interested in exploring with a book-length oral history?
I’ll say that there might be another director, and I’ll leave it at that! I resolve to not start thinking about it until I have my vacation, after the book comes out. But yeah—I have something in mind. It’s not easy to write a book but it’s incredibly rewarding to have done it, and I think I will probably chase that high again soon. We’ll see how it all works out. I know there’s interest on the director’s part. Fingers crossed.
Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road arrives on February 22.