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Mad Max: Fury Road’ Delivers An Action Film That Puts Plot In The Back Seat

Precision driver talks about the art and science of pulling off Max’s car stunts

The vehicles are as much the stars of

Credit: Warner Brothers

Above: The vehicles are as much the stars of "Mad Max: Fury Road" as are Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron.

KPBS film critic speaks with precision driver Steve Lepper about "Mad Max: Fury Road" and the art and science of stunt work.

Transcript

It’s been three decades since the last "Mad Max" movie. Now we get a new Max with Tom Hardy, but director George Miller returns to the driver’s seat to provide an adrenaline rush on "Fury Road."

The film opens Friday throughout San Diego.

From the moment the first car revs its engine to the final fade out, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is non-stop action. In fact, Warner Brothers should install seat belts at theaters.

No wait, make that safety rigging, because there are moments when cars blow apart and bodies fly, and you’ll want something grounding you as you experience what Steve Lepper calls a “ridiculous amount of force going on."

"As an engineer you know a lot of these things aren’t real and don’t work that way, but you get drawn in and believe that here’s a twin-engine, super-charged truck with all these crazy things going on around it and believe it’s all real," Lepper said.

That’s the magic of movies and Lepper loves it. During his decades-long career, he’s built and raced cars, and worked in Hollywood as a precision driver performing car stunts.

"Stunt work involves both art and a lot of science," Lepper said. "There’s a lot of set up that goes into these things, and the cars are cut in specific ways to break apart easily. And you have to have an understanding of dynamics and physics and those sorts of things to really be able to portray these outrageous things so accurately. There’s as much art and science as any other part of filmmaking."

You’ll find the artistry in how the Mad Max films create a post-apocalyptic world where cars are such a big and active part of the story that they have become characters. They even get their own "Vehicle Showcase" on the website where there's more information about each car than there is about the human characters in the story.

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Max's car gets a better "character" bio on the movie website than Max himself. which just goes to show how important the vehicles are to the film.

Mel Gibson introduced the human character of Max in 1979 in a low-budget Australian film "Mad Max," directed by George Miller. Miller has a thing for cars, especially fast ones, and when he got a bigger budget to make his sequel, "The Road Warrior," he brought car chases and stunts to breathtaking new heights. With "Fury Road," Miller now gets to play with state-of-the-art CGI, or computer-generated imagery.

"It's hard to tell where the CGI begins and the live action ends though," Lepper said. "That's because there’s a lot of the fight scenes, [with] jumping between vehicles, things like that, where obviously there’s safety gear involved that they have to CGI out the rigging wires and all that. But there’s actually people jumping between the vehicles, and that adds an element of realism."

Knowing that there are real people driving real cars engages the audience in ways that CGI alone can never do. The importance of the stunt team is reflected in the credits, where you find second unit director Guy Norris, who is also the supervising stunt coordinator.

'Mad Max: Fury Road' Behind the Scenes B Roll

Footage courtesy of Warner Brothers

"There’s so much live action going on that the second unit is all stunt people, and you need to have extremely trained, extremely qualified people that have seen everything and have seen every contingency when it comes to a movie this complex," Lepper said.

"It takes hundreds and hundreds of people to pull off an individual scene like the ones in 'Fury Road' because there are multiple things happening at once. You’ve got to have everybody on the ball and coordinated and knowing what’s going on. It’s hard to convey how big a production this is. Think about someone conducting a symphony. That’s the stunt coordinator. There are hundreds of people out there that all have to perform an exact stunt and an exact move at a very specific time to have it all come together."

So you can’t have one person improvising on their own.

Because, as Lepper said, "You’ve got cars crashing and flying apart and on fire and people jumping off cars. There’s actual people. There’s one scene where they jump the monster truck, the old Chevy that’s a monster truck. There’s people hanging outside of that when they do it, and that’s just nuts."

And it looks like chaos.

"It is extremely well orchestrated chaos. Every single thing that happens is known, and they know in what order it has to happen and how it’s going to be done," Lepper said. "When this car crashes, it’s going to go this way and this is going to happen, and we expect it to roll this many times and all of those things."

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Charlize Theron tries to lead a group of women to freedom in "Mad Max: Fury Road."

Films like "Mad Max: Fury Road" and the recent "Furious 7," elevate stunt work to a level that demands recognition.

"If you took the stunts and driving gigs out of this film, there would be no movie. This movie is a two-hour car chase. Cars are characters in the movie, and without them and without the driving stunt there is no reason for the movie to happen," Lepper said.

But with a stunt team and amazing cars, "Mad Max: Fury Road" serves up an action tale where plot takes a back seat to the idea that a body or vehicle in motion will keep moving forward at a constant velocity and won’t be stopped.

Sure, I can complain that I wish there were more of Max (almost all his lines are in the trailer) and more of a conventional narrative, but then that would be asking the film to be something it never intended.

Max has always been laconic. And with the exception of the first half of the first film, he's always been a loner. Tom Hardy does fine taking over the role of Max, and he's well matched by the addition of Charlize Theron as Furiosa.

Director Miller nicely and unobtrusively allows women, including old ones, to have a large role in the action — even sacrificing themselves without sentimentality when necessary. As with all the Mad Max sequels, there's an odd mix of nihilism and hope, and an underlying desire to maintain some semblance of social order, even if it is perverted and tyrannical.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" (rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images) is all about forward momentum whether it be on the road to redemption, annihilation or perhaps just plain survival. And when it comes to capturing the thrilling intoxication of things in motion, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is a thing of beauty.

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