Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron race for survival in George Miller's ''Mad Max: Fury Road,'' a 110-minute edge-of-oblivion car chase built to leave you breathless

Thirty-five years ago, David Fincher was a high school student, James Cameron was landing his first movie job, Guillermo del Toro was in his bedroom in Mexico fantasizing about becoming a filmmaker, and a young Australian doctor released a low-budget, high-octane road-revenge flick featuring an unknown Mel Gibson that would change the action genre forever. George Miller’s Mad Max roared onto the screen in 1979 with a visceral, Gatling-gun energy, astounding car stunts, and a raw, ravaged vision of an apocalyptic future.

”It was the most difficult film I’ve ever had to make,” Miller says from his office in Sydney. ”I often describe it like taking a big dog for a walk: You want to go one way and the dog drags you the other.” Now Miller, 69, is about to walk his biggest dog yet — Mad Max: Fury Road, a $150 million reboot of the film that ignited his iconic ’80s franchise — with a new cast and a bold new idea. In a future where fuel is scarce and water is scarcer, damaged warrior Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is drawn into the struggle of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a badass commander who has fled an evil warlord’s citadel with a harem of women looking for a new home. That may sound like a conventional(ish) film, but Fury Road (due May 15, 2015) is not. ”I wanted to tell a linear story — a chase that starts as the movie begins and continues for 110 minutes,” Miller says. There are few digital effects and even less dialogue. ”In this crucible of very intense action, the characters are revealed.”

To create his new apocalypse, though, Miller had to stare down four horsemen of his own: 9/11, global warming, searing African deserts, and, of course, a plague of Internet rumors.

Vision and Terror
Miller never wanted to return to this world. The original Mad Max inspired what is now considered his masterpiece, The Road Warrior, an adrenaline junkie’s ultimate high. That film catapulted Gibson to global stardom and influenced a generation of directors. (Fincher, Cameron, and del Toro all list it as one of their favorite films.) After Warrior came Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which starred Tina Turner (and her hit song “We Don’t Need Another Hero”). Although the film was a hit, reviews were mixed. Miller stepped away.

In the years that followed, he dabbled in Hollywood, directing films such as The Witches of Eastwick, but he always returned to Australia, co-writing and producing Babe and directing its sequel. Then, in 2000, a new Mad Max idea took up residence in his brain and refused to leave. ”Every time I would get on a long-haul flight the story would clang in my head,” Miller says. ”War was happening. There was a shift in economic circumstances, and in Australia there was a huge conflict over water. All those things allow you to push [again] into this medieval world where the rules are much more simple. What you end up making is a Western on wheels.”

He wanted to design the whole film with images, not words, so for the first time in his career he wrote no script and, working with storyboard artists, drew every frame of the movie in some 3,500 panels. At that point, Gibson was on board to reprise his role, Miller says. But then, on Sept. 11, 2001, the planes hit, the dollar plummeted, and the studio at the time, Twentieth Century Fox, backed away. Miller turned his attention to the animated romp Happy Feet, and for almost a decade those storyboards lay in storage in Miller’s office, his producing partner Doug Mitchell says, ”like a Mozart symphony” waiting to be played.

Outback Setback
In 2009, Miller took out his sheet music again, but by then Gibson was 53, tainted by scandal, and no longer a viable Max. Miller needed a replacement, and a pretty boy wasn’t going to cut it. Max had to possess charisma, emotional intensity, and a physical presence that would ground the heavy action sequences in reality.

At the time, Tom Hardy — now famous for his role as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises — was unknown in the U.S., but the Brit actor’s go-for-broke performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, among other films, caught Miller’s eye. ”This is someone who was utterly abandoned in his work,” says Miller. He also saw a connection between the 36-year-old and Gibson. ”They both have a darker, dangerous side. With that tension, there is a sense of unpredictability.”

There was just one catch: Hardy had a burgeoning reputation for being combative. So Miller called Christopher Nolan, who was then directing Hardy in Inception; Nolan insisted that Hardy was a total pro, and Miller offered him the part. For Hardy, landing Max was ”both exciting and nervous-making,” he says now, calling from London. ”It was an ecstatic moment. And then it’s like, ‘What the f— are we going to do with it?”’

Just as important, with whom? Miller needed an actress who could take Hardy’s Max head-on — a powerful, single-minded warrior radiating strength and femininity with a shaved head and a face shrouded in dirt. He needed, in other words, a woman ”unlike any woman we’ve ever seen before in an action movie,” he says. And the only woman he thought of also happened to have an Oscar.

”There was so much about this movie that intrigued me,” says Charlize Theron, 38. There was still no script, for starters, just 150 pages of bound storyboards that Miller had sent to her. Plus, she was looking for a challenge. ”The physicality of it was a huge part [of the appeal]. To not have to rely on dialogue…I knew right off the bat that this was going to be almost like a ballet.”

Then, in 2010, just when all the stars seemed to have aligned, Miller’s dystopian desert movie was hit by the one thing it needed least: climate change. Miller had planned to shoot Fury Road in the desolate Aussie outback, just as he had with the previous Max films. Now, though, rains on a level not seen for at least 15 years drenched the terrain, transforming it into a haven of flora. Shooting was delayed a year in the hopes that the land would dry out again. It never did. Miller had to find a new hell.

African Conflict
Finally, in summer 2012, Miller, Hardy, Theron, X-Men: Days of Future Past‘s Nicholas Hoult (who plays Nux, an acolyte of the evil warlord), and hundreds of crew members decamped to the coast of Namibia for a treacherous 116-day shoot. Then things got hard. ”It’s very hot, it’s quite isolated, and it was mental in a brilliant way,” Hardy says. ”You have no concrete, no coffee shops. We were in the middle of a sandpit.”

Miller’s insistence that the majority of the action scenes — close to 80 percent of the movie — be filmed using practical, non-CG stunts only added to the pressure-cooker atmosphere. ”Nothing about this movie was a walk in the park,” says Theron, who engaged in extreme physical training for the role. Her character is also missing part of her left arm, which meant working with a metal prosthetic. ”I had to build an upper-body strength I never had before,” she says. ”My neck was the size of a football player’s. Vanity went out the window.”

Making matters worse, she and Hardy were allegedly not getting along. Their characters have a contentious relationship for most of the film, and their onscreen antagonism seemed to extend off screen. While Hardy says he had ”a great time” with Theron, Internet reports surfaced that she found Hardy scary and wanted to keep her distance. ”Tom can be very playful, but he was also Mad Max,” says Miller. ”Max is a very damaged character who wants nothing to do with other people. He’s a trapped wild animal. To immerse yourself in that role…you do carry the work home.” Oddly, Hardy himself doesn’t think so, and dismisses the idea that Method acting — i.e., staying in character 24/7 — affected his demeanor. ”I can’t stand Method actors,” he says. ”I’ll muck around right until we call ‘action.’ Switch it on, switch it off, and then go play my Xbox.”

Whatever the extent of the tension back then, now, in the cool light of the First World, all seems to be forgiven. ”For me personally it was an exhausting movie to make,” Theron says. ”But there was never anything personal between Tom and me. I wouldn’t have wanted to make this movie with anybody else.”

Final Judgment
One year after principal photography wrapped, at the end of 2013, Miller and company reconvened on an Australian soundstage for 19 days of additional filming. Miller insists this footage, which bookends the film, was always planned, but he wasn’t able to execute it in Namibia. After looking at an initial cut without those scenes, he and a new regime at the film’s studio, Warner Bros., agreed more shooting was worth the effort. Internet rumors claimed the production was troubled and that Theron was angry that she had to reshave her head. (In fact, she didn’t have to, Miller says.)

In a few weeks, Miller will debut footage at Comic-Con in San Diego, and he’ll be releasing a teaser trailer in the near future. His two-decade endeavor to revive his touchstone trilogy is now in its final stages. If Miller succeeds, this film has the potential to reinvent a genre that he essentially created, but he insists that’s not his ambition. ”I didn’t go out there and say, ‘I’ve got to advance that,”’ he says. His goal was simpler, but just as hard to achieve: ”What could we do to immerse the audience and really, really, really take them on an experience? Not just a physical experience but an intense, emotional one.” All of that, of course, at way over the speed limit.

The Mad Max Trilogy
Mad Max, 1979
Australia’s future isn’t looking so bright in George Miller’s dystopian debut. Law and order are nowhere to be found, and motorcycle gangs thrive on creating chaos and mayhem. Only a ragtag police force is left to handle these anarchists, with Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) and his searing blue eyes serving as the star employee. Max opts for early retirement after his partner, Goose (Steve Bisley), is burned up on the job. But then Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his gang kill Max’s wife and son, and Max, now mad, seeks vengeance in his infamous super-charged Pursuit Special.

The Road Warrior, 1981
Five years after the murder of his wife and son, Max scours the ravaged outback for food and fuel with his V-8 and his cattle dog. He’s sucked back into heroism when he reluctantly saves a group of settlers led by Pappagallo (Mike Preston) from a marauding motorcycle gang on a quest to take over an oil refinery. Max’s attempt to drive a gasoline tanker to safety ends with a now-legendary chase scene.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, 1985
Twenty years after he avenged his family, Max is back. Robbed of his camel-drawn vehicle, he hobbles into the only human outpost left: the methane-fueled Bartertown, run by Aunty Entity (Tina Turner). Max is forced into the Thunderdome arena (”two men enter, one man leaves”) to battle an enormous bodyguard. When Max refuses to kill his opponent, he’s left for dead in the desert, only to be rescued by a tribe of wild children, whom he, of course, ends up rescuing in return.