We asked Mad Max: Fury Road vehicle specialist James ‘Johnno’ Johnson if this latest chapter is an action flick or an obsession session for petrol heads.
“It’s both,” Johnson said, while speaking with TMR at a Sydney screening this week of director George Miller's reborn Mad Max franchise.
Johnson and a team of around 120 were responsible for many of the crazy post-apocalyptic vehicles that not only appear on screen in Fury Road, but are very much ‘characters’ in the movie.
As the film opened around Australia this week, we caught up with Johnson and one of his creations: a Holden FJ ute (of sorts, plus the grille from a 48-215) mixed with other various metals called “Cranky Frank”.
Cranky Frank arrived at Johnson’s Villawood Mad Max HQ in Sydney way back in 2009 as a pre-prepared ‘rat rod’, but he was at death’s door.
The engine needed an overhaul, and the car was close to splitting in half due to rust. Two-and-a-half months later, Frank was ready for his role in the movie.
Frank is powered by a 383ci Chevrolet engine, a Borg Warner differential from a Ford XT Falcon and the ever-reliable Powerglide automatic transmission.
And let’s not forget the huge GM supercharger, which boosted the engine output to the point where Frank required a second radiator under the cargo floor to keep it all cool.
During the build process for other Mad Max cars, Johnson was instructed by the art directors along with creators Colin Gibson and Peter Pound to “make the engines look bigger”.
So Johnson’s team would add a couple of truck-sized turbochargers; but strip them of their internals so they were only for show.
No such trickery for Frank, however; Johnson assures us Frank has the go to match the appearance.
But the appearance doesn’t come without compromise. The centrally-mounted driver’s seat is now borrowed from a go-kart (no ‘regular’ seat would fit) and the throttle and brake pedals now straddle the transmission tunnel.
The view from top to bottom through the windscreen (or the hole where it used to be) was reduced to just 185mm, and most of that vision, like looking through the slit in your letter box, is blocked by the huge engine.
Johnson said the stunt drivers were earning their keep.
“Those ‘stunties’, I gotta hand it to them, they have big balls ‘cause you can’t see shit”, Johnson said.
“And [Frank’s] an angry piece of work”
When asked if there were any incidents during the stunt sequences, Johnson said there were a couple of minor incidents with the “pole cars”.
Some of these creations were based on Toyota 75 Series LandCruisers underpinnings, with 30-foot poles attached to the front. A stunt performer was then positioned at the top of that pole.
The rear axles were lengthened by four feet for stability and to prevent the cars from rolling as the pole swung like a pendulum.
James Johnson describes himself as “just a mechanic”, who specialises in Land Rovers.
He said he got involved in the game through “a friend of a friend”, and has worked with other films including Tomorrow When The War Began, Wolverine and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken.
But it’s fair to say Mad Max: Fury Road is one of Johnson’s bigger projects, as he and his team worked to turn the wild drawings from Colin Gibson and Peter Pound into 'real' cars.
But, despite some gentle persuasion from Johnson, no Land Rovers ended up in the film.
“All of the cars feature at least one Land Rover part; Frank has the accelerator cable from a 1992 Discovery,” Johnson said.
“Maybe we’ll get a Land Rover in the next one.”
Johnson speaks of the challenges during filming in Namibia, Africa, including keeping the vehicles cool and enabling them to drive through the thick sand.
He was on hand as Fury Road was being filmed, but the process very nearly took place in Broken Hill, NSW.
Broken Hill and nearby Silverton were among the locations for the filming of Mad Max II: The Road Warrior, which was released in 1981.
Ultimately, though, the location proved unsuitable for the latest Mad Max instalment, thanks to rainfall which made the surrounding scenery too ‘green’.
Can't have greenery in a Mad Max film, after all.
So we met Cranky Frank, but what about the others?
Johnson said his team was given a specific instruction during the build process: “don’t fall in love with any of the cars…”
And for good reason. Of the more than 120 vehicles (cars, trucks and motorcycles) for Mad Max - Fury Road, only around 15 survived.
Frank is one of the lucky ones - most of the others were destroyed.
Of the survivors, most are destined to be stored and may be dusted off in the future for a fifth instalment of Mad Max. Or a sixth, or a seventh…
Johnson informs us actor Tom Hardy - who replaces Mel Gibson for the first time as ‘Max Rockatansky’ - has already been signed for a further three Mad Max films.
Whether these movies will ever be made or not will ultimately come down to director George Miller and the studios, and depend somewhat on the success or failure of Fury Road.
But it’s hard to see it being a failure. TMR was there for one of the first screenings in Australia, and we can tell you: it's a gem.
We won’t give the story away, but let’s just say that fans of action films that barely stop to take a breath won’t be disappointed.
For fans of the original Ford XB Falcon-based ‘Interceptor’, it’s there as well, but we won’t mention what role it plays.
And for those planning to watch Fury Road, we’re told the new Dolby Atmos-equipped Gold Class cinemas are the way to go.
“You won't just hear glass break- you'll hear each shard flying past you," the company says of its new high-tech audio.
This is the first film in Australia to be shown with the Dolby Atmos experience - which takes the normal 20-speaker set-up of Dolby-equipped cinemas and ramps it up to 60.
We weren’t there to hear the Atmos experience this time around, but that just means we have the perfect excuse to go and watch the movie again…
Cranky Frank, costumes and props from 'Mad Max: Fury Road' are on display at Event Cinemas on George Street in Sydney’s CBD for a very limited time.
TMR attended the Mad Max screening as a guest of Event Cinemas.