“He was to do the movie in 2001,” Miller says of Gibson. Now a fallen superstar for his extreme religious views and drunken racist rants, the American-born, Australian-raised Gibson first exploded to fame as Max Rockatansky. That was in Miller’s original Mad Max in 1979. Gibson also starred in two sequels in the 1980s.
During a recent Toronto visit, the 70-year-old Miller tells Postmedia Network why Gibson lost his chance to play Max a fourth time: “What happened was that 9/11 happened. The American dollar collapsed 25% against the Australian dollar. Our budget ballooned. It was very hard to get all the planets aligned and, by then, Warner Bros. (the studio with the Mad Max rights) was very keen to get on to Happy Feet. To do the animation, that took three-and-a-half years.”
Miller ended up directing two Happy Feet hit movies, in 2006 and 2011. Yet there was some talk of revisiting Mad Max again after the first one. “Then Mel hit the turbulence in his life and time was ‘getting on’ by the time we regrouped. We got to 2010.”
Miller means that Gibson, who was 54 in 2010 and is now 59, was getting too old to be an action hero like Max Rockatansky. Hardy is 22 years younger than Gibson — so the recasting was finally clinched.
Yet, even in 2010, Miller’s filming plans were sabotaged, this time by the weather. “We had the Outback turning into a flower garden, and we had to move. Although we waited a year for it to dry out.”
Like he did on the original Mad Max, Miller wanted to shoot in the deserts outside of Melbourne in the Australian state of Victoria. Rains unheard of for 15 years drenched the desert, miraculously turning the parched red earth into a carpet of wildflowers. Salt lakes filled with water and attracted pelicans, frogs and other wildlife. When this part of the Outback remained that way for a year, Miller moved the production to the deserts of Namibia, in southwest Africa.
But Gibson was not forgotten, Miller says. “Tom sought out Mel and they had dinner together and they had a kind of hand-over. Tom wears a kind of cloth bracelet made from parachute cord and he gave one to Mel. So it was a sign (of passing the torch).
“I also had dinner with Mel. It was in the thick of the more recent problems. Like a lot of people, I feel he is an adorable guy. But, with all that stuff coming out, it was hard to watch.
“Deep down, he is a really good man. The stuff he does — like charity work, anonymously!”
That is the Mel Gibson whom Miller thought he knew, the man who for example has donated substantial sums to the Healing the Children cause, providing lifesaving medical treatments to children worldwide.
Then there is the Mel Gibson who spouts crazy talk about race and religion. “I can’t put those two together,” Miller says sadly of the two versions of his friend. “With all that bile in there, I don’t know how much control he has over it.”
So Tom Hardy gets to be the gritty hero of Mad Max: Fury road — and a new era in the life of a cult franchise begins on Friday.