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With narrowed eyes and the suggestion of a grin, Charlize Theron swung the wrench at Tom Hardy’s head. He ducked, scurrying backwards on hands and knees. It was winter in Namibia’s Namib Desert and the sand Hardy scrambled across was surprisingly cold. But not nearly as chilly as the atmosphere between the two stars.
The director called “cut”. Theron lowered the weapon. Her smile sharpened into something v-shaped and wolfish. Hardy climbed to his feet, dusted down and went off to his next scene. At no point did he or Theron meet each other’s gaze.
Mad Max: Fury Road was proclaimed a masterpiece on release in 2015, receiving 10 Oscar nominations including nods for Best Picture and Best Director (it would win six). In the five years since, its reputation has, if anything, grown even more stellar; it is correctly regarded as among the best action movies of all time. But director George Miller’s spectacular return to the post-apocalyptic road warrior milieu was also a backdrop to one of the great modern movie feuds, between unstoppable force Theron and immovable object Hardy.
In the lead roles of Imperator Furiosa and “Mad” Max Rockatansky the pair are said to have clashed everywhere and over everything, the bad blood flowing from almost the very first day of filming on June 26 2012. And that was when they were actually talking to one another.
Often, it appears, they were not. In a behind-the-scenes featurette about the production they can be seen sharing the screen just once. That is when filming a getting-to-known-you dust-up between Max and Furiosa. Charlize wields her wrench, Tom scuttles out of the way. She smiles at the end but not at him. Neither exchanges a word.
“There was tension,” Theron’s stunt double Dayna Grant said this week. She revealed that many of the stars’s scenes were filmed separately, with the stunt crew as stand-ins.
“I had to do everything with [Tom] — so usually Charlize would come in and they’d do scenes together but they didn’t want to do scenes together so I was put in her spot to always be with Tom. Tom’s double was always put with Charlize, so we actually worked with the opposite characters,” said Grant.
The mutual dislike wasn’t a secret, Grant suggested. But from director Miller down, everyone appeared to accept it as the price of working with two a-listers at the top of their game.
Theron and Hardy were, to their credit, reasonably open about the tensions, too. “In a weird way, we were functioning like our characters: Everything was about survival,” Theron would tell the New York Times in its oral history of Mad Max:Fury Road published this May.
“The pressure on both of us was overwhelming at times,” Hardy agreed. “What she needed was a better, perhaps more experienced, partner in me. That’s something that can’t be faked.”
But what was the source of the disharmony? Theron and Hardy are both big stars who, across their careers, have generally played well with others. Neither has a reputation for being a monster on set. Why was it so different this time?
The trauma of nine months shooting in the open desert was almost certainly a factor. Fury Road was an ordeal for everyone. As days turned to weeks in the Namib many of the cast found their grip on reality faltering. “It’s quite hard to explain…when people watch the movie, and they’re like 'It’s so intense', I say “Well, just think about that and living it for nine months in the desert,” Grant told Metro.
“They didn't get along,” said co-star Zoë Kravitz, asked about Theron and Hardy on a US talk show. “We were also in the desert for so long. I think everyone was tired, and confused, and homesick. We saw nothing but sand for six months. You go crazy, you do. I actually don't know if there was one issue. I just think it was like they weren't vibing.”
But was there, in fact, one issue? Reading between the lines it is tempting to conclude that Hardy’s insistence on bringing a “method” intensity to the part of Max may have rubbed Theron the wrong way. “I’m not an incredibly 'method-y' driven person or actor,” she said while promoting the film.
Hardy, by contrast, was determined to get under the skin of the iconic road warrior, whose latest quest is to help Furiosa and the indentured “five wives” of tyrannical Immortan Joe escape the warlord’s evil clutches.
“When Tom came he immediately started breaking it down bit by bit by bit… 'Why am I looking at that person…what motivates this?’” said fight coordinator Richard Norton. “He went through everything…He would break down every beat of that fight scene.”
Whisperings of diva-like behaviour would also emerge. Details are vague, beyond the fact that the diva clearly wasn’t Theron. “When you’ve got an actor that keeps you waiting… we’re all there at seven o’clock ready to go. You’ve got an actor who’ll be two and a half, three hours late every morning,” said Fury Road cinematographer John Seale in a public talk about the making of the film. “You can’t shoot with the light you want. You’ve got to shoot it when he arrives and he’s ready. So it kills you.”
As he waited out in the desert for the unnamed actor to finally turn up, George Miller must have wondered if he was fated to never finish the fourth Mad Max. Fury Road had been more than 20 years in the making at that point and seemingly doomed from the outset.
Miller had first been required to recast the iconic part of Max after the star of the original three films, Mel Gibson, grew too old and too controversial.
Filming was set to begin in Namibia in the early 2000s. But the atmosphere changed after 9/11. “We couldn’t get insured, we couldn’t get our vehicles transported,” Miller told the New York Times. “It just collapsed.”
“I was in Namibia in 2003 when I got the call to stop spending money,” added production designer Colin Gibson. “I don’t know whether [the studio] decided to reroute their money back to the Iraq war, or if it was the email I got from Mel Gibson’s wife asking me how many Muslims there may or may not be in Namibia and, therefore, how interested she may or may not be in the whole family coming to visit.”
Miller continued to push, though, and by 2011 finally had a cast, a crew and a budget. Filming was to commence outside the mining town of Broken Hill, New South Wales in November 201l. But then it emerged that a once-in-a-century weather event was headed their way. Freak rains were set to hit Broken Hill, turning the desert green with wildflowers. It was a bad fit for Miller’s post-apocalyptic dystopia. With two weeks notice production was switched back to Namibia.
Even when the cameras finally started rolling, time and money were constant worries. Warner Brothers flew in executives to keep an eye on Miller and ensure the shoot remained on track and that the budget did not balloon past $100 million.
“The production has veered off schedule and is running over budget,” revealed the Hollywood Reporter. “And Warner Bros is making sure the problem doesn't escalate. Studio head Jeff Robinov flew to the Africa set a few weeks ago to evaluate the film, which sources say had fallen at least five days behind schedule.”
“Jeff was in a bake-off with Kevin Tsujihara about who was going to head the studio,” Miller said to the New York Times. “He had to assert himself to show his superiors that he was in command and a strong executive. I knew what he was going through, but it wasn’t going to do anybody any good at all.”
Miller was told that, come what may, the cameras would stop rolling on December 9. At that point only the mid-section of the movie was in the can. The opening and closing chapters, at Immortan Joe’s Citadel, had yet to be shot. But then Robinov was fired and his rival Tsujihara became studio head. He signed off on additional shooting in Australia in 2013. Fury Road would have its beginning and its end.
The drama with Warner wasn’t over, however. In 2017 Miller’s production company filed a $7 million lawsuit against the studio over an unpaid production bonus. Miller wants to make two sequels: a Furiosa spin-off with Theron and another Mad Max film, Mad Max: The Wasteland. Both are in suspended animation as the legal case plays out.
“The biggest thing that was driving that entire production was fear,” commented Theron. “I was incredibly scared, because I’d never done anything like it. I think the hardest thing between me and George is that he had the movie in his head and I was so desperate to understand it.”
Fury Road is a kinetic caper that raises the visual language of action film-making to new heights. In the entire two hours, Max has 63 lines of dialogue, Furiosa just 83. The story of their flight from Immortan Joe and their search for the mythical “Green Place” is told through the actions of the characters – actions that essentially consist of one long chase through the desert. One of Miller’s goals was to make an epic that could be watched in Japan without the need for subtitles.
This was a challenge for Hardy in particular. On set, the film-making was broken down to an intricate series of set-pieces. He felt Miller was getting lost in the details and cobbling together a disjointed mess – and said as much.
“Acting in a movie which is visually driven …watching what a character does by seeing them through one physical event after another and seeing how it effects them was a very difficult story to tell,” he lamented in an official ‘making of” feature.
Theron had her issues too. She’d initially struggled to get inside the mind of Furiosa. The eureka moment came when she decided to shave her head. She called up Miller and explained that Furiosa needed a buzz-cut. How could she carry out complicated repairs on her 18-wheeler War Rig (a modified Czech Tatra T815 truck) with a pony-tail getting in the way?
Out amongst the sands, Theron meanwhile found herself taking on the second role of big sister to the young stars playing Immortan Joe’s five wives – among the Zoë Kravitz , Riley Keough and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.
“All of those young girls kind of turned to me as someone who would problem-solve for them, and this is not anybody’s fault — I only say this now because I know George and I’ve experienced this with George, so I’d fully trust him,” she said in the New York Times. “But I’ve also trusted directors fully when I didn’t comprehend what they were trying to do, and it just turned into a mess.
“Tom really had moments of frustration, of anger,” explained Kravitz in the same piece. “Charlize did, too, but I feel like he’s the one who really took it out on George the most, and that was a bummer to see. But you know, in some ways, you also can’t blame him, because a lot was being asked of these actors and there were a lot of unanswered questions.”
Theron seemed surprised to have clashed with Hardy. “From what I hear, he’s not like that on every movie – I hear he’s had good experiences,” she said in an Esquire profile. “Maybe the movie is what it is because we struggled so much with each other, and those characters had to struggle so much with each other. If we were chum-chum, maybe the movie would have been 10 times worse.”
They did try to mend fences late in the day. Theron retired to her trailer one evening to discover a self-portrait of Hardy left by her co-star. The inscription on the back read: “You are an absolute nightmare, BUT you are also f______ awesome. I'll kind of miss you. Love, Tommy.”
“We drove each other crazy, but I think we have respect for each other, and that's the difference,” she said. “This is the kind of stuff that nobody wants to understand—there's a real beauty to that kind of relationship.”
Hardy flew out of Namibia in November 2012 convinced he’d blotted his CV with a stinker. He remained dubious even after the additional 2013 shoot in Queensland. His worry was that a film strung together from set-pieces couldn’t possibly add up to a coherent story.
So he was shocked to sit down to the completed Fury Road and discover a masterpiece. To his credit, he was appalled at how wide of the mark he had been. During the Fury Road press conference at Cannes in 2015, he made a point of turning to Miller and issuing a public mea culpa.
“Because he’s orchestrating such a huge vehicle, literally, in so many departments, because all the vehicles are moving and the whole movie is just motion, I have to apologise to you [looking at Miller] because I got frustrated,” he said in front of the gathered press.
“There was no way that George could have explained what he could see in the sand when we were out there… I knew he was brilliant, but I didn’t quite know how brilliant,” he continued. “I owe George an apology for being so myopic.”
Theron had a similar reaction. She’d grown up with Gibson’s Mad Max movies in South Africa. And when she finally saw Fury Road she was surprised at how utterly she was transported back to her childhood. She had expected a lot from the film. But she had not anticipated that watching it would be so emotional.
“I was blown away. The post-production was really long. You kind of go on with life and you kind of forget in a weird way. And then I saw it. I was in a dark theatre kind of by myself… I didn’t feel like I was watching myself…It felt I was in a world that was so different,” she said at Cannes. “I was a kid back in South Africa watching a movie.”