Mad Max celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and STACK caught up with stars Steve Bisley – AKA Jim Goose – and the Toecutter himself, Hugh Keays-Byrne, ahead of their appearance at Supanova Comic Con & Gaming expo.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” says Steve Bisley when STACK asks if it feels like 40 years since Mad Max first hit cinema and drive-in screens. “It doesn’t feel like 40 years at all. I don’t usually sit around watching old films that I’ve done, but whenever I’ve seen it, it still feels fresh. In some ways it feels really now, and that’s pretty amazing given there’s no CGI – everything you see in the film is what we did, so maybe that’s what preserves it.
“We were making it on the run. It was the first feature for George Miller and his producing partner Byron Kennedy, who passed away in 1983.
Mel Gibson and I had just graduated from NIDA, so it was our first big film, so there’s a wonderful, youthful naiveté in the film that kicks its energy along.
“Then you’ve got the wonderful way George tells the story, which has energy to burn. The way he frames it and the way the action is pushed… the energy will drop and then crank up again.”
The 40thanniversary celebrations kicked off in February, with costumed fans and their replica vehicles descending on the town of Carisbrook, Victoria, to attend a cast and crew reunion.
“It was crazy! A local motorcycle club who love the film organised it. It was a wonderful day and you couldn’t stop smiling,” says Bisley.
“Mad Max fans around the world fall into two categories: fanatical and really fanatical. There’s no half measure, they are full on,” he adds, recalling a visit to a Tokyo convention where he was greeted by a row of fans dressed as his character, Jim Goose – Max’s fellow law enforcer and best mate, who meets a nasty end at the hands of the villainous Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his band of outlaw bikers.
Popular myth has it that Bisley landed the role of Goose because he could ride a motorcycle, but for the actor, the real reason remains a little hazy.
“I hope I got it for other reasons than just because I could ride a motorcycle – maybe that was the reason, I don’t really know. You had to tell a joke at the audition,” he does recall, “and I’d like to think I told a pretty good joke. I think that’s a very clever way to audition people because nobody likes auditioning for a film, or for anything.”
With Mad Max literally shot on the run over a 12-week period and a baptism of fire for its fresh young cast and crew, Bisley recalls there were a lot of hairy moments during the production.
“Back in those days there were no safety requirements on films. These days you wouldn’t be able to do half the things we did back then. We were doing stuff that was edgy a lot of the time – we weren’t forced to do it, we wanted to do it. You’re talking about a lot of young guns and newbies.
“The budget for Mad Max was about $350,000, which I think blew out to half a million. On most films nowadays, they’d spill that on a Friday night. It really was made with blood, sweat and tears in equal portions.”
Were there any run-ins with the local law?
“We had good relationships with the local cops,” he says. “We all carried what was called the ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card’, which was a letter from the Commissioner of Police to any other police that might pull us over, stating that these vehicles are being used in the production of a major motion picture in the state of Victoria, and any assistance would be greatly appreciated.”
Bisley fondly recalls a moment he had to produce his Get Out Of Jail Free Card after being pulled over by a motorcycle cop while en route to location, which ultimately led to the pair swapping bikes and the actor escorting the policeman to the set – with siren engaged.
In the four decades since its release, Mad Max has become a bona fide national treasure and cult classic, launching careers and spawning three sequels. Was there ever a sense at the time that something special was being created that would endure for so long?
“We didn’t have anything to compare it against because we were so new at it, but it felt we were in something very special,” offers Bisley. “But we didn’t have the faintest inkling of where it would go or what it would become.”
- Having played original Mad Max villain the Toecutter and Fury Road’s formidable Immortan Joe, Hugh Keays-Byrne is synonymous with the franchise. However, the 40th anniversary reunion in Carisbrook last month was his first encounter with the series’ die-hard fans, during a scorching February weekend.
- “The heat was a bit confronting,” he says, “but those people love Mad Max and they camped out in forty-odd degrees to come and press the flesh with us. I was amazed. One woman came up to me with a photograph of me that was taken on a day we were filming in Clunes. She was 16 when she asked for my autograph back then – that was one of those surreal moments.”
- Born in Kashmir and raised in England, the theatre-trained actor arrived in Australia in 1973, making an immediate impact as Toad in Sandy Harbutt’s biker classic Stone (1974) – an antecedent of Miller’s Mad Max.
- “Stone was really my first meaty role in a film, and there was that same basic approach [as Mad Max],” he says. “I’d not been in the country for long, but I saw [Stone] as being very Australian. Both films were an improvisational skill of people banding together and making the best of it. I find that quality particularly Australian.”
- Having delivered a memorable performance as the softly-spoken albeit ruthless Toecutter in Mad Max, Keays-Byrne was surprised to discover he was still on George Miller’s radar 36 years later when it came to casting warlord Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road.
- “I felt like I had won the lottery,” he says of the opportunity, adding that it was lovely to work with Miller again. “I admired his tenacity. I couldn’t believe he was at it at four o’clock in the morning while I was lolling around the hotel.”When asked if there was a feeling of coming full circle on his return to the world of Mad Max, he laughs: “I think many of the people involved couldn’t believe that I was still alive!”