When you have an iconic already known world like that of Mad Max, every piece counts because every piece becomes a character. The desert, the music, the costumes and the cars…the designs are so specific to that world and realm, that if one if off, it can possibly destroy the entire film. This is what production designer Colin Gibson had to think about when he took on the task of creating all the living pieces in the Mad Max world. Yes, I said “living” because unlike most sci-fi action films we’ve seen in the last several years, every single piece of Mad Max: Fury Road really does work.
Recently I had a chance to talk to Colin about his work on Fury Road, the design process, the cars and the how the Mad Max world influenced him. Here’s the exclusive with Colin Gibson, production designer on Mad Max: Fury Road.
Q: The Mad Max universe born in the mind of George Miller, who is also the director of all the Mad Max films including Fury Road. How was the design process, regarding his involvement and how much input did he give into your designs?
Colin Gibson: George has very specific views on this cast and on design – but fortunately, he’s also a very busy man, so we had a great long conversation over many weeks at the very beginning of the process. And then, because there was no script, I basically got to go away and watch a Bible, a tribal Bible, a breakdown of who the tribes were, their MOs, their philosophies, their dress sense, their gods, their fetishes, what they might be. So it was a great way to sort of come to terms at a very base level with what people were. George originally envisions the story as being told from a future time, looking back, so it was even further in the future than the apocalyptic version that we were looking at. So, I just got the historian, writing about it for a while. And then, because he was busy – I don’t know – all those tap dancing penguins and things, I managed to go out, find lots of salvage design or design process that was based on, finding wreckage, finding things that I found inherently beautiful and then putting them together, and then George would infrequently, but with a massive aplomb come to visit and say ‘Yes, yes, no, yes, yes, no, no – what the fuck are you doing?’
Q: You just touched on this a little bit, but I wanted to know: How much did you have to talk to the costume designer as well, because the costumes and the car designs pretty much reflect each other, and one wouldn’t work without the other. So how much did you have to talk to the costume design and how much input did that put into your designs?
CG: Well, fortunately, the cars and the weaponry came first. I was lucky that I was first cab off the rank, and the original costume designer, Norma Moriceau had done some work with George on the first two Maxes, and then her place was taken by an English designer, Jenny Beavan who came to Australia and then did most of her fabrication in Africa, as we got nearer to the start of the shoot. So fortunately, they were working to a sort of set of predisposed ideas. In a way, we sort of forced their hands a little bit, but they all had to respond to the same process, so pretty much, we were trying to do the vehicles, the stripped-down version of double take of recognition of something slightly out of context, so we kept playing that same gag again and again. And hopefully, as long as we all followed the same rule, it all made sense in the same world.
Q: The cars have very interesting names to them, like the People Eater, the Peacemaker, the Interceptor – did the names…
CG: They all had to have names because they were all characters. We thought of it early on that each one of them had a story and a story arc and we knew how long it lasted, and what would happen to it and how it was gonna meet its end, and basically all of that was taken into account as we designed and built them, so yea, they all had names, they were all part of the cast.
Q: So did that help you conceptualize? I mean, especially something like the People Eater immediately induces fear – so did that create an image for you to work off of?
CG: Yeah. Well, the People Eater, there was an image of the People Eater, the character, and he was, in George’s head he’d always been the perfect image of the military industrial complex. So he was the bean counter – he was the large, corpulent fat man in a suit, slightly perverted, only interested in acquisition. And so, because of that, he became a little bit Sidney Greenstreet. Sidney Greenstreet led to a couple of wedding Mercedes limousines that I happened to pick up at a bargain basement sale of a going out of business wedding company. And by the time we mounted them on a 8 wheel drive military truck and then turned the wheel of the truck into a horizontal oil making fractionator, it all started to come together into this beautiful look, but basically we knew it was going to be the largest explosion in the film. So we had to build the largest number of tanks filled with explosive objects.
Q: When you design these cars and the bikes also, how much consideration are you paying attention to the safety of the actors? Is that something to consider when you’re going into design?
CG: Absolutely. George, as well as being a director, is also a certified general practitioner – a doctor. So he took one of those Hippocratic Oath things. Which means, apparently, you’re not allowed to hurt people. Do no harm, so he’s very big on safety and we made that a priority. By making that a priority, it meant that I also had to make what appeared to be unsafe a priority. We decided to work in both directions at once.
Q: I ask this to most designers I talk to and they hate answering it, but I still gotta ask. Which one of the cars was your favorite piece to design?
CG: Ah, look – they all changed every day. It’s like with children – even the ones the wife doesn’t know about.
Q: That’s what every designer I ever talk to says – that they’re all like their own kids!
CG: They are. And all of them are beloved. But the Interceptor was the keynote vehicle for the first couple of Mad Max’s, and I think if I was looking at which one we designed most to try to be the next big thing, it would’ve been the Giga Horse – the Cadillac Coup de Vil’s, because it was built from the ground up. Everything was bespoke – we didn’t start up with a Chevy or another engine or anything, we actually went out again with nothing and built all of it piece by piece, adding it up together. So there you go, unlike the other ones, I’m going to say that the prettiest child was the Giga Horse.
Q: That’s awesome. Have you already seen the original Mad Max’s and did you take any particular designs that you saw in those films, and said ‘I’ve got to make sure that’s in this one?‘
CG: Of course I’ve seen them – I’m Australian! They’re part of our culture, and so what I had to do was make sure that I didn’t fuck up. That was pretty much what I took from the process. Don’t fuck up.
Mad Max is now open in theaters and is rated R.