Sunday, July 12, 2015

Newsploitation: Who Own Box Office Town?

It seems you couldn't go two feet online without spotting a MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) post a few weeks back.

Enthusiasm was at an all-time high and it was refreshing to see George Miller, a director now in his 70s, return to the action genre and show the kids how it is still done.  Perhaps the wildest thing for me when I saw the film theatrically is how easily the man slipped right back onto his bike (chrome and covered with spikes, no doubt) and created a entry that slid right into place in his post-apocalyptic universe.  Not easy since Miller had gone on to a celebrated and diverse career that saw him doing everything from dramas to family films.  It is even more astounding because we are now officially 30 years removed from the most recent entry, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985), which came out on July 10, 1985 in the United States.

With MAD MAX 2 (or THE ROAD WARRIOR as it was known here) being a huge financial success worldwide, it was expected that Miller would be a hot commodity courted by Hollywood.  He made the leap quickly by helming the final (and best) segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983).  Just before that anthology debuted in the U.S., Miller and his producing partner Byron Kennedy announced in early June 1983 that they would indeed bring the world MAD MAX 3 and that it would begin filming in Australia in May 1984.  Unfortunately, tragedy stuck very early into pre-production as Kennedy was killed when the helicopter he was piloting while doing location scouting for the film crashed (his passenger a 15-year-old family friend survived).  He was only 33 at the time of his death and left behind a filmography that included several Aussie mini-series and the excellent THE LAST OF THE KNUCKLEMEN (1977) alongside the first two Max films.  Miller was reluctant to move on with the production, but opted to do so and included a co-director - George Ogilvie, who had directed episodes of THE DISMISSAL (1983) along with Miller, Philip Noyce, and Carl Schultz - to help handle the film.

Production was delayed for several months in 1984 and officially began filming in September 1984 (Variety headline on September 7, 1984: "MAD MAX 3 production rolls with usual veil of secrecy").  The film was afforded a $12 million budget (in Australian dollars), making it the biggest Aussie film up to that point.  Perhaps the biggest surprise about the film was the casting of Tina Turner as the female lead.   Turner had a phenomenal 1984 as her comeback album Private Dancer had done extremely well when released in May 1984, topping out at no. 3 in the U.S. charts and offering the no. 1 single "What's Love Got to Do with It?"  Casting the at-the-time 44 year old singer may have drawn some crooked looks, but it as a wonderful choice by Miller and reinforces the craziness and surrealness of his post-apoc world.  It also remains probably one of the best non-music related acting debuts by a musician of all-time (Turner had previous been in TOMMY [1975] and SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND [1978]).  Filming lasted for several months and Miller and his production crew created one of the most vivid landscapes with Bartertown.  The only hiccup came in February 1985 when the Australian Guild of Screen Composers filed a complaint with the Prime Minister because of Miller using Maurice Jarre for the score.

Amazingly, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME came out in the U.S. before it was released in Australia.  It opened on a Wednesday and was the highest performing new release that weekend - topping SILVERADO and EXPLORERS - with a haul of $14,138,119.  Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to top the box office as it came in second place to the previous week's champ, BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985).  It ended its run in the U.S. with a total of $36,230,219.  Not a blockbuster by any standards, but enough to make it the highest grossing Max film up to that point.  Perhaps the oddest thing about the film is that it spawned a hit single with Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero" song.  Now how many violent post-apocalyptic films can lay claim to that?  Miller made his full length Hollywood debut after this with THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987).  The biggest beneficiary of the film's release, however, was its leading man.  Believe it or not, prior to this film Mel Gibson was only a cult actor and - gasp! - a bit of a critical darling.  After this film, he secured his first big time Hollywood action leading role in LETHAL WEAPON (1987) and things were never the same after that.

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