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What do Mad Max’s six Oscars mean for the Australian film industry?

Mark Mangini and David White react after winning Best Sound Editing for “Mad Max Fury Road”, backstage during the 88th Academy Awards . Mike Blake/Reuters

What do Mad Max’s six Oscars mean for the Australian film industry?

The career of Dr George Miller reminds me of that of Charles Chauvel, one of the greatest showmen of the Australian cinema. Both men – though separated by many decades – have employed epic cinematic forms and nationalistic themes.

Chauvel, on returning from work in Hollywood in 1925, immediately adopted popular melodrama with strong sentimental themes of city versus country in Moth of the Moonbi and Greenhide (both 1926).

George Miller while filming Mad Max: Fury Road. Warner Bros., CC BY

He then moved to his more epic works, In the Wake of the Bounty (1933) and his nationalistic apotheoses, 40,000 Horsemen (1940) and Rats of Tobruk (1944), and finally to Jedda the Uncivilized (1955), which was groundbreaking both technically and thematically.

George Miller and his late creative partner, Byron Kennedy, did not have to go to Hollywood. Their short film Violence in the Cinema Part I (1971) (there was never a sequel) obtained a rare commercial release, such was its cinematic engagement with form and content.

It divided the critics, not really a bad thing to do in the Australia of the 1970s. Mad Max, which followed in 1979, was a worthy successor for audiences already blooded by Sandy Harbutt’s Stone (1974), in an age of Australian cinema when costume designers used crinoline or moleskins more than crash helmets.

Mad Max (1979). Kennedy Miller Productions.

Miller and Kennedy took a detour into television, producing a series of politically engaged nationalistic works such as The Dismissal (1983) and Cowra Break-out (1984) as well as Bangkok Hilton (1989).

For a while, Kennedy Miller Productions in the former ABC studios in Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross, had something of the atmosphere of Crawford Productions in Melbourne.

But unlike Crawfords, which paid the bills with reliable series production for television, Kennedy Miller was nurturing a generation of independently thinking writers and directors. Many still work in the industry.

Mad Max, Fury Road (2015) furrows the same terrain as Violence I, Max Max and its successors, Mad Max 2 (1981) and Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome (1985). The thematic continuity is provided, in part, by the character of Max Rockatansky, who is central to each of the Max Max manifestations.

The film’s impact is enhanced by a budget that allowed the epic scale of action, six months of rehearsals, and a grandeur of landscape. The intensity is amplified by the complexity of the female characters, first emerging in Thunderdome. They are monstrous and nubile, ever changing.

But any human scale is overwhelmed by the intensity of the cinematic vision. That’s why it was not applauded as Best Picture at this year’s Oscar awards. Despite Samuel Goldwyn’s (alleged) adage that, “If you have a message, call Western Union”, Best Pictures leave audiences with something to think about on the way home.

Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson, winners of Best Production Design for ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’. Mike Blake/Reuters

With Mad Max, Fury Road, we are just pummelled by the experience and invigorated by the knowledge that a sequel must be planned.

A world away from the mammalian or avian inspiration of Babe or Happy Feet and their sequels (all directed by Miller), Mad Max, Fury Road is a huge advertisement for the scope and skill of a range of technical aspects of film making.

It collected Oscars in Film Editing, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Production Design, essential elements in the crafting of good cinema.

In the late 1980s, academics Helen Dermody and Susan Jacka ventured a model of the Australian industry with two distinct wings: Industry 1 – culturally inclined – and Industry 2 – commercially inclined.

The success of Mad Max, Fury Road raises new questions about the nature and future of a film industry in Australia. It is further evidence that there is now a firmly established Industry 3 – internationally focused, footloose, but still Australian in some degree in its bleak aridity (despite having been shot in Namibia because the lands west of Broken Hill, the location of Mad Max 2 and Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome, was too verdant).

Other recent examples of this trend towards Industry 3-style productions include The Railway Man (2013) and The Great Gatsby (2013).

Miller has been crucial to this transformation and has in recent time amalgamated the roles of producer and director. While the production on Mad Max, Fury Road was the work of Australians P.J. Voeten and, especially, Doug Mitchell, Miller’s influence is strong.

Damian Martin, Lesley Vanderwalt, and Elka Wardega react after winning the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hair for Mad Max. Mike Blake/Reuters

Given this new kind of industry – straddling local and global; high and low-brow culture – the question of whether we want a film industry that is an offshore resource for Hollywood or Pinewood, or a culturally relevant Australian one must again be asked.

Under the Industry 3 model there are massive advantages: technical excellence remains a core strength; projects are attractive to overseas enterprises; employment for many is reasonably assured, even if it means six months in Namibia.

It also means that facilities and post-production houses can remain open and are able to support less profitable work such as the Industry 1 Australian productions.

What remains thin on the ground under this model is steady employment for a wide range of writers, actors and directors on whose talent and vision an Australian production industry rests.

At present, television is providing some outlet for Australia drama production, but with shrinking commercial TV revenues, it must be asked, “For how long?”

If the people engaged in Industry 3 were to return to making television shows here for the rest of the world, an Australian industry would be assured. Would a return to television production for Kennedy Miller Mitchell Productions provide some answers?

Footnote: There are two George Millers in the annals of modern Australian cinema: Dr George Miller of Mad Max fame and George T. Miller of Man from Snowy River fame. The latter was an alumni of Crawford Production. This article concerns the former, Queensland-born, like Chauvel, Dr George Miller.