Carnage and chaos in Coober Pedy – the making of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

George Miller declared the Beyond Thunderdome set in Coober Pedy a dry zone: nothing – at least theoretically – stronger than tea or coffee. The Mad Max cast and crew, however, were not the kind of people to be told when, where or what to drink. Mel Gibson later revealed he was battling alcoholism during the making of this film and several others, downing a six-pack of beer with breakfast before even arriving on location.

According to the 2004 biography Mel Gibson: Man on a Mission, the actor was provided “a driver and a minder so that their star would not end up in some small-town jail cell when he was supposed to be shooting a $10 million movie.”

Needless to say, Mel Gibson was not responsible for the carnage that engulfed Beyond Thunderdome: an alcohol- and substance infused symphony of on and off-screen turmoil. Indeed, some of the shenanigans that took place could have done with a bit of Gibson’s professionalism; by all accounts the actor was well-behaved and hardworking on set – remarkably so, perhaps, given the huge quantities of ethanol he was imbibing.

Once we got to the desert it was fuckin’ on for young and old,” recalls Angry Anderson. “There was a lot of dope going around. A lot of cocaine. A lot of speed.”

The budget for Beyond Thunderdome has always been kept under wraps, with Miller declining to share it, but is believed to be in the vicinity of AU$12 million (estimations reach as high as $14 million). This made it by far the most expensive movie ever produced in Australia at the time. A lot of people would be working on it; a lot of people would be partying.

Gary ‘Angry’ Anderson, an Australian music icon and long-time friend of George Miller, was cast as the villain Ironbar. “Once we got to the desert it was fuckin’ on for young and old,” recalls Anderson. “There was a lot of dope going around. A lot of cocaine. A lot of speed.”

And of course, a lot of alcohol. Anderson recalls one blurry evening at the local Greek restaurant, Tom and Mary’s, where the food was always good and management more than happy to cater to its influx of Thunderdome clients wandering in from the proverbial Wasteland (the restaurant to this day boasts of serving Mel Gibson and Tina Turner). On this evening an altercation took place involving Mel Gibson and an angry local, who believed the actor was having an affair with his girlfriend.

Recalls Anderson: “I went into the toilet with Mel to have a slash. By that time of course we were all three parts cut. We’d been in the restaurant, we’d had dinner, we’re drinking the retsina and some fuckin’ beer and shit, then this guy comes in and pulls a fuckin’ gun on Mel. He’s shouting, ‘You been fuckin’ my girlfriend!’

“This guy was a Yugoslav lunatic. He’s sayin’, ‘I’m gonna kill you, you fuckin’ cunt!’ Ranny [a friend and colleague] steps in between him and Mel and says, ‘Look mate, no.’ He says the girl, with all due respect – or words to that effect – she’s just tellin’ stories. ‘Mel’s wife is here with him’ – which she wasn’t – ‘and Mel goes home to his missus every night.”

Continues Anderson: “This mad guy is saying, ‘Is this true, is this true?’ We go, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, it’s true, it’s true.’ It was only a little .22 fuckin’ fiveshot revolver, but if he’d have stuck it up Mel’s nose it could have done some damage. That was the sort of thing that went on in Coober Pedy.”

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The remote mining town didn’t have much in the way of nightlife. Aside from some places to eat, the other attractions were a drive-in theatre and Porky’s, the local watering hole. A sign on the wall there read: “Patrons, check guns and explosives at the bar”, providing some idea of the kind of clientele the place attracted. One of its patrons – though certainly not the gun or explosives wielding sort – was Mel Gibson.

It’s not every day a big movie star fraternises with the locals at a place like Coober Pedy. Word got out that he and the Mad Max circus had come to town. From his early years as an actor fresh out of NIDA, Gibson has shown signs of being uncomfortable with his celebrity status.

The actor, who was bestowed with People magazine’s first ever ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ award one year after Thunderdome opened, was a sort of travelling human tourist attraction. Women came from miles to get a chance to see him. One night Martin O’Neill shared a spot with Gibson on the floor of the pub as he hid from a pack of girls.

The (very drunk) pair were engaged in what O’Neill remembers as “a really ridiculous conversation. We were literally, physically under the table, having a heart-to-heart. Mel was telling me he was waiting for everyone to realise he was a total fraud and not a very good actor. He was saying we’re all going to wake up to him one day and it was all going to be over. I guess those kinds of thoughts are not uncommon among actors.”

Drinking another night at Porky’s, Gibson was drinking with Karan Monkhouse, the stand-by props coordinator. Covered in dirt, dust and grime after a long day shooting in the desert, Monkhouse fended off a group of women hoping to catch a glimpse of the star.

“They said, ‘That’s Mel Gibson, isn’t it?” I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, do you think Mel Gibson would be sitting here having a drink with me? That’s his double,’” she recalls, laughing. “Mel was just sitting there looking at his drink, because he didn’t like that sort of attention. They asked if the other film crew were coming. I said yes, they’re watching the rushes now but they’ll be in later. Hang around if you wanna see Mel.”

It wasn’t just prodigious amounts of alcohol that were consumed while making Beyond Thunderdome. As Monkhouse puts it: “Being the eighties, there was a giant ocean of drug use.” During the shoot police raided a location where one of the members of the stunt team was staying; some crew believe it was a jealous colleague who tipped them off. Monkhouse remembers an emergency production meeting fronted either by co-writer/co-producer Terry Hayes or producer Doug Mitchell.

George Miller may not have partaken in excessive alcohol or drug consumption, but that is not to say the director didn’t put himself at risk in one way or another.

“One of them stood up,” she recalls, “and said, ‘I don’t want to know who’s got what, I don’t know what you’ve got, but get rid of it. Anyone caught with drugs will be instantly dismissed. We’re going to give you time to get rid of it.’ So everybody suddenly went out into the desert and buried their stuff.”

A few days after the raid, a handful of suspicious-looking strangers turned up on location, in the middle of nowhere, in a Bronco four-wheel drive. Angry Anderson watched as two of them got out of the vehicle and started mingling with the crew, while the other pair sat on the bonnet of the car and watched from afar. The musician-cum-actor suspected they were undercover police officers.

“A couple of the boys working on the crew had been ex-service, like ex-military,” recalls Anderson. “These boys had a bit of a walk around, came back and said, ‘Yeah, fuckin’ oath they’re cops. They stick out like dog’s balls.’”

Anderson announced that he was going to stir their visitors. The performer took a bottle of water, walked over to the pair sitting on the bonnet and shouted “Hey, does the force fuckin’ supply you blokes with your own water?”

One of them looked at Anderson and said, “What makes you think we’re coppers?” Anderson shot back, “Oh, fuckin’ please! You’re like nuts on a fuckin’ cow! Tits on a bull! You’re coppers and we all know that. You’re here because of the drug bust.”

The mysterious men insisted they were “just sightseeing.” When the other two returned to the vehicle about fifteen minutes later, the four of them drove off and were never seen by the Beyond Thunderdome cast and crew again.

George Miller may not have partaken in excessive alcohol or drug consumption, but that is not to say the director didn’t put himself at risk in one way or another. One day while location scouting with cinematographer Dean Semler, a 40-knot southerly wind blew across the terrain, creating a severe dust storm.

The location manager George Mannix remembers people running around everywhere, their eyeballs clogged with sand, desperately trying to keep it off their faces. The situation was, in his own words, “unpleasant, unhealthy, uncomfortable beyond endurance and dangerous beyond belief.”

Miller and Semler were standing on a mound surveying the landscape in front of them. They were imagining what a shot would look like when Mannix ran up to them and informed the pair they needed to leave, very very quickly.

“Those two were standing there with big grins on their faces saying ‘look at this’ and ‘look at that!’,” recalls Mannix. “All George could see was how great it looked. It’s not that he was careless. He was a very compassionate man concerned about the health of the crew. A doctor for god’s sake. But all he could see was the shot and how to get it. That’s the obsessive, tunnel vision of his. He’s got his goggles on and he’s looking through the frame to the exclusion of all else.”

Continues the location manager: “I realised that in George, despite the compassion and the teddy bear image he has, there is something steely. Something inflexible and tough about George’s inner core as a filmmaker.”

This is an edited extract from Miller And Max by Luke Buckmaster published by Hardie Grant Books. You can buy it here.  It is also available on e-book.

Main image of George Miller and crew on location by Lloyd Carrick

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