When writer-director George Miller rekindled his Mad Max franchise with the 2015 film, Mad Max: Fury Road, with the first of the films having been produced 36 years ago, he knew he would need to mix the classic elements of the series while bringing audiences a 21st century experience. Makeup and hair designer Lesley Vanderwalt, speaking from Sydney, Australia, noted that she had sufficient background experience for the new project as she had also worked as makeup supervisor on the second film, The Road Warrior, in 1981.
Of her massive tasks on the new film, Vanderwalt found the experience initially fascinating. “It was really interesting,” she stated. “We workshopped it in 2010 and 2012. Each one of those periods, the movie evolved. George is a wonderful, creative, amazing human being.”
At the preproduction workshops, at which longtime Mad Max fan and Fury Road screenwriter Brendan McCarthy had “filled the walls with storyboards,” the key characters in the film were established. “We took that as a beginning design, and took it further,” Vanderwalt related. “Post-apocalyptic into the future, there’s no real reference, so we were trying to take it a stage further. We came up with the scarification.”
Damian Martin, Vanderwalt’s prosthetics supervisor, and his team sculpted concepts and photographed them for the key production team. During that period, Miller had planned to film Fury Road in the Australian desert, but due to landscape changes, production designer Colin Gibson went on a location scout to find another desert to be used as the key location. “The whole thing evolved,” said Vanderwalt of the location shift which resulted in locking in Namibia, Africa. “Everyone was very collaborative. Drawing from Africa and India, we got huge masses of people together. We drew inspiration for the look of the different tribes. You could write their history; there was no history intact, and they had no homes. We really wrote our own lives for these people. George and Nico [Lathouris, another screenwriter] had written long backstories for these characters. We got quite busy with designs and characters and then pared it back to make it simple and hopefully iconic.”
Surely, one of Vanderwalt’s key characters, and arguably the main character in the film, was Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. “When we first started looking at things in 2010, there were lots of images and pictures,” Vanderwalt recalled. “She was one of the boys. She lived in this world and was trusted as one of the warriors: faster driver, better mechanic. She would have had to come up through the ranks and be accepted by other men. The guys are like animals. They would have savaged her. She would have had to be disguised — a woman as one of them, with her own hair and wigs. George wanted to shave her hair. She was wonderful. We kept her look very plain and iconic with very short hair, scratches and dirt. Charlize is such a statuesque amazing woman.”
Of course, the titular Max, so memorably played by Mel Gibson in the series’ three previous films, was recast with Tom Hardy in the new film, requiring a new visual concept for the character. “Max had been in the outback for years without contact with other human beings,” Vanderwalt conveyed. “Alone as a warrior, someone on the run. When we first meet Max, he has long hair and a beard. When he gets caught by the War Boys, they use him as a blood bag. They use rusty old shears to cut his hair off. He gets tattooed with his blood type — he has pure blood. He goes into the whole system and escapes. He goes on his journey too. He has a few different looks according to the script.”
With 28 people on her team, eight of those prosthetics artists who could actuate makeup effects, Vanderwalt ran her initial department out of a studio in Sydney, then had to transport facilities to Namibia for location photography. “We took all the molds to Namibia and set up a workshop there,” she explained. “I had 20 people from Australia, Ireland, the UK and New Zealand. It would be difficult to crew people in Namibia. I had a few people from the local township who came on board to do the makeups and trim the hair.”
After getting through customs in Namibia, on location in the Namibian desert, Vanderwalt and her department faced unexpected challenges. “We had a few wigs on the show and there were problems with the dust,” she said. “During the day, there are sandstorms. We didn’t know how long the wigs would last through the day. What we didn’t realize when we got out there, the convoy across the desert covered all of my War Boys; everyone got covered in dust. The wigs got completely wrecked. By the end of the day, they would be orange. We had to take them back and soak them, and wash them of red dust. We had constant things coming from the States or Capetown, Australia, the UK, which was the quickest place to get it from. I had a makeup room and wig room to stay ahead.”
Production arrived in Namibia in May 2013 and shot until December followed by a month in Capetown. After returning to Sydney, the cast and crew picked up shots over a two-week period. The issue was that pickups occurred a year after the location shoot, so Vanderwalt then had to wig both Theron and actress Zoe Kravitz — who played the character Toast the Knowing — for those shots “as they had grown their hair back,” said Vanderwalt. “We added pieces to their hair.”
With almost nine months in Africa, Vanderwalt noted that the film was overwhelming though ultimately rewarding, meeting tasks one piece at a time, constantly referring to the storyboards. “I would oversee the whole thing,” she described, “constantly delegating things. ‘Those wigs have to go to the other unit.’ Literally every day we had at least 80 stunt people, or sometimes up to 120, plus the main cast, meeting each morning in the catering tent. We discussed what would be shot that day. With that many vehicles, there were huge safety issues. It was really important to run over every day. Different stuntmen played different roles. They might play two different characters in a day. Logistically, everything relied on people’s skills. Stunt guys would have numbers that would go along with cars. Every day, we got the actor ready, plus a stunt double and a picture double. It was all real stunts, like doing an old-fashioned movie.”
Every morning, Mad Max: Fury Road’s principal cast would get made up in trucks, with a huge tent set up for extras, stunt people and doubles. “We all got out there and got everybody ready in the morning,” said Vanderwalt. “It was 2–2 ½ hour period to get everybody ready every morning; we would stagger people every day. It took a big cleanup at the end of the day too. If we were moving locations, another whole crew was setting up the next location, ready for us to come straight in in the morning. I had a wig person working at night. We would drop off dirty wigs and pick up clean ones on the way back to location in the morning.”
In the end, a desert-bound post-apocalyptic action epic in a major movie franchise, largely filmed with practical stunts, was every bit as complicated as it sounded in pre-production. “When I first looked at it, I went ‘Whoa,’” said Vanderwalt. “As it got closer and grew—2 ½-hour makeups, 12-hour shooting day, and hour out and in of town — it was an 18-hour day, battling the elements. It was long, it was tough, but it was work that everyone enjoys.”
Vanderwalt’s succeeding project was decidedly simpler if not in scope, then at least in one sense: Gods of Egypt was filmed inside of sound stages against greenscreen.