NEW YORK — Three and a half decades is a long time for a fever dream.
But that's how long the brutal, desolate post-apocalyptic world of "Mad Max" has been percolating, at desert-hot temperatures, in George Miller's head. It was his first film, 1979's "Mad Max," with Mel Gibson, and it led to two more: 1982's "Mad Max: The Road Warrior" and 1985's "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome." On Friday, he'll release his return to the harsh dystopian landscape of "Mad Max" in "Fury Road," both a sequel and a reboot.
"Once you create characters, the imaginary world is following you — stalking you, as it were — in the deep recesses of your unconscious," said Miller in a recent interview from his home in Australia. "Shooting the film was in many ways very familiar, but in the three decades that had passed since the last one, everything has changed. The world has changed. We've, as film audiences, changed. Cinema has changed. Film language has changed. And I dare say I've changed."
"Mad Max: Fury Road" replaces Mel Gibson with Tom Hardy and welcomes newcomer Charlize Theron as Furiosa, a woman piloting a truck called "the War Rig." With a budget of about $150 million, it's a more extravagant summer spectacle than previous "Mad Max" films. Shooting on "Fury Road" was forced from its native land by unexpected rains in the Outback, decamping to the sands of Namibia for an arduous eight months of shooting.
Miller had spent the intermediate years mainly making family films ("Babe," ''Happy Feet") and occasionally trying to mount a fourth "Mad Max." It nearly happened in 2001 with Gibson, and at one point, an animated film was contemplated. But in the end, Miller was back in the desert, in his late 60s, crashing cars by the dozens.
"It's both a wise man's action movie, coming from the wisdom of a wise elder, and at the same time has the youthful recklessness and anarchy of a young spirit who's prepared to challenge himself," says Hardy. "If Obi-Wan Kenobi could make an action movie, this would have to be it. Or Yoda."
"Fury Road" is otherwise true to the lean, elemental "Mad Max" aesthetic. Max, a Ford Falcon-driving loner, navigates a neo-Medieval wasteland where fuel and water are in scant supply. The heavy metal mayhem of "Mad Max" has inspired musicians as varied as Tupac and Motley Crew, and in the years since the last "Mad Max," a cottage industry of tamer dystopia has developed.
"You see it over and over again, not only in movies but in music videos and games," says Miller, now 70, of the films' influence. "It's an evolutionary process and one thing builds on the next."
"Mad Max," however, separates itself from the post-apocalyptic pack in its cinematic bravado. It's a more inventively shot blockbuster than most, and rather than spend an hour on muddled exposition, it jumps right into the action. "A Western on wheels," is what Miller likes to call it; "Fury Road" is essentially a relentless three-day car chase.
It's a deliberate approach by Miller, who cites the uninterrupted frenzy of Buster Keaton set pieces, early silent Westerns, Steven Spielberg's "The Duel," the chase classic "Bullitt" and the chariot race of "Ben Hur" as inspirations.
"The strategy on this film was to make it one long chase and see what you could learn about the characters, their relationships and the world on the run," says Miller. "It relies on all the tools of cinema. I like to think we've made a movie movie."
Instead of relying on digital effects, Miller pushed his crew and stuntmen to do as much as possible without the aid of CGI. That gives "Fury Road" a gritty realism often missing from action films, but also meant a lengthy, grueling production way back in 2012, followed by extensive reshoots in late 2013.
"It made for a technically and logistically hard shoot," says Theron, who remains dedicated to Miller. "This is so his world and this world has been inside him for so many years. This is his baby."
Hardy, who is attached for three more "Mad Max" sequels, should they be made, is intensely enthusiastic about the wildness of the film and enthralled to be "a cog in Miller's imaginarium."
"It's a crazy sort of surreal and heightened world within George's head, which is fully transmuted and fleshed out now on a multi-million dollar level," says Hardy. "It's been sort of turbo-boosted. It's been blown into an ambitious orchestration of technicolor psychosis."
For Miller, being back in his apocalyptic hell-scape was a happy homecoming.
"This was a movie you couldn't kill with a stick," he says. "It just kept on wanting to be made and eventually it was."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP