In the final moments of The Road Warrior’s centrepiece chase scene, George Miller has saved the best for last. Max spectacularly crashes and upturns the tanker. Except the man behind the wheel in real life isn’t Mel Gibson; nor is he even a stuntman. He is an actual truck driver on his first film set. An ordinary bloke named Dennis Williams, who is about to do something extraordinary.
It’s early in the morning on Saturday 29 July 1981, on the barren red Mundi Mundi plains in New South Wales, and Williams is shitting himself. The truck driver is sitting behind the wheel of a Mack truck, about to do something that defies logic – something insane. Why did he agree to this? How did he get talked into it? The whole situation arose from a simple misunderstanding, but it’s too late to back out now. A crowd from the nearby town of Broken Hill are congregated on the roadside next to him, cheering him on. It is his job – apparently – to provide the sensational finale to some movie called Mad Max 2 directed by some strange shaggy-haired man named George Miller.
In the furious culmination to The Road Warrior’s climactic chase scene, Rockatansky finally loses control of his tanker and rolls it off the road: an awesome end to a bat-out-of-hell finale. In real life it all comes down to Williams, an actual truck driver with no experience in stunts – after all, a larger part of his success thus far has depended on doing everything he could to avoid crashes.
"I’m in the truck, waiting to start, and I look to my left," Williams recalls. "Half the town is out there. They’re all smiling, with their thumbs in the air. And I’m thinking, What the fuck am I doing here?" The plan is that Williams will start at the top of the hill, apply some gas and gain momentum coming down. He’ll swing left at a point marked by two posts, go over the bank, flip the tanker on its side and voilà: slide towards a rolling camera. Just an ordinary bloke crashing a twelve-wheel semitrailer.
It all started with a chance encounter between the truck driver and two members of the crew earlier in the year when they arrived at his workplace: a Kenworth dealership in St Peters, Sydney. Production designer Graham Walker and transport manager Ralph Clark had arrived to purchase a truck. Mentioning they needed it for making a movie, Williams inquired who would be driving the truck in the film. When they said, "Mel Gibson", he responded, "Never heard of him." When they explained that he was the star of the first Mad Max movie, he said, "Never seen it." Then Williams asked: "This Mel Gibson person, is he a truckie?" Walker and Clark responded "No, he recently graduated from NIDA." The truck driver looked back at them blankly. After a moment he said, "Well, you got yourself a problem."
Williams explained that they had just bought a Mack – to be precise, a Mack R600 Cool Power. These have quad boxes, which comprise two gearboxes, two gear sticks and twenty-two gears, which makes them very complicated to operate. At this point a third man emerged and said, "Oh shit, I have trouble parking my Mini!" Williams turned around; it was Mel Gibson.
Realising they needed somebody to drive the truck, Walker and Clark asked Williams if he was available. Williams checked with his boss. Business was quiet. "Nuthin’ doing here mate, go for it," came the response. He agreed to take the job and did eight or nine runs from Sydney to Broken Hill, where the film was being shot, hauling gear and equipment. There was only one other person on the film crew who knew how to drive a quad box: Gerry Gauslaa, who was part of the stunt team (and therefore preoccupied). The job of driving the Mack truck – and the tanker attached to it – during actual filming, as Mel Gibson’s stunt driver, was given to Williams.
While making the original Mad Max consumed George Miller and Byron Kennedy for several years, taking a year alone to edit, The Road Warrior was much speedier – all of it done and dusted in less than twelve months. Time was of the essence because the film’s distributor, Warner Bros, planned to aggressively pursue the Japanese market and put pressure on Miller and Kennedy to have the film completed in time for Japan’s important New Year holiday movie season. Work on the screenplay commenced Christmas 1980 and by that time the following year the final cut was already in cinemas. As a result of such a short turnaround, much of the script was incomplete when principal photography commenced. One of the two writers who worked with Miller on the story, journalist-cum-screenwriter Terry Hayes, approached Dennis Williams one day during the shoot for a quiet word.
"Dennis," he asked, "how hard is it to roll a truck?" Williams assumed (and would later kick himself for doing so) that Hayes for some reason wanted a photograph, or a shot, of a truck that had rolled over on its side. He responded: "Piece of cake mate, just go down the Hume Highway any night of the week. Somebody will have parked one on its mirrors." Hayes responded, "It’s that easy?" "Piece of cake," reiterated Williams. The writer walked off, mumbling to himself. About three weeks later Hayes returned to Williams, saying to the truck driver, "That idea of yours is a good one; we’ve decided to go ahead with it."
"Huh?" Dennis Williams had no idea what he was talking about.
Hayes explained, "We’re gonna have the truck side strike the Humungus vehicle, wobble wobble, then hit the bank. Mel and the kid who is with him will jump out and run away. But mate, if we have a good head-on collision, then you roll the truck over for us, that’s gonna look fabulous!"
Williams thought, Well, shit, he thinks I’ve already agreed – so I can’t say no. When he brought his boss, Ralph Clark, up to speed, the transport manager responded "What the fuck have you gotten us into?"
Operating on the assumption that Williams, who was by no means a stunt driver, was indeed capable of rolling the tanker, the crew set about making this extremely dangerous stunt as safe as possible. For a crash of this magnitude they figured it would not be the impact that would be most likely to kill Williams but things inside the cabin. It was gutted of its content: door handles, window winders, even the windscreen had to go. Every nut, bolt and switch that wasn’t absolutely essential was removed. The team then built a roll cage: metal frameworks inserted around the passenger compartment to protect drivers in the event of a vehicle rolling (which in this case was a certainty). A harness was connected to a steel backplate. This was attached to a knuckle connected to a chain, which went down to the chassis of the Mack. The addition of a harness and the backplate would mean, once Williams was strapped in, he could roll sideways but couldn’t go forward.
Another issue for anybody planning to deliberately crash a massive truck and tanker (don’t try this at home, kids) concerns fuel and electricals. Electricals can create sparks. You don’t need to be a science whiz to understand what can happen when sparks combine with large amounts of petrol. So the crew drained the tank of fuel and inserted a little bowl of it – just enough for Williams to make one or two trips down the hill – fitted with a safety valve so it wouldn’t leak. Terry Hayes complicated the situation by adding a further stipulation. He and Miller wanted the tanker to roll, yes, but they didn’t want it to roll and roll and roll. Their logic was that if the vehicle kept rolling it would create a plausibility issue; the audience wouldn’t believe Max and his grubby young companion could emerge from the situation alive.
"I said, 'Terry, I’m going to be doing a hundred kilometres an hour, down a hill into a right hand bend, then over a 12 foot bank'," recalls Williams. "You say roll it on its side and slide it? I said, ‘Mate, just because it’s got air brakes doesn’t mean we can stop in midair. Once it’s gone it’s got a mind of its own'."
Nevertheless, the truck driver came up with a plan. The crew filled 10 tonnes of wet sand in sandbags and packed them on the left-hand side of the tanker. This meant—at least theoretically— when the tanker went over the bank that weight would hold it down. Williams was instructed not to eat anything for twelve hours before the stunt: "That way if anything did happen they could take me to the hospital and operate straight away," he says. "I think it had something to do with the anaesthetic. But I wasn’t worried about all that. I was just hoping the bastard rolls."
Motorcycle mechanic Barry Bransen counselled the rattled truck driver.
"I spent a fair bit of time coaching him and we ended up good friends. For that sort of guy, he just lived in Gosford and drove big motherfucking trucks, all of a sudden here he is doing this thing, totally against what would have ever gone on in his head. We said, ‘Everything’s fine, mate.’ Myself and Guy [Norris, a stuntman] would tell him about the really risky stuff we did in live shows. We’d say to Dennis, ‘This is the sort of thing we used to do a couple of years back.’ Which, to be honest, was totally stupid stuff. We would say, ‘Look, you don’t have anything to worry about. You’ll be fine. We’ll be out here watching. We’ll make sure you’re OK'. But I’m pretty sure poor old Den didn’t sleep for a couple of nights."
When the day finally arrived, "nervous tension was in the air", according to production designer Grace Walker. "George was always adamant that 'I don’t want anyone hurt'. That was the rule and he was passionate about it." As Roger Monk, who worked in the wardrobe department, observed, in a jam-packed and challenging shoot pumped full of outrageous stunts and effects the craziest bit was saved for last. "The most tension of any time in the shoot was around the truck rolling. Oh my god. That was an incredible day," he says.
"It reminded me of watching the television footage of the moon landing and waiting for man to walk on the moon. But instead of a rocket it was a truck, and instead of flying it was going to crash."
Williams is on the top of the hill behind the wheel, breathing deeply. It’s showtime. What the hell, he thinks; you only live once. The truck driver puts his foot on the accelerator and off he goes. The tanker builds speed as it comes down from the lookout on the wrong side of the road. Williams had marked the spot where he needed to go over by sticking a bit of gaffer tape to a post. He’s getting closer and closer, sweat dripping from his forehead, waves of fear coursing through his mind. It’s almost time. Just a tiny bit further. A couple more seconds. Here it is!
And … Williams chickens out. When a member of the crew asked what happened, he told them "I wasn’t right. I just wasn’t right." Somebody said, "That’s good, because they weren’t ready anyway – but they will be for next time."
"Bloody oath you better be ready," thundered the truck driver.
"This thing is a one-hit wonder. Once I roll it, I won’t be doing it again."
Williams goes back to the top of the hill. The crowd of locals from Broken Hill are still there and still enthused; the botched first attempt has only added to the suspense. The truck driver looks down the road at a parked ambulance with a pair of paramedics sitting on the bonnet and thinks, They look like two vultures waiting for a feed. After taking a deep breath Williams starts coming down the hill again. This time he doesn’t chicken out. When the tanker goes off the road and begins to flip, a pillar attached to the side of the Mack acts like a plough and hits the dirt. As the truck and its driver are thrown into the air, nearly upside down, dirt comes flying into the cabin through where the windscreen would have been. It hits Williams hard in the chest and fills his helmet.
The tanker lands more or less where it was intended. Although, remembers the mechanic Barry Bransen: "It went a little bit further than we thought it was going to go. In other words, it was heavier than we guessed. We had to all stand back after it rolled. We had to wait for all that dust and everything to settle before we could run in and see whether Dennis was still with us."
When the vehicle stops moving George Miller yells "Cut!" A group – including the director – run to the upturned cabin. "Nobody was allowed to go near me until George said cut," recalls Williams. "Then George walks around. George sings out, ‘I’ll get a photo of him when he’s in there!’ And I’m going, ‘I can’t fuckin’ breathe! My helmet’s full of dirt! Get it off! Get it off!'"
The audience up the hill applaud as Williams emerges from the wreckage and the crew hoot and cheer. The paramedics rush over and ask the truck driver if he’s alright. He says "I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m standing up aren’t I?" A moment or two later, when the people around him have dispersed, Williams collapses. "I fell to the ground like a bag of shit," he remembers. "It was all the adrenaline. I just sank."
The Road Warrior, which was shot in sequence (meaning scenes were filmed in the same order as they appear in the story) had completed principal photography. The wrap party took place the following evening and Williams was the toast of the town. The cast and crew soon left Broken Hill to go back to their homes but a small group, including the truck driver and his boss, Ralph Clark, stuck around for a little longer and packed up. When he eventually got home, Williams answered the telephone. It was George Miller. The director invited him to come and have a look at the rushes.
When he arrived, Miller was excited. The director described the footage they captured for the tanker roll as breathtaking. When the truck driver saw the vehicle he was operating nearly jack-knifing on its side and get thrown to the ground, he could only say two words: "shit" and "fuck". Many people would subsequently wonder how George Miller pulled that shot off. Did he use rails? Was it remote controlled? Were there cables involved? "No," the filmmaker would say: "We had an actual driver in the truck." Some time later, Williams was invited to work on the next Mad Max movie, Beyond Thunderdome.
"And what did they do?" he says. "They bought another Mack with a quad box."
This is an edited extract from Miller And Max by Luke Buckmaster, published by Hardie Grant Books in 2016.