Mel Gibson may have his critics but he is, if nothing else, a born survivor. The American-born Australian-raised actor/filmmaker has been a part of the Australian and American film industries for some thirty years.
The classically trained actor made an impact on movie audiences in the original Mad Max and cemented his reputation as a movie star with starring roles in two Peter Weir films, Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously. His first attempts at international success met with mixed results despite critical acclaim for The Bounty, The River and Mrs. Soffel, but then came a third “Mad Max” and the first Lethal Weapon and the rest, as they say, is history.
He was able to utilize his Hollywood star power to form Icon Productions and transition to direction, first with The Man Without a Face and then for his classic Braveheart garnering him a Best Director Oscar. His film The Passion of The Christ became one of the most successful independent films of all time, and allowed Gibson to turn his back on Hollywood and make the visceral and successful Apocalypto.
Gibson returned to acting in Edge of Darkness and is back in front of the camera in the hugely entertaining Get the Gringo, just released on DVD and will next be seen in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills. He is also busy working on his Viking movie and the much discussed film about the Maccabees.
I first met Gibson when we were both in our early 20s and the actor was publicizing Gallipoli while I was a university student. 30 years later, to coincide with the DVD release of “Gringo,” we met at Mel’s Santa Monica office for an in-depth chat. Dressed in a pair of blue board shorts and T-shirt, we covered a lot of ground, from “Gringo” to stardom, Hollywood forgiveness and his own very candid take on the whole Maccabee script controversy, as well as the status of other projects.
ComingSoon.net: With a film like “Gringo,”was it important to go back to your roots as an indie filmmaker? Mel Gibson: No not really. Even when I had a deal with studios I used to cook up stories. It’s just that there wasn’t one for this. So I got together with the Mexican dudes (Adrian Grunberg and Stacy Perskie) and we sat in my kitchen, drank cups of coffee, smoked a bunch of cigarettes, ate food and talked. And we just beat the story out.
CS: Did “Edge of Darkness” give you a taste to go back in front of the camera and did you want to develop this initially as an actor, or just as a producer, and the acting was secondary? Gibson: I was looking at it more from a story point of view. I mean basically at the end of the line, no matter how many producers, directors, actors jump in, you’re only doing one thing, telling a story, so what I like doing the best is going through the mind’s eye and reading it out with Stacy and Adrian whom I’d worked with before on “Apocalypto” when they were my 1st and 2nd ADs. And these guys know Mexico. And we just got into the research, from an idea that I had, and the more stuff we read on the Internet the more rich it got, because the world is so absurd. Incarceration south of the border is a different experience than here. There were no exaggerations in that film.
CS: How do you know when something is ready to go? Gibson: It’s just a gut feeling. It’ll never be right. It’ll ALWAYS be weird on the page, no matter how good your visualization or idea is, it’s always going to look weird on the page. Writing is a hard gig and it’s hard to convey a lot. That’s why scripts tend to be a little bit overwritten.
CS: As an actor, did you still enjoy the physical stuff you got to do in this film? Gibson: Yeah I did enjoy it. It wasn’t that taxing and I had a stunt guy to do the fall off stuff, so I’m way past doing that stuff by myself.
CS: Do you still go through a regimen of physical fitness? Gibson: I’m pretty fit, naturally. I do moderate exercise, and I try to eat pretty well and I think it has an effect on me. But hey, I’m putting on the insulin tyre like everybody else, but that’s just a function of getting older.
CS: Would you have liked “Gringo” to have received a US theatrical release? Gibson: I think there’s a lot of different mediums out there right now. Theatrical is fantastic. I don’t think anything will ever replace the big dark room, the screen and the popcorn. You can kind of do it in your home if you have a nice screen, but it’s not the same thing. It did get a theatrical release internationally.
CS: A lot of people dont realize or have forgotten that youre a classically trained actor. Ive seen you on stage. Is there any part of you that would like to return to the stage and if so, what character would you want to be? Gibson: Of course, yeah. It’d be nice actually. I dabbled here and there but not in a big way. I tried to get Downey to do Hamlet when he was in his 30s. He would have been so great. But I’d like to direct something on stage, maybe Hamlet, because as an actor, you never get it. I mean I did a film version but I don’t think I ever really did it. So I’d like to direct a production somewhere on stage.
CS: After you left Australia, finally, and the “Lethal Weapon” juggernaut began to strike, did you expect the success that came with it and do you think you prepared for that, psychologically? Gibson: I think I was in good shape to sort of deal with that, because I sort of had done that. You do your ‘blooding’ as it were when you’re young. You start in Australia, you strike out, you make a few films outside the country and then you realize you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube as far as your personal life and stuff goes, that you become public property. It’s a very odd thing. So that sort of thing hit me in my 20s. And if I hadn’t been reasonably successful it wouldn’t have happened the way it did, because you’re already on the rise. And then you become a person of interest.
CS: And then as the success became bigger over the years for you, was it easier to cope with it over time? Gibson: Well, you make an adjustment. I dropped out after a while for about a year and a half and just did basic things. I just thought that I don’t really want to go back there again until something makes me go back. Then of course the realities set in and it’s like trying to put a round peg in a square hole because you’re trying to fit in to some kind of life that you’re not allowed to fit into anymore. AND it’s not really what you love.
CS: Then did you discover what you truly love was directing, was being part of the filmmaking process? Gibson: That’s the best. I loved that. I think I was always meant to go there.
CS: And with the success you’d attained allowed you to go there. Gibson: It allowed me to do it because I had some credit and also allowed me to be at the hub of any kind of activity on a film set. I didn’t just disappear into the trailer. I’d hang out and watch what they were doing, because it was interesting to me, how they achieved certain things. I was like a pesky mosquito with directors. I was always asking them questions, why a particular lens, or why this angle, tell me about the edit. They were always really generous and actually liked that because it helped them formulate what they were doing too.
CS: Would it be fair to say you’d never been able to get “Braveheart” made had it not been for this success? Gibson: It would have been more difficult, yes. I had already directed one small film, “The Man Without a Face.” And that was a toe in the water which is really what you have to do. You don’t want to go out there on your first run and crash and burn on a big budget. You want to do something small. In many respects it was like a TV movie, except I put all my angst in it. And you don’t find out till you’re in the firing line and you have to make decisions, so I went through that whole process, and then I could do something with a greater degree of difficulty and bigger budget. So at that time, no films like “Braveheart” had been made for a very long time and of course it started a whole thing. As always the first guy out is the one who gets it. But I think the film has good things in it.
CS: That famous Freedom scene is one of the most imitated and parodied scene of recent memory. . Gibson: It’s still happening and pretty funny.
CS: And Scotland is using the film as an anthem for its upcoming election on independence. Gibson: It started the ball rolling. It’s amazing how powerful a piece of work can be and how it can influence people and change. It’s pretty interesting.
CS: How much did George Miller try and persuade you to do a “Mad Max 4”? Gibson: We talked about this very project like 10 years ago. I actually wanted to do it, but then what happened was, the budget was nuts. It was crazy. I certainly hope they’ve become more realistic about it.
CS: Is it true that Tom Hardy asked for your approval? Gibson: No, they cast him, but I sat down with the guy and I quite like him. I think he’s a good choice for that.
CS: Will you see the film? Gibson: Oh yeah, I’ll have a look. It’ll be fun. I think he’s a good actor. He commits completely and he looks great. There’s this scary thing about him which is kind of right for that. Tom needed to sit down and talk more than I did. I’m really happy about that. But I hope they do a great job. I’m a big fan of George’s.
CS: Is there a character at all that you played that you’d like to revisit? Gibson: Nah. I’ve done it. There are new challenges.
CS: And there’s no way you’ll be enticed into doing a “Lethal 5.” Gibson: No I think the way things are going with “Total Recall,” they’ll just remake those somehow. Though it’s really tough to replace Danny. He was so amazing in those things. It was a good gig for us. It worked. But we knew it would.
CS: Do you regret doing four movies? Gibson: No, I had fun on every one of them and they were lucrative and good to me. And they really afforded me the opportunity to slow down and pick things and do things that really interested me. Like this “Gringo” thing which didn’t pay but it was a good thing to have done.
CS: Robert Downey went out of his way to publicly support you as you did him when he was going through personal crises. Is Hollywood ultimately a forgiving town? Gibson: No it’s not. They have to forget. I don’t even think they’re vindictive. I don’t think they think there’s reason to forgive. And forgive what to begin with? What are they asking for? It’s almost like can you please forgive me for what? What did I do, really? It is kind of ridiculous. So it’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly what needs to be forgiven and I don’t consider that anything does because I didn’t hurt anyone. But you know, hey that’s life. It ain’t easy and it’s not fair. You’ve just got to slip the old water off the back and move on.
CS: Do you have a thick skin? Gibson: I’ve developed one. I wasn’t born that way but I have a hide like a rhinoceros.
CS: Now looking at what’s going on with upcoming projects. What’s the status on the Viking movie, which is still called “Berserker” I presume? Gibson: It’s still called “Berserker” and I believe it’s going forward. I’ve talked to actors and stuff, and there are some good names attached who want to do it.
CS: But not DiCaprio? Gibson: He’s pretty busy, so no.
CS: Is it still a violent Viking movie in the original language? Gibson: Not the original language. I’d thought about that at one time but then when you consider that English comes from the middle English language, it’s not a big jump. I’ll do something that’s understandable for a modern audience. But it won’t be the English THEY’RE used to.
CS: You’ve got a script? Gibson: I’ve got a great script. And the idea’s been batting around my head for years. And I couldn’t find a way to make it work, because if you look at what Vikings did, they’re pretty unsympathetic. And there’s no point in doing Viking light. So I had to find a way to find devices and ways to make that work dramatically, intelligently and make it seem realistic so it’s about real conflict in a real era in the 9th century, so that you actually see behavior and a new mode of thought seeping in. By the 11th century there weren’t any of these guys left anymore.
CS: Will this be expensive? Gibson: Everything’s expensive. It’s like ridiculous. But I can’t talk budget.
CS: Are you having discussions with investors or studios? Gibson: Both and there’s some interest and they dig it, but it isn’t the entire vision. You can’t write the vision down. You can only have a blueprint and then go from a jumping off spot. But it was by accident that I bumped into Randall Wallace and we’re collaborating on the script. We’ve got a fourth draft and it’s great. All we’ve got to do is do it now.
CS: Now there’s the much-discussed Maccabees project. Whats going on and what’s the story with the Eszterhas script? Gibson: Okay, so a guy gets paid to write a screenplay and doesn’t turn anything in for 14 months. That’s a serious problem. Not even an outline so I lost my nutter with him. I developed a Viking script almost a year after he started and I already had a second draft and he hadn’t even given me an outline. And he was at my home on a working holiday and he didn’t even bring one word. And he never intended to write a script. His whole intention was to set me up somehow.
CS: So do you still want to make that movie? Gibson: I DO want to make it and I will make it. And that’ll be a great film. And over the course of 14 months did you not think I told him what the story was? Give him my images? Give him my ideas and dialogue? You should see the books written on the subject. So I’m steeped in that stuff from the Seleucid Empire, and the relationship with Israel at the time, amazing history. So my best ideas I put in front of him, hoping that he took some of those, but he squandered them and alluded to them in his so called screenplay which I swear he must have written in three days. It’s really bad with heinous, bad, shonky, D grade dialogue. And after 18 months of waiting, from when we started talking, that’s what came in. And of course the studio also recognized it as not very good.
CS: So is there a studio attached to the film? Gibson: No, it’s just sitting there until I’m ready to go back to it. I’m busy with a writer who knows how to write.
CS: Now you’re also still an actor for hire. Gibson: Yeah sure if it’s good enough. I just worked with Robert Rodriguez on “Machete.”
CS: What was that experience like? Gibson: It was a great experience.
CS: Tell me about the character you play. Gibson: He’s an odd kind of guy, the Rodriguez version of a Bond villain. He’s a bad guy who said: “What if he’s right?”
CS: So a bad guy with a moral compass. Gibson: In a weird way.
CS: That must have been fun for you. Gibson: Oh yeah it was fun, and it’s fast, man, is it fast? A good degree of it is digital. I went down to Austin and its very laid back and cool. Robert is a fantastic guy and I’ve never seen a crew work so fast and so hard. There’s just no waste and no time lost. And he knows how he’s going to do it. It’s pretty funny. I enjoyed the experience and I enjoyed that kind of pace and in 20 years I spoke more in this than in the entire 20 years combined. The guy is only in the third act. But he’s the big nemesis.
CS: Do you get to ham it up? Gibson: Of course it’s extremely heightened because you’re working on “Machete,” come on! And I get to have a sword fight with Machete. He has his machete and I have a samurai sword, but it’s kind of fun and it’s full of surprises, because it brings the kind of Grindhouse action thing to it, almost celebrating being gratuitous in its drive and making no apology for it and making it fun, like some twisted fairy tale.
CS: Finally, do you think you’re at the most relaxed you’ve been for a while? Gibson: I’m pretty relaxed.
CS: Do you miss Australia? Gibson: Not overtly. I slip in and out sometimes and it’s okay. It’s good to go there. But you don’t have to go there for the amount of Australians here. And it’s nice sitting down with them ’cause Aussies tend to be irreverent about most things so it’s a whole different level of communication.