Mel Gibson (Sunday Times Magazine, November 6, 2016)
I first met Mel Gibson over 15 years ago at a party on the Sony lot for the movie The Patriot. He came up behind me and turned me upside down and carried me around. I was hysterical but this was one of his party tricks. This was Mel. Maverick, wild, funny, unpredictable. Not much has changed in him since then but in a way everything has. He’s still wild in his heart. But he’s had to rein it in because of the periods where he was completely out of control. Everyone has an opinion about Gibson. Especially after his drunken, Anti- Semitic rant on the PCH Highway when he was stopped for driving under the influence in July 2006. And then in 2011 there was the “leaked” recordings of nasty rows with his then girlfriend, Russian model and musician Oksana Grigorieva, mother of his 7 year old daughter Lucia. For some he’ll always be a hero. He’ll always be Braveheart. Alec Baldwin, Jodie Foster and Robert Downey Junior have all spoken up for him, the latter when presenting him with an award addressed the audience, ‘unless you are completely without sin, in which case you picked the wrong f****** industry to join me in forgiving my friend his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate that you have me…’
Hollywood are of course slow to forgive. His directing genius was quiet and mostly unseen for this past decade. Of course he apologised. Of course he worked on himself but the industry needs something different than that. It needs a movie that is so powerful it erases any other feeling except awe for Gibson. Hacksaw Ridge is that movie. Powerful, spectacular, emotional, gripping. I sat through it hardly able to breathe. In Venice it got a 10 minute standing ovation.
It’s the Mel Gibson comeback movie. Here he is, Hollywood reupholstered, repatched and re-treaded for the road with a story that’s brutal, graphic and emotional. Hacksaw is the story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honour for bravery in WW11. Doss was a seven day Eventist – his religious beliefs meant he couldn’t carry a gun but as a medic he could save lives even though constantly endangering his own.
This kind of shining bravery is just what Gibson loves. I’m waiting for him in an office in West Hollywood. He arrives with an air of fluster, announcing that he NEEDS a coffee and something to eat. It’s lunchtime and he hasn’t eaten yet. He’s wearing dark jeans, a navy pullover and a giant beard grown for an upcoming movie, the Professor of the Madman with Sean Penn. He likes to twiddle on this beard quite a bit. He combs it and strokes it unconsciously.
His eyes stare out, not so much at me. I tell him that I loved Hacksaw but he’s too focused on his hunger to take the compliment. I ask him how the story came to him. “It was given to me by Bill Mechanic (the man who used to run Fox) three times and on the third time I said yes. I turned down Braveheart and then looked at it again.”
Braveheart (1995) was the 13th century Scottish epic where Gibson the movie star and Gibson the film maker collaborated in perfect reel. His first impact was with Mad Max (1979) a post-apocalyptic thriller. It made Gibson a star in his native Australia and after that Gallipoli (1981), Peter Weir’s epic Australian First World War drama made him a star worldwide.
He directed and funded the Passion of The Christ (2004). It drew controversy – of course, but remains the biggest grossing independent film of all time. It’s been 10 years since he helmed Apocalypto (2006) about the decline and savagery of the Mayan kingdom. It was received well but Hacksaw is being spectacularly embraced.
Is he happy he made it now rather than a few years ago? He nods enthusiastically, pointing out that 10 years ago when it landed on his desk, its leading actor, Andrew Garfield would have been too young for the part. Garfield’s (Boy A and Spiderman) portrayal of Desmond Doss is remarkable. So weedy, yet brave. Handsome but awkward.
“He’s got a very soulful quality. He wasn’t like some muscle guy. He’s just a guy. Good looking but not like a pretty boy and that’s who Desmond was. An ordinary guy.” Did Gibson meet Doss before making the movie? “No. he passed away in 2006 at 87 but before he died he’d given his life rights to his church to dispose of. The church were pretty concerned. They didn’t want to give it to just anybody so Bill Mechanic was very sensitive to their requirements and wanted to honour the story of Desmond. As early as 1948 Hal Wallace (American producer of Casablanca and True Grit) was trying to get the rights to make a movie but Desmond never even went into a cinema. They even commandeered Audy Murphy (one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War II) to talk to him and say, ‘look I’m a war hero and I’m making movies. It’s ok. But Desmond said, “I’ll just stay here and grow my vegetables.” He was humble but then he realised that two or three other men followed his lead as a conscientious objector medic and he realised that his story would inspire other people. Desmond was selfless. He put his life on the line for somebody else in a heartbeat and would do it over and over again.”
When Doss first joined the army and refused to carry a weapon he was not only mocked by his fellow soldiers he was tortured. “The persecution was more protracted. We don’t show all of it in the film. And yet this was the man who got 75 guys, dragged them and pulled them on a rope down a big cliff and he was only 150 pounds. He stepped on a grenade to save a friend and as he was being carried off in a stretcher he saw someone who was wounded, so he jumped off, treated the guy and put HIM on the stretcher.”
The ultimate battle scene in Hacksaw is in Okinawa where Desmond pulls out men from carnage – it’s Gibson at his best. Blood, gore, salvation. There’s a guy in it who gets his legs blown off played by a soldier who lost his limbs in Afghanistan. He had to re-enact losing his own legs. He wore his prosthetics for the rest of the movie. Was that not a bit traumatic for him? “Yes it was. He approached the scene with trepidation but he’s a courageous guy and he found it cathartic.”
There’s also a lot of blood in this movie. “Yes,” he says enthusiastically. “I really like blood.” Really? “Yes. Okinawa was the worst place in the Pacific. 350,000 dead in a 10 week period. There were rivers of blood. I didn’t go too far, believe me.” I notice at the beginning of the movie there is a shot of Desmond getting a blood taste. The blood is shot with awe. “Oh well,” he shrugs. “Doss met his wife while giving blood. He did it a few times, initially because he wanted to help people.”
Did Gibson identify with Doss? Long pause. “I think we all want to think we can be like that. When we see somebody like him, it reassures us that the human spirit is capable of just about anything and when things look really bleak that’s a good message to get. This is an extraordinary guy who did extraordinary things in extremely difficult circumstances. And that would test the mettle of anyone’s spirit, heart and mind and it’s also a great story.”
Hacksaw was shot in Australia so that too has a feeling of renaissance for Gibson. It was also a family affair. His son Milo was in it. “I’m not helping him. He’s doing alright on his own. I have another son who worked on the film who was a Steadicam operator.”
It was good to work with family? “Yes.” There’s a twiddle of the beard. “Yes it was good.”
His eight children range from 6 to 36 in age. Seven of them are with his ex wife of 31 years Robyn. He was married to Robyn when we met. He described her as his rock, more organised than him – a nurturing figure. There was never a hint of a betrayal in those years. Word is he was devastated when she left him, but even when they were at their happiest he found it difficult to talk about love. Way too girly for him. Gibson is a guy’s guy. He doesn’t like talking about soft stuff but he’s happy to talk about his children, raving about their talents. One son is a sculptor and glass blower, another is a chopper pilot and TV producer, another (Louis) is a film director whose first movie has just been completed. It was just announced that he is expecting his ninth child with writer Rosalind Ross, his girlfriend of two years, a former equestrian high jumper . She’s 26, he’s 60. While much can be made of their 34 year age difference, the relationship seems both steady and steadying. What does he think about having a ninth child? “Delighted.” According to People magazine he’s had the happiest two years of his life.
The conversation circles back to the Venice ovation. “Nine minutes 52 seconds.” How did that make him feel? Happy, relieved, back? “Absolutely. It’s like being a chef. If people eat it and go yum yum it’s gratifying. If you’re a story teller it tells you that somewhere in your quiver you’ve got a bunch of bolts that are aimed true. It’s affirmation for the work you do and that your story telling ideas correspond with humanity at large.”
I think about this. Is he admitting it was hard for him to have people not forgive him and now he feels accepted again? He says, “Well it’s not like I stopped working….There have been many projects…but this is my first as a director for ten years.” Yes there have been movies in which he has acted, notably the Beaver which was about a man having a break down, who only has the ability to speak through his glove puppet Beaver. It was a poignant performance directed by his friend Jodie Foster. It struck a chord with me because it seemed to echo Gibson himself, in pain and unable to speak except through rage. And more recently there was Blood Father which has been well received. “Peter Weir or Terry Malick, these take ten years between projects. It’s because they are very discerning. I am discerning and I’m not sure that I want to reach into my own pocket anymore because it can pay huge dividends or you can get totally killed.”
The Passion was the biggest grossing independent film of all time. “Yes, so that was an excellent bet.” I have read that there’s going to be a sequel. “Not a sequel, but a continuation. There’s resurrection, there’s stuff before, stuff after, stuff in other realms but it’s a very big subject, deep and profound so it will require a good deal of thought. It has to be enlightening and work on a lot of different levels that all have to dovetail so it will be tricky.” He has said before “I love directing. It’s the most fun you can have standing up.”
Eventually someone brings him a croissant. He tears into it like a caveman into an animal. He hasn’t eaten since the veal chop and spinach last night. “I need carbs. Every now and again you have to snort some pasta.” Bits of croissant flake into the bushy beard which he strokes proudly. In The Professor and the Madman, Sean Penn is the Madman but it could have easily gone the other way round. “It could. We gravitated to those roles. Sean can be just as crazy as me. My theory about great actors – and Sean is a great actor – they have to be a little bit kooky and he is.”
Hard to say who is king of kooky but Gibson has certainly reigned supreme as the practical joker. He’s been good friends with Julia Roberts since they worked on Conspiracy Theory (1997) and likes to send her freeze dried Norwegian rats. “I love her and I love to hear her scream. I put a Norwegian freeze dried rat that comes from a store in New York City in a parcel and when she unwrapped it she screamed.”
We laugh about the rat and now he seems perfectly relaxed. People can forgive him for sending rats to Julia Roberts but does he worry that other people haven’t forgiven him? “Really? Are there? I’m not aware of it.” So that’s me in a question cul de sac. If you can’t admit that you ever worried about people not forgiving you, the problem doesn’t exist, therefore we can’t plunder the coalface of his rage and alcohol issues. He’s apologised of course and says, “Look, I’ve done all the necessary work over the years to come back and I’m in a healthy place. As you can see I am tee totalling.” He gestures to his coffee cup. Is he sure there’s no vodka in it? “Not even a drop.”
He rummages in his bag and gets out a picture of the man he’s going to play in The Professor and The Madman. The beard is even longer. A rabbinical Santa Claus? “Kind of but he was very scholarly and a Scot and he was the editor of the English Oxford Dictionary. The movie is not dry at all. It’s incredible.” Soon he’s off to Ireland to shoot it. “Sean and I are going to look like ZZ Top.” I tell him he looks like he could work in an Apple store, his beard is so long. “I would be proud to get a job there. Those techy guys are usually pretty bright. Maybe fur does confer brains. Con-fur?” he jokes. There’s no doubt that Gibson is beyond smart, an instinctive story teller who knows how to manipulate his sc reen audiences emotions.
In the initial tests for Hacksaw I was surprised to see that women liked the movie more than men. “The hard combat and the violent aspects are not gratuitous. They are justified in the context of the story and it is emotionally engaging. It’s not just a bucket of blood being thrown down. It has a point. One of the points being the understanding of the kind of sacrifice someone makes in the conditions that they are operating under. You hear the expression war is hell. I wanted to show you just a little peek of hell. I thought it was important to have the audience feel that they were in a foxhole too and to bring them some understanding of what post-traumatic stress disorder is like. I’ve talked to people about this since the beginning of my career when I was in my twenties and they were in their eighties. I’ve talked to World War I guys (when he did Gallipoli), I’ve talked to World War II guys like my dad and guys who have been in the Vietnam war and guys who have been to Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter what the war was, they all got PTSD.”
In the First World War they called it shell shock, didn’t they? “Yes but I don’t think there was enough attention paid to it. Something is needed and I hope this could bring awareness to the problems we have today with returning service guys who are suffering.”
Did he miss directing, being ten years away from it? He doesn’t answer yes or no, but says, “I didn’t want to stick my hand in my pocket again.” Next up he’s doing a TV show called The Barbary Coast with Kurt Russell. It’s set in San Francisco 1849 at the time of the gold rush. They are writing it and directing it together and Kate Hudson will be in it. “It was a crazy place. Corruption, debauchery, murders, lawlessness.” He said the word lawlessness with relish. “Yes, because we are talking about an anarchic society that has its own rules. Remember Lord of the Flies? If you leave people to their own devices you see what animals they become. It shows the best and the worst of us.”
He seems excited and a whole lot more relaxed. I think that’s a lot to do with the croissant. What would he be like in that gold rush? The sweetest version of himself or the cruellest? “I don’t know,” he says, pensive. “When you’re thrown in to situations you never know.” If he were in Hacksaw Ridge would he be the medic that saves lives? “No, that would be crazy. What would I do? I don’t know. How do you survive in that world?” His stories are usually about survival and sometimes redemption. “Yes, sure. These are all primals. I think if you stick with themes that show us who we are and find situations that accentuate who we could be or shouldn’t be, those are the interesting stories.”
I give him a gift that was made for him by an enclosed order of Welsh Nuns – hand carved beads with Celtic cross and Star of David. The nuns gave it to me for him a few years ago because they’re all about forgiveness and this particular cross is only worn by these nuns, the Poor Clares. Basically you have to be a nun to get one of these so they made a special effort. He looks mystified, bewildered but he likes the idea of these nuns who were once fallen women. And now he has something that can only be worn by nuns, is he in touch with his female side? “Oh sure, yes…. I remember I was in a film years ago and how the dialogue went when I was getting in touch with my female side.” Really? “Yes, the dialogue was like this:
“Last night I cried in bed.”
“Were you with a woman?”
“No, that’s why I was crying.”
That was the B grade dialogue from Lethal Weapon 1 and I can attribute that to Shane Black.” So despite the fact that Gibson did a movie What Women Want and he waxed his legs for it, he makes a point of not wanting to know what women want and not wanting to be in touch with his female side. “In fact I feel we should do another movie. What women don’t want.”