It’s been a long time in no-man’s land for Mel, but a new film about an all-american hero could turn the tide.
ALL SMILES – WAVING, SIGNING AUTOGRAPHS, JOKING WITH FANS. THERE FOR THE PREMIERE OF NEW FILM, HACKSAW RIDGE,
it was one of the festival’s most anticipated events. Marking Gibson’s return to the director’s chair for the first time in 10 years, the film chronicles World War II soldier Desmond Doss, a man little known in Australia but a war hero in America. It’s fair to suggest the stakes were high. Behind the illuminated smiles, Gibson was nervous. “I got in last night – I haven’t slept,” he later tells GQ. “It’s like putting your child out there, like sending them to kindergarten. There’s trepidation, there’s fear, there’s hope.” There’s also the fact he’s Mel Gibson – a man who, over the past four decades, has been hailed as one of the finest actors of his generation, chalked up some 50 film credits, won two Oscars and secured a personal fortune estimated at half a billion dollars. But he’s come close to throwing that all away – this film his chance at a new beginning. Desmond Doss was 23 when he joined the US army. Enlisting in 1942, he was one of the 16 million American soldiers who’d serve the country during the war. Except Doss had one major difference – he refused to carry a weapon. Still, his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs didn’t prevent him ending up on the front lines as a medic, where he was wounded three times and saved the lives of 75 soldiers. The first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor, he’d see another six decades after the war, dying a national hero in 2006. “Desmond Doss was an ordinary guy who did extraordinary things under very difficult circumstances – which, to me, is heroic,” says Gibson. “He went into battle armed with nothing more than faith. He was tapping into something bigger than himself. But he didn’t think of himself as a hero.” Doss is played by The Amazing Spider-man star Andrew Garfield, who says the role was always going to be a challenge. “The wild thing is, he was a real person, he was flesh and blood – and there’s no real way of honouring such a person,” offers Garfield. “He was resistant to being glorified as a hero in any way. He gave the praise to God and the soldiers who were brave enough to give their lives. So the question we had to ask ourselves was, ‘How do we make a film about a man who didn’t want a film made about him?’” Garfield and Vince Vaughn (as officer Sergeant Howell) supply some US star power, but the film is a thoroughly Australian affair. Shot entirely in Western Sydney, it features some of this country’s finest actors, including Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Luke Bracey and Ryan Corr. “It was good to go home,” says Gibson of his time filming in 2015. “It’s a great place to work and it was a real team effort. The crews are great, the actors are great, the special effects are great. Every aspect of filmmaking down there was magnificent. It was fantastic.” Weaving plays Desmond’s father, Tom, a man whose personal experiences of World War I left him broken. “He’s an alcoholic and an abusive father,” explains Weaving. “This is a war film, but of course it’s also an anti-war film. Doss is a particularly American hero but he’s also an unlikely war hero, because the usual hero in war is the brave soldier who saves the lives of his friends by killing other people’s friends. And he refuses to do that.” Weaving hadn’t previously worked with Gibson, and was nearly forced to turn down the project. “I’d just done a couple of plays and I was looking to have a bit of a break – I was pretty exhausted. But I heard Mel was out here doing a film, and then, when
“I HAD A LOT OF UPS AND DOWNS. I’M JUST A FLAWED HUMAN BEING. I’M NO BETTER OR WORSE.”
I read the script, I thought it was a terrific character – I said ‘yes’. “And I absolutely loved working with him. He’s very instinctive – because he’s an actor, he gets actors. I’ve never been on a set where the crew was so buoyed by the energy of the director. Mel just steers a really great ship.” Garfield agrees: “There are no questions – it’s very clear. He’s in the scene with you, absolutely in the frame with you. Feeling everything that you’re feeling – and [he] knows when you’re not feeling it. There’s not many directors who care about actors in the same way. It was a rare experience.” Gibson, of course, has worked with some of the greats – George Miller and Peter Weir spotting his rugged talents early on. Of his directorial style, Gibson says it’s hard to know how he compares to such men. “We’re all influenced by the things we’ve seen and the things we’ve been exposed to – art and paintings, actors and directors or movies we’ve seen,” he says. “Everyone’s got their own style. Some people are really more into the action and the actors. Others not – they like to leave it to you. “I remember hearing this editor talking to this director I was working with one time. They loved each other. But they would scream abuse at each other. Did I? I don’t think so. I got upset once or twice.” Adds Garfield: “He didn’t scream at anyone.” Gibson arrived with 1979’s dystopian effort Mad Max, showing he had no issue drawing crowds. Critics came on board two years later, with the powerful classic, Gallipoli. Then 1995’s Braveheart gave Gibson Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. War, it seems, makes for good cinema. “When I look at battle scenes like Braveheart, I like to make them like sporting events, so they are clear – the rules are spelled out, even though it looks like chaos. It’s important that you don’t send people running out of the cinema, but I wanted to push the envelope with this – to show what it was like. I always loved films as a child. To me, they were big dreams. They fired my imagination and I don’t think that’s diminished. I still get the same kick out of fashioning a story as I did back when I was a child.” Still, not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for Gibson’s storytelling. After a series of outbursts and humiliations, he’s spent most of the past decade as a Hollywood pariah. His fall from grace began with a drunken tirade hurled at a police officer in 2006. Then came the 2010 recordings of him screaming abuse at his ex-wife, Oksana Grigorieva. Mega-agent Ari Emanuel – the inspiration for Entourage’s shouty Ari Gold – shut the door on Gibson, and all but demanded others do the same. And they did. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. Some people will never forgive Gibson or bring themselves to trust him again, and maybe they shouldn’t. But here today, at 60, Gibson’s certainly older – his hair and beard both grey, the years spent in the Hollywood wilderness etched in his face. As to whether he’s any wiser, he admits to lessons learnt. “The past 10 years have been a learning experience,” he claims. “But then, life is a learning experience, you know. I had lots of ups and downs. I’ve done a lot of work on myself in that time. I’m getting to a much healthier place now. But it’s an ongoing thing, and always will be. I’m no better or worse – I’m just trying, as always. I’m just a flawed human being. “But like someone once said to me – it’s one per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration. You have to get out there and do the work. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.” It’s hard to call Gibson courageous in the context of someone like Doss, but there’s no doubt his film premiere took balls. The morning after, reviews trickle in – The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and The Guardian among those hailing it a success. But Gibson didn’t have to wait that long to appreciate its reception. When the credits began to roll in Venice, the crowd took to their feet and applauded, standing for 10 minutes while the cast made their way on stage. It was a triumph – perhaps best summed up by the man himself. As Gibson fronted an excited press pack to face questions, one journalist asked him for a single word to sum up his time in Hollywood. “One word?” he grinned. “Survival.” Hacksaw Ridge is in cinemas November 3
GIBSON ON SET FILMING HACKSAW RIDGE – AND IN THE LINE OF FIRE AT THE PREMIERE IN VENICE.