THE REDEMPTION OF MEL GIBSON
Mel Gibson talks to John Hiscock about comebacks, battle scenes, and bringing real heroes back to Hollywood
The Hollywood resurrection of Mel Gibson has begun. The Oscar-winning film-maker and actor has kept a low profile for the past decade, sheltering from the tsunami of public condemnation that descended on him following revelations of his anti-Semitic and misogynist rants.
But now Gibson, 60, has emerged from the shadows with Hacksaw Ridge, a brutally violent but highly effective combat saga that earned a 10-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival and is receiving praise from both critics and faith-based groups who have seen early screenings.
The true story of a pacifist combat medic and Seventh-day Adventist Christian caught up in the inferno of World War II, it’s the first movie Gibson has directed since the gruesome but thrilling Apocalypto in 2006, and it stands a good chance of awards nominations this year.
“Well,” he says, “the past 10 years have been interesting. I don’t feel like this is some kind of comeback for me, I just feel like it’s good. But I was always busy during that time, and I was always writing and developing stuff. Traditionally, people have not been too willing to back the things that I wanted to generate, so I used to put my hand in my pocket and do it myself. But nothing has happened in that arena for a long time, because I wasn’t willing to take the risk.”
Then, he laughs. “I dabbled in acting here and there [he appeared in the thriller Edge of
Darkness and offbeat drama The Beaver], so it wasn’t all bad. And I also got a chance to perfect my fly-fishing technique, be a pretty hands-on dad and work on myself. You have got to try to progress.”
Gibson certainly seems a lot more at ease than he has done in previous interviews, when he appeared nervous and was frequently irritable. Accompanied by his longtime and long-suffering publicist, he is willing to answer questions about his personal life that previously would have vexed him.
Admittedly, when we meet (in LA) he is looking rather eccentric, with a bushy moustache and snow-white pointed beard that he constantly strokes and twists between his fingers. “I can’t wait to cut it off,” he says, “but I’m making a film over in Ireland with Sean Penn [ The Professor and the Madman] and we have to be in the 1800s. So we are going to look like the 1800s version of ZZ Top.”
That film marks another step forward on his road to Hollywood rehabilitation, the possible end to the exile that began when he launched an anti-Semitic rant after being arrested for drunken driving on Pacific Coast Highway in 2006, after which things went from bad to worse.
He was excoriated for the graphic violence in films such as The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, and criticised for fathering a daughter by a girlfriend 14 years his junior with whom he began an affair while still married to his wife of nearly 30 years.
Then came the astonishing, rage-filled audio clips in which he was heard ranting and using misogynistic slurs at his girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, the mother of his youngest child, and apparently saying she “needed a bat in the side of the head”. Some analysts who heard the leaked telephone conversations said they suggested he had a temperament of emotional violence. (Gibson later described his outbursts as “the worst moment” of his life saying that what he did “wasn’t meant to be public”.)
After the outcry that followed, Gibson retreated to his church. A devout member of a traditionalist Catholic group, he has built his own church in Malibu, where services are all in Latin. He spent time praying, went to therapy twice a week and attended counselling sessions.
As with The Passion of the Christ, he first screened Hacksaw Ridge for Seventh-day Adventists, evangelicals and faith-based groups around the US. “They agree that some of the images are hard,” he says, “but they felt that the overall the message was a good one.”
Gibson and his wife Robyn, the mother of seven of his children, were divorced in 2009 after a three-year separation, and he is now romantically involved with equestrian vaulter Rosalind Ross, 34 years his junior, who is pregnant with their first — and Gibson’s ninth — child.
“Regarding age and relationships, it’s just a number,” he says. “She is an adult, and we dig each other. It might cause a problem, and one has a trepidation about these things, but it’s working out great. She is a really special person. I dig her. So there you go. That’s it. What more can one ask?”
It was producer Bill Mechanic, who’d previously worked with Gibson on the multiple Oscar-winning Braveheart in 1994, who offered him the chance to return to the Hollywood mainstream. Like Braveheart, Hacksaw Ridge pulls together the themes of faith, violence and war.
It stars Andrew Garfield as real-life Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who nevertheless went to war as a medic but refused to carry a gun on religious grounds.
The past 10 years have been interesting. I don’t feel like this is some kind of comeback for me, I just feel like it’s good. MEL GIBSON
He was ridiculed and ostracised by his fellow soldiers for his stance but emerged a hero, repeatedly running into the battle on the escarpment known as Hacksaw Ridge — on the Japanese island Okinawa — and dragging to safety an estimated 75 injured men, who would otherwise have died.
Film-makers have wanted to put his story on the screen ever since 1948, when Audie Murphy — one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of World War II — was set to portray Doss, but Doss constantly refused permission. Finally, shortly before his death in 2006, at the age of 87, he gave the rights to his life to his church, along with permission for his story to be told.
“For a man to have the conviction to go into the mouth of hell unarmed, and to risk his life to save others, is one of the most profound and spiritual things you could do,” says Gibson. “This man transcended war and he is the pinnacle of heroism for me.”
The Hollywood landscape has changed considerably since Gibson last directed a film, with the emphasis now on superheroes and stories from comic books. The budget for
Hacksaw Ridge was kept down to US$40 million, and Gibson filmed it in 59 days in Australia.
“Generally speaking,” he says ruefully, “you get all the bells and whistles if you are making a story about a hero in Spandex, but not a real hero story. There are more constraints now. Our budget was 20 per cent less than what I had on Braveheart about 20 years ago, and it was shot in about half the time.”
Technology, too, he discovered has changed since the former Mad Max and Lethal Weapon star last went behind the camera. “The degree of difficulty goes up,” he says, “because you are not doing medieval battle scenes with man versus man and blunt objects — you are doing explosions and bullets and stuff like that. It’s all more technically demanding.”
With the possibility of awards ahead and his days as a pariah in Hollywood perhaps over, Gibson is unsure what lies ahead, although he is looking forward to whatever comes next.
“The future is uncertain,” he says, “but I kind of like that. There is nothing carved in stone, and there are all sorts of possibilities, which is nice. But as we know the best laid plans of mice and men usually go awry, so I am prepared for whatever comes along.
“The only thing I can do is just take care of myself, because nothing is going to work out the way I want it. It never does, right?”
Mel Gibson with actor Andrew Garfield on the set of Hacksaw Ridge.