Mel Gib­son talks to John His­cock about come­backs, bat­tle scenes, and bring­ing real he­roes back to Hol­ly­wood

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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.

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