august 11, 2016
Some filmmakers direct quietly near the camera or a bank of monitors. Mel Gibson is not one of them.
Out on the battlefield, on the set of Hacksaw Ridge, he talks enthusiastically to two actors, grabbing a rifle to show how he'd like it to be held, then stumbling down the hill at the pace he wants for the shot. Then he's down, rolling in the dirt. Although it looks from a distance like he's showing an actor how to fall, he later admits he just slipped.
"You never trip as much as when you're directing because your attention is always somewhere else," he says. "So I'm constantly tripping and falling."
Associate producer Zak Mechanic says Gibson is unusually animated for a director:
"You see him start to move with the actor. He's kind of acting it out himself. Then he gets excited and he runs to the set and talks to the actors. He's out there constantly."
When lunch is called, Gibson heads to a sparsely furnished trailer to talk about his comeback. Close up, he still scrubs up pretty decently: tanned face, blue eyes, grey-flecked hair and a whitish beard that would look the part in either a bikie gang or Amish congregation.
He loves the idea of a war hero who was prepared to sacrifice his life for others.
"This guy was for real," he says. "He would not touch a weapon no matter what. But he went into the thick of places where nobody else would go, which is kind of unbelievable. I think he's a hero for our times."
Everyone has an opinion about Mel Gibson. Over the decades, millions of words have been written about him. His looks and charisma. The movies that have collectively grossed $US3.6 billion. His Catholicism. His practical jokes. His struggles with alcohol. His wealth, estimated at $US850 million before his divorce in 2011. His latter-day troubles.
Gibson admits to years of Alcoholics Anonymous involvement.
"I've had to do that stuff, otherwise you don't survive," he says, referring to his struggle to overcome a drinking problem.
They call it the spiritual path for the psychopath. They say there's only three options: you go insane, you die or you quit.
That's the harsh reality. I'm an old hand at that."
On the decrepitude that comes with ageing, for instance: "Geez, the aching joints," he says. "Oh my god. I get up at five or six in the morning and – owww – I'm crawling across the floor like a duck-shot dog trying to get to the shower … I feel I'm pretty physical, so that's good, but I have aches, pains, bad back, the whole deal. But you've just got to ignore it, right? We're all going one way." But every now and then there are flashes of fury or hurt that belie his claim that he has developed "a hide like a rhinoceros" and "the arrows bounce off now".
Gibson discovered, at 31, what it was like to be very, very famous.
"It's fun for a while and then the novelty wears off rather quickly," he says.
"You've lost a very precious thing and that's your anonymity. That's part of it; now I get that. But you don't sign the deal that says you have no more rights.
You don't sign a piece of paper that says people can say anything they want about you – in public – and there's nothing legally you can do about it.
You get all kinds of stuff. It's a bit of a rude awakening."
The Passion of the Christ, released in 2004, was nothing short of a phenomenon. It was attacked by Jewish leaders as anti-Semitic, but at a cost of $US30 million, funded entirely by Icon, it grossed a remarkable $US611 million. "It turned into a real slugfest, while I was making it and afterwards," he says. "I was surprised at the amount of controversy that it stirred up. Seriously surprised. I mean, Jesus, it used to be in every hotel room in the world, the Gideon Bible, and the story didn't differ from what's in there."
Gibson soon found Hollywood turning against him. Those offended by the movie felt justified when he launched into an anti-
Semitic tirade while being arrested for drink driving in LA in 2006. Even after apologising for his "vitriolic and harmful words", agent Ari Emanuel urged Hollywood to shun Gibson, and many quietly did. I interviewed a well-known Hollywood director around this time who, once the tape recorder was switched off, launched into a furious tirade about Gibson's anti-Semitism.
Gibson has since said his Australian wife of 26 years, Robyn, asked him to move out of the family home the day after the arrest, leading to a period of depression and loneliness as his career spiralled downwards. In 2010 came more vitriolic words in leaked audio tapes of an outburst against his then girlfriend, Russian pianist Oksana Grigorieva, the mother of his youngest child, Lucia. He was dropped by his Hollywood agent William Morris Endeavor. Later, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanour spousal battery charge without admitting guilt.
A once-private life had become very public. He could have fought back publicly with his side of the story or given an Oprah-style interview, seeking sympathy and forgiveness. But he's not one for tearful public confessions.
"I've never treated anyone badly or in a discriminatory way based on their gender, race, religion or sexuality – period," Gibson told website Deadline Hollywood in a rare interview in 2011. "I don't blame people for thinking that though, from the garbage they heard on those leaked tapes, which have been edited. You have to put it in the proper context of being in an irrationally, heated discussion at the height of a breakdown, trying to get out of a really unhealthy relationship."
The journalist-turned-friend who penned that earlier interview, Allison Hope Weiner, wrote that "during his breakup with Grigorieva, he'd gone through a terrible emotional breakdown and struggled to get healthy, gain joint custody of his infant daughter and deal with the fallout from the publication of those awful tapes".
She wrote he was "an alcoholic whose 2006 outburst was captured after he fell off the wagon"; that as well as meeting Jewish leaders who had criticised The Passion of the Christ, Gibson had "quietly donated millions to charitable Jewish causes"; that he had "helped Britney Spears when she hit bottom" and "tried to save Whitney Houston from the drug abuse that ultimately killed her"; that during the assault case one investigator said "they had enormous problems with the credibility" of Grigorieva and there was evidence of extortion.
Gibson says he has been busy. "I write a lot – or co-write – stories and plots," he says. "And there's the day-to-day child rearing. I have a little one [Lucia is now 6]. And several big ones … and grandkids and all that sort of stuff. But mostly I focus on stories and how to tell them in a way that's hopefully original."
Gibson enjoys the time he spends with his adult children (daughter Hannah and sons Edward, Christian, William, Louis, Milo and Thomas) and says the good news is they still like him. "As a parent, everybody screws up," he says. "There's no such thing as a perfect parent and it's so easy to mess up. But hopefully I've screwed up less than most."
Gibson might prefer protection from the paparazzi. It's clear their attentions upset him. "If you're out in the street, I guess you've got it coming," he says. "But when you're in your domicile and the long lens comes into your yard or tries to get through your window, I don't know if that's legal. I don't think it is, but it happens all the time. It's kind of a scary thing because people can accuse you of assault or something like that when you haven't done it."
He was cleared of shoving a newspaper photographer outside a Sydney cinema last year. "Luckily there was a witness and CCTV cameras that said I didn't do it," he says. "The cops didn't charge me but you never get an apology from these people who write damaging articles and it's annoying." How does he come to terms with incidents like that? "You don't," he says. "You just outlive it. There are some graves I will piss on." Pause. "They don't even have to be dead."
Gibson is just as candid about turning 60. "You get a little pre-show around about 58, 59 for 60," he says. "The realisation hit that the third act had begun. I don't know where it's going to take me. My father [Hutton, who now lives in the US] is 98, so he's had a long third act. I don't know if I want a long third act but I'd like a full one. I enjoy working. I really love it. I hope my mind stays attuned."
For an actor who once did a 60-metre jump off a building for a stunt – "I don't like heights but I was shamed into it" – ageing has brought a certain creakiness. He has found adult stem cell treatment in South America – often considered experimental – beneficial for both himself and his father. "I had my shoulder done," he says. "It's a miracle." But, as his face attests, he doesn't go in for cosmetic work. "I don't want the dimple on my chin to be my navel," he says. "You see some people getting touched up. It starts to get weird. Just let it go."
With age, Gibson recognises the need to move on from your worries. "You do become more relaxed about things. Women have menopause. Men go through the same thing. It's an andropause kind of thing. You get barking mad in your 50s and then you settle down. I don't want to go back to the early 50s." Finding peace – barking mad or not – is a subject Gibson returns to later. "The answer's not in a bottle," he says reflectively. "It's not in a prescription med or any of that sort of stuff. Some people need to use that stuff. I don't. But it's a higher thing. You have to get some kind of philosophical, spiritual level to deal with the knocks."
Despite what seemed like a highly successful career and family life up to that point, turning 50 just a few months before his drink-driving arrest forced Gibson to reflect on his life. "You look back at the whole thing and think, 'What did I do?' " he says. "There's a sense it's more than half over, the whole drama. Your tiny little drama on the planet. You're like a speck. You're like an atom in the scheme of things, really. But we tend to make it all a little too important. That's part of it. It's the ego, isn't it?"
A pressing question for Gibson now is whether he feels his troubles are behind him. Whether the storm is over. "Hey, we've all got troubles, all the time, every day, in some form or another," he says. "That's life. It's how you deal with them. You can't let them get to you too much. I have a sense of ease, I think, which is good. Because you've got to be good to yourself, right? If you're not good to yourself, it's not going to radiate onto anyone else."