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GIBSON, MEL: Payback

Mel Gibson is no longer afraid of taking risks, and risks he does take. The Oscar winning director has come a long way since Paul Fischer first met a shy, young Mel, 19 years ago, for one of his very first interviews. The two met again in a Los Angeles hotel (January 1999), to talk about the starís life and career now, on the eve of Paybackís Australian release.

It's hard to believe that this year marks the 20th anniversary of George Miller's low-budget classic, Mad Max. This was a film that redefined Australian cinema, and introduced a young thespian and recent NIDA graduate, Mel Gibson, to the world. Two decades on, and 43-year old Gibson may be older and certainly wiser, but it's ironic that his newest Hollywood movie, Payback, centres around another revengeful, violent loner.

"I wasn't even sure..what the hell I wanted to do; 20 years ago, shit, I was so much younger."

Maybe he's come full circle, but Gibson has certainly changed, he says, in between mouthfuls of refresher mints. "There's nothing like experience. Twenty years is a long time, and it's hard to get your hands around exactly WHAT happene;it's time and maturation," he reflects with a pronounced American accent. Though he doesn't look it, time seems to have caught up with Mel. "You know you wake up and you've got a pain in your back, but other things are easier."

Other things include dealing with the press. This Gibson is so far more assured, eloquent and articulate than the one promoting Gallipoli. "I couldn't talk back then. I guess you get to a point where you just don't give a hoot as much; you just kind of relax and think: hey, I'm either IN this game or I'm not. I wasn't even sure back then what the hell I wanted to do; 20 years ago, shit, I was so much younger."

And it was Australia, not Hollywood. "Yeah, I was riding the wave of our early success." Despite his American accent, lifestyle, and his entrenchment in Hollywood, at times, he says reflectively, he regards himself as being Australian - to a degree. "I wasn't born there to begin with, so when I went there I had to adjust to the place", he recalls: and adjust he did.

"About 16,000 gallons of beer later, I assimilated the place into my system" on Australia

"About 16,000 gallons of beer later, I assimilated the place into my system through the greatest different breweries in the country." Before that, Gibson was educated here, from the time he moved here at age 12, studied acting "as a bit of a lark" with Judy Davis as a fellow class mate at NIDA, shared a flat with acting hopeful Geoffrey Rush, married his childhood sweetheart Robyn Moore, and is a staunch protector of his six children.

Though he moved his family to Los Angeles a little over 10 years ago, Gibson still retains links with his adoptive homeland. "I get back there and I still have a place there." Asked if he misses the laidback Australian lifestyle versus Hollywood's more frenetic tone, Gibson believes that in "many ways, the two places are not too dissimilar. I've spent equal shares in each place, and they're very compatible. They started off the same way as dumping grounds for bad guys, and they made something of them, and they're both proud of what they have. The one thing Australia has going for it that no other place has - it's the newest nation on earth. And there are a lot of hopes for something like that."

Mel does send his sons to school here for a year, at the prestigious Timbertop, where Prince Charles received a partial Aussie education. "It's actually kinda cool. They live in the woods. I think it's great for them, really character building, and they have a real good sense of propriety, the academic pursuits are high and the kids get a chance to be independent. These boys are getting to be 14, they want to get out there and stretch their legs, and these guys run them like marines into the ground." Gibson's one daughter, however, is his only offspring unwilling to give this outdoor Aussie life a go. "She's too fond of painted nails, the pillows, the bed and the coffee in the morning," Gibson adds laughingly. He has six kids - with a seventh due at any moment, yet the father-to-be feels no stress. "It's nothing compared to what SHE has to go through; I mean she's got to do all the hard work. I'm just glad it's not me."

"Why do the really good Australian actresses always have red hair? Interesting."

Professionally, things are busy and even unexpected for Gibson. His professional roots in Australia (his last appearance in an Australian film was Peter Weir's Year of Living Dangerously), were reinforced with his recent announcement that he was next set to direct and star in a screen adaptation of Ray Bradbury's classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, to be shot in Sydney's Fox Studios. That most anticipated of ventures has now been temporarily shelved. "I tell you, the studios are so wonderful down there, but it's IMPOSSIBLE to get space. For the next five years they're gone; if you stumble and you miss your spot, or get pushed out of your spot, then you miss out for at least five years." Gibson also has praise for Australia's latest crop of film stars, making waves internationally, including Kidman and Blanchett. "They're both wonderful actors, though let me ask you this: why do the really good Australian actresses always have red hair? Interesting."

Since making a niche for himself in Hollywood, Gibson's screen persona has always been that of the slightly flawed hero, well and truly shaking off his Mad Max alter ego. Now along comes Payback, in which he plays an ultra cynical, no nonsense bad guy. Not that he necessarily sees him that way. "It was a challenge playing him, but the reality is, he's not really a bad guy. He's fulfilling all the beats that a hero needs to fulfil in any story. He just has an unorthodox way of going about it. I mean he even has something that resembles principles, although they're very misguided. There's no doubt that he's morally reprehensible, but by virtue of the fact that everybody else is MORE so, makes him seem like a nice guy --- almost. So it's an interesting thing."

"challenge ..to take someone.. morally reprehensible and have the audience identify with him"

In Payback, Gibson plays Porter, a thief and a killer, which puts him in good company with the sadistic Val Resnick (Gregg Henry). Together, the pair, along with an assist from Porter's wife (Deborah Kara Unger), pulls off a $140,000 heist. But then Resnick turns greedy, shoots Porter twice, and takes all the dough. He makes a big mistake, however: not ensuring that Porter is dead. Five months later, recovered from his wounds, Porter is out for revenge. With only one ally - his girlfriend and hooker Rosie (Maria Bello) - he decides to destroy the powerful criminal organisation of which Resnick is a member. "The trick with doing something like this, is if you're going to be doing things like stealing money from crippled beggars, you can only make it funny, because stuff like that is so heinous, yet so identifiable. I remember watching years ago, a show in which Spike Milligan was having a contest where people were pushing their grandmother off a cliff, to see how far they could get them. I found that pretty dark humour just hysterical, and in some ways, this film is like that, and I think the challenge is to take someone who's so morally reprehensible and have the audience identify with him in some way."

That presented its own set of challenges for the actor. "You've got to fossick around and find it, and then even when you do it, you don't know that you've done it, until it's all cut together; if you hear that people are laughing, then you did it." There are times when Gibson's Porter is a nasty piece of work, one of his most violent characters to date. There could always be a concern that audiences may be eventually put off by such a mean character.

"You plan these things, you have an idea where you want to go with it and you want to take your audience with them. I mean they have to take that 94-minute, vicarious walk with this character, and if he's TOO horrible, they're not going to go, and that means the film doesn't work."

"I definitely did not direct it" on Payback

And initially, that's precisely what DID happen -it was felt that the film was far too dark to sustain audience interest, so amidst a storm of highly publicised controversy, Gibson admits to having "the last act" re-shot. He wouldn't reveal the reasons for the re-shoot, except to say, laughingly, "That now the dog lives, OK?" What he did admit, somewhat begrudgingly, was that the earlier version was not so much darker, "but it went nowhere, it didn't end. It just kinda stopped and was like: Hey, what the hell was that? So it just confused everyone. Also, there was no prologue. You didn't know where the guy came from, and you were really thrown into the deep end. You had no back-story; you needed SOMETHING to hold onto."

Rumour had it that director Brian Helgeland was sacked from the production, and Gibson took over as (uncredited) director. Not true, he responds. "I definitely did not direct it, and these erroneous reports that there was this controversy and anguish are not true. These decisions are not easy, but they were arrived at in a very amicable fashion. Brian was NOT fired, his name is still on the film, and indeed he's responsible for 80% of it and the tone of it. He was actually asked to do the rewrites and re-shoots, by the studios and me, but he opted not to because he felt that it compromised his artistic integrity. That's OK - you have to respect that."

Gibson remains happy with the film, describing his character as this "Buster Keaton from hell, this Stoic deadpan guy, going through all these bizarre situations without cracking a smile. I find THAT funny."

It's interesting, that at this point in his career, Gibson is prepared to take more risks as an actor. His next film is another left-of-centre character, a strange detective in Wim Wenders' The Billion Dollar Hotel. "He's a really strange man with a huge bunch of paranoias, really weird." On this film, a black comedy set in the year 2030 about a hotel, which plays host to rich mental outpatients, Gibson collaborates with U2 singer Bono, who wrote the script.

"He's a real poet in every sense of the word."

"He's a real poet in every sense of the word. He and Wenders cooked up this story, which is very poetic, but at the same time very odd. I always liked it and we always talked about it, but it never came together till Wim came on board." Rumour had it that Mel was going to have to shave his head for this. "That all started because the script describes the character as a cone head, but everyone's shaving their heads these days, it's a bit too common; you've got to go somewhere else."

Mel's also finished voicing the role of a rooster - Rocky the Rooster - in the upcoming animated Chicken Run, from the director of the Oscar winning Wallace and Gromit films. "It's completely hilarious. It's like all those World War 2 escape movies, and it's SO funny, all set in this chicken yard. The chickens are all inside, and the farmers are all like the Gestapo, and there's this Yank rooster who can fly. It's utterly charming."

Gibson is amazed at the intricacies of making this kind of stop-motion cartoon. "It would take them all week to film like four seconds. It's unbelievable how they do it. I've watched the detail of this stuff, all the minute detail." Gibson is one of a handful of A-list stars prepared to do animation, and for relatively little money. "You do it for your kids, and this stuff I REALLY think is the most charming of all the stuff; I think this guy's so talented."

While the above films are happening, others that he was rumoured to be doing, are a figment of the media's imagination. Such as him taking over the Batman franchise. "Can you imagine me with those wings? I get that at home, I don't need to do that for a living, though I must admit I DID have a thing for Catwoman in the sixties."

And what about Mad Max 4? "I've heard about that one, but in this town, nobody approaches anybody, so I'll be the last to know."

"I'm a golf slut"

Gibson has also discovered that, on occasion, he has some spare time and a newfound passion. "I'm a golf slut", he admits. "That's clearly someone who tries to escape every spare moment with a set of clubs and go to the golf course and hit a little white ball around a green. It's really weird, because I used to watch that game on TV and think: Who the hell would do that? Even up till a few years ago, I just didn't get it, then someone put a club in my hand, I cracked a couple of balls, and thought how cool it was. I realised that the hardest thing about the game is trying not to break your clubs. It can be so soul destroying, that you end up sitting there sobbing on the green. Although Sean Connery is the worst - he swears at God."

And Mel has even taken up snow boarding, "which I didn't start till I was over 40, which was not a good idea, because you fall, and the falls are not easy."

Success has been more than kind to Mr. Gibson, from Oscars to those large pay cheques. Yet he remains insecure about certain things, such as directing, which he's itching to get back into. "It's terrifying. They give you a big budget and everybody acts like you know what you're doing. At the same time; it's the fear of the unknown and you're actually stepping up to the plate."

"Recent favourites? American History X"

And finally, Mel says, there definitely won't be another Lethal Weapon. "I think the last one worked - just. I wouldn't like to push it any further. Besides, who'd be silly to do 5 of anything?"

Gibson loves the movies, and he loves going to them. Among his recent favourites? "American History X; Really powerful, and I couldn't keep my mind off it." He also concedes there "are as many stinkers out there - I ought to know, I've been in some of them."

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Mel Gibson

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..in Payback


..in Ransom


..in Braveheart


..in Thunderdome


..in Mad Max


..in Gallipoli


..in Romeo & Juliet







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