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South China Morning Post
Cover: Monday Focus
March 1, 1999

Hollywood heartthrob and soon-to-be-father of seven, Mel Gibson tells David Cohen about his darker role
On screen, Mel Gibson is a dangerous man. From his breakthrough as Mad Max to his franchise role as Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series, he has made a career of portraying heroes who are not to be crossed, except by villains with long guns and short life expectancies.

Yet Gibson's heroes always have a soft spot inside. The bitter Mad Max liked children and always fought for the good guys in the end. Riggs found a new lease on life through the family of partner Roger Murtaugh. Even in Conspiracy Theory, where he played a drug-addled victim of CIA mind-control experiments, he was driven most of all by his love for Julia Roberts.

So it should not really come as a great surprise to learn that when Mel and wife Robyn have to discipline their six children, it is Mrs. Gibson who lays down the law — most of the time. " I'm the good guy," explains Mel, "except for when it's really serious. Then I turn into psycho-dad. I'm ax-murderer dad. Dad gets out the hatchet, acts kind of crazy so it frightens the kids. Is dad losing it? Gee, we better pull our socks up.' You've got to display your displeasure sometimes."

Gibson is at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to talk about Payback, his newest film, and he does not look much like ax-murderer dad. He is sleepy, and with his tired expression and clean-shaven face, he resembles Porter, the world-weary professional thief he plays in Payback. He had grown a Hollywood-style goatee that, but it came in streaked with grey, and he has given it up. "Too many white hairs in there, man," he laments. "I was waiting for wisdom to kick in."

For Mel, life in the Gibson house demands both wisdom and endurance. Mel and Robyn have children, 18 year old daughter Hannah and 5 sons, ages from 9 to 17, and the Gibsons will soon welcome child number 7.

"It's a fairly rowdy household, put it that way," says Gibson. "Often times at the dinner table the female contingent will leave because it gets a little too wild. And I don't blame them, I have to tone these guys down. They're talking about boogers, picking..." He stops himself, as if the stories are just too gross to repeat in public. "They're boys. They ... You know, over dinner it's not really good."

His latest film, though, is "One for the boys." Payback is a hard-boiled, darkly funny tale which finds Gibson playing a darker variation on his usual lethal hero. He stars as Porter, a professional thief whose wife and partner steal US$70,000 from him, shoot him and leave him for dead. Porter is too tough to die though, and after his wounds heal he returns to demand his $70,000 back, no more, no less.

It is not a great deal of money, but it has already gone to a crime syndicate known as The Outfit.' Besides, the Chinese gang he stole it from wants to castrate him and the police want their own piece of the action, so Porter's simple quest turns into a one-man war against a corrupt world.

Gibson calls Porter "a professional bastard," and indeed, he is a man who kills without mercy, inflicts pain without conscience, steals from beggars and does not tip his waitress. Yet in the world of Payback, he is the only character with any kind of integrity (except for the inevitable hooker with a heart of gold). Porter only wants what is rightfully his, though Gibson is quick to point out Porter's honor code is basically flawed. "He stole the money in the first place and he seems to overlook that. He's a sociopath."

Still, Porter manages to be the best of this bad bunch. "Occasionally there's a little consideration for other people. For a guy who's pretty venal and pretty self concerned, looking after his own welfare and stuff, every now and then he displays a little bit of selflessness. So even in his warped, unethical way, he's even got some nice traits in there. Not very many."

Like most of Gibson's heroes, Porter also has a kind of old-fashioned chivalry. The women in his life may be heroin addicts and hookers, but he protects them. "That's his soft spot," explains Gibson "He's hard and then a woman turns up and he gets all weird, he tries not to show it, he kind of like... doesn't smack them or anything."

It is a measure of just how hard a man Porter is that simply not smacking women qualifies as a soft spot.' Yet that spot seems soft enough to earn this violent film an enthusiastic reception among women. "I'm surprised at how they like it, I didn't think it was a girl movie and it probably isn't, it's a guy thing."

Porter also looks heroic in contrast to Val (Gregg Henry), the film's cackling villain. Val makes the mistake of gloating that he has outsmarted Porter, when in fact, Val is simply too stupid to realize how clever Porter really is. "People who think they're smarter than they are? Ooh." Gibson throws his head back and winces. "You just want to slam them. But that happens." Then he adds that "I think I might be one of those."

Gibson need not worry, for his own behind-the-scenes efforts on Payback are ample proof that when it comes to the movie business, Gibson is quite smart enough, thank you.

The story was adapted by Conspiracy Theory screenwriter Brian Helgeland from The Hunter, a 1960's novel by Donald Westlake. (The same story was filmed in 1967 under the title Point Blank.) Helgeland planned a low-budget picture with a B' cast and Gibson's company, Icon Productions, agreed to produce it.

When Gibson also decided to star, Helgeland's modest directorial debut suddenly became a Mel Gibson vehicle. Gibson made sure Helgeland was not replaced by Warner Brothers, but there was trouble when Helgeland delivered his first cut of the film. Gibson and the producers wanted changes, but Helgeland refused.

"(Helgeland) felt he was compromising his artistic integrity. And that's okay, he stuck by his guns and he stepped aside and we went in and did what we had to do as responsible producers. He was professional and completely kosher about the whole thing, he was great."

Gibson and the producers brought in a new screenwriter and another director to shoot the additional scenes. Gibson initially refused to name the additional director out of deference to Helgeland, but a Premiere Magazine article insinuated that Gibson himself had taken over. Gibson now admits that he chose John Myhre, who had been the production designer of Elizabeth, to direct the re-shoots.

Gibson says the additional scenes improved the film, calls the whole business "No big deal" and shrugs off allegations that that this was a movie star power play. "People need to have some kind of controversy about what's going on. It is a tough business but (Helgeland) never got fired. Changes needed to be made, the studios demanded it. They're the ones with the money."

Payback is a very violent film, especially when The Outfit tortures Porter with what he calls an industrial pedicure,' but Gibson says he would show Payback to his children. "Since they were little they've known the difference between make believe and real. They know how these things are achieved. If we were taking it too seriously it might be a little weirder. But it's not to me. I haven't got a problem with the violence, I think all the best stories have lots of violence. You need a shakeup, you need some kind of transgression, some kind of sin, in order to make the compelling story."

Gibson says that his children share his love of storytelling. After all, they had a good teacher. "When they were little I just used to sit there and go on and on and they would want to know more about the story. We never had books, I had to make them up. They love listening to stories and they can tell stories."

Mel will have another chance to polish his bedtime story-telling skills in the years to come, as the Gibsons will soon welcome baby #7. "We kind of laughed a lot," says Gibson. "It's kind of a funny notion. It's like, well hey, it's going to be a wild time here. I'll be working on college fees until I'm sixty-five. There will be nine years between this one and our youngest and it's like, he or she will be an only child. But well be cooler as parents, I think so."

And of course, the older children are thrilled, if only because it will keep Mel and Robyn busy. "It will get us off their back. We'll be too concerned with other things and all tired and they'll be able to run rampant."

He admits that "I'm not the greatest disciplinarian in the world. I'm sure a lot of stuff falls through the cracks but if they know you know, you've got to let them know you know. You've got to do the protocol thing, you've got to do the right thing.

"Nag, nag, nag, it makes you sick of the sound of your own voice. But you've got to do it. If you let up, they'll think you don't care and they would be right."

Mel is not even the favorite movie star in his own house _ his sons are fans of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler _ and if anything, Dad's celebrity status makes him a target. There are no Mel Gibson posters on the boys' walls, but "every now and then they'll get a funny picture of me, like where I don't have hair or something, put something up to ridicule me, but that a whole different sort of mindset. It's about humiliation."

Still, when the Gibsons settle in front of Mel's state-of-the-art home theater system, the men of the house bond over classic tough guy films. "They get into it, man. They get into those old movies. I showed them Cool Hand Luke recently. They were like, wow! They thought it was very cool."

The thought reminds him of a meeting with Stewart Rosenberg, the director of that 1967 drama. Rosenberg told Gibson how Paul Newman had said to him "I like you kid. Come up with something good, I'll do it." so Rosenberg immediately went to a bookstore and found a dime novel called Cool Hand Luke. "Just a tough little jail tale, and he just turned into a major story." marvels Gibson. "He must have wanted the job, man. It's a pretty good opportunity."

Has Mel Gibson ever given a young director the same kind of opportunity? "Yeah. Payback is like that to a degree. I mean, it came from a book, but mostly it's not like the book. It just goes off on its own tangent. Brian, mostly he just adapted this thing, and then we cooked on it. It's the product of imagination."