Dialogue: Mel Gibson & Bruce Davey

Dialogue: Mel Gibson & Bruce Davey

Stephen Galloway
It's somewhat hard to believe that Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey and their Icon Prods. face the same challenges and hardships faced by most independents, but chatting with the blue-jeaned business duo in their Santa Monica office, one is struck mainly by how down-to-earth and down-in-the-trenches they are. They fight for projects they believe in and often have to make do with a "no." "The first script we optioned when we formed this company 15 years ago, 'Thank You for Smoking' -- we still haven't gotten to make it yet," Gibson says, opining that the material is too politically incorrect for Hollywood's tastes. Of course, they keep trying: "It's like an old engine you return to every few months," Gibson says. Persistence is an Icon hallmark, and it has paid off on projects from 1995's "Braveheart" to the February Newmarket release "The Passion of the Christ," which was more than 13 years in the making. The duo spoke recently with Stephen Galloway for The Hollywood Reporter and discussed why they have no long-term business plan -- preferring to operate instinctively -- and approach their work on a project-by-project basis.

The Hollywood Reporter: When you set up Icon 15 years ago, to do 1990's "Hamlet," what did you want the company to become?
Mel Gibson: I wasn't too sure, to tell you the truth. I think it was a genuine desire to exploit my own creativity; it was not a complete vision. Then Bruce and I both received a baptism of fire when it came to "Hamlet."
Bruce Davey: It was truly an independent film in terms of raising the finance. It was the old patchwork quilt -- you'd nail a piece to the wall, and two pieces would fall off. We had to go and find another two pieces.

THR: Were you already thinking of moving beyond acting back then, Mel?
Gibson: Yes, I think I was. I don't even know if it was a conscious decision. But I think subconsciously, I was. I find that there's a lot more pleasure in directing than there is in acting. You have a chance to spread your creative wings, and nobody can clip them.

THR: What was the hardest thing at that early point?
Gibson: Finding people who would take you seriously. A lot of companies had been set up by actors, and they were perceived as vanity vehicles.

THR: Do you have any philosophy guiding the material that you look for?
Gibson: I have a fairly eclectic and sometimes peculiar taste. (Something like 2003's "The Singing Detective") doesn't have "hit" written all over it. But if you can manage to do a reasonable or a good job, for a price, then it becomes feasible, perhaps even lucrative. All films become lucrative if they're made for the right price.

THR: Do you think a lot about that going in?
Gibson: I didn't use to, but it has become a very real thing for me. It's not a driving factor, but I have been educated over the years by Bruce. I have said this before: I am a fiscal imbecile, but I am getting better.

THR: What have you learned from Bruce?
Gibson: He is very savvy about business and about a different way of doing things. Eventually, that starts to rub off.

THR: How did you two meet?
Gibson: I was looking for a way to invest, and Bruce was in the investment line as an accountant. I went into his office when I was very young, and he was much younger. (Laughter)
Davey: We had a client/accountant relationship (in Australia), and then I came over here toward the end of the '80s, about 1988, (and set up Icon). At that point in time, it was just to do "Hamlet."

THR: And did you bring the business strategy to the equation?
Davey: I don't think we have ever had a five-minute plan, let alone a five-year plan; it has just been one of evolution.

THR: You don't have a General Electric "Six Sigma" approach to business?
Gibson: I don't know that you can apply a set of rules to everything.
Davey: Particularly, the creative process. How many times have you picked up The Hollywood Reporter and seen some Joe Schmo who's got a 15-picture deal -- and how many of the 15 ever get made? It's about the evolution of what goes on around the table. (Who knows if a film) is going to happen twice in a year? I think about "Braveheart." We did nothing for two years after that -- we couldn't get arrested.
Gibson: The creative process can be elusive and frustrating, and sometimes, if you aren't in the right space, it can just fall out. There are no rules for any of it.

THR: Do you have many projects in the works now? How many are you developing?
Gibson: It's perhaps 30, and the spectrum is pretty wide.

THR: You've recently moved into television as well as films, and now you're producing ABC's "Complete Savages." Why?
Davey: (We read) maybe 1,500 or 2,000 scripts a year, and we'd sit in a development meeting and people would say, "That's best for TV," and it would get thrown on the heap. Finally, we thought we should be doing something about that.
Gibson: What is really astounding is the amount of pressure for this kind of weekly television thing. I've never seen anything like it.

THR: Do you ever say, "My heart's not really in this, but I think this is going to make money?"
Davey: I don't think it's ever really been about the money. In terms of television, if you go back to the beginnings of it, the first thing we did was (the 2000 ABC telefilm) "The Three Stooges," which came out of Mel's passion for the Three Stooges. Nobody said, "We can make a bunch of money out of this."
Gibson: The first consideration is always creative. Always. Then there are these other things like a feasibility study after you get the initial spark.

THR: Beyond each individual project, what makes a business partnership work?
Gibson: It helps that he doesn't run off to South America! (Laughter) There's mutual respect and, where I am short, I know Bruce fills in more than adequately.

THR: Are you very involved with the films you produce?
Gibson: Yes, sure. I am not overbearing -- you have an editor, you have a guy who directs and you check in and talk it over with them. And you try and allow (the director) his creative freedom. Every now and again, you are going to have a rocky ride. But by and large, we can pride ourselves that we haven't left too many dead bodies behind us.

THR: With all the changes in the independent world, does that make your job harder? A lot of the money for independent film seems to have disappeared.
Davey: Yes and no. It seems to have been supplemented by tax deals in different places. It is still a business, but it is not as easy as it used to be.

THR: Who funds Icon? Is it just the two of you?
Davey: That's a place we have never really gone. I'd rather leave it at that.

THR: You don't have a studio deal at the moment. Are there advantages to that?
Gibson: There are advantages and disadvantages. If you are affiliated with one of the studios, they are the back wall, and they support you. If they are not there, there is no net. But if you manage to make it across to the other side, you'll be all right. Even though we don't have an overall deal with a studio, there is no reason why we can't just partner up with them on a thing or two.

THR: Do you own your material now?
Davey: We want to keep as much as we can. We've got about 250 films (in Icon's library). We acquired the foreign rights to Kings Road (Entertainment's) library, and we acquired the Majestic (library) rights. But once again, it was not part of a business plan. It was an opportunity that evolved.

THR: On a day-to-day basis, how do you operate? Mel, do you come into the office every day?
Gibson: Yes, when I'm around -- not every day but like four days out of five. There's a myriad of things to do. Just answering the phone calls alone is enough to put you under. And I sit a lot with the development guys and writers. I am writing something myself.

THR: Can you tell us what it is?
Gibson: Absolutely not.

THR: Are you organized in your work day?
Gibson: I am probably the most disorganized person I know. Fortunately, I have a really organized assistant who reminds me of things.

THR: How do you go about hiring assistants and other staff?
Gibson: It's (a matter of finding the right person for the right job and keeping) the communication lines open; that is (probably) the most important.

THR: Do you have role models?
Gibson: I remember ages ago you'd see a Clint Eastwood film, and you'd see it was a Malpaso production, and you'd find out that was his thing. He's really shaping his own destiny -- he takes the risks.

THR: Which brings us to the risk you took with "Passion." How did it come about?
Gibson: It was something that was rambling about in my (head) for quite a few years, and it came to a certain point where I got somebody to sit down, and we wrote it out. I tried to adhere to the accepted books like the Gospels as much as possible.

THR: How many years was it from inception to the final film?
Gibson: About 13 or 14 years. The actual writing process, once I stuck the thing in first gear, was about 18 months.

THR: To prepare, did you look at some of those religious films such as George Stevens' 1965 offering "The Greatest Story Ever Told" or Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1966 release "The Gospel According to St. Matthew"?
Gibson: Yes, I saw those. Some have real merits, and some are real Hollywood, kind of '50s, where everybody was real clean and (had) bad wigs and stilted dialogue; that was part of my decision to do ("Passion") in dead languages. I just wanted it to be deeper in a way and not have to depend so much on the spoken word.

THR: Did anybody say, "We'll give you the money for the film, but it has to be in English?"
Gibson: Yes. But I said, "No. That ruins everything."

THR: It was turned down by all the studios?
Gibson: Yes, it was. So I decided I (was) going to go ahead and do it anyway. We embarked, and it was perceived to be a risk.

THR: Is it Mel Gibson's money?
Gibson: Yes.

THR: Or is it Bruce Davey and Icon's money, too?
Davey: Next question.

THR: Were you surprised by how controversial the film was?
Gibson: Yes. I was floored. The ferocity of the controversy -- it went on for a year (with) 68 or 70 separate editorials in the New York Times -- that's better than one a week, none of them nice.

THR: There are studios that would be crawling all over you for that.
Gibson: It seems to have become a fashion. But controversy is not necessarily the key to success. Look at what happened to (Martin) Scorsese's (1988) film ("The Last Temptation of Christ"). It was controversial, and it died.

THR: What's next? Have you committed to anything?
Gibson: Nothing. Not at all. I have kept very busy -- I directed a couple of ("Complete Savages"), and I'll do another one next week. But otherwise, it's business as usual.

THR: What about Icon?
Davey: We're going to do a 15-picture deal!