About the only thing you’ll get into trouble for on a Dick Donner set is taking yourself too seriously. Especially when Mel Gibson’s around.

Gibson and Donner are known to be practical jokers. And on the set of “Conspiracy Theory,” due for release in August, the atmosphere on location in New York and Los Angeles and on soundstages back in Burbank reportedly was a good deal lighter than the dark mood of the psychological thriller they were shooting.

“There’s always a kind of ease on any project that Dick’s directing,” says Gibson, who has now been in five Donner films. “The work matters but at the same time, it doesn’t matter.” To establish the right tone when co-star Julia Roberts reported to the set for her first day of work, Gibson presented her with a beautifully gift-wrapped present. Inside the ornate gift box: One freeze-dried rat. A present for the girl who has everything? Not according to Gibson.

“It’s basically just a horrible object,” he says with a chuckle. “I think it affected her on a deep, primeval level.” Revenge was swift. Roberts, taking a page from frat house rules, Saran-wrapped the toilet bowl in Gibson’s trailer, which, according to informed sources, caused one of the world’s top box office grossers to unintentionally urinate on his shoes. “She’s rather more relaxed and a lot more fun than one would expect,” Gibson notes dryly.

“Laughter is the most frequent sound you hear when you’re working with Dick Donner,” says Patrick Stewart from the set of his next movie, “Moby Dick,” now filming on location in Australia. The 25-year veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who has five motion pictures under his belt, says he was nervous before shooting began on “Conspiracy Theory.” “This was an important group of people, and I was playing a significant role,” says Stewart, who plays Gibson’s nemesis in the pic. “It’s fine to be nervous as an actor, but only if you’re quickly made to feel comfortable.” Which Donner does: “He manages to take away the unease without taking away the edge.”

Gibson and Donner have worked so much together that both claim they’re becoming the equivalent of an old married couple — finishing each other’s sentences. “We’re both thinking about the edit as we’re shooting,” Gibson says. “So I know what he’s going to use.” Both men have worked on both sides of the camera, Donner as an actor in the early ’60s (“I hated taking direction,” he recalls) and Gibson on three films including his Oscar-winning turn helming “Braveheart.” Both favor an improvisational style of work during rehearsals and in front of the camera. And that was very much in evidence during the filming of “Conspiracy Theory.”

“It’s not Shakespeare and (screenwriter) Brian Helgeland is great about that,” Donner says. “Julia, Patrick and Mel all came up with some wonderful stuff when they were fleshing out their characters during shooting and we ended up using a lot of it.”

“Conspiracy Theory” is a psychological thriller about an eccentric New York City cabby, Jerry Fletcher (Gibson), who sees evidence of conspiracies just about everywhere. Although no one takes him seriously, one of his theories starts to look increasingly like it might be true and directly involve him.

Roberts plays Alice Sutton, a skeptical Justice Dept. attorney whose federal judge father was assassinated when she was a child. Without giving anything away, Alice and Jerry’s lives intersect early in the story and they end up on a quest together for the truth where, because of forces aligning against them, they can only trust each other.

Donner was the first and only director to read “Conspiracy Theory”; he committed to it within 10 minutes. Donner previously directed Helgeland’s script “Assassins,” a project that received less than favorable reviews and did poorly at the box office. “A lot of directors probably wouldn’t have worked with me again,” Helgeland says. “But Dick’s not that way. He didn’t cut me loose, he said, ‘Let’s get it right.’ “

And Donner’s penchant for improvisation changed a lot of what Helgeland had written. “Lots of scenes were better because of it,” Helgeland says. “Writers often work in a vacuum, so it was great to hear Mel and Julia come up with some new stuff. I became the unofficial spontaneity police on the set. I was looked to as the guy to make sense of it all.”

When he wasn’t dashing off to the production office to bang out new pages, Helgeland spent a lot of time getting an in-depth how-to-direct seminar from Donner. “We have a kind of grasshopper/master relationship,” says Helgeland, who is in pre-production for his first directorial assignment on his own feature, “Parker.” Helgeland says he watched all but one scene of “Conspiracy Theory” being shot and was in the edit room all the way through to the fine cut.

“Dick would often pull me aside before he shot a scene and go over technical stuff he thought I needed to know or the best way to motivate actors and crew. He was always teaching me.”

“Conspiracy Theory” was shot on location in New York City in Soho, the Upper West Side, Times Square, the lower roadway of the Queensboro bridge and the Chambers Street subway station near City Hall. In Los Angeles, in addition to shooting some scenes on Warner Bros. soundstages in Burbank, various L.A. locations were used — including the V.A. Medical Hospital in West L.A., the old Crocker Bank Building downtown and the Orpheum Theater. While location shooting with high-profile talent can be a problem — and stars such as Tom Cruise reportedly avoid location shooting as much as possible — Donner says much of the “Conspiracy Theory” shoot went smoothly. “Despite their reputation, New Yorkers were very respectful when we were shooting outside. The fans left Mel and Julia to do their work.”

But there was, unfortunately, one recurring problem that has plagued a number of movie sets, and it probably won’t go away soon. “Those paparazzi guys,” says the normally avuncular Donner, “they’re total ignoramuses. They were walking through shots, trying to provoke people and making a lot of noise. They should be exterminated.”

Like a freeze-dried rat? “That sounds like a good option.”

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