Two of a kind

Gibson, Moore stayed true to their muses in path to B.O. glory

“The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” were two of the most profitable films of the year. Each in its own way was enormously controversial and ran into some serious distribution challenges. But each also rose above those problems to become box-office smashes. Along the way, these films’ directors, Mel Gibson and Michael Moore, have been treated as both pariahs and messiahs. Here’s a look at how each helmer felt about his wild ride.

Mel Gibson

There was a lot of outside pressure surrounding your film; did it influence any of the decisions you made creatively?

It certainly made me look at things a lot harder. There was so much negativity coming at me. Over the course of 10 months, I think there were 70 pieces in the New York Times alone. Most of it was coming from people who hadn’t seen the movie, but I did a lot of soul-searching just to make sure that what they were saying wasn’t the case. Really, I just made the picture I was going to make.

Did the film’s financing pose any limitations?

No, and that hadn’t always been the case. I remember, on another film I directed, when we ran out of time and money, we removed 12 pages from the screenplay. That was a hard deal. But this time I didn’t have to answer to anyone who was footing the bill, because I was. I could have as much leeway as I wanted without ripping myself off, or if I did rip myself off, I had one person to blame.

What makes it a Mel Gibson film?

My sensibilities, the light quality, the visuals. I went directly from Renaissance art to this film. I really like Caravaggio — his images are both very natural and very surreal. They all seemed to be keyed from one side. Very yellowish tones. And yet, it’s very realistic and graphic and kind of gory. He did a lot of subjects that involved martyrdom.

How has it played in the Middle East?

I don’t think a whole bunch of people came out to see it; they were too busy dodging bombs. But it played well. Afterwards, people were thoughtful and introspective, and that’s always a good thing.

Did anything surprise you?

After seeing the movie, a lot of people started talking about things they never had before. There was a bank robber in Norway who had gotten away with it, but he watched the film and turned himself in. There was another guy who had murdered his pregnant girlfriend. The cops had written it off as a suicide. But he watched the film and admitted the murder and said he was sorry. There are bunches of stories like that. You could make a book out of it.

“The Passion” was an indie hit; do you think it’s due to just one specific film, or is it a trend?

I think it’s a trend. Indies are less inclined to placate, and I think there’s an appetite for artistic expression that doesn’t follow the formula norms. The studios are a business. They want to make sure that their product hits the mark, and they can be over-cautious in that way. Corporate decisions narrow the parameters. People get tired of films that play too safe and oftentimes the independent has a lot more freedom to express themselves. I think indies will continue to do better as time goes on.

Do you feel vindicated or better understood today? Was it worth it?

I’m trying not to go there. Yeah, I got a lot of heat. Yeah, the film did well. Mostly, I’m glad that none of the things that people said would happen actually came to pass. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters if people understand me or not. That’s not what it’s about. I think a great many people identify with the work and one doesn’t create art for the elite. I think art should reach as many people as possible. If I did that, then I did my job.

Michael Moore

There was a lot of outside pressure surrounding your film; did it influence any of the decisions you made creatively?

In 1994, EuroDisney (now called Disneyland Paris) was going bankrupt. Prince al-Waleed, the fourth richest man in the world, wrote (Michael) Eisner a check for over $300 million to bail him out. To this day, the Saudi Royals own approximately 20% of EuroDisney. My feeling was that Eisner was in bed with the Saudis and didn’t want to release a film that attacked them. So I found footage of Eisner and the Saudis and made a scene out of it and put it in the film. But Harvey asked me to take it out, so I did.

Did the film’s financing pose any limitations?

There was more than enough money; it was never a problem. It was a pleasure to work with Bob and Harvey Weinstein. They supported everything I wanted to do with zero interference.

What makes it a Michael Moore film?

I like to keep the camera going for that extra second or two, after someone has spoken. I think it’s after the sound bite that you start to see the true person. Like the line when Bush said, “I call upon all nations and we’ll fight terrorists wherever they are … ” The networks showed that, but they cut out the part where Bush says, “Now watch this drive.” I kept it in. My film’s like the antidote to their propaganda.

How has it played in the Middle East?

Quite well in the countries where they can show it. Of course, in Israel, it’s done great. Of course they won’t show it in Saudi Arabia.

Did anything surprise you?

I was stunned that Disney wouldn’t let Miramax release it. But then again, this is a company that syndicates the Rush Limbaugh radio show, that has Pat Robertson on their family network. Obviously, they have a political agenda. But my experience is that if you’re successful at making money for the studios, they leave you alone. But here was a company that put their political agenda ahead of fiduciary responsibility. Not only do I think that’s surprising, I think it might be illegal. They have a responsibility to maximize the profits for the shareholders, not to take something that cost $6 million and flush it down the toilet. It’s not like I don’t have a track record. Every film I’ve made has made money. “Bowling for Columbine” has made about $120 million. “Fahrenheit” is now approaching a quarter billion in revenue worldwide. If I was a Disney shareholder I’d have a few questions about that.

“Fahrenheit 9/11” was an indie hit; do you think it’s because of just this one specific film, or is it a trend?

A little of both. No film operates in a vacuum. Something that works well this year may not work well next. Though, as it turned out, my film might just be more relevant now than it was when it came out, because of the election, because we now have four more years with my lead character in office. If we were sitting here with President Kerry, my film might read as a quaint piece of history. Either way, I think the public wants a good story; they love a good story, whether it’s an indie film or a studio film.

Do you feel vindicated or better understood today? Was it worth it?

It was absolutely worth it. I know the Republican party did their own polling about my movie, and what they found is that undecided voters who saw the film became decided voters against Bush. And their attacks on me afterwards only sent more people to see my movie.

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