Mel Gibson sticks close to edge

Star keeps a hand in Hollywood while remaining a maverick

It’s been a surprise to find Mel Gibson out there, trolling the talkshow circuit on behalf of his new film, “Edge of Darkness.” Whenever Gibson and the media intersect, one always anticipates a collision of some sort, but he’s getting by this time with only a couple of dented fenders.

Behind all this is the reality that, after a three-year interval, Mel’s back — in fact, he’s gearing up for his busiest period ever. When I encountered him the other day, he made it clear, “I like the action. I realize that everything in this industry is changing, but with change comes opportunity.”

Gibson, of course, has helped promulgate these changes, creating and funding his own films — a pursuit that has been at once mindbendingly profitable and also provocative. A lot of people do not like either Gibson or his movies. Working with him in the past, I’ve always found him to be the total professional, but his mind seems both a brilliant resource and a minefield.

The studios can’t figure Gibson out either, but they don’t need to. He is marshalling an array of projects that is much too eclectic for studio tastes. The public may think of Gibson in terms of action pictures, but he has just wrapped a gentle, low-budget film directed by Jodie Foster in which he plays a depressed man who tends to wear a beaver hand puppet. He made the film because, as he puts it, “Jodie is a wonderfully erudite and decisive filmmaker.”

Gibson also has been busy writing scripts (he co-wrote “Apocalypto” with Farhad Safinia), but this time the upshot is a film with the eccentric title “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” Gibson’s character, in fact, spent it in a Mexican jail. Adrian Grunberg, who was Gibson’s assistant director on “Apocalypto,” will be entrusted to direct.

Gibson revisits more familiar terrain next with a Viking action drama to star Leonardo DiCaprio. William Monahan, who wrote “The Departed,” has created a script that, Gibson says, is intended to “scare the shit out of you.” This journey back to the 9th century will depict a people who “gloried in battle.” They were like “monsters from the sea,” Gibson says, but he wants to frame his film as a culture-clash drama about a doomed people.

I asked Gibson if he would entertain the idea of shooting in 3-D, and his response was that he wanted to see “Avatar” before that deliberation. “I went to the theater twice and couldn’t get in,” he says. “I even bought tickets in advance and the place was still too crowded. I suppose that defines why the movie is a game changer.”

A champion of digital, Gibson says he welcomes the revolution in technology that’s overtaking the business. Most of all, he says, he wants to stay busy and to keep reinventing the rules. And he wants to work with other filmmakers of a like mind — he’s looking to star in Universal’s “Cold Warrior” for the splendidly eccentric Shane Black, who directed “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and wrote the “Lethal Weapon” series that Gibson starred in.

“My hiatus is over,” Gibson avers, and he clearly means it. He doesn’t need anyone’s money or permission to make a movie, and he knows that he’s not adept at functioning within the machine of corporate Hollywood.

In personal conversation, Gibson conveys an optimism and confidence, but some film critics see a darker Gibson still inhibating his work. A.O. Scott of the New York Times described Gibson’s character in “Edge of Darkness” as “haggard and humorless.” Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal comments that while Gibson used to display a “gleeful energy,” the character he depicts in his newest movie “has turned toxic, and his somber scourge is no fun at all.”

Gibson senses he has to lighten up a little.

“I identify with those filmmakers who need to do their own thing,” Gibson says with a combination of resignation and whimsy. “I like that fraternity. That’s a fraternity I want to belong in.”

Whenever I spent time with Dennis Hopper over the years I always came away with the same feeling: The man seems even more surreal than the paintings he’s collected.

On one occasion Hopper came after me with a loaded gun. On another he spoke thoughtfully about his early days working beside James Dean and John Wayne.

Hopper, who is gravely ill with cancer, has excelled as an actor, filmmaker, art collector and photographer and has done everything he can to self-destruct in each of those arenas. As he hovers near death, I have a tough time believing he really existed.

Even amid his present illness, Hopper has figured in a bizarre divorce battle. Documents assert drug use, gun threats and bitter battles over his extraordinary art collection. Clearly Hopper is not the sort to go away peacefully.

Looking back on his life, it seems impossible someone could have starred in a film like “Giant” only to blow his career as a star, or to have directed a seminal movie like “Easy Rider” only to disappear as a filmmaker.

Born in Dodge City, Kansas, Hopper once told me that when he informed his parents of his interest in art and in acting, they regarded him as a freak. On one level, they were right, of course.

If he passes, the town will never be the same.

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