Los Angeles--For "The Man Without a Face" (which opens Wednesday) Mel Gibson has done what many of his swooning fans may consider blasphemy: He has covered half his leading-man face with ghastly makeup to look like a tragic burn victim. Moreover, he has chosen this film as his directorial debut.
In the film, set in the late 1960s in an East Coast resort town, Mr. Gibson plays Justin McLeod, a mysterious loner who unwittingly gives the locals plenty of chance for cruel, idle speculation on his past. Chuck Norstadt (Nick Stahl), a young unhappy boy from a fatherless family, secretly befriends Mr. McLeod, and when their relationship is revealed, the community's unthinking, knee-jerk reaction has troubling consequences.
It's hardly the sort of flamboyant, high-profile project with which Mr. Gibson is usually associated. "There was something about the story that I read that was moving. It did a lot to me," he said in a recent interview.
Throughout the conversation, Mr. Gibson was calm and thoughtful; only occasionally does he reveal his fabled sense of humor, the attitude that won him the nickname "Demento Boy" from the cast and crew of "The Man Without a Face" during production.
The film, adapted from a novel by Isabelle Holland, replaces the book's conclusion with a less bleak but nonetheless bittersweet finale. "The script had a lot of hope, a lot of good things," Mr. Gibson said. "I thought that it was in my realm of experience to be able to tell that story."
Lest anyone think that Mr. Gibson is just delivering a standard spate of movie-industry gush, let it be noted that he also admitted that his last film, the cryogenic romance "Forever Young," was corny, that the "Lethal Weapon" movie series has become, to him, too much like a "TV cop show," and even that his respected performance in "Hamlet" was "a 'Hamlet' for the lowest common denominator." So Mr. Gibson doesn't necessarily force himself into Hollywood happyspeak.
And, clearly, he's a man who knows his limitations. Mr. Gibson chose a smaller, more subtle project for his directorial debut over a more high-octane film because, he said, "I didn't want to get too technically hung up to begin with. The trouble with a lot of those big, huge, blockbustery-type [movies] is that people usually miss the bases in many cases. They forget about developing characters, so it just becomes a series of stunts.
"I have a storytelling sense and always have had," he continued. "Now whether I can make the leap and get as much of the image as I envision it on screen is another question. Certainly, some bits I hit right on the nose -- I knew what I wanted, and we did it. Other bits of it, I wasn't quite there yet.
"I'm green," he admitted, "but I had a wonderful director of photography [Don McAlpine, who also shot "Parenthood" and "Patriot Games"]. He's been around for a long time. He was like an old drill sergeant. He'd tell me what to do. He saved my butt on a number of occasions."
Another reason Mr. Gibson was confident in taking on the dual role of actor-director was that, as an actor, he didn't have to carry the film, which gave him more time to concentrate on the making of the film.
"The film was on the shoulders of the boy more than the man," Mr. Gibson said. "He's the main protagonist, the guy who takes the audience through the story. He had the harder part."
And Nick, in Mr. Gibson's estimation, rose to the occasion. "If there's anything I can't stand, it's a kid actor -- I wanted to work with an actor. The fact that he's a kid should neither be here nor there," Mr. Gibson said. "But . . . the kid was no problem. He'd hit it on the first and second take. For his age , he understood an awful lot about his character. When he wasn't quite getting there, it didn't take me long to get him to understand."
Two-thirds of the way into the movie, a shocking revelation into Mr. McLeod's character is unveiled, one that may trouble audiences and certainly make the film less than a sure commercial success. But, Mr. Gibson said, it was the element of the movie that struck him the most.
"That's what makes it work," he said. "It's unpleasant. It's out of the blue. It's not something you usually address. I found it devastating when I first read the script.
"It is the one thing you can say that will keep people out of the cinema in droves," he explained. "But it was the only kind of aspect that you could throw into the last third of the film to get people to say 'Wow!' I've watched an audience watch it. I've seen them verbally react -- 'Oh, no!' They had gotten into the characters and it was like their world was crumbling. But that's what you're trying to do: You have to make them care."
Even with the potentially disturbing plot twist, Mr. Gibson said the story wasn't that difficult to sell the studio executives at Warner Bros., who likely would be happier seeing him in another movie where he blows stuff up.
"They're not all mercenary types," Mr. Gibson said. "I know they had misgivings, but they have misgivings about everything. They're a studio and they're always hedging their bets. I don't know how they gauged it; this could go right down the tubes. Maybe they figured, if this fails, at least 'Lethal 4' could be waiting in the wings. Or perhaps they really liked the story."
If, in fact, Warner Bros. is banking on a "Lethal Weapon 4," they might be well advised to think again. Mr. Gibson said he doesn't entirely loathe the idea, but said, "It's becoming harder and harder to actually enjoy it because it isn't fresh anymore, and you have to find a way to make it fresh. We had to employ every underhanded scheme we knew to make ['Lethal Weapon 3'] presentable to the audience.
"But it was presentable. The audience went in and laughed and had a good time and chewed popcorn -- and forgot about it 10 minutes after they left the theater."
Instead, Mr. Gibson said he's looking for a "gritty, in-your-face" project. In the meantime, though, he's shooting "Maverick," which has the fortune -- or misfortune, depending on how you look at it -- of falling into two movie genres that are threatening to be glutted with product.
Not only is "Maverick" a movie based on an old TV show, which every 10th studio film seems to be these days, but it's also a Western, which has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity thanks to "Unforgiven" and "Dances With Wolves."
Mr. Gibson, however, was quick to point out, "We got stuck in this movie well over a year ago. Suddenly, [these genres are] happening. I don't know why. It just is."
"But 'Maverick' is as good a vehicle as any. When we decided to do it, there weren't quite as many [small-screen-to-big-screen adaptations] around. But things happen like that -- they come in rashes. People have the same ideas at the same time. Who knows whether it's industrial espionage or the collective unconscious?" Mr. Gibson said.
"I don't give a [expletive]; I just want to make a fun movie."