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They Can't Buy a Break

In the midst of making a down-to-earth kidnap thriller, Ron Howard found his set held hostage by both Mother Nature and star Mel Gibson's appendectomy. On location with 'Ransom.'

April 21, 1996|Bronwen Hruska | Bronwen Hruska, a freelance writer based in New York, is an occasional contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Mel Gibson is letting loose ungodly squealing sounds and cracking himself up.

Sitting in his trailer on a spring afternoon wearing black jeans and a tasteful plaid shirt, he is gesticulating madly with his hands, widening his eyes for effect and doubling over in simulated pain. He is describing how his laugh sounded following his emergency appendectomy, which kept him off the set of Ron Howard's newest movie, "Ransom," for several weeks. His scenes in the psychological thriller about a child's kidnapping were postponed while he recuperated.

"Oh man, two days after the operation, I was sitting with my two assistants--they're the worst practical jokers in the world," says Gibson, looking so well-groomed for his new role it's hard to believe "Braveheart" ever happened.

He smiles conspiratorially as he gears up for the story. "I started laughing, but I couldn't give it a good hearty laugh, so I had to expel my mirth with another physical thing entirely that came out as this wheezing." He illustrates with a long, loud wailing sound. "I felt like Harvey Keitel in 'Bad Lieutenant.' I thought I was going to burst something--I was begging them to stop. It was cruel and hilarious. They didn't care it hurt. They wanted to hear it again."

Though the story may seem funny now, it wasn't so funny when the big-budget production, starring Gary Sinise, Rene Russo and Delroy Lindo, was held up for weeks beginning in mid-March without its star. The schedule was further delayed by some of the worst New York blizzards in years. As a result, the movie's release--originally slated for summer--has jumped to November.

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"We just kept shooting and working around Mel," says Howard, snacking on a corn muffin in an Upper West Side diner between takes recently. "Now we're doubling back and plugging him into scenes we shot without him." He is worried that the trees, many of which have begun to blossom with the onset of spring, will ruin the continuity of those scenes. "Logistically, I can't say I've ever had worse on a movie. It was a real reworking of the whole schedule--it was a jigsaw puzzle."

As Tom Mullen, Gibson plays an ultra-successful Trump-like entrepreneur who goes on national television to negotiate the riskiest deal of his life: turning $2 million in ransom money into a bounty on the heads of his son's kidnappers.

It was Mullen's human shortcomings that appealed to Gibson. "Tom really gets the guts ripped out of him," says Gibson, who has six children of his own. "He has all the trappings of high society. He's got a nice apartment, a car, dough, but he's not without blame. You don't ascend to a position like that without at least misdemeanors along the way. It's interesting to see how meaningless it all is. You see these characters--the husband and wife--as it's all stripped away from them."

Despite the long hours, difficult material and the surgery, Gibson says, the shoot has been easy compared to his grueling hours on "Braveheart." "This experience is much lighter," says Gibson, who put in 19-hour days on the Oscar-winning movie he directed and starred in.

Even at last month's Academy Awards, Gibson winced with pain as he rose on more than one occasion to receive his best picture and best director Oscars--only two of the five awards his film won that night. "I was thinking, 'Well I've got a chance in five--a 20% chance," says Gibson, who has presented at the awards ceremony five times but had never before been nominated. His movie was up against Howard's in a number of categories, including best picture. "I just figured, hey, what's going to happen is going to happen. I did get a kick out of it, it was fun and very flattering. I decided to take the full opportunity to indulge myself for an evening."

After making appearances at several high-profile parties, Gibson met some friends at a private hotel room and smoked cigars all night. It was so secretive, they even had an entrance password. "It was 'swordfish,' of course," Gibson says sneakily. "Like the Marx Brothers."

The day Gibson returned to work a few weeks after surgery, he was still too tender to do a big Madison Avenue showdown scene with the kidnappers. Howard used a stunt man for a portion of the scene and filmed Gibson doing non-strenuous activity. The rest will be shot at a later date.

"I had to go pretty easy," says Gibson, who has mostly healed now. "I felt like something was going to burst out like that thing out of John Hurt's shirt [in "Alien"]. You feel like the bottom's going to drop out of your stomach or something if you even sneeze or cough."

Howard, as usual, looked on the bright side. "Fortunately the characters undergo a real emotional journey in this film. Mel looked kind of haggard the first days back, which was OK. The makeup folks got a little help with that."

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