Last fall, movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Mel Gibson shook hands for the first time and then sat down for an intense five-hour meeting to discuss a topic of mutual passion – making an epic Viking film.
No Hollywood project is a slam dunk, especially a high-priced period piece, but if the ramping plan to create a maritime epic does work out, the meeting at the Santa Monica offices of Gibson’s company, Icon Productions, will be remembered as the day the Vikings set sail again in cinema.
There were two other men in the room that day, both of them Oscar winners: Producer Graham King, who set up the meeting, and screenwriter Bill Monahan, who is now at work on the script for the untitled project that will be directed by Gibson (who won an Academy Award for directing “Braveheart”) and star DiCaprio (a three-time nominee).
Gibson recently reflected on the meeting as a special moment for him – a chance to get underway with a project that started as a daydream during his youth. “It was the first movie I ever thought about making,” Gibson said. “I saw it in my mind back when I was teenager. Seriously, it’s the first movie I wanted to make. And I think it will be the last film I direct. It’s the thing I have been going toward, in a way, since I was young, and I think when it’s done I may be finished.”
Gibson is an extremely wealthy man after directing and producing “The Passion of the Christ,” which he financed on his own and watched go on to make $612 million worldwide in theaters, and after some nasty scrapes with the press and public opinion in recent years, the 54-year-old sounded as if his Viking epic might be a fitting farewell to his Hollywood life. The people around Gibson, however, scoff at that notion and say that the Australian-bred actor and auteur is far too restless creatively to ever walk away from filmmaking.
Work is now underway on the script by Monahan, who penned the screenplays for “The Departed,” which starred DiCaprio, and “Edge of Darkness,” which starred Gibson, as well the 2005 Ridley Scott film “Kingdom of Heaven,” which was a battlefield epic set in the time of the Crusades.
“We’re going hammer and tongs on the script right now,” Gibson said. “When I was 16, learning about the history of the English language I became fascinated with Vikings. And I imagined what they would sound like, how would they talk and that’s what I will be going for in this film. It’s a challenge though. There’s never been a good Viking film, not that I’ve seen. I think I have found the right way to get into it, though, but I don’t want to say too much. The real problem is making those guys sympathetic. They were monsters.”
King, the producer of “The Departed,” “Edge of Darkness” and the upcoming Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie film “The Tourist,” said it was a casual conversation with Gibson about his childhood interest in the marauding Norsemen of antiquity that led to the meeting last fall.
“Mel and I were talking and he said he had always wanted to make a Viking movie and I knew, too, that Leonardo DiCaprio had a passion to make a Viking movie, I had heard that, so I decided to get all of us together on it,” King said. “The interest was in both of them for a long time and I can see why – the Vikings are so mysterious and for an actor to get his teeth into something like that could really lead to some interesting things. And it’s something the audience hasn’t seen in a long time.”
The most famous film on the seafaring warriors was probably “The Vikings” in 1958 with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Ernest Borgnine. The film was jeered by critics, such as Bosley Crowther in the New York Times who called it a “giant charade” memorable mostly for its “ancient castles, grotesque rowboats and bushy beards.”
King, a U.K. native, greeted the film’s mention with a smirk. “I just remember all these guys with all their New York accents.”
Gibson said he has no plan to appear in the film but King said there’s a chance that might change. DiCaprio hasn’t ventured into sword-and-shield cinema since “The Man in the Iron Mask” in 1998 and “Romeo + Juliet” in 1996. Gibson praised the younger actor, whose next film in theaters is Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” this summer. Neither Gibson nor King would discuss the name or back story of the central character.
“We all knew we wanted to do it. It was just a matter of finding what the story would be, who our Viking was,” King said. “There’s not many sympathetic Vikings out there. And you have to find something of sympathy in one of them or what else is there to show, other than blood and guts and rape and pillaging?”
The challenge was finding a hero of noble deeds, sacrifice or sympathy – “Braveheart” had its William Wallace, “Gladiator” its Maximus and “300” its King Leonidas, and without any of them those hugely successful films would have been just extended sword fights.
“You can’t just show a film that is battle scene after battle scene, you have to show heroism and sympathy,” King said. “This is not going to be a cheap movie to make by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve got to make it interesting to a worldwide audience. To me, the greatest thing about this is we don’t have a book or a familiar story – we had a couple of guys doing a month and a half of research on all of the different Viking stories that are out there. We had that research when we went in the room and we had Mel driving that train during the meeting. So we sat there five or six hours and then we had another meeting and it was the same thing. And after that we felt we had a sufficient enough story and material to go off and write the script for a movie.”
What about “Thor,” which is now being filmed in New Mexico and tells the tale of the Norse god who isn’t really a Viking but does have the same taste in hats? “We’re not making a comic book, this isn’t about superheroes,” King said with a hint of disdain. “Although I’m sure everyone in town would love us to. This movie will be quite serious and very much for grown-ups.”
– Geoff Boucher
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PHOTOS: Top, Mel Gibson in Santa Monica, 2010 (Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times); Second, Leonardo DiCaprio in Beverly Hills in 2009 (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times); Third, Graham King in New york, 2006 (Caroyln Cole/Los Angeles Times) Bottom, William Monahan at the Oscars in 2007 (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)