The Year of Living Dangerously

This excerpt is from a book on Mel Gibson written in 1986 by John Hanrahan.

Producer Jim McElroy says he had no arguments with director Peter Weir's first and only choice for the lead in The Year of Living Dangerously. After Gallipoli, which Weir had directed, it had to be Mel Gibson.

 McElroy recalled, "Dangerously was in development when Peter got the offer from Stigwood and Murdoch to do Gallipoli, so he put Dangerously to one side. Gibson was in mind for Dangerously as soon as Gallipoli was being made. There were no problems getting him for the role, either, because the international aspects of his career didn't hit until after Gallipoli had been released. Mad Max I was out, but by the time he had become an international star we'd done the deal for Dangerously."

 McElroy had come to understand Mel's potential. "He's got a megnetism, that magic indefinable quality that comes out of the eyes," says McElroy.

 "And in many ways I don't think that he's changed very much," he adds.

 "For a guy who's undergone all the pressures that he has and is, he is showing remarkable fortitude. And I think that's another reason he's a star.

 He remembers, for example, the enormous pressure he was under at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983 when he took a break in filming The Bounty, at that time in London, to join Peter Weir at the festival to help promote The Year of Living Dangerously.

 "The guy was being beseiged, and I mean beseiged," Jim, who was also representing the film as producer, remembered.

 "There were funny little incidents like the sycophants who hang around and ingratiate themselves into the stars' lives, both male and female. Mel, like any other star, was a victim of that, but he was handling it extremely well. Sure, he's a hard liver, he likes having a good time. And I've enjoyed many a good night with him. Not for a few years now. But that shouldn't be misinterpreted... he just lives life to the full.

 "You immediately feel close to the guy once you spend a little time with him. I remember in the first couple of days in Manila on Dangerously, we had bodyguards from day one for him and Sigourney. But Peter suggested that the bodyguards weren't necessary. The only trouble was the bodyguards wouldn't leave him. They decided to stick around with him... and they did. They were a couple of off-duty policemen. As it turned out, later on, we needed them."

 Mel played an Australian journalist in Djakarta during the reign and overthrow of President Soekarno in 1965.

 It was by far the most sophisticated role Mel had ever played on stage or screen. The character of Guy Hamilton was several years older than the then twenty-six-year-old actor.

 The film, adapted from Christopher Koch's novel of the same name, worked on various levels. It examined the political moods and conflicts in Indonesia at the time, Hamilton's dedication to his job and the ethical conflicts he faced upon learning secret information about communist aid. It also examined two relationships Hamilton had, one with his Chinese cameraman Billy Kwan (played brilliantly by New York actress Linda Hunt who, so deservedly, won an Oscar as best supporting actress) and a British consul employee, played in coolish style by Sigourney Weaver.

 Mel told Paul Fischer later, "It was complex getting to the character. I don't think that he's so complex. He's just very boring... it was a matter of making him interesting."

 A matter of going inside him? "Yes, that's right. Well, I found out what it was like to be a journalist and what it was like to be a 'green' journalist. I talked to a number of journalists and read their files. Really interesting. I wanted to find out what makes a guy do what Guy Hamilton did. Then there was the love story and his relation with the dwarf [Kwan] and him not knowing himself. And knowing that my face had to be in it, from the first to the last frame."

 "That posed a few problems, because Hamilton never initiated anything. He is kind of the central figure, who makes this journey, the eyes of the audience; he goes through the east and meets all these interesting characters. He is really a reactor... or he reacts to all these things done to him."

 Mel did not meet his American female co-stars for Dangerously until he flew into Manila. "We'd tied up Sigourney in Hollywood and of course Peter had found Linda Hunt in New York," added McElroy.

 "Mel immediately struck up a very friendly relationship with Linda Hunt, a New York stage actress who was to play Mel's cameraman Billy Kwan," recalled Babette Smith, location publicist on Dangerously.

 "It was very much a relationship of mutual trust. And the way the shoot was structured he had many more scenes with Linda up front in the filming. That was really nice to watch.

 "Because Linda was really risking her neck in that role playing a man. And, so too, was Peter for casting her. But it was a very personal risk for her.

 "Everyone, Mel, Peter, the entire crew, loved her from the moment we got to know her. And we all wanted her to succeed. Mel, in particular, was very supportive of her. One of the most interesting and perhaps difficult aspects for everyone was that once you knew her as Linda there was no way you could think of her as anything but a woman. That gives you some idea of how good her performance was."

 And while Mel and Sigourney Weaver worked together very well on the set, it was not until a rain sequence in which they both got drenched and ended up together in a car that the relationship really took off.

 According to Babette, they simply had different approaches to their work.

 "Mel had a more matter-of-fact, seemingly casual approach, whereas the American style was evidently one of great thought processes and preparation, presumably born out of the method style of acting," she added.

 "Whatever was going on underneath the surface, Mel did not betray his thought processes to anyone. Sigourney, by comparison, seemed much more intense. It appeared to some of us on the set, at first, that they came from two different worlds. It just took a lot longer for the lines of communication between them to reach a relaxed and joking relationship. And, yes, the day most remember it happening was that rain sequence when they got drenched by the fire hoses in the street scene.

 "There were all these huge fire trucks standing by and they had to get totally saturated. It did, literally, break the ice," Babette added.

 "The whole sequence from there on became much more relaxed."

 The sequence on screen, however, was nothing like the reality of the shooting, as Jim McElroy recalled.

 For a start, the cafe and wharf sequences were shot in Metro Manila. The car sequence was actually shot on a chilly night at the Sydney showground some weeks later after death threats had forced the entire cast and crew to pull up stakes and return to Sydney.

 "That sequence in the car where they begin to make love was actually set up in the car park at the showground. But, I tell you, it was so cold. It actually snowed that night in Chatswood, a northern Sydney suburb. It took us all night, and most of it was shot around midnight. The fires that you could see in the foreground were actually there to keep the crew warm."

 There was a real life sequel to the fiction of movie romance connected, indirectly, to The Year of Living Dangerously

 "It was an extraordinary incident during the Cannes Film Festival when we all went to dinner up in the hills behind Cannes," Jim McElroy recalled.

 "There was a table of about ten of us. This total stranger, a woman, I think she was French, just came over, grabbed Mel and stuck her tongue about six inches down his throat. Now he hadn't requested it. It just came straight out of left field. That's the kind of thing he has to deal with.

 "Mel completed the embrace with maximum decorum and minimum time and turned back to the table and started eating again... the woman went away. But there was nothing that Mel or anyone else could have done to stop what happened. It was all over so fast."

 Two-thirds of the way through the filming in Manila a series of death threats forced the crew and cast to quit and return to Sydney.

 "The first thing we knew, a note was delivered to us," Jim McElroy recalled.

 "It threatened our lives because it was felt that the film crew's presence was imperialist and anti-Muslim. They warned us to stop immediately. That was followed by a series of telephone calls to various individuals on the crew. I got one, Peter got one, not Mel or Sigourney. They were anonymous, though mine was traced and the man was arrested. He had chosen a bad time to call... I was being interviewed by the police at the time. He was only a couple of blocks away. The calls turned out to be hoaxes."

 As news of the threats spread through the cast and crew, opinions varied about their seriousness. That division worsened as tension built up over the next three days. The reverberations of the threats had reached as far as the White House in Washington, eventually prompting the involvement of the CIA and a message from the Oval Office.

 On top of all that MGM studios, the film's backers, were having serious thoughts about whether they should proceed with the film under the circumstances.

 The key differences of opinion among the people on location in Manila were expressed by McElroy and director Peter Weir

 "I believed that there was no real threat, but that is irrelevant in the sense that it was a perceived threat from within the unit.

 "And while the perception was around, filming could not continue. Peter ultimately took the decision to leave," McElroy concedes.

 "I didn't agree. My position was that there was no threat and if there was any particular threat, it could be contained. That was the advice I was getting from seven organisations including the CIA, the PIA (the Phillipines Intelligence Agency), the Palace Guard Security, the police, the army and the Australian Ambassador to the Phillipines. I expressed that view until the Sunday, during which time the security around the cast and crew had been stepped up dramatically and the decision was taken to leave. But we did continue to film on the Monday."

 The cast and crew had been informed about what was happening and, though each individual had his own opinion about the situation, everyone was calm and responsive to directions.

 "By the time we'd got to Monday we were filming under very, very tight security." says McElroy.

 "Mel was great. He was perfectly calm and very co-operative and helpful. Of course, he had been aware of the situation concerning the death threats from the outset. We had the army and police and our own private security guards, and the area where we were filming was cordoned off. It would have taken a very heavy assault to be successful.

 It was a very tense time for both Peter Weir and me, and I must say that I did support his decision to go. There was no flaming row as to whether we would stay or go. Peter eventually took the attitude that he could not go on filming, that it was too unsafe. And that is a perfectly reasonable attitude for someone to take. But what I felt was vital for Peter, Mel, Sigourney and the rest of the cast and crew was to get filming as quickly as possible, for two reasons.One, MGM were asking whether they wanted to continue making this picture. We were about half way through and for MGM it was a question of: Do these guys know what they are doing? They weren't there, they were relying on reports. They'd made contact with the White House, and the White House was saying everything was fine.

 "But where Peter and I did disagree was that I had to get shooting again. It was then late Sunday. I stated my intention to restart filming back in Sydney the following Saturday. We did have a disagreement about that. But Peter, I believe wisely, did agree with my logic on the thing and endorsed that. So we started again at 7am on the Saturday. We had stopped shooting on Monday at midday so that seven principle cast members, including Mel and Sigourney, could catch a plane that night back to Australia. As it turned out, their passports didn't arrive at the airport in time and they missed the plane. That forced us, under the circumstances, to put them up, under assumed names, in a hotel near the airport. They left the following afternoon.

 "We had tried to give the cast and crew the maximum amount of information possible. On the Monday we asked the principal artists and Peter to come to my suite and advised them as to what we were proposing to do. Mel was fine. Basically, Mel was happy to do just as he was asked. It was an extraordinary time. I got a crash course in security, some people were being alarmed, others were being cavalier.

 Amazingly, it had no evident effect on Mel. He was right back into character when we restarted," added McElroy.

 "But that is part of his being... he is so centred, this was just another part of the job of film acting. That shows what sort of guy he is."