The Story Behind Braveheart

Mel Gibson talks exclusively about his epic...

 

In September 1995, Braveheart premiered in British cinemas, bringing with it a wave of Scottish nationalist pride, a worldwide box office gross of over $200million and five Academy Awards.

To celebrate the release of the 15th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray, TotalFilm.com sat down with director/star Mel Gibson, and cinematographer John Toll to discuss the making of the film, its successes, failures and legacy.

 

The story behind Braveheart begins with a visit to Scotland.

In 1983, screenwriter Randall Wallace made a pilgrimage to Edinburgh to learn about his heritage, and happened upon a statue of William Wallace outside Edinburgh Castle.

Intrigued by this legendary figure who shared his name, Wallace determined to research the man dubbed ‘Scotland’s greatest hero’ as much as possible.

“It appealed to me when I read it,” says Gibson, “Randall Wallace is very passionate about the things he writes and stories he tells.” 

“It just reflected his feelings on the subject, about honor and heroism and sacrifice and freedom, which I think are things we’d all like to display.”

Inspired by the big screen epics he had loved as a child, such as Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus and William Wyler's The Big Country, Gibson set out to make the film, with a view to casting Jason Patric as the 28 year-old Scot.

Unfortunately for Patric, the only way Gibson could secure financing was if he agreed with Paramount studios that he would star in the film as well.
“Yeah I was trying to get Jason to do it, but the studio wouldn't have it - they were saying ‘no, you get in it’”

“’They said you get in it, and it’s a worthwhile prospect for us, and you can direct it.’

“So I ended up jumping in. I did think I was a little old, because he was like twenty-eight when he died, and I was already ten years older than that when we started shooting.

“It doesn't matter really, if you can sell it…  At least my knees weren’t wrinkly.”

With Paramount pictures onboard and Gibson producing through his Icon Productions banner as well as acting and directing, the project was gathering momentum.

In the summer of 1994, Gibson, Toll and crew gathered in the most obvious location to film the story of a legendary Scot; Ireland.

Next: Clans, armies and an epic battle [page-break]

 

Clans, armies and an epic battle

Filming for most of the big battle scenes took place in various locations in Ireland; County Meath, County Kildare, County Wicklow and County Dublin.

With up to 1600 extras required for the battles, the production drafted in members of the F.C.A., the Irish version of the territorial army.

Subsequently, a rumour abounds that some of the battle scenes seen in the movie are far more realistic than intended, with rival companies using the occasion to settle a few old scores.

“In terms of the scope of the battles,” says Toll, “just trying to recreate the period and the environment and the sets and, you know, the general feeling, we really knew we were doing the best we possibly could.”

“You could feel that on a daily basis.  Just by showing up for work you just feel the vibe in the sense that things are working, and we were able to get that on screen, which isn’t always the case.”

“It could have just been a chaos fest,” adds Gibson. “Some days there were three thousand people there.  With the crew and everybody, and everything had to kind of like find its way.  So that took some doing.”

In order to get into character, Gibson lived and worked closely with a group of Scots he’d drafted in as extras.

“There was this one group of Scots who worked with us.  Who called themselves the ‘Wallace Clan.’ He recalls.

“They were this group of about thirty or forty guys, and they were sort of like a travelling troop - they would go to various fairs and live the medieval lifestyle as much as they possibly could, “ remembers Toll.

“It was like they had just stepped out of that period, they became a part of our permanent troop and actually had trained themselves in handling those weapons so they really knew what they were doing.”

Gibson smiles, “If you look at the film and you see the hairiest scariest dudes, it’s those guys. They're from Glasgow, you know, and the way they look at you, like they're going to bite ya. 

“There was something kind of carnivorous and savage about those guys.”

“We put them in the front row because they were the best looking guys we had. There’s a dolly shot at the end of the movie that goes up to Robert Bruce. 

“And all the guys in that shot are the Wallace clan, because they looked the most legitimate and historically correct.”

With the shoot wrapped in Ireland, the production moved to location shoots in Scotland for six weeks, but what effect would the gruelling schedule and the punishing weather take on Gibson?

Next: Leading from the front[page-break]

 

Leading from the front

With a three month film shoot a mammoth task for anyone occupying a single role, let alone the three roles Gibson was performing as director, producer and actor, there would have been a lot of sympathy among the crew had their star been less than enthusastic as the weeks rolled on, but this was not the case.

John Toll can’t help but extol praise on the multi-hyphenate. “We were constantly amazed by Mel’s ability to just keep going and do what a great job he did.

“I mean he truly was a morale booster to the crew, because we were watching him do three jobs, doing all of them incredibly well and we were just trying to keep up with him basically.”

“He was leading the charge and everybody was really running hard to keep with him and that's another reason the movie is as good as it is. 

“Everybody gave their absolute best, because we had a great example of how it should be done.”

Gibson is quick to pass the focus onto his crew. “Neither of us could keep up with David Tomlin though.  The guy was amazing and he used to drive you crazy because he was like an old drill sergeant.”

He was a British first AD and he’d been in the gig for like fifty years and he had the Guinness World Book of Records for like the most extras ever in a scene.  He decided to turn the cameras on a religious holiday in India for Gandhi.  And they had like three hundred thousand people.

He was funny and really energetic and he used to drive you crazy because just the salt of his experience over the years was like, he’d be right about stuff.

So you’d have to admit, ‘Goddammit that guy is right about that’. That film would still be shooting if it didn't have the organizational skills that this guy brought to the table. 

Toll agrees. “He’d be able to look at the storyboards and say, well you’d need three hundred people for the background of that shot and eight hundred for this shot and he was always right,

“And he’d always have them there when we showed up to shoot it, which saved us an enormous amount of time.  It actually allowed us to stay on schedule and actually make the movie.”

Gibson may not have been displaying mental signs of exhaustion, but his body was certainly showing the effects.

“I lost like fifteen pounds during the production, and I was eating everything in sight. We had these guys that used to feed us, I'm talking about piles of food every day at lunch time.

And I used to eat a plate of food that I swear to God was like everything they could get on the plate, and I would shovel it down in no time.

“It was the weather, because although it was shot in the summer it was still very cold and wet and rainy.

“I really enjoyed it, it’s a beautiful place to work, I mean just beautiful and it was perfect for anamorphic frame; those hills, that mountain, just the right height.

“You looked through the camera and it was just magic.”

“But we decided early on that it was like, it didn't matter whether it rained or shined or anything, we were just going to keep shooting. Which we did and (John Toll) still got an Oscar.”

Battling the elements and trying to keep thousands of cast and crew motivated, many shoots would have buckled, but the adverse weather would prove to have a major effect on the production.

Next: Weathering the storm[page-break]

 

Weathering the storm

As much as the Scottish summer is maligned and complained about, John Toll credits the harsh conditions for that Best Cinematography Oscar.

“It was because of the weather really, it brought an incredible look to the film. It brought so much to the film, the fact that we were able to shoot in that weather, and especially, for this story. 

“It would not have been the same movie if it had been bright and sunny every day, it just would not have been the same character. The photography would not have looked the same. 

There was one day in Ireland, I remember, it was this unbelievable freezing rain monsoon kind of thing and we were up in the hills and we knew we weren’t going back, so we decided to keep shooting.

“That had become sort of our formula, in that it didn't matter. They were the most difficult shooting conditions I’ve ever been in.”

I remember Mel’s friend Dick Donner the director, he came to visit, he had he wore this incredible parka.  It was like he was going on a polar expedition.

“He was literally there for like ten minutes and he said, ‘I gotta get outta here, this is absolutely insane’. That was just a regular day on the set.”

Gibson laughs. “He looked at us with this crappy weather, with the rain and sleet coming down and everybody looking freezing, and he said, ‘you're out of your fucking mind’ and he took off.

Again, it’s this atmosphere during the production that Toll credits with the success of the film. “The scene looked great. Mel has got hair all over his face and he’s all wet.  And the lens is all fogged up.

“It looks fantastic.”

With the gruelling shoot complete, Gibson was left with the unenviable task of post production on a film which had shot over 90 hours of footage on the Battle of Stirling sequence alone.

He was, unsurprisingly, at his wits end. “I couldn't even talk for about a month afterwards. People would ask me a question, and I’d just stare at them blankly and drool, seriously.

“I was over directing. I said ‘I'm not doing that anymore', because it just it tears you to pieces.”

Of all the hurdles Gibson and the crew had climbed during the production, the biggest challenge still lay ahead. Would Braveheart be well received by the public and the critics?

The answer would prove to be much like the weapon Wallace wielded throughout the film; a double edged sword.

Next: Unleashing an epic[page-break]

 

Unleashing an epic

In order to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating in the US, Gibson toned down the film's battle scenes and cut William Wallace's graphic disembowelment so it occurred out of frame.

With the final print locked, Braveheart premiered in the US in May, 1995, opening to generally favourable reviews and going on to a healthy box office take of $75million

But it wouldn’t be until the film’s Scottish premiere at Stirling, Edinburgh in September 1995 that Gibson would realise exactly what he had made, and what it meant to the people of Scotland.

“I couldn't believe it. I was actually shocked, I’ve never seen anything like it. It was from the entire drive from the hotel to the castle, which was quite a long drive, but they were fifty deep the whole way.

“I couldn’t believe it, you know, that there was so much feeling and fervor about the subject and about what it meant, and how they could feel it.”

The film would go on to take over £10million at the UK box-office, part of a worldwide gross of over $210million.

The reviews the film received in the UK were of a different tone to their trans-Atlantic counterparts however, and the film divided the Scots too over its depiction of their beloved historical figures.

That didn’t stop the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences rewarding the film with 10 Oscar nominations, of which it won 5; for Director, Cinematography, Make-up, Sound Editing and Picture.

With Hollywood and much of the world in love with the film's romanticised vision of Scotland, the country itself began to swell with pride.

It began to appear as though the film would have an effect on not just patriotism, but would arguably lead to something much, much bigger; an entire political movement.

Next: Sparking a revolution[page-break]

 

Sparking a revolution

Braveheart is often credited with helping gather momentum for the Scottish Nationalist movement, and the eventual devolution of power which led to a Scottish Parliament for the first time.

“I became really aware of what a piece of art could do to change things.” recalls Gibson, “It started the ball rolling on some stuff, I think some people want to make you feel guilty about that.

“It hit a chord, and I think every culture is, no matter where you come from, looking for that identity.  And to have it displayed to the world and for it to be something you feel, it does make a deep mark.”

“And people say, ‘oh you messed up history,’ but there’s very little history about the man. There wasn’t somebody following him around writing, but he did exist, and he did have an impact in his own time.”

Another direct product of the film, and the renewed fascination with all things Wallace was a new statue, placed outside the Wallace monument near Stirling.

Designed by sculptor Tom Church, the statue included the word Braveheart on the shield, and the word ‘Freedom’ on the base, and bore an uncanny resemblance to a certain Hollywood actor.

Unlike the film the statue was not well received, and after numerous incidents, including the face being smashed with a hammer, a cage was placed around it to prevent further attacks.

One Scottish journalist summed up the sentiment toward the statue, describing it ‘like a blow-up doll, its mouth wide open and beady eyes starring at you. Just ugly.’

In 2008 the statue was removed to, in official language ‘make way for a new restaurant and visitor’s centre’.

It wasn’t just the unfortunate decoration that was to receive criticism in the backlash, however, the film had plenty to answer for also.

"I'm aware of what I did," says Gibson. "That's why I haven't been back."

Next: Creative licence revoked[page-break]

 

Creative licence revoked

 

The most obvious lines of criticism are the film’s well documented historical inaccuracies, chief among them the timeline issues and the fact that kilts weren’t invented until 400 years after Wallace died.

These complaints Gibson is well practised in handling, and he tackles them head-on.

“Some of the stuff I read about that particular character, he wasn’t as nice as we saw him on screen. “

“We romanticized it a bit but that's the language of film - you have to make it work cinematically.

“He was a monster, he always smelled of smoke because he was always burning people’s villages and stuff down. 

“And he was quite fond of going into fortresses and garrisons and places all by himself.  He was like what the Vikings used to have, they used to call them berserkers.

“He was bigger than a lot of people, in those days, if you look at the size of things, and he wasn’t that big. Everyone thought he was a giant; he was probably no bigger than I was, but for those days, that was a big guy. 

“So he had his faults.” Gibson laughs. “We shifted the balance a bit, because somebody has to be the good guy and the bad guy.

"No it doesn't bother me. It’s the way the stories are told; they always have a bias and a point of view and that was our bias. 

"What I'm doing is giving you a cinematic experience first, educational second, inspirational third. 

"If you can have all those things, then great, you’re going in with the trifecta; to entertain, to teach and to inspire, but there are few good histories on Wallace and all of them have holes that you can’t fill.

"Unless you go to a source like the poems Blind Harry, which the writer used, and take the legend, which is probably already heightened and exaggerated, and fill in the spaces. 

"Yes there were probably historical inaccuracies, quite a few, but maybe they weren’t, who’s to say. It didn't bother me too much.

"I just want to have something you can look at that's really different and throw you into a different world, a different time and have you as much as possible believe it.

"I mean you'll never wholly believe it, because you're sitting in a dark room chewing on popcorn.  But if I can take you to another world and get you lost in it and tell you a story with it, then I’ve done my job.

If Gibson has ready answers for these criticisms, it’s harder to pin him down on some of the more volatile questions the themes in Braveheart raise.

It is these questions that 15 years later almost dominate the legacy of the film, remaining long after the fanfare has died down.

Next: Courting controversy[page-break]

 

Courting controversy

At the time of the film’s release, Gibson, who had already been heavily criticised for his views on homosexuality in a 1991 interview, was again accused of homophobia for the portrayal of Edward II.

In the film, Edward Prince of Wales is depicted as an effeminate homosexual, though historians strongly dispute he was gay or bi-sexual, noting that he went on to father at least five children.

The scene where Edward I threw his son's lover out of a castle window was particularly criticised for inciting homophobia.

The lover was based on Piers Gaveston, allegedly involved with Edward II, although he was also married. Many historians believe the rumours  were invented by the King's enemies in order to discredit him.

Gibson refused to apologize for the controversy in a 1995 interview with Playboy magazine while promoting the movie. However, he did agree to host a summit for gay rights organization GLAAD.

Although he didn’t apologize for the film's alleged homophobia, Gibson did express regret over his controversial 1991 interview, claiming that his words had frequently been used to criticise him.

When the film premiered in the UK, the first reaction of the English newspapers was to pick up on what The Guardian stated was “a toxic Anglophobia."

Similarly, Scottish writer Colin MacArthur, author of Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots: Distortions of Scotland in Hollywood Cinema calls it "an atrocious film".

He also writes that a worrying aspect of the film is its appeal to 'neo-fascist groups'. This seems to be supported by the supposed use of the film by groups such as the KKK to promote fundamentalist beliefs.

“You've got no control over what happens to a lot of stuff once it’s out the gate. Hopefully it gets used in a good way or it inspires in a good way, but I'm glad I'm not my brother’s keeper,” says Gibson.

His tone is understandably defensive, yet alarmed that his film may be being repurposed for such reasons.

The story of Braveheart doesn’t end on a low note, however, as the legacy of the film extends far beyond the extreme few, all the way to the terraces.

Next: A film for all seasons[page-break]

 

A film for all seasons

“It’s really a universal appeal.” Says Gibson. “Braveheart worked because of the story.”

“It was great to have the scope, and the battles were incredible, but I think it’s really a universal story, which I don't think is in any different perspective today than in the original release. 

“I think the best way to gauge that is to see or to talk to someone who was too young to see it, or wasn’t even born then, someone fifteen years old.

“Get their reaction to it, and if it still resonates for them, it still resonates in the same way that it did.”

Resonate is the certainly the word. For fans of the Scottish National football team, tennis star Andy Murray or other elite Scottish sports stars like Sir Chris Hoy, the legacy of Braveheart couldn’t be clearer.

The ‘Tartan Army’ as they are branded in the media, awash in unrelenting pride, take their cues from Braveheart’s anachronistic tartans and bright blue face paint.



Joining together in unison, they are as fearsome a sight for any visiting team as the English found Wallace’s army in the film.

Indeed, even the teams themselves look to the film for inspiration.

Wallace’s famous ‘Freedom’ speech has been played before big games in international football and rugby, and the iconic theme song piped into the changing rooms.

Whether the film deserves its plaudits, or whether its controversies and inaccuracies outweigh its cinematic pedigree, the effect of the film on the collective psyche of Scotland is clear.

Rarely does a film enter the zeitgeist like Braveheart, and love it or hate it, there is no denying it’s place in cinematic history.

As for Gibson’s thoughts on the film in 2009, well there are a few things he’d change…

Next: Retrospectively speaking[page-break]

 

Retrospectively speaking

“The scene in the middle of that battlefield, when everybody rides out and they're all talking and stuff, I should have just killed the conversation.

“He should have just galloped out there and hit the guy on the head and killed him and said ‘okay’ and then run back, and it would have saved a lot of talking,” Gibson jokes.

Gibson and Toll have only rose tinted glasses for the laborious production, and an inherent fondness for the fruit of that labour.

“It’s like a boy’s own adventure in a way,” says Gibson “it’s exciting, it’s tragic, it’s funny. And also it does something spiritual - it’s inspiring.

For a film that was almost four hours at first cut, Gibson was forced to leave a lot of footage on the cutting room floor, something he likens to ‘killing your children’.

“A lot of the stuff that we filmed, we couldn't put out on the screen, because you’d look at it and you’d go ‘no, that's too much.’

“So I pulled way back. But when you're shooting it, you just go for the whole hog, and it’s good to do that because then you can pull back and just suggest it, or maybe more than suggest it.

“My assistant actually put together a gag reel of all the most violent bits in the film, and set it to Julie Andrews singing These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things,” Gibson laughs, “it’s horrible, it’s hideous.”

“That something you certainly won’t be seeing on any extras.”

To say the production had a profound effect on all involved is an understatement.

“For me, the biggest thing was just the fact that we actually got through it,” remembers John Toll. “It was incredibly emotional, for everybody, because it was so ambitious.

“We walked away feeling like we’d really done something. You never really know how a film is going to turn out, and we accomplished what we intended to do, and that was to make a fantastic film.

“That’s true,” adds Gibson, “we did get what we wanted to get. That doesn't happen all the time, but I think the most emotional moment for me was the last day we shot.

“I went and had a little cry in my tent. It was like, ‘wow…  huh.’  I had directed once before and it was like a toe in the water movie for no money.  So doing something like this seemed like a juggernaut.”

“I feel like at times there were the ghosts of kilted clansmen rising from the moors going ‘yeah, yeah, put the camera over there’ – it really felt like that sometimes.”

“I mean you just have to go and visit the battlefields and it breaks your heart.  So you know, we were sort of operating on something else, something coming out of the earth.”

15 years on, the pair talk as though they finished the shoot last week, but they are also looking to the future - ensuring the legacy of Braveheart survives for future generations to enjoy and debate.

Next: A new lease of life[page-break]

 

A new lease of life

 

The 15th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray marks the first time the film has gone through a digital re-mastering, something John Toll feels has been very valuable to the presentation of the film.

“It’s great that there is a way to see this film that was very close to what we originally intended, and how we intended it to be seen in theatres.  I think it’s fantastic, it just gives the film a new life.

“It gives you opportunities in post-production, a way to exaggerate certain things, to give things more detail, to manipulate the images in ways you can’t for theatrical versions. 

“I have been involved with the visual aspects and colour correction, trying to retain the original photographic intent that was the part of the theatrical experience.”

“It’s great that it can have this kind of life on Blu-ray,” adds Gibson, but jokes “sometimes you see it too well, you know.”

“But I’m glad it won’t suffer like some of the films of the past, where the celluloid rots away.  You always have a record that's easily preserved and pristine.

“The only place to see it, really, is on a big old screen, but you can’t keep screening it in a cinema.

“And to make it live in a generation where the whole nature and character of the entertainment device is changing to keep up with it and make it accessible, that’s very valuable to me.

“I'm proud of this work. “ Gibson adds.

Something that is evident, 15 years down the line, with numerous other films under his belt, some more financially successful, some more critically praised, is just how much of a place this film holds.

Whether Braveheart continues to be the bane of historians, fodder for minority groups, doctrine for extremists or a badge of honour for an entire nation remains to be seen.

What is certain is that the film will live on as just that, a cinematic experience - one that immerses you in a story, and contains some of the most brilliant battle scenes committed to film.

Braveheart has been many things in the last 15 years, but after sitting down and re-watching the Anniversary disc. it is most definitely one – a cracking good piece of entertainment.

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