A trailer has been released for a Mel Gibson movie project: The Professor and the Madman. But it’s a trailer with a difference, in that a release date seems a long way off. Furthermore, Gibson himself isn’t happy with the production and sought to obtain the rights for himself.
The story behind the dispute is as complex as the film’s subject matter. Based on Simon Winchester’s 1998 book The Surgeon of Crowthorne, it reveals how asylum inmate Dr. W.C. Minor made sizeable contributions to the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the late 19th century.
Prof. James Murray was in charge of the project, following in the legendary footsteps of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who’d written A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. Gibson plays Murray and Sean Penn is Minor. The more eye-catching title is taken from the tome’s US/Canadian title.
In 1998 the New York Times wrote that “in a moment of insanity, Dr. Minor, an American and a veteran of the Civil War, had killed a man in London and been sentenced to Broadmoor. He remained there under guard for the next 37 years, until he was transferred to St. Elizabeths Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington. Even after Murray realized Minor’s true situation, he still regarded him as his most reliable source, a madman whose words were very much to be trusted.”
The film is presented as a tale of friendship between two intelligent men in very different circumstances. Together they achieved something that went against the establishment and had a lasting effect on cultural life. Gibson sports a full-blooded Scottish accent, of the sort he cut his teeth on with Braveheart in 1995.
Gibson and producer Bruce Davey had the book in their sights since its release and signed a deal in 2015. With director Farhad Safinia they partnered with Voltage Pictures. However, things turned sour after Gibson accused them of breaching the contract, instructing his lawyers to sue.
In 2017 The Hollywood Reporter wrote “Gibson claims Voltage failed to live up to its end of their deal by failing to provide a budget, secure a completion bond, shoot ‘critical’ scenes in Oxford, execute Safinia’s directing deal and pay Icon (Gibson’s company) its producing fee, among a laundry list of other complaints that had the result of ‘eviscerating’ Gibson’s approval rights.”
Originally lined up as director, Gibson wanted final say on the cut, something that didn’t happen. Safinia also took Voltage to court for defamation after they accused him and Gibson of unprofessional conduct.
According to Digital Spy, “Voltage said that Safinia’s lawsuit was an attempt to ‘improperly coerce’ them to shoot expensive additional scenes” and launched their own case against the filmmakers.
The article goes on to say the team were “wanting a scene shot in Oxford instead of the Trinity College in Ireland,” presumably for maximum authenticity. Unfortunately, “Voltage’s CEO Nicolas Chartier said that the change would cost $2.5 million for a movie that was already over budget.” The film cost $25 million overall.
The Professor and the Madman gathered dust while real life dramas played out. In June 2018 Gibson and Icon’s hopes were dashed and Voltage began preparing the picture for release. Vertical Entertainment won U.S. distribution rights and Deadline reports that “A theatrical release is planned for the second quarter of this year.”
Natalie Dormer, Eddie Marsan, Jennifer Ehle and Steve Coogan are among the co-stars. Gibson will not be promoting the movie and the director credit goes to one P.B. Shemran. This appears to be a face-saving pseudonym.
Some question whether the film will receive a wide release. Ironically nothing is planned so far for the UK, where the famous dictionary took shape in the first place.