The real story behind how the Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson film made it to the big screen

Conspiracy Theory

A butterfly floats over a field of sunflowers in Iowa, and millions of miles away in Japan, the ground begins to shake with the rumblings of a deadly earthquake.

Or, a glass of Evian (no ice, slice of lemon) is spilled at Spago, and Titanic‘s release date is moved back six months.

It is, as our mothers warned us, the little things that count.

Take Conspiracy Theory, starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts and directed by Richard Donner, a story about a taxi driver (Gibson) who may or may not be crazy and a Justice Department attorney (Roberts) who becomes the target of both his amorous attentions and far-fetched fantasies. (Such as, the Vietnam War was fought over a bet Howard Hughes lost to Aristotle Onassis.) On the surface, the film seems to exist because two huge movie stars and a veteran director made the decision to work together.

But listen carefully to Conspiracy Theory producer Joel Silver on the way things get done in Hollywood: ”A movie star can walk out of her house and ask the gardener if she should make a movie with Mel Gibson. Very few people have power, but everyone has influence.”

Then consider this: Conspiracy Theory was made because of a delivery of champagne, a platter of smoked salmon, and one very talented brass band. And that’s just the beginning.

1. Conspiracy Theory exists because Mel Gibson was scared Joel Silver would eat him:

Six years ago, Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson decided to make a Western romantic comedy called Renegade. But the project never made it out of development — there were problems with scheduling and ”a domino effect of stuff,” says Roberts. So Gibson went on to make Lethal Weapon 3 with Silver and Donner, and Roberts finished up filming Hook and went on hiatus. But no one — from Roberts’ and Gibson’s agents to the stars themselves — forgot the concept of what seemed like a very good, if breathtakingly expensive, pairing.

Flash-forward to 1994, Seattle. While Donner watched Antonio Banderas and Sylvester Stallone chase each other up and down the set of Assassins, one of the film’s screenwriters, Brian Helgeland, whispered the idea of a movie about conspiracies into the distracted director’s ear. Donner remembers saying, in his a-shark-ate-my-vocal-cords baritone: ”It’ll make a good TV series, kid. Go do something.”

With a check from Warner Bros., and with an image of Gibson as his off-balance hero, Helgeland settled in front of his computer to knock out what he calls a story ”about a cabdriver who writes newsletters about conspiracies, and by accident, he gets one right.”

By early last year, Donner had read the script and decided that far from being TV fodder, Conspiracy Theory was going to be his next movie. Gibson had seen the script as well, but, still distracted by the seven Academy Awards for Braveheart, he didn’t pay much attention. While intrigued by the idea of reteaming with Donner and Silver, ”I wasn’t ready to roll on anything,” says Gibson, who was making Ransom. ”I thought, ‘Oh, this is pretty good,’ but I was staying greased and open.” In the meantime, the script was flying through town, attracting the interest of such diverse stars as Jim Carrey and Brad Pitt.

Conspiracy Theory
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