Behind ''What Women Want'' -- Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt talk about co-starring in the new film


Behind ”What Women Want”

Heads up, guys: you’re about to get a tip on seduction from one of Hollywood’s suavest leading men, Mel Gibson. When slyly sidling up to a member of the opposite sex, advises the actor, ”Don’t call a woman ugly.”

Fortunately, Gibson doesn’t earn $25 million to host Love Connection, but Paramount is banking on this manly man to deliver both male and female audiences to the holiday season’s most highly anticipated date movie, What Women Want. With this, his first caper-free romantic comedy in a 23-year film career, Gibson departs from his previous role as a Revolutionary warrior in The Patriot to engage in an old-fashioned battle of the sexes.

Not that Gibson is leaving his macho appeal behind to play Nick Marshall, a chauvinistic advertising executive who never underestimates the selling power of a babe in a bikini. When he’s passed up for a promotion, and a woman (Helen Hunt) is hired as his boss, Nick decides to take a crash course in understanding the ways of the enemy; one leg waxing, nail polish application, and freak electrocution later, he’s left with the unnerving ability to read women’s minds. Suddenly, he realizes his crude jokes are rarely appreciated, his charm is more like smarm, and frankly, his sexual technique could benefit from some pointers.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Does a woman want a man to read her mind?
MEL GIBSON: Yes. But she has to choose the time and the place.
HELEN HUNT: Yes…. Well, no.

It’s a concept that can either get a guy going (phew! no more to-kiss-or-not-to-kiss agitation), or make him want to hide his head under the covers (yes, that would indeed be a list of errands running through her brain). That dramatic conflict is exactly what appealed to screenwriters (and real-life couple) Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith, who are supervising producers of the CBS sitcom The King of Queens. Nearly four years ago, they sold a pitch for a romantic comedy called Head Games to Disney’s Touchstone division as a possible vehicle for Tim Allen. They based the story on a friend, ”a real guy’s guy,” says Goldsmith, ultimately transforming him into the universal sensitive male. Although the story dealt with Redbook-worthy issues like intimacy and honesty, Yuspa says, ”We didn’t worry we were making a woman’s movie, because the story is told from a man’s point of view.”

But after the pair turned in a script two years later, Touchstone wanted another take on the story, and asked Nancy Meyers to have a go at a draft. The veteran screenwriter, who made her directorial debut on Disney’s 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, was a natural choice; with her scripts for the gynecocentric Private Benjamin (1980) and Father of the Bride (1991), she had skillfully avoided penning films that earned the dismissive Hollywood sobriquet ”chick flick.” Still, says Meyers, sitting on a Sony soundstage where she’s overseeing the film’s final edit, ”I’m always beating the same drum, about a woman who has no idea who she is without a man.”

At this particular time in her life, Meyers, 50, had more to bring to the subject than ever before; only a year earlier, she and writer-director Charles Shyer, her husband and filmmaking partner of 20 years, separated (they have two daughters, Hallie, 13, and Annie, 20). Meyers says she found herself in ”a brand new world.” With Frank Sinatra CDs on constant rotation, she holed herself up in her Los Angeles home and set to work.

”The [original] script was quite different [from mine],” says Meyers. ”He was a man who worked in advertising, but there was no [role for] Helen Hunt or Marisa Tomei,” who plays a coffee-shop clerk with the hots for Nick. As a woman who rose through Hollywood’s overwhelmingly male ranks, Meyers says, ”I thought it was a great opportunity to show a certain kind of woman on screen, and [go] inside that woman who’s called a ‘bitch on wheels’ at work.” While Yuspa and Goldsmith ”did a fine job,” Meyers continues, ”it wasn’t the movie I wanted to do.” (Yuspa maintains that the couple’s ”first draft was basically the movie,” and, in fact, only she and Goldsmith receive screenwriting credit.)

Meyers wrote two drafts of the script before agreeing to direct. But when Disney’s then chairman, Joe Roth, who had championed the project, left the studio last January, Touchstone soon got cold feet. ”Some people didn’t like it,” says Meyers. ”I remember someone saying, ‘But how do you sell it?’ I was baffled.”

Within days, Sherry Lansing, Paramount Motion Picture Group chairman, called Meyers into her office and enticed her with a come-on that the filmmaker says was impossible to resist: ”She said, ‘I’m not letting you leave this room until I have this project.”’ Adds Lansing, ”I thought it was one of the single best ideas for a movie I had ever read.” Apparently, it was also eminently sellable. ”Nancy said, ‘My first choice is Mel Gibson, because I want a real hunk,”’ Lansing remembers. ”She knew that that’s what would make the movie work.”

EW: Does a woman want to be valued more by women friends or by her male partner?
HUNT: I’m a Gemini, so I’m going to say both.
GIBSON: Her male partner. If she’s heterosexual.

While Paramount was in negotiations to buy the screenplay, Meyers began aggressively courting Gibson. (Conveniently enough, the actor’s production company, Icon, has a deal with Paramount.) But reeling Gibson in to a romantic-comedy role after 1990’s dismally received Bird on a Wire, in which he played a federal witness on the lam opposite Goldie Hawn, took some serious persuasion. With that movie, the actor had tried playing lust for laughs, ”and it didn’t work,” admits Gibson, directing his squint of chagrin across the restaurant at L.A.’s Four Seasons Hotel. ”I thought, ewwww, but I liked Nancy. And I liked the script.”

After two lunch dates and still no sign of a commitment, Meyers says she resorted to pleading. ”I had been through this with Hugh Grant on a movie that was never made called Love Crazy, and it was months of talking, and then he said yes, and then he said no, and it was very painful,” the filmmaker says. ”So I told Mel, ‘I can’t live through this. If you don’t want to do it, just say no. Otherwise, just say yes.”’

Two days later, Gibson agreed to star (with Icon coproducing). ”She talked me into it,” says the actor, rubbing his fingers over what used to be his hair (he shaved it all off on a whim in September). ”She said she wanted this to be more than just some cute funny thing, and this is something that concerns us all — unless you’re a hermaphrodite.” Taking a caveman stab at his arugula, Gibson, who is married with seven children, continues: ”When I was a kid, some guy told me that men play at love to get sex, and women play at sex to get love. The dynamite thing is that in a healthy relationship, you can meet somewhere in the middle.”

EW: Does a woman want to be considered sexy or smart?
GIBSON: Smart is sexy.
HUNT: Does the woman want the man to f— her or hire her?

Hunt, who costars as Darcy Maguire, Nick’s brilliant but self-doubting manager, played even harder to get. ”I couldn’t imagine anyone else pulling it off,” says Meyers. ”She has to be Mel Gibson’s boss, and you can’t have a woman whose knees are knocking below the camera line. Helen’s my ideal of a smart, modern, comfortable career woman.” But Hunt, who was prepping for roles in Pay It Forward and Cast Away, says a romantic comedy wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.

”I had seven years of that [on Mad About You],” says the 37-year-old actress, snuggled in a restaurant banquette in Manhattan, where she’s filming Woody Allen’s latest comedy. Hunt also had some issues with the final scene, in which Nick comes clean about his inner rat, only to have Darcy punch him in the face. Hunt felt the solution was too pat. ”I said to Nancy, ‘Please don’t hire me if you’re not okay that I’m not okay with the last scene.”’

Meyers promised to make changes, but by the time filming began last February, she still hadn’t figured out how to write a climax that was real, romantic, and not overwrought. ”The number of times I walked into the makeup trailer, with these dark circles under my eyes…” Meyers remembers. ”I’d hand [the scene] to Mel, and he’d say it was good. Then I’d give it to Helen, and she’d have a positive response, and then I’d get an e-mail from her when I got home saying, ”You know what? I was thinking…”’

Even Lansing had something to say on the subject of bossing men around, specifically in that final scene. ”You bring the sum total of your experiences to the movies that you make,” says Lansing, widely believed to be the most powerful female studio executive in Hollywood. ”It was right for Helen Hunt to be a boss. She deserved it. And it was all right for Gibson to be her employee. And they could still enjoy each other and that was all okay.” Says Meyers, who eventually rewrote the ending without the blow, ”Every woman I know found her place in this movie.”

As for Gibson, he was delighted just to play the part — most of the time. ”Helen and Nancy would start talking on this level,” he recalls, ”and during the 14th week of the shoot, I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to the gym.’ I couldn’t deal with them.”

EW: When does a woman want to be a man?
HUNT: Never.
GIBSON: When a man’s bothering her.

As if Gibson would even be capable of such bothering. Mention his name to Hunt and Meyers, two otherwise forthright, intelligent women, and they gush like giddy schoolgirls in love. ”I honestly believe that he’s one of those people with angel wings on his back that no one can see,” says Hunt, who separated from her husband, actor Hank Azaria, earlier this year. Meyers is content to croon, ”He’s one of the greatest men ever.”

As for Gibson, such compliments elicit only a roll of the eyes, as does the suggestion that getting out of the action genre and into the love stuff might be part of some grand career plan. ”I’m way past being a romantic lead — I think that’s Heath Ledger territory,” says the newly enlightened 44-year-old, deferring to his 21-year-old Patriot costar. ”I just preferred the experience of working with women to working with all the guys I usually work with. You don’t have to go out in some stinky field and get all sweaty and run up a hill.” With What Women Want, the actor says that escapes to the gym notwithstanding, ”It was like I was one of the girls.”

And he only had to wax once.