Conspiracy Theory: About The Production

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When producer Joel Silver asked screenwriter Brian Helgeland on the set of "Assassins" if he had any other ideas he was working on, Helgeland said, "There's a paranoid guy who prints his own newsletter called Conspiracy Theory, in which he exposes so-called conspiracies. What would happen if he accidentally got one right? He's the boy who cried wolf, and when he accidentally gets one right the wolves show up."

At the same time, Helgeland had another idea for a film -- a love story between two people who could ultimately never end up together. "It dawned on me one day that I should combine the two stories. What works well in this film is that you have this big world of conspiracy theories and in the middle of that whole arena you have this guy who's hopelessly in love with this woman ­p; which is the heart of the whole movie."

It was that unique combination that attracted Silver and Donner to the project. And they were immediately certain that Mel Gibson was the perfect person to star as Jerry Fletcher.

"Aside from the fact that Mel, Joel and I work beautifully together and have a wonderful time while we're doing it," asserts Richard Donner, "the truth is that Mel has the unique ability to be strong and vulnerable at the same time. He can bring huge appeal to this kind of a role, even though the 'hero' is a seriously disturbed person. We knew we had to get him to star."

Silver and Donner sent the script to Gibson, prepared to be very persuasive if necessary. But Gibson responded immediately to the material. "It's a quirky script," says Gibson. "And I found the subject matter intriguing. As far as conspiracy theories go, I give some credence to them. You hear something that might be and it's fascinating to think that there's an element of truth to that. I have no doubt that there's a covert force at work somewhere, keeping things undercover and admitting only certain things to the public."

After Gibson agreed to star, he suggested to Donner and Silver that the role of Alice Sutton was perfect for Julia Roberts.

"I had looked at many, many people," recalls Donner. "But in the back of my mind, I was looking for Julia Roberts. She's charming, bubbly, brightand she can play with the wonderful confusion that Mel portrays so well."

"The material was easy to say yes to," says Roberts, "but I had just finished a movie and I didn't want to work. So Joel, Dick and Mel trapped me in a hotel room and wouldn't let me leave until I said yes. As soon as I agreed, they had a brass band march out and play me a victory song. I figured I had just made a decision that I knew wouldn't be boring, ever!

Soon after, the actors began rehearsing and preparing for their roles, agreeing that the core of the story rested on the strong and believable characterizations of Alice and Jerry.

"Jerry's the victim of an experiment he can't remember," says Gibson. "He's this incomplete person who would, under normal circumstances, be quite intelligent. But now he's operating at a high level of anxiety and fear and paranoia and he's in what we call a 'red alert' ­p; always urgent.

"I find him heartrending because he struggles with this terrible obstacle and it's himself, his own shortcomings, the fact that he's missing a link someplace and can't remember his past. Yet he manages to overcome it in the oddest way; it's kind of a funny little game I have to play with this character. It's different."

"From the first reading," Roberts continues, "I could tell that Mel's take was very unusual; his characterization had me fascinated. He came from a really gentle place, not a very obvious one, very subtle and rich. He knows exactly what he's doing, creating this person. It may look effortless, yet it's rather complex."

Explains writer Helgeland, "Jerry's not the guy in 'Lethal Weapon' where he's crazy but he can still get a date and is attractive to women. Here's he's crazy and legitimately damaged and a guy you wouldn't want your daughter to bring home. Mel was the only person who could pull it off and be sympathetic and attractive at the same time."

"The story is fascinating on all levels. Very intriguing and thought-provoking," says Roberts. "In a different world Alice and Jerry might be the perfect couple, but time and circumstances have probably gotten the best of the potential for this relationship to really flourish. He's so damaged, it's impossible for him to really maintain a normal relationship.

"And Alice is, in some ways, not much better off. She's a lawyer raised in Connecticut; her father's dead, she's very focused, very solitary and lives in a nondescript apartment with a plastic plant. She has no relationships. So it's discovering how to unveil that potential connection between them that was interesting to me."

For Patrick Stewart, the role of Dr. Jonas was quite a departure from the characters he has recently played on screen, stage and television, from the principled Captain Jean-Luc Picard of "Star Trek" fame to the multitude of roles in his one-man presentation of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Stewart enjoyed the challenge of making this mysterious character, Dr. Jonas, seem as plausible as possible.

"The first time we meet Jonas is rather unnerving," says Stewart. "In an abandoned hospital with its bare lights, dripping faucets and loaded syringes, he wants something from Jerry. And the means he uses to find out how much Jerry knows are unconventional.

"Of all the people who observe Jerry Fletcher's odd behavior each day, only Jonas knows that Jerry has a reason for what he does. Only Jonas understands what Jerry can't remember ­p; and what might happen if Jerry does remember."

Says Roberts, "Patrick is so sincere and so horrifying in this movie. Who are you going to believe? A dignified man in a suit and tie who's trying to help you or some cabbie in a plastic jacket who's ranting and raving about an earthquake that's going to kill the President? Alice is a seeker of truth. She finds herself in a situation where she doesn't really know who anybody is. And there begins the greatest conflict."

Adds Stewart, "Jonas' field of operations is such that he doesn't want people to know who he is, or even to remember his face. The method by which my character gets what he wants is very complicated and very devious and sometimes really quite seductive, too."

Creating the World of Jerry Fletcher

Director Richard Donner had a specific look in mind for the world he wanted to present in "Conspiracy Theory." He turned to Academy Award-winning production designer Paul Sylbert to bring that world to the audience.

"For me, all design comes from character," says Sylbert, who created nine sets for the movie, two of which were built in New York and the rest on the soundstages at Warner Bros. in Burbank, California.

The look of the film was primarily based on Jerry Fletcher's paranoid perspective, fragmented and a bit distorted. "The look had to be based in reality, feeling very real and, in a sense, un-designed," says Sylbert. "If you've got a man to whom the world seems very strange and you make that world very strange to the audience, then you lose that contrast. You want a real world which he sees as strange. You can't distort it, except in special moments."

Jerry Fletcher's perspective is established early in the story when he picks up a man in his taxi. As he drives down the street, he becomes distracted by the flashing lights of a construction site, which trigger something from his past, and he almost loses consciousness "The flashing elements and strobe lights," says Sylbert, "shock you awake, but they kind of put him into a trance."

Jerry Fletcher's state of mind is most clearly revealed in the look of his apartment. The exterior was filmed on Thompson Street in Manhattan's Soho district, with its ornate Old World charm. That particular street showed the towers of the World Trade Center in the background, the symbol of the first foreign terrorist act in modern America.

The inside was built on a soundstage. There, one discovers that Jerry's cramped apartment is completely fireproof, with steel walls, floors and ceilings, and filled with old newspapers, magazines, books and filing cabinets that contain tons of background research for his conspiracy newsletter. It's fortified with locks, even in his kitchen, in his refrigerator.

"Jerry's apartment is a rat's nest," says Sylbert. "He saves everything. When you enter his apartment, it's the first time you see how disturbed and terribly frightened he is. It's an introduction to his mind."

Cinematographer John Schwartzman was also crucial in helping the filmmakers shape the visual content of the movie. He explains, "The perspective is a cab driver's point of view in Manhattan. Because we were after the chaos of the city, there was no need to polish its rough edges. Dick wanted to use long lenses with a narrow focus. He wanted to film in long hallways, creating a tunnel effect, where the characters are feeling confinement and seeking freedom. He also wanted lots of reflections, which confuse the characters about what is real and what is not."

Shooting in Manhattan had its challenges, especially at busy sites such as Times Square, Union Square and the Queensboro Bridge. In Times Square, the filmmakers had to light 10 blocks, shut down four and flood the square with water. They also closed the Queensboro Bridge for seven hours to stage an action sequence with Gibson and Roberts as they eluded several federal operatives. That sequence alone required more than 50 stunt cars, six cameras and two helicopters.

Another scene involved a helicopter landing at night in Manhattan's Union Square as Jerry Fletcher exits a nearby bookstore. This was the first such landing in a heavily populated area in Manhattan in over 20 years.

"And, at this point, the movie takes off like gangbusters," Donner grins. "Even paranoids really have people following them sometimes."

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