In their respective worlds, the names don't get much bigger: Mel Gibson, the international heartthrob. The Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum complex in the world, respectable but way below Gibson on the Sizzle Meter.
Yet now they are linked. For its first-ever involvement in feature films, the Smithsonian is working as a historical consultant on Gibson's next movie, a drama about the Revolutionary War.
The Smithsonian announced yesterday that it is giving script advice and providing information on props, costumes and sets for the project, which is being developed by producers Dean Devlin and Mark Gordon. Devlin, a partner with Centropolis Entertainment, produced the special-effects blockbuster "Independence Day" as well as the critically bashed "Stargate" and "Godzilla." Gordon is a partner with Mutual Film Co., which produced and/or co-financed the award-winning "Saving Private Ryan" and the audience-pleasers "Speed" and "Twelve Monkeys."
For the last few years, particularly now under Secretary I. Michael Heyman, the Smithsonian has been looking for ways to reach beyond Washington by lending its artifacts to other institutions and collaborating in new areas. The museum has long been involved in documentary work.
In 1996 Smithsonian officials signed up with the Creative Artists Agency to develop movies and other media projects as a way to expand its reach and generate revenue. The agency brought the Gibson deal to them. In an agreement with Mandalay Television Pictures and Showtime Networks, the Smithsonian will also be a partner on three films for cable television.
"The institution is entering into this innovative relationship to explore new ways to broaden popular understanding of history, and film is a particularly compelling way to do this," Heyman said.
For its participation in the Gibson project, the Smithsonian is receiving a flat fee in five figures, according to Marc Pachter, counselor to the secretary. In the future, the institution hopes to develop movie ideas itself, and when it does, it will expect greater compensation. "This is a test," Pachter said. "As we get more out there, the benefit comes when it is our idea and then we get more financial benefits out of it."
Devlin said the Smithsonian's association was "lending a level of authenticity that makes it more real. They have instilled in us a real sense and feeling for what the time was like, the look, the behavior."
In the film, tentatively titled "The Patriot," Gibson plays a South Carolina farmer who is reluctant to fight but joins the militia when the war reaches his farm. The film, loosely based on the story of real-life Gen. Francis Marion, is being written by Robert Rodat, the principal writer of "Saving Private Ryan," and will be directed by Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day"). Production on the film, which Devlin described as a "big epic with a modest budget," is scheduled to begin this fall.
The film will mark Gibson's return to the dramatic costume drama, a genre that has given him some critical success and film industry recognition. "Braveheart," a sweeping epic, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1995 and brought the actor the award for Best Director.
The Smithsonian's initial role in the venture is to assure accuracy. After reading the first treatment of the story, several Smithsonian officials offered ideas to flesh out the reality of 18th-century Charleston.
"In the first script they sent us, there were only two African Americans mentioned," said Rex Ellis, chairman/curator of the National Museum of American History's Division of Cultural History. "Charleston [had] the largest population of African Americans in the 18th century and had a diversity that couldn't be matched."
A revised script, Ellis said, included scenes reflecting Gullah island traditions, a culture of direct links to West Africa that survives today, as well as interaction between blacks and whites and an awareness of the importance of the era's freed black community.
Devlin said the Smithsonian's influence ranged from "the story to the character to the look of the movie and the reality of the time. For instance, going in we didn't realize that 7 percent of the army was black. That was the last time we had an integrated army until the Korean War."
On a visit to the Smithsonian, the film's creators examined actual flags, muskets, field surgery kits and uniforms of the day. "The people here and the filmmakers all hit it off," Ellis said. "They were just as interested in history as we are, and we are just as interested in good storytelling as they are."
And Gibson? "The writers were listening to one of our ideas, and they said, 'We will mention it to Mel,' " Ellis said. "And I thought, 'Mel? They must mean Mel Gibson.' We are traveling in high cotton now."
CAPTION: Mel Gibson won a pair of Oscars for "Braveheart." He's revisiting history in a movie about Francis Marion, for which the Smithsonian is a consultant.