Mel Gibson Movie Producer Moves to Stop Director's 'Bogus' Bid to Halt Distribution

Nicolas Chartier - Getty P 2016
Courtesy of Getty Images

The escalating legal drama over The Professor and the Madman took another turn on Thursday with the screenwriter and director of the Mel Gibson movie being accused of committing a fraud on the U.S. Copyright Office.

The film is based on Simon Winchester's book of the same name about the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary. It stars Gibson and Sean Penn and is directed by Farhad Safinia, who previously worked with Gibson on Apocalypto and is also preparing an adaptation of Brave New World with Leonardo DiCaprio attached and The Allen Counter Project for Will Smith to star in.

Gibson's production company sued first with a complaint against Voltage Pictures, a giant in the independent world with past films including Dallas Buyers Club and The Hurt Locker. The lawsuit claims that Gibson was denied his contractual rights to sign off on any material changes to the screenplay, filming locations and more.

Earlier this week, Safinia filed his own lawsuit against Voltage. He claims he was defamed by what the producers told the press in response to the Gibson suit. He's also claiming copyright infringement.

In a bid for a temporary restraining order that would halt the pic from being screened to potential buyers, Safinia says that in 2016, he wrote a new Professor and the Madman screenplay and that he "did not execute an assignment or work-for-hire agreement."

Sometimes, defendants don't get a chance to respond to TRO motions, but probably thanks to the publicity surrounding this one, Voltage has now quickly filed its own opposition brief, lest the $25 million film be brought to a grinding halt.

According to Voltage's court papers, "The true motive behind Plaintiff's bogus copyright infringement lawsuit is a continuing effort by Plaintiff, along with his collaborators, Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey, to improperly coerce the financiers of the Picture to shoot additional scenes in Oxford, England, at a cost of approximately $2.5 million, despite the fact that the motion picture has already gone over budget and into overtime."

In reaction to the notion that it doesn't control rights, Voltage states that Safinia signed an unambiguous "Certificate of Authorship" that provided that his work on the film would indeed constitute a work for hire. The producer also says he was paid for his writing services.

"In an attempt to circumvent the COA, Plaintiff misrepresents to the Court that the September 14 Script is a 'new screenplay' that he solely authored, and which is somehow outside the scope of the work-for-hire agreement he made," continues Voltage's lawyer. "This is a blatant deception by Plaintiff. A redline analysis shows that the September 14 Script contains only minor revisions to prior screenplays that Plaintiff wrote in January 2015 and August 2016, and which Plaintiff concedes he does not own."

Voltage, run by Nicolas Chartier, argues the COA is fatal to the copyright claim, but even if the COA didn't apply, Safinia still has no hope of prevailing.

"That Script is an adaptation and derivative work of the Book by author Simon Winchester," writes Voltage attorney Jeremiah Reynolds. "It is black letter law that an independent copyright will exist in a derivative work only if it is prepared under the authorization of the owner of the underlying work. ... Plaintiff concedes he does not own or control the film rights to the Book; those rights are owned by Defendants."

Voltage also says Safinia omitted that Todd Kormanicki and John Boorman are listed as co-writers on the final shooting script. The production company presents how the Writers Guild of America is requiring that Kormanicki be listed as the "1st Writer."

The opposition brief then adds, "Despite knowing that he had co-writers, Plaintiff submitted a version of the script to this Court deliberately omitting his fellow writers, and filed a copyright registration with the United States Copyright Office listing himself as the sole author of the September 14 Script having already [been] rebuffed by the WGA when he attempted to claim sole authorship. Plaintiff's calculated fraud on the Copyright Office should not be permitted."

Gibson, Davey and Safinia are also being blamed for The Professor and the Madman going over budget in what could also be a preview to the defamation claim where Safinia says producers impugned his professional responsibilities.

"For example, near the close of shooting, Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey, Farhad Safinia changed their minds and wrongfully demanded that the production cancel a scene that had been scheduled for over four months to be shot in the Library of Trinity College in Ireland involving two hundred extras and expensive set dressing because Gibson, Davey and Safinia now wanted the scene shot in Oxford, England," states the brief. "These issues caused the production to extend two days past the schedule of forty shooting days and caused additional costs to the production, which was over budget by approximately $1.3 million."

Update 9/22: A judge has denied the motion for the TRO. In an order, U.S. District Court Judge Consuelo Marshall nods to the defendants' presentation of a work-for-hire agreement and writes Safinia has failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits. The judge also concludes that Safinia has filed to provide sufficient evidence that he will suffer harm simply because he is identified as the screenwriter and director of the film.