The Professor and the Madman

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  • Directed By: Farhad Safinia (credited under the pseudonym P.B. Shemran)
  • Written By: John Boorman, Todd Komarnicki, Farhad Safinia
  • Release Date: May 10, 2019
  • Domestic Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
  • Cast: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Steve Coogan

Box Office Info:
Budget: $25 million Financed by: Voltage Pictures; Fábrica de Cine; Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland
Domestic Box Office: Unreleased Overseas Box Office: $4,957,273

“I regret that this film will never be seen as it was meant to be. Making it was never about money for Icon, it was about bringing this amazing story to the big screen. Sadly that has not happened in the way it could have. The Voltage version of this film is a bitter disappointment to me.”
–Mel Gibson

the professor and the madman mel gibson
Simon Winchester’s novel The Professor and the Madman was published in 1998 and documented the bizarre true story about the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary — which was being compiled by professor James Murray in 1857 and his relationship with the schizophrenic murderer Dr. William Chester Minor, who submitted more than 10,000 entries while housed at an asylum for the criminally insane.  Shortly after its successful publication, a bidding war erupted for the theatrical rights, as The Professor and the Madman had all the ingredients for a major prestige project.

Luc Besson won the rights for £750,000 with intentions to direct the project and Mel Gibson was expected to star.  Besson quickly exited and sold off the rights to Gibson, which set the project up at his company Icon Productions.  The Professor and the Madman became a passion project for Gibson and it would take over 20 years to finally reach the big screen — but it was beset by lawsuits, funding problems and major disagreements between the creative team and the investors.  The behind the scenes problems became so heated that Mel Gibson and the director eventually sued to block the movie from ever being released.

As The Professor and the Madman was in development in the late 90s, Dustin Hoffman was first tapped to co-star with Gibson, but he left and then Robin Williams was courted for the role.  John Boorman and Todd Kormanicki were hired by Icon to penn the script, but Gibson was unhappy with those drafts and progress stalled.  In 2003 Gibson hired an assistant named Farhad Safinia and just six months later he was hired to write the script (he would eventually co-write Apocalypto with his boss), but Madman never made it into production.

Over a decade later in 2014, The Professor and the Madman was resurrected, when Voltage Pictures became interested in the project.  Voltage would handle financing responsibilities and international sales to distributors.  Fábrica de Cine boarded as co-financier to the $25 million budgeted picture and the decision was made to film in Ireland to take advantage of strong tax rebates and the state owned Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland gave a small investment into the production.  In July 2016, Sean Penn was cast opposite Mel Gibson and the long gestating movie finally went into production starring two of the industry’s most divisive Type A personalities.

Problems began during production over filming locations and then the issues snowballed into litigation.  To keep expenses down, Voltage demanded most of the film be shot at Trinity College in Dublin, but the filmmakers were adamant about filming at Oxford, where the events obviously took place.  The final budget for The Professor and the Madman was $25 million, after the movie went $1.3M over budget and two days over the allotted 40 day shooting schedule.   Gibson and Safinia requested an additional $2.5M to finally film a few scenes at Oxford which involved hundreds of extras.  Voltage refused to ask their investors for the additional funds and the production collapsed.  Numerous scenes vital to the narrative were never filmed and then Voltage began to edit the picture themselves, which led to Icon filing a lawsuit against Voltage in July 2017.

Gibson had final cut privilege and tried to block Voltage from screening footage of their cut to distributors.  Safinia had commissioned a cut that clocked in at 2 hrs 40 min, but Voltage refused to release that edit.  Gibson’s lawsuit also went after Voltage for failing to secure a completion bond, which would have covered the critical scenes that needed to be shot at Oxford.  Despite the legal mess, Voltage took The Professor and the Madman to the 2017 Toronto Film Festival in September for sales and tried to sell it to Netflix, but distributors stayed away.  A movie starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn would be difficult enough to sell under normal circumstances, but this project was tangled in the courts and radioactive.  With the filmmakers trying to put an injunction on the film negative, there was speculation that the movie would never be released to the public.

Nearly a year later in June 2018, the court sided with Voltage.  Director Farhad Safinia had also separately sued Voltage, claiming he owned the copyright to the screenplay and tried to block the film from ever being released, but the court threw out his complaint.  Edited, scored and completed without the approval of the filmmakers, the movie finally went out for sales to distributors.  Safinia had his name removed from the picture and the pseudonym P.B. Shemran was used.

In January 2019, it was announced that Vertical Entertainment had acquired the domestic rights and planned on a theatrical release, despite the small company having very little muscle when it comes to a big screen rollout.  It was dated for May 10 2019 and Vertical gave it a simultaneous VOD release.  The company issued no information about the number of theaters they booked, nor did they even report the gross, which must have been embarrassingly low.

The Professor and the Madman saw a theatrical run in a handful of offshore markets that began in March 2019 and has pulled in just $3.4M across numerous distributors that picked up the broken film.  Italy posted the majority of the gross with $1.5M and a few markets are set to open throughout the remainder of 2019.  Updates will be added if any numbers are reported…


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  1. I am very interested in reading the book this movie was based on. To date, I can only find the movie on line. Please instruct. Title of book,author,etc. Regards JH

    • The book title outside of the United States is The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words by Simon Winchester. In the states, it’s the same title as this movie.

      • Same here, Mel only needed to cover the 2m extra cost for the oxford location, then he could have his way, and helped to promote the film. He could easily make way over 2m extra from the film’s success, but instead he turned it into a failure. Not a very smart move. Feel sorry for Voltage who offered to took on the Mel’s “passionate” project when no one else did.

        • Mel has 425 million net worth, this complete failure has him in it as the lead character, and wait for it, he is saying he doesn’t care about money and it’s all those people’s fault. (people who picked up the bill). How embarrassing !

          He needs to change his inner circle of trusted friends. (Shame that no one was there to wake him up). If he is man enough, he would take back all those nonsense, make an offer to Voltage with his own money, break all barriers and make a new version to show the world that he can do it even when things are tough.

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