Director Mel Gibson discusses his latest film
At a recent screening for Mel Gibson's newest film Apocalypto at his Icon Productions offices in Santa Monica, we had a chance to sit down with the director and his screenwriter Farhad Safinia. Although before the film, one of Gibson's associates made it clear we weren't screening the final cut, it is apparent that the two hour and nine minute version we did screen was quite close to being done. (In fact, the version we screened was 2 hours and 9 minutes but the theatrical version will be a little shorter).
Apocalypto is a heart stopping mythic action-adventure set against the turbulent end times of the once great Mayan civilization. When his idyllic existence is brutally disrupted by a violent invading force, a man is taken on a perilous journey to a world ruled by fear and oppression where a harrowing end awaits him. Through a twist of fate and spurred by the power of his love for his woman and his family he will make a desperate break to return home and to ultimately save his way of life.
"I wanted to make a chase movie," is how Gibson describes the origins of this film. "A footrace. It's as minimal and primal as it gets. It was important to find the right time and place." Next Gibson spoke about the vagaries of shooting a movie as complicated as this in another language entirely. "It's not difficult because there's not that much dialogue. It wasn't difficult for the actors to get a handle on it." As for shooting in the jungle? "Now that's difficult." Gibson laughed. "That's really, really tough. It's the physical nature of it... it's tough on the performers and the crew. And, coming up with a lot of different ways of doing that."
Then Gibson spoke about Panavision's state-of-the-art high-definition Genesis digital camera that he used to lens Apocalypto. According to him, the jungle "was the place the Genesis got put to the test." They shot a majority of the film in Catemaco, Vera Cruz and "we found a farm with some jungle in case the production needed to catch up on some shots." As for casting, Gibson states, "When you're looking at a story, I consider this a major motion picture... it's important to have types. The hero... when I met with the actors that's what I got. It's important if you're doing a movie in a different language that the actors have those qualities, but you also don't want them to betray that." He went on to say, "I did a lot of casting in Mexico." As for the inexperienced actors handling such a large scale production? "I think they did a brilliant job looking natural. Casting was a very long process. Right up until the day before shooting we didn't have a king."
Finding actors also presented a problem for screenwriter Farhad Safinia who was helping out in the casting process. Imagine being in a different country and simply walking around looking for the leads to your film? "You couldn't tell people why you were checking them out." He laughs. "There's something you cannot counterfeit," Gibson interjected about what the actors put across on screen. "When you look at the face of the pregnant woman in the film, did you notice how uncomplicated it was?"
The next order of business was the subject of injuries on the set.
"There were injuries. Pulled muscles. Ripped ligaments." Gibson states. According to Farhad the heat on the set was the biggest problem. "There was a time they put a thermometer on the ground and it broke at 127 degrees."
"We had footwear to support the actors," Gibson noted when discussing the more strenuous scenes in the shoot. "The film was eight months of shooting. It was scheduled for four months. We had rain, long setups. When you're dealing with 800 extras you're getting them in stages throughout the day. Plus, nobody was really seasoned as an actor on the film, so I had to delve into my bag of tricks."
"That film was as graphic as you can stand without running out of the theater." Gibson said when asked about if the objections toward the violence in The Passion of the Christ, had an effect on the amount of violence he put in this film. His approach to Apocalypto was little different as the subject matter was different. "I'd pull back... you didn't see a hand in a chest." He said referring to the human sacrifice scenes in the film.
Next up was the topic of making the world of Apocalypto feel authentic on screen. "There's lots of books, lots of evidence being unearthed as we we were filming." Gibson noted. "We had advisers on the set." Farhad says. As for the aforementioned human sacrifice scenes? "There's a lot of hypothetical degree about what's addressed.... It was far more violent, what they really did than anything we could show you." Gibson offered. "It was about humiliating them, really." Farhad interjected. "They kept a guy alive for 9 years cutting pieces off of him." Gibson went on. "That's the really incredible thing is you have such a civilization, yet you have such barbarism. There was so much culture. It was like the Greeks."
As for the key to rendering a culture like this? "It's taking the human story." Gibson says. "His family, his wife, his children... it's like how he's called 'Almost' in the movie. He is 'Almost' then he becomes. The film's about fear." He then went on to discuss the waterfall scene in the movie and how a cow went over the fall one day. "It was the weirdest thing I've ever seen!" He laughs. Apparently, the cow was fine as someone swam over to it and then the cow simply got out out the water. Still thinking about the topic of fear Gibson went on to say, "Fear makes one act in ways they wouldn't normally."
The final portion of our talk centered around future projects. "I'm gonna do one in English." He smiled when talking about his next directorial foray. Would he ever consider playing Mad Max again? "They were talking about making one. I don't know, I'm getting a little long in the tooth." What about playing Martin Riggs in another Lethal Weapon film? "I don't want to go there again. I'm done. We did that to death."
In closing, Gibson seemed to have a philosophical outlook on the experience of bringing Apocalypto to life. "This movie gave me a real kick. I'm hoping it fulfills on a number of levels. I tried to have it be multileveled." As for what he is hoping to convey with the movie? "Entertain. Educate. Lift to a higher plane of awareness. I think I did it. It's really someone else's call." The last subject Mel Gibson addressed was that of the brutality depicted in the film and if Touchstone (which is a part of Disney) was concerned about it. "They would have had to have supplied the budget to have that right. They saw it and it was cool. It's an R and it should be."
Apocalypto opens nationwide on December 8th.