We go one-one-one with the director to discuss America's #1 Film, the origins of Braveheart, and what's up next.
With a recent Golden Globe Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and the No.1 position at the top of the box office last weekend, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is proving to be a force of nature.
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.
We recently got to sit down with Mel Gibson to discuss the success of the film, what it took to bring it to the screen, and what he plans to do next.
What's it like to have the No. 1 movie in the country?
Mel Gibson: It's great, you know. It is what it is. You can't do better than the number one.
What for you was the most difficult part of making Apocalypto?
Mel Gibson: Everything was difficult. From working with a different kind of camera, which I am fan of now, the Genesis, which is digital. To contending with the environment, to contending with the speed of the film, which required very specific and difficult camera moves. And performers who were required to move in the shots that were moving. (Laughs) And then get performances out of them at the same time.
Did you have any fear of following up The Passion of the Christ due to it's enormous success?
Mel Gibson: No, I didn't. This was simply, I thought, a compelling story; a thriller. A chase and a love story, really. There were scenes of good and evil; mythic in structure. With a little charm to it and also with a lot of darkness. I just got involved in doing it. I love telling stories so that passion carries you through, you know?
Considering the breadth of material that this film covers, how long did it take to put the screenplay together?
Mel Gibson: Well, the first thing you have to do is entertain. The second is to educate and the third thing is to lift people up to a higher plane in a mythical sense; or even a spiritual plane. However, when you tell a story you're trying to effect those areas in people. With this, it wasn't just something that fell out on paper. It was really telling and retelling... I told it verbally, maybe 50 times, and every time you tell it it changes, until the point when you start recording it. My co-writer and I were swapping off ideas... next thing you know, you feel like you have to get it on paper while it's still happening. Then the enormous amount of research comes in, you've made a story up as close to the real deal, then you start looking at the history... what did the Mayan's believe? And it informs what you have there.
Then it changes again with research. Historical, eye witness accounts... all these things come into play. The reading and evidence that's been left around. Also, hypothesis as well! Nobody knows the whole story it's still kind of shrouded in mystery but you can have a pretty good hypothesis about why some place was maybe on the wane.
Do you always go through that same "talking it through" process each time you write a screenplay?
Mel Gibson: Absolutely. One always does that, for example Randy Wallace wrote a script, Braveheart, I looked at it and I sort of liked something about it but I passed on it. It was about two years later, I was in my trailer and someone said, "You ever read anything you like? What do you think you'll do next?" I said, "I don't know, I kinda read a script I really dug once." And I started talking, before I knew it two hours had passed and I described the whole story with shots and everything. It was like my feet left the ground. He said, "You gotta do that!" So I went back and got Randy's script and I'd had a vision of it. It was like he provided me with a really strong screenplay and I saw this vision in my head all of the sudden. After two years since I read it.
It was very interesting that it left that impression on me. It was more interesting still that I was getting into it. It comes to you in different ways and it's never quite the same anytime, you know?
It's like you were saying, there was something about it that kept you thinking about it all that time after.
Mel Gibson: Yeah, I used to lay in bed at night and reconstruct some of the scenes he had in there. I'd lay there and think about shot lists, and I didn't realize what I was doing. It was almost subconscious. It was very odd because I never thought, "I'm gonna direct it or anything." I used to just visualize it... never thinking that I would do it myself. Then I thought, "Hell, I'm thinking all this stuff, why don't I try and do it?" The same with Passion, you know? It was like a very vivid kind of mind's eye. The same with this, you know? And this was, in a sense, even more pure because it wasn't written down anywhere. All of it came from the imagination and the collaboration with my co-writer Farhad Safinia.
What is it about period films that attracts you to them as a director? Has this always been a passion of yours?
Mel Gibson: Good stories are. I think there's something about going to a time and place that you haven't been before; in a real and visceral way. That really excites me. My job as the director is to instill the piece with a gritty voracity that transports the viewer. I find that doing things in the foreign language helps there. I don't think I'll always do that. I might try something in English. Maybe something contemporary.
Once you began the production, you're shooting in the jungle, you're trying to pull off these epic shots, did ever feel like Jaguar Paw just trying to get this movie done? Just trying to get home?
Mel Gibson: Absolutely. Put it this way, we had a four month shooting schedule and it took me eight months. That says something about the degree of difficulty, because it had to be kind of what I visualized or you had to keep going for it. We kept going for it and we got it. That takes a lot of time and effort. The performances are excellent in the film and I'm so proud to say, that a lot of these guys, it was their fledging effort. The majority of them had never been in front of a camera before. Including the main character, the protagonist.
As an actor had you always had it in your mind to enter the director's chair?
Mel Gibson: I didn't have that plan. What I had been doing, without realizing it, was paying a tremendous amount of attention to the directing process. I wanted to understand what it was they were doing so that I could help them with it. Where could I fit in? What were they doing that I had to allow for? If they were telling the story with the shot, what level did I have to come in at to not overdo it, but to enhance it or work in harmony with it. I made it my business to keep asking them questions all the time. I understood what it was I was involved in. Gradually, I just began to learn the language of film, lenses, and moves and all these things.
Then I would go see the results of all this and be kind of impressed by it, or... it was a subconscious thing. Until one day I just said, "Why don't I do it myself? I think I can." I was about 37 years old and I said, "I'm gonna try this."
They say experience is what you get looking for something else.
Mel Gibson: Well, I have these visions in my mind of what I want to see. Very specific images, whether it's low angles or fast, what I want to see to make this story work. Then I try and shoot it. Nine times out of ten you'll get it. Ten percent of the time you'll get better than what you imagined. Sometimes you won't come up to the mark. On the mean, you can pretty much get whatever you imagine.
What do you have coming up next? Might we see you in front of the camera again?
Mel Gibson: I have no idea. I think I might take a little time and refocus and work on myself a little bit. See if I can't maybe help some other people along the way. I have a company here and there's always something going on. Films releasing soon, more films in the new year, these things are all important. There are other people who are doing really good work that I admire. I want to see them have a shot. It's about spreading knowledge.
My assistant, who became the co-writer, co-producer of this film... I can't wait to see what he does. Give him a camera and say, Go! He'll eat it alive, he's gonna be fantastic.
Apocalypto is currently in theaters nationwide from Touchstone Pictures.