The director and writer discuss shooting in the jungle, humanizing characters, and creating an epic film

Mel Gibson, like him or hate him, is one talented person. While I am not saying this excuses certain aspects of his behavior, I feel that his most recent film Apocalypto is nothing short of extraordinary. Layered with many themes that are as applicable to the period the movie is covering as they are to now, Apocalypto is the kind of film that helps define the word epic. Taken from a place deep inside the filmmaker, we had the chance to see an early cut of his end of the Mayan civilization opus. Afterward, we sat down to discuss the process of making the film with Gibson and Apocalypto co-writer Farhad Safinia.

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.

Where you inspired at all by the film The Naked Prey?

Mel Gibson: Man, that's a cool little movie. I saw that when I was kid. I always felt like, "How could that old guy get away from those guys?" I think we're all influenced by whatever we've seen but that film didn't have the sort of social and civilization aspects that this has. This has more of a biblical kind of feel to it.

Why did you decide to follow up The Passion of the Christ with such an arduous film?

Mel Gibson: It's was just a story that kind of appealed to me. I've been wanting to do a chase movie forever. And that's how it started, just a chase. I thought, "Well, there's all kinds of chases. There's train chases, car chases, horse chases." I thought, "A foot chase. That's a good idea. That's about as minimum and as primal as it gets." Then you start searching an environment which that could have happened. It was important to find the right place. The right time in history. I actually tried to hook it on to a real place. A pre-European, like Honduras...

How difficult is it for you to direct in a language you don't speak?

Mel Gibson: It's not difficult because there's not that much dialogue. You kind of have an ear for what they're saying. You don't know what every word means... it wasn't difficult and it wasn't difficult for the actors to get a handle on it. It's not an obstacle for me.

What about shooting in the jungle?

Mel Gibson: That's difficult. That's really very tight. It's not just the physical nature of it. What it does to you, you're bitten and sweating, it's tough on all the performers, the crew, and it's unwieldy, especially when you have to move at speeds because you can see how fast this kid could run. What's exciting to me is having to come up with a lot of different ways of doing things. We were really test pilots for a different system now. Superman and Click, I think shot on Genesis. This was really the place where Genesis got put to the test. It's not inside a studio all nice and friendly. It was out there in the woods and we were treating it like a camera should be treated.

Where was the film shot?

Mel Gibson: In the jungles of Catemaco, Vera Cruz. The rest of the film was shot closer to the city of Vera Cruz.

How did you cast this film?

Mel Gibson: Well, when you're looking for a specific story, I consider this a major motion picture, Farhad and I wrote it and we went out and found the people but it was important in my mind, that the people that we found, be in some way immediately identifiable as some kind of archetypal types in a mythic sense. So that if you had the "hero guy," you wanted that guy. When I met him that's what I got from him. It's important if you're doing a film like this that everybody can identify with them immediately. I think this is the first film ever where you didn't have somebody like me, it had just indigenous, Native American guys in the four biggest parts. I went to Mexico, we did a lot of casting from down there.

None of these people had acted much before, ever, so that was a challenge for them and for me. It took a little give and take but it was amazing how they picked up. I think they did a brilliant job. It was a very long process of finding the right people. There was a guy Farhad found off at the docks...

Farhad Safinia: It was a strange day. The public docks in Vera Cruz. You couldn't tell anybody why you were checking them out.

Mel Gibson: We did that a lot. We'd see people and go, "Wow!" Like that little girl that played the Mayan... what an amazing child! She's seven years old. Never saw a floor before. She's really from a village where she lives on the dirt, in a hut, in a village smaller than the one you saw here where those people lived.

Was that something you wanted to capture? People that really did live that way?

Mel Gibson: Yes, there's something that you cannot counterfeit. When you look at the face of the young pregnant woman, did you notice how uncomplicated it was? It was really childlike. So many of the people that you got they just really had that quality. Whether or not they were, they appeared to be.

Where there lots of injuries on set?

Mel Gibson: Oh yeah, one day it was very cold... somebody said, "Hey come over here for a minute, we have a problem." There was a boy with a poisonous ant wrapped around his leg trying to keep warm. We had to send the snake wrangler in to pry it off. I'm really glad it didn't bite him. There were pulled muscles, ripped ligaments...

Farhad Safinia: In addition to that stuff we had heat. The camera crew put a thermometer on the ground in some of the city shots you saw... it broke. We had extras passing out. We had to have the Red Cross revive them.

Mel Gibson: Having done this stuff myself, I was very aware at how easy it was to injure yourself. It was important that these guys be safe. The ground was often prepared, they had footwear on that would support them, air splints, all sorts of stuff. If you need to take it out afterwards, you do it. This film was 8 months of shooting. It was scheduled for 4 months of shooting. We got rain when it was supposed to be the dry season. We had animals, children, jungle, incredibly difficult setups, make-up and wardrobe and all that stuff. When you're dealing with 800 extras you're getting them in stages throughout the day.

This movie is less graphic than The Passion of the Christ. Was that intentional?

Mel Gibson: That was intended to be extremely intense. I just wanted to zone in on that. That was the nature of that film. To be as graphic as you could stand and not have anybody run out screaming. With this, that wasn't it. I did come back and pull away from stuff. You never saw anybody with a hand inside somebody's chest cavity. I don't need to see that. It's bad enough seeing the thing beating. Some things are necessary.

How did you research this film to make it authentic?

Mel Gibson: There's a lot of books around. There's a lot of evidence being unearthed as we worked. They were digging out murals going, "Look at this." We even changed some murals we drew on the walls... to emulate the murals that they just found. They were a whole different color scheme and we changed it. Some of the stuff was so cryptic when you looked at it... you couldn't quite make it out. We had to make things a little bit more readable. One's eyes don't just adjust to that unless you lived in that culture.

So the human sacrifice scenes that was what it was like for that time period?

Mel Gibson: I would think so. There's a lot of hypothetical dialogue in terms of what's addressed, but I'm sure that that's what it was about. It was an appeasement of God's wrath. The hearts and bloodletting... that's what it was about. So we just put words to it. I don't know whether they used those words but they probably used something like them. It used to take them less then a minute to get a guy's heart out. That's if you didn't go through the ribcage. It was just awful what they did to one another. Chewing their fingers off, cutting their eyelids off, and their lips. They were doing target practice on real targets.

Farhad Safinia: I think it was about humiliation.

Mel Gibson: It was so much about humiliation. That's the really crazy thing about the culture. You have this fantastic civilization on one hand, and there's such acts of barbarism in there. They knew about the stars, and the constellations, and about all kinds of things; buildings. They a library with books and a language. They were like the Greeks, you know?

What is the key for you in humanizing these people?

Mel Gibson: It's all to do with the human story. It's the universal, mythic kind of tale but knocked down to a level, hopefully, we can all understand. When I was 15 years old, you're not complete at all, in fact I'm not complete, yet! I just remember some older guy, really putting the jab into the middle of me by calling me the most insulting thing I could think of, what he did was to call me "Almost." "Hey, Almost." Like that, and I was just so offended by that. That's where that came from in the film. It means Almost. He really is Almost and then he becomes. Those human experiences we have get put into it.

The film's about fear. We've explored every primal fear we could fit into two hours and five minutes.

Can you talk about the waterfall sequence?

Mel Gibson: Well, it's a real waterfall. We used a SpiderCam. We put the Genesis on it. I think that's the first time that's happened. We had to span the waterfall and river with cranes and put the cables up. It was quite an elaborate setup to enable the camera to go over the guys shoulder, down on the water, over the edge, turn around and then pull back in one shot. Of course you're not going to make a real guy jump off something like that. He'll kill himself.

A cow fell over one day. A cow was trying to swim across... it was just overtaken by the depth of water and it fell over the waterfall! It hit the water and I thought, "It's toast." It was about 170 feet, this waterfall. It came up somewhere on the other side and it was all busted up... then the waves got it, it was upside down, bouncing off the rocks... and it got into this deep water. One of the local guys, this is the weird thing of all... the cow's in the water, but this Mexican guy just goes up to it and it's like he said something to it, it was the weirdest thing I've ever seen, and the cow just walked up and started eating grass!

Farhad Safinia: The cow was just munching grass. It felt like it didn't remember a thing.

Is there any footage of that?

Mel Gibson: I kept telling them to turn the camera on. A lot of people wouldn't turn the camera on when I told them too. It used to make me crazy. With the guy jumping off the waterfall... we found a 15 story building in Vera Cruz and we hooked Rudy up to it on a wire and said, "Jump off, kid!" His knees banged together for a little but he did it 10 times. Then I'm watching and I'm giving him a hard time... afterwards all the stunt guys came up to me, and he'd put them up to it, they said, "I don't suppose you'd like to have a jump?" And I said, because I had to instill fear in the rest of the crew and I couldn't look bad, I just said, "Hook me up." They hooked me up and I went off.

I would have presumed that they would have turned the cameras on, but they didn't. I'm like, "What?"

Do you think we'll ever see you doing that kind of stuff on the big screen in another Mad Max film?

Mel Gibson: They were talking about making one. I don't know, I'm getting a little long in the tooth.

What about doing another Lethal Weapon film?

Mel Gibson: I don't want to go there again. I'm done. We did that to death.

Apocalypto opens nationwide on December 8th from Touchstone Pictures.

Evan Jacobs