Mel Gibson needs no introduction. As an actor, he has attained the highest levels of box office success and fame, and behind the camera as a filmmaker, he’s done the same, winning an Oscar for directing Braveheart and delivering the 11th highest grossing film in the country with 2004’s The Passion of The Christ.
His fourth film, Apocalypto, is even more of a challenge, being an action movie set during Mayan times, starring first-time actor Rudy Youngblood, and enacted entirely in the Mayan dialect of Yucatec. You gotta love and respect Gibson’s desire to try something different, but somehow, he was able to pull it off, turning a simple idea into a visionary masterpiece that exemplifies how much he’s developed as a filmmaker since making Braveheart more than eleven years ago.
A couple months back, Gibson did an extensive Q ‘n’ A out of his Icon Productions offices, but in this new exclusive interview with ComingSoon.net, conducted mere days after the movie’s opening, he talks a bit more about what he hoped to accomplish with the film and whether he feels he’s succeeded.
ComingSoon.net: You’ve said that you made this movie to “entertain, educate and lift to a higher plane of awareness.” That last one’s kind of a lofty goal, so is that a good reason to make a movie nowadays?
CS: What was it about the Mayan people or that era that got you interested in trying something like this?
CS: That’s a pretty amazing thought process. I would never have imagined that to be how you got to where you did. Now, you ended up making this with a lot of non-actors and people who’ve never made movies before
Gibson: Yeah, the main guy (Rudy Youngblood) had never been in front of a camera, he was like “Huh?” Some of the performers had done stuff, two or three of them, but by and large, they were fairly inexperienced. They were novices, fledglings, it was great! It was so nice because I got the opportunity to be a true mentoror a “tormentor” I’m not sure whichto impart things that I’d always thought but never really been able to impart to someone who was totally free of any kind of teaching. They didn’t even have bad habits. It was interesting to watch them grow, and to realize, “Hey, maybe I know what I’m talking about. I think that they turned in really magnificent performances, all of them, and it was in them, too. It’s not like I just imposed something on them. They did it themselves. You had to help them, they’d never done it before. It felt really good. I felt like a proud father watching a kid riding a bicycle.
CS: But going down to that alien Mexican environment to make a movie with so many inexperienced people, there must have been some worries about it working. How much time did you end up spending down there making the movie?
CS: Was it also the challenge this would offer you as a director that drove you to do it?
CS: Many people thought this movie was going to show the fall of the Mayan people, but really, it’s about the journey of one man, Jaguar Paw, and we only get glimpses of what may happen afterwards. Do you have any interest or desire to continue this idea into another movie?
Gibson: Sure, I mean someone else will probably pick that ball up. I think the indications or the earmarks of a civilization on the wane are firmly implanted in the film: conspicuous consumption, corruption in power, fear as a manipulation tool, destruction of the environment. They bring about plagues and illnesses and corruption. You know, it’s one vicious cycle and it’s all built on fear. I think the quote at the beginning of the film is indicative of what you’re seeing is something that’s eating itself from within, and it’s ripe to be conquered from without.
CS: Does it matter to you if people who see the movie don’t immediately make the connections to the modern-day world issues you’ve mentioned in past interviews?
CS: The film’s most impressive scene, at least to me, is when Jaguar Paw arrives in the Mayan city. It’s just an amazing scene with all the costumes and different races of people. Did you have to do a lot of research for that or did you invent some things based on what you imagined cities must have been like back then?
CS: How do you think all those people of different races and cultures ended up there?
CS: There’s also a sense of humor to the movie that’s kind of unexpected, like the loosely translated subtitles done for the sake of humor. Did you always plan to do that from the beginning or was it just a way to lighten things up as you worked on the film?
Gibson: It does lighten things up a wee bit. It was important for me, right from the get-go. If you’re going to be in a very foreign, alien culture a long time ago and in another tongue, to have the audience identify with the characters immediately, and the best way to identify is with humor. To see that they’re different, but then to realize, “Oh, wow, they’re just the same as us!” If you get a group of men, it doesn’t matter if they’re 15 or 85 years old, when they get together, they’re all going to act like 15 year olds. That’s the way guys are, that’s my experience. You get a bunch of guys around a poker table, they’re going to goof off and insult one another and try to play practical jokes. That’s just life. And I figure hell, they always did that. People are people, no matter what era they’re from. I went that road and played the two-prong practical joke, and more serious things like lessons about fear and about community and family and loving. All these things that go into making a balanced society. That was my idea of what balance was, and then to have that interrupted by fear and disharmony was the opposite side of that coin. That was trying to show the human experience in all its facets, the dark sides of human nature and the highest sides of it, the light sides. That’s mythic storytelling, and really the structure of the story is a myth. It was absolutely necessary to be archetypal in the casting, so that you can identify these people right away. There’s the everyman, the hero, the man who’s a little bit more sensitive to his environment and to an extrasensory nature than the others, who is not quite complete, but has some growing to do. There’s the wise father. There’s the big loveable friend who’s just a great guy, and he has problems and everyone picks on him. There’s the nagging mother-in-law, there’s the innocent beautiful pregnant full-bellied wife with the child who’s just like a Madonna. You know, they’re archetypes. There’s the villains and the heroes, so that these are very clearly drawn portraits. I cast to hit it right on the head, if I could, to make it absolutely clear right off the get-go, simply because you’re dealing in elements like other cultures, other dialect.
CS: It obviously took a lot of time and patience to make this movie. You must have so many ideas, so how do you decide which one to follow through with and spend the time making into a movie?
CS: Originally, Touchstone Pictures was going to release the movie in the summer. After seeing, I thought it would have fit nicely alongside other summer epics. Are you still happy with their decision to release it in December?
CS: I went in expecting something slow and languid like the Terrence Malick film (“The New World”), so it was a nice surprise. What would you consider success for this movie? Obviously, “Passion” made a lot of money, but for this, would it be good reviews? Awards?
Gibson: No, I don’t think it’s reviews. I think it’s the way the audience reacts to it. If they react to it and they get something from it, I think that in itself and even if it’s just that they got entertained, that’s enough. If they got entertained, educated and learned something on a higher level, that’s even better. I tried to do all those three things, whether I got there or not, well that’s for them to extrapolate and maybe I’ll get some nice feedback for that sometime.
CS: But how are you able to gauge that audience reaction? Are you ever able to sneak into theatres and watch it with regular people, and if not, how will you know if the movie connected with them the way you wanted?
CS: You received an Oscar as a director fairly early in your career, so how important are awards to you? Is it important for a movie like this to get awards to get more people to see it?
Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is now playing everywhere! To get a taste of some of those amazing action scenes, you can see a 6 1⁄2 minute sequence of Jaguar Paw being chased by an actual jaguar on You Tube.