Apocalypto - Mel Gibson interview
Compiled by Jack Foley
MEL Gibson talks about some of the challenges of making his Mayan epic Apocalypto, as well as filming in the jungle.
He also reveals why the violence on show needed to be so intense and why appealing to mainstream audiences continues to be important…
Q: How long has Apocalypto taken?
A: We started writing this two and a half years ago. The editing time has been insane because the post production time was extremely abbreviated, due to the fact that the film was a very difficult one to shoot and went four months over schedule. It really curtailed our post time and we had to edit fast and mix in half the time but I think we did a really good job.
Q: How tough was it to film in the rain forest?
A: There’s a guy down there who looks like a Mexican John Malkovich who’s decided to keep his land pristine. He left all the trees alone and it’s beautiful. Unfortunately, much of the rain forest in Southern Mexico has gone but this guy at least has kept a chunk of it.
It’s only about 50 acres. So down there you’re kind of away from things a little bit and you’re dealing with a film that’s always moving. The shots are moving and the people are moving in the shots. Many of the cast had not ever been in front of a camera before and they had to learn how to be film actors, and they were very good. They just trusted, which was really nice.
The really good thing about using people who are really green is that you don’t have to erase a bunch of bad habits and then put good ones in. You can just start feeding them good habits. This was the case here. It took a little while but then they got in the swing of it. By the time we were finished they were just doing stuff automatically. They were being paid to go to school for eight months, so it was good.
Q: How did you keep up your enthusiasm and energy levels for eight months?
A: It was difficult at times. You can get pretty cranky and it just seems to be like an on going thing… “when is this going to end”! But when we conceived this story there was a real passion involved in telling a really compelling story and then having all these very subtle things hidden, all the way along.
The story is actually very simple, with a very straightforward through line, but the meat that’s attached to the bones of it is quite complex. There are messages about civilisations and we are trying to be true to history as much as possible. We wanted all this to gel with some good theory about why these civilisations went down, why they weakened and crumbled. Because they did, they vanished.
Q: At times isn’t the film almost Biblical?
A: It is Biblical. If you just read Joseph Campbell, who has written amazing books on mythology and religion, they all do come together at some point. There are some of the greatest stories that there have ever been in the Bible. All you have to do is read the book of Maccabi, it’s like a film script. You can access that on many levels and the human spirit and the human mind responds to those themes because they recognise the veracity of them. That they are real things. Sometimes it even goes beyond logic, it’s just a sense of something.
Q: What research did you do?
A: There was a really good book by Diego De Landa who was a Franciscan and his was a first hand eye witness account of the customs, the mores. He saw the human sacrifices happen. He was also responsible, I think, for leaving the code breaker. He looked at the hieroglyphs and taught some guy Spanish and got him to translate, so there was a record of that which they did not really find until after the Second World War, because it was lost behind the Iron Curtain.
Q: Do you think this could be the sort of film that makes people want to find out more about this time in history?
A: I hope so. They are finding out more every day. That’s the amazing thing. We employed the help of Richard Hansen, who was a professor at UCLA and is now at the University of Idaho, who deals with an even older period of Mayan history. We went to the places and stood at the top of the pyramids to see the footprint of the sophistication that once was. It’s just staggering, it’s like Manhattan. You have the biggest pyramid in the world there, bigger than the ones in Egypt.
Massive things from which you can look around and see the outlines of all these cities with roads all coming to the middle. They had a sense of balance, everything had its right place, it was all married up to the firmament. They knew all about the stars and the sun and the moon and their movements. They had a very complex calendar, more complicated than ours, by far. They knew so much. They were a very sophisticated society that was pretty savage too.
Q: You don’t shirk from showing the savagery because they don’t see themselves as savages. They see what they’re doing – human sacrifice – as keeping them in touch with their god…
A: That’s right. That’s what I told the actors when they were all doing it. I said you’re not bad guys, I don’t ever want you to think that you’re a bad guy. You’re a part of your culture and you’re doing your job and that’s what you do. That’s all you know and all you were raised to do.
Q: Can we draw comparisons between your making of this film and The Passion Of The Christ?
A: A lot of the same sensibilities go into them. I think you move on but there are certain rhythms that are yours and so you leave your mark on something. There are certain things that I will do viscerally to affect people emotionally, with speed changes and sound, and various other things. Sure there are links; the same kind of sensibilities went into it and I worked on writing that script as well so there was an emphasis on a minimalisation of dialogue as far as possible, to focus on the visual and to put it in another language, of course.
Q: It must give you tremendous satisfaction when you can make a film that is out of the mainstream and the mainstream audience goes – like with The Passion Of The Christ – and you prove the doubters wrong?
A: Well, I hope they go. But the point is not really about being vindicated. It’s about doing the things you want to do, in the way that you want to do them. You achieve a certain amount of independence by being independent and not having any sort of interference.
But nobody makes art for an elite, not if they’re a real artist. You try and reach as many people as possible with whatever it is that you make. If a chef is making an omelette, he wants everyone to think that it tastes great because he did it. And if it does, then that’s a success because everyone eats it. I hope this story finds them and touches them and they find access to it and the characters.
Q: Did you have to employ special people to keep your cast and crew safe from bugs and jungle creatures?
A: Yeah, we had snake wranglers around. If you step on a Ferdelance you are in trouble. That’s the highly poisonous snake that bites the Mayan in the neck in the film. We had to be careful about snakes, bugs and ticks. Then, of course, there are the injuries. It was kind of rough terrain. But the reason we chose to film in Mexico was that you could have primary rain forest and you could also have some flat ground that you could work on.
Q: You have never made an easy film. Was this the toughest?
A: This was the hardest… by far. The schedule turned out to be longer than anything else, some of the things turned out to be really difficult to achieve because you were working with animals… jaguars, tapirs, snakes, monkeys. I can’t even remember all the animals. The peccaries were nasty.
Q: How did you cast your two leading men?
A: We found them through a long process. I looked at a lot of people. I put out a call and we went from Canada, California, New Mexico to Oklahoma. I wanted to see native peoples and we found them from everywhere.
The little girl, for instance, that we found, she doesn’t speak anything else but Mayan. That’s her only language. She comes from a village that’s less sophisticated than the village we showed you in the film. That’s the way she still lives, in the forest, in huts with dirt floors. She was seven-years-old and had never seen a camera or a car before. When we initially went to the casting people in Mexico they sent all the European looking actors but I wanted the Indian looking ones with the high cheek bones.
Q: Were the actors aware of how physically demanding this was going to be?
A: They knew going in. I told them what it was going to be like. It’s about the most physical film that I have ever seen as far as sheer endurance is concerned… eight months of that stuff! How do you keep a guy from breaking a leg? And nobody was hurt. I got them down there a good bit beforehand and told them they were looking a bit flabby. I said they were good and I knew they had it in them but they had to go on a diet that made them look as though they lived back then. So they started to eat the right kind of food and got really lean and muscular.
I got them to exercise to keep their ankles and ligaments strong. So they trained for six weeks in pre-production. We had a movement coach who made them all graceful. It was good for them because a lot of them had never been in any kind of performance before. The coach started to knock the 20th Century out of them.
Q: Was there any moment when you thought you had bitten off more than you could chew?
A: Of course! It scares the hell out of you! The amount of work, the logistical nightmare. But I had been through those kinds of things before, so I knew it was possible. Sometimes you got to a point where it wasn’t happening and you had to figure out another way to do it, particularly in terms of making the jaguar do what you wanted. That was not CG, a real guy had to run really fast and not trip. There was a form of restraint on the creature that you can’t see. so it was all very safe – but it is real.