LEGEND THAT BEGINS AS A CIVILIZATION ENDS: MEL GIBSON TAKES ON APOCALYPTO
Powerful Maya kingdoms ruled in the Americas for more than 1,000 years, forging expansive cities, constructing sky-piercing pyramids and building an impressively advanced society of extraordinary cultural and scientific achievement. Then, in a flash of history, this world collapsed. All that was left behind were a few jungle-covered pyramids and a tantalizing mystery. Now, 500 years after the end of the Mayan civilization, director Mel Gibson delves into this never-explored realm to create a modern screen adventure which unfolds like a timeless myth about one man's quest to save that which matters to him the most in a world on the brink of destruction: APOCALYPTO.
As a filmmaker, Gibson has always been drawn to the biggest, boldest and most enduring of stories. Though he began his career as a charismatic screen idol in films such as the iconic action thriller "Mad Max," the hugely popular "Lethal Weapon" series and the recent blockbuster "Signs," he has become just as well known as a major American director with a penchant for intense storytelling. His second feature film was the exhilarating epic "Braveheart," which mixed history, romance, graphic action and drama to unfold the inner and outer battles of the legendary Scottish hero William Wallace. The film would receive ten Academy Award nominations and win five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Following on the heels of that success, Gibson took another daring turn. His third work as a director was "The Passion of the Christ," an exploration of the final 12 hours of Jesus Christ's life in a film that revisited this eternal story with the uncompromising realism and raw emotion of contemporary cinema. The film was an unprecedented worldwide success and changed the face of Hollywood.
But few could have imagined where Gibson would turn next - to one of the most mysterious and alluring civilizations in all of history, where he would set a non-stop, constantly accelerating thriller, driven by visuals and pure emotion, forging an original film experience truly unlike any other.
The inspiration for APOCALYPTO came following "The Passion of the Christ," as Gibson began to sense a growing hunger among film audiences for movies that would be thrilling and entertaining, but also something more. "I think people really want to see big stories that say something to them emotionally and touch them spiritually," Gibson says. Fascinated by the precipitous collapse of the ancient Mayan civilization, Gibson imagined setting such a story inside this mystery-laden culture.
To begin with, Gibson knew only that he wanted to create an incomparable chase film in which a man must put everything on the line. "I wanted to make a high-velocity action adventure chase film that keeps on turning the screws," recalls Gibson. "I was intrigued by the idea that most of the story would be told visually - hitting the audience on the most visceral and emotional of levels."
But as Gibson shared his ideas with screenwriter and graduate of Cambridge University, Farhad Safinia, they began to explore the seemingly wild notion of setting this epic tale of action at the end of the reign of the Maya. Safinia, who had traveled in the Yucatan and seen Mayan ruins firsthand, intrigued Gibson with his stories and the script began flowing from there. "The idea was like this fantastic engine," Safinia says. "The story was always driving, driving towards something, and it was thrilling even as we were writing it. There are a lot of revelations, plot twists and developments that happen at high speed."
As they wrote, Gibson and Safinia immersed themselves in the fascinating history of the Maya. They spent months reading Mayan myths of creation and destruction, including the sacred texts of prophesy known as the "Popul Vuh." They pored through the latest archeological texts about new digs and theories about the civilization's collapse. Then, they made their own first-hand journeys to view ancient Mayan sites for themselves, which had an especially profound effect.
Recalls Gibson: "I stood on top of the temple at El Mirador in Guatemala, in the only rainforest left in the country, and looking out I could see the outlines of 26 other cities - all around us like a clock. You could see pyramids popping out of the jungle in the distance. It was quite something. You really got the sense of how powerful a civilization this once was."
Gibson and Safinia also had long conversations with Dr. Richard D. Hansen, a world -renowned archeologist and expert on the Maya who served as a consultant on the film. "Richard's enthusiasm for what he does is infectious. He was able to reassure us and make us feel secure that what we were writing had some authenticity as well as imagination," says Gibson.
It was Hansen who helped Gibson and Safinia uncover some of the secrets of the Maya that most intrigued them - and especially to get a grip on how such an amazing society could fall to pieces. Hansen confirmed what Gibson and Safinia had intuited: that there are provocative parallels between the end of Mayan society and the contemporary chaos of our own.
"We really wanted to know - what were the reasons behind the Mayan cycles of rise and collapse?" notes Safinia. "We discovered that what archeologists and anthropologists believe is that the daunting problems faced by the Maya are extraordinarily similar to those faced today by our own civilization, especially when it comes to widespread environmental degradation, excessive consumption and political corruption."
Adds Gibson: "Throughout history, precursors to the fall of a civilization have always been the same, and one of the things that just kept coming up as we were writing is that many of the things that happened right before the fall of the Mayan civilization are occurring in our society now. It was important for me to make that parallel because you see these cycles repeating themselves over and over again. People think that modern man is so enlightened but we're susceptible to the same forces - and we are also capable of the same heroism and transcendence."
The deeper Gibson and Safinia probed into Mayan culture, the more they were able to fully develop their lead character - Jaguar Paw. Jaguar Paw's story, that of an ordinary man who is pushed into heroic actions, is at the very heart of APOCALYTPO. As the movie begins, he is a young father, promising, instinctively aware but not quite yet a leader in his small, idyllic village of traditional hunters. Then, in one breathless moment, his entire world is ripped apart. when he is captured and taken on a perilous march through the forest to the great Mayan city - where he learns he will be sacrificed to the gods to "pay" for the widespread famine that has ravaged their realm. Facing imminent death, Jaguar Paw must conquer his greatest fears as he makes an adrenaline-soaked, heart-racing dash to try to save all that he holds dear.
Throughout his stunning journey, the camera never leaves him, revealing everything he sees, feels and experiences.
Despite the fact that character lived in a mysterious culture centuries ago, Jaguar Paw's moving coming-of-age story and his increasingly courageous fight to save his family felt deeply contemporary to the screenwriters. "Jaguar Paw's story is one that anyone will relate to," notes Gibson. "In the course of his journey, he has to put his own self aside and fight for something much larger."
Part of what makes Jaguar Paw's battle so epic is the sheer enormity of what he is fighting. "The key villain in the film is really not a person," says Gibson. "It's a concept, and that concept is fear. The hero has to overcome his fear, and being overtaken with fear is something we all have struggled with in history as well as in today's world, so it's something everyone relates to."
For Gibson and Safinia, the underlying themes of man's struggle to live in balance with nature, of corrupted societies, of familial love and of sacrifice for others became a foundation for building sheer excitement as Jaguar Paw makes his way through a gauntlet of both human and wild threats. They hoped to create a story that moves so fast, that cuts so closely to the bone, that the full impact of its themes would only hit audiences later. "I think the first thing that strikes you about this story is the great adventure of it, and the incredible kinetic impact," Gibson says, "but beneath that are the underpinnings of all that has set Jaguar Paw's journey in motion."
Relentless motion and starkly visual storytelling lay at the very core of APOCALYPTO's creative concept. " "From the minute the story gets going, almost everything you see on the screen is in motion," Gibson explains. "In every frame, the camera is always moving and there's always someone or something moving within that moving shot."
Once, he and Safinia completed the screenplay, all the dialogue was translated into the Yucatec language, the primary Mayan dialect spoken in the Yucatan peninsula today. Gibson felt that the effect would be to pull the audience completely into this world - just as it had done when he used authentic languages for "The Passion of the Christ."
"I think hearing a different language allows the audience to completely suspend their own reality and get drawn into the world of the film," Gibson summarizes. "And more importantly, this also puts the emphasis on the cinematic visuals, which are a kind of universal language of the heart."
CASTING MAYA IN THE MODERN WORLD: MEL GIBSON ASSEMBLES A INDIGENOUS CAST
If Gibson's vision for APOCALYPTO was going to come to life, the director knew he would need actors who would make the story feel completely and utterly real, as if it were dynamically unfolding in the here and now. He was determined from the start to use only faces that were authentically indigenous to tell this indigenous story - and to cast actors who would be completely unknown to movie-going audiences. "It makes the story feel that much more real and convincing because you don't have any reference points for the performances you're watching," comments Gibson. "But this doesn't mean you won't see amazing performances, because you will."
To capture a consistent Mesoamerican look in each of his actors, the filmmakers cast an unusually wide net, going on extensive searches throughout Mexico, especially in the Yucatan, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Xalapa, Veracruz and Catemaco. The quest continued in Southern California and New Mexico; in Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver; as well as Central America. Ultimately, three cast members hailed from Canada, two from the United States, and the remainder came from México and other parts of Central America, including over 700 extras who create the sense of a teeming metropolis of many classes and backgrounds in the Maya City sequences. Some of the younger cast who came from isolated Indian communities had never even seen a hotel room before the production.
"Many of our cast had never been in a film before," says Gibson, "but that worked because what we really wanted to capture were the primal instincts and natural reactions that to me are the most heartfelt and emotionally real. I wanted everything to feel authentic and believable."
Gibson hired Carla Hool, a Mexico City based casting agent, to help with the auditions, which involved an unusual process. "The actors had to be really physically fit with bodies like athletes or dancers and have great stamina," she explains. "In fact, part of our casting process was seeing how the actors could move and run. We also had them read Mayan poetry. We were not necessarily looking for people with a background in acting although we do have a number of fine actors in the cast. But they didn't have to act per se. It was more about their look, their movements and what they had within them."
For the lead role of Jaguar Paw, Gibson knew he would need an actor who the audience would follow through this unremitting journey of unexpected battles, shocks and revelations. After extensive auditions, he discovered Rudy Youngblood, a Native American of the Comanche, Cree and Yaqui people, who makes a riveting acting debut in APOCALYPTO. A pow-wow dancer, singer and artist, Youngblood also is an accomplished athlete, cross-country racer and boxer - and his physical vibrancy along with his natural expressiveness made him perfect for the role of a man racing to save his life, his loved ones and the forest that has always been his home.
"Rudy has an innocence but also an incredible strength," says Safinia. Adds Gibson: "I'm so proud of what he was able to achieve."
Despite the fact that Jaguar Paw lives within an ancient culture, Youngblood immediately related to him. "Jaguar Paw is a lot like me," he says. "We're from different eras but very much the same person. He is strong. He's a giver, not a taker. He loves his family. He's respectful and he learns in the course of the story not to be afraid. This is also what I have been taught in my culture."
Youngblood's physical prowess and honed athleticism enabled him to do most of his own stunt work including a scene that simulates a death-defying free-fall from the top of a raging waterfall, as well as the breath-taking sequence in which Jaguar Paw is chased by a jaguar - which involved Rudy getting up close and personal with a really big cat. "Rudy is probably the purest athlete I've ever seen," comments Mic Rodgers, stunt coordinator on APOCALYPTO. "He has his head together and is totally on top of his game. If he wasn't an actor, he could be a stuntman."
Says Youngblood: "The physicality of this film was gut-wrenching and some of the scenes - jumping off the waterfall and being chased by the jaguar - were literally heart-pounding for me. There was constant adrenaline, constant action, and lots of pain and fear, but Jaguar Paw is able to transcend all of that. It's part of who he is."
Meanwhile for the role of Zero Wolf, the fierce Holcane warrior who captures and then must hunt down Jaguar Paw, Gibson cast Raoul Trujillo, a native of New Mexico who is an established actor in film and television ("Black Robe," "The New World") as well as a dancer and choreographer. It was Trujillo's intense focus and leadership qualities -- along with a more vulnerable, paternal side -- that convinced Gibson he could pull off a role that goes beyond the typical black-and-white contours of a villain.
Trujillo's transformation became complete when he donned the complex makeup that turned him into Zero Wolf. "He's actually a very handsome guy so we had to ugly him up some!" remarks Gibson. "We marred his natural features and gave him a more mythic proboscis. He became very scary looking."
Trujillo picks up the story: "At our first meeting, Mel said to me 'You are Zero Wolf" and at that time, I really didn't know who Zero Wolf was. But when I put on the costume and make-up, I truly did become Zero Wolf. It was like Mel said, 'You don't have to be scary. You are scary."
Yet in playing Zero Wolf, Trujillo wanted to emphasize that the character isn't necessarily evil. "Zero Wolf is a character who has a timelessness, who has existed in all cultures, within all of humanity," he says. "He represents the shadow of the hero of the film. He drags Jaguar Paw through all the paces necessary to become who he needs to be to present hope for humanity and a future. I wanted him to have the complexity of being someone who has a job to do and does it. I really invested energy into developing a character that was not rooted or based in evil but rooted in the fact that he is just carrying out his duty."
Many of the other key characters in APOCALYPTO are played by newcomers who impressed the filmmakers with their unique combinations of classical looks and colorful personalities. For example, in the role of insidiously impatient Holcane Warrior Snake Ink is Rodolfo Palacios, an actor from Mexico City, who was cast because of his unique ability to look threatening in a fresh way. Palacios endured 7 hours in the makeup chair everyday to sport the complex web of facial and torso tattoos that make Snake Ink so uniquely frightening. It wasn't easy, but Palacios was always impressed by how generous Gibson was with his diverse and largely inexperienced cast. "He was always talking with us about our opinions on the script, our characters, the whole process. It was very special," says Palacios.
To portray another terrifying warrior, the fierce and imposing warrior Middle Eye, veteran Mexican actor Gerardo Taracena joined the cast. "Middle Eye is an absolutely insane character and Gerardo has a great look and is a wonderful actor," says casting director Carla Hool of the choice.
One of the film's most humorous characters, Jaguar Paw's fellow villager and bane of many village jokes is Blunted. He is played by another new discovery: Jonathan Brewer, who hails from the Blood Reserve in Canada, where he acts and also teaches his culture to inner-city schoolchildren. It was Brewer's impressive size yet gentle spirit that drew Gibson to him for the role. Brewer wanted to bring the sense of a real human being beneath the comic relief his character provides. "I read the script numerous times to figure out who Blunted really is and talked to Mel and the other actors about him. The character you see on screen grew from all of that," says the actor. "He's someone we all can relate to -- the big, gentle guy who always gets picked on."
In the role of the powerful High Priest of the Maya City is Fernando Hernandez, who is himself a Maya originally from Chiapas, Mexico and who currently lives in Canada, where he conducts indigenous healing ceremonies. Hernandez also appears this year in Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain." As a Maya, he felt especially close to the film's larger themes. "I believe that to stay in balance is important and the movie shows what happens when imbalance takes hold," he says. "As human beings, we always have the responsibility to try to create a society that restores balance."
Additional Mayan actors in the film include the Old Storyteller who entertains the village with vital myths and tales by firelight. To play this brief but haunting role Gibson chose an actual Maya storyteller who was discovered in a tiny village in the Yucatan.
Many of the actors were found by serendipity. The character of Money Jaw is played by Carlos Ramos - an immigrant from El Salvador who worked at a juice car in Santa Monica before he was discovered dancing at the Third Street Promenade. Another inspirational find came when the filmmakers first saw the stunning visage of Dalia Hernandez, a dancer and student in Veracruz, whose movingly classic features made her the very picture of Jaguar's beautiful and enterprising wife, Seven. Others cast in APOCALYPTO emerged from such diverse non-acting backgrounds as dancers, mimes, acrobats and gymnasts, circus performers, stage and street theatre actors, musicians, as well as a television production assistant and even a primary education teacher from Cancun.
Yet no matter where the cast members hailed from or what previous experience they had, Gibson wanted all of that to be erased as they immersed themselves completely in the reality of the Mayan world of the film.
"What's amazing is that Mel has basically created this epic movie with non-professional actors most of whom have never been in front of a camera," says executive producer Ned Dowd. "He was patient, caring and detailed to the point that many times, he was acting out the scenes for and with the actors. It was remarkable to see how committed he was to this cast, tirelessly devoting his time and energy not only to the main actors but also to the extras, to help them understand and find that special something within them that defines their character."
ONE LANGUAGE UNITES THE MULTINATIONAL CAST: LEARNING TO SPEAK YUCATEC MAYA
As APOCALYPTO got under way, Mel Gibson faced an extraordinary set of challenges. Not only was he working with a cast of newcomers and non-professional actors, many of whom spoke different mother tongues, but he wanted that entire international cast to speak in Yucatec Maya for the film. Though Yucatec Maya is the language spoken today in the Yucatan Peninsula, few people outside of that area have ever even heard it being spoken, let alone speak it.
Although the film puts the emphasis on powerful visuals over the use of dialogue, for the actors, getting the language right was a big part of forging authentic performances. Says Rudy Youngblood: "It's an issue of respect, because we're not just depicting characters, but a people's entire way of life, its way of speaking and its way of carrying themselves. So the understanding of the culture and the language was very important to us."
Native Yucatec speakers trained the actors for five weeks on the correct pronunciation and inflection of their lines, which was challenging for everyone. Says Jonathan Brewer, who plays Blunted: "It's a pretty tough language to learn because you've got all these pops and clicks you make with your mouth and tongue. It's also one thing to learn to speak it and another thing to speak it wearing false teeth!"
To further assist in the process, each actor was given an MP3 player so they could continually listen to their dialogue lines until the language felt familiar. During production, the dialogue coaches were on set every day to verify pronunciation and make whatever corrections were needed. In cases where the filmmakers needed additional lines or if dialogue changes were made, they would provide Gibson with the correct phrasing and pronunciation of the way it actually would be spoken.
The local dialogue coaches were themselves moved by Gibson's willingness to use their local language in a major global motion picture. " APOCALYPTO will have a great impact on my Maya brothers because of the pride and love of our culture and above all our roots, our language and our ancestors," says Hilario Chi Canul, one of the Mayan dialogue coaches whose last name, coincidentally, means "Keeper of the Language."
Yet for Gibson, the real impact of APOCALYPTO lies in a language that unites people around the world: the language of the visual , with its impact going far beyond words.
JOURNEY INTO THE JUNGLE: THE PRODUCTION OF APOCALYPTO
THE HEART OF APOCALYPTO: WHO WERE THE MAYA AND WHAT BECAME OF THEM?
TIMELINE OF THE MAYA
A GLOSSARY OF MAYAN PHRASES FROM APOCALYPTO
MEL GIBSON (DIRECTOR/PRODUCER/CO-SCREENWRITER)