Apocalypto: Mel Gibson, the Filmmaker as Warrior

“As a filmmaker, my first responsibility is to entertain, my second to educate, and the third to uplift the audience to a higher plain,” says movie star-turned director Mel Gibson about his latest exotic historical epic, “Apocalypto,” about the demise of the Mayan civilization. “If you can do those three things,” he elaborates, “then you're really cooking for the broad public. I don't make movies for an elite.”

Well-groomed, sporting an elegant suit, Gibson wears a broad smile on his face, ready to tackle any question about his movie and (mis) conduct. A headline magnet, Gibson continues to get bad press ever since July, when he was arrested for DUI on a highway near his Malibu house, spouting some despicable anti-Semitic remarks (“the Jews started all wars”).

Thriving on Controversy

Gibson is used to controversy, perhaps even thrives on it, except that this time around, the scandal is not about onscreen contents, as in the 2004 controversial film, “The Passion of the Christ,” which was charged with anti-Semitism by Jewish leaders. Nonetheless, helped by the stir, that movie turned out to be a blockbuster, generating over $600 million worldwide ($370 million domestically).

Yet under the macho bravado, you can detect a restless anxiety, some nervousness in anticipation of the movie's opening. Though not as hot-button picture as “Passion,” “Apocalypto” is extremely violent, is cast with unknown (nonprofessional) actors, and is subtitled; the characters speak the Mayan dialect of Yucatec,
Gibson has been conducting grassroots campaigns among ethnic minorities, specifically Latinos, and ecological groups, since, among other things, “Apocalypto” is environmentally correct, preaching for the saving of rain forests. “I'm not a tree hugger,” Gibson says, “I am not obsessed about it, but I love rain forests and would hate to see their destruction.”
Exuding a certain, manipulative charm, Gibson answers heavy-duty questions in a humorous, even ironic way.

Considering his political reputation as a conservative, the messages of his new movie are remarkably liberal, propagating not only ecological causes, but also honoring peaceful civilization, oppressed by aggressive attackers, and celebrating old-fashioned family values. On a superficial level, the skeleton narrative is about a devoted husband named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), taken captive and tortured, who makes a promise to his very pregnant wife and young son to return homeagainst all odds. Jaguar hurtles back through the forest in a thrilling race to save his family while being pursued by ferocious enemies.

Gibson continues to deny anti-Semitic charges, based on his statements on screen and off. “I never have been and never would be,” he says forcefully. “But the (July) incident hit this fear thing in me. Suddenly I realized I could make people afraid, and it was a horrible feeling. That's when I said, 'I don't want to be that monster. I don't want to make anyone afraid. That's what my movie is about, using fear.”

The same gore, S&M approach that characterized his 1995 Oscar-winning “Braveheart” and “Passion of the Christ,” is also evident in “Apocalypto”– only more so. The story concerns a peaceful Mayan village brutally attacked by a band of warriors looking for victims for sacrificial purposes. Gibson is not defensive about the blood and guts spilled onscreen, claiming his movie “reflects the violence used by the oppressors,” who are shown to behead and cut hearts out of humans while still alive. Says Gibson: “It's an R-rated film, for a good reason.”

The World is a Violent Place

“The world is a violent place,” Gibson philosophizes. “Violence is a recurring idea of our history. But this movie is not as violent as a chainsaw movie, where a teenager with pimples is being hacked to death. The sacrifices at the temple are puny compared to what they did to the guy on the rack.” That said, he concedes that the image of a guy jumping over a waterfall and braining himself on a rock is “really heinous,” and won't mind if some viewers close their eyes.
He apologized on the air in a Diane Sawyer's interview on ABC's “Good Morning America,” and he continues to explain himself to his colleagues, hoping his slurs won't damage too much the box-office of a big-budget movie like “Apocalypto.”


What inspired Gibson “I always start by asking, 'If I went to the cinema, what would I want to see' I'm always looking to do something I have a thirst to see in my heart and mind. There has always been this mystery about the Mayan civilization. I went down to the Mirador Basin and saw the ancient and enormous pyramids; one is the biggest pyramid in the world, bigger than those in Egypt. The Mayans left, but why, that's what intrigued me.
There's no denying that “Apocalypto” is a political action movie, about a great culture destroyed by fear and corruption, which is also a metaphor for contemporary American society. Gibson confirms: “We're all afraid. It's amazing how racked by fear we are these days. Watching the evening news, you can be terrified. Statements like, 'today we're in a state of red alert,' are an exaggeration, and you have to ask yourself, 'Where this information comes from'”

Media dn Politics

Gibson is suspicious toward the media and politicians: “If I see a video of Osama bin Laden looking through a rifle, how do I know he's not just a salesman they told could be in a movie I have no way to verify it.”
Gibson denies he has consciously made a 'liberal' film in order to get back into mainstream Hollywood. “I've always been independent about the way I see things,” Gibson says, “Everyone presumes I'm a Republican, but I'm not. I couldn't vote for either one of the two guys in the last election. It was a terrible choice to make.” As for current issues: “Nobody has given me a good reason of why we're sending our troops to all these places. No one has explained how did we jump from Afghanistan to Iraq”

As for his slurs, Gibson repeats what he had said before: “My statements were the ravings of an inebriated, angry person. A drunk is out of his mind, insane. You're literally affecting your brain cells with this stuff. Stuff comes out in a distorted manner. It was just stupid ravings, from pent-up anger and tension.”' Gibson concede that “I did have a chip on my shoulder about a lot of things that happened with 'Passion of the Christ' that I felt were unjust.”

Gibson thinks that, “publicly, I have done enough apologizing, but the process continues.” It's not the people who refuse to talk or to work with him, it's more the media and headlines like “Mel Ostracized by Hollywood!” But Gibson says, “Hollywood is not one unified thing, it's what you make it.” He claims he has received consistent support from Disney, which releases “Apocalypto”: “I called Oren Aviv (production head, who's Jewish) and he was business as usual. But even Aviv has suffered, he's been called a collaborator!”

Audience for Apocalypto

Who will see “Apocalypto” “People that like good stories will. A college kid and his buddies may get into the chase. The movie stands on its own, regardless of any unfortunate experience I have stumbled upon.”
Rudy Youngblood, who plays Jaguar Paw, has never been in a movie before. “It's much easier to believe a character that doesn't carry any baggage. We auditioned many guys, and we made them run around the table to see how they moved. They all flailed their arms, but Rudy was amazing, a real athlete.” Gibson says he instructed his movement expert on the set “to knock the 21st century out of my cast.”

Even critics who don't like the picture acknowledge Gibson's considerable skills as a director of an action-adventure filled with thrilling stunts and breathtakingly visual beauty. “I just wanted to do a really exciting chase, something fast and exhilarating. Cars, trucks, and planes have been done before, but not foot chase, which could be primal and wild, with animals and jungles.” He ran the idea of a Native American guy who gets captured by his assistant Farhad Safinia, who wrote the script with him, about Revising history

The Perfect Film is Silent

The idea was to push the envelope, make something that didn't let go of you, but with characters you are emotionally invested in. In Hollywood actioners, you're not allowed to identify with the heroes, you watch men you can't relate to.” For Gibson, the perfect film is a silent one, with no words at all: “I love the idea of being minimalist because film is a visual medium. With “Apocalypto,” there's not much need for dialogue.”

Gibson claims that after decades of acting, he's more committed to directing. “I enjoy making movies more than acting. There's something strange about acting, the knowledge that in the future you will look at your performance and go, 'What was I thinking' He is also concerned with over-exposure: “You don't want to inflict yourself on the public too much. You've got to walk away. You don't want the public to say, 'Not him again.'

He says he continues to under tiresome media scrutiny: “You're a caged animal all the time. Wherever you go, there are photographers, even when you get your car from a valet. It's a nightmare. And it registers immediately in your brain, it's an instant fight-or-flight thing, you feel threatened and you could end up striking someone.”

Gibson doesn't think “Apocalypto” is preachy and doesn't want to speculate what individual viewers “get out” of his work: “There are things in my movie to be extrapolated by those watching it–if they want–but what they see may be very personal to them.”

In a Good Place

Gibson says he's in a “good place” right now. “I haven't seen many movie,” he says laughing loud, “I've either been in therapy or in the cutting room.” Strangely enough, Gibson defines himself as an optimist: “'Apocalypto' means a new beginning. I have a lot of hope. The world is full of many great people.”
“We always have this conceit that history began when the white men got here, but the history of these indigenous people goes back thousands of years.”