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Mel Gibson's latest passion: Maya culture

The director gives details on his film 'Apocalypto,' on the ancient civilization.

October 29, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

VERACRUZ, Mexico — At first his responses were cautious, even cryptic. The plot of his new movie, "Apocalypto"? "It doesn't bode well to say too much about what you're doing," Mel Gibson replied. OK, what's up with that beard? "The beard? What beard?" Gibson said, feigning obliviousness to the fuzzy white growth south of his chin.

But as he relaxed -- and the mob of assembled reporters and photographers got their high spirits under control -- Gibson slowly began to fill in the blanks on his new movie, which so far has been almost as obscure as its historic backdrop: the ancient Maya empire that rose, thrived and mysteriously collapsed centuries before the Spanish conquistadors planted their boots in the New World.

Gibson has reasons for keeping a relatively low profile. The last time most of the world caught sight of him, roughly two years ago, he was smack in the middle of a hurricane's eye surrounding his film "The Passion of the Christ," which went on to become a monster worldwide hit.

By comparison, "Apocalypto" had been shrouded in secrecy until a Friday news conference at this antique port city, which, fittingly, is where the conqueror Hernan Cortes landed in the early 1500s en route to demolishing the Aztec empire.

Civilizations rise and fall, often for similar reasons, Gibson observed during the course of his roughly one-hour encounter with the mostly Mexican journalists.

"I'm hoping that by focusing on this civilization we're able to be introspective about ourselves," said Gibson, who co-wrote the movie and is directing, producing and thus far financing it by himself. He is not acting in the movie.

Gibson said that the plot of "Apocalypto" -- a Greek word that translates as "new beginning" -- concerns an Indian family man who "has to overcome tremendous odds to preserve what he values the most." The movie will employ relatively unknown actors along with hundreds of extras and will utilize Mayan dialect.

Gibson hopes that one effect may be to bolster a threatened idiom that is frequently treated with disrespect, in Latin America. "My hope is that it [the movie] makes this language cool again and that they [indigenous people] speak it with pride," he said.

The director already has endeared himself to his hosts by offering to give $1 million to reconstruction efforts following Hurricane Stan earlier this month. The Mexican media gave good play to images of Gibson meeting with President Vicente Fox at the presidential palace recently. Tourism officials are hoping that production of "Apocalypto," due to begin shooting in mid-November, will pump $20 million into the economy.

Casually dressed in a plaid shirt and work pants, Gibson . at first appeared tense and deflected queries about the film's storyline. "What I'm doing is creating an action adventure of mythic proportions," he said, leaving it pretty much at that. He also was clearly bothered by photographers' continuing to take flash pictures while he was talking. "It does something to my liver," Gibson said, blinking. "I'll have an epileptic fit in a minute and start swallowing my tongue."

But the mood gradually softened. He said he and his co-writer, Farhad Safinia, began sketching out the storyline for "Apocalypto" first, then later came up with the movie's historical setting and context. "A lot of it, storywise, I just made up," he said, "and then, oddly, when I checked it out with historians and archeologists and so forth, it's not that far [off]."

He's apparently been doing a lot of homework. He scouted movie sites in Costa Rica, Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula, as well as the Veracruz region, and investigated a number of ancient ruins. But many were unsuitable for filming, he said. "A lot of the places in Guatemala have just been burned, just slash-and-burned. I need primary, primeval forest," he said.

For background on the Maya civilization, he drew on a wide variety of sources, including accounts by the Spanish missionaries and the ancient Maya spiritual treatise, the Popol Vuh. He also said he was reading or planning to read several books about the Mayas and the rise and fall of other civilizations, including Charles C. Mann's recently published "1491."

In explaining his film's title, Gibson emphasized that "apocalypto" implies the arrival of a new order to replace an existing one, a theme he has touched on in other movies. In "Gallipoli," he played an Australian soldier trapped in the bloody carnage of Europe's World War I auto-annihilation. Several other films he has been involved with, including "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Braveheart," "The Patriot," "We Were Soldiers" "The Passion" and the "Mad Max" trilogy, deal with societies in times of grave stress or empires on the verge of upheaval.

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