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Gibson dives in

Post-gaffe, Mel woos Latinos and Native Americans to `Apocalypto.'

November 13, 2006|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

JHANE Myers certainly wasn't expecting a personal phone call from Mel Gibson.

"He said, 'Hello, Jhane, I know you don't know me. This is Mel Gibson, and I really would like to have you call me back,' " Myers recalled. When she did, the Oklahoma City public relations executive found herself enlisted in Gibson's grass-roots marketing campaign for his new film, "Mel Gibson's Apocalypto," due in theaters Dec. 8.

Two years ago, Gibson reached out to Christians with a carefully orchestrated campaign that helped his film "The Passion of the Christ" become one of the most successful movies of all time, grossing $611 million worldwide. With "Apocalypto" -- his visually sumptuous retelling of the fall of the Maya civilization -- Gibson is hoping to strike box-office gold once again by wooing Latinos and Native Americans such as Myers, hoping they will identify with his tale of an indigenous culture.

This latest effort isn't just a return to the playbook for promoting another hyper-violent movie made in an obscure language. It also marks an attempt by Gibson to move past his anti-Semitic outburst after a drunk-driving arrest in Malibu in July. Although Gibson publicly apologized and immediately sought treatment for alcohol abuse, some in Hollywood have said they can't bring themselves to forgive him.

Myers, a member of the Comanche nation, put aside any feelings she had on the topic and arranged to screen "Apocalypto" five times over a three-day period in late September for Native Americans and Latinos in Oklahoma City and Lawton, Okla., as well as Austin, Texas. Guests were treated to surprise Q&A sessions with the Academy Award-winning director of "Braveheart" and star of dozens of Hollywood films, and Gibson was able to gauge audience reaction first-hand to an early cut of the film.

While Gibson has been toiling in the editing room, putting the final touches on the film, he and Disney have also been aggressively screening the movie before select audiences in the Latino community, including L.A. politicians and businessmen. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been among those invited to an advance screening, but he has yet to see the film, a Disney spokesman confirmed.

Sources say Gibson is taking an unusual risk by showing an unfinished version of the film to audiences that aren't normally used to seeing movies without final tweaking of color, sound, music and the like but noted that Gibson felt it was important to receive their input before the film was complete.

As with "Passion," which contained brutal scenes of Christ's torture at the hands of Roman soldiers, there are scenes of bloody violence in "Apocalypto" -- in this case, human sacrifices in which heads roll -- that are sure to make audiences squirm in their seats.

Disney spokesman Dennis Rice said the violence is "no more so than in any R-rated picture. For some, they will be fine with it. For others, it may not be exactly their cup of tea. But there hasn't been one person who has said this isn't a powerful movie and that once again, 'Mel has done it.' "

As an Anglo telling a Maya story with a largely non-Anglo cast and crew, Gibson will be under pressure to deliver a film that doesn't insult Maya culture or divert too drastically from historical facts.

At the same time, Disney and Gibson's company, Icon Productions, know that the marketing task ahead for them is difficult. After all, the film features a cast of unknowns, depicting a period of Latin American history of which U.S. citizens may have only passing knowledge, and characters speaking in an ancient Mayan dialect with English subtitles.

And, of course, threatening to overshadow the film and its marketing effort is Gibson himself.

No one yet knows how much impact that headline-grabbing arrest could have on his movie. Some people, particularly those in the Jewish community, can't help recalling the controversy that surrounded "Passion," which some critics said was infused with anti-Semitism. But there are others, including a few who have seen "Apocalypto," who say the film should not suffer just because of the director's personal mistakes.

One of those is actor Edward James Olmos, a leading voice in Latino cultural affairs, who said he was invited by Gibson to an early screening. Olmos, who brought along his grown son, Bodie, said he was unprepared for what he saw.

"I was totally caught off guard," Olmos said in a recent phone interview from the set of "Battlestar Galactica" in Vancouver, Canada. "It's arguably the best movie I've seen in years. I was blown away."

Olmos said he was not briefed beforehand by Gibson on the film. "I just kind of sat down and bingo! It wasn't even in a screening room. It was like an office.... The screen drops down from the ceiling. I was sitting at an oval table."

Olmos noted that the film tells the story of "first-nation" people -- those who were here long before Europeans landed on their shores. Olmos said the story is "just breathtaking."

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