I first met Mel Gibson in 1985, in a tiny mining settlement in the sweltering Australian Outback, where he and director George Miller were making the third "Mad Max" movie, "Beyond Thunderdome." We had a long talk in a grotty little pub, over many beers. Although he's a classically-trained actor, Gibson had become internationally famous by that point as Max Rockatansky, the angry, leather-clad Road Warrior. He has since done many, many other things, of course, from starring in the four phenomenally popular "Lethal Weapon" movies to providing the (very funny) voice of the lead fowl in the animated hit, "Chicken Run." He has also become an acclaimed filmmaker himself: His 1995 movie, "Braveheart," won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
There was considerable head-scratching a few years back when Gibson announced that his next movie would be filmed entirely in Latin and Aramaic. The scratching ceased, however, when "The Passion of the Christ" was released — and went on to gross more than $600-million worldwide. Now, Gibson has released a picture, beautifully shot with Panavision's new Genesis digital camera system, whose dialogue is all spoken in the even more obscure Mayan language. This hasn't proved to be a problem for audiences, though; nor have the movie's commercial prospects apparently been damaged by his anti-Semitic outburst after a drunken-driving arrest in Malibu last July: "Apocalypto" debuted on December 8th as the number-one movie in the country. We asked him all about it.
Loder: Did you have any doubts about making this movie in Mayan, with unknown actors?
Gibson: Yeah. But I just felt a compulsion to tell that story in that way. It's hard and it's brutal, but I think it's appropriate for the time and the subject matter. I've been criticized ...
Loder: By people who haven't seen movies like "Hostel," apparently, which is a far more violent picture.
Gibson: Well, I think so. "Hostel" was a horrifyingly violent film. I don't think ours is gratuitous. I think it's less violent than "Braveheart." It is violent, yeah. But it was a violent culture. Just thank God we didn't show you the enemas.
Loder: The enemas?
Gibson: Yeah. There are whole Mayan wall murals devoted to guys getting enemas from these women in public. It would have been like public enema number one. So we did spare you that. Critics who call this movie a bloodbath — I don't know, I think that's a little over the top.
Loder: One critic at Fox News predicted that women and children would be running for the exits. Were you confident that the audience would get it?
Gibson: I thought they would. And the surprising thing is the exit polls from the first weekend — the demographic that rated it the highest were women 25 years and above. They really responded to the family, to that heroine, what she goes through. She's a whole woman; she's got kids and she's having another one and she's afraid, but she's courageous. I don't think the audience always listens to the critics. That's been proven time and time again.
Loder: Do you think they listen at all anymore?
Gibson: I don't think so. I think their trust has been completely violated. How many reviews have you read where a critic trashed something and then you see it and you go, whoa, what did that guy see? These poor fellows — how many films must they see, and how jaded must they get? You can tell the honest ones when you read them, and not just because they're agreeing with you. Sometimes they have a point that isn't favorable to you, and you go, "You know what? They were right about that."
Loder: Do you think the Mayan culture was even more violent than you've depicted it in "Apocalypto"?
Gibson: Absolutely. Some of the stuff they did was unspeakable. You could not put it on film. I really did go light. There are accounts of when the conquistadors first arrived in the Aztec empire and saw something like 20,000 human sacrifices in four days. They must have had four or five temples going at the same time. All these hearts being ripped out — it was a kind of culture of death. Human sacrifice wasn't as prevalent in the Mayan civilization as in the Aztec. But with conquest and the melding of cultures, it became more commonly practiced further south.
Loder: At the end of "Apocalypto," the first Spanish explorers arrive in the Mayan empire, and they're carrying a large cross. I know you're Catholic: What do you think was the effect of Christianity on these pagan cultures?
Gibson: Well, there were only a few hundred conquistadors, and their weaponry wasn't that far superior. The Mayans could pierce their armor — these cleavers that they had could cut a side of beef in half. So how did the conquistadors take power? I think that the majority of the populace was really discontented with what was going on. They didn't dig it. Twenty-thousand people being bumped off? It was like, who's next? And they began to rebel. I think the conquistadors led more of a revolution with the help of the people.
But many of these conquistadors were pretty wild guys — you weren't getting the cream of the crop from Spain, okay? They considered the people to be animals, without souls. And so indiscriminate killing was also part of what they did. And they actually recorded that it was the Franciscans baptizing these people that saved them from being killed — the conquistadors wouldn't kill them because they figured they must have a soul. I think that Christianity gets a bum rap a lot of the time in the history books. But you've got to consider who's writing them.
Loder: One of the most amazing parts of "Apocalypto" is the human-sacrifice scene at the top of the pyramid. Fernando Hernandez Perez, who plays the priest in charge, makes him pretty fearsome. How did you direct him?
Gibson: I told him to be Mussolini. I said, "Have you ever seen the old films of Mussolini?" And we got some tapes for him. That strutting around and that smiling and that proud cockiness he has, it just looks like some dictator somewhere. ... The evil speakers — the Hitlers and the Stalins — were eloquent. So that's what we went for with that guy.
Loder: There's also a Mayan king up there on the pyramid, enjoying all the carnage. The actor doesn't say a word, but he's still really scary.
Gibson: He's something else. They kept bringing in guys to play that part for five weeks, and I'd look at them and say, "Where did you get that guy?" And they'd say, "We found him in the gym." And I'd say, "He looks like a guy from the gym." I said this character doesn't say anything, and we have to know when we look at him that he's the king, and why he's the king. You have to look at him one time and get an unsavory feeling, like he probably murdered his brother, stole his wife, murdered all his nephews. He's very manipulative and shrewd. So we found this guy, Rafael Velez, working on the docks in Vera Cruz — he was a foreman of these guys who were loading ships and containers. He was a very nice man, but he had this look of cold command. It was just perfect. As soon as I saw him, I knew it.
When you're dealing with a culture that's alien to us, a culture from another era, speaking in another tongue, it's very important to have the characters be archetypal. So in this movie you have the every-man guy, you have the villains and the psychopath, you have the big lovable friend who sacrifices himself. You're looking for these people in the casting process. Many of them, even though they'd never performed before, brought something into the room with them, something that was a part of the character. And you could see it and say, "That's the guy, right there."
Loder: What makes a great action movie?
Gibson: Boy, there's nothing more thrilling than a chase. I'd often thought, over the years, that someone should do a whole film where it's nothing but a chase.
Loder: Like "Mad Max."
Gibson: Yeah, that was kind of like that.
Loder: Did you learn a lot about action from George Miller?
Gibson: George is a kind of a genius. He'd try stuff and you'd watch him do it and you'd go, "Surely, George, that won't work." And he'd say, "Yeah, it'll work if you edit it right." He was an editor, and he saw the pieces he needed to make it work. I was astounded by that. I learned a great deal from George and his particular mathematical brand of filmmaking.
Loder: There's been talk of making a "Mad Max 4." Is that going to happen?
Gibson: I actually saw it in storyboard form, before it was written down. Boy, it's a huge thing.
Loder: Was it set in Australia?
Gibson: It was, yeah. It was very cool, very mechanized. A lot of machines and people doing really weird things, flying out of the sky on poles and all this kind of stuff.
Loder: Is it going to happen?
Gibson: I don't know. It was very elaborate when we were looking at it. They did a budget that was so astronomical it was frightening. You just had to say, man, that is a lot of money. There's an art to marrying the material and doing it for a price.
Loder: Filmmaking has evolved a lot since the "Mad Max" days. There was no CGI back then. Now there's more and more digital imagery. You shot "Apocalypto" with a new digital camera system — do you think digital will displace film at some point?
Gibson: I think digital will displace film, yes. We're talking about digital as a thing of the future, but I'm afraid that it's here. The Genesis camera is amazing. We were able to achieve about two extra hours a day because of it. You can pull all the filters and open the shutter 360 degrees. This means you can shoot about 3000 ASA. You can't do that on a film camera. There were some days where I would look at Dean and say, we can't shoot this — it's nighttime! But we'd look at the screen and you didn't know it. So off we'd go and we'd shoot something, and it was good usable stuff, and it's in the film. It's just amazing.
Loder: I wanted to ask you about the quote from the historian Will Durant that comes up onscreen at the beginning of "Apocalypto," noting that cultures always destroy themselves from within. This was apparently what happened with the Maya, and I gather you see some parallels with our own culture today.
Gibson: Civilizations rise and fall. It's happened to every single one. I don't think we're crumbling. I just think this is not our finest hour. The destruction of the environment, the corruption of power, the use of fear as a tool to manipulate the masses — the news frightens me these days. The rot starts from within and then translates to the outside and creates circumstances where you fall. But then that's necessary too — to start again. It's a wise man who understands that every day is a new beginning, because boy, how many mistakes do you make in a day? I don't know about you, but I make plenty. You can't turn the clock back, so you have to look ahead.
Loder: Okay, last question: Do you have another project in mind already, or are you still chilling out from this one?
Gibson: I'm kind of chilling from this. But I'll sometimes be awake at night with a germ of an idea. Maybe I'll try something in English. [laughs]
Loder: Well, thanks for taking the time to do this.
Gibson: Thank you. It was good to talk to you again. We were both quite young the last time we talked.
Loder: Yes, and drunk.
Gibson: Oh man, I was hammered.
Loder: We don't do those things anymore.
Gibson: Hell, no. Not me. You get into trouble like that.
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