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Mel tongue-ties studios

'Apocalypto' to be filmed in obscure Mayan dialect

When production chiefs from selected studios trooped to Icon Prods. headquarters after an invite to read the film Mel Gibson planned for summer 2006, they were surprised at the very first page of the script.

“The dialogue you are about to read will not be spoken in English.”

Gibson, who last made the most successful Aramaic-language film ever, is at it again.

“Apocalypto” hardly fits the traditional definition of a summer film. Set 500 years ago, pic will be filmed in an obscure Mayan dialect, presumably with the same kind of subtitles Gibson reluctantly added to “The Passion of the Christ.” It will star a neophyte cast indigenous to the region of Mexico where Gibson will shoot in October. And it likely will carry an R rating, unless Gibson tempers the onscreen depiction of violent scenes he wrote in his script.

Since Gibson’s bankrolling his pic and will sell foreign himself, studios were offered only a rent-a-system deal, such as George Lucas had with 20th Century Fox for his last three “Star Wars” films. And because “Apocalypto” is not a religious pic, there’s no guarantee of an encore turnout of the church groups and hardcore Catholics who made “The Passion of the Christ” a nearly $1 billion box office/DVD bonanza.

‘Passion’ prediction

At least three studios passed on the project before Disney bought it. Nevertheless, the fact that more than one studio bid for the project shows Gibson’s viability and makes laughable last year’s prediction by the New York Times that Gibson would be blackballed by Jewish executives after the “Passion” controversy.

That charge never really had much traction, said sources within Gibson’s agency, ICM. There was a post-“Passion” pile of scripts with $20 million-plus offers for Gibson’s acting services. While that paper piled up on ICM co-prexy Ed Limato’s desk, Gibson was accumulating pages of his own, scribbling “Apocalypto” in his office and becoming so passionate about it that he changed his plans to star in the Icon-produced drama “Under and Alone” for Warner Bros.

Even though studios including Paramount and Universal walked away from “Apocalypto” either for creative reasons or because Gibson’s asking price of a high P&A commitment was too high, Disney’s agreement to step up shows how much things have changed for Gibson since he struggled to get backing for “Braveheart.” Gibson felt he was too old to play William Wallace, preferring to cast Jason Patric, but he was hard-pressed to raise coin even when he agreed to star.

Paramount wouldn’t make “Braveheart” without a partner, and before Fox (which passed on “Passion”) stepped up, Gibson had a demoralizing meeting with his longtime haunt Warner Bros., which wanted another “Lethal Weapon” as a condition of the deal. Gibson made “Braveheart” on a shoestring, won picture and director Oscars and made money for both Paramount and Fox.

Happy with Disney

Now content to bankroll his vision and armed with his own overseas distribution and sales company, Gibson no longer goes hat in hand. Sources said at least two studios wanted the pic, but Gibson liked Disney, where he has a good relationship with Dick Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios. For its part, Disney agreed to Gibson’s tough deal terms.

Already, there is talk that Disney will program “Apocalypto” against the Warner Bros. film “Lady in the Water,” which just happens to be the first M. Night Shyamalan-directed film Disney hasn’t financed since the filmmaker’s breakthrough, “The Sixth Sense.”

For his part, Cook said he was confident “Apocalypto” fits the summer bill.

“We couldn’t be more excited about working again with Mel and his team,” said Cook. “This is one of the most original and unique scripts we’ve had the opportunity to read recently, and we plan for this to be an anchor of our summer schedule.”

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