The flyin’ Mayan

Gibson talks about upcoming 'Apocalypto'

How do you follow up the most successful independent movie ever?

You do whatever you want.

Emerging from the jungles of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, Mel Gibson gave his first public explanation of what “Apocalypto” is about.

Gibson has kept his new project shrouded in secrecy. Script leaks of “The Passion of the Christ” sparked controversy, and while his subject matter is less touchy this time, Gibson knows it’s good business to keep a tight lid.

Pic will be filmed in the Mayan dialect of Yucatec, and uses a cast of local actors to tell a story set about 600 years ago, before the Spanish conquest, in the midst of the mysterious decline of the Mayan civilization.

“And that is merely the backdrop of what I am doing,” Gibson said. “Although (the Mayan culture) is an integral part of the story, what I am doing is creating an action-adventure of mythic proportions … and I am a megalomaniac, so I like the position.”

Local cast

Gibson said the cast was “mostly indigenous,” with actors culled from Mexico City, the Yucatan and even some U.S. Native Americans. Female lead is a young woman from Veracruz.

Gibson said filming in Yucatec wasn’t a challenge. “I wrote the script, I know what the characters are saying.” But don’t expect speeches. Gibson said the film is light on dialogue, relying on visual storytelling and the ancient music of the Maya.

Like “Braveheart” and “Passion,” this film will be gory at times, Gibson suggested.

The main idea for the film is all in the title, “Apocalypto,” which means an unveiling or new beginning in ancient Greek. Gibson said he hoped the film, set amid the fall of a civilization, where an ending brings about something new, would reflect our own culture. “I am hoping that by focusing on this civilization we are able to be introspective about ourselves.”

Started with ending

Gibson wrote the script with his assistant Farhad Safina. Idea began with an offhand comment by Gibson about a great way to end a movie; Safina said it should really be done.

“We began with an ending and we went back and put a beginning on it,” Gibson said. “A lot of this, the storylines I just made up, and then oddly, when I checked it out with historians and archaeologists, it’s not that far from wrong.”

Gibson and Safina spent a year on the script, and Gibson read up and traveled to Guatemala, Costa Rica and the Yucatan peninsula to flesh out the idea with greater historical accuracy.

Move from “Passion” to a film set in a pre-Hispanic world of the Maya has been “kind of this anthropological journey,” Gibson, a devout Catholic, said. “It makes your brain work overtime. In fact, you meet yourself coming and going. I mean, there are some questions that you simply can’t answer. But that doesn’t stop the search.”

Disney tentpole

Pic is planned to be a summer 2006 tentpole for Disney, which has U.S. rights. (Concerned about the deal and the violence, no other studio bit.) Gibson said Disney may get worldwide rights as well, but that was still to be decided.

The ambitious project is planned for a five-month shoot, two in the jungle and three at a Mesoamerican ruin-inspired city that Gibson is building outside of Veracruz.

Gibson didn’t want to put a figure on the budget, other than saying it is “not as big as everyone seems to think.”

Hurricane Stan, which hit the region in early October, threatened to push back production, but construction of the principal set hadn’t begun and only some access roads for jungle shoots needed to be cleared. Gibson donated $1 million to the hurricane’s victims through the local Rotary Club.

Mixed views locally

Mexicans so far are both entranced and wary of Mel’s project. Without any details, no one knows what his vision of the Maya will be. But Gibson said he was paying attention to locals’ concerns.

“I’m almost the only gringo on this project,” Gibson said, adding that he had assembled his cast of hundreds of extras and crew from Mexico City and villages where Maya is still spoken.

Gibson said he’s enjoying his freedom from the studio system. “It allows you to be more bold and take a few more chances.”

And don’t expect “Mad Max 4” any time soon.

“I was an actor for 30 years, I have done it,” Gibson said.