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Exclusive Interview: Mel Gibson for "Apocalypto"

By Paul Fischer Sunday December 3rd 2006 09:00AM
Mel Gibson for "Apocalypto"

It would be something of an understatement to say that Mel Gibson, Oscar winner and Hollywood star of over two decades, has not had the best of years. Yet as the director chats en route to his Santa Monica office, he is talkative and clearly anxious to put behind him, what he calls "all that other bullshit" that took place several months ago. Gibson, now 50, is trying to look forward, concentrating on promoting his latest directorial feature, Apocalypto, referring to recent events as "just peripheral stuff that happens to people."

Gibson remains genuinely contrite over it all, but matter-of-fact in how he reflects on what happened. "I got a skinful and mouthed off which is not coming from a good place, but I'm moving on from that," says Gibson, who acknowledges that mistakes were made.  However, at the same time, he looks at that experience "as a gift to me, because it's made me really sort of scratch my head and focus on a couple of things that I needed to." He adds that "it's working out real positive, and hopefully in other lives that I'll touch."

Gibson feels that the media does tend to hone in on the flaws and mistakes of the rich and famous. "Unfortunately I think it's become more of a trend. After all, it sells more newspapers to actually focus on and identify someone and sometimes it gets out of hand. I think the balance is way off, but that's the way it is and you can't change that. So what you have to do is just try and balance it for yourself and everyone around you, which is an ongoing process. Everybody goofs, everybody screws up and I tell ya, if you ask everybody in the world to raise their hand if they never said something vicious, something that they regretted or something stupid, there wouldn't be many people that wouldn't be able to raise their hands."

Gibson is no stranger to controversy, of course, if one remembers all of the hoopla surrounding his Passion of the Christ. It was Gibson's reinforcement of his Catholicism that prompted his need to cinematically re-interpret the death of Christ, not to mention coming to terms with his own inner demons, as he previously disclosed when we last chatted two years ago. Back then, commenting on his return to Catholicism, he recalled, at age 34, "that I was completely and utterly spiritually bankrupt and there's a lot of misery in that."

Fast forward 16 years, and he has learned to confront some of those dark holes that surfaced as his fame increased. But the philosophical actor says that one's demons are never completely exorcised. "I think that's an ongoing process for your entire life, because everyone's got 'em," says Gibson, thoughtfully, further arguing that his artistry is what often deflects from those constantly resurfacing demons. "I think in any art form, expression really is a coping mechanism. It's like something has to come out, and if it comes out in art , that's great because you're somehow using what the human condition has made you, to put out some kind of evidence that other people can sort of relate to, and I think that's the sharing experience that we need."

Yet Gibson made Passion for his own religious, cathartic needs, laughingly recalling that he thought the film "would just get out there and preach to a few Christians, and maybe make our investment back." Mel says he was astounded by the media response and widespread criticisms. "I honestly did NOT see the furore of this whole thing which was like a firestorm. Every time you open the newspaper it was a new thing, so the awareness was through the roof." Not even Gibson could have predicted how successful Passion would inevitably become, allowing the filmmaker and his Icon Productions to self-fund whatever he chose to do next.

Gibson says that the success of Passion "told me pretty clearly that there's an appetite for something kind of different out there. So I said, okay, I'll give them something different again. When I watch it I say well that's the same filmmaker making those two films, but they're different in tone, the speed, quality and the style. But that kind of success encourages me that there is the hunger and appetite for people who really want to be taken somewhere else, so that's what I'm trying to do," the director explains. "I'm trying to provide them with a visceral and sense experience, so that by the time they walk into the temple they are hopefully going out of their minds."

So as Gibson battles demons and regrettable tirades, he has also been able to focus on his latest project, and it seems that critics are ignoring his personal problems, giving many early thumbs up to his latest film. The subtitled Apocalypto is set in the Mayan civilization, at a time when the Maya kingdom faces its decline, and as crops are hard to come by, the rulers insist the key to prosperity is to build more temples and offer human sacrifices. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young man chosen for sacrifice, but through circumstance, flees the kingdom to avoid his fate.

Despite Gibson's affluence and power in Hollywood, he has chosen to turn his back on mainstream cinema, preferring to make films that continue to challenge him as an artist. For Gibson, who won an Oscar for his more mainstream epic Braveheart, it has become increasingly important to take new risks as a filmmaker. "I think I'm just getting to a place where I look at cinema today the future of which is independent film, where there's a hunger for a different kind of fare that simply isn't being catered to by anyone but independent filmmakers."

Deciding to turn his cameras on another ancient civilization, Gibson had his actors speak in the relatively little known Yucatan Maya, which is still spoken today. "Yucatac still has this wonderful, ancient poetry to it that worked fine, it was readily available and had people who could speak it and many of the K'iche' and Itza' people speak Yucatec." Gibson says he had always wanted to make a chase movie, and that became the springboard for this. But it was Gibson's passion for history that further fuelled his imagination.
"There's always this conceit amongst historians, particularly European historians, that history only began when they arrived, which of course is not the case. If you look at the Mayan civilization, clearly it was there 3,000 years ago and it's like there was a lot going on with a lot of sophistication in their civilization as well. I thought that it would be interesting to tell a story from the perspective that wasn't told from the New World point of view, when Europe finally arrived and then history began. There's so much mystery surrounding the temples and the archaeological findings, that it just really fires your imagination. There's enough research and source to sort of do a reasonable reconstruction of what might have been."

As all of Gibson's three historical films explore characters or societies facing social and moral dilemmas, Gibson sees thematic parallels in his work as a director. "Those crisis times are when the best stories are, because people are asked to do things in times of crisis that go beyond the usual realm of our experience. To me, those are the really interesting focal points, so I think you're looking for a story that's compelling and therefore you have to set it in a time and place where you see it happening, where you can inspect or investigate the nature of the human spirit in those particular circumstances."

While all of these films are defined by their unique degrees of complexity, Gibson concedes that nothing quite compares to what he went through shooting Apocalypto, beyond dealing with the logistics of shooting in the jungle and coping with an endless stream of bugs. All of that paled with the film's technical facets, from an image perspective. "I think if you notice, the film practically doesn't stop moving, and so the entire style in which I wanted to have it happen was completely and utterly kinetic. I don't think we ever put a camera on a stick, so either it was handheld, flying along on a cable, driving along or somebody was holding it and running. It's difficult to get all those moves, to keep it moving and to have all the other movements connect with the movement before it as you saw it in your head."

Gibson talks with utter enthusiasm for new technology which he embraced in order to bring this story to the screen, the way he had envisaged from the outset. "We're using new technology in the Genesis camera, which I have nothing but praise for. I think it enabled us to do things that we wouldn't otherwise have been able to do, because what you've got there is a camera with the ability to open the shutters to 360 degrees that gives everything a different sort of look and feel. I mean you're really in motion, seeing things that you haven't seen before and with just lighting a scene with only firelight and stuff like that. It's pretty amazing stuff."

Equally amazing, is that given Gibson's ascension into the realms of Hollywood superstardom, as a director, he has chosen to step more into its periphery. Yet in searching for his next challenge, Gibson says he is not intentionally shunning the mainstream studio system. "I really don't think in those terms. I've just been financing the stuff myself because only a lunatic would do that," he says, laughingly. "There's a gamble aspect to it, in that you could fall flat on your face, which is always a possibility, but at some point you've got to try and put your money where your mouth is and say I can do this."

Perhaps in his desire to test himself as a filmmaker, he has less enthusiasm to return in front of the cameras, despite internet rumours to the contrary. "I just haven't felt the pressing desire to hop in front of the camera and tap dance," confesses Gibson. "It's not that I don't want to do it, I love doing it, but it's just that it hasn't been on the menu for me for a while. I used to think: boy, what happens if I don't work again and when I was younger I used to think gee whiz that'd be terrible, but it's not terrible, it's great."

Gibson pauses, laughs and then concedes that he currently enjoys "exploring the backside of the industry from a production and directorial point of view. I think the best thing I will have gleaned from all this, is that whenever I do get in front of the camera again I'll be able to empathize with any director, no matter who he is, in order to help him with his vision."

Now that he is trying to put behind him a rocky year, personally and an intense one, creatively, "I'm now looking forward to doing just a little fishing and contemplating my own navel." He won't disclose the location of the watering hole, but he does hope to return to Australia at some point, to work. After all, the last time Gibson tap danced in front of an Australian camera, was in 1985's Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. "I think you have to find a worthy project to do there, and I think to actually work there you can't just take any great story and take it there. Rather you need a story that's somehow connected to the place because I think there's such a soul in the ground."

Beyond fishing and contemplating life and the universe, Gibson says he has no idea what is in store for him professionally, but he suggests it will be typical Gibson. "I think I'll probably cook up some other weird idea, but I'm hoping that it'll be not too weird and maybe something in the English language."

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