Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, starring a bunch of nobodies who speak only in Mayan with subtitles, ended up being much more of a standard Hollywood movie than I had anticipated. What wasn’t standard was the film’s production, which was self-financed and shot on location in Mexico.
If the DVD of Apocalypto contains a frank behind the scenes documentary, I’m definitely buying a copy, at least if the article that ran in this weekend’s LA Times is any indication of what was going on. While the piece mostly focuses on the challenges of shooting digital in the jungle, it also talks about how the shoot ballooned from four months to almost ten, and how the budget ended up at 80 million dollars – and remember, this is a movie with no stars, dirt cheap Mexican extras, and probably very little union interference.
Consider this oft-repeated account from the crew on location in Veracruz, Mexico, this spring: Makeup and wardrobe departments arrived at 1 a.m. to outfit more than 1,000 extras with elaborate wigs, prosthetic ears, scars and body paint for the eye-popping Mayan City sequence. Eight hours later, when the entire cast and crew were ready for the first scheduled shot, Gibson was MIA. When the director rolled onto set around noon he opted out of the planned schedule and instead shot running scenes with two lead actors until the sun went down.
"Extras are so cheap and Gibson’s so rich from ‘Passion of the Christ’ it didn’t matter," noted one department head. "He worked in a less structured way and there were no studio suits to push him along. His focus on the leads added minutes to each and every setup so it all took a lot longer than it looked on paper."
It’s tempting to superimpose Colonel Kurtz onto Mad Mel, but the fact is that at the very least he turned out a solid action film that looks nice. There’s nothing else there – the film is essentially hollow – but he got more action and spectacle for his 80 million than most other directors get for double that amount.
What will be interesting is seeing how this does at the box office. There’s nothing here to bring in the hardcore Christians who made The Passion of the Christ such a success, and I don’t know if the advertising is cluing action fans into the fact that this film isn’t a meditation on a lost civilization but rather two hours worth of cutting, slashing, beheading, running and jumping.