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As a filmmaker, my first responsibility is to entertain, my second to educate, and the third to uplift the audience to a higher plane,” says Mel Gibson of his latest film, Apocalypto. “If you can do those three things then you’re really cooking for the broad public. I don’t make movies for an elite.”
Well-groomed, wearing an elegant suit and smiling broadly, the actor-turned-director appears ready to tackle any question about his movie and his conduct. That is just as well: since July, when he made anti-semitic remarks after being arrested for drink-driving near his Malibu home, he has unsurprisingly had a hostile press. Critics who had charged 2004’s The Passion of the Christ with anti-semitism saw the incident as further evidence of an ingrained prejudice.
Gibson, who has apologised copiously for his words, is used to controversy, perhaps even thrives on it. Yet under the bravado, you can detect a restless anxiety, which may have been a little assuaged by the news that his new film has shot to No 1 within days of its US opening. That was by no means a certainty: although not as controversial as Passion – which nevertheless generated more than $600m worldwide – Apocalypto, set in the last days of the Mayan civilisation, is gruesomely violent, is cast with non-professional actors, and, since the characters speak the Mayan dialect of Yucatec, is subtitled to boot.
The action begins when peaceful villagers are attacked by raiders from a Mayan city, looking for victims to sacrifice. A devoted husband named Jaguar Paw, taken captive and tortured, promises his pregnant wife and young son that he will return home. Most of the film depicts how Jaguar hurtles back through the forest in a race to save his family while being pursued by his enemies. On the way we see a civilisation in a decline brought on by internecine warfare and the squandering of natural resources.
Rudy Youngblood, who plays Jaguar Paw, has never been in a movie before. “It’s much easier to believe a character that doesn’t carry any baggage,” Gibson says, and he instructed his movement expert on the set “to knock the 21st century out of the cast”.
The same blood-and-guts approach that characterised Gibson’s 1995 Oscar-winning Braveheart and Passion is evident in Apocalypto, only more so. He is not defensive about the onscreen bloodshed, claiming that his movie “reflects the violence used by the oppressors”, who are shown cutting the hearts out of their living victims.
“The world is a violent place,” he philosophises. “But this movie is not as violent as a chainsaw horror movie, where a teenager with pimples is being hacked to death. The sacrifices at the temple are puny compared to what they did to the guy on the rack.”
Gibson prefers to describe Apocalypto as a political action movie, about a great culture destroyed by fear and corruption, which is also a metaphor for contemporary society. “We’re all afraid,” Gibson says. “It’s amazing how racked by fear we are these days.” The film also has a distinct ecological tinge, although Gibson insists that he is “not a tree hugger”.
He denies that he has consciously made a “liberal” film in order to get back into mainstream Hollywood. “I’ve always been independent about the way I see things,” he says. “Everyone presumes I’m a Republican, but I’m not. I couldn’t vote for either one of the two guys in the last election.”
He continues to deny the charges of anti-Semitism that have been levelled against him. “I never have been and never would be,” he says forcefully. “But the [July] incident hit this fear thing in me. Suddenly I realised I could make people afraid, and it was a horrible feeling. That’s when I said, ‘I don’t want to be that monster. I don’t want to make anyone afraid.’ That’s what my movie is about, using fear.”
Regarding that day, Gibson repeats what he has said before: “My statements were the ravings of an inebriated person. A drunk is out of his mind, insane. You’re literally affecting your brain cells, and stuff comes out in a distorted manner. It was just stupid ravings, from pent-up anger and tension.”
Gibson apologised in a Diane Sawyer interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, and he continues to explain himself to his colleagues. He says he lives under constant media scrutiny: “You’re a caged animal all the time. Wherever you go, there are photographers, even when you get your car from a valet. It’s a nightmare. And it’s an instant fight-or-flight thing, you feel threatened and you could end up striking someone.”
“Publicly, I have done enough apologising,” Gibson says, “but the process continues.” Headlines such as “Mel Ostracised by Hollywood!” do not make it any easier. But Gibson says he has received consistent support from Disney, which releases Apocalypto: “I called Oren Aviv [the studio’s production head, who is Jewish] and he was business as usual. But even Aviv has suffered, he’s been called a collaborator!”
As for his professional life, Gibson says that after decades of acting he is now more committed to directing. That may be a good move. Even critics who disliked the picture have acknowledged Gibson’s skills as a director of an action-adventure filled with thrilling stunts and visual beauty. “I just wanted to do a really exciting chase, something fast and exhilarating,” he says. “Trucks and planes have been done before, but not foot chase, which could be primal and wild.”
The guiding idea was to “make something that didn’t let go of you, but with characters you are emotionally invested in. In Hollywood actioners, you’re not allowed to identify with the heroes, you watch men you can’t relate to.” For Gibson, the perfect film would have no words at all: “I love the idea of being minimalist because film is a visual medium. With Apocalypto, there’s not much need for dialogue.”
Gibson does not think Apocalypto is preachy and does not want to speculate about what individual viewers will “get out” of his work: “People like good stories. The movie stands on its own, regardless of any unfortunate experience I have stumbled upon. There are things in my movie to be extrapolated by those watching it – if they want – but what they see may be very personal to them.”
Gibson says that he’s in a “good place” right now. “I haven’t seen many movies lately,” he says, laughing loudly. “I’ve either been in therapy or in the cutting room.” He is, he says, an optimist. “‘Apocalypto’ means a new beginning. I have a lot of hope. The world is full of many great people.”
‘Apocalypto’ opens in the UK on January 5