The strange story behind Mel Gibson's post-''Passion'' project. Mel Gibson is back and he's bringing ancient Mayans with him in ''Apocalypto''

By Dade Hayes
May 08, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Apocalypto: Andrew Cooper
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Last time the world saw The Passion of the Christ mastermind Mel Gibson, he was promoting his mystery-shrouded spectacle, Apocalypto, on the Academy Awards. Standing with limestone-powder-coated extras from the Mayan-language epic, he delivered a verbose explanation in Yucatec Maya for why he wouldn’t be hosting the show. The English subtitle read simply, ”Not me.”

Gibson’s witty turn may have stoked anticipation for the movie’s August release, but now, just two months later, Disney has shifted the opening to Dec. 8. That move puts the film — which has been shooting for a Werner Herzog-ian six months in a remote Mexican jungle — in a slot normally reserved for blockbusters and big-time Oscar contenders.

So will Apocalypto deliver the goods? Gibson, 50, is keeping the plot details secret, but here’s what we know: The story takes place in the late 15th century. Village leaders bent on human sacrifice take Apocalypto‘s hero, Jaguar Paw (played by newcomer Rudy Youngblood), from his wife and child. He escapes and is chased through the jungle, setting off on a quest for justice and a reunion with his family that features action, a healthy amount of gore, and, of course, subtitles.

If that sounds like a Braveheart-style winning formula — and sources certainly enthuse over early footage — a few questions still linger over the project. The Passion may have grossed $612 million worldwide, but it also sparked a controversy that tarnished Gibson’s image in some Hollywood circles; and it’s unclear whether a bloody Mayan epic will represent a reengagement with the film community or a walk farther out on a limb. Then there are the mounting delays. According to people close to the production, the director has lost significant time to the inexperience of his cast, the bulk of whom he found in Mexico.

There’s at least one party that doesn’t seem worried: Disney. The studio remains upbeat about the project, which reportedly costs less than $50 million. ”Mel showed us footage that blew us away,” says Oren Aviv, Disney’s chief creative officer, who traveled to the set in March. ”Apocalypto has the chance to get critical recognition.” In other words, there’s a team of linguists in Burbank right now working on how to say ”for your consideration” in Yucatec Maya.

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