Dances with mad Mel
Latest related coverage
- Trailer: Apocalypto
By Benito Di Fonzo
January 5, 2007. Metro, Sydney Morning Herald,
"I think this is a combination of Dances With Wolves and Mad Max," says Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler of Apocalypto, the film he shot for Mel Gibson in the rainforest of Mexico's La Jungla region.
Post-nuclear road movie meets Native American epic, then?
"It has the kinetic energy and the wild rawness of Mad Max yet some of the epic qualities of [Dances With Wolves]."
The South Australian-born Semler should know. Included on his CV of more than 50 films are Mad Max II, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Dances With Wolves, for which he won an Oscar.
Like The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, written by Gibson and Farhad Safinia, is told in the protagonist's native tongue: this time Yukatec Maya. It relies largely on Semler's visuals to carry the coming-of-age story of Jaguar Paw (singer-dancer Rudy Youngblood in his big-screen debut).
Following the enslavement and sacrificial murder of members of his tribe by populist Mayan priests, Youngblood escapes to save his wife (Dalia Hernandez), pursued through the jungle by hunters led by Raoul Trujillo (Black Robe).
"I was showing it to some people and they said, 'We don't need the subtitles we could follow the story pretty well,' " Semler says.
An allegory of the downward spiral of an American culture corrupted by consumerism, superstition and war, it first strikes as a fast-paced action adventure.
"We pulled out every trick in the book from all of Mel's experience," Semler says. "Mad Max [II] taught us both a hell of a lot, with George Miller out there doing it with bits of string. We didn't have any fancy equipment. Mel wanted to go down and dirty."
Fancy equipment is one thing they did have on Apocalypto, including new Genesis digital cameras, with Variety calling it "the best-looking big-budget film yet shot digitally".
"[The Genesis cameras] gave me the ability to shoot in the jungle where it was very dark," Semler says. "We got an extra two hours a day shooting. It's very light, the actors could run wherever they wanted to in the jungle, they had a hell of a good time with it."
For realism Gibson cast many Native American unknowns, including traditional Mayan storytellers, often acting out scenes for the crew.
"[Gibson] basically acted out the story for me on the front lawn of Panavision in 45 minutes or so and it was phenomenal," Semler says. "Right off I had to be part of it."
And did Semler and Mel hit the tequila down in Mexico? "Shit no!"
Apocalypto opens with a tapir being chased through the jungle, setting the pace for the next two hours and reminiscent of Semler's work on Razorback, which had a cult following among some bikers.
"They were Hell's Angels. They were first and second AD on Young Guns. They said, 'You shot Razorback, that's our favourite film! We're going to have a screening.' So we had a screening and lots of beer and then I went to my car and put my hand in my bag and there was something wet and fleshy in there: it was a pig's head. They said, 'We just wanted to show our appreciation, we would have put it in your bed but we thought your wife wouldn't like it.'"
Semler finds fans, and non-fans, in the strangest places.
"[This cop] was writing a ticket for me and he said, 'What other films did you do?' I said Dead Calm and Road Warrior [Mad Max II]. He said, 'You did Road Warrior?' I said yeah. He said, 'OK, just sign here,' and I said, 'No, you have to sign it.' He said, 'No, I want your autograph.' So he let me off.
"[However] I was picked up [speeding] when I was working with Mel on We Were Soldiers. It was north of LA and this guy was real mean. He didn't say shit.
"I said, 'I'm working on a movie down there, you know?' Nothing. 'You know, the one with Mel Gibson?' Nothing. I said, 'In fact, I've done several films with him right back to Road Warrior.'
"He said, 'Here's your ticket buddy.' "
Director Mel Gibson Stars Rudy Youngblood, Raoul Trujillo
Rated R. Opens January 11.