History fires the imagination

Times Staff Writer

THE creative team behind Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" did a lot of research on the once-magnificent Maya civilization of Mexico that, during a 1,000-year period, created huge cities, magnificent pyramids and a culturally and scientifically advanced society.

But when it came time to re-create that universe, which disappeared 500 years ago, they allowed their imaginations to build upon historical fact.

"There are no photographs of history," said production designer Tom Sanders, who previously worked with Gibson on "Braveheart" and "Maverick." "It gives you a lot of creative license. We wanted to set up the Mayan world, but we were not trying to do a documentary. Visually, we wanted to go for what would have the most impact. Just as on 'Braveheart,' you are treading the line of history and cinematography. Our job is to do a beautiful movie."

Sanders said the creative team attempted to get as close to historical fact as possible before giving the designs their own spin.

"We had an archeologist, Dr. Richard Hansen, onboard," said Sanders. "It was really fun to say, 'Is there any proof they didn't do this?' When he said, 'There is no proof they didn't do that,' that gives you some license to play."

Shot on location in Catemaco, the site of one of Mexico's last remaining rain forests, as well as Veracruz, "Apocalypto" revolves around a young husband and father named Jaguar Paw, whose idyllic existence in the jungle is violently upended when his village is attacked and destroyed by a group of men from a nearby Maya metropolis.

The villagers who survive are captured and taken on an arduous march to the city, where they are to be sacrificed on top of the pyramids to appease the gods for the widespread famine that has attacked the land. Jaguar Paw seeks to find a way to escape so he can return home to save his wife and young child.

Sanders' design and construction crew was international -- and large. "There were probably 300 people at one point," he said.

For Jaguar Paw's village, said Sanders, "we raised the huts off the ground and made them see-through so you could see the attack very well. You do a lot of stuff on purpose. We wanted [the village] to be really translucent -- so you would see all the way through everything."

The extensive village and pyramids were built on a former sugar cane field. "We built everything from scratch," he said. The pyramids were made out of steel, wood and plaster. The one where the sacrifices were held was nine stories tall.

"I think we built the whole set in four months. There were probably 30 to 40 huts and 25 to 30 buildings."

Gibson wanted the Maya city to reflect the decadence of the civilization. "The whole goal was to show that this society is collapsing," said Sanders. "I picked an industrial route [for the city], so you would see the consequences of the industry. We purposely showed the city that is consuming itself. You see the poverty and the richness. I was juxtaposing the design so we would get a cross-section of the society."

The production was besieged with bad weather and sweltering heat. "We had two hurricanes," said Sanders. "We had flooding. We had a 200-year-old tree in strong winds fall into the [village] set. We rebuilt part of the set. And the fallen tree became the entrance into the village."

Costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo's crew was almost entirely Mexican. "I wanted it that way," said Rubeo, who is Mexican herself. "The only person who wasn't Mexican was my wardrobe supervisor. I had Mexican professional wardrobe people, and I gathered a group of Mexican artisans that I found randomly by going to remote communities. I had people who were experts in feather art. I had people who were jewelers."

The Maya, she said, worked hard at their appearance. "It was almost an obligation to look good," she said. In fact, wealthy Maya always wore jade. But because of the gem's weight and cost, wood beads were used on the costumes and jewelry.

"If you caramelize them in a certain way, it looks like the real thing," Rubeo said. "We did use amber and coral for real. I went to one community there that had lots of amber. I was very happy to give them the business and happy they had the materials."

The villagers' clothes were made out of cotton.

"We wanted to portray these simple, happy villagers that were self-sufficient," she said. "They were agricultural people and hunters."

Rubeo said that Gibson had show-and-tell sessions with his creative teams. "Mel was always present and aware of what I was designing and what I was proposing," she said. "He is a director who gives direction. This doesn't happen very often."

Because the Maya used tattoo decorations on their faces and bodies, Aldo Signoretti, who worked on hair and makeup design, decided to have the tattoos match the characters' hair color. When it came to the wealthy characters, Signoretti illustrated the decadence of the society by matching the color of the body paint and hair.

Gibson, he said, gave him free rein to do what he wanted. "We had a show-and-tell, and I wasn't sure if it was the right direction or if he'd like it," said Signoretti. "I was scared to death. But everything I proposed, he didn't say no to. He accepted my ideas. He really let me do it."


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