As these stories show, making Mel Gibson’s sprawling Mayan adventure film was an epic journey in its own right.
1. Mel Gibson made a very fast cameo.
The first teaser trailer for Apocalypto, made before principal photography of the movie itself, includes a hidden single-frame image of a heavily bearded Gibson standing next to a group of Mayan actors with a cigarette in his mouth.
2. Apocalypto also found Waldo.
Gibson wasn’t the only brief cameo. The director humorously—and morbidly—inserted a single frame of a man dressed as Waldo from Where’s Waldo into the scene where Jaguar Paw stumbles into a pile of dead bodies after the ritual sacrifice scene.
3. Gibson was a stickler for authentic language.
All of the dialogue is in the Yucatec Maya language.
4. Gibson got expert help.
Though the film exercises some dramatic license, Gibson hired Dr. Richard D. Hansen, Assistant Professor at Idaho State University and a specialist on Mayan culture, as a consultant to ensure a level of historical accuracy.
5. Finding the perfect jungle was tough.
The filmmakers originally looked into shooting in Guatemala and Costa Rica, but those countries’ jungles were too dense for a movie production. Instead, all filming took place in Mexico. The jungle scenes were shot just outside of the city of Catemaco and the pyramid city set was built in Veracruz.
6. The actors had homework.
Gibson wanted to cast non-actors for each role, which meant the casting process eventually stretched across three continents. Many of the actors then had to learn Yucatec Maya for the film.
7. Some members of the cast were very inexperienced when it came to film.
Maria Isidra Hoil, who played the diseased Oracle Girl, had never seen a movie before she was cast.
8. The actor who played Jaguar Paw isn’t Mayan.
Rudy Youngblood is a Native American of Cree, Comanche, and Yaqui descent.
9. The makeup team stayed busy.
Outfitting the cast in body paint, tattoos, and scarification took up to six hours a day.
10. Gibson went to the source for the screenplay.
For a foundation to their story, Gibson and co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia used Spanish colonial eyewitness accounts from the period and certain mythological aspects from the Popol Vuh, a sacred Mayan text that tells the creation story and epic mythological histories of Mayan culture.
11. The king didn’t have a royal background.
The actor who played the Mayan King was a local dockworker in Veracruz. Co-writer and co-producer Farhad Safinia found him after Gibson told Safinia to leave set and find local extras willing to be in the movie.
12. Every detail of every costume in the film was handmade.
All of the “jade” in the film is actually painted and treated wood.
13. The ears took some work.
Every actor’s stretched earlobes were actually custom-made silicon prostheses crafted by makeup designers Aldo Signoretti and Vittorio Sodano. Signorett and Sodano were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup for Apocalypto, but lost to the artists who worked on Pan’s Labyrinth.
14. Christopher Columbus sneaks in at the end.
Though unnamed in the movie, the Europeans at the end of the film are led by Christopher Columbus, who made first contact with Mayan cultures in 1502. Production designer Tom Sanders played the conquistador, while the Franciscan Friar was the film’s weapons armorer Simon Atherton.
15. Spike Lee thinks it’s essential.
Lee included Apocalypto on his “Essential Film List” that he gives to his NYU graduate film students each year.