GHF Home
GHF Home
Save Our Global Heritage What We Do GHF Sites Where We Work News and Events Global Heritage Travel Contact
View the Apocalypto trailer
Q&A with Mel Gibson Early Box Office Receipts
Mirador Basin, Guatemala
Conversation: Mel Gibson's Maya Archaeology Magazine

Richard Hansen talks about being the technical advisor on Apocalypto.

Archaeologists are typically shown in movies as swashbuckling adventurers who don't know a trowel from a transit. Richard Hansen is bucking that trend by using his talents as an expert on Maya archaeology to add authenticity to Mel Gibson's recently released film Apocalypto. While Gibson's fictional story is set near the coast of Mexico's Yucatan during the collapse of Classic Maya civilization, Hansen's work in Guatemala's Mirador Basin serves, in large part, as the movie's factual basis.

(Courtesy Richard Hansen)

How is this film going to impact Maya archaeology?
Oh boy, it will have a huge impact! It is a wonderful opportunity to focus world attention on the ancient Maya and to realize the role they played in world history.

How did you begin working with Gibson?
He called me out of the blue after looking at a documentary about our work at El Mirador called Dawn of the Maya. Our research showed the incredible economic and political power the people at the site were wielding, and then we see their total demise, a complete abandonment of these systems. It was the idea of conspicuous consumption, the idea of exorbitant use of resources. He saw a message there for humanity.

Who were the actors that he hired for the film?
For the most part they were Yucatec Maya; we had a few people from the U.S. who had Indian blood. But everything, all the dialogue is spoken in Yucatec Maya. Some of the people in that film had never seen a movie before. The heroine had never performed in any kind of film in her life.

How much of the movie is based on your work at El Mirador?
A lot of the overall ideas that are in the story come from El Mirador, there were a lot of individual scenes that we provided for him. Working on the set was a time machine for me. The Maya houses were exactly like you would expect to see...the corn husks, the pottery sherds, the feathers and textiles, the baskets and mats on the ground.

I've watched the trailers with these scenes of people running around with elaborate body paint and bones pierced through their noses...
Yeah, [laughs] that was artistic license.

Was any of it based in fact?
Oh, absolutely. I spent hours and hours going through the pottery and the images looking for tattoos. The scarification and tattooing was all researched, the inlaid jade teeth are in there, the ear spools are in there. There is a little doohickey that comes down from the ear through the nose into the septum--that was entirely their artistic innovation.

Were the Maya as violent as they are depicted in the movie?
We know warfare was going on. The Postclassic center of Tulum is a walled city; these sites had to be in defensive positions. There was tremendous Aztec influence by this time. The Aztecs were clearly ruthless in their conquest and pursuit of sacrificial victims, a practice that spilled over into some of the Maya areas.

How has the publicity affected your archaeological project?
It has allowed us certain leverage socially in Guatemala. We are able to interact more easily with the rich and famous.

Gibson serves on the board of your Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies. Is he planning to stay involved with the Mirador Basin Project?
We expect him to be involved in the future. He's very interested in conservation and models of sustainable development for the local population as opposed to logging, for crying out loud. We want to reduce the drug imports and illegal immigration, and make it economically attractive down there.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America

Q&A: Mel Gibson
Cowriter-director of Apocalypto (summer)

By Fred Schruers

PREMIERE: Why did the Mayan civilization, the focus of Apocalypto, particularly speak to you in terms of your own worldview?
Well, what I am making, first and foremost, is an action-adventure film. What I was looking for was a place and time in which to set the story. Now, the Mayan civilization per se didn't specifically speak to me as a civilization above any other. It's really the characteristics that brought about their downfall, which were also present in the collapse of other civilizations, which I thought would serve as a really interesting and heretofore unexplored backdrop for the story. It is mysterious, and I suppose that appealed to me. It's a civilization about which there is still a lot to be learnt. There are many archeological sites that haven't been fully explored-for example, the Mirador Basin in Guatemala, which is connected by tens of preclassic Mayan cities and where the largest pyramid in the world is still under the cover of jungle. In fact, they thought it was a volcano until the 1930s. So for me, it was interesting to delve into reasons why [this civilization] may have crumbled and collapsed and moved on. And the Mayans used to do this periodically. Their civilizations would rise to great heights and collapse completely many times over the course of centuries. I think we have come up with plausible reasons as to why they underwent such collapses.

Is the use of unknown actors a way of ensuring the story will be taken at its own value?
That's partially true. People, actors, who are very familiar to a filmgoing audience, myself included, bring baggage to something like this that is impossible to shed. I think that the story will be cleaner, clearer, and more believable with performances from actors who are not a known quantity. It's scarier in a way. It will certainly be more real. However, it does not mean that you won't get amazing performances- because you will. I think what you are going to see will be more convincing because you don't have any other reference point on the performance. In terms of casting it, you always have many choices. You can go against type, or with type. On this one I have purposely chosen an archetypal selection, casting it right with type, because of the obscure dialect and the unfamiliar period in which the story is set. Doing so will help make things clearer to the audience, and then within the parameters of this world, we will find the reality of these characters.


GHF Mirador Project Director, Dr. Richard Hansen Featured in International Media as Technical Advisor to Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypto’

Press Reviews – December, 2006

In 'Apocalypto,' fact and fiction play hide and seek

A consultant on the film acknowledges creative license in depicting Maya life and violence.
December 9, 2006

By Robert W. Welkos, Times Staff Writer

A key consultant among several archeologists who served as advisors on Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" said he is disappointed that the film overlooks many of the Mayas' cultural and scientific achievements and portrays the people as "bloodthirsty savages."

As a chase movie, "Apocalypto" is top-notch, said Richard D. Hansen (GHF Mirador Project Director), a professor of anthropology at Idaho State University who has written extensively about the Mayas. The sets, makeup and costumes are also "accurate to the nth degree," he noted. But it's a feature film — not a documentary — which may let down those looking for accuracy at every turn.

"This is Hollywood, first and foremost," Hansen said.

As with any historically based feature, whether it's "Alexander" or "All the President's Men," directors take creative license with the facts. "Apocalypto" is no different.

"The final decision when making a film is, 'What is the right balance between historical authenticity and making it exciting, visually as well?' " said Farhad Safinia, who cowrote the script with Gibson, adding: "The film is an all out entertainment thrill ride, and that is what it was always designed to do. It is a work of fiction."

Gibson and Safinia have said they wanted the film to serve as a reminder to today's world that the precursor to the fall of a civilization is always the same: widespread environmental degradation, excessive consumption and political corruption.

But archeologists point out that nobody knows why the Mayas, who ruled in the Americas for more than 1,000 years, abandoned their cities and allowed their majestic pyramids to become overgrown with jungle. And to watch Gibson's "Apocalypto," one might not realize that the Mayas were in fact a highly sophisticated people: They mapped celestial objects, developed an accurate 365-day calendar, created their own writing system and perhaps most notably had developed the concept of zero in mathematics.

"The calendar [angle] is so rich," Hansen said. "It would have been a marvelous part of the story."

Safinia said that the film's narrative is told through the eyes of the central protagonist, Jaguar Paw, and it is his journey that we follow. "You do see aspects of the Mayan civilization in the background," Safinia said, such as their architecture, their industry and their preponderance to ornament themselves with jewelry, costumes, textiles and such.

Gibson's long-awaited film, which opened Friday to mixed reviews and criticism of its scenes of excessive violence, re-creates with great effect the bloody drama of human sacrifice that took place atop a Maya pyramid.

In one memorable scene, a Maya priest slashes open the chests of frightened prisoners, rips out their still-beating hearts and decapitates them. All the while, the populace screams and gesticulates wildly as each severed head comes bouncing down the steps.

Experts say that although the Mayas did practice human sacrifice, it came late to their civilization and was likely picked up from the Aztecs.

The movie "makes us think that maybe [the Maya] were bloodthirsty savages," Hansen said.

Safinia says that reality was far more intense than the film shows. "The Mayans did engage in decapitation. They did roll bodies down the temple steps," he said, noting there is evidence that the crowds tore the bodies apart limb by limb, but "you can't show that stuff" on screen.

The film's hero, played by actor Rudy Youngblood, is a forest dweller who is taken prisoner by a Maya raiding party. Later, he and other captives are given a chance to run for their lives in a deadly game in which Maya warriors throw spears and fire arrows at them for sport.

Hansen and Safinia can't say for certain that such a game ever existed among the Mayas.

"The process of using these individuals as target practice is a real possibility," Hansen said. "I couldn't say it did happen, but I couldn't say it didn't either. [Gibson] wanted to have some reason to have the guys go after Rudy Youngblood, to go after the hero….That was entirely Mel's scenario — but it's highly reasonable."

Some question why Gibson included that scene instead of a sport for which the Mayas are truly famous: ball games.

Jim Brady, who teaches archeology at Cal State L.A., said he has never heard of the Mayas staging a target practice game with prisoners, but they certainly staged sporting events on ball courts using rubber balls and stone rings. Brady, who has not seen the film, noted that there are indications that the captain of the losing team may have been sacrificed, "but we don't know how much that happened."

In the film, Jaguar Paw and other prisoners appear awed by the grandeur of the pyramids as they are led into the Maya city to meet their fate.

But Brady notes that anyone living in that region certainly would have been aware of pyramids.

In another much talked-about scene, Jaguar Paw comes upon a giant pit filled with hundreds of sacrificial bodies.

Hansen said it is "conjecture" whether those pits existed. "All [Gibson was] trying to do there is express the horror of it."

GATHERING THE TROUPE Gibson leads his unknown actors/Apocalypto warriors across the rapids TOUCHING MOMENTS Jaguar Paw (Youngblood, right) with wife Seven (Delia Hernandez)

"Apocalypto" depicts the latter days — the post-classic period — of Maya civilization, but the main pyramid where the human sacrifices occurred actually comes from classic period, when the Mayas were at their zenith. "There was nothing in the post-classic period that would match the size and majesty of that pyramid in the film," Hansen said. "But Gibson was trying to make a story here. He was trying to depict opulence, wealth, consumption of resources."

Safinia said the mixing of architectures was done for aesthetic reasons.

About 25 members of the Maya community in Los Angeles were invited to an advance screening of Gibson's film last week. Two of those who attended came away impressed, but added that they too wished Gibson had shown more of the Maya civilization.

"It was a great action film that kept me on the edge of my seat," said Sara Zapata Mijares, president and founder of Federacion de Clubes Yucatecos-USA. "I think it should have had a little bit more of the culture," such as the pyramids. "It could have shown a little more why these buildings were built."

Still, she said, it was a "great picture."

Alfonso Escalante, who teaches folk dancing, said the movie was "very exciting" and the costumes were stunning, but for people who don't know anything about the Maya culture, "It's going to be a little tough because there was more about killing than about the culture. But definitely, they are going to see how they looked at that time, how they lived.",0,1453721.story

'Apocalypto' now for Mel, Maya and historians

USA Today

Dan Vergano
USA Today
Jul. 18, 2006 12:00 AM

Call it "The Passion of the Maya": Mel Gibson is quietly filming a movie in a Mexican jungle about the collapsed civilization.

Given Gibson's cinematic history, experts on the ancient Maya are looking forward to his upcoming epic, "Apocalypto," with a mixture of curiosity and dread. They're pleased that Hollywood will feature a period of world history still little understood but worry that once again a movie may sacrifice historical accuracy for the sake of a good story.

"A lot depends on how well they depict the Maya. It may serve as a really good springboard into a lecture," says archaeologist Lisa Lucero of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. "Or it may be something we have to nip in the bud in that first lecture." advertisement 
Gibson wasn't available for comment, and the public relations firm for his Icon Productions declined to offer any details on the film's plot.

But according to the film's website, "Apocalypto" promises "a heart-stopping mythic action-adventure set against the turbulent end-times of the once-great Mayan civilization." The story centers on a kidnapped hero's bid to escape a mass sacrifice at one Maya center. According to another description of the plot in Time magazine's March preview, a ruler orders the mass sacrifice of hapless captives to appease the gods and avert a drought.

Timeline of the Ancient Maya

The ancient Maya flourished in Central America for centuries, culminating in a mass abandonment of ceremonial centers around A.D. 900. Despite the attention given to the collapse of the classic Maya, perhaps 6 million Maya live today in parts of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. A Maya timeline:

600 B.C. - During the "pre-classic period, large-scale Maya ceremonial centers are built at centers such as
Nak'be, Mirador and Tikal.
200 B.C. - Work begins on the massive "North Acropolis" of Tikal, today a Guatemalan tourist site.
A.D. 100 - High-quality "classic" murals are painted at San Bartolo, El Petén, in Guatemala depicting the Maya Corn God, a sign that classic Maya culture has an earlier origin than once supposed.
A.D. 250 - The Maya "Long Count" calendar and hieroglyphic writing are in use in the lowlands of Guatemala.
The deeds of rulers begin to be recorded on stone.
A.D. 350 - Maya first build plastered buildings in the Copan region, today Honduras.
A.D. 475 - Powerful cities such as Tikal, Caracol and Calakmul dominate much of the lowlands.
A.D. 562 - Tikal ruler Wak Chan K'awiil (Double Bird, 537–62) is taken captive, apparently by the ruler of Calakmul. Calakmul is the most powerful kingdom in the central Maya area.
A.D. 738 - Copán's ruler, (18 Rabbit r. 695–738), is taken captive on May 3, 738, and decapitated by ruler K'ak' Tiliw Chan Yoaat (Fire-burning Sky Lightning God, r. 724–85) of Quiriguá.
A.D. 800 - Conflict increases, trade declines, and alliances break, leading to the loss of many cities. Drought afflicts the lowland Maya.
A.D. 869 - The last standing stone is erected in Tikal. Later the city is deserted and taken over by squatters.
The ancient Maya flourished in Central America for centuries, culminating in a mass abandonment of ceremonial centers around A.D. 900. Despite the attention given to the collapse of the classic Maya, perhaps 6 million Maya live today in parts of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.  

The only problem, and big cause for worry among    archaeologists, is "the classic Maya really didn't go in for mass sacrifice," Lucero says. "That was the Aztecs." Other concerns: the modern-day Mayan Yucatec language spoken in the film is not the language of the ancient Maya, and the film's Mexican shooting locale is not the classic Maya homeland, says Penn State archaeologist David Webster.


Gibson's last production, "The Passion of the Christ," collected complaints, and compliments, from religious scholars, even as it made $370 million in North America. Most of the controversy centered on charges of anti-Semitism, but some, such as DePaul University's John Dominic Crossan, also complained about Jesus speaking Latin and details of the Crucifixion, among other questions.

Gibson's Icon Productions declined to comment on archaeologists' concerns through its Los Angeles public relations firm, Rogers & Cowan. In an interview in March with Time, Gibson said, "After what I experienced with "The Passion," I frankly don't give a flying (expletive) about much of what those critics think." He told Time he partly views the movie as a political allegory for leadership in our own era.

Gibson has consulted on the film with archaeologist Dr. Richard Hansen, head of the Mirador Basin Project in northern Guatemala, a forest reserve home to a number of Maya archaeological sites. Hansen also declined to comment, other than to say that project findings played a role in the film.

The classic Maya were one of the most developed cultures of Central America before the arrival of Columbus. The Maya practiced slash-and-burn and terrace farming, relying on corn as a staple, and repairing in the dry season to ceremonial centers holding monumental pyramids, plazas and temples.

In 1989, discoveries by Hansen and colleagues established that Maya rulers had centralized their roles far earlier than once supposed, building several massive centers with the help of commoners as early as 600 B.C. The classic Maya culture's history lasted for more than 1,000 years, ending around A.D. 850 with the collapse of the use of ceremonial centers in what are now parts of Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

Scholars still disagree over the extent to which war, drought or general political failure led to the collapse.

By focusing on the role of mass sacrifice, "Apocalypto" seems poised to insert its own vision into this area of scholarly disagreement, says Lucero, who this year published "Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers." The lack of signs of warfare at the sites she has studied, and many others, points more toward a political collapse of the classic Maya, she concludes. "People voted with their feet," she says, moving back into the jungle or northward in a time of drought and political upheaval, when rulers lacking water couldn't compel farmers to visit their centers.

Focusing only on certain aspects of the Maya collapse such as violence or ecological disasters may create the incorrect impression that it was a simple process or that it was caused by a single factor, says archaeologist Tomas Barrientos of Guatemala's Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, by e-mail. Other scholars are just looking forward to seeing how the movie turns out. The film is scheduled for release on Dec. 8. Heavy rains in Mexico had delayed filming this year.

"Actually I'm quite looking forward to seeing it. I think films like this are really funny, and they vastly help me with my teaching, " Webster says. For example, he says, using locations and temples in non-Maya areas of Mexico is "a little like filming the siege of Troy using Roman backdrops."

But after all, "Apocalypto" is just a movie. And students like hearing how movies get it wrong, Webster says, and enjoy learning the real story. So, "cheers to Mel for being such a juicy target."


You'd think Mel Gibson was all done with violent movies about the past told in a foreign tongue, right? Think again

Time Magazine Online

March 19, 2006

Dr. Richard Hansen

"I need to see the blood!" shouts Mel Gibson. "Your character is going to die soon!" He picks up a bullhorn: "Attention! We are all dying here! We are all dying!" The Oscar-winning director is standing in a rock quarry near Veracruz, Mexico, shooting a hellish scene for Apocalypto, his action epic about the ancient Maya. Hundreds of local extras--many of whom have never seen a movie, let alone acted in one--are pounding fake limestone to build a temple used for human sacrifices. Gibson wants one of the extras, covered in white lime dust, to visibly cough up a glob of fake blood. But something keeps getting lost in translation. Take after take, the young man, who speaks only Spanish, politely covers his mouth as he hacks. A second candidate for the role does the same. Gibson finally lets out a tortured howl, digs vainly for a cigarette in his empty pack of Camels and turns the set into his own Thunderdome. The translator does his best to convey the passion of the Mel. More...

Click here or image below to view the Apocalypto trailer.

Early Box Office Receipts
This Wk Last Wk Title Dist. Weekend Gross Cumulative
# of
1 - Apocalypto Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Eagle Pictures (Italy) $15,005,604 $15,005,604 1 2465
2 1 Happy Feet Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution $12,904,413 $137,932,841 4 3650
3 - The Holiday Sony Pictures Releasing $12,778,913 $12,778,913 1 2610
4 2 Casino Royale Sony Pictures Releasing, Sony Pictures Releasing International $8,926,207 $129,020,082 4 3161
5 - Blood Diamond Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution, Warner Bros. Pictures International $8,648,324 $8,648,324 1 1910