"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.
The blasts turn to laughs soon after when, to lighten the mood, Gibson has the crew bring out a stuffed jaguar and leads the extras running away in mock terror. But later he admits to TIME, which this month was given the first look at Apocalypto's production, that the utter inexperience of most of the cast is a price he's paying for the authentic feel he wants in the film, in which dialogue is spoken solely in Yucatec Maya. If people were imagining that Gibson, 50, might coast a little after his 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ, inspired not only months of controversy but also nearly $1 billion worth of ticket sales, the director has given his answer: Nope. If anything, this film is a more ambitious project than The Passion--although success does make some things a mite easier. Gibson had to walk a via dolorosa to find a distributor for The Passion and ended up distributing it more or less himself, but Disney's Touchstone Pictures needed only to read Apocalypto's script before signing on to release it in early August.
The Passion experience--especially the part in which critics hurled anti-Semitism charges at Gibson, an ultraconservative Roman Catholic whose father has questioned whether the Holocaust happened--thickened Gibson's hide along with his wallet. So if there are complaints about Apocalypto's portrayal of human sacrifice by the Maya, whose mostly impoverished descendants today are a cause célèbre for liberals, Gibson says he won't care. "After what I experienced with The Passion, I frankly don't give a flying f___ about much of what those critics think."