film reporter

With help from a friend, Gibson cut to the chase

For Farhad Safinia, Mel Gibson's screenwriter and co-producer on "Apocalypto," it all began with a love for chase scenes. That in turn led to long, drawn-out film discussions with Gibson that resulted in Safinia, a London-raised mathematician-turned-filmmaker, earning his first writing and producing credit.

For all the controversy surrounding "Apocalypto," which surprised skeptics by opening at No. 1 at the boxoffice last weekend, the production began casually enough. Safinia, who got his start with Gibson in early 2004 when he served as his assistant during the postproduction and marketing odyssey of "The Passion of the Christ," just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

After Gibson took time off following "Passion," the director started having long talks with Safinia about their mutual love of movies and what excites them about moviemaking.

"Mel works by getting ideas and creative sparks wherever they come to him. He's not exclusive in that regard," Safinia says. "We started to talk about what films excite us and what he wanted to do next, and we specifically spent a lot of time on the action-chase genre of filmmaking. Those conversations essentially grew into the skeleton of ('Apocalypto')."

The R-rated film, which centers on one man's struggle to save himself and his family as the Mayan kingdom crumbles around him, reimagines the chase scene. "It's the kernel of the film," Safinia says. "We wanted to update the chase genre by, in fact, not updating it with technology or machinery but stripping it down to its most intense form, which is a man running for his life, and at the same time getting back to something that matters to him."

Safinia and Gibson chose the Mayan civilization as their historical point in time for several reasons. They wanted to explore a pre-Colombian, pre-European native culture, and they chose the Mayans over the Aztecs because of their sophistication and swift downfall.

"The Mayans were far more interesting to us," Safinia says. "You can choose a civilization that is bloodthirsty, or you can show the Mayan civilization that was so sophisticated with an immense knowledge of medicine, science, archaeology and engineering … but also be able to illuminate the brutal undercurrent and ritual savagery that they practiced. It was a far more interesting world to explore why and what happened to them."

Safinia admits that he came to the world of moviemaking a little late in life. Of Iranian heritage, he graduated from Great Britain's University of Cambridge with an economics degree in game theory, an applied mathematical theory practiced by John Nash (the title character played by Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind"). But Safinia's right brain/left brain intellect also spent a lot of time acting in college, performing as part of the Cambridge Amateurs Dramatics Club, a renowned theater group that launched the careers of such stars as Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson and Rachel Weisz.

Safinia left England and took on jobs working for software companies in the U.S. Then, at age 26, he abandoned the corporate world and poured his savings into an education at New York University's film school with the hopes of launching a career as a filmmaker.

That career got its jump-start with the help of Gibson and because of Safinia's own love of film and ancient civilizations.

"I've always been fascinated with ancient history and how the wars shaped the world we live in today," Safinia says. "The culture we're used to, democracy itself, the world we occupy today, is very much influenced by the turning time in history. I got to dramatize it and create a cool action film around it. What could be more fun?"