While filming a 170-ft. waterfall for Jaguar Paw's jump scene, a real cow that was trying to cross upstream went over the falls. It emerged at the bottom alive and dazed, banging along rocks near the bank. Mel Gibson and crew were certain the cow was done for. After a local man swam into the river and calmed the cow, it climbed up on bank and began eating grass as if nothing had happened.
Many substantial speaking roles were filled by Mayan people who had never acted before. Sick Girl, who curses the hunting party as they and the captives pass right before entering the city, was played by a seven-year-old who lived in a dirt-floored hut in a village similar to Jaguar Paw's.
According to director Mel Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia's DVD commentary, the halting of the sacrifices at the onset of a solar eclipse is a carefully-timed ruse by the Mayan ruling class. As precocious astrologers, the Mayans used their knowledge of celestial phenomena to control the underclass.
(at around 1h 45 mins) For the waterfall jump scene, Rudy Youngblood jumped in a harness from a 15-story building in Veracruz over about 10 takes. The shot was digitally superimposed over the real waterfall later. After director Mel Gibson harassed Youngblood about his initial fear of jumping, Youngblood got together with the stunt crew and goaded Gibson into taking a jump himself.
Special care was taken to protect the digital cameras from the unpredictable Mexican rain forest climate. They were covered with space blankets to reflect the extreme heat. Temperature was closely monitored via thermometers added to the cameras. For shooting at a waterfall, the cameras were put in specially-built Hydroflex splash bags designed by Pete Romano.
Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia tried hard to find actors that matched the archetype each character represented. For instance, Rudy Youngblood struck Gibson as the mythic archetype of a hero. Gibson saw that as necessary for people to identify with a foreign-language film about an indigenous American culture in the 16th century.
(at around 57 mins) When the tree is cut down, nearly falling on the slaving party, Zero Wolf says, "Hey, I am walking here!"--A throw back reference to Ratso's (Dustin Hoffman) line in Midnight Cowboy (1969) when a taxi nearly ran him over.
For the Italian release, the film was initially given the local equivalent of the G rating, albeit with a warning in most cinemas about the content being deemed unsuitable for children. This decision was overruled, and within six days the film was officially re-rated "not under 14".
Mel Gibson: Gibson makes a brief, nearly hidden appearance in the Apocalypto trailer. Click the pause button when the screaming monkey appears, just after the pregnant woman, but before the solar eclipse, then use the left arrow (button) to step the video back, frame by frame, to the guys painted white. Step back another frame or two and you'll see Gibson, with a heavy beard, smoking a cigar.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Jaguars generally do not kill humans, though there have been a few cases. The method of attack is portrayed accurately. Other big cats asphyxiate their prey with a bite to the throat; jaguars kill with a penetrating bite to the brain.