It’s become a cliché to use the phrase “bet on yourself,” but for Josh Allen, it sure does apply.
Allen’s story has been well-documented by now, but remains both remarkable and inspirational. A series of serendipitous events caused Allen, a physical freak of a quarterback, to go from rural California to an equally rural junior college. A recruiting afterthought who received a mere two FBS college scholarship offers, Allen exploded into NFL Draft conversations following an epic career at Wyoming. And now he’s the face of a franchise that has had infamously bad luck in the postseason, but remains more optimistic and loyal than ever.
It all began in the tiny town of Firebaugh, California — population 8,000.
Allen had an old-school upbringing on his family’s historic farm in Firebaugh. His family has deep roots in the region; Josh’s great-grandad, a Swedish national, emigrated to the US in 1907 and found his way to Central California during the Depression.
The cotton farm operation was started in the mid-70s by Josh’s granddad A.E. “Buzz” Allen, who also served on the local school board and was a well-regarded person in the Firebaugh community. Growing up a short drive from Fresno, Allen would go to Fresno State Bulldog football games with his grandpa frequently and gravitated towards that as his go-to sport, although he also was a gifted basketball and baseball player. Working on the family farm made him naturally strong, but it also negatively affected his recruitment.
Obviously, it’s hard to make a big-time college football program in this day and age, but especially harder growing up in a tiny town with few opportunities to show off your talent nationally. After all, this is 2022, where high school games are nationally televised on ESPN3, the various All-American Bowl games are bigger and more hyped than ever, and now (of course), exists in a brave new world of NIL, flashy merchandising and highly over-scrutinized recruiting rankings.
Oh yeah, speaking of which? Zero. That’s how many stars Josh Allen got from all of the major recruiting services.
“How does a quarterback with prototypical NFL size, arm strength and athleticism go overlooked by almost every Division I program in the country?” asked Jeff Eisenberg from Yahoo! Sports. “It could only happen somewhere as far flung as Firebaugh, a town of 8,000 people separated from the nearest freeway by almost 20 miles of rolling farmland.”
When Allen wasn’t helping his family on the farm (and at the nearby family restaurant) in the summer, he was playing three sports during the school year, so had no time to attend, say, the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp (or even be considered for it). He had solid size (6’3″, 180), but nothing eye-popping. And although he led the Firebaugh Eagles to a remarkable turnaround during his junior and senior seasons, Allen didn’t get a single offer out of high school.
“At a time when many scholarship-hungry families encourage their kids to specialize in one sport or to transfer to the school that will provide the most exposure, the Allens resisted both trends,” Eisenberg continued.
“They spurned overtures from more prominent Central Valley programs after Allen’s breakout junior season and kept him at Firebaugh, living by the family mantra that ‘you bloom where you’re planted.'”
Fresno State, Josh’s dream college, wasn’t interested. Rocky Long, then the head coach at San Diego State, extended Allen an offer to be a walk-on, but he turned it down because Long couldn’t promise him playing time.
Allen was undeterred, according to Craig Knight, a former mayor of Firebaugh and long-time friend of the Allen family.
“After his last home game, I walked up to give him a hug,” said Knight, who also served on Firebaugh’s “chain gang” (the guys who move the first down markers).
“I said, ‘So what’s next? You think you can play some ball in college?’ He looked at me like I was an a–hole. So I asked again. He said, ‘Well, yeah. I’m not stopping until I hit the NFL.'”
“It’s kind of a neat feeling knowing that Josh is putting Firebaugh on the map, and we indirectly had a hand in his development,” said Joel Allen, Josh’s dad.
Still, an unglamorous path awaited Allen. With no Division 1 colleges interested, he needed to go the junior college route. One of his cousins was married to an assistant coach at Reedley College, located about an hour and a half southeast of Firebaugh.
Allen hit a major growth spurt during his lone season (2014) with the Reedley Tigers, soon blossoming into a 6’5″ specimen. Although he didn’t start until the fourth game of the year, Allen became the unquestioned starter, passing for 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Blessed with an absolute cannon for an arm, Allen’s big frame and command in the pocket reminded some of a poor man’s Ben Roethlisberger, while his ability to bowl over defenders fearlessly was reminiscent of Cam Newton in his prime — Allen rushed for 660 yards and 10 scores as well.
“He was putting up ungodly numbers and making some incredible throws, but he was getting no love,” said Reedley’s offensive coordinator, Ernie Rodriguez. “I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t believe that nobody wanted him.”
At around November 2014, Allen sent out some emails — hundreds of them — to every single Division 1 head coach and offensive coordinator in America. The message was simple:
“Hello, my name is Josh Allen and I am a quarterback at Reedley JC out of California. I stand at 6’5”, 210 lbs and am a full qualifier, and I feel like I would be a great fit in your offensive scheme! Please have a look at my Hudl (link). Please get back to me at any convenience! Thank you.“
Once again, virtually no one was interested in the kid from Firebaugh (wherever that is, am I right?).
Ironically, although Fresno State had snubbed Allen once before, a former Bulldogs assistant coach was partially responsible for rediscovering him. Dave Brown, who was now an assistant for Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl, knew Allen’s name and noticed him at Reedley, even though the Wyoming staff was looking at Allen’s other teammates as potential transfers. Allen’s film was so good that Brown urged Wyoming offensive coordinator Brent Vigen to offer him a scholarship.
Vigen — who worked with Bohl as they turned North Dakota State into an Alabama-level juggernaut at the FCS level — couldn’t help but notice similarities between Allen and his former protege at NDSU, Carson Wentz. Like Wentz, Allen was a remarkable athlete with terrific arm strength who, while raw, had all the tools he needed to reach the NFL.
At the 11th hour, Wyoming’s original quarterback target, Eric Dungey, decided to commit to Syracuse. Allen got some last minute attention from Eastern Michigan University, but they had only one offer for an available QB, and they pulled their offer after Allen took an official visit to Wyoming. After meeting with Bohl and Vigen and touring the campus, Allen was sold: Laramie, Wyoming would be his new home.
Entering the 2015 season, expectations were (to be polite) modest for the Wyoming Cowboys. They had only been to three bowl games in the 21st century thus far, and Coach Bohl had gone 4-8 in his first year due to a stagnant offense. Unfortunately, Allen got only two games to show his immense potential before breaking his collarbone against Eastern Michigan. The Cowboys ultimately went 2-10 as Allen underwent surgery and rehab.
Then the legend of Josh Allen truly began.
Allen exploded into not just a full-time starter in 2015, but engineered a dramatic improvement as the Cowboys upset nationally ranked Boise State on the way to an 8-5 regular season record. Suddenly, the recruiting afterthought had NFL scouts drooling. How far could Allen go, especially on a team that didn’t have NFL-level receivers or an amazing offensive line?
Some called Allen undraftable, saying that the learning curve was simply too steep for a player who was still so raw and inexperienced. Beating up on Mountain West defenses like UNLV and Hawai’i is all fine and good, but what about the Indianapolis Colts’ D?
But others saw the respect that the blue-collar California kid commanded in the locker room, comparing him to Ben Roethlisberger due to his imposing physicality and Peyton Manning for his passion, arm strength and football IQ. And, given his well-told backstory, everyone knew Allen would prepare and put in the work to improve. By his own admission, Allen said he played “pissed off,” knowing that no one else thought he was Division 1 material.
Allen considered going pro early after his monster 2016 season at Wyoming, but both Bohl and Vigen convinced him to remain in Laramie for one more year. But that year wouldn’t quite go as expected.
Allen had a target on his back now, and also had to break in new starters at receiver for Wyoming’s pro-style offense. When he played nationally ranked teams on the road, such as the Iowa Hawkeyes, he struggled, passing for only 174 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 24-3 season-opening loss.
Allen still completed 56 percent of his passes, almost identical to his 2016 numbers, and he did cut down on his interceptions (from 15 to six), but he threw for only 1,812 yards, as opposed to 3,203 passing yards in his breakout season.
However, NFL scouts were still obsessed with the underdog — ESPN analyst Adam Schefter and resident draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. both predicted that Allen could go as the #1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to the Cleveland Browns. Jordan Palmer, a noted private QB coach who played in the NFL as well, went so far as to say that Allen was “the most physically talented player to play the position, ever.”
In the end, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner, was picked by the Browns. Allen slid to seventh overall to the Buffalo Bills, who had traded up thanks to a last-minute draft deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As usual, the familiar questions followed Allen, but this time, they were magnified by Allen’s potential, as well as the reputation of the team that drafted him.
Much like Allen himself, the Bills had been overlooked. At the time, they were buried as an afterthought in the AFC East Division, stuck with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots’ juggernaut, as well as the perennially stuck-in-neutral Miami Dolphins and the laughing stock known as the New York Jets.
The Bills also notoriously dropped four consecutive Super Bowls (1990-93), being one of only two NFL franchises who’ve gone 0-4 in the big game. They have been known as a franchise that puts up individual superstars (Doug Flutie, Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, and O.J. Simpson, just to name a few), but can never put it all together.
When Buffalo drafted Allen, they were in the midst of the longest postseason drought in all four North American sports leagues: 16 seasons. Oh, and their last playoff appearance? Another heartbreaking loss to the hotshot Tennessee Titans in the 2000 AFC Wild Card game. The Titans shocked the Bills with a last second lateral to score and win, a play now immortalized as the Music City Miracle.
In 2018, Allen’s rookie year, he went through the usual ups and downs. His gunslinger, rocket arm mentality got him in trouble sometimes, but he also had impressive speed and power for such a big guy (6’5″, 240 by this stage of his career). Allen was fearless, barreling over tacklers and putting the team on his back despite his high-risk, high-reward style of play. In his first career start against the Baltimore Ravens, Allen passed for 245 yards, his first career passing TD and two INTs. One of his first passes was a gorgeous 57-yard bomb to receiver Zay Jones.
Although he missed four games with a hurt elbow, Allen finished his rookie campaign on a strong note, showing flashes of what was to come. In the season finale against division rival Miami, Allen passed for 224 yards, rushed for 95, and scored a combined five TDs as the Bills rolled to a 42-17 rout.
As a whole, he had huge highs and lows like any rookie, completing barely 52 percent of his throws — but at his best, Allen was beyond dynamic, leading all NFL QBs in rushing touchdowns (eight) and earning AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his epic performance against the Dolphins.
Entering year two of the Allen era, Bills fans were bullish that he could lift them from a 6-10 record back to the postseason, but almost no one in the so-called “Bills Mafia” could’ve seen what was coming over the next three years — three consecutive playoff berths!
Allen’s completion percentage would jump up to a career-high 69.2 percent in 2020, the same year he threw for 4,544 yards and 37 TDs, despite a pandemic-riddled season when not all of his offensive weapons were guaranteed to be healthy from week to week.
Since 2019, Allen has not missed a single start. While his postseason record is only 3-3 and he hasn’t led Buffalo to a Super Bowl appearance yet, Allen still boasts a 34-15 regular season record. Last year, he averaged a breathtaking 6.3 yards per carry, best among all NFL QBs on the ground. His postseason passer rating of 149 smashed a record set all the way back in 1989 by the legendary Joe Montana, although Allen’s Bills lost in a breathtaking overtime playoff game to the Kansas City Chiefs, led by their own superstar QB, Patrick Mahomes.
Off the field, Allen has stayed true to himself and has stayed out of the headlines, mostly choosing to work out with teammates privately in the offseason. He’s still with Brittney Williams, his high school sweetheart from Firebaugh, and frequently goes back home to reconnect with friends and family. In order to relax and calm the game day nerves, Allen admits that he’ll spurn the heavy metal and hip-hop playlists and go straight for some oldies, like Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra.
Like many newly-rich athletes, Allen began to express an interest in philanthropy once he started making NFL-level figures. But unlike many of his peers, he didn’t create his own foundation, instead partnering strategically with Buffalo area institutions. During the 2019 season, Allen donated $200 to the Oishei Children’s Hospital for each of his touchdowns. He scored 29 total touchdowns that year — an equivalent of $5,800 to the hospital. Bills fans and local Buffalo residents alike returned the favor to Allen when his grandmother, Patricia, passed away from cancer, donating to the hospital in $17 increments in honor of Allen’s jersey number. They even named a new wing after the Allen family.
One of Allen’s sisters works for the Fresno chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and he wears a blue bracelet in every game to honor the Jessie Rees Foundation, another cancer nonprofit. In addition to his grandmother’s cancer-related passing, Josh has admitted that his brother’s childhood scare with Kawasaki disease (a rare ailment that attacks the blood vessels) has given him plenty of gratitude for medical professionals and the hard work that they do.
And earlier this year, when a tragic, racially-motivated supermarket shooting devastated the African-American community in Buffalo, Allen was there alongside his black teammates, supporting the families, paying for funeral costs and showing a powerful display of support and reconciliation.
Through it all, Allen likes to keep it simple.
“My approach is taking care of stuff on the field, and everything else will kind of fall in its place.”
With the fearless Allen at the helm, the Bills fans finally can dare to dream of the impossible.
Through a series of massive misunderstandings, a gruff, blue-collar New Zealander and his foster son become the unlikely targetsof a manhunt.
Troubled pre-teen Ricky Baker has had a pretty tough time. Abandoned by his mother, the young Māori kid has since gotten into trouble several times and is facing an uncertain future in the New Zealand child welfare system.
His foster parents, or as he calls them “Aunt and Uncle”, pluck him from the mean streets of the city and take him in to their remote farm in the rural North Island. Despite Ricky’s cynical, withdrawn behavior, Aunt Bella has real compassion for his situation, but her husband, the tough, blue-collar Hector (aka Uncle Hec), isn’t so keen on the new addition to the family. Bella soon bonds with Ricky by offering to take him hunting and buying him a dog, who the hip-hop-loving Ricky names Tupac.
However, when Bella dies suddenly, Ricky is informed by child services that they’ll be taking him back, so he runs away with Tupac — but not before clumsily faking his own suicide by burning down a barn. This draws the attention of the cops, who believe that it’s a case of arson, and Uncle Hec, who’s run off to find Ricky and Tupac, is assumed to have abducted Ricky.
Hec quickly finds Ricky and Tupac with his own dog, Zag, but they quickly run into trouble when a trio of bumbling hikers incorrectly assume that Hec is molesting Ricky. Hec and Ricky escape with the authorities still hot on their trail, not knowing that, apart from an ankle injury to Hec, the duo is alive and well. However, it’s not until they reconcile with their pasts that they truly form a bond. And with the help of some unlikely allies, they just might (literally) get out of the woods and make a new home.
This charming adventure-comedy has lots of things going for it. For one, it’s directed by Taika Waititi. His films are typically sublime in terms of blending drama and humor. In the case of Boy and Jojo Rabbit, Waititi used inexperienced child actors and gave them a script full of heart and humor while still making subtle statements about poverty, innocence, racism, family and the human condition. Waititi is typically profound when he’s not trying to be profound, and his films are genuinely funny to boot. This film also marked one of the first times Waititi got mainstream attention (of course, the 46-year-old has now directed two MCU movies), and the first time Waititi had directed an adaptation.
While this film does bear Waititi’s unique style of filmmaking, it’s mostly based on a book called Wild Pork and Watercress by the late Kiwi author Barry Crump (1935-1996), whose novels were frequently set in the New Zealand bush. It’s a classic adventure tale that tackles serious subjects — like the high poverty rates that have long been an issue in the rural parts of the country — but it does so with an entertaining story with lots of twists and turns.
The heart of the story was what attracted Waititi to the script.
“My focus is usually on the story — not so much on, like, style or cool shots, even though I do a lot of cool shots in my films,” Waititi said in an interview when the film was released. “I feel like my strength is in tone and in story, and, like, the emotional tonality in my films.”
Waititi was first made aware of Wild Pork and Watercress shortly after he got an Oscar nomination for Best Narrative Short Film for his 2005 film Two Cars, One Night.
“That’s when I read the book for the first time. It’s pretty famous in New Zealand; a lot of people read it when they’re young, but I hadn’t heard of it,” Waititi admitted.
“But I thought it was very cool, so I wrote a draft of it, and after a couple of drafts, I decided I wanted to go and make my own films, so I made three features — then I came back to this material a few years later.”
Waititi cast Julian Dennison, a Māori kid from Wellington, in the role of Ricky after being impressed with the young actor’s work on a commercial that he directed.
“He’s really talented, and I decided that one day, I was going to work with him on something,” Waititi said. “And then when this project came about, he was my first choice.”
Waititi was also super excited to work with legendary actor Sam Neill, who plays Uncle Hec in the film. Best known to international audiences for his role as Dr. Grant in the Jurassic Park franchise, Neill was born in Northern Ireland and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand, where he has been one of the country’s most recognizable actors for the past three decades.
Despite his worldwide box office success, Neill frequently pops up in Australian and New Zealand cinema and TV shows, and he immediately said yes to Waititi’s script.
“Growing up, I’d seen him in so many things, and I’ve always loved his work. We actually both have been trying to work together for a little while, we just hadn’t had the opportunity. So when this came about, I sent the script to him and straightaway, he was like, ‘Yep, I’m in.’ This was the easiest casting I’ve ever had to deal with on a film!”
Waititi reunited with several other collaborators on the project, including Rhys Darby (What We Do in the Shadows, Flight of the Conchords) and Rachel House, one of New Zealand’s most decorated acting coaches and character actors.
Filming lasted five weeks and the film had only a $4.5 million NZD budget ($2.5 million USD), typical of Waititi’s New Zealand-based indie fare. Hunt for the Wilderpeople was mostly shot in the Waitakere Ranges west of Auckland, as well as the Central Plateau of the North Island.
Upon its release, Hunt for the Wilderpeople broke box office records in New Zealand (grossing $12 million) and went on to gross over $23 million USD worldwide. It also grossed over $10 million in Australia and received significant acclaim from both audiences and critics at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
The success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople led to Waititi getting courted by the big-time Hollywood players for later films like Thor: Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit. In hindsight, Wilderpeople could be seen as the film that catapulted the goofy director into the mainstream.
But truth be told, Waititi doesn’t see much difference between his projects.
“I’ve got a work ethic, and I know what I want. I think that even though Thor is a bigger film — like, the scale is bigger — the intention is the same, and that’s just to tell a good story.”
Directed by Taika Waititi
Produced by Taika Waititi, Carthew Neal, Matt Noonan and Leanne Saunders
Written by Taika Waititi
Based on the book Wild Park and Watercress by Barry Crump
Starring Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rime Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley, Rhys Darby, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Mike Minogue
Director of Photography — Lachlan Milne
Music by Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott & Conrod Wedde
Editors — Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya & Luke Haigh
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including violent content, and for some language.
Waititi’s second collaboration with Julian Dennison and his third with Rachel House. Mike Minogue, who played a police officer in What We Do in the Shadows, also appeared in Wilderpeople as a hunter.
The second time that Waititi has broken a New Zealand box office record. In 2010, Boy grossed $6.2 million USD, making it the highest-grossing Kiwi film ever at the time. Hunt for the Wilderpeople went on to gross over $12 million. When Waititi found out that he had dethroned himself as the country’s box office king, he quipped “It’s the happiest and saddest moment of my life.” (For the record, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was considered an international co-production of the US and NZ and therefore didn’t count in the box office figures).
Waititi makes a cameo in the film as a minister.
Co-editors Tom Eagles and Yana Gorskaya also worked on What We Do in the Shadows.
All of the newscasters and reporters in the film play are real-life New Zealand media figures playing themselves.
Waititi’s fourth film to premiere at Sundance, following Eagle vs Shark, Boy, and What We Do in the Shadows.
Although Sam Neill’s character is revealed to be illiterate, Neill himself ironically has a degree in English lit from Victoria University of Wellington.
The Toyota Hilux truck (or “ute” in New Zealand slang) is nicknamed Crumpy for the author of the source book, Barry Crump. An identical Toyota truck was driven by Crump during several long-running commercials in New Zealand.
Waititi later helped Dennison land a role in Deadpool 2 thanks to his friendship with that film’s star, Ryan Reynolds.
A jaded NBA scout rediscovers his passion after stumbling upon an unknown potential superstar.
Stanley Sugarman has been a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers for a long time — maybe too long. His life is a constant string of flights, scouting reports and jetlag as he travels around the world looking for the NBA’s next international sensation. He regrets not being able to spend more time with his ever-patient wife Teresa and teenage daughter Alex, who has an interest in sports videography.
When Sixers owner Rex Merrick, Stanley’s mentor, notices that he’s burning out, he offers to make him an assistant coach instead so he can spend more time with family. But when Merrick passes away suddenly, he leaves the franchise in the hands of his scheming son Vince, who’s never liked Stanley and promptly sends him back on the road.
Sugarman vents to his old teammate, Leon, who encourages his old pal to leave the franchise altogether and use his charisma as a sales agent. Several months later, we find Stanley on the road again in Spain. After a meeting with a potential prospect falls through, he wanders over to a streetball game nearby, where he discovers an athletic beast named Bo Cruz. While raw, Cruz plays with a physical swagger and has great footwork for a big man, showing finesse with the basketball in his hands. Stanley, mesmerized, attempts to speak with Bo after the game, despite the language barrier. He earns Bo’s trust after proving his NBA credentials.
Stanley talks to Bo’s mother, who reveals that at age 15, he was set to go to America and had a clear path to the NCAA and then the pros. But when Bo became a dad shortly thereafter, he had to put his dreams on hold. Now, he works construction during the day and hustles as a streetballer by night.
Despite resistance from Vince and the rest of the Sixers’ front office, Stanley arranges to bring Bo to the States and give him a real chance at qualifying for the NBA Draft Combine. Stanley finally feels invigorated again, but Bo finds the increase in competition a real challenge. But in due time, with Stanley as his loyal mentor, Bo might actually have a chance to defeat the odds and prove he belongs in the NBA.
This film is a unique twist on a familiar inspirational sports theme, and it also features yet another excellent performance from Adam Sandler.
I’ve made no secret of how, when given a really great script and when working with a skilled director, Sandler can actually give an extremely effective performance, and with Hustle, the 55-year-old comedy veteran is proving that his career-best turn in 2019’s Uncut Gems was no fluke.
Sandler can act, and the key to his success here is his chemistry with real-life NBA player Juancho Hernángomez, who plays Bo Cruz. He really inhabits Bo’s blue-collar, rough-and-tumble mentality, in addition to having the obvious athletic chops.
Sandler, a longtime basketball fanatic, used his connections in the NBA — and his friendship with co-producer LeBron James — to bring aboard real-life talent, like the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards, who plays Bo’s rival in the draft combine, Kermit Wilts. Trae Young, Kyle Lowry, Seth Curry, Luka Doncic, Doc Rivers and Brad Stevens make cameos as themselves, among others.
From a filmmaking perspective, director Jeremiah Zagar and cinematographer Zak Mulligan developed some innovative techniques for shooting the various basketball scenes.
“When you watch a basketball movie, usually, a lot of them are with actors and so the way they shoot with the ball is from the outside in,” Zagar said. “You line four or five cameras around the court. You set up for a closeup and a wide. You shoot it like you shoot the NBA, which has a lot of cool different angles.”
These sequences were first shot using what Zagar called “Stanley Vision” — seeing the game’s action from the coach’s perspective and shooting on a long-zoom lens. The next day, they would shoot scenes from Bo’s perspective with a wide lens in close-up.
“Then the editors would cut those two elements together and we’d have a game,” Zagar said. “We’d look at it to see what the missing pieces were within the language of the game that we could execute. I knew it was going to be bad. The Stanley vision would look like sh-t because it was only one element and they hadn’t gotten used to it. What was good about doing it this way was that we’d do the whole game so the choreographers would get used to what the whole game was like.”
Co-star Queen Latifah, who plays the wife of Sandler’s character, was impressed.
“I think they are used to being on camera. I think it’s just kind of transferring the mindset from handling the basketball to being on camera and pretending to do what they normally do.”
Zagar was taken aback when Sandler approached him to direct. After all, Zagar’s previous two features couldn’t have been more different from Hustle. Zagar’s 2018 feature film debut, We the Animals, was an experimental, coming-of-age LGBTQ film, a la Moonlight.
Zagar originally said no, as he had a couple other scripts he was working on at the time, but Sandler anticipated that. Zagar, if anything, was impressed that Sandler approached him at all.
“He’s a very understated guy when you first meet him,” Zagar said of his initial call with Sandler. “He said that I probably wouldn’t want to do this script, but that I should take a look. So I read it and I was like, ‘He’s right, it’s not for me.’”
After rejecting a few other scripts in the meantime, Zagar found out that he had an unanticipated ally: Sandler’s friend, Netflix co-CEO and chief of content Ted Sarandos. Thanks to Sandler’s exclusive content deal with the streaming platform, Sarandos knew he was looking for an up-and-coming director. Sandler watched We the Animals and thought Zagar had some potential. And as fate would have it, both Sandler and Zagar had the same agent, Simon Faber from William Morris Endeavor (WME).
“It’s still shocking to me that Sandler saw We the Animals,” Zagar confessed in an interview with IndieWire. He soon began reconsidering Sandler’s offer.
“He wanted me to do my thing — and the truth is that I can only do my thing,” Zagar continued. “I was very honest with him about that. There was this opportunity to shoot basketball in a way that I thought could be really cinematic. The script kept brewing in me. There were things about it that were very much me.”
And now onto what could be called the Sandler renaissance.
Don’t laugh. Or better yet, do laugh. I’m sure he won’t mind.
When asked why he chose the script for Hustle, Sandler admitted that “it had a lot of deep scenes that connected with me.”
“I’m playing a guy who’s just been working hard his whole life and not getting exactly what his goal was, being overlooked and people at work are getting in his way,” Sandler told Entertainment Weekly. “A lot of people have dealt with this in their life. I knew this movie was a different feel for me, but it’s kind of a combination of stuff I’ve done in the past, and a newer version of who I am.”
“But I loved just talking to the NBA guys. I got to meet a lot of coaches, and talk a lot of hoops. I know hoops, but I don’t know it like these guys. They know every historic moment and everything that’s going on. And now when I watch the games, I have literally like 15 teams I can pull for, because we all became friends!”
“There’s a particular phenomenon that tends to accompany Adam Sandler movies these days — more specifically, a certain reaction that can come from his haters in addition to well-meaning audiences alike,” says journalist Andy Meek for BGR.com. “It manifests itself in the form of feeling genuine surprise that a particular Sandler film — the newest being Netflix’s basketball movie Hustle — isn’t terrible. On the contrary, Hustle is, in fact, quite good.”
To be fair, there’s certain categories of Adam Sandler movies. Some are inexcusably cringy and awful, relying on dumb slapstick and lazy stereotypes to be funny. But do I personally love kicking up my feet and watching 50 First Dates, Anger Management and The Longest Yard as a guilty pleasure movie? You bet I do. Put it this way: many of Sandler’s movies don’t have much of a brain, but they do have a heart.
In addition to his riveting performance in Uncut Gems, Sandler received brilliant reviews in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, in which he plays a timid, socially awkward entrepreneur who falls in love with his sister’s co-worker. In 2007’s Reign Over Me, Sandler also got significant acclaim for his turn as a widower dentist who lost his wife and daughter on 9/11 and is given unexpected encouragement by his long-lost college buddy, played by Don Cheadle.
It’s safe to say that when Sandler is really trying, he can give a really powerful and convincing performance. And I’ve personally known people in the film industry who’ve worked on Sandler’s films, and they say that he is a high-quality guy who takes care of his people and makes sure his sets are family-friendly and welcoming. He’s certainly a hard guy to dislike, even if his style of humor certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
“Sandler has consistently proven how well he can tackle dramatic roles. And, while most argue this is proof he should ditch the lowbrow comedy and refocus his efforts, I think this success is often because of – not in spite of – his sillier comedic work,” wrote Meg Watson, a film reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Sandler built his brand as the loveable misfit with slapstick hits like Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, and his dramatic characters are often a muted and more complex version of that archetype he knows so well. They’re kind-hearted schmos, often family men, who’ve been wrung dry by illness or tragedy (sometimes of their own making).
In a more ‘serious’ actor’s hands, those performances could easily be overwrought. But with Sandler, always still armed with an offhand joke or outlandish outburst, it’s unpretentious – and in recent years it’s only gotten better.”
“Good acting isn’t about being the most actorly. Really, it’s the exact opposite,” Watson said. “It’s about capturing something honest and lively and relatable – and Sandler does that better than most.”
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar
Produced by Adam Sandler, Allen Covert, Zack Roth, Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, LeBron James, Joseph Vecsey, Maverick Carter
Written by Taylor Materne and WIll Fetters
Starring Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernángomez, Queen Latifah, Robert Duvall, Anthony Edwards, Ben Foster, Kenny Smith, Jordan Hull, María Botto, Ainhoa Pillet
Featuring cameos from Luka Doncic, Doc Rivers, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Tobias Harris, Trae Young, Jordan Clarkson, Aaron Gordon, Kyle Lowry, Seth Curry, Tyrese Maxey, Khris Middleton, Matisse Thybulle, Aaron McKie, Allen Iverson, Dan Patrick, Mark Cuban, Dirk Nowitzki, Brad Stevens, José Calderón, Leandro Barbosa, Maurice Cheeks, Sergio Scariolo and Álex Abrines
Music by Dan Deacon
Director of Photography — Zak Mulligan
Editors — Tom Costain, Keiko Deguchi and Brian Robinson
Rated R for language.
Sandler’s character, Stanley, might be inspired by Holger Geschwinder, the German basketball coach whose unorthodox, mad-scientist methods helped make Dirk Nowitzki a 14-time All-Star and an NBA Hall of Famer. Nowitzki makes a cameo in the film on a FaceTime video call that Stanley makes in order to prove his NBA credentials to Bo and his family when he meets them.
Zagar and Mulligan experimented with using a TARO, which mounted cameras to remote-controlled cars that could weave around the players as they moved across the court. They also attached a camera rig to the players so they could play the game with the camera as their direct opponent! “It was so weird for them at first,” Zagar said. “But once we had buy-in and they understood what we were doing, they were really amenable to it.”
The editors would send new cuts of each basketball drill or game to Zagar every day for his approval as well as Sandler’s.
In the film, Stanley wears a “Federal Donuts” t-shirt, referencing a real chain in Philadelphia that also has a prominent location at the Wells Fargo Center, where the Sixers play.
Although they play on-screen rivals in the film, Juancho Hernángomez and Anthony Edwards were teammates on the Timberwolves in the 2020-21 NBA season.
The hill used in Bo’s training montages is an homage to the Manayunk Wall, an infamous and grueling uphill climb for the Philadelphia International championship bike race.
Bo first appears in the film at exactly the 22-minute mark, and he later wears the #22 jersey in the film.
I’ve recently been rewatching HBO’s landmark show The Sopranos over the past several months, and let me tell you, it’s not a cliche to say that it belongs among the greatest American TV shows of the modern era — alongside Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Wire and Mad Men.
Originally airing from 1999-2007, The Sopranos established a new standard for Mafia films and TV shows, and it remains relevant to this day thanks to the continuing successful careers of series creator David Chase and series co-stars like Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco and Michael Imperioli.
The Sopranos was also groundbreaking in the way it handled subjects like family, morals and ethics, Italian-American identity, and men’s mental health issues, among other topics. The character of Tony Soprano was so violent, so complex, and so brilliantly written that it inspired a new age of TV anti-heroes, such as Walter White (Breaking Bad), Don Draper (Mad Men) and Dexter Morgan (Dexter). And the show remains influential: just last year, a prequel film called The Many Saints of Newark was released, which focused on Tony Soprano’s childhood and rise to notoriety.
Many of the stars of the show had not been established names and hadn’t expected it to be a massive hit. HBO gave Chase almost complete creative control and he exercised an iron fist over the scripts and dialogue. Although its enigmatic series finale was controversial, The Sopranos has overall aged very well and I would go as far as to say that it accomplished what The Godfather did for films.
But the man at the center of it all — James Gandolfini — remained frustratingly anonymous.
Gandolfini became a household name thanks to the success of The Sopranos, but in real life, the man gave very few interviews and seemed like a real homebody, content to shake hands and mingle at cocktail parties when required to do so, but also someone who seemed inherently uncomfortable with fame.
And sadly, since the man passed away of a sudden heart attack at the age of 51 in 2013, there will probably always be things about Gandolfini that we’ll never know.
But make no mistake — this man defined an entire TV show and singlehandedly become an icon of how to write and create a complex, nuanced bad guy character. Because at the end of the day, Tony Soprano is the villain of this story. He’s murdered people, he’s tortured them and he’s deeply involved in stereotypical Mafia activities like gambling, loansharking, fraud and large-scale intimidation. He frequently makes crude, flippant, or racist comments. And he’s also a chronic philanderer.
But Tony also genuinely believes in the importance of family and community. Whenever a relative or family friend passes away, he’s there. He provides for family members financially, even if they’re ungrateful for it. He adores all kinds of animals and he chokes back tears when he sees his daughter sing a solo in a school play. He worries over his teenage son’s apathy and poor academic performance. And, of course, being a mobster, Tony’s frequently wracked with guilt over regrettable deaths of former friends and business associates. Oh, and don’t forget about a potential FBI investigation hanging over his head.
As is shown over the course of the series, Tony is a product of his own environment, and suffers from panic attacks and depression due to a combination of stress, family dysfunction, and scars from an emotionally neglected childhood. Some of the most pivotal moments of the series revolve around Tony’s contentious relationship with his therapist, Dr. Melfi.
IMDB summed it up nicely on Gandolfini’s own biography: “frequently plays characters who are brutish, yet charming.”
Gandolfini was able to combine Tony’s most toxic and his most admirable qualities into a larger-than-life performance that’s become a gold standard for American TV. But privately, according to his friends, Gandolfini mentally struggled with playing such a dark, violent character for so long and being publicly identified as Tony Soprano. He also sometimes worried if the show was contributing to long-held, ignorant stereotypes of Italian-Americans.
“He was a genius. Anyone who saw him even in the smallest of his performances knows that. He is one of the greatest actors of this or any time,” David Chase said.
Bryan Cranston, who won multiple Emmy Awards for his astonishing performance as anti-hero Walter White in Breaking Bad, later admitted that “if there hadn’t been a Tony Soprano first, Walter White wouldn’t exist.”
“James Gandolfini’s lumbering, brutish mob boss with the tortured psyche will endure as one of TV’s indelible characters,” the Associated Press reported upon news of Gandolfini’s death.
“But his portrayal of criminal Tony Soprano in HBO’s landmark drama series The Sopranos was just one facet of an actor who created a rich legacy of film and stage work in a life cut short.”
James Joseph Gandolfini Jr. was born in Westwood, New Jersey on September 18, 1961. His mother was born in the US, but raised in Naples, while his father was born near Bologna. Gandolfini grew up blue-collar: his mom worked in a high school cafeteria, while his dad was a bricklayer and mason. The family spoke only Italian at home and considered themselves faithful Catholics.
Much like Tony Soprano himself, Gandolfini leaned into the class clown persona in high school, which earned him “class flirt” honors from his peers. After earning a communications degree from Rutgers University in 1983, Gandolfini found work as a bouncer and bartender in New York City. He only got into acting thanks to a friend, Roger Bart, convincing him to take a class at age 25.
“I dabbled a little bit in acting in high school and then I forgot about it completely. And then at about 25, I went to a class. I don’t think anybody in my family thought it was an intelligent choice,” Gandolfini later said in his classic self-deprecating tone.
“I don’t think anybody thought I’d succeed, which is understandable. I think they were just happy that I was doing something.”
After appearing in some off-Broadway plays and short films, Gandolfini made his Broadway debut in a 1992 production of A Streetcar Named Desire. He first caught David Chase’s eye thanks to his small but memorable role as a hitman in the film True Romance, directed by the late Tony Scott from a script by Quentin Tarantino. Although Chase considered plenty of other actors for the role of Tony, Gandolfini’s audition blew him away.
Robert Iler played Anthony Soprano Jr., better known as A.J., on the show and later retired from acting in his 20s after suffering from gambling and substance abuse problems (he’s clean now). To this day, Iler finds himself reluctant to watch any Sopranos episodes because he still gets emotional when he sees Gandolfini onscreen. In an interview, Iler once mentioned a charming incident during lunch break on set. Gandolfini overheard Iler confess to another cast member that he had never been to a Yankees game. The next day, Gandolfini came back with tickets and took Iler out to the ball game, no questions asked.
Another time, Gandolfini became enraged when he found out that he was the only actor who was receiving royalty payments from DVD sales of The Sopranos. To compensate, he demanded that HBO change their policy and personally wrote his co-stars checks.
But it wasn’t just co-stars that appreciated Gandolfini’s warmth. While it may have been motivated out of a desire to seem publicly and privately different than the often-terrifying mobster that he played, plenty of others outside of The Sopranos remembered Gandolfini is a stand-up guy who was deeply loyal to friends.
Brad Pitt worked with Gandolfini on three films: True Romance (1993), The Mexican (2001) and Killing Them Softly (2013). He colorfully described him as “a ferocious actor, a gentle soul and a genuinely funny man.”
In 2009, Gandolfini lent a helping hand to fellow Jersey native John Travolta after his son Jett died tragically of a seizure while on a family trip to Florida.
“James went out of his way to come to Florida and he would not leave Florida until I was okay, or he felt that I would be fine,” Travolta later revealed. “After a week I said, ‘Jim, really, you know, we’ll be fine. I’ve got a lot of support here.’
“But the idea that in our profession someone would go out of their way and not want to leave you until he felt you were okay, that’s the kind of soul that James Gandolfini was. He was a people person first and then everything else.”
Gandolfini prioritized his down-to-earth persona.
“In reality, I’m so boring that I don’t want people to get close to me, because they’ll realize how boring I am, and they won’t want to watch anymore,” he said half-jokingly to New Jersey Magazine. “I’m just a normal guy. It’s the writing that is interesting, and the characters. The less said about me, the better.”
In another case of life imitating art, in The Sopranos, one of Tony’s few non-Mafia friends is Artie Bucco, an old high school buddy of his who now runs the finest Italian restaurant in town. Similarly, Gandolfini once raised funds to help his old friend Clive Griffiths open up a restaurant called Vines in upstate New York.
In the New JerseyMagazine feature, Gandolfini reflected on the values, like hard work and integrity, that his family raised him to have, while also looking towards his future after The Sopranos was done. He also gave some advice to young actors:
“People concentrate on making contacts, on their resumes and on their phones. All that is nonsense. Work—do plays, learn your craft, and go to school. Keep working. Nobody is going to give you jobs for going to parties or any of that nonsense.
Go out, look around, do things. Stay out late a couple of nights and have some fun—but work, that is the thing. I did little plays where six people saw me. Some nights I was awful. You learn from that. You get up and go back the next day. And you know what? You get better. Nothing comes easily. A lot of young actors get interviewed and go on television, and it makes them start to think that they are important. And we’re not—not anymore than anybody else.”
Gandolfini began accumulating some more producing credits after The Sopranos wrapped up in 2007. He also donated time and money to breast cancer campaigns and produced a pair of documentaries about Iraq War veterans in order to raise awareness of PTSD.
In August 2013, Gandolfini took his wife and kids with him on a vacation to the homeland. They were planning to celebrate his son Michael’s junior high graduation with a trip to Rome, then attend the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily, where Gandolfini was due to receive a lifetime achievement award.
Tragically, after a long day of walking and sightseeing in the sweltering August heat, Gandolfini collapsed of a heart attack on the bathroom floor of his hotel room. His son found his body and paramedics were unable to revive him. Thousands of well-wishers posted official statements, both in the entertainment industry and around the world, in honor of a guy who just saw himself as “another fat guy from Jersey.”
While some people might only remember him as Tony Soprano, I think it’s also nice to reflect upon the quality human being that Gandolfini was, and his lasting legacy on and off the screen.
No, Bert and Ernie aren’t about to get whacked! Gandolfini made a surprise cameo on an episode of Sesame Street in 2002 where he gave Zoe some life lessons.
Why are there thousands of camels scattered across the Australian outback?
A good question, but a complex answer.
No, camels aren’t indigenous to Australia, but they were introduced to the fledgling country in the mid 19th century as explorers tried to penetrate the thick bush land and establish settlements in harsh conditions that were largely unknown to the white man at the time.
On New Year’s Eve, 1865, at Port Augusta, South Australia, 124 camels and 31 handlers stepped on shore in front of an audience scratching their collective heads.
Most of the Australians were skeptical at best, and why wouldn’t they be? The Outback — or what they knew of it at the time — wasn’t exactly a forgiving place, with no facilities, no shelter and summer temperatures topping 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). Why bother settling a wasteland?
But the Afghans and their camels wound up providing a huge service to the Outback and became unsung heroes of Aussie history in the process. Roughly 15,000 camels and their handlers were imported into Australia from 1870 to 1900.
“Their job was to lead camel trains through outback Australia, transporting supplies from cities to regional towns, inland mines, and stations,” wrote journalist Madison Snow in recent ABC retrospective article.
“They were also guides on expeditions, located water sources, and ensured a safe journey for travellers. Without their contribution, Outback communities would not have been able to survive.”
The reason Australia hadn’t been fully explored was a logistical one: horses simply couldn’t survive in the harsh Outback conditions. Before the Afghan cameleers arrived, there was some experimentation with bringing in camels by 1859, but it was expensive.
Also, let me clarify: the Afghan cameleers were not all from modern-day Afghanistan. Many came from what was then British India, Iran and Pakistan, and even as far as Egypt or the Ottoman Empire. While the majority practiced Islam, there was a large minority of Sikhs from India’s Punjab region. By the time the 1860s rolled around, about 3,000 more cameleers had arrived with their animals in tow.
Life certainly wasn’t easy for the cameleers at first. Although they were somewhat accustomed to desert living, they were alone without their families and, in some regions, were largely segregated from the white population. Others were subject to discrimination while trying to find work during Western Australia’s gold rushes.
But learning to live and thrive while opening up the Outback meant that teamwork was essential. The Afghan cameleers—most of whom were on three-year employment contracts—proved their worth through their hard work on infrastructure projects, including the Australian Overland Telegraph Line, which was completed in 1872. The camels largely helped with hauling goods, while the Afghans themselves focused on building fences, exploring new tracks, and buying supplies for the new cattle stations and mines in the Outback.
Little shanty towns sprang up out of practicalities, becoming service hubs once completed. Some were called “Ghantowns,” and many Afghans intermarried with local Aboriginal women.
Some local authorities and explorers began to take note of the Afghans’ work ethic and the growing importance of camels; three cameleers accompanied explorer William Gosse as he tried to navigate a route from Central Australia’s Finke River to Perth. Lake Eyre, a dry salt lake in South Australia, was surveyed by J.W. Lewis in 1874 and he used camels to do it.
Cecil Madigan, an important surveyor in his day, initially viewed camels as “stupid and unapproachable.” But he loved the creatures’ endurance. “The camel kneels, uncomplaining and unconcerned, a tower of strength and comfort. Good for another 200 miles!” he wrote in his diary.
Another big infrastructure project was The Afghan Express railway, better known now as “the Ghan.” Constructed between Adelaide and Darwin, the Ghan was the first train to run the length of the Australian mailand from north to south. Now it serves as a tourist attraction.
In addition to being used during the Western Australian gold rushes, camels were even used in policing. Finding them handy to travel on while conducting patrols and census stats, rural police in South Australia embraced the animals. In the remote Aboriginal community of Aputula, Northern Territory, camel patrols were still practiced until 1953.
The so-called Federation Drought devastated the eastern states of Australia shortly after the country united, or federated, in 1901. Many observers later said that if it hadn’t been for supplies provided by the Afghan cameleers, numerous Outback towns would’ve ceased to exist.
A number of successful cameleers became budding entrepreneurs in their new countries. Abdul Wahid (sometimes known by his English name Abdul Wade) opened up a camel breeding business, while also marrying a local woman and raising seven kids. Faiz Mahomet was another success story: orphaned as a youngster, he travelled to Australia with his brother in 1865. He operated a camel station and supply outpost at the tiny town of Marree, South Australia, going back and forth to Karachi to bring in more camels and workers.
While working in the West Australian goldfields in the 1890s, Mahomet helped out his fellow miners during a severe famine, bringing in food supples by camel. When the local government offered to reimburse him for his troubles, Mahomet refused, saying “These men are the sons of God and therefore I have saved them.” Today, Mahomet is honored with a plaque on St George’s Terrace in Perth for his infrastructure work in the Outback before the railways were built.
Hassan Musa Khan was an ethnic Pashtun man who worked as a schoolteacher in India and was fluent in six languages, moving to Australia in the 1890s. After retiring from Outback work, he moved to Perth and ran a bookstore. He later edited a book called The History of Islam in Australia from 1863-1932.
Farmers and ranchers liked the Afghans and often vouched for them, even in the face of discriminatory policies at the state and local level. For example, in 1895, a law was passed which prevented Afghans from mining in the Western Australian goldfields after several of them were accused of polluting waterholes—even though no evidence was found.
After some initial reluctance, many local Aboriginal tribes embraced the camels, using them for practical things like traditional gift exchanges and sometimes depicting them in their artwork. Camels also helped many isolated indigenous communities stay connected as cars and trucks became more popular in the cities.
But by the time the Great Depression hit, most of the Afghan cameleers had gone home, frustrated by boom-and-bust businesses, pressured by family, or subject to discrimination. But they left their mark on Australian society as a whole.
After their work was done, many of the cameleers simply let their stock go in the Outback instead of putting them down, and to this day, there are thousands, if not millions, of feral camels throughout the country. The cameleers also planted date palms and established some of the first mosques in Australia.
In Adelaide’s Whitmore Square, there’s a small memorial to the Afghans and their unique role in helping shape the Outback. And here’s a historical quirk: the first man to ever make a bank deposit in Australia was an Afghan shepherd in 1848.
Gohar Rind, a great-grandson of an Afghan cameleer and an indigenous woman, thinks that the legacy of the cameleers can help 21st century Australia find its multicultural identity.
“If those efforts of the cameleers are understood, appreciated and acknowledged, then there would be better cohesion between different communities,” Rind said.
Noel McKay lives in Coolgardie, Western Australia. Long removed from the chaotic gold rush days, it’s now a sleepy, laid-back Outback town of only about 1,000 people, and McKay caters to the tourists by operating Coolgardie Camel Farm, which includes a small museum.
One subtle reminder of the cameleers’ activity are the very wide, broad streets in Coolgardie.
“If you have a heavy load on a camel you can’t turn very sharply,” McKay admits. “You need a wide turning circle for a heavily-loaded camel, otherwise it might dislocate his shoulders or head. People around here owe a lot to the cameleers. Without them, there would’ve been a lot more holes in the cemetery out there!”
There’s still more than 300,000 feral camels roaming the Australian Outback to this day.
Although it received polarizing reviews upon its original release in 1980, The Shining is now widely considered to be one of the first epic horror films, alongside other classics like The Omen, The Exorcist, The Hills Have Eyes and Carrie. Stanley Kubrick’s film has been referenced, parodied and re-appraised on pretty much every level, and it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t seen it.
At the same time, Stephen King’s original novel, published in 1977, was also one of his most acclaimed works. Well before he was a household name, King was dealing with significant turmoil in his life and was afraid for both himself and his family, incorporating some of his deepest fears into the novel. Only the third book he ever wrote, King’s macabre masterpiece catapulted him into the mainstream and helped establish his legacy as America’s most important horror writer.
But when Kubrick’s film came out, King hated it. Or maybe he didn’t. Or maybe he just hated Kubrick, who was known for rubbing some people the wrong way. Either way, when discussing The Shining today, it’s very easy to get caught up in the debate over the novel vs. the film. Now, of course, this is nothing new. There are still Tolkien purists who despise Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film adaptations, and some of Tolkien’s surviving relatives took issue with them. But this conflict was magnified simply by the sheer fact that King and Kubrick were both men with strong personalities and were never destined to really be long-term collaborators — or even lifelong friends.
So without further ado, let’s dive into why The Shining is so different from page to screen — and why King and Kubrick clashed over it.
Part 1: Background & Inspiration
After the successes of his first two books, Carrie and Salem’s Lot, King temporarily relocated to Boulder, Colorado from his home state of Maine, with his wife and kids in tow. King’s mother had recently passed away, and he had also been hoping to gain inspiration by living in a different part of America.
The roots of what became The Shining were born when King and his family were staying in the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, right outside Boulder. Arriving right before Halloween, the Kings were the only guests in the entire hotel, which was about to shut down for the winter. While the idea of a creepy haunted hotel wasn’t exactly a new horror trope, King couldn’t keep shaking the eerie feeling that he got from the Stanley Hotel. Long interested in psychic powers, premonitions and ghosts as horror themes, King began to wonder about how locations could be legitimately evil if they had similarly evil pasts. Allegedly, when he arrived at the Stanley, he noticed a small group of nuns leaving, and began to wonder how it would look as a hotel with a spiritually dark past, as if God was leaving the building alongside the nuns.
At the time, King was also suffering from alcoholism. Both the pressures of being a newly successful writer and relocating across the country with a young family had taken a toll on King, and he began to have nightmares about hurting his kids. The book’s title was inspired by a John Lennon song which contained the lyrics, “We all shine on, like the sun and the moon and the stars.” While King’s publisher and editor advised him against writing another horror novel after two other successful ones, King said he’d be flattered to be typecast as a horror writer.
Stanley Kubrick came at The Shining from a very different angle. Kubrick, in his late 40s at the time, had already become well-known as one of the world’s most daring and ambitious filmmakers. A perfectionist who never made the same film twice, Kubrick was fortunate to have a rare combination of full artistic freedom and flexibility thanks to his deal with Warner Bros. A native New Yorker who had relocated to the UK in the 60s to make films like Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick almost always adapted existing books and novels into films, as he had done with legendary films like A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Paths of Glory.
With that said, by the late 70s, some thought that Kubrick’s career was in decline. His most recent project, 1975’s Barry Lyndon, flopped at the US box office despite critical acclaim and several Oscar nods. When Kubrick read King’s novel, he was immediately taken by it and thought it would be the ideal project to be both a critical and commercial success. When asked why he liked the material, Kubrick responded, “There’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious. We can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.”
Part 2: Book Versus Film
While book and film differ significantly, the basic plots are the same. The Torrances — husband Jack, wife Wendy and son Danny — relocate from Vermont to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado after Jack takes a job as the winter season caretaker at the historic Overlook Hotel. Jack’s turbulent past at the hands of an abusive alcoholic father has continued to affect him to the present, but he genuinely loves his family and wants to prove himself, both as an aspiring writer and as the caretaker. The hotel manager, Stuart Ullman, tells Jack about the Overlook’s dark past, from its construction on a Native American burial ground to the relatively recent murder-suicide of Delbert Grady, a former caretaker who went mad, murdering his wife and daughters with an axe before shooting himself. It’s clear that the Overlook has a mind of its own, and its insidious influence begins to take hold of Jack as the long winter sets in.
Meanwhile, young Danny is identified by the Overlook chef, Dick Hallorann, as possessing the titular “shining” — a telepathic ability that Hallorann shares. Danny, who’s developed a bond with Hallorann over a short time frame, asks if the Overlook itself is evil. Hallorann says no, but clarifies that the horrific events of the past have given the Overlook a shine of its own. He also strictly warns Danny never to enter a specific room, #237.
Jack continues to descend into cabin fever mode; he falls off the wagon, starts fighting with Wendy, and devolves into his most toxic and violent self. He begins to have premonitions about his relationship with the hotel while also developing a unique bond with it. Is it supernatural? Or simply the effects of alcohol and isolation? Either way, the sinister forces that are beginning to take ahold of Jack will soon rip his family apart and leave no one unscathed, leading to a terrifying climax.
Part 3: An Intense Production
Kubrick and King clashed almost immediately over the direction of the script, which was written by Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson. Kubrick had long desired to work with Jack Nicholson, who had won an Academy Award for his performance in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was well on his way to becoming a living legend. However, Nicholson’s leering performance as a mental patient in that film had caused him to become somewhat typecast in “crazy” roles. Therefore, King believed that casting Nicholson would immediately make him a walking spoiler. King, for his part, wanted a more everyman type of actor who could convincingly play a family man who tragically succumbs to his demons, fulfilling his own vision of The Shining as a domestic tragedy and a social commentary on alcoholism wrapped inside of a horror shell. King recommended Robert De Niro, Jon Voight or Martin Sheen, but was vetoed every time.
Similarly, for the role of Wendy, Kubrick cast Shelley Duvall early on, but disagreed with King on how to handle the character. The film’s version of Wendy is much more passive and timid than the book’s version, and Kubrick notoriously put Duvall through hell in filming due to his demanding and perfectionist nature. King felt that Wendy wasn’t the strong female character he had in mind, and that Kubrick intended to simply highlight Jack’s toxic behavior, as opposed to the overwhelming situation that Wendy finds herself in at the mercy of her husband.
However, it wasn’t all bad vibes. While King said that Kubrick was far too pragmatic, humanistic and rationalistic to fully embrace the supernatural elements of the script, the two men had several productive phone calls about the subject (Kubrick, as an American expat in England, was famous for his marathon trans-Atlantic calls with colleagues). Kubrick opined that, as a ghost story, The Shining is automatically an optimistic story because “anything that suggests there’s an afterlife is inherently an optimistic story.”
King, a former Methodist who now identifies as a Deist, agreed. “The concept of a ghost presupposes life after death. That’s a cheerful concept, isn’t it?”
The production of The Shining was beset with problems on every level imaginable. A fire destroyed part of the set at London’s Elstree Studios. Due to primitive visual effects, Kubrick had to nix part of the novel’s climax, which includes animal-shaped hedge mazes coming to life and terrorizing Danny and Wendy. Kubrick enlisted the help of American camera operator Garrett Brown, who had recently invented the Steadicam, to help shoot the long, fluid tracking shots of Danny Torrance riding his tricycle around the hotel’s massive corridors — although, contrary to popular belief, The Shining was not the first film to use the Steadicam.
Kubrick demanded dozens and dozens of takes, as he did on most of his films. Nicholson didn’t mind it, as he liked to be able to dive into the minutiae of the decisions that his character would make. However, Duvall was used to working with directors who shot films at a much faster pace, and given the high stress of the role she was playing, she really struggled with the lengthy takes.
Later in his career, Kubrick defended his meticulous methods and denied that he shot infinitely high numbers of takes. The director claimed that he shot so many scenes simply because lots of actors weren’t prepared and didn’t know their lines. “If I shot 20 takes for every single scene, I’d never finish a film,” he quipped.
Barry Nelson, who played the hotel manager Stuart Ullman, once had to say his opening line, “Hello, Jack,” 32 times before Kubrick was satisfied. “I had never done that many takes, and I don’t think anybody else had,” he later said. “But Kubrick was a genius with the camera, so it wasn’t all about whether the actor was pleasing him or not.”
In retrospect, Duvall said that, despite the enormous stress, she instinctively knew that there was a method to Kubrick’s madness and that she could never have achieved such a performance on her own — while also stressing that she wouldn’t be lining up around the block to work with Kubrick again! In the fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary The Making of The Shining, Kubrick is seen losing his temper with Duvall frequently while also trying to wrangle a small crew working over a massive space. Kubrick also chose the rare step of filming in chronological order, which proved challenging, as all of the sets needed to be constructed at once, interfering with other productions that were also using Elstree Studios.
While he may have been short with Duvall, Kubrick took an almost-fatherly approach with Danny Lloyd, who played Danny Torrance. Lloyd, who retired from acting as a young man, later recalled that Kubrick was very sensitive towards the more mature themes of the film and presented them in a way that would be age-appropriate. Years later, Lloyd would admit that, as a kid, he had thought The Shining was a drama, not a horror film, thanks to Kubrick’s decency and protective nature.
“Stanley had a really good way of speaking to me,” said Lloyd. “When they did tell me why I was screaming or why I was scared, they were delicate about it. He put it on a level that a kid could understand, and he didn’t bark orders.”
Part 4: Other Key Plot Differences
As I alluded to previously, where King felt Kubrick went wrong was deliberately blurring the supernatural issue. The film is more ambiguous in terms of answering the what and why of Jack’s torment and descent into insanity. When you watch The Shining, you’re not automatically sure what’s causing said evil.
“Kubrick fudges the supernatural issue for much of the film, deliberately misdirecting the audience towards a psychological explanation for the manifestations of evil,” said writer David Hughes in his book The Complete Kubrick. “This causes the viewer to wonder whether they’re inside the Overlook itself or merely inside Jack’s mind.”
Kubrick makes very clever use of mirrors and other visual tricks to keep the audience on edge and coming back for rewatches. As for me, I’ve probably seen the film at least five times, and I still have some unanswered questions.
Back in pre-production, Kubrick had thrown out the original script, written by King himself. Kubrick felt like it was too didactic and literal to be a good horror story on its own, so he changed some elements with Diane Johnson to fit his vision. King wasn’t happy, of course, which is why he’s made the distinction ever since: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining versus his own.
“It was the first time that I had read to the end a novel that was sent to me with a view to a possible film adaptation,” Kubrick said. “I was absorbed in its reading and it seemed to me that its plot, ideas and structure were much more imaginative than usual in the horror genre; I thought that a great movie could come from there.”
According to Kubrick’s executive producer/brother-in-law Jan Harlan, Kubrick explicitly wanted to alter plot details when he bought the rights to the novel. Let’s go over a few differences:
The infamous Room 237 from the film is actually Room 217 in the novel. This was done thanks to the insistence of the management at the Timberline Lodge in Oregon, where exterior hotel scenes were shot for the film. The hotel worried that no one would stay in Room 217, so they requested Kubrick to change it to Room 237, which doesn’t exist at the Timberline. Ironically, nowadays, Room 217 is the most requested room by far!
Stuart Ullman is described as a “prick” by Jack Torrance in the novel’s first chapter; however, in the film, he’s seen as friendly and charming.
The novel goes into much more detail about Jack’s abusive father, his alcoholism, and his struggles in his professional life. The film also prolongs Jack’s issues with writer’s block.
The novel also implies that some of the hotel’s malevolence might stem from being built on an ancient Native American burial ground. In the film, this is only mentioned briefly in passing by Ullman, although the hotel’s design incorporates Native American motifs and there are interpretations of the film that have made it a parable about the bloodier parts of American history.
Jack is shown to be much more well-intentioned in the novel than in the film, genuinely wanting to turn over a new leaf and stay sober. In both the novel and film, his interaction with a ghostly bartender and Grady (the ill-fated former caretaker) are pivotal to his descent into murder and insanity.
Jack kills Hallorann in the film, but only wounds him in the novel.
The ghost interaction where the young woman attempts to seduce Jack is very similar in both the book and film.
Danny has a powerful interaction with his father towards the end of the novel, where he denounces the monster he sees in front of him as a creature created by the hotel. This prompts Jack to momentarily stop attacking his son and allow him to escape before the hotel possesses him completely. Danny, Wendy and Hallorann flee in a snowmobile while a defective boiler in the hotel’s basement explodes, killing Jack and destroying the hotel completely. In the film, this doesn’t happen: Jack gets lost in the hedge maze while chasing Danny with an ax. Danny then escapes with Wendy while Jack freezes to death.
The family tension is more prevalent throughout King’s novel, while Kubrick reveals the dysfunction much more gradually.
In the film, Danny has a much closer relationship with Wendy than with Jack; this adds to Jack’s growing sense of paranoia that his family is conspiring against him, which the hotel ghosts use to their advantage, stroking Jack’s ego while provoking him to rage and violence.
The film’s epilogue shows a famous black-and-white photo of Jack celebrating with partygoers at the hotel’s ballroom in a previous life, as the photo is dated 1921. The novel shows Danny and Wendy recovering from their horrific ordeal as Hallorann returns to the familiar mentor role for Danny.
Part 5: Reception & King’s Response
The Shining premiered on May 23, 1980 in the US and October 2, 1980 in the UK. Like many of Kubrick’s other films, it drew polarizing reviews at first, but has since been reappraised and re-acclaimed as a modern-day classic.
Anthony Burgess, writer of A Clockwork Orange, famously had a very mixed response to Kubrick’s adaptation of his work, and his involvement with the film’s screenplay was minimal. King was no exception. King referred to Kubrick’s film as “an interesting failure” and “like this big, flashy car with no engine in it.”
Again, while King felt that Kubrick’s film was beautifully shot and contained some memorable moments, he accused the director of not understanding the horror genre. King also claimed that it was the only adaptation of his work that he could remember hating. He believed that Kubrick’s worldview and personality couldn’t allow him to suspend his disbelief and make a full-fledged ghost story.
“Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fall flat. Not that religion has to be involved in horror, but a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel,” King claimed.
“So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones…that’s why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.”
King thought that Kubrick had misinterpreted the themes, specifically viewing Jack’s demons being the sole cause of his actions, as opposed to the insidious influence of a haunted hotel. He also criticized Shelley Duvall’s performance: “She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid, and that’s not the woman that I wrote about,” he huffed.
In a 1983 interview with Playboy, King doubled down.
“I had admired Kubrick for a long time and had great expectations for the project, but I was deeply disappointed in the end result. Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fell flat. Jack Nicholson, although a fine actor, was all wrong for the part. The book is about Jack’s gradual descent into madness through the malign influence of the Overlook; if the guy is nuts to begin with, the entire tragedy of his downfall is wasted.”
The end result of Kubrick’s The Shining was what prompted King to be heavily involved in the production of any of his literary adaptations heading forward. In 1997, he got the chance to collaborate on a TV miniseries version of The Shining. Directed by Mick Garris, who also directed a TV adaptation of King’s The Stand, the miniseries was fairly well-received — and importantly, had King’s seal of approval. Exterior shots of the Overlook were also filmed at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, which inspired the novel to begin with.
“I had things to say about the Stanley Kubrick version of The Shining when the film was made,” King said in a 1998 interview. “And years later, I had a chance to re-adapt it for ABC as a miniseries. The question was whether or not Warner Brothers, who produced the movie and held the sequel rights, would allow us to do that. Warner Brothers went to Mr. Kubrick and asked if it would be alright, and he said yes as long as I didn’t say anything else one way or the other about the film version. But I did want to remake it, so draw your own conclusions.”
After Kubrick’s sudden death in 1999, King has mostly taken the high road since then. “I’m not able to talk about The Shining,” King told Entertainment Weekly. “I made a deal with Stanley Kubrick that I wouldn’t, and Stan’s dead, so I’m not going to go there.”
“King is, essentially, a novelist of morality. The decisions his characters make – whether it’s to confront a pack of vampires or to break 10 years of sobriety – are what matter to him,” said BBC journalist Laura Miller in a 2013 retrospective. “But in Kubrick’s The Shining, the characters are largely in the grip of forces beyond their control. It’s a film in which domestic violence occurs, while King’s novel is about domestic violence as a choice certain men make when they refuse to abandon a delusional, defensive entitlement. As King sees it, Kubrick treats his characters like insects because the director doesn’t really consider them capable of shaping their own fates. Everything they do is subordinate to an overweening, irresistible force, which is Kubrick’s highly developed aesthetic; they are its slaves. In King’s The Shining, the monster is Jack. In Kubrick’s, the monster is Kubrick.”
When it came to the sequel novel Doctor Sleep, it was a different animal. The novel was published in 2013 and adapted for the screen in 2019 and follows Danny Torrance as an adult, haunted by substance abuse just like his dad and trying to maintain his sanity. In the afterword of the novel, King wrote the following:
“Of course there was Stanley Kubrick’s movie, which many seem to remember – for reasons I have never quite understood – as one of the scariest films they have ever seen. If you have seen the movie but not read the novel, you should note that Doctor Sleep follows the latter which is, in my opinion, the True History of the Torrance Family.”
Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan also spoke of the challenges that he faced trying to satisfy fans of both King’s The Shining and Kubrick’s version. While not as consistently terrifying as its film predecessor, Doctor Sleep is a very solid film and Ewan McGregor does a terrific job as Danny. King gave it a thumbs-up as well; he even went so far as to say that everything he disliked about Kubrick’s film was redeemed by the film version of Doctor Sleep.
“The Shining is so ubiquitous and has burned itself into the collective imagination of people who love cinema in a way that so few movies have,” Flanagan admitted. “There’s no other language to tell that story in. If you say ‘Overlook Hotel,’ I see something. It lives right up in my brain because of Stanley Kubrick. You can’t pretend that isn’t the case.”
It’s safe to say that — at the risk of using an over-used term — that both Kubrick and King were alpha male personalities. I don’t really think there’s an alternate universe where they both would’ve been best friends and Kubrick would’ve made a film that satisfied both parties. With that said, I do appreciate both men’s visions and they’ve offered two memorable versions of the same story. And that’s rare.
The history of Hollywood is littered with angry writers who are pissed off at the Stanley Kubricks of the world, but at the end of the day, there’s a reason films and novels are treated so differently — because they ARE inherently different. You can’t please everybody, and when it comes to supernatural horror films, sometimes ambiguity can be your friend, and other times it can’t. I’m interested to hear what my readers think about this though. Let me know in the comments below!
It’s ubiquitous. In fact, I just drank one roughly an hour ago.
It’s hard to imagine a world in which the unique Gatorade beverage doesn’t exist. After watching Insert Coach Here get dunked by a big vat of it for thousandth time, it still somehow doesn’t get old. And it helps refresh and rehydrate you. Who doesn’t love Gatorade?
But make no mistake: this drink had humble beginnings.
The guy who can take credit for inventing Gatorade is the late Dr. Robert Cade (1927-2007), a professor and research scientist at the University of Florida, home to the namesake Gators.
Cade was a US Navy veteran who had started practicing medicine in his home state of Texas after using the GI Bill to further his education. By 1965, he had only been on the University of Florida med school faculty for four years, and was best known for teaching internal medicine with a focus on kidney care.
At the time, the Florida Gators were playing a lot of tough games in the ultra-humid Florida weather, and players sometimes lost up to 18 pounds per game, mostly via sweat. Players never had to urinate, which could obviously hurt them physically, so head coach Ray Graves and assistant coach Dewayne Douglas came to Cade, hoping his research expertise could help them gain insight on how to replenish their players’ fluids.
During the 1965 and 1966 seasons, Cade and a team of three colleagues — Dana Shires, James Free and Alejandro de Quesada — concocted a mixture of water, sugar, sodium, phosphate, lemon juice and potassium. Cade simply called it “Gatorade” after the team. Ten players initially tried it and hated the taste, but the results spoke for themselves: in scrimmages, players were able to bounce back better after the grueling contact of gridiron. In a 1965 game against LSU, Florida roared to a comeback win in the second half despite 102-degree heat (39 celsius). Coach Graves was so impressed that he asked Cade to make enough Gatorade for all the players in every game for the rest of the season.
Quarterback Steve Spurrier, who won the Heisman for the Gators and later coached them to a national championship in 1996, later said, “I don’t have any answer for whether the Gatorade helped us be a better second-half team or not. We drank it, but whether it helped us in the second half, who knows?”
Opponents begged to differ: the Gators won their first-ever Orange Bowl over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in 1967, only two years after Gatorade was invented. Georgia Tech coach Bobby Dodd quipped “They had Gatorade and we didn’t,” when asked about the reason his team lost.
The next few years came at warp speed for both Cade and his new invention. By the end of the 60s, the professor had patented Gatorade and had also secured a long-term and unprecedented sponsorship with the National Football League. But getting the university itself to sponsor the drink was another challenge.
After patenting the formula, Cade made his employer the offer: he would offer the University of Florida 100 percent of the rights to Gatorade in exchange for its exclusive production and marketing of the drink, but the school declined. Cade instead got a bank loan and started his own business for Gatorade before offering the rights to Stokely-Van Camp, best known for its canned goods.
But once royalties hit the $200,000 mark, the university took notice. They later asked Cade for the patent rights, on the grounds that he was a university employee using both state and federal funds for research while at UF. They later took Cade to court, arguing that the university’s facilities and people were instrumental in developing the legendary drink. The case dragged on until it was resolved amicably in 1972. As a token of mutual respect, UF donated a significant amount of the settlement money to Cade own’s department and research at the med school.
To this day, the University of Florida receives roughly $12 million a year from Gatorade. The original cost to create the drink, according to Cade, was a mere $43.
Cade, for his part, was in uncharted territory: no medical researcher had ever done what he had done before. But after the court case was settled, he mostly stuck to his day job in Gainesville, Florida. In 1983, a bidding war resulted in Gatorade being bought out by Quaker Oats — of all companies — for $220 million. The following year, Gatorade made its way north of the border to Canada; by 1993, the drink was in Australia, Asia and Europe and had been endorsed by the GOAT himself — Michael Jordan, in his famous “Be Like Mike” ad in the same year.
Like other American food and drink tycoons, Cade also took a great interest in philanthropy as he got older, devoting significant amounts of his time and money into children’s hospitals, universities and the Lutheran Church (he was a lifelong member). He had great pride when he saw Gatorade used to help post-op patients or patients with diarrhea-related dehydration. Back in the lab, Cade and his research team did quality work on the subjects of hypertension, schizophrenia and renal disease. He retired in 2004 and, three years later, was named an honorary letterwinner by the UF Athletics Hall of Fame.
According to friends and family members, Cade was remarkably unchanged by the success of his brainchild. He liked cars and antique violins, amassing impressive collections of both, but he and his wife continued to live in the same Gainesville house that they had bought before Gatorade was invented. Cade exited this planet at the age of 80 in 2007; ironically, for someone who had spent his career studying kidneys, he died of kidney failure.
In 2013, Florida governor Rick Scott posthumously honored Cade during a ceremony at the Cade Museum: “Dr. Cade cared about people, he wanted to solve problems, he cared about this university, but he also cared about trying to make the whole state and the whole world a better place, and that’s what he did.”
“It was just a great household to grow up in because there was always something exciting going on,” said his daughter, Phoebe Cade. “He would explain things to us and do things with us. It gave me a love for a science that I’ve never given up.”
Whether you’re an athlete or a medical researcher, it’s hard to imagine a world without Gatorade.
Well, it’s that time of year again. It was an unusually busy offseason when it came to the comings and goings in the world of FBS college football. A number of high-profile schools made changes, including LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, USC and Oregon. As always, here’s my annual list of which hires were, in my opinion, the best:
1) Brian Kelly, LSU
Hometown: Everett, Massachusetts
Alma Mater: Assumption College
Previous Job: Head Coach, Notre Dame
What a difference two years makes. Ed Orgeron, Louisiana’s favorite son, was on top of the world in January 2020 after finishing a perfect 15-0 national championship season with Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow. But, 13 NFL draft picks and two lost coordinators later, LSU was a shell of its former self, despite stellar recruiting.
To the man’s credit, Orgeron wasn’t afraid to make staff changes and withstand criticism from fans, but with potential NCAA violations hovering around the program, LSU athletic director Scott Woodward had no choice but to make a change. Orgeron handled it with class, agreeing to mutually part ways with the Tigers at the end of 2021, but the stakes have never been higher for LSU.
All three of LSU’s most recent coaches—Orgeron, Les Miles and Nick Saban—won a national championship in Baton Rouge. Brian Kelly did almost everything but win a national title at Notre Dame, but he still finished his career second on the school’s all-time wins list (92). Kelly will also be helped by a talented roster that returns numerous players who were injured in the 2021 campaign. A quick turnaround isn’t out of the question—and it’s just what the doctor ordered.
2) Billy Napier, Florida
Hometown: Chatsworth, Georgia
Alma Mater: Furman University
Previous Job: Head Coach, Louisiana-Lafayette
The inexplicable meltdown that was Florida’s 2021 season started with some outstanding games, including a nailbiter against Alabama that the Gators ultimately lost by two points. But terrible defensive play, inconsistency at QB, and plenty of injuries took their toll. Dan Mullen’s defiant press conferences and excuses began to get old in the Swamp, especially after Georgia—their most hated SEC rival—was steamrolling everybody in their path.
Napier, who won 39 games in four seasons at Louisiana, is one of the few men in America who can claim to be mentored by both Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban, and his Ragin’ Cajuns were the class of the Sun Belt for the past few seasons. It’s been an endless storm of speculation as to what job would finally cause Napier to leave Lafayette, and it’s safe to say that question was answered. Embracing high expectations is part of the job in Gainesville, but the stakes have never been higher.
3) Brent Venables, Oklahoma
Hometown: Salina, Kansas
Alma Mater: Kansas State University
Previous Job: Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach, Clemson
The return of Venables is sure to have Sooner fans licking their chops after Lincoln Riley’s shocking move to USC in late November. After the retired Bob Stoops filled in during the Sooners’ bowl win against Oregon, Venables officially became the next OU coach. And it’s only fitting—he was the hottest assistant in the nation while he was defensive coordinator at Clemson and spent 12 seasons working under Stoops (from 1999-2012). OU’s move to the SEC looms in 2023, and Venables seems like the perfect candidate to take them there.
4) Lincoln Riley, USC
Hometown: Muleshoe, Texas
Alma Mater: Texas Tech University
Previous Job: Head Coach, Oklahoma
The “will they, won’t they” question was finally answered in Week Three, as the long-under-fire Clay Helton was finally dismissed at USC after a 1-1 start and a 46-24 overall record. Recruiting had suffered under Helton and the Trojans clearly weren’t dominating a mediocre Pac-12. The temptation to both reward Helton’s loyalty and view him as a stabilizing force after the disastrous tenures of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian led to the dismissal of athletic director/NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann.
Current AD Mike Bohn needed to make a decision, and he did, bringing in Oklahoma superstar Lincoln Riley, who went 55-10 in Norman and is widely considered America’s premier quarterback whisperer and one of its best recruiters. Can USC return to its glory days? The never-ending question continues, but Riley could prove to be the home-run hire that the Trojans have desperately needed.
It was a shock to many when Brian Kelly bolted to LSU in late November as the Fighting Irish still had a conceivable chance at the College Football Playoff. But school officials moved quickly, promoting defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to the full-time head coaching gig. And who doesn’t love that hire? Freeman was phenomenal as the DC under Luke Fickell at Cincinnati before moving to South Bend for the 2021 season. The Irish are still in a tricky position—being a perennial playoff contender without a conference—but they have the ingredients to continue to be relevant under Freeman.
6) Mario Cristobal, Miami
Hometown: Miami, Florida
Alma Mater: The University of Miami
Previous Job: Head Coach, Oregon
You can look at this hire in two different ways: on the one hand, what Cristobal has accomplished at Oregon the past four years has been fantastic. He expanded the Ducks’ already impressive recruiting regions, he upgraded both the offensive and defensive lines, and he kept the fast-paced, entertaining football that’s helped make UO such an intimidating opponent in the past 15 years. Cristobal is also a Miami alum who has ties to the Hurricanes’ glory days, as he was part of the 1989 and 1991 national championship teams.
On the flip side, Miami is in perpetual rebuild mode. The Canes haven’t won a New Year’s Six bowl game since 2004, haven’t appeared in one since 2017, and haven’t won a national championship since the fairytale 2001 season. Manny Diaz lasted all of three years before being fired, and Mark Richt lasted only three seasons before stepping down due to health problems. Cristobal will have to win immediately.
Mario Cristobal is a Miami alum, but it was a shock when he departed for The U at the end of November. Oregon, which traditionally promotes from within, was caught flat-footed at first, but it’s hard to argue with Lanning, who commanded a record-shattering Georgia defense in 2021. Lanning is still only 35 and has also worked under Nick Saban at Alabama and Mike Norvell at Memphis. He’s a terrific recruiter and should be able to improve upon the great work that Cristobal did to upgrade the trenches in Eugene. The Ducks are still in a position to contend in a weak Pac-12, but there’s still more work to be done to truly return to the nation’s elite.
8) Brent Pry, Virginia Tech
Hometown: Lexington, Virginia
Alma Mater: The University at Buffalo
Previous Job: Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach, Penn State
Justin Fuente was in a tough spot taking over for Hall of Famer Frank Beamer in 2016, but he had some early success before he was dismissed in November following six seasons at the helm. Few programs have been impacted by the transfer portal like the Hokies have, and the lack of consistency on both sides of the ball was glaring, especially for a program used to recruiting at a higher level, playing Top 25 defense, and winning the Coastal Division year in and year out. Fuente’s track record with QBs—he mentored a young Andy Dalton at TCU—didn’t seem to translate in Blacksburg.
Brent Pry, who spent the past six seasons as Penn State’s defensive coordinator, began his career as a GA at Virginia Tech under Beamer and legendary former DC Bud Foster. Tech is still a program with incredible potential, and school administration has upgraded the investment in the past few years. Pry was also smart to retain interim head coach/defensive line coach J.C. Price, who coached the Hokies to a win over rival Virginia. The recent decline of Clemson also proves that there’s much more parity in the ACC than meets the eye. Can the Hokies take advantage?
9) Kalen DeBoer, Washington
Hometown: Milbank, South Dakota
Alma Mater: The University of Sioux Falls
Previous Job: Head Coach, Fresno State
Jimmy Lake was seen as a perfectly logical choice in 2019 after Chris Petersen’s sudden retirement; after all, Lake had coached under Petersen at both Washington and Boise State and was known as an ace recruiter and defensive backs guru. But Lake’s bizarre tenure ended after just 13 games. He could afford to get a mulligan thanks to the COVID-shortened 2020 season, but several things didn’t help Lake in 2021, including a stunning season-opening loss to FCS Montana while ranked in the top 25, bizarre comments about Oregon’s academic standards heading into rivalry week (Oregon won anyway), as well as an ugly sideline incident where Lake struck a young Husky linebacker and was suspended for a game by school administration. Lake underachieved as a recruiter, too.
DeBoer was only at Fresno State for two seasons, but he has a proven offensive background and, ironically enough, mentored Washington transfer QB Jake Haener to a terrific 2021 season. Washington is a school with big aspirations, and they certainly have the money, facilities and fan support to back that up. How will a second coaching change in less than four years impact this program?
David Cutcliffe made Duke relevant, which is more than numerous predecessors did, and it was safe to say that the former Manning quarterback whisperer should’ve been allowed to retire on his own terms. But ever since QB Daniel Jones left Durham to start collecting NFL paychecks with the Giants, the Blue Devils have been spinning their wheels in the ACC, bottoming out with a 3-9 record in 2021. It’s often said that hard jobs remain hard, and there’s still a lot of ground to make up, even in the famously unpredictable ACC Coastal. Still, six bowl games under Cutcliffe might as well be six national titles for long-suffering Duke football fans who’ve been celebrating any type of success they can find.
Enter Mike Elko, former defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. On the surface, Elko might be a strange hire, as he’s a New Jersey native whose lone ACC experience came during his three-year tenure as the DC at Wake Forest (2014-16). But he worked wonders at both Notre Dame and Texas A&M and is one of the nation’s top recruiters. There’s plenty of work to do at Duke, but Elko’s hire gives the Blue Devils a much-needed jolt of new energy.
11) Tony Elliott, Virginia
Hometown: Watsonville, California
Alma Mater: Clemson University
Previous Job: Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator/Tight Ends Coach, Clemson
Bronco Mendenhall was considered a strange hire when he moved from BYU to UVA in 2016, but he got the long-struggling Cavaliers to five bowl games and a 2019 ACC Coastal Division title. A longtime defensive specialist, Mendenhall’s units had struggled on that side of the ball in recent years, but it was still a shock when the 55-year-old stepped down in December. It’s been tough to have sustained success in the 21st century in Charlottesville—can that change?
Of course, Elliott was one of the hottest coordinators in the country before Clemson slid out of playoff contention in 2021. He’s a Clemson alum and has spent his entire career recruiting in ACC territory, so he knows the terrain as well as anyone. But UVA is one of the tougher jobs in the ACC, and Mendenhall seemed to have hit a ceiling there. Getting to bowl games should be the minimum expectation, but Elliott’s tenure might be defined on how many times he can beat Virginia Tech. Although the Hokies have struggled in recent years, they’ve still beaten the Cavs in 20 of the last 22 meetings–Mendenhall only beat the Hokies once in six tries.
12) Sonny Dykes, TCU
Hometown: Big Spring, Texas
Alma Mater: Texas Tech University
Previous Job: Head Coach, SMU
Gary Patterson is TCU’s all-time winningest coach, and his accomplishments speak for themselves: 181 wins in 21 seasons, two AP Top 10 finishes (2010 and 2014), five conference titles and one share of a Big 12 championship (2014). But in the past four seasons combined, the Horned Frogs were a mere 22-21, with two losing campaigns. New blood was eventually going to be needed, and Jerry Kill did an admirable job as interim head coach. In the end, rival SMU provided an answer in Sonny Dykes, who has an overall record of 71-62 during head coaching stints at Louisiana Tech, Cal and SMU from 2010-2021.
Bottom line: TCU has an appealling history, a recent track record of success and plenty of NFL alumni. It won’t be hard to recruit and retain talent, but an outright Big 12 championship is a lot to ask, even with Oklahoma and Texas soon moving to greener pastures. If Dykes can provide some of the offensive fireworks he has at his previous stops, Frogs fans will be ecstatic.
13) Joey McGuire, Texas Tech
Hometown: Fort Worth, Texas
Alma Mater: The University of Texas at Arlington
Previous Job: Assistant Head Coach/Outside Linebackers Coach, Baylor
In 2018, Matt Wells was coming off a very impressive tenure at his alma mater, Utah State, going 44-34 and making four bowl games in five seasons. He jumped to Lubbock and the Big 12, but he ran into recent problems that have stymied Texas Tech coaches in the post-Mike Leach era—routinely mediocre defenses and inconsistent offenses. While the case can certainly be made for getting rid of Wells too early, with the Big 12 reshaping itself in the near future, the Raiders can’t afford to be mired in mediocrity anymore.
McGuire has credibility in the state of Texas as a legendary high school coach at Cedar Hill in suburban Dallas. He’s an excellent defensive mind and was the lone assistant coach that was retained by Baylor head coach Dave Aranda when he took over before the 2020 season. However, his lack of any collegiate coordinator experience will be disappointing for Red Raider fans accustomed to the big school success that guys like Leach or Kliff Kingsbury had prior to coming to Lubbock. McGuire signed a quality recruiting class and Tech is in a position for a quick rebuild, but the margin for error is slim.
14) Sonny Cumbie, Louisiana Tech
Hometown: Snyder, Texas
Alma Mater: Texas Tech University
Previous Job: Interim Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach, Texas Tech
Skip Holtz, a former head coach at East Carolina, UConn and USF, arrived in Ruston, Louisiana with little fanfare, but after a 4-8 debut in 2013, he led the Bulldogs to seven straight bowl games, winning six of them. He also collected three Conference USA West Division titles and was the 2016 C-USA Coach of the Year. However, cracks began to show during the 2020 season and there were glaring inconsistencies on both offense and defense. In 2021, at 3-8 heading into the season finale at Rice, AD Eric Wood met with Holtz and decided that he wouldn’t return.
A Mike Leach disciple, Cumbie was named interim head coach at Texas Tech after coach Matt Wells was fired in October and was originally retained by new head coach Joey McGuire. There’s a recent track record of success in Ruston and Cumbie is an acclaimed offensive mind, so this shouldn’t be a bad fit at all.
15) Jay Norvell, Colorado State
Hometown: Madison, Wisconsin
Alma Mater: The University of Iowa
Previous Job: Head Coach, Nevada
After two mediocre seasons under veteran coach Steve Addazio, the Rams decided to move on. Addazio was a bizarre fit in Fort Collins to begin with, having exclusively coached in the south and on the east coast and having only middling success at programs like Temple and Boston College. Norvell, on the other hand, has Mountain West experience at Nevada and, after a 3-9 debut in 2017, went 30-17 in the following four years with four bowl games.
Colorado State is blessed with high-quality facilities and, unlike some of their Mountain West peers, they’ve invested in their football program. However, there’s only a finite amount of in-state talent and the Mountain Division isn’t getting any easier. It’s a long climb back up, even for Norvell, a gifted recruiter who won consistently in Reno.
After winning 30 games in four seasons, Sonny Dykes was bound to move on eventually, but moving across town to rival TCU was certainly a shock. Rhett Lashlee, a former SMU OC, is a quality choice after helping Miami resurrect its 2021 season offensively. Lashlee is still young (38) and he was mentored by Gus Malzahn, so his offenses should be fun to watch. Given that SMU is in the midst of its best run since before the death penalty days, Lashlee should be able to embrace the high expectations. The offensive fireworks should continue.
17) Jerry Kill, New Mexico State
Hometown: Cheney, Kansas
Alma Mater: Southwestern College
Previous Job: Assistant to the Head Coach/Interim Head Coach, TCU
Doug Martin took over at New Mexico State in 2013 and inherited a punchline of a program riding the nation’s longest bowl drought (50-plus years). But he built the Aggies slowly—rebuilding with high schoolers rather than JUCO transfers—and finally got to that elusive bowl game in 2017, winning a thriller over Utah State in the Arizona Bowl. But then the Sun Belt Conference showed the Aggies the door, and it’s been a smattering of one, two, and three-win seasons since then. Martin had also rubbed the fanbase and administration the wrong way, lamenting the lack of resources being invested into the program and canceling press conferences unexpectedly.
The unlikely savior in Las Cruces is Jerry Kill, the former Minnesota and Northern Illinois head coach who was forced to retire due to health issues in 2015. The 60-year-old Kill is fresh off a stint as interim head coach at TCU after Gary Patterson left midseason. He should be able to assemble a solid staff, plus he finally has a conference: NMSU will play only one more season as an FBS independent before heading to Conference USA in 2023.
18) Jeff Tedford, Fresno State
Hometown: Lynwood, California
Alma Mater: Fresno State
Previous Job: Head Coach, Fresno State (2017-19)
Kalen DeBoer only lasted two seasons in Fresno, but he was remarkably successful; the Bulldogs had explosive offenses and routinely out-muscled their opponents on defense, too. Unlike other Group of Five conferences, the Mountain West isn’t expanding, so it should be business as usual for Bulldogs’ fans. Fresno State has a recent track record of success, plenty of NFL alumni, and is surrounded by high-level talent in both northern and southern California.
Tedford, the former Bulldogs’ head coach from 2017-2019, originally stepped down due to health issues, but he’s been a winner not just in Fresno, but at Cal, where he mentored a young Aaron Rodgers. He recruited players that are still on the roster and he’s a Bulldog alum, to boot. Fresno should stay relevant, although it remains to be seen if they can eclipse rival San Diego State in the West Division.
Tom Arth seemed like a good hire for Akron at the time. After all, he was a native of nearby Cleveland, he had success at lower levels of football (D-III powerhouse John Carroll and FCS Chattanooga) and had a reputation as a good recruiter and someone who could do more with less. Two and a half years later, Akron showed Arth the door after going an awful 3-27 (2-17 in the MAC).
Former Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead didn’t produce the desired results or consistency needed in Starkville, but he’s still an excellent coach who did a great job these past couple of seasons at Oregon, plus he has experience at Akron, having spent the 2004-08 seasons there. No one’s saying that Akron is an easy place to win—the Zips have a mere three bowl games and one conference championship in 34 years at the FBS level. But they should be better than this, given the amount of talent in Ohio and given that the Zips play in one of the weakest conferences in the Group of Five.
This has the feeling of a sneaky-good coaching hire. Wilson coached in Reno during two separate stints under Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault, 1989-1998 and 2004-2012. Wilson followed that up by spending the past nine seasons in the Pac-12 working under Mike Leach at Washington State and most recently for Mario Cristobal at Oregon. Nevada has historically been strong in football, but has received tepid support from school administration in the post-Ault era. Wilson has the recruiting prowess, experience and Nevada roots to change that.
21) Clay Helton, Georgia Southern
Hometown: Sugar Land, Texas
Alma Mater: The University of Houston
Previous Job: Head Coach, USC
Chad Lunsford was a long-time assistant at Southern who got the full-time job off the strength of his interim head coach work in 2017, when school administration fired Tyson Summers halfway through the season. Lunsford was a solid recruiter who got the Eagles to three straight bowl games, but his overall record was an average 28-21, including only 17-14 in the Sun Belt. The Eagles have done well since moving up from the FCS ranks in 2014, but they’re currently playing catch-up against Coastal Carolina and historic rival Appalachian State in the Sun Belt East. A loyal fanbase expected better, more consistent play. Thankfully, this is still an attractive job for the right candidate, even during another round of conference re-alignment.
Enter Helton. The former USC coach went 46-24 overall, which would be excellent at any program not named USC. He could thrive with a lesser spotlight at a program with a winning tradition, although some longtime Eagle boosters weren’t particularly thrilled, given the long history of Georgia Southern’s triple-option scheme and the fact that Helton prefers more of a spread offense. It’ll be an interesting transition.
22) Stan Drayton, Temple
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
Alma Mater: Allegheny College
Previous Job: Associate Head Coach/Running Backs Coach/Run Game Coordinator, Texas
Drayton was the final hire to be made in the coaching carousel (mid-December, and he wasn’t on the radar for a lot of programs. But firstly, here’s some context:
Prior to 2009, Temple had appeared in only two bowl games in a century, had been booted from the former Big East and was one of the worst teams in the country. Since then, the Owls have appeared in seven bowl games and former head coaches include Steve Addazio (Boston College, Colorado State), Matt Rhule (Baylor, Carolina Panthers), and Geoff Collins (Georgia Tech). So it’s safe to say that the standard has been raised, which is why Rod Carey was shown the door after winning only 12 games in three seasons. Carey had five winning seasons in six years at Northern Illinois, but he dealt with massive transfers at Temple and had difficulty establishing an identity on either side of the ball. In 2021, the Owls finished dead last in the AAC with a 3-9 record (1-7 in conference), so new athletic director Arthur Johnson decided to make a change.
Drayton has six years of NFL experience and, while he’s never been a college coordinator or coach, he has coached running backs at schools like Texas, Ohio State, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi State. This was an outside-the-box kind of hire, but the Owls have slowly raised the standard to where they can bounce back relatively quickly.
23) Jim Mora, UConn
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Alma Mater: The University of Washington
Previous Job: Head Coach, UCLA (2012-2017)
Randy Edsall was the savior for UConn football that wasn’t. He had, after all, led UConn to its first — and only — New Year’s Six bowl game in the BCS era way back in 2010 (the overmatched Huskies lost badly to Oklahoma). After some tough sledding at Maryland, Edsall came back to the Northeast to try again, but after the AAC unceremoniously booted UConn out, the Huskies entered no man’s land as an FBS independent. Edsall had originally arranged to step down at the end of 2021, only to ditch the team after an 0-2 start.
Although he’s never coached in the Northeast, Jim Mora brings NFL credibility to the role. While his tenure at UCLA didn’t go the way he hoped, he still finished with a winning record. Any winning at all would be welcome at UConn at this point.
24) Jake Dickert, Washington State
Hometown: Oconto, Wisconsin
Alma Mater: The University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point
Previous Job: Interim Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach, Washington State
This one was tricky—the Cougars were 4-3 and riding a winning streak when second-year head coach Nick Rolovich was dismissed, along with four of his assistants, after choosing not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine (a requirement for all state employees, including Rolovich, who was making about $3 million per season). It was a tough pill to swallow, as Rolovich’s recruiting and offensive philosophy was just beginning to take hold.
The team dealt with the distractions as best as they could, and credit is due to interim head coach/defensive coordinator Jake Dickert. He steered the Cougars to a bowl game, plus a school-record margin of victory in an Apple Cup win over Washington, and was then promoted to the full-time job on November 27th. But this hire needs to work in order to take advantage of a young, improving team and unite a divided fanbase in Pullman. Like their rivals in Seattle, Wazzu will be dealing with their third head coach in the past four seasons. Dickert assembled a good staff, including an offensive coordinator, Eric Morris, with an Air Raid background. But Dickert himself has only been an FBS assistant since 2017, so he’s still the resident newbie.
Butch Davis was a surprising choice at FIU after being out of coaching for half a decade, but he got the Panthers to three bowl games before beginning a downhill skid in 2020. Citing burnout, Davis announced on November 15th that he would be leaving at the end of the year, while simultaneously slamming school administration for their lack of investment in football. FIU is also in the awkward position of being one of only three Conference USA schools (along with Louisiana Tech and UTEP) that were not offered invitations to join other conferences in the latest round of realignment. Davis claimed that FIU administation refused to upgrade facilities and uniforms and did not allow any recruiting trips, citing both COVID issues and budget issues. Athletic director Pete Garcia resigned a week before Davis did, and no one from the administration building offered any comment whatsoever.
MacIntyre isn’t exactly a young up-and-comer at age 56. Like Davis, he’s a former Power Five head coach (Colorado), and he also helped lead San Jose State—also a historically challenging job—to unprecedented heights with their 10-win campaign in 2012. FIU is surrounded by a ton of local talent and it isn’t hard to win games there. But it’s become crystal clear that the program needs more investment. MacIntyre has a good reputation as a defensive mind and should be able to recruit well, but he still only has two winning seasons in nine total years as a head coach. Thankfully, Conference USA will be getting relatively weaker thanks to conference alignment. So maybe MacIntyre’s veteran hand can help this long-struggling FIU program succeed.
26) Don Brown, UMass
Hometown: Spencer, Massachusetts
Alma Mater: Norwich University
Previous Job: Defensive Coordinator, Arizona
Make no mistake—the UMass job is one of the toughest in the country. The Minutemen moved up to the FBS in 2012, but were unceremoniously booted from the Mid-American Conference after only four seasons. Since then, they’ve been a lonely FBS independent, and offensive guru Walt Bell was predicted to be the program’s savior when he arrived in late 2018. Since then, UMass has lost 23 of their past 25 games under Bell, and the final straw was a bad home loss to FCS Rhode Island on November 6th.
For the second time as an FBS school, UMass looked to a former FCS head coach, Don Brown, to return to Amherst for his second stint (Mark Whipple had previously done so from 2014-18). Brown, a New England native, coached the Minutemen from 2004-08, compiling a record of 43-19. Since then, he’s been a defensive coordinator at five different schools, most notably under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. At 66 years old, Brown is hardly a fresh young face, but he knows the territory as well as anyone and brings a wealth of defensive knowledge. UMass has yet to win more than four games in a season as an FBS member, so he’ll have his work cut out for him.
27) Michael Desormeaux, Louisiana-Lafayette
Hometown: New Iberia, Louisiana
Alma Mater: The University of Louisiana at Lafayette
It was only a matter of time before Billy Napier left Lafayette, but the Cajuns are still in position to be one of the Sun Belt’s juggernauts even as the conference expands. There’s always talent in the state of Louisiana, and the Cajuns have one of the rowdiest fan bases of any Group of Five team. Desormeaux, who was promoted from within, is an alum and a popular assistant coach, but he’s never been a head coach at the Power Five level. With the amount of talent in their backyard, the Cajuns should be fine. But fans have every right to expect more.
Chip Lindsey had arrived at Troy as an acclaimed former Power Five coordinator (Auburn and Arizona State), but he left town with 15-19 record and no Sun Belt championships. Granted, former Troy head coach and current West Virginia boss Neal Brown had left a very high bar to clear—35-16 in four seasons—but Troy’s fans have expected more in the past, and with good reason.
Jon Sumrall is a former Trojans assistant under Brown who spent this past year as co-DC and linebackers coach at Kentucky. He’s an Alabama native, has SEC experience and knows what the job will entail, but this past year is his only job yet as a coordinator. Troy is still one of the best jobs in the Sun Belt from a recruiting and facilities perspective. Will that be enough?
What is it about the 57-year-old actor that makes him so compelling, even after he’s accumulated more terrible B-movies than Seagal, Schwarzenegger and Stallone combined? Why is Cage’s onscreen presence so inherently compelling, regardless of how good or bad the film is?
Ethan Hawke, a two-time Oscar nominee, has been quoted as saying that Cage is “the only actor since Marlon Brando who’s done anything new with the art.” That’s high praise. But Hawke certainly isn’t alone. Legendary director David Lynch calls Cage “the jazz musician of American acting.” Sean Penn gave Cage a shout-out while accepting his Oscar for Mystic River. Over at The Guardian, film critic Luke Buckmaster says, “In Cage’s hands, cartoonish moments are imbued with real emotion and real emotions become cartoons. Everything – from individual scenes down to single lines of dialogue – feel like they have been embraced as opportunities for creation. Cage is usually interesting even when his films are not. He is erratic and unpredictable; he is captivating and he is capricious.”
Cage himself has remained coy in interviews. Like many actors, he spurns many attempts at looking deeper into his performance or the film itself, preferring that they speak for themselves. In a February 2011 interview, he stated that he developed his own style of acting called nouveau shamanic, citing a book called The Way of the Actor by Brian Bates. Since then, Cage has invariably called his acting “Western kabuki” and “German expressionist.”
Touché, Mr Cage. Touché.
Much like his fellow meme-worthy actor Willem Dafoe, Cage is someone who has the charisma, wit and screen presence to play leading-man roles, but often rejects that in favor of experimental indie films that allow him to be himself. Another actor who frequently chose creepy, quirky or weird supporting characters over classic leading-man roles was the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
But both Hoffman and Dafoe came from the theatre world, where understanding of a character takes place over a long period of time. Cage, of course, comes from filmmaking royalty, as the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, one of the greatest American filmmakers to ever live (he famously chose the surname of Cage to avoid charges of nepotism).
As Buckmaster describes it, “Cage is clearly attracted to grotesque characters and is celebrated for his wild and unhinged approach to them. He has the presence of a leading man and the eccentricities of a character actor.”
Cage is a man who sometimes goes to extremes when it comes to method acting. When preparing to play a PTSD-stricken Vietnam vet in the film Birdy, for example, he infamously ripped out two of his own teeth without anesthesia and spent multiple weeks with his face covered in bandages. In an interview this past July for Variety, Cage said that he feels disillusioned about the Hollywood industry due to a number of factors, not the least of which were “commercial constraints” that forced him to rein in his performances. Now, he claims, he prefers to star in smaller indie features where directors give him more room to experiment.
I’ll admit: I’m not above enjoying a few of Cage’s films for the meme factor alone. I can get plenty of ironic humor out of his eccentric, cunning domestic terrorist character in the cheesy 90s action flick Face/Off, for example. As a teenager, I enjoyed the wit and wry charm that he brought to conspiracy theorist historian Ben Gates in National Treasure, and I’ll admit he had solid on-screen chemistry with veteran character actor Justin Bartha. I don’t, however, recommend many of Cage’s other films during that time period (despite all the funny memes, I hated the horrible 2006 remake of the classic British horror film The Wicker Man). On the flip side, Cage might be unfairly criticized, since he’s most definitely an actor who needs to work with a talented director in order to truly shine. Of course, Cage did that in his Oscar-winning role as a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas (directed by Mike Figgis) and in his Oscar-nominated turn in Adaptation (directed by Spike Jonze). In many of his other films, however, Cage is plain bad (Mom & Dad, Dog Eat Dog and USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage). But again, even someone like the undeniably talented Mark Wahlberg can be great when Martin Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson directs him — and terrible when he’s directed by Michael Bay or M Night Shyamalan.
Why has Cage, in retrospect, gotten so much respect from the acting community while simultaneously becoming a living meme? On the one hand, Cage is known for being a genial, good-humored guy who works well with directors. Away from the set, he’s also known as one of Hollywood’s most generous philanthropists. Buckmaster claims that Cage’s well-cultured background — growing up in the shadow of his uncle — gave him a bit of a rebellious streak, choosing weird characters and weird scripts while breaking some of the rules that Hollywood’s leading men are supposed to follow. That may or may not be true, but one thing’s for sure: at this point in time, Cage is saying yes to every script he can.
A quick Google search can tell you that — thanks to a wide variety of dumb financial decisions — Cage currently owes quite a bit in property taxes to the IRS. If you want to truly look at the man’s eccentricities, look no further than his purchases: a castle in Germany, a haunted hotel in New Orleans, a multi-million dollar dinosaur skull, a beachfront mansion in Rhode Island and a Lamborghini that once belonged to the Shah of Iran. Thanks to a couple of expensive divorces and bad property investments, Cage needs the cash. And with that, comes lots of B-movies that inevitably end up in the straight-to-Netflix graveyard.
“At this low point in his career, Cage is taking roles in rote, medium-budget thrillers as everymen, usually cops or morally justified criminals, and he is self-consciously reining in his excess to give these roles a level of gravitas that often seem out of place. He should be flying way over the top in the mediocre movies,” laments Alex Peterson of SpectrumCulture.com, while still praising Cage’s fearlessness as an actor.
That tag of everyman has been both a blessing and a curse for Cage. I’ll be honest — for an actor who’s never been good at picking scripts, Cage has nonetheless found some intriguing characters to play. I was pleasantly surprised at his stirring performance in Mandy (you can find my review here), a psychedelic horror film where he hunts down the Manson Family clones that murdered his girlfriend. Cage has also challenged himself with roles like 2013’s Joe, where he plays a tormented man who must rescue a teenage boy from his abusive dad. The 2009 film Knowing flopped at the box office, but Cage got solid reviews for his portrayal of an MIT professor who discovers a mysterious time capsule at his son’s elementary school. He also played a conflicted assassin who has a change of heart in 2008’s Bangkok Dangerous, and teamed up with Jared Leto to play international arms-dealing brothers in Lord of War.
So the charge of “Cage always plays the same character” isn’t entirely accurate. The problem is having to sift through so many boring, lame movies to truly appreciate the guy’s talent. With that said, in the right context, and with the right director to harness Cage’s raw edge and wildness, he can be surprisingly good. I guess what makes Cage so fascinating is that — much like his old friend Johnny Depp — you never know what film he might make next. He might just create his own category of movie: the Good, the Bad, and the Cage.
In the waning days of the Mayan empire, one man will stop at nothing to save his family.
Jaguar Paw leads a simple hunter-gatherer life among his fellow Mayan villagers, providing for his pregnant wife, Seven and toddler son Turtles Run. While hunting with his father and some friends, Jaguar Paw becomes alarmed when the group stumbles upon a group of impoverished villagers seeking “a new beginning” as they pass through the jungle. However, Jaguar Paw’s father, Flint Sky, encourages his son to not let the “sickness” of fear affect him.
The next morning, Jaguar Paw’s village is ransacked by a group of vicious warriors, led by the fierce Zero Wolf and the sadistic Middle Eye. Jaguar Paw evades his captors at first, hiding his wife and son in an empty well before eventually being knocked unconscious. In the ensuing fracas, Flint Sky is killed in front of his son, while Jaguar Paw and his fellow male villagers are tied up and forced to march to the city. The women and children are either killed, violated or left to starve.
En route to the great Mayan city, the captors view numerous disturbing sights, including deforested crops, destitute, plague-infested populations and greedy merchants. Upon their arrival to the city, Jaguar Paw & Co. discover that they are to be sacrificed to the gods, but after a sudden solar eclipse, their fate is suspended. Eventually, Jaguar Paw escapes and leads his captors on a pulse-pounding journey through the jungle as he attempts to go back home and save his family.
Apocalypto is an unusual film in more ways than one. It came out in 2006 — a perfect time for me. At the time, I was a 13-year-old in Virginia who was first seriously considering a career in the movies, and this action-adventure film was one of the first that really opened my eyes to what the power of film was and what it could do. It also helped that it was a foreign language film; to a kid growing up in a largely homogenous small city, it was a window into a whole new world.
Part 1: Background and Context
Apocalypto was actor/director Mel Gibson’s first movie after his controversial, record-breaking religious epic The Passion of the Christ in 2004 — but apart from the “foreign language film” branding, Apocalypto was a much different movie. The Passion was an independent film largely financed by Gibson’s own Icon Productions; meanwhile, Apocalypto was a $40 million production released by Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures.
Although the violence, torture and alleged anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ drew significant detractors, others admired Gibson’s film purely as a daring artistic endeavor. The Passion smashed nearly every box office record for an R-rated film or a religious film, grossed $625 million worldwide and received three Academy Award nominations. It received acclaim from both Protestants and Gibson’s fellow Catholics, opened up a larger landscape for realistic Biblical epics and gave Gibson renewed clout after nearly a decade away from the director’s chair.
So how do you follow up that?
Any foreign language film is a gamble for American audiences. Perhaps no one other than Gibson would be able to pull off back-to-back epic films featuring unknown actors speaking dead languages.
“I think hearing a different language allows the audience to completely suspend their own reality and get drawn into the world of the film,” the director stated. “And more importantly, this also puts the emphasis on the cinematic visuals, which are a kind of universal language of the heart.”
Filmed mostly in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico and featuring a completely unknown cast of Native American and Hispanic actors, Apocalypto was non-traditional in a variety of ways. Nonetheless, it’s a deceptively simple story — an action/adventure flick about a guy who gets kidnapped, eludes his fate as a potential human sacrifice, and sprints back to the forest to search for his family. It’s a cat-and-mouse chase film with no sci-fi effects, explosions or cliches.
Part 2: Filmmaking Influences & Story Development
The roots of Apocalypto began to blossom largely thanks to Gibson’s unlikely partnership with Farhad Safinia, an Englishman who worked on post-production of The Passion. The two men immediately bonded over their mutual love of storytelling, and both Gibson and Safinia said that they wanted to make a high-quality action film with no CGI or complicated effects.
“We wanted to update the chase genre by 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 said.
In addition to his and Safinia’s desire to make an old-school chase movie, Gibson also said that he wanted the film to explore pre-Columbian civilizations and why they fell. Just like The Passion, Apocalypto features no opening credits and includes a singular quote, in this case from Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”
Gibson and Safinia considered doing a film about the Aztecs, but ultimately opted for the Mayans. “You can choose a civilization that is bloodthirsty, or you can show the Maya 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,” remarked Safinia.
Gibson and Safinia used several Mayan holy books, including the Popul Vuh, to give them historical and creative inspiration for the screenwriting process. They also examined accounts of Spanish conquistadors, who described the Maya in their journals.
The two men did a wide variety of location scouting during pre-production. They initially looked at jungles in Guatemala and Costa Rica before switching course and choosing to film in the Yucatán Peninsula. Most filming was conducted in the state of Veracruz, specifically the areas surrounding San Andrés Tuxtla, Paso de Ovejas and Catemaco.
While Gibson’s vision of the pre-Columbian Americas is undeniably intriguing (helped by some stunning cinematography), this is still an adrenaline-pumping action film at its heart. The real influence behind Apocalypto‘s brilliance might actually be George Miller — the acclaimed Australian filmmaker who first brought Gibson to prominence as an actor with the Mad Max trilogy. Gibson’s directorial style is very similar to Miller’s, with lots of on-screen violence, minimal dialogue and gorgeous images to boot. And that’s not the only connection: Apocalypto director of photography Dean Semler, one of the most acclaimed cinematographers in the industry, worked with Gibson, a fellow Aussie, on Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in 1981. The way Gibson cranks up the suspense and violence in the film really feels like a throwback to the ’80s heyday of Miller.
As strange as it may sound, Apocalypto also feels like a culmination of many of Gibson’s career highlights. A suspenseful chase film with minimal dialogue (Mad Max). A historical, albeit somewhat inaccurate, portrayal of a real moment in history (Braveheart). And, of course, a film entirely in a dead language (The Passion).
While the brutality of human sacrifice is a harrowing and visually stimulating spectacle, the subsequent chase sequences are truly epic and need to be seen to be believed. But even the drawn-out prelude to the sacrifice scene — where Jaguar Paw and his friends see the decay and disrepair of the once-great Mayan city — is exquisitely shot by Semler and builds the tension up while once again using dialogue sparingly.
Part 3: Non-Actors Acting
The acting is excellent, especially considering that they’re all completely unknown. Lead actor Rudy Youngblood, a Native American from Belton, Texas, has the physical build of an action star in addition to a great mix of raw charisma and vulnerability. Dalia Hernandez — in her film debut as Jaguar Paw’s wife, Seven — has an innocent look to her that makes her experiences in the film all the more harrowing and intense. Gibson explicitly said that he had to consider character archetypes and facial structures when he auditioned these inexperienced actors — as opposed to simply talent alone — and he thought that Youngblood had a convincingly heroic look to him. Youngblood was a high school track and field star who also had experience in boxing and traditional Native dance prior to becoming an actor. He performed all of his own stunts in the film.
Jonathan Brewer and Morris Birdyellowhead are two other actors who shine in brief but pivotal roles: Birdyellowhead as Jaguar Paw’s father, Flint Sky, and Brewer as Blunted, a friend of Jaguar Paw’s who’s frequently the subject of locker-room jokes due to impotency issues with his wife. While Blunted makes for good comic relief early on in the film, he’s also a loyal friend who is there for Jaguar Paw until the very end. Meanwhile, Flint Sky’s wisdom provides a guiding light for his son that permeates throughout the film. Both Brewer and Birdyellowhead are First Nations actors from Alberta, Canada.
Apocalypto has a murderer’s row of intimidating villains, highlighted by Raoul Trujillo and Gerardo Taracena, who play lead villain Zero Wolf and his second-in-command, Middle Eye, respectively. These two actors really shine, using subtle expressions and non-verbal cues to send menacing messages, particularly in the latter half of the film when their fellow warriors start biting the dust.
Based on how consistently good the acting is in Apocalypto, it’s hard to tell who’s relatively experienced and who isn’t, but Trujillo and Taracena were actually some of the more veteran actors on set.Taracena had a brief role in the 2005 Denzel Washington action flick Man on Fire, while Trujillo, a Native American from Taos, New Mexico, was an experienced actor, painter and traditional dancer before being cast in Apocalypto. A handful of other Mexican character actors also rounded out the cast, including Mayra Serbulo, Israel Contreras, Ricardo Diaz Mendoza, Fernando Hernandez, Carlos Ramos and Marco Antonio Argueta.
These actors were put through the ringer, filming in dense Mexican jungles and also learning a new language from scratch for the film. As mentioned before, Apocalypto‘s dialogue is entirely in the Yucatec Mayan language, accompanied by English subtitles.
Part 4: Historical and Academic Influences
“Maya civilization in the Central Area reached its full glory in the early eighth century, but it must have contained the seeds of its own destruction,” says archaeologist Michael Coe. “In the century and a half that followed, all its magnificent cities had fallen into decline and ultimately suffered abandonment. This was surely one of the most profound social and demographic catastrophes of all human history.”
True enough, we still don’t actually know exactly what happened to the Mayans before the Spanish conquest, and there are many theories out there.
At its height, the Mayans occupied most of southeastern Mexico in addition to Guatemala, Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. The Mayan civilization itself can be broken down into pre-Classic, Classic and post-Classic periods. The post-Classic Maya period (roughly 950-1530 AD) was basically the beginning of the end. Various cities were conquered by Europeans or by neighboring tribes. Some once-great Mayan cities were abandoned, and yet others continued to thrive only a few miles away. While Europeans made first contact with the Maya in 1511, the last Mayan city, Nojpetén, didn’t fall until 1697. There was even a tribe, the Lacandón people, who vanished into the jungle and lived completely uncontacted and unmolested until the 1920s!
Many experts believe that it was environmental problems — including drought, deforestation, or famine — that did these people in. Or maybe it was all of the above. But Apocalypto also hints at many other factors, not the least of which were widespread slavery, vicious human sacrifice, power-hungry leaders, vicious tribal infighting and excessive consumerism.
According to Gibson, the themes of Apocalypto aren’t necessarily specific to the decline of the Mayan culture and include relevant comparisons to modern day countries and peoples.
“It was important for me to make that parallel because you see these cycles repeating themselves over and over again,” Gibson said. “People think that modern man is so enlightened, but we’re susceptible to the same forces – and we are also capable of the same heroism and transcendence.”
Gibson and Safinia enlisted the help of two consultants for Apocalypto‘s production: Dr. Richard Hansen, an anthropology professor and an expert on the Maya, and Hilario Chi Canul, a young linguistics professor at the University of Quintana Roo who translated the script into Yucatec Mayan. Both men proved invaluable on the production.
In addition to bringing in Semler as cinematographer, Gibson also looked to production designer Tom Sanders (a former Braveheart colleague) to recreate the awe-inspiring Mayan city for the film, using very little CGI or visual effects to come up with the finished product. The final human sacrifice scene featured over 700 extras.
Oscar-nominated makeup artist Aldo Signoretti supervised the extremely detailed jewelry, makeup and tattoos that the Mayans wore in the film. Propmaster Simon Atherton, another Braveheart veteran, designed all of the ancient weapons used onscreen.
Part 5: Reception
Apocalypto was a critical and commercial success when it was released in December 2006, grossing over $120 million worldwide against a production budget of $40 million. Many critics praised the film, while some disliked it for historical inaccuracies and for its graphic violence.
Unfortunately, Apocalypto got overlooked at many awards shows for completely different reasons. The film was released only a few months after Gibson’s now-infamous DUI arrest in Malibu, where he drunkenly made anti-Semitic comments to the arresting officer.
“Say what you will about Gibson – about his problem with booze or his problem with Jews – he is a serious filmmaker,” remarked A.O. Scott of the New York Times. Ty Burr of The Boston Globe quipped: “Gibson may be a lunatic, but he’s our lunatic, and while I wouldn’t wish him behind the wheel of a car after happy hour or at a B’nai Brith function anytime soon, behind a camera is another matter.”
Gibson’s film also gained several passionate defenders among fellow members of the Hollywood community. “I think it’s a masterpiece,” remarked Quentin Tarantino. “I think it was the best artistic film of that year.”
“I was totally caught off guard,” said Oscar-winning actor Edward James Olmos. “It’s arguably the best movie I’ve seen in years. I was blown away.”
“Many pictures today don’t go into troubling areas like this: the importance of violence in the perpetuation of civilization,” said Martin Scorsese. “I admire Apocalypto for its frankness, but also for the power and artistry of the filmmaking.”
In addition to gaining critical acclaim from general American audiences, the film was largely well-received by Mexicans and Native Americans. Both Rudy Youngblood and Morris Birdyellowhead won acting awards from the First Americans in the Arts (FAITA) organization. Gibson also screened the film to audiences at the Latino Business Association in Los Angeles and to various Native American organizations in Oklahoma. While accepting the Chairman’s Visionary Award for the Latino Business Association, Gibson stated that his goal for the film was to dispel the myth that “history began with Europeans.” In a poll, 80% of Mexicans labeled Apocalypto as either “good” or “very good.”
To be sure, Apocalypto had its fair share of detractors, many of whom were dissatisfied about the representation of the Maya. Mexican journalist Juan Pardinas remarked, “This historical interpretation bears some resemblances with reality, but Mel Gibson’s characters are more similar to the Mayas of the Bonampak murals than the ones that appear in the Mexican school textbooks.”
Other commentators stated that the savagery present in Apocalypto — specifically the human sacrifice scenes — was more representative of the Aztecs than the Maya.
“The first researchers tried to make a distinction between the ‘peaceful’ Maya and the ‘brutal’ Aztec cultures of central Mexico,” said researcher David Stuart. “They even tried to say human sacrifice was rare among the Maya.”
Dr Hansen responded by stating, “We know warfare was going on…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.”
On the DVD commentary, Gibson and Safinia stated that the depiction of latter-day Mayan culture was relatively consistent with what was going on elsewhere in 15th-century Central America, where culture-borrowing was not uncommon as various civilizations began to crumble and — in the case of the Maya — vanish unexpectedly. Therefore, the argument becomes that Mayan and Aztec cultures could have blended together more than anticipated in the decades leading up to European contact.
It’s also worth mentioning that the ancient Mayans themselves didn’t view themselves as one unified people group. Much like the ancient Greeks, the Mayans were primarily clustered around city-states and were never one cohesive empire like the Aztecs or the Romans.
This would explain why the peaceful forest-dwellers like Jaguar Paw are completely unprepared for the vicious neighboring tribes to invade, kill and kidnap early on in the movie. While many Mayan experts have claimed that nobility were far more likely to be sacrifice victims than commoners, the film implies that the drought and deforestation has become so severe that the Mayan rulers are willing to basically sacrifice thousands — regardless of socioeconomic status — in order to appease the gods. During the human sacrifice scene, the high priest makes references to the ongoing drought and seeks to appease the god Kukulkan, a notable Post-Classic Mayan deity.
The architecture of the Mayan temple is more or less accurate, but it’s blended from several different eras of Mayan civilization, not just the Post-Classic Maya period in which the film takes place.
“We wanted to set up the Mayan world, but we were not trying to do a documentary,” said production designer Tom Sanders. “Visually, we wanted to go for what would have the most impact…our job is to do a beautiful movie.”
“There was nothing in the Post-Classic period that would match the size and majesty of that pyramid in the film,” admitted Hansen. “But Mel was trying to depict opulence, wealth and consumption of resources.”
To that end, audiences can see quite a bit of the forces that contributed to the Mayans’ collapse. In the lengthy sequences where Jaguar Paw and his friends are being taken to the Mayan city, we can see the stark contrast between the high-bred, extravagant nobility versus the sick, starving people begging in the street. The Mayan slave trade is depicted, with many of them creating lime stucco cement, which was used to paint the temples and wreaked havoc on the local ecosystem.
In a rare hour-long interview in 2016 while promoting his film Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson referred to his basic philosophy of filmmaking, summed up by what he calls “the three Es.” If you can entertain and only entertain, that’s totally valid. But if you entertain and you educate, that’s better. And if you can entertain, educate and elevate, then you’ve done your job.
Regardless of historical accuracy, Apocalypto stands alone as both a bloody, heart-pounding action film and as a unique artistic achievement. I still find myself mesmerized by it whenever I rewatch it. Check it out.
Directed by Mel Gibson
Produced by Mel Gibson, Farhad Safinia and Bruce Davey
Written by Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
Executive Producers — Ned Dowd and Vicki Christianson
Director of Photography — Dean Semler
Music by James Horner
Editor — John Wright
Casting Director — Carla Hool
Production Designer — Tom Sanders
Costume Designer — Mayes C. Rubeo
Starring Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernández, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Raoul Trujillo, Gerardo Taracena, Ricardo Diaz Mendoza, Rodolfo Palacios, Amilcar Ramirez, Israel Conteras, Bernardo Ruíz, Richard Can, Carlos Ramos, Israel Ríos, Ariel Galván, Maria Isabel Diaz, Mayra Serbulo, Iazua Larios, Ammel Rodrigo Mendoza, Marco Antonio Argueta, Fernando Hernandez, Maria Isidra Hoil
Rated R for sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images.
“Any Gibson-haters hoping to see the heart ripped out of his success may well find themselves disappointed by Apocalypto‘s relative merits.”
–Anton Bitel, Film4
“Outrageously entertaining and thrillingly kinetic. While the ancient dialects and weighty quotations suggest an arthouse epic, Apocalypto is basically a really good period popcorn flick.”
–Paul Arendt, BBC
“Apocalypto isn’t simply an effective movie, but an immensely powerful one.”
–David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org
“Mel Gibson is always good for a surprise, and his latest is that Apocalypto is a remarkable film.”
–Todd McCarthy, Variety
“A stunning achievement…one of the most visceral, primal and thoroughly engrossing films I have seen in a long time.”
–Matthew Lucas, The Davidson County Dispatch
“Gibson’s passionate spectacle of human destruction and doom packs a terrific visceral punch.”
–Jeff Meyers, Metro Times
“No matter what your interest is in the film — entertainment or information — Apocalypto delivers the goods, and then some.”
–Todd Gilchrist, IGN Movies
“Apocalypto turns out to be not a case of Montezuma’s revenge but of Gibson’s. It’s something entirely unexpected — a sinewy, taut poem of action.”
–Stephen Hunter, The Washington Post
“Offers non-stop excitement…an electrifying epic in every sense of the word.”
—Pete Hammond, Maxim
“Brutal, compelling and utterly convincing, Apocalypto is an adventure that stuns, overwhelms, and above all else, entertains.”
–Linda Cook, Quad City Times
A humorous reference to Midnight Cowboy is included in Apocalypto. When Zero Wolf is walking his captives through the forest on the way to the Mayan city, a tree suddenly collapses and nearly crushes several prisoners. Annoyed, Zero Wolf yells, “I am walking here!” — just like Dustin Hoffman’s character famously did in Midnight Cowboy.
When filming the exhilarating waterfall scene in the latter half of the film, a cow that was trying to cross upstream got caught in the current and went over the falls. Gibson and the crew thought that the creature was done for, but amazingly, it picked itself up at the bottom of the waterfall and walked away only slightly dazed.
For the waterfall jump scene, Rudy Youngblood jumped from a harness from the top of a 15-story building in Veracruz, which was then digitally super-imposed over the actual waterfall in post-production. Gibson gave Youngblood a ribbing about doing the stunt, which prompted Youngblood and the stunt crew to goad Gibson into making a leap himself.
The filmmakers had to take extra care to protect the digital cameras from the unpredictable rainforest climate. They were covered with space blankets to reflect the extreme heat, and temperatures were closely monitored thanks to special thermometers attached to the cameras.
Principal photography was completed in July 2006. The release of the film was delayed until December due to hurricanes and flooding in Mexico. Cast and crew helped with flood relief, as over a million Mexican citizens were displaced due to the disaster.
Some critics took issue with the solar eclipse, which stops the human sacrifice scene halfway through the film. Many of the Mayan people are depicted as frightened of the eclipse, but critics argued that this wouldn’t have happened, as the Mayans were highly-skilled astronomers. On the DVD commentary, both Gibson and Safinia stated that their intent was to show how the Mayan aristocrats would use astronomical events to control the common people.
The film is dedicated to the memory of Abel Woolrich, who plays a brief role and who passed away unexpectedly before the film was released.
Gibson turned down the lead role in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center in order to make Apocalypto. The role eventually went to Nicolas Cage.
The silhouetted character on the poster is actually not Jaguar Paw, but one of the antagonists, Middle Eye (played by Gerardo Taracena).
Gibson originally wanted to shoot on location in Costa Rica or Guatemala, but the jungles there were too thick. He did, however, make some notable philanthropic efforts in that part of Central America, donating $500,000 to Richard Hansen’s conservation group, the Mirador Basin Project. Gibson later bought a rural estate on the Costa Rican coast.
When the prisoners pass through a construction site on the way to the Mayan city, they see numerous slaves covered in white powder. The white powder being mined and processed is lime, which was used for building and covering the Mayan pyramids. If inhaled, it causes irritation and inflammation; as a result, the workers had brief life expectations, as can be seen by a slave who coughs up blood on camera. Raw lime is caustic enough that it was even used in ancient cultures to accelerate the decomposition of corpses.
Final body count: 114.
Early on in the film, Jaguar Paw and his fellow villagers listen to an ancient story told by an elderly shaman about humans abusing natural resources. The actor playing the storyteller, Espiridion Acosta Cache, was actually a tribal elder himself. Safinia said that the story told in the film was a modern-day approximation of a similar traditional story translated into Mayan.
Included in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, edited by Steven Schneider.
Gibson made a brief, tongue-in-cheek appearance in the film’s trailer. He showed up in a couple of frames with a full beard, smoking a cigar.