Screenwriter and co-producer Farhad Safinia first met Mel Gibson while working as an assistant during the post-production of The Passion of the Christ. Eventually, Gibson and Safinia found time to discuss "their mutual love of movies and what excites them about moviemaking".We started to talk about what to do next, but we specifically spent a lot of time on the action-chase genre of filmmaking. Those conversations essentially grew into the skeleton of ('Apocalypto'). We wanted to update the chase genre by, in fact, not updating it with technology or machinery but stripping it down to its most intense form, which is a man running for his life, and at the same time getting back to something that matters to him. —Farhad Safinia
Gibson said they wanted to "shake up the stale action-adventure genre", which he felt was dominated by CGI, stock stories and shallow characters and to create a footchase that would "feel like a car chase that just keeps turning the screws."
Gibson and Safinia were also interested in portraying and exploring an ancient culture as it existed before the arrival of the Europeans. Considering both the Aztecs and the Maya, they eventually chose the Maya for their high sophistication and their eventual decline.The Mayas were far more interesting to us. 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. —Farhad Safinia
The two researched ancient Maya history, reading both creation and destruction myths, including sacred texts such as the Popul Vuh. In the audio commentary of the film's first DVD release, Safinia states that the old shaman's story (played by Espiridion Acosta Cache who is an actual modern day Maya storyteller) was modified from an authentic Mesoamerican tale that was re-translated into the Yucatec Maya language by the young Maya professor Hilario Chi Canul who also acted as a dialogue coach during production. As they researched the script, Safinia and Gibson traveled to Guatemala, Costa Rica and the Yucatán peninsula to scout filming locations and visit Maya ruins.
Striving for a degree of historical accuracy, the filmmakers employed a consultant, Richard D. Hansen, a specialist in the Maya, assistant professor of archaeology at Idaho State University, and director of the Mirador Basin Project, an effort to preserve a large swath of the Guatemalan rain forest and its Maya ruins. Gibson has said of Hansen's involvement: "Richard's enthusiasm for what he does is infectious. He was able to reassure us and make us feel secure that what we were writing had some authenticity as well as imagination."
Despite this supposed effort towards a degree of historical accuracy, other scholars of Mesoamerican history have noted numerous non-trivial misrepresentations. See further coverage on the film's questionable historical accuracy and representation of the Maya below under "Controversy".
Gibson is interested in using unfamiliar languages on film, having already used Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew in his film The Passion of the Christ. In Apocalypto, the dialogue is entirely in the Yucatec Maya language. Gibson explains: "I think hearing a different language allows the audience to completely suspend their own reality and get drawn into the world of the film. And more importantly, this also puts the emphasis on the cinematic visuals, which are a kind of universal language of the heart."