For all the complaints about Hollywood’s constant mining of properties past and present, one of the best recent franchise reboots is Twentieth Century Fox’s 2011 “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which wowed critics and global audiences alike to the tune of $483 million worldwide.
Director Rupert Wyatt and origin story screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa deserve considerable credit for how well the movie turned out. Fox greenlit the movie as a prequel that could score with the “Avatar” VFX technology in which they had invested so heavily. Weta Digital’s Joe Letteri delivered incredible VFX advances, none more important than allowing actors to emote opposite one another, hugging and mugging. And Andy Serkis, who played wily lead ape Caesar in one of the great all-time motion capture performances, was able to engage with actor James Franco so that warm and fuzzy feelings bounced back and forth.
In a notable parallel to the “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” follow-ups, Wyatt, who runs London indie film collective The Picture Farm, having proved that he can do action, character, effects, opted not to rush into the follow-up aimed for May 23 2014 release and moved on instead to direct TV movie “The Turn.”
Without Wyatt, the studio needed a director willing to take the reins on an accelerated schedule. They had a script outline from Jaffa and Silver. But when life-long “Planet of the Apes” maven, writer-director Matt Reeves, who had earned kudos for “Cloverfield” and his “Let the Right One In” remake “Let Me In,” pitched Fox production chief Emma Watts, he had an entirely different approach in mind.
While Jaffe and Silver had skipped well ahead in the narrative, Reeves wanted to continue to follow the slow evolution of the sentient apes, especially Caesar, that had been so compelling in “Rise.” Producer Dylan Clark encouraged Reeves to meet at his house to talk through his ideas, and led him to believe that Fox would be excited enough to allow Reeves to rework the script, which he eventually did, with writer Mark Bomback.
How did you land the job?
I found out about the movie, I was obsessed with “Planet of the Apes,” as a kid I desperately wanted be a gorilla, to be an ape. And I love what they did with “Rise,” so emotional. I was not sure they’d want to have me do the movie. When I was going in, I thought, surely what’s going to happen is they’ll say “read the outline, to get it you’re doing this.” I’d say, “this is what I want to do,” and they’d say “thank you, but no thank you.”
Instead, Emma Watts said, “Sounds great! You do that version. Are you in?” “I’m in, that would be incredible.”
It has been a whole process: crazy locations are all the result of that story pitch, realizing it practically in the forest in Vancouver on a hillside with mo-cap cameras. Are we crazy? Because of it the footage is all the more exciting.
What were the changes you made in the Jaffa/Silver script?
I wanted to extend what I thought was achieved so brilliantly, the emotional connection with Caesar, with a greater sense of realism in the world, the face of it and scale of it. Where the first movie ends on the precipice of a major shift about to happen in the world, I wanted to come into that story. It’s definitely a bigger ape world, but it still centered on Andy Serkis as Caesar, it’s his POV.
Watching “Rise” it was miraculous how connected we are emotionally to him. I’ve never seen it at that level. We’re wrapped up in his character. I wanted to carry that forward. When I rewatched “Rise” in the interim, I had a son, and something in watching Caesar come into being in that movie reminded me of my son. When you watch you identify with Caesar. I couldn’t believe I had that level of emotional involvement with a CG character. He is torn away from his family and grows up with another family, he’s taken away from them and imprisoned in the ape habitat. There’s no dialogue except sign language and it’s fascinating and emotionally involving. It felt like an uncanny connection to Andy’s perspective. I wanted to make sure that the emotional life of Caesar was the way the story carried forward. You have to make Caesar’s movie, you have to think about what matters to him the most.
We started looking over over several drafts of scripts and several stories. Silver and Jaffe did the first iterations. Rupert had done a version with Scott Burns.
When I got involved the story initially took place further down the line, the apes had evolved fast. What excited me was the idea of going back to finding a way to get on the path, I did not want to jump so far ahead. I restarted the first movie that put you in the heart of the apes, knowing that in the canon, the ’68 movie I saw as a kid, you know what that world is about. That was the beginning. So this leads to the original film. How does that work? That is where it’s going. I did not want to go too far and miss how it developed.
Do the apes talk?
Caesar talks at the end of the movie, he has some level of speech. I wanted to make sure we’re continuing to go along the path of evolution without missing it, it was so delicious to watch in the first movie. It’s not like now they are talking in verse. Hopefully the movie is emotional and thrilling as you watch the apes come into being.
Where does the movie take place?
The ape civilization is in the woods, between Vancouver and New Orleans, the world after what happens with the simian virus flu. The two main locales are San Francisco and the Muir Woods where the ape civilization is born. We’ll be doing a little shooting in San Francisco as well. A lot of the Louisiana shooting was to build huge wood sets outside in the woods to add realism, enormous exterior streets. We’re shooting in the rain, in the wind, all on location out in the open in the elements.
How did you adjust to the scope of this production, which is so much grander than “Let Me In”?
The crazy thing is the giant scale of this film, which is enormous for any movie, so much bigger. The only way it works is from an emotional intimate point-of-view. It has all the things that drive me to do something, an emotional core, as Andy, Rupert and Weta did on “Rise”: How do you become an ape? How emotional it is, the emotional intimacy.
It’s a huge adjustment. It’s not only on a scale for me that is obviously larger than anything I’ve done, but huge for any film in this particular way: this is the first movie at this level to do native 3-D on an enormous canvas and mo-cap that is 95 % shot on location. The mo-cap shooting on the first movie was done really on the stage. It’s enormous do this in a naturalistic space. And it’s an exciting learning curve.
Do you expand on the ape world?
The apes story is a through-the-looking-glass way of looking at what we are. By what’s going on in the internal lives of the apes we are exploring ourselves, our impulses, our society. So much is roiling inside Caesar. He has a rational side separate from the apes, they’re all instinct. We are seeing how Caesar becomes this leader.
You’re working with Weta’s Letteri?
Weta’s Dan Lemmon was the supervisor on the last one. Joe Letteri and all those guys are very excited. It’s cool because Michael Seresin is shooting; I chose him because I wanted the lighting look to be very real. I want it to feel as if we’re making an epic film, very grounded, we’re lighting with real light, so the effects that are so amazing in “Rise”and “Avatar” we’re putting in this environment. Making the effects emotional in real life increases the illusion. But it’s a complicated thing to take these crazy digital cameras in these crazy locations.
The stuff is looking really rough in blocking passes. We’re going through different cuts, going in and editing on weekends, turning over sequences, going to Weta to talk about what’s in.
Does Serkis have a special method for doing mo-cap performing that could be communicated to other actors?
Andy is a great actor, it comes down to that. The first thing I did, I wanted the VFX people to take me through all the footage on the last movie before and after of Andy so I could understand what he was doing. I was so impressed, we all know he’s a genius. I wanted to get under the hood, and they showed some minutes in scenes with even more going on, I’m hoping to pull those things out.
Is he acting in a larger bigger way?
What’s great about the best mo-cap is the authentic emotional performance. I’ve worked with Kodi for years, he was going through this emotional scene, going through the beats talking through it, and at the end of rehearsal I looked at Andy. Throughout the scene, he’s been crying in the rehearsal, tears his eyes. He works inside out, that is the key to what he does, and to all the mo-cap.
Toby plays Koba in the film, another strong internal performance, and Terry Notary is a Cirque du Soleil actor who trains all the actors to move like apes. Their emotional life is grounded and internal, there’s nothing put on about that. They act physically like actors, they’re not thinking about acting like apes. When you watch them, what’s exciting is actors in grey suits with cameras on their faces and dots all over their bodies. My biggest concern is that the actors’ emotional life comes through, the exciting part is seeing that it’s no different to explore all that through the motion capture stuff.
How else do you advance this movie over the last one?
In the last movie there were a lot of things the apes couldn’t do as performers, physically, so they animated them. It’s amazing but some of that stuff isn’t totally believable. You accept it. One of the things in the pursuit to make this as realistic as possible in addition to going on location in the light for a higher level of realism, is to see the movement of the ape stunt performers, not animated. The stunt performers trained themselves to move like apes. What they are performing is all real and when you see it translated it will not look animated.
And I wanted to make sure to bring to the human characters the same level of emotional depth as the apes. I can’t give too much away, I’m hiding a little bit. I’m going back to shooting apes climbing trees in the woods.