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Interview: Director Matt Reeves Explores The “Anatomy Of Violence” In ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’

Interview: Director Matt Reeves Explores The "Anatomy Of Violence" In ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’

Tribalism, the rise and fall of civilizations, broken brotherhoods and the tragic failure to coexist: these are not the familiar ingredients for a summer tentpole movie. And yet here they are in Matt Reeves’ well-considered, thoughtful and morally complex, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes,” a summer blockbuster that considers a lot of ambitious ideas, successfully arranges them and yet never at the expense of scope, spectacle and drama. We could probably see hundreds of blockbusters like these and not get tired of them. They are every reason we go to the movies: for escapism, but also to have a piece of art reflect back a little piece of humanity back at us. And Reeves’ movie does that in spades. 

Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Tobey Kebbell, Keri Russell and many more, the title, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes,” spells out what it’s really about. It’s before the evolved simians took over Earth in the storyline now famously presented in 1968’s “The Planet Of The Apes” starring Charlton Heston. And it also avoids the trappings of most prequels because not only is the “how did civilization collapse like this?” a mystery that this franchise is able to invent, it’s interested in why it happened too. And this means focusing on its characters, who they are, the choices they make and the ramifications that will ripple outward. “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” is intelligent, first-rate filmmaking that’s also thrilling and deeply dramatic (read our review here; it was #1 at the box-office too). In speaking to director Matt Reeves last week, it’s easy to understand why ‘Dawn’ succeeds as well as it does—he’s the real deal.

Most sequels return with all the successful ingredients of the first one, and this one really doesn’t do that. It almost radically reinvents itself.
First of all, it’s really cool that you say that. One of the things I thought was exciting about entering this world—‘Rise’ brilliantly brought this franchise back to life in a way that doesn’t really repeat past films like other franchises do sometimes. It actually changes the perspective so that you’re emotionally inside the perspective of an ape.

The most human character in that film was not a human, it was Caesar. We know the trajectory of the histories because it goes back to the original [1968 film]. It ceases being a story where we have to figure out what happened—we [already] know. So then it’s a character story about why and how did that happen? And then that becomes this mythic journey and so what was cool about entering the world was it was an opportunity to tackle something I’d been obsessed with since childhood, the “Planet of the Apes” universe. But to do it with a new take, a new story and in that way it didn’t feel like it would be repetitive.

20th Century Fox had another script when you were first approached.
Yeah, this wasn’t the story that they were going to make. Theirs started in the post apocalyptic San Francisco and was more slanted to the humans instead of with this emphasis on Caesar. They had pulled off a miracle: secretly telling an ape point of view movie and I told them they had earned to continue that in ‘Dawn’ and it should be Caesar’s POV.

Instead of starting in the human post apocalypses I thought we should start in the dawning of ape civilization and a take on “2001: A Space Odyssey”—the dawn of intelligent apes and to be in their world. We could create this whole drama about co-existence—the one moment in time where the humans and apes could have found a way to exist together and we know that doesn’t work out. But why doesn’t it work out? How can this be a story about character? I pitched that to them and to my shock they said yes. I didn’t have a reason to say no.

You weren’t going to do their version.
No. I’m always looking for a reason to say no when I’m approached about a big studio tentpole because your fear is will you be consumed into the anonymous machine and it will suck out any specificity and point of view that you might hope to express. To my surprise, they were not looking for that. They were looking for a point of view and I was very lucky that they embraced mine. And that they supported my making this movie.

So, there was never an attempt to try and reproduce anything from ‘Rise’ except for wanting to return to the well of emotion, continue Caesar’s story and rest squarely on Andy Serkis’ performance for an ape drama.

I assume the 10 years later element to the narrative also allows freedom for creation because you don’t have pick up where you left off.
Yeah, but the ten years later thing, that was part of their story too. They had wanted to skip the apocalyptic moment, the dying out of the human race because they wanted to get to this place where the question of apes and humans living together was already the main, dramatic issue. And so that was something that was a feature of their story.

But their version went even further down the line and apes were very articulate, further than I wanted to go. One of the things I loved in ‘Rise’ was watching Caesars articulation come into being. That moment when he said finally said “NO!,” was so breathtaking. So I thought there was new ground to be covered here in terms of seeing the apes tribal development and see their language form. I wanted to explore they were totally up into that.

Was that where the sign language came in?
That’s exactly where that came from. I wanted the language to be farther along, but I didn’t want it to be so far along that they were just talking easily. I hoped to explore our own tribal development and evolution and parallel that in a certain way but in addition, be specifically ape driven so that they would have a unique history as well.

‘Rise’ has this great sequence where Maurice, the circus orangutan he knew sign language—even before he was given the [evolutionary enhancing drug]. This is possible. Watch [the documentary] “Project Nimh,” and know apes can actually be taught to sign. And then I realized as a first time father that you can actually teach your children sign language before they can speak their first words. So to explore our nature and explore the coming into being of articulation—I thought a lot about my son to be honest with you.

Then I wanted speech to come from an emotional imperative. The apes could obviously communicate instinctually in a way that didn’t require words the way that apes just do naturally. It would enable them to then communicate higher ideas and that speech and that writing would also be something they could do. Speech would be the hardest for them and could be driven by emotional imperative.

When something couldn’t be contained, it had to be expressed in words. Like the way that Caesar said “No!” in his utter rage and frustration. We had a lot of rehearsals with Andy, the other ape performers and we tried to explore how primitive they should speak and all of this stuff. It was one of the cool areas of exploration for the movie to explore language and expression and the desire to find a way to express.

In a movie where so much of the story is about how much of other people’s point of view do the others understand—I mean apes trying to understand other humans, apes trying to understand each other. World experiences separating people the ways in which they can or can’t express themselves to each other are part of the anatomy of violence. And that’s exactly what the story is about. So it’s awesome to explore and it was also totally relevant to the drama.

“Anatomy of violence” is a perfect description and that nails the film well. Did you have a hand in those ‘Apes’ prequel shorts? One of them about the legacy of one gun feels a lot like that.
No, I had no hand in them and in fact I knew they were doing them and I’d been so busy with the movie and now with promoting the movie that I haven’t even had a chance to watch them! It sounds totally relevant to what it is we were trying to do so that’s really cool. I’ve got to watch it, it sounds cool.
Yeah, there’s a good symmetry with the themes in your films.
I saw the gun as the technological leap that was like the bone in “2001.” The bone comes down and it becomes a spaceship—in this movie the bone comes down and it lands in the apes hands and it’s a gun. That’s the moment when the balance of power shifted. Because the apes already had the advantage—they don’t need the things that we need; power, electricity, etc.

But the question of being able to resist violence is something that none of the characters are above, even Caesar. Caesar fights against his own impulses and that was one of the things that I personally related to in ‘Rise.’ The way Andy played that, there was such a grappling, struggling instinctual thing going on inside of him. He would restrain himself and would not act on impulse, but you could see all the impulses firing. And I wanted to capture that further in this movie. I wanted even the most empathetic and most peaceful characters to be pushed to their limits.

That’s why the movie’s an anatomy of violence: how can this character who is a revolutionary be pushed to a more ambiguous and complex level of leadership where he has to lead in difficult times where there are no easy answers? Where you know stock villains who should just be over-salaried so this is a situation where you’re watching the whole thing unravel and you’re thinking wow what can Caesar do? How can he lead in this moment?

What I love about that is it makes you think of a lot of great leaders or great men who tried to pursue or even “preserve” peace in their own way from Malcolm X, to more traditional peace seekers like Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
The resonance of all of that makes total sense to me but I wanted to approach it as more of an exploration of our nature. And that dichotomy you’re talking about between those two points of view is something that fits totally right into that. All of those ideas fell into the world of exploration that we wanted to get into, which was just about struggling with the violence within us and looking at the battle between the different sides of ourselves and trying to figure out what the right way forward was. When your family’s at stake, when live are at stake and how do you lead in those times? How do you protect your family and not start a war and what do you do if someone else does start a war, how do you engage in that battle? We didn’t want there to be any easy answers. We wanted it to be a very morally ambiguous complex and painful situation for Caesar to be in.

What’s a stake is so primal and fundamental. I love all the archetypes, that “Lord Of The Flies”-like examination of people at their rawest when order doesn’t exist. I even think of “Do The Right Thing”—all the characters have to consider what that actually is and then how to do it.
To me that was one of the real pleasures of getting to explore. I knew that whatever we were doing that this would be one of those opportunities which wouldn’t come along really many times in my career where I could explore the question of our instincts at a very elemental level. And that was really exciting to me. I wanted to really look at that and to explore that with the actors and with the story and this is one of the things that we were trying to do. So, the movies you’re talking about are doing similar things, they’re looking at that aspects of our nature.

The effects are so photorealistic and expressive this time, even much more so than the first film. Was it a big leap of faith to see if some of these subtle and nuanced emotions could be captured and expressed? And to have to wait months to see them rendered?
Here’s the thing I mean WETA are amazing, some of the best artists in the world. And I had amazing actors to work with: Andy’s incredible and Toby Kebbell, Karin Konoval who plays Maurice was amazing, Judy Greer and Nick Thurston. The specificity of detail in the expression of emotion—they had achieved a breakthrough on the last film because it’s so connected by far to Caesar and he only exists in that film in his CG form. The performance was driven by Andy Serkis, so it means that they were able to translate what he was doing emotionally and so that part of it I had a lot of faith there, but I wanted to push it even further.

I wanted to be as subtle as possible to want them to really get in the complexity and mix of emotions, not just like rage or sadness but maybe blend of disparate feelings and explore all of that. I also wanted to push further was the photo-reality which I thought would add to the power of the experience and so I pushed to have a shoot in circumstances that really hadn’t been shot in or at least to the extent that we did with MOCAP. ‘Rise’ was shot 75% on the stage and we shot about 90% in real locations. I wanted an elemental exploration of instinct so I wanted it to be almost like “Apocalypse Now” or some tribal movie. I wanted to go into the woods, I wanted to be in the elements in the rain and the mud and in those environments feeling as if it would add to the reality.

WETA were totally supportive and excited about that idea. It was a very hard shoot, but WETA fulfilled those effects in a way that I think is a new high water mark. I think it’s the best motion performance capture to date. Some of it is so startlingly real and it’s really a testament to their amazing artistry.

When were the effects completed?
Literally the last day it was due. There were shots that were done along the way and you basically just check them off and you do it over a long period of time over Skype. We didn’t see any shots for the longest time. We were editing for a year and we probably didn’t see our first shot at all for like six months or five months, it’s crazy. Then we had a lot of shots come in at the end and it’s almost like you finally get your daily’s in and you start re-editing because you’re like okay here’s the actual shot so this could be shorter or this could be longer and it’s quite a head spinning experience.
[Minor spoilers] You clearly understand story archetypes and fundamentals, the movie is about the failure to coexist which is a tragedy. And there’s a lot of tragic elements, but it doesn’t go quite there fully. Is that something that’s a function of sequel or studio demands?
I actually think it is a tragedy, there’s a tragic arc. To me, what the movie could be about was the one moment in time where it wouldn’t have been “Planet of the Apes,” there could have been peace. But that moment passes and at the end of the movie that chance is gone and you see that exchange between Jason Clarke and Andy Serkis and to me that is what could have been and it doesn’t happen. And you know that Caesar is going to have to engage in a war now and that is the last thing he ever wanted. And what choice does he have now? It’s a painful choice to have to be made and confronted with because he sees himself as rooted in the human world as he is in the ape world.

In a certain way his father, his surrogate father Will [James Franco] was a human. In fact, as Andy Serkis tells it, he thought that he was human until a certain age when he realized he was different. He spent his life as an outsider. In that sense, I do see the movie as being tragic and in keeping with the dark hued endings of the “Planet of the Apes.”

I think that that is part of what is going to energize the continuance of the story. The movie doesn’t end in utter desolation but there is a huge emotional cost. Without getting into spoilers, there’s a brotherhood that’s lost, a chance at peace that’s lost. The thing is, I certainly also hope that it’s going to be satisfying to an audience. I mean it’s a summer tentpole movie. I don’t want them to come to the movie and go like, “Wow gee, that was a big bummer, why did I see that?” I can’t say that I was looking to just leave people in utter devastation. I wanted it to have emotional impact and I do think that there is absolutely a tragic element to the story being that moment in time passing and being gone forever.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that there’s tragic elements, I’m just suggesting that the movie suggests something much deeper like both these leaders dying in a vain attempt to preserve peace, which is really tragic.
Sure, sure. Well, some of them do die. As much as movie is a brotherhood between Malcolm [Jason Clarke] and Caesar [Andy Serkis] and the connection between the human and ape worlds, I really saw the movie as being a story about two brothers. And the two brothers were Koba and Caesar. Had the humans never shown up, their brotherhood would have continued and their family would have expanded and the idea that somehow the presence of humans exposed the fault lines between characters.

But those fractures and power struggles would have hit a head at some point, no?
They might have, but I don’t know. I think that Koba is utterly sincere when he says he would do whatever Caesar wants because he was freed from bondage by Caesar. He was rescued from the horrors of his life by Caesar in ‘Rise.’ This is someone that he devoted his life to and became a vital brother in this community of brother apes, you know? It was really important to me that it not appear as if Koba was looking to be the alpha at the beginning of the movie. One of the first gestures in the movie is him saving Caesar’s life and his son and makes it possible for Caesar to see his newborn. And another reason why I see a tragic dimension to the arc of the story because those are two characters who are bound in a brotherly love at the beginning and at the end, it’s ruined.

So where do you go from here? You’re still directing the next one, yes?
I am. We are going to have to take a moment and talk about all the things, Mark Bomback and I are going to be writing the next one and we have a lot of ideas but you know we’re going to take a moment to breathe. We just finished this one so we’ll see where it goes but we have a lot of ideas we just have to sit down and start it all up again. But it’s really important to me that whatever we do next is something that can be better than ‘Dawn,’ so hopefully we can achieve that aim.

Do you foresee a big time leap? Like the 10 years between the first two films?
I don’t necessarily think that there will be as big a leap between films. I see Casear as a seminal figure in ape history and he’s a mythic character. He’s essentially like their Moses and I think Caesar having to grapple with what it means to engage in this conflict that he doesn’t really want to be a part of and how that cuts at his core is going to be one of the great challenges for the character. I also think it’s a generational story. He has children and I think it’s going to be… to me there are many chapters of this mythic ape journey towards the original ’68 movie.

I was going to ask, when does the history finally cross over with the ’68 movie?
I think there are a number of films and stories to be told here, absolutely. That’s what’s exciting about it. The question is: are the audiences interested in going on that journey with us? The disparity between the way the world looks in ‘Dawn’ and the way it looked in the ’68 film is huge so how do we get from here to there? Then when we do get there, if we do get there, how is that world different by virtue of the new point of view that we’ve taken?

Is the “Invisible Woman” something you’d still like to make or are you tied up in ‘Apes’ movies?
Oh absolutely. It’s a passion of mine and I really ought to make that movie someday and I think that it could very well be the next thing I do after this. It’s definitely something I’ve been trying to get made for many years that I hope I will finally get to make in the foreseeable future. It’s been quite a long journey.

It’s Hitchcockian in tone, is that right?
It’s a character story, in that sense it’s very Hitchcokian but it does… it’s a drama that’s told in a suspense mode. It’s about this woman who’s a mother, homemaker and a wife and someone who has secretly gotten herself into trouble. She turns to desperate means to get herself out of it and nobody really knows and she has been robbing banks for a period of time unbeknownst to anyone. In a way it’s a Hitchcockian family drama.

Interesting. Does the presumed success of ‘Dawn’ make something like that easier to make in our current movie climate?
I certainly hope so. It’s a small movie and something that I would undoubtedly make quite quickly but I tried to get it together a number of times. The first time Naomi Watts was going to be in the film and it just fell apart and I ended up doing “Cloverfield.” Then I tried to get it going again right after “Cloverfield” and the independent film market fell apart and went out of business. So I ended up doing the most personal story I could do at the time which ended up being a remake of “Let the Right One In.” It’s a small film that could be made in a short time and I think that hopefully the success of this will make “Invisible Woman” possible.

Rian Johnson’s doing “Star Wars,” Gareth Edwards made “Godzilla,” you got to make an uncompromised and dark “Planet Of The Apes” film. Do you feel a return to filmmaker-based big-budget movies rather than studio-driven ones?
Maybe to some degree, yeah. I turned down a lot of studio tentpole offers including ones from Fox. But I loved what they did with ‘Rise,’ so I was really open to it because and they specifically reached out in the spirit of looking for a filmmaker. It’s actually what they said they wanted and actually meant it too.

Despite a couple key collaborations Fox had with say, James Cameron, they weren’t necessarily known of wanting to work with filmmakers on these kinds of big movies and that seemed to be a big part of their approach on this film. I kept waiting for the moment when they would say no and they didn’t. We certainly had our debates about things—that happens no matter where or what you do. But they let me make this movie which is incredible.

Do you see the business changing at all?
Well, certainly Chris Nolan did that with the Batman films, they were hugely successful. But at the end of the day success is the driver and if they make a number of these filmmaker-based films and they fail miserably then it probably won’t be the order of the day. It always comes down to the same thing. The studios… it’s a business and always has been, and it has to work. In my experience they loved the idea of doing something that both fulfills the summer tentpole spectacle, but also has some ambition and if that works then they’re going to go that route. And if it doesn’t work then of course they won’t.

Change will come first and foremost from audiences. If they connect to it, great. If they don’t connect to it, then wherever audiences go, that’s where the studios are going to chase.

“Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” is in theaters now.

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