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.