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.
I get on the phone with Reeves a few days ahead of his ritual trek to San Diego for Fox's Saturday Hall H panel at Comic-Con. Although Reeves has been shooting "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" in Louisiana and Vancouver since March, with only a few more weeks to go, he won't have much to show, he says, as the Weta effects are still a long way from being complete. In fact Fox pushed the release date back to July 2014 so that all Reeves' crazy ambitious visual ideas could be fully realized with on-location motion capture shot in 3-D.
In this story, a band of human survivors of the devastating virus faces off against the burgeoning nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar. The negotiated peace does not last long. It's man vs. ape in a war for world domination. The humans are Gary Oldman as Dreyfus, and a family played by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee ("Let Me In"). Among the apes are Judy Greer as Cornelia, who has a son (Nick Thurston) with Caesar, Brit actor Toby Kebbell, who takes over from a stuntman in the key role of Koba, and coming back are Karin Konoval as the orangutan Maurice and Terry Notary as Rocket, who also doubles as ape movement coordinator.
Anne Thompson: What can you show us at Comic-Con?
Matt Reeves: Because we're shooting, we're not showing very much. We are not going to be coming with tons of footage. The cast will be there, we'll try to give a taste of limited little bits. But not ape shots, we're not going to do that, you're limited in what you can show. That's another story that takes months and months. The movie doesn't even come out Memorial Day, we switched with "X-Men" on July 18. Now we can do those shots. So much doesn't exist yet.
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.