Planet Of The Apes has a history of defying the odds. The 1968 original, about an astronaut that lands on a planet of talking simians that’s actually Earth in the future, sounded laughable. By the time it was over, and Charlton Heston’s George Taylor had collapsed before the shattered remains of the Statue Of Liberty, nobody was laughing.
Even more amazing, at a time when the only genuinely successful film series was James Bond, Planet Of The Apes spawned four big screen sequels as well as a live action and animated television series. Flash forward to 2001, and Tim Burton directed a remake of the original that was critically scorned but nonetheless profitable — despite the fact that no one cared for it. Move ahead ten more years, and another reboot was attempted, with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, featuring Andy Serkis in the role of chimp turned revolutionary leader, Caesar. Make-up was out, motion capture was in and Planet Of The Apes was suddenly in vogue again. In 2014, Matt Reeves’ sequel, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes was released and turned out to be an even bigger hit. Next, in July 2017, the Reeves helmed War For The Planet Of The Apes will reach theatres.
Little is known about the film, which Fox describes as follows: “Caesar and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel. After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind. As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.”
Following a screening of a teaser trailer and seven minutes of footage from the film, which consisted of a combination of fully finished effects, cast members in mo-cap costumes and pre-vis shots, Empire sat down for an exclusive interview with Reeves, Serkis and producer Dylan Clark.
The footage was genuinely impressive.
Dylan Clark (producer): Like Matt has said, it's terrifying to show incomplete footage. Peter Chernin and I have been talking about this since Rise, because we were new to it when we came to Rise. Andy had been, as an actor, acting in many different movies, but also he had done some mo-cap. Great mo-cap. Things like King Kong and Lord Of The Rings. He always wanted to bring the audience into the process, to see the level of filmmaking that goes on, see the level of acting and that combination. But it's a little terrifying, because it's unfinished.
Which is a fact that Matt absolutely conveyed before it was screened.
Matt Reeves (director): Like saying I felt naked?
Clark: Yes, that was a good description.
Rise is a very different Planet Of The Apes movie. You have Dawn, which is also a very different Planet of the Apes movie, though in some ways it feels like Battle For The Planet Of The Apes on steroids. How challenging is it to raise War to yet another level?
Reeves: It's the natural trajectory. The interesting thing is we were always looking at this through-line into this film as being the thing that takes Caesar to the next stage of his journey. In Rise, he comes from humble beginnings and he rises to being a revolutionary. In Dawn, he's confronted with having to become a leader and trying to lead in difficult times. He tries to bridge the two populations to see if he can find peace and that failed. That thrusts you into a huge escalation, which is War, but we didn't want it to just be an escalation in action. Like, “Oh, it's the apes fighting the humans.” We wanted it to be an escalation in terms of character dilemma. We wanted to take Caesar and really push him to places that were more extreme than anything.
Already his arc has been, in the first two films, huge. We wanted to push that further and to find the way to cement his status. If there were a human analogy to this, that person would be considered a god. We felt like we wanted Caesar to become the ape Moses. We wanted him to become this giant, mythic figure, and the tests that he endures in this film are the tests that secure his place as the key figure in ape history that will go down and be remembered forever. That's ambitious. In trying to push it further, it felt like the natural place to go and we're really excited about where we went.
Andy, how about playing Caesar and taking him to this next level? What are the discoveries you're making about the character?
Andy Serkis (actor, “Caesar”): As Matt said, we took him to what I thought was the brink in Dawn; having to kill his own kind was a step that we almost fought about.
Clark: You really were challenged about that.
Serkis: But I'm so glad that we went there, because it loaded what was then going to be the beginning of the journey in the third film, but to put Caesar in that position where he's struggled so hard to create a belief system that they could all adhere to peacefully, and then to end up killing his brother, in effect, leaves him so damaged. It pitches him into two years later where we pick him up, as the ape losses get worse and worse. Because he was brought up with human beings, he has no hate towards humans. They all were his parents. They were the people who loved him and showed him great kindness, before he was rejected and thrown into apes and had to find his own inner ape.
This is a journey into falling into a lack of empathy and a source of hatred that surprises himself. He tears himself apart with it throughout the course of the journey, but he can't stop himself and is inexorably drawn towards finding revenge. Which he knows is not the right path, but he can't do anything about it. The people who are around him, the apes that are around him, occasionally prick his conscience and try and yank him out of it, but he's hellbent. As I say, inexorably drawn towards his goal. It was a very taxing film, very emotionally taxing and physically, too, the way that we shot it. Nearly every single scene, there was a level of emotion that we had to reach, or that I had to reach with Caesar. I won't even describe the things, but every single day, I had to get right into it.
Is part of the journey to reclaim his humanity, so to speak?
Reeves: That's it. That's the whole story.
Clark: The war is inside of Caesar. It's really a journey and the audience has to experience this very suspenseful state. Is he going to follow the ways of Koba and lead to this thing that we so desperately don't want? We want Caesar to regain his hero status, the humanity that is inside this character. What's great is that along the way there are reminders on both sides for Caesar, the dark and the light. Andy, as he just said, he had some tough stuff, but it translates in the performance so we get to sit back and watch now and just marvel at the level of commitment that he gives to it.
Reeves: The clip that we showed last night, we showed it because we wanted to show intimacy. We knew we were going to show this trailer, but it was going to give you a glimpse, which actually is only a tiny glimpse, of just how huge and how much action there is with Woody Harrelson as the Colonel and all that. We wanted to show something intimate, because the character moments are always in the forefront of the movie, but it also was one of the few pieces we felt we could show that didn't give too much away. Actually, when Andy talks about where he went and the things he did, it's performance capture, what we're doing, right? It's about capturing a performance, and his performance is extraordinary. The clip that I desperately wanted to show is a piece of acting by Andy that literally is so amazing, it's so wrenching, it's so committed, it blows me away and I know that we have it. When the movie's finally out and it won't be a spoiler anymore, we are going to show it. He goes places ...
Another thing is that when people are, like, "Oh, Andy is in Star Wars," it's a funny story how that happened, because JJ always wanted to work with Andy. They had this relationship, right? Here's the truth. The truth on top of it is that as we were making Dawn, at one point JJ saw a version of the movie that didn't have Caesar yet, but had Andy, and he couldn't believe how great an actor Andy Serkis is. That's what everybody is blown away about. He's, like, "Oh, my God." All of a sudden, I'm like, "Hey, he's in Star Wars. JJ, knock it off."
Clark: We've never let another director come in early to see the brilliance of Andy Serkis.
Reeves: But we love JJ.
Clark: We love JJ, and by the way, we love that Andy is in Star Wars.
You get the sense of what you're talking about in the scene with the kid in the house where you're semi Caesar and semi you, where it bounces back and forth. Just such a great way to show an alternative to the action the audience will be expecting.
Reeves: There's a lot of that in the movie. Some of it is very tender. Some of it is very emotional. Some of it is very wrenching. Some of it is incredibly funny, because the journey of the characters that he meets on this path toward the Colonel is the most unexpected group that joins him. There are discoveries that he makes and, as he discovers them, it brings you new tones in the movie that we've never had yet. There are some new ape characters who are so fun; it’s so cool. You're seeing Caesar as he's being tortured, and suddenly he's coming up against this oddball and he's, like, "What is this?" There's so much in this movie that we haven't shown you.
We’ve recently seen so many movies that were sequels to well respected, well loved films, but somehow the audience threw up their hands and walked away. Does that ever concern you, watching these big franchise movies that the audience suddenly ignores?
Clark: We look at this all the time, of course. I think the only thing that we know how to do is look at our characters and ask what is the character doing right now and what do we need to do, and tell it from that place. If we really make it character driven and theme driven, I think we're going to offer up something new for the audience.
Reeves: It's when you're repeating yourself ...
Clark: The audience rejects the movies when it feels a little bit more of the same, and we're not repeating ourselves.
Reeves: A lot of times it’s almost like you’re watching another version of the same movie, thinking, “Hey, we’re giving everybody what they like.” But we know in these movies that what they like are the characters, that they’re connecting with these characters. This story doesn't repeat anything. It's connected, but totally unique, so we hope that when it comes out that people will just be dying for more Caesar and that they will be bringing new people to it.
Are the films still moving forward towards the original series?
Reeves: They're all in that trajectory, yes.