Matt Reeves Talks Connecting with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Continuing the Story, and Lots More
Around here we're still kind of shocked that Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out so well. Recently we caught up with sequel director Matt Reeves to see if his Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will continue that trend!
Dread Central: Planet of the Apes takes place in a post-apocalyptic world so I’m wondering: What would you miss most if civilization were to fall in your lifetime?
Matt Reeves: If civilization fell, what I would miss the most is... I have a son who is almost 3. I would miss getting texts and videos from my 3-year-old when I am working. But I guess if civilization fell, I wouldn’t be working. (laughs)
DC: Have you always been a big fan of Planet of the Apes?
MR: As a kid I was obsessed with Planet of the Apes. I think that it is such a powerful metaphor and that it deals with race relations. But it also deals with the fundamental question of our nature. What I found exciting is looking at the ferociousness of the apes and finding it both terrifying and thrilling. I definitely wanted to become an ape and I loved all the John Chambers makeup. That’s how I connected as a kid. Planet of the Apes was my Star Wars. I always wanted to be an ape and I collected all the dolls.
DC: What did you like most about the recent reincarnation of the story?
MR: When I saw Rise [of the Planet of the Apes], what blew me away about it was I realized that I finally was having the experience watching a Planet of the Apes movie where I became an ape emotionally. The miracle of Rise was the way that they used motion capture and the way Andy [Serkis] performed to create Caesar in such a way that you emotionally become an ape. The character you relate to, the character you empathize with, the character you are in watching that movie is not a human being. I have never seen that done to that level. This reboot of the franchise is turning the audience into apes. It becomes such a wonderful way for us to look at ourselves. Obviously there are the those metaphors from the franchise that people associate with. But for me it goes more fundamentally into our nature and what we are.
DC: What was your personal experience in connecting?
MR: One of the things that happened to me was that between the time when I first got involved with the film and when I had first seen the movie, I had a son. Re-watching the movie, the thing that struck me was watching Andy as Caesar struggling to find a way to articulate, knowing that inside his head he understood everything, but how do I express, how do I contain my impulses, my rage? All the things that make us what we are. It reminded me of my son. The thing that I found so compelling about this idea of experiencing emotion and story through a character who is not human but who’s an ape, is that it really reminded me of the ways in which we are animals. As a father, I would look at my son and I could see he knew everything and didn’t know how to say it yet. That was a wild thing because he was my first child. The reason that this world [of the apes] is so captivating and why I think people connect to it is because we seem to be fascinated with our own destruction.
DC: Does Dawn keep on going with the ideas presented in Rise?
MR: Yes. The thing I found fascinating about Rise and what I wanted to do here is - of course there would that feature - the question of our own destruction and our own impulse to destroy each other. What I wanted to do in the movie was to really see the world that Caesar had created and to watch a movie that told an emotional story about relationships. Part of the story is indulging and watching the way we can destroy ourselves, it is really also seeing what would it be like if the slate was wiped clean and we can start over again? There is a weird parallel to our own development and the question, the hope, about whether or not we can transcend our own nature. Is Caesar better than us? Are the apes better than we are? There is a purity to them and that is one of the questions of the movie and that is one of the things that Caesar ends up having to grapple with. Despite how technically advanced the film is, at the end of the day it becomes something we explore that is very simple. The emotion and the feeling of it.
DC: Aside from continuing on the promise of Dawn, did you also go back and look at the older Planet of the Apes movies?
MR: We didn’t look to other films in the [Planet of the Apes] franchise for story inspiration except for the 1968 classic. The idea of what was laid out for us was a trajectory; we are not that close to the world of Planet of the Apes. In Rise there is that spark that leads to the intelligence of the apes and in the end we find a way to destroy ourselves. When I got involved, there was a proposition that took the story farther down the line, not all the way to the Planet of the Apes but a lot closer. When they asked me about getting involved, it was not the story I wanted to tell. The story that I was interested in was that I was so fascinated with watching Andy being Caesar and the apes starting to come into being. I didn’t wanted to get to the place they were already dominating civilization. For me, what was exciting was seeing the next phase of their development evolution and the next generation, the idea of them establishing a family.
DC: Tell us how you start with this movie…
MR: The movie starts in a pure ape world, it is almost 15-20 minutes of just apes; it is completely emotionally based and a world you have never seen before. I wanted it to be exotic but also oddly familiar so there are ways in which it parallels our own tribal development. It has a primitive side to it, but also a beauty to it and that speaks of the hope that the apes could somehow follow our same development and go a direction that we don’t go. To become something better than we are. And this is the beginning of that. The two compelling aspects of the story for me and the story I wanted to tell was can we tell a story about the beginning of ape civilization development and the question of whether there was a way we can live together. That was what the whole story is about. The cool thing about Rise is they started another path to a world we already knows exists, how do we get there? The goal in my mind was to ground everything in something that felt authentic and real. To me that is the way movies inspire me, they reflect the truth about the way we are to the degree that they can in the story.
DC: Who’s the ‘bad guy’ in your picture?
MR: To me the idea of the story of villains, it’s always much less interesting than to understand that we have the capacity to be villains, that we have the capacity to be better. And to reflect as accurately as possible given the context of the story, a story of apes and humans who have to grapple with whether they are going to fight or not fight. But to find a way to reflect something truthful about our nature, I find that inspiring. The moment you can write off someone as a villain is the moment you objectify them. What I always find thrilling in movies is empathy.
DC: Is Caesar the star again?
MR: Absolutely. I loved Rise because I became an ape. Because emotionally I could relate to what [Caesar] was going through. I tried to approach this story in that way, which was to create a much more difficult story for Caesar. In the first movie it is very clear that he is unfairly imprisoned and ripped away from the human and the ape family. He was becoming a revolutionary for very just reasons. It’s one thing to lead a revolution, but what happens when you actually have succeeded? Then there is the question of leadership and there are lives at stake and it’s more complex than just humans are bad, apes are good.
DC: Is Gary Oldman’s character a bad human?
MR: We don’t have a villain in the story. We have different points of view and how we grapple with the idea of how you have your perspective and you have come through it, and it’s completely honorable because that is your experience. Caesar and Koba are bonded because Caesar freed all of the Apes and they are bonded with that experience. Caesar did this for them and they become brothers and family. Then when the humans come, the question is how should we deal with them? Because my experience as Koba was that I was tortured by them. ‘I lived in laboratories and they did unspeakable things to me.’ That’s my experience of what they are. Caesar’s experience is more shaded than that. This sparks a debate. But it’s not that Koba is wrong because of what he went through, because that’s his experience.
Gary Oldman is not the villain; as a matter of fact, if you told the story from Gary Oldman’s point of view, he thinks he is the hero. In the story every single person is the hero of the story. And my goal of the story was to try to come up with as much as empathy and point of view as possible, so you could understand the difficulty of the situation. What inspires me is when I can come to understand ways in which I could make the wrong decision. Or the ways I could have made a better decision. The idea is to always try to understand.
DC: How do you think the movie will do against all the big superhero franchises?
MR: We are in a movie environment where most things are about spectacle - superheroes, crazy stuff, a huge Fox film. But at the end of the day, because of the metaphor of the movie, which is the intelligence of the apes, we get to explore a dramatic situation that has relevance to our lives. That’s very unusual and very exciting to me. The whole franchise is so ambitious, not just in terms of the levels of effects, but it provokes questions and is meant to be quite emotional. We are hoping that it will be.
DC: Given your past films, this one is very ambitious. Lots of action, CGI, and so on…
MR: I have never done motion capture. The key to the whole thing is not that Andy is a great motion actor but that Andy is a great actor. I want to see all the footage that was done on the set and then I wanted to see everything that was done as Caesar. There is a really emotional scene and I remember really being affected by it in the first movie where Caesar is being abandoned at the sanctuary and he bangs against the glass; it was heart rendering. Then they showed me Andy on the set and I was blown away. Because as good as Caesar was, Andy was even a bit better. It was Andy who was fully connected to that moment, banging against the glass with dots on his face, wearing a crazy leotard. But he was completely emotionally committed to the moment. It’s all about creating emotional believability. That’s what Andy is. The reason that Andy is that good is because he is a great actor.
DC: Do you use some practical effects as well?
MR: I had such admiration for what Rupert Wyatt had done and what they had done in the first movie. When they came to me talking about the movie, my first thought was, “What’s wrong here?” Because when Rupert did that movie it was a huge success and it was terrific. And it turned out that for a number of reasons, creative and very much with schedule, he had something clear in mind that he didn’t think schedule-wise the studio would let him do to fit that schedule because it was a very ambitious thing. There was also debates about what that movie should be about and he ended up saying that he was going to go on and do something else. So I thought that would mean they would have very specific ideas and they did. The apes were talking a mile a minute and it was quite different from the other movie; I had no interest in it. It was not what I wanted to do and they said, 'Don’t say “no”; tell us what you want to do.'
DC: What did you want to do, specifically?
MR: I described this movie, with the idea that I didn’t want to start in the human world and I wanted to start with the apes. The thing you did so brilliantly was you connected us to Caesar through Andy, and that character is so great. I want to see that revolutionary become a leader, I wanted to see his family. And then I wanted to discover there were humans and I wanted that situation to play out in such a way that we can be drawn up into the emotion of that. They said, 'Great!" and I said, “That’s it?” I said, “What’s the catch?” and they said the catch was that we have to start shooting very soon and we have a release date and if you want to make that movie, that is the movie we want you to make and you just have to jump in now.
DC: Wow. So why’d you tackle such a daunting project with little to no prep time?
MR: I decided to do [Apes] because it is so rare. It was a chance do something in a world I have been fascinated with since I was a kid, a world that was so rich with metaphor. As crazy as that sounds, it was too enticing to pass up. On top of that, I also had this whole idea that this could be an Apocalypse Now and we can go into the jungle with these apes. I wanted to take the visual reality to a higher level so you could have less obstacle to the believability and continue to engage with the emotion of it. In the first movie, it was shot mostly on stage. We shot 85% of this film on location, in the rain and all these crazy locations. They said yes to that too and I thought that would be the worst shoot ever and it was. We had motion capture cameras, mega 3D cameras, and guys in suits standing on rainy hillsides in the mud. This was Apocalypse Now with apes. But they let me do it and how can I pass that up?
DC: You touched a little bit on how this is Caesar’s story, but can you elaborate please? Is James Franco back?
MR: The whole movie is about Caesar and his emotional terrain of everything that made him who he is. He has ape parents who he didn’t know very well because they were taken away from him when he was very, very young, but he has a human father, which makes this story so powerful. The question of co-existence with humans and apes, he [Caesar] has an ape family but he has roots very deeply to a human father. And in that way we wanted to recall him [Franco]. He [Franco] was very close to the experiment, and the way they originally shot the movie, he died. But we shouldn’t see that because it was so painful. We just want to see Caesar returning to the woods. But the idea is that he [Franco] got the infection and he died. What I wanted to do was to find a way to connect us back to Franco so that he could be part of what informs of where Caesar came from. One of the things we are doing in the story is we are seeing the way that the apes are expressing themselves, this articulation, and part of it was communication. Will had taught Caesar sign language and he had that sign language to speak with Maurice and I thought that was part of the palette of their language. Then there is also the fact that he could literally speak which he also learned by observing his father. So I wanted to find a way in the excavation of things, when we go back into the city, to unearth some of that. Without giving anything away, he [Franco] makes an appearance. Not like literally seeing James Franco obviously as he is not in the movie, but he is in the movie in a way that refers to the last movie.
Look for the film in theatres - in 3D of course - on July 11th, 2014. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes stars Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smith-Mcphee, Enrique Muriciano, and Kirk Acevedo; James Franco has a cameo.
It's directed by Matt Reeves from a screenplay by Mark Bomback and Rich Jaffa & Amanda Silver based on characters created by Jaffa and Silver.
A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.
For more visit the official Dawn of the Planet of the Apes website, "like" Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on Facebook, and follow Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on Twitter (#DawnOfApes).
Got news? Click here to submit it!
Subscribe to the Dread Central YouTube Channel!
Rise up in the comments section below!