The announcement of Matt Reeves as director of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes perhaps should have come as no surprise. After all, the original 1968 film ended with that devastating image of The Statue Of Liberty half-swallowed by sand and surf; and Reeves made his cinematic mark by having Lady Liberty's head memorably ripped off and hurled across Manhattan by the rampaging monster in his second feature film, Cloverfield.
A lifelong friend of J.J. Abrams (they met as film-making kids), Reeves, like Abrams, started out in Hollywood as a writer, scripting the sequel to the Steven Segal action hit Under Siege in 1995. A year later he co-wrote and directed David Schwimmer/Gwyneth Paltrow-starring romantic comedy The Pallbearer (produced by Abrams). Then he moved into television, co-creating with Abrams the much-loved, quirky show Felicity, which starred Keri Russell.
He was lured back to the big screen years later though, and proved he had blockbuster clout with the New York-trashing found-footage monster feature Cloverfield, which made $171 million worldwide. Reeves followed that up with the critically acclaimed Let Me In, a remake of the Swedish vampire love-story Let The Right One In, starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes represented the logical next step: a blend of Cloverfield's spectacle with Let Me In's humane sensitivity and drama. Allowed by 20th Century Fox to take a beloved franchise that had been revived by 2011's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and re-craft it according to his own ideas, Reeves promises the film will be both epic and initmate as it continues the story of 'ape-plus' revolutionary Caesar (Andy Serkis), whose dawning ape civilization - and own family - face a deep crisis...
Why did you choose to direct Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes?
I was obsessed with Planet Of The Apes when I was a kid. And I love what they did on Rise [Of The Planet Of The Apes]. What really got me when I saw the original 1968 film was that, as a kid, my whole thing was that I was obsessed with the make-up. I just wanted to become an ape. And I realised that with Rise, though nobody was in that make-up-appliance stuff anymore, in another way, you actually are turning the audience into an ape, because emotionally, you become Caesar. I was blown away.
What in particular did you love about Rise?
The thing that really touched me about Rise was, of course, Caesar, and Andy Serkis. Obviously, he's been amazing in Lord Of The Rings, and of course he gives a beautiful performance as King Kong, but there was something about this character where it all came together in a way where I thought, like, "This is his movie, and this is //him//." It's all about thinking and feeling from his point of view... And the exciting thing was watching that character coming into being. What's weird is that I had just gone through something personal in my life, which is that my wife and I had our first son. And this is to me the way in which it felt really personal to me. The thing that made me want to do it was that in Caesar, I saw, as he was developing, things that reminded me of my son.
The thing about having a child, for me, was just this revelation about how they are who they are: there's a person in there. And they're developing in so many ways, but there's a coming into being, into articulation. He's got all these things he wants to say but he doesn't have the tools to say them yet. And I felt that was so exactly who Caesar was. And when he spoke, it gave me chills, and it reminded me of just my son coming into being.
If Rise was about Caesar coming into being, and leading the revolt, what is at the heart of Dawn?
I think in the last film, because of the set up, you're so rooting for Caesar, and then other than the fact that obviously [James] Franco is sort of a father figure to him, the humans are just a little more simply drawn. They're not as complex as they could be. And we're trying to take that a step further to say, "okay, there's a real moral dilemma here". There's a real question that's not as simple as, well, the humans are bad and the apes are good. This is about the nature of both of them, and their own struggle for survival. And there is that question of violence - even though the movie is all about family - and that's what keeps the stakes high, in my mind. You're wondering, "Can they avoid this descending into violence? Can they avoid turning against each other, these two populations?"
Would you describe this as a post-apocalyptic movie?
Obviously, the viral outbreak happens at the end of the last film, so there is that assumption that the movie is post-apocalyptic. And from the humans' point of view it would be. But the movie is not from the point of view of the humans. The movie is from Caesar and the apes' point of view. And so it's an ape civilization movie. What would these intelligent apes do, if they returned to the wild and tried to create a place for their family? It's the beginning of their evolution from where we left them at the end of the first movie. You don't even know in the first 20 minutes of the movie if humans are around. It's a pure ape world, it's crazy.
You didn't want the apes to be talking fluently in this film. Why is that, and how did you approach the way they communicate?
I literally spoke to a language development specialist who talked about children and the stages at which they begin to speak. And we tried to figure out the level of articulation. I mean, we know Caesar can talk because he said four words in the last movie: "Caesar is home," and, "No". So in this movie, he would be the one who talks the most, but they don't need to talk that much. Yet they still have the ability to communicate through language - there's also sign language, because obviously he was taught that by Franco, and then Maurice knew that it as well. And so you're like, "okay, we know the tools they have. So where do we get from here to there? We know that Koba could write 'Jacobs', we know that they have these abilities, so where does that take us from here to there?" And so that was fun, figuring out, "what's the level of writing? What are they trying to pass on to the next generation? Who's the teacher?" Maurice being a teacher, you know - all this kind of stuff was just really fun.
You made a decision to shoot a majority of this film on location. Why was that?
I wanted the reality of the film to be even greater than the last film, in terms of tone and in terms of look. Rise had so much mo-cap, it was mostly stagebound. Our movie, in addition to being in Native 3D, which was its own craziness, was shot about 95 per cent on location. We have one virtual set. You see a lot of the behind-the-scenes [footage] on these mo-cap movies and it's mostly greenscreen and then a couple of set pieces. But for this film we had virtually no greenscreen except for extension. Everything else was all practical and the light was all real; we tried to light in the most natural way possible, tried to create the feeling of available light. And with the advances that Weta's made with the technology - which is amazing - idea is that if you can really believe this is the real world it becomes this incredibly uncanny experience and you start to connect to the emotion of it. Especially with the idea of this large scale-world creation, you're going like, "Wait, where //are// we?"
Well, we're on The Planet Of The Apes!
And that's the thing. The cool thing about the last one is that it was this revolution of a group of apes, but this truly has both feet squarely in The Planet Of The Apes. And the question of course is that we know what this Planet Of The Apes becomes, and yet at this moment, we start in the ape world, then we discover there still are humans and that there's a parity in terms of numbers. And so this is that one moment when it could've been Planet Of The Humans And Apes. And that's what we're exploring: how that fell apart. And that's been pretty cool.
So this is an epic film, is it?
I do think it has aspirations of being epic, absolutely.
Is it a war movie?
I think it's more about the threat of war. The spectre of war is there. And that's not to say that there isn't violence, and that there aren't battles within it. But it's a human-and-ape drama.
It's a great cast on both sides of that drama...
That was the whole thing: we needed good actors on both sides, all the way across. Because at the end of the day, though of course there is action, at the centre of it all it's about the drama between these characters. [On the human side] we have Jason Clarke, we have Gary Oldman, we have Keri Russell, and we have Kodi Smit-McPhee. You know, even though there's a large group of humans, there is this sort of key group that's kind of a family that's not related by blood. I wanted to make sure we had a group of humans who would create a situation where you're sat there going, "Wow, this is a complex situation, and I have sympathies for //both// sides. I can understand how you arrive at the point of views that both of them have, because if I went through those things, I might feel that way too." So it was really important that we have actors on the human side who have that kind of depth. We were so lucky to get this cast.
And you have some impressive people on the ape side, too, such as Toby Kebbell and Judy Greer.
Andy set the bar so high, and it was really exciting in this movie to populate the world of apes around him with terrific actors like Toby. And Andy was really excited about that, and Toby was really excited to work with him. And Judy Greer, she's Cornelia, she is great. Then there's another actor named Nick Thurston, who's a terrific young actor [as Caesar's teen son Blue Eyes]. Also, some of the great people from Rise, like Karin Konoval who played Maurice, she is astonishing. That movie changed her life. She forged a connection between herself and the orangutans that was so profound she still spends time weekly with orangutans at LA Zoo. And Terry Notary is a genius as well. He trained everybody how to move like an ape, and he's Rocket. I mean, our ape cast is amazing and our human cast is amazing.
Was it good collaborating with Andy on this? He joined the first film very late in the process and had to hit the ground running, but here he comes on board as a man who owns the part.
Oh my God, he sure does. He was such a joy to work with. It was so thrilling because I was like, "well this is why Caesar's great: because Andy's a great actor," it's just that simple. It's not about him being particularly good at mo-cap, which obviously he is, but what does that mean? What it means is that they're capturing a performance that is profound and emotional. He's just fantastic. And he is as good an actor as I've ever worked with. I think he's a genius, he's amazing. I remember we were doing a scene, and it was a blocking rehearsal. And there's a very harrowing thing that's happened, and it's about all of my favourite actors together, and I've worked with some of them before, like with Kodi and Keri, and it's just so fun for me to be working with them again. You know, like Kodi's a little genius, and Keri's great... And we're doing this stuff and we're just blocking it through, and it's a very emotional scene, and we're just trying to find out where everyone should stand - just to start. And I turn at the end of the rehearsal, and I think, "Okay, I think we've found a good place to start." And I look over at Andy's eyes, and he has been crying throughout the whole scene. In character. And all we're doing is a blocking rehearsal. And I was like, "this man is never not in it. Never not committed".
Would you describe Dawn as having been a tough shoot?
Yes. It was incredibly difficult. I mean, I loved working with the actors and it was really exciting for me to do mo-cap for the first time. But when I talked about the version of the movie that I wanted to do, it was that we would go to the wild, into the woods. And we'd be out there, not on a stage with fake trees, but actually be out there, shoot in the winter in Vancouver, be in the rain. And then they really wanted us to do 3D, and so we were like, "Well, we're going to take those cameras and we're going to be in some pretty terrible weather..." On a scale that had just never been done before! And it was incredibly hard.
You shot in New Orleans in early summer, too. That must have been just as unforgiving...
It was crazy. That was an area that would stand in well for the fallen San Francisco. And we didn't shoot on stages there. We built [the Ape Village] on the parking lot [of the shut-down Six Flags Amusement Park]. The idea was to try and do the things that were supposed to be outside, outside. To try to do the things that were going to be in the city streets, in the city streets. We did some shooting in San Francisco as well, and the idea is that this will hopefully lend a level of reality, visually, that is going to make this really stand out. It made it much harder though. Because the one thing about doing the mo-cap is that you usually do it in a much more controlled environment. And our environments were //anything// but controlled.
How did you deal with the large-scale battle scenes?
We have a huge ape civilization, but we only had so many mo-cap performers. So we're going to represent hundreds, thousands of apes, with six to eight guys. It's crazy. The mo-cap, what's so uncanny about it, is you're having actual motion, actual performance. So it works emotionally on the face, but also physically. The thing in the last movie, there was some stuff where they had to do keyframe animation. And there'll be small places in the movie where they have to do that here. But we hired parkour stunt performers who were trained by Terry [Notary] to move like apes so that when you're seeing the stunts, you're not seeing keyframed animation any more. Now what you're seeing are actual performers who can do amazing things. The hope here is there'll be much less suspension of disbelief because the level of reality will be very much higher.
As a fan of the Planet Of The Apes series, how do you feel your movie fits in alongside the others, in terms of story and tone?
It's very much in the vein of the other movies, but at the same time the thing to me that's so exciting about it is that while it's about all of these epic themes I think the level of emotionality is the thing that takes it to a whole other level. You know, in the first movie, you're fascinated with [the apes] and if you're a kid you want to be them, but you're hesitant. You're like, "What planet is this? What kind of world could exist [like this]? How could this have happened?" And then, of course, you get one of the most iconic, amazing endings. But it's not an ape point-of-view movie, and this is. And that, I think, makes it something really exciting.