The new and much-anticipated film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes by director Matt Reeves is just days away. So it goes to figure that the filmmaker has been giving numerous interviews and reporters have been asking him all the usual questions about his creative processes, dealing with the studios, technical challenges, etcetera, etcetera but...
Reeves is uncharacteristically open about the creative process. He tells us about the many trials and tribulations encountered while making Dawn. Listening to him, one is reminded of just what a big-budget disaster this film could’ve, would’ve been if the director had not stayed true to his inner-Apes-nerd. Future filmmakers heed the message!
What Reeves says about his initial impressions of the script:
“When I first arrived, [20th Century Fox] pitched me the story they were gonna do and I thought I wasn’t gonna do the film,” Reeves told me in an exclusive interview. “I wasn’t gonna do the film because it was a story that I didn’t quite connect to.”
Before Reeves came on board the story was totally different.
“It took place in San Francisco, post apocalyptic San Francisco. And basically the first or second scene had the apes joining the humans and it all took place in the city and they were pushing up power lines and there was all this stuff that I just didn’t quite get. But the thing that really I didn’t get because I wanted to see what led up to it was that they were already much more articulate than they are in the final film now. They were basically fully conversant. They could speak. And I was like wait a minute, what I thought was so cool in Rise was that the apes are coming into being. And that is what I found riveting. Like watching Andy, and behind his eyes in his performance, you see this kind of roiling sort of sense of emotion and a desire to express himself. And when he finally speaks, when he finally says no, it’s kind of breathtaking. But it’s all because it’s been this simmering build up to finding a way to say something. And when he does, it’s powerful.”
Reeves wanted to explore another direction for the film.
“So I was like wait a minute, let’s not skip that. Like I love the sign language between Maurice and Caesar even before Maurice had had the ALZ 113. I was like “there’s gotta be some way to use all these things and allow us not to miss the full coming into articulate expression.” And I wanna see the beginning of language. I wanna see the beginning of reading, of teaching the children the alphabet, of the beginning of the canon stuff, like all that kind of stuff. First of all, I felt that what they had pitched me, the outline form, was not Caesar’s movie. And I said, to me, the victory of your last film was that it was Andy’s and Caesar’s movie. And that the most human character in that story was not a human at all, it was an ape. And I thought that that was mind blowing, especially that they had been able to realize the visual effects in such a way that you had that level of emotional identification. And I felt it was the deepest level emotional identification I’d ever experienced with a C.G. character. Like I know all the stuff that Andy had done, but I was, I got very emotional in some scenes. And I thought, wow, that’s incredible. How are they doing that? And so I said, you’ve gotta make it Caesar’s story. It should start and end on him. It’s gotta be his movie.”
Reeves new take adhered closer to the original Caesar storyline: the ape leader would be the protagonist of the film.
“Starting in the post apocalyptic world, which to me was obviously gonna be a feature of the story, but as the center of the story, I felt like it was familiar. I feel like we’ve seen it so many times now. But what I didn’t feel like that I’d seen was an ape world creation movie. I wanted it to be like the beginning of 2001 with dawn of man except dawn of intelligent apes. And I said, so what if we started with the apes and we told — like the way in the last movie you had an extended sequence with almost no dialogue in the habitat, what if we do that in the burgeoning ape civilization? And we just see daily life. And we see Caesar and we come to move from seeing them in this kind of eerie like “oh my God, the apes have inherited the Earth” kind of elemental, scary way to getting involved in their inner emotional lives. And that by the time you got so connected to them emotionally and you started going like oh, Caesar has a newborn, Caesar’s a Father and Caesar has a family and these apes are essentially his family. They’re a brotherhood. That then you would introduce the humans. You’d find out that they were alive and then it would be a question of co-existence that would live under everything. You’d have a human family and an ape family. I pitched that to them. And to my great surprise, they said, that sounds great. Are you in? And that was literally in the meeting. ‘Cause I thought for sure that I would pitch it and they’d go, you know, the one thing I had been told is that they really wanted to keep this schedule. And there was certainly no script for that. And so I pitched it and they said, yes, and then I said, so what’s the catch? And they said, the catch is we still wanna try and make that release date. So you’re gonna have to jump in right away.”
What Reeves says about making his first-ever tentpole movie:
“I had never done a tentpole movie. And I had been offered a number of tentpole movies. But one thing that I could tell from the outside and from the experience and from watching the movie, these movies are so huge, they take up your life in such a grand way, and I’ve also seen so many of them where the kind of filmmaking point of view sort of gets sucked into what almost looks like a kind of generic committeeism. I can understand now having gone through it how that happens. Because it’s so enormous that there’s such a force to like just, you know, let this part take care of itself and you focus on this and you do that. And I had such admiration for those guys who had been able to make movies that felt like they had real points of view on this kind of scale. And I felt like the only way I would ever be able to do that is if I had kind of an emotional connection to the story. And when they approached me about this story, this, a lot of the big tentpole movies, they’re superhero oriented and it really comes down to whether or not you connect to that character or that series of characters. And I had never been approached with one where I felt that burning desire. But I had been a lifelong Apes fan. I mean, literally as a kid, I wanted to be an ape. I had the dolls. I had all that stuff. So when they approached me, I was very excited and I was especially excited because I thought that Rise had been done so beautifully and that in particular the emotionality that came from that was unexpected. I thought, wow, this is a reason to re-enter this world. Because those films, I mean, the first one is a classic and I loveBeneath and I even love the TV series. I had, you know, all those dolls from the TV series. And I think that what I thought was this emotionality and being in the apes kind of inner lives, that’s a reason to do this. Like because you know the ending. And so now the question is how do we get from here to there? And I just thought that there was an enormous story because the world of Rise and the world that I was proposing in Dawn is so far away from the world of the ’68 movie that it immediately asks a provocative question, which is how do you get from here to there? Which is all about character, all about kind of mythic story and like he’s kind of like Caesar’s like their Moses or something. You know, I felt like wow, this is and it did feel kind of like Star Wars to me in that sense. You know, it felt like wow, this is this amazing like it’s not laid out somewhere in some way like The Lord of the Rings or something where you know what all those chapters are, but it feels like there’s all these chapters. Can we go on this crazy pursuit of that? And so when I went in and they said, you could do that story, I literally ’cause I’m always looking for the reason to say no with these big movies, ’cause I think I can’t do it unless I’m gonna do it right ’cause I’m afraid I’m gonna fail. And when they said yes, I literally was thrown ’cause I thought for sure that they would at least say, well let us think about that. And we’ll come back to you. And I thought that they’d come back with some series of conditions that I wouldn’t be okay with. But they just said yes, and so then I was like terrified ’cause it meant that there was really no good reason to say no. So then I said yes.”
The beginning of the film starts with close to thirty minutes subtitles that accompany the apes sign language. Wonder how this got pushed through the a studio system? On this point, Reeves says:
“I wouldn’t say it was a battle, but I would say it was an important debate. There would be questions of do we really need that much of this or that? And I was like oh guys, we need this, we need this. And actually the producers became real protectors of that idea as well. Everybody was like, wait a minute, I know, you guys you’re not seeing yet, ’cause you have to understand when you’re in post on this thing, you spend most of the first year up until really the last few months looking at shots of actors wearing mo-cap equipment. So you, after the initial kind of involvement that comes from seeing how great Andy Serkis’ performance is and Toby Kebbell, like they’re, the amazing thing is that the movie actually works before they’re apes in it. But the amazingness of what that sequence was gonna be would not be apparent fully until we actually got all those shots in there. So there were places along the way where the question would come up again like are we sure about this opening? And I kept saying, guys, I think this is gonna be one of the things that’s gonna be really unique and special. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the movie. And the crazy thing about it is is they kept saying, okay, okay. And I kept pinching myself that somehow the craziest thing about the movie for me is that they let us make this movie. My feeling about what it would mean to do a big studio film would be that there’d be kind of like well, you’ve gotta follow these formulas and the generic tropes and this and that. And the movie that I pitched to them is the movie they let us make. And we had to figure out how to make that movie, but that was the movie we got to do. And I kept going, this is crazy.”
“I remember the first time that I showed it to the studio and they were very emotional. They were excited that we were trying to be ambitious. As a director, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the moment they go, okay, so we’re kidding, we’re taking it away. Forget it, you don’t get to do that. Like I kept waiting for that moment. And of course there were debates and struggles about this and that. But the essence they were behind and that sequence in particular was something that was really important to me. And somehow we got through this process and now the world is seeing it and so it’s crazy.”