[NOTE: The following interview contains MINOR SPOILERS for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes]
When it was first announced that 20th Century Fox intended to reboot the Planet of the Apes movie franchise with Rupert Wyatt’s origin tale, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, many movie fans balked at the idea. While the original series remains well-loved, interest in a fresh start for the brainy Apes was squandered in Tim Burton’s 2001 movie remake/loose adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s original Planet of the Apes novel. Nevertheless, a thoughtful story of human and ape character drama, with a downright powerful performance from Andy Serkis as franchise star Caesar, made Rise of the Planet of the Apes one of the biggest surprises of 2011 (read our review) – leaving fans eager for a continuation of the revitalized series.
Replacing Wyatt for the sequel, titled Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is Matt Reeves – known best for directing the 2010 American remake, Let Me In, as well as cult-favorite found footage film Cloverfield. At first Reeves was skeptical about directing the next chapter in the growing conflict between humanity (living in a post-apocalyptic world after the Simian Flu spread around the world, decimating the global population) and hyper-intelligent apes (now in the early stages of forming their own organized civilization). Nevertheless, the filmmaker found “emotional perspective” that provided an intriguing way into the sequel storyline – setting the stage for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to, potentially, surpass Rise of the Planet of the Apes‘ critical and commercial acclaim.
Early reviews for the film have been overwhelmingly positive – with our own Kofi Outlaw stating: “Seriously, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is stunning. Reeves made The Dark Knight of the Planet of the Apes movies.” With only a few short days (at the time of this writing) before the film opens to the public, we’ll soon find out if casual audiences respond with the same enthusiasm.
Prior to the release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we had a chance to chat with Reeves to discuss the development of the film along with what the future might hold for the Apes franchise.
Soon, you’ll be able can hear the full conversation during our Dawn of the Planet of the Apes podcast episode and we’ll be expanding on several news-worthy topics from this interview in the coming days but, in the mean time, check out the full interview with Reeves below.
Screen Rant: The First thing that interested me and really just caught my attention was the first and last shot of this movie makes it very clear who this movie is about and what the focus of it is. It’s very surprising when you go into this movie and you see that the first – I don’t know the exact time – but about 20 minutes or so…
Matt Reeves: Yeah, it’s about the first 15, 20 minutes, something like that.
SR: It’s just all about the apes and their culture. It’s this almost silent film with them mostly communicating in sign language. Was that always the vision going into this or was that something that you kind of had to fight for or was everybody behind this from the very beginning?
MR: It’s interesting that you ask that. I’ve been a lifelong Planet of the Apes fan. I was obsessed with Planet of the Apes as a kid. I had the dolls. I watched the TV show. I watched the movies. I wanted to be an ape. When I saw Rise, I was really affected because I’d always wanted to be an ape as a kid because of how cool they looked, and then in watching the movie, I realized that I got my childhood wish but in a way that I never expected. I became an ape emotionally because the movie was such an intimate exploration of Caesar’s character. I was like, “Wow. That’s amazing!”
So when I came in to meet with the studio, when they approached me about doing the film, they pitched me the story that they had that they’d been working on, and it didn’t center on Caesar. In fact, it started in the post-apocalyptic city and the apes, in the first scene, kinda came down into the city and they were pushing up power lines. And there was this sort of story in the city. And the apes were actually very articulate. They already could speak very, very easily.
I was like, “Oh. I don’t think this is the movie for me.” They said, “Wait a minute. Why not?” I said, “Well, this is just not what I would do.” So they said, “Well, what would you do?” I said, “Well, I think you have to keep in mind what you did. You created, in Rise, a hero in Caesar. If I were going to do this movie, I would want it to be Caesar’s movie through and through.” I think the secret of Rise is that it ends up being an ape point of view movie. I think now that you’ve done that, you’ve earned it. This movie should declare itself right from the beginning as being his movie. It should start and end on him. My idea was I felt that instead of starting into the post-apocalyptic human world, which would, of course, be part of the story, I didn’t want that to be the beginning because I felt like that was, in a way, the most familiar part. We’ve seen a million post-apocalyptic movies.
So I thought, “Well, what if instead the movie started like 2001? And instead of dawn of man, it’s dawn of intelligent apes. And you see them in their world.” And, as you say, it’s like a silent movie where first you just sort of see them and it’s kind of primal and elemental and sort of terrifying, almost in that 2001 like way. And then as the story unfolds with them and your experience unfolds with them over the next 15 minutes or so, you actually get drawn into their emotional lives and start to see under layers and start having that same connection with Caesar that you did in Rise where you see him now not only as a leader of the apes, but also as a father. And you see his newborn. And you see him as a patriarch. I mean this is really his extended family. And that once you’d established that, you could then introduce the fact that there were humans. At the beginning of the movie, you would think the humans had destroyed themselves. And then, suddenly, they run into each other, and then the movie would become kind of like a classic mythic western where you’ve got these sort of two peoples that are in conflict over a piece of land and the question is could they coexist or are they going to have to turn to violence? That question could live under everything.
So that was my pitch. I pretty much expected them to say, “Well, I don’t think so. We’ve got a release date and we have to move forward. And we already have this outline in place.” To my shock, the only words they really said were, “Sounds great. Are you in?” I was like, “Oh! OK.”
I had never done a studio tent pole movie. So I’d been offered a number of them, but I actually had turned them down because, to me, what’s really important is having a point of view and having an emotional way into something. It’s actually been a key to everything I’ve done, is having a particular emotional perspective on something.
What I pitched was my emotional perspective. To be honest, I thought they would never go for it. And I had turned down all the other ones because I couldn’t find that for these things. So when they suddenly said that sounded good and we could make that version of the movie, I was terrified because it meant now I didn’t really have any reason to say no, which meant now I had to jump into this.
It was thrilling and terrifying. There was a huge learning curve in having to jump in and understand sort of what performance capture was and how that would work. It was quite an adventure. But the longest answer ever to your question is it’s not what the film started as, but it’s amazingly what they let me do.
SR: That’s a great answer because you actually touched on a number of other questions that I’m going to ask you right now. The second thing I was about to ask you was influences. When I was watching the film, one of the first things that I thought was just really kind of genius were these very Kubrickian moments. I thought I spotted them, and you kind of, I guess, said that in homages to where the musical score and the way that the shots were composed. I thought those were homages and I thought, “That is kind of genius.” Hard to capture, but well executed.
MR: They definitely were. Thank you. That was definitely the thought. It was like I just… because I was captivated with that idea, I mean 2001 is one of my favorite movies. I just think it’s such a powerful film. Those sections at the beginning of the film I think are so captivating. I just thought, “Well, here’s our chance to do something kind of different but very specific to the apes that could really echo that.”
When Michael Giacchino and I, who I think has written a magnificent score, sat down to talk about the scoring for that scene, we actually listened to some of that legatee music that actually is in some of those sequences that is in 2001—the monolith kind of music that you think of, that really tonal, eerie choir music. So we decided that it could start so that you could almost be afraid of the apes. So it feels really elemental that you are seeing the new dominant species on the earth. They’ve inherited the earth. And a lot of the visual references and the sound references, the music references, were definitely sort of from 2001 and from Kubrick and that kind of vibe. So it’s really cool that you picked that up.
SR: A lot of people use those and don’t necessarily get them right when they use it. I think what was so great about this was it really helps to sell and ground this idea. I mean one of the moments that sticks out is when Jason Clarke’s character first walks into this village and there’s the shot of all the apes…
MR: That’s one of my favorite scenes.
SR: Yeah, just surrounding him. And that music comes on and it really just drives home like, “OK. This is a real place. This guy walked in and this is pretty much what your reaction and feeling might be like if you walked into a village of intelligent apes.”
MR: That is so cool that you say that because, actually, to me, when I talk about a way in, and I’m talking about when I choose a project and my way in, it always has to do with point of view—who are you at each particular moment? Point of view to me is the most important part of filmmaking. For me, cinema is all about emotional empathy—putting you inside of a character in a situation and feeling what they feel.
The whole idea for the beginning of the movie was to start in this way that was kind of startling in this kind of 2001-esque way and then start to peel the layers back and actually find yourself emotionally identifying with the apes. But then I wanted to make a switch where, in the sequence you are talking about, we become Jason Clarke and, whereas, in the beginning you actually enter this world that has a kind of beauty and warmth and a sense of family to it that when he enters it, it’s like what if you’ve been watching a story about animals in the wild and then, suddenly, you were a human being… Or if it was about a human being who suddenly went into the zoo. It’s like, “Oh, wait a minute. You shouldn’t be going inside the cage. What are you doing?” That that perspective was a terrifying perspective; that one of the things was to show the inner-lives of apes but that we would never forget about the fact that apes are seven times stronger than we are and they could tear us apart.
So the idea of seeing him do that, to me, the references in that section were sort of like Apocalypse Now or like Aguirre, the Wrath of God or something, like a guy who is just going into the heart of darkness and surrendering to the sort of primal nature around him.
So that was one of my favorite sequences to shoot. I’m glad that you are bringing that up.