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'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' Director on Caesar's Story, CGI Characters, & More!

SR: Let’s just talk a little bit about performances. I’m going to break this up into two. I’ll take the smaller question first because we’re going to talk a lot about the performance capture you’ve already kind of alluded to. One thing I thought was interesting was the selection of actors you had for the human side, because they’re all very good actors and I think they were the ones who had to pull of this job of kind of… from their perspective, they have to really kind of emote this very deep, painful history without the movie... 

MR: Yeah, without that even being the subject of the story. That’s the crazy thing, is that in another movie, their experiences would have been the story. Here that was the backstory to this story, which was really, as I said, like this kind of story about coexistence and these two families that are sort of trying to find a way to either coexist or find themselves having to fight each other.

And so, that was very important to me that we cast actors who could bring that backstory into focus emotionally and give you a sense of the kind of broken… I saw the story as a story of two families. One was an ape family which you are seeing, which is on its ascendency; it’s kind of in a tribal phase and they are coming into being, coming into articulation. The human family was a post-apocalyptic human family so that they were shattered and they were a family that was trying to reconstitute itself, to repair itself. So every single one of them was filled with tremendous wounds and they had to find some way to come to why life was worth living.

On both sides, family is one of the primary concerns. So it was one of the driving story elements. When we cast the story… look, I was really excited to get to work with Jason Clarke, who I thought was just so great… I followed his career for many years, actually even on Brotherhood. But it was really his performance in Zero Dark Thirty where I thought he was just so great. I was like, “You know, if we’re going to try and make this, this real, it would be great to have an actor like this to be one of those human voices.” I’d worked with Kerri Russell before and with Kodi Smit-McPhee. Their work I already knew was incredibly intimate. I wanted the movie to be very intimate, so I was really excited to work with them again.

And then, when it turned out that Gary Oldman… I wrote him a letter. I didn’t think in a million years he would do it. It turned out that he was a lifelong Planet of the Apes fan like me. And when he read the story, the reason he wanted to be in the movie is he thought it was a beautiful story. He felt like it was a very emotional story. He was drawn to play Dreyfus because he wasn’t really a villain, but because I was looking to find a way to make every point of view in the story one that we understand, because if you are going to do an anatomy of violence, you don’t want any easy answers or stock villains. You need to have characters whose experience informs what their world view is.

And so, he was drawn really to the overall story. And then the idea of getting to work with him was really exciting. So the human actors, I was very fortunate to get such wonderful actors to work with to realize that.

SR: That is high praise from Gary Oldman. We know he does not necessarily always say that. So that was good praise.

MR: He was very affected by what it was about, and also just the legacy of Planet of the Apes which he had loved since he was young as well. So it was a great experience to work with him. He’s a force of nature. He’s a legend. He’s Gary Oldman. It was amazing.

SR: We’re going to segue just for a second because you were bringing up the story. One of the things… I’m one of these people who is very critical about the type of sci-fi I love. I personally am a person who really needs my sci-fi to kind of speak to be this extreme, exaggerated version of real-life things and be a metaphor for real-life things. I need that substance.

MR: Yeah, absolutely.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Koba on horseback

SR: One of the things I found about this movie which was just so kind of impressive to me was this was one of the best kind of movies I’ve seen, I think, that talks about everything. It doesn’t matter what group you are talking about. It could be ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, whatever you are talking about. But this movie deals with the idea of how you identify in a group and what the folly of that can be when you don’t learn this… you think would be the simple human lesson we’d learn, but to judge people individually by their actions and their character and things like that.

There are a lot of movies that try to tackle this, but this has been one of the most kind of intricate, intimate, and effective ones.

MR: That’s so cool. Thank you.

SR: What kind of really impressed me is that it’s with a Planet of the Apes movie. I was just thinking like, “Man, it is a tightrope walk to kind of build a movie that tackles subject matter like that without having it…” When dealing with Planet of the Apes, my fear as a writer would be whoever I’m trying to relate this or whatever I’m trying to speak to, somebody might take offense to that. Somebody is like, “Are you comparing us to apes?” You are like, “Uh, I’m trying to do something really good.” Would you speak to that?

MR: [laughs] “I’m trying to do something really good!” I’m like you. To me, my favorite genre movies are movies that use the metaphors as a way to smuggle in something that’s about something. To me, that’s what Planet of the Apes actually has been from the beginning. The whole sort of conceit is that it’s about animals that have taken over the planet. But, of course, the secret is that we are the animals that have taken over the planet. So this is really about us. You looking into the face of apes in order to look at ourselves. I think to look at our animalistic nature and to look at human nature is a way that you end up getting into all of those issues that you’re talking about.

But I didn’t get into any of those issues as a way to directly talk about any of them more than just the human condition. To me, the story was meant to be an anatomy of violence and the idea of could we resist the violence in ourselves or did we find ourselves getting pulled into it? If that was the case, how does that happen? Which meant that you had to have empathy for all the characters. You couldn’t have easy answers.

And so, even the characters who end up leading the story into violence, I didn’t want them to be just l kind of like stock warmongers or something. I wanted you to understand what their experience was. Because, really, when you think of violence, one of the things that makes violence possible is a lack of empathy. You sort of take a population and you think of them as “other” and you think of them as either like the scapegoat or whatever it is about the other that kind of separates you from them as opposed to those things that connect you. I wanted the story also to be as much about the connection as possible, because I thought that they opportunity here was this was the one chance, given that we know it becomes Planet of the Apes. That’s what the ’68 movie is; that we could explore that moment in time when it could have been different. And we know it’s not going to be different, but we could see all the ways that would make it poignant, which would be like, “You know what? They came so close. It actually almost was planet of the humans and apes.” And then you just see how it went wrong. That was my ambition. And all of that is explored at a character level.

What’s interesting is that it’s such a grand kind of story in a way, but it’s actually a very intimate story. It’s all about the inner-lives of these humans these apes and their interaction and them trying to struggle not just with the sense of violence between them, but even the sense of violence within themselves. Caesar is grappling with his nature. You see him losing control of himself and he has to sort of put himself in place.

What I thought was, to me, one of the cool things that we kind of came to, Mark Bomback, the writer, and I, we kind of worked through the story and we came to this revelation that I thought was kind of a cool sci-fi, through the looking glass kind of idea, which was that Caesar’s arc would be him realizing that he was wrong about something and that he had assumed that apes were better and felt that apes were better.

SR: Oh, that’s my favorite line, I think. That’s my favorite line of the movie.

MR: Yeah. And I thought that was such a cool planet of the apes thing that the apes thought that they were better than humans and then they come to realize how human they are and that that’s actually seen as their failing, that being human is to talk about those things in us that cause us to sort of turn to violence and how we are. So those are the things in ourselves that we always think of as animalistic. But, actually, in this case he’s realizing, “Wow. We’re so much like them.”

I just thought that that was a cool revelation and also a cool admission for Caesar to sort of admit, because he’s really connected to his human self and his ape self. But having been sort of immersed in this ape world and realizing he was an ape, I think especially also in the face of seeing humanity destroy itself and see the things that they could do to each other that he would have to and want to believe that the apes would do better. And then the big revelation for him is, “Oh, you know what? That capacity is in us all,” which of course is a very sort of lofty, thematic idea, but it’s all at the service of this great sort of ape spectacle. So it ends up being a lot of fun at the same time.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes billboard

SR: Like I said, that’s my favorite line in the whole thing. It’s just kind of one of those giddy sci-fi moments when you are like, “Ah, I see what you are doing here.” 

MR: [laughs] I’m so glad that you got it that way! That’s really cool. I love it.

SR: Let’s turn to performance capture and the challenges of that. First thing I want to ask you is you kind of alluded to the fact that this was a learning curve coming into this and pulling off this I’ll say stunning visual feat when it’s all said and done.

MR: Thank you.

SR: How much did you have to trust in Andy and his performance and their expertise, and did you kind of ever meet with Rupert Wyatt, the director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and kind of touch base with him about just the working experience of this? Or did you just kind of jump into it on your own?

MR: You know what? I met Rupert Wyatt about five weeks ago. We were mixing the movie and he was also on the Fox lot because he was a tent mix for the movie he’s doing now called The Gambler. We had actually never met, because when he departed from the movie, he just departed from the movie. They were like, “Rupert has decided that the schedule was not right for him.” And they had disagreements about certain things. The story they actually presented me was not Rupert’s story, per se. It wasn’t the movie he wanted to do either. It was just one of these things where I dove right into it and never got a chance to meet him. I heard such wonderful things about him and then I saw him on his cell phone. I was like, “That’s Rupert Wyatt.” So, literally as he’s on the phone, I walk up to him and I point and I say, “You are Rupert.” And then he goes, “I gotta go.” And he got off the phone and we talked for like an hour. I was like, “Oh my God. Now having just gone through this experience, I can only tell you that my admiration for you has just skyrocketed because I can’t imagine what it would be like to make this movie and not know really 100% even that it was going to work” At least I had Rise to look back to at my darkest moments going, “You know what? It worked in Rise, so it should work here.” But it was a crazy thing. But he was such a lovely guy.

But yeah, I actually did not talk to him beforehand. The experience was one of a crash course. My biggest fear was that somehow the technology would keep me from doing the thing I love to do, which is working with actors. It would be a technical obstacle. What I discovered through my crash course was I asked to see all the shots of Andy wearing his performance capture stuff and then all the shots of Caesar. The mystery went out of it right way. I was just like, “Oh my God. He’s just a great actor. So this part of it is going to be exactly the same.”

What was exciting, what I pushed Weta to do is I said, “You know, on the last movie you shot 75% on the stage. I want to shoot 90% in real locations and I want this to be an ape civilization movie. So when I say I want to shoot on location, I want to shoot in the woods. I want to shoot in the rain, in the mud.” And they were like, “Well that is going to be incredibly hard. But you are right. That will increase the photo-reality.” And they also had redone all of their models from the ground up and redone the hair simulations and the moisture simulations. So already they were going to look more real, and then we’re going to put them in real light, and real weather, and real spaces. And it felt like we could push the technology to a place that it had yet to be pushed. I felt that we had a chance, and Weta felt, that they had the chance to do the best of these kinds of effects that had ever been done. And seeing the work that Weta has done on this, I really believe that this is the best work of its kind; that you’ve never seen this level of photo reality with motion performance capture really in any movie ever. These guys are incredible. And they are at the forefront and they’ve just pushed themselves so hard and so high.

Actually, the interesting this is I was talking to my VFX producer Ryan Stafford. He was saying, “You know what’s amazing? They’ve been redoing the pipeline as we’re making the movie. It’s not going to be quite done yet, but we’ve been reaping some of the benefits. I can only tell you that for the next movie the effects are going to be even better.” I was like, “What?” It’s just amazing how they pushed the technology. But they are amazing. Weta is amazing…

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes FX featurette

SR: The first shot just establishes it right away that you are in for something visually stunning. I saw it in 3D and, like I said, from that first shot in the rain of Caesar’s face and then it pans out, it’s just all right there—the moisture, the darkness, the lightning.

MR: Yeah, exactly. You know what was cool, too, was I was asked to do it in 3D by the studio. I said, “One of the things I want to do in pushing this photo reality is I want to use an aesthetic that I associate with reality,” which means more shallow focus, longer lenses, natural light, more moody lighting. So I said, “You know, if I am going to do it in 3D, I’m not going to do it in that older traditional 3D where you have very deep focus and you can see everything. I want to be able to do intimate soft focus overs and all of this kind of stuff that you associate with 2D.”

Weta was like, “Yeah, you can do that. You can totally do that.” What was really cool, at the end of the whole process, because that was the way I approached it, I was aware of the 3D, but I was also more aware of the aesthetic of realism, of naturalism. When I’m finally at the end, and I’m talking about the very end, like we had done the mix and I had color-timed the 2D, and the last thing you do is you then look at how that translates to 3D so that you can take certain shots that might be too dark because of the glasses and raise them up. And that was the first time that I actually saw it assembled on a big screen in 3D from shot to shot. When I looked at it, I was so incredibly excited because I was like, “Oh my God. This actually paid off,” because these cameras were hard to use. We had to take them to the woods and all this kind of crazy stuff. They were so heavy. They had to be on cranes.

When we looked at them on the big screen, I was like, “Here’s the crazy thing. The 3D actually is the most realistic experience.” That was the thing I didn’t expect. What I thought was, “Yeah, it will be interesting. It will be cool in 3D.” And I had seen really cool 3D. I love the 3D in, let’s say, like Life of Pi, and also in Avatar, of course. But when we were doing this and I finally looked at it, I was like, “I can’t believe that the one that fulfills the aesthetics, the version of the film that fulfills the aesthetic of mine to the furthest, this idea of realism, is actually the 3D,” because when you see those apes in a three dimensional space in the woods in the rain and with human beings around them, you see them all together in a space that you questioned even less it has to be real. There they are. It’s so cool.

So I was pretty blown away by that. I didn’t expect that.

SR: Yeah. Like I said, I think from the very first shot and then the first time I think the 3D really grabbed me is when Koba does the jumping with the spear in his hand. I was like, “Whoa! This is amazing!” Let’s just talk about this performance capture and Andy and his team. Specifically, I want to talk about Andy as Caesar, who I didn’t even recognize. It was just I kinda wanted to go in this a little fresh, so I didn’t read up or do too much of the trailer watching, because I’m trying to do more of that these days. But Toby Kebbell, I’ve been a fan of his since RocknRolla and things like that.

MR: Yeah, absolutely. That was definitely one of the roles that made me think he’d be a good Koba.

SR: Yeah, I could see that. Those two together, I mean is it time to start talking about awards nominations for these performance capture artists? 

MR: Well, if you ask me, of course I’m going to say yes, because I worked with them intimately and I know what they were as actors. I have to tell you, you edit a movie over the course of a year, because this movie was in post for a year, it takes so long to do an ape shot that, really, the lion’s share of them come in like maybe in the last six weeks. I’ve been seeing little bits—animated this, animated that, and then a few renders, and then it starts building, and building, and building. But you don’t really get a good look at the movie until really almost the very end.

Most of the time what I’d been looking at for the past year is just those performances. I’ve been looking at Andy and Toby and the other ape actors and the other human actors. I gotta say that, look, envisioned this as a kind of almost Shakespearean story with apes, like two brothers, Koba and Caesar. Caesar had led the apes out of bondage and the apes were devoted to him. And then the idea of the sort of fault lines that are on Earth when, you know, had humans never shown up, there wouldn’t be any problems at all.

And so, it was really a story about brotherhood and family, almost like The Godfather with apes or something like that. I’ve been looking at their performances intimately for a year, in addition to the year that I spent with them when we were rehearsing and shooting the movie. I think that the two of them are incredibly. Andy and Toby are two of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. I think they are incredible.

A lot of people say, “Oh, well, but there’s a thing going on. It’s a device. The device is giving part of the performance.” It’s not actually true. You can’t have Caesar or Koba without Weta. It doesn’t exist. They create that. But you don’t have the heart and soul of those characters without Andy and Toby. If you are responding emotionally to their performances in whatever way, you are responding emotionally to Andy and Toby. And the genius of what Weta does is that it takes equal artistry to take something that is the performance of an actor and then find a way to make it translate onto the anatomy of an ape which is entirely different from their anatomy.

Andy’s face doesn’t look like Caesar’s face. Toby’s face doesn’t look like Koba's face. Their bodies, their arms are different lengths. And all of these things are part of the illusion. Then there’s the hair simulations and the skin and all of this amazing stuff that Weta does. But all of that follows from the performance in terms of the emotion.

People have said, “Maybe there should be a special category.” I’m saying, “No. there really are two categories already that fit. One is best performance by an actor, and that is what Toby and Andy do. And then there is sort of best visual effects, and that is what Weta does.” I do think that they absolutely, from what I’ve seen, deserve the Oscar for best visual effects. I think they are the best visual effects I’ve ever seen and I can say that because I didn’t do them. They did them. It’s incredible.

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