WonderCon 2014: Andy Serkis & Matt Reeves on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Director Matt Reeves joined my interview with Andy Serkis late, so you’ll see when he jumps in. First I got to talking with Serkis about ape acting. The filmmakers of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes showed a sequence from the film to the WonderCon audience, in which an ape approaches two soldiers, acts drunk and steals their guns. Reeves also kept reminding fans that we already know how this story ends, because it’s Planet of the Apes, not Planet of the Humans and the Apes. I got a chance to follow up with the filmmakers about that sequence and the latest chapter in the Planet of the Apes reboot, as well as Serkis’s upcoming gig directing The Jungle Book and his work on Warner Bros.’s Godzilla remake.

CraveOnline: Caesar looks so different in Dawn.

Andy Serkis: Sure, he certainly carries a lot of age and that comes from the experience of being a leader and the weight of that responsibility really. Caesar very much represents empathy in this movie. He’s trying to find an accord, trying to find a peaceful solution to how humans and apes can exist together, how they can get over any prejudices that they may have towards each other. Of course, within their separate groups, both the humans and the apes, there are believers and there are nonbelievers.

Who is the ape who acts drunk and then steals the gun in the clip?

Andy Serkis: The ape in the clip is a character called Koba who is basically one of Caesar’s right hand apes, who’s his brother almost. You see him in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He’s suffered an enormous amount of torture. He’s been experimented on, he’s been cut, the amount of vivisection that’s been done on him has been quite horrendous. So he’s an ape that has an enormous amount of hatred. Caesar has managed to bring him around to not have that prejudice. He’s, as I say, almost like his brother at the beginning of the movie.

Was riding on horseback as an ape an added challenge?

Andy Serkis: Not really. Actually, that’s not true because it’s certainly not like riding on horseback as a human being because of course your physicality is totally different. The horses sense that you’re doing something rather strange that isn’t human in the way that you carry yourself. So in a way actually, and also because we were vocalizing and making hooting and barking sounds as apes, they got a little bit freaked out in the early stages. On the whole, actually, it’s things like learning to dismount and mount as an ape that was interesting.

Do you think those actors in Greystoke were chumps?

Andy Serkis: No, no, not at all. I think the actors in Greystoke were amazing. They had a really good performance coach called Peter Elliott who’s, of his time, one of the greatest simian performance coaches for actors. We have Terry Notary who is the most extraordinary physical coach and a wonderful performer in his own right. He plays one of the characters, Rocket, in this. So all of the actors playing apes in our ape camp that we had were taught physically to move like their own species. Terry’s just this incredible enthusing individual who in every single scene was responsible for watching, observing and retuning and fine tuning their physical performances.

Matt Reeves: In fact when people came in, who wanted to be apes, one of the first things we did was they would come in and they’d read a scene, we’d make sure that we could get the emotional temperature and say, “Okay, that seemed right.” And then we said, “Would you spend the day with Terry?” Then Terry would basically put them through some movement exercises and he’d get a sense of whether or not [they could]. So Judy Greer came in and said, “I want to be Cornelia.” I was like, “You could be Cornelia. That would be awesome, but we just need you to spend a day with Terry.” At the end of the day I said, “So Terry, how’d it go?” He goes, “Oh, she can be an ape. She can definitely be an ape.”

We also had these Parkour stunt people who could do amazing things, because the idea was in the motion capture to not have to key frame animate anything, so that it could be as grounded in reality as possible, which was actually a leap forward from the last movie even. The stunt performers that we hired could do amazing things but if they were to do it exactly as they did, they would look like apes who do Parkour. So he trained them how to do those amazing things that they did as apes. He’s an amazing guy.

The original Planet of the Apes is a shock when we learn that it’s Earth. Now that it’s so well known and this series even starts from modern day Earth, is it working with a different paradigm now?

Matt Reeves: See that, to me the thing about the first movie is it’s one of the great science fiction stories. It’s all about what happened and you get to the end and then you find out what happened. How did all this happen? Why, why, why, why? The reason is this is earth and that’s what we did to ourselves and that’s the big revelation. But this story is basically not what happened? It’s we know what happened and so it becomes a question of how did that happen? Those stories are always about psychology and about philosophy.

So it does change the paradigm because what I thought was so brilliant about what Andy and Rupert [Wyatt] and everybody did on Rise was that they took that story and they brought us inside the emotional life of the apes which was something that you could only really scratch the surface with I think in the first movies. That creates a whole new reason for being in my mind about this because basically what you’re talking about is telling this mythic story of apes and their emotional lives and this trajectory toward this very grim situation that the humans end up in in the end and how that happened. So in a way it’s this weird thing where you go through the looking glass. It’s another line back to a similar point but you already know what the ending is. You just don’t know necessarily how they get there.

Do you think this could eventually lead to an astronaut landing on the planet of the apes?

Matt Reeves: Sure, it absolutely could. He took off in the last one. The Icarus took off.

You’ve been saying it’s Planet of the Apes, not Planet of the Humans and the Apes, but there were always humans. They were just prisoners.

Matt Reeves: Well, it wasn’t their planet anymore.

But it’s also about how the remaining humans become subservient to apes.

Matt Reeves: Yes, they become subservient, they become mute.

Andy Serkis: I’ll never forget in that first movie seeing it when I was 10 or 11, the human museum was the thing that really caught me. Absolutely, seeing apes on horseback and humans being harvested with nets, but the human museum was extraordinary, with the doll, oh my God.

Matt Reeves: And the doll spoke, so the doll spoke and we realized, “Wait, there was a human doll. What is this place?” Then all of a sudden the human doll spoke and you realize, “Wait, they once had the power of speech. What’s going on here?” Then Zira says, “What will he find out there, doctor?” “His destiny.”

Andy, we know you’ve been moving into directing with Peter Jackson and second unit, but was The Jungle Book the sort of movie you expected to get as your first feature?

Andy Serkis: In actual fact, just leading up to earlier this year, I was on track to be directing George Orwell’s Animal Farm and we’d been working on the methodology of that over the course of the last year and refining the script. In all honesty, the script hadn’t quite gotten to where it needs to be, as is often the case of these things. Earlier on this year, Warner Bros. asked me to direct and I was so flattered. Of course, the performance capture technology is a great way of bringing these creatures to life. I’m thrilled to be doing it and it’s very much a dark script, written by Callie Kloves. It’s a return to Rudyard Kipling. There’s no singing and dancing animals in our version.

No, but do you expect to do a lot practical?

Andy Serkis: Oh no, no, all of the creatures will be played using performance capture technology but it’ll be on live action sets.

Did you do work on Godzilla also?

Andy Serkis: The Imaginarium, which is my performance capture studio in London, was asked to be consultants, but in a very different way. It’s completely different to how we worked on a film like this where you’re playing the role on set day to day, being involved in the whole. We were involved as consultants after the film was shot, so it was retrofitting certain sequences. We worked on a little bit of character evolution for Godzilla.

But you weren’t performing Godzilla.

Andy Serkis: No, the Imaginarium were consulting for that.

How do you top the ape rampage from Rise?

Matt Reeves: You’ll see.

Andy Serkis: You’ll see.

Is there a sequence in Dawn you think will?

Matt Reeves: We have a number of set pieces actually. We’ll see. The nice thing about it is, it was certainly true of Rise, the heart of that movie and the heart of our movie is actually in the interpersonal drama. The reason that the set pieces explode is because of the stakes that come from them. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.