Spoilers. Some mild stuff ahead. Understand if you want to wait until you’ve seen the film before you read this interview.
The process of capturing a performance and applying it to a precisely-rendered digital simian has now been refined to such a degree that the effect is now seamless. The brilliance of Andy Serkis’s lead turn in the three Planet Of The Apes films to date has been a series highlight; as a feat of technology and acting, Caesar, the leader of the apes, is an astonishing creation.
In War For The Planet Of The Apes, Caesar takes centre stage, as his personal vendetta against a human military leader – the ruthless Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) – takes him on a mythical journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape. As an older Caesar, weighed down by years of leadership and conflict, Serkis puts in what might be his finest performance so far; he’s the lynchpin in a story that, for all its action and desolate long-shots, never loses sight of its emotional core.
Ahead of the film’s release, we sat down with Andy Serkis to talk about its making, the future of performance capture, and what we can expect from his forthcoming adaptations of The Jungle Book and George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
I wonder whenever you get the script for the next one, it feels as though they’re giving you something more arduous and difficult to do…
[Laughs] Well, funny enough, the first encounter I had with the story was Matt [Reeves] pitching it to me, just telling me the story before he’d written the script, two years ago. It was at the Inter-Continental Hotel, right next to the Fox lot, and it wasn’t long after Dawn had come out. He said, “This is what I’m thinking about for the next movie”. He told me the story of the movie in real time, and it was just mind-blowing.
He said he thought it would be good to make this story very Caesar-centric, to end this part of the trilogy. Pretty much what he described is the movie, so it’s phenomenal. He’s so on top of it, knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to make this epic, mythic journey, and cement Caesar as this legendary figure that led the apes to freedom in a Moses-like way.
But the last one was shot on location, obviously, but then on this one you’re in the snow and on cold-looking beaches. Were you apprehensive about that?
No, because I’m quite an outdoors-y sort of person. I climb and all that sort of stuff. I love adventurous shooting, and riding horses across that terrain and everything. It’s really exciting. It was taxing, and from an acting point of view, it was a very emotional journey – a very dark journey. I remember it being a tough shoot in that respect, actually. When you’re in that mode for such a long time. Also, I was going through a personal thing at the time, the loss in my family, so it seemed to be a very dark time shooting it. But what Matt’s done is a huge feat. The scope and scale, but also the detail and emotional journey of Caesar.
The scenes between you and Bad Ape and the girl and Maurice are amazing.
And the Colonel as well. Woody [Harrelson’s] character is fantastic. This film is all about empathy, really, and not seeing the Other, and that’s the way Matt is as a filmmaker. This search for emotionality in all the characters, and finding a balance between the humans and the apes. He never wanted to make the apes good and the humans bad; it’s very well judged. Woody’s character, even though he’s very hardcore and brutal, he’s a man with a belief system – he’s trying to ensure the survival of his kind, and he’s suffered personal loss. So when Caesar and the Colonel meet, despite the fact that Caesar’s hellbent on his destruction and his revenge, there’s a strange fascination between the two characters. They’re drawn to each other in some way.
That’s the drama in that scene, isn’t it. I hadn’t thought of it that way; Caesar hears his story, and realises he’s more complex than a symbol of evil, I suppose.
Yeah, and strangely, it helps Caesar come back to who he is. To his empathetic character. The War For The Planet Of The Apes is also Caesar’s personal war, and the conflict within. I thought that was so masterfully written and constructed to be that way, and a great platform for the scenes to work.
These films expose something that’s quite odd in the human psyche, which is that if you watch a conventional war film, we’re so used to seeing people being shot that you don’t react in the same way as when you see an animal, an ape being injured or killed.
It’s true, it’s true. The scenes where apes are being beaten or really badly treated. They’re hard to work in a way, aren’t they? And that’s the genius of this metaphor, and why Planet Of The Apes as an idea has lingered five decades. It’s that brilliant balance of being able to examine the human condition through something that’s slightly abstracted – but not too abstracted, so them being 90 percent the same as human beings allows us to connect.
Also, what I love about this film is, Caesar is evolving as an ape – becoming more human-like, I should say. So in this one, he speaks in a more human-like way, his emotions are expressed in a more human-like way. But at the same time, the great contradiction is that the emotions he’s feeling are more animalistic, so he’s more full of rage, he’s more the things we ascribe to being an animal. He’s out of control. It’s that tension which makes for an interesting character.
A couple of years ago I spoke to Terry Notary and Karin Konoval, and they were lovely. But what struck me was not only how much affection for the characters they play, but also for the work they put in.
Karin Konoval was talking about painting with orangutans.
Do you think that’s one of the secret forces behind these films – that you all seem to have so much affection for what you do.
Definitely. I mean, everyone says on a film that it’s like a family, but in these three films… because of what you’re asked to do, there’s no hiding. You have to be open, you have to put yourself out there. And when you do that, you look at people in a different way. We’ve all had to do it, so it’s a great leveler in many ways. We’ve all become great friends, all of us. And Matt, too, actually – Matt’s a really close friend of mine. But we’re all passionate about the movies, and about what they mean, and the fact that we all feel very privileged to be in a blockbuster piece of entertainment that actually has heart and something to say about the world. You know, you don’t often get that opportunity.
So creating these performance-capture characters, in a more general sense, can that process leave you feeling exposed as well as liberated?
Acting is acting at the end of the day, but playing these kinds of characters, there’s an element of being fearless to play them. You can’t be vain and do this. You’re in a tight-fitting Lycra suit, and dots and all the rest of it – you can’t be worried about what you look like. You get your hands dirty playing these roles, for sure. That’s what’s liberating and exposing. The joy and the combination of those things is what makes it thrilling!
More generally, where do you see performance capture going? Because you’ve got your company [Imaginarium], too.
Well, performance capture is in an interesting space at the moment, because what we’re trying to do at Imaginarium is look at the future and kind of go, what is the shape of storytelling in 15 or 20 years’ time? What is it going to look like? We know that people stream films and TV, and watch Netflix, people go to watch tentpole movies. Smaller movies are on the wane, in a way. Videogames are huge, but also a huge part of storytelling at the moment. Then you’ve got theatre, and civic theatre, with companies like Punch Drunk, which are working in [everyday] environments. And then you have Secret Cinema, with a cinema event with a theatrical event tied in with that. So we’re looking at all of this and saying, is there a way of bringing together all of those things to create an immersive, visceral experience where, you know, with augmented reality you can have a theatrical event which has virtual characters in it.
We work with the RSC, for instance, earlier in the year, and created the first on-stage motion capture character for The Tempest. Is it a virtual reality world? Can we make a Planet Of The Apes entirely as a virtual reality world? Or is there some other way of combining all the storytelling media to create something new? That’s one of the quests that we have as a company. Performance capture does sit in the middle, because you can use those assets, those avatars, in multiple different ways.
In terms of storytelling, it’s interesting, because we’re at a point where we almost have post-human cinema, in a way. Where before we’d have to rely on latex or traditional animation, performance character means we can immerse ourselves entirely in a 3D, non-human character.
That’s right. And people, through videogames, they’re completely versed in coming something other through an avatar. So that’s what I mean – if there’s a way of doing that… I mean, everybody’s circling around those ideas, I think, but that’s something we’re particularly interested in.
What do you think about, in terms of performance capture, bringing back late actors, as we’ve seen in Star Wars [Rogue One]?
Well, you know. At the moment, there’s a huge appetite for real-life stories, say. You have Chadwick Boseman playing James Brown, or I played Ian Dury. Gary Oldman’s playing Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour, for instance. Now, the traditional method of doing that is that you find an actor who looks a bit like the character, and then the rest is makeup. Gary, for instance, I know is wearing a lot of prosthetic makeup, and you could barely recognise him as Gary, but he looks like Winston Churchill.
So, is there any difference in recreating someone’s likeness in that way or if you were to do 3D or photogrammetry scanning of the real Winston Churchill’s face and then have it performance captured and played by an actor who’d be perfect for that role? Is there any difference? So as long as the estate are happy, and the use isn’t gratuitous or used in some way that’s going to denigrate the reputation of that real person… if it’s going to celebrate an actor, like bringing Humphrey Bogart back to life to play a character, or Marilyn Monroe, then I think it’s a valid way of working. Also, you could compare it to sampling music; you can take great past performances by musicians that are remixed with different beats.
Obviously, if it’s used in a negative way, then it’s probably not a good idea. But that’s down to filmmakers and storytellers.
That’s a really interesting way of putting it. So given the things we’re capable of now with performance capture, how have you seen the process evolve since Lord Of The Rings?
Well, when we started working on Gollum, it was pure motion-capture. So it was just the physicality, and then the facial performance was obtained me using a traditional 35mm camera – everything was on film, of course, back then – and then the animators would literally copy, frame by frame, via a series of faders, each individual part of my facial performance. Then that changed when we were doing King Kong, which was using facial capture for the first time. Because you’re directly driving a digital mask.
Robert Zemeckis was working around that time also with his company, and Beowulf was happening, so those were in tandem. And then really, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was the first time that performance capture was used on sets, where you were able to put a photo-real character on a set. Then that became more robust, and taken to new extremes with being out in weather, being out in snow, rain and harsh conditions, being out in New Orleans in 100 percent humidity, shooting in the northern Canadian winter in minus-16 degrees on a night shoot. You know, all of that. And Matt wanted it to feel real – he didn’t want it to feel like we were shooting it against a blue screen. He wanted it to be as real as possible. With Michael Seresin, the DOP, to make it feel as though we’re really observing something that’s in reality.
That’s what feels exciting about cinema now, is that it feels as though we’ve gotten away from the digital backlot style of filmmaking. I mean, Matt Reeves was taking about David Lean and Kurosawa as influences.
You’re making a film based on [George Orwell’s] Animal Farm – is that right?
Yeah, that’s right. We’re developing that at the Imaginarium. We’ve been working on that – we actually started working on it before I started directing The Jungle Book, which is coming out next year. It’s a difficult enough process to take an actor’s face and put it on an ape, but actually, how do you create a non-humanoid character and anthropomorphise that to a believable degree? Really read the emotion and intention of the actor, like Christian Bale playing a panther, or Benedict Cumberbatch playing a tiger. Really being able to see their faces. So the same will be with Animal Farm; we’re going to use performance capture, we’ve got a great cast lined up, and we’re just evolving the script. And boy, there couldn’t be a better time to make Animal Farm!
Well, no, exactly. And that’s great thing about it. There are parallels with Planet Of The Apes, too, with the allegorical aspects of it.
Exactly, 100 percent. Again, with satire, you have to be so specific- it’s not Saturday Night Live, you know. It can’t be so topical that it’s out of date – it’s got to have a classic arc to it. It has to be its own thing, rather than being about Donald Trump or Theresa May.
Right, it has to be timeless. So from your perspective, where could Planet Of The Apes go next?
Not necessarily, no. So there’s been no actual discussion about what exactly happens next, but there has been discussion about the possibility of further adventures. As I say, I love them as a metaphor, and I know Matt’s now going on to do other things, but the thing is, it has to be in the right person’s hands. It has to be someone like Rupert [Wyatt, Rise director], like Matt, someone who understands, who knows they’re not just making blockbuster entertainment, otherwise it defeats the object.
There are so many places it could go. The 1968 original, they had to set it in a pre-industrial world because they couldn’t afford to have the [advanced world] of the book.
That’s right. Sure. I think that’s the idea, to somehow arrive back at 1968, but without remaking that movie.
How are you feeling about The Jungle Book, because that’s been a long road, hasn’t it?
Very excited. It’s been a long, long project. And in fact, I’ve directed another movie in between…
That’s Breathe, isn’t it.
Yeah, yeah. Which is coming out this October, with Andrew Garfield and Clare Foy. Amazing performances. That’s a triumph over adversity story, a beautiful love story based on the true story of my business partner Jonathan Cavendish – the producer of the Bridget Jones movies – his parents’ true story. It’s about a man surviving outside the hospital system with a huge polio disability through her love, basically. He was the first person to live outside hospital with a respirator. It’s an amazing story. But that happened in the middle of what will be the five year process of making The Jungle Book!
Because, of course the Disney one came along and we wanted to create the space between the two. Ours is a very different version; it’s much darker, PG-13, more savage, and tonally closer, probably, to Rudyard Kipling than Disney’s. Crucially, it’s performance-captured, so it’s a drama. It’s a drama that has spectacle, but it’s led dramatically in a very similar way that Apes is. There are lots of intimate moments where you see very close up, emotive performances from all of the animals.
I feel so fortunate, that, going back to Lord Of The Rings, and then Peter Jackson asking me to direct Second Unit on The Hobbit, and putting me in that position really. He knows that to some degree I understand performance from both sides. On something like The Hobbit, it’s so vast and technical, to actually keep the actors on track performance-wise was my task. I love helping actors elicit performances. It’s really rewarding – as rewarding as acting. I love the process of directing.
Andy Serkis, thank you very much.
War For The Planet Of The Apes is out in UK cinemas on the 11th July.