Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an incredible new entry in the beloved sci-fi franchise — which is now in its fifth decade — with some critics already comparing it to The Empire Strikes Back in terms of how much it improves on its predecessor, 2011’s already high-quality Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There’s a new director at the helm in Matt Reeves — of Cloverfield and Let Me In fame — but the star remains Andy Serkis, whose performance capture work in bringing the intelligent ape leader Caesar to life is nothing short of astonishing.
Serkis is an older, wiser Caesar in the new film — a compassionate and caring family man, er, ape, and shrewd strategist whose face and eyes carry the burden of establishing a new civilization for his people on top of the ruins of the old. But humanity — decimated by the virus that broke out at the end of Rise — is not out of the picture yet: a community of survivors led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) intrude on the apes’ idyllic forest paradise to restart a power plant and bring electricity back to nearby, devastated San Francisco. Can the two sides co-exist or is conflict inevitable?
That is the heart of the story that Reeves and Serkis set out to tell in Dawn. When we spoke with them as the film’s post-production was nearing completion, both men went out of their way to praise and extrapolate on the other’s efforts in the short time we had — but we still managed to get a Beneath the Planet of the Apes-related question in there anyway.
Den Of Geek: Did you have your own ideas about where you wanted this story to go to where you wanted Caesar’s arc to be?
(Matt Reeves joins the interview)
Andy Serkis: I was just asked whether I had any input into the development of Caesar’s journey. And I say one of the great things about working with Matt was, you know, yes, there was a certain amount of collaboration. I mean Matt had a very strong idea about where this was heading, but I think I was able to input, sort of, all the way through I suppose. You know, the temperature and the pitching of where Caesar ought to be.
Matt Reeves: There was a trajectory that I wanted to tell, but first of all I was the one who was joining this world. This was Andy’s character, but what I saw in Andy was something really specific in terms of how he played that character. And I was like wow, we have to follow that through, only this situation is so complex and how does that play out. And I wanted to take the next phase of development and evolution and all those things and one of the fun things that we did right at the beginning were these rehearsals.
When I was in film school I snuck into this class all semester long because Francis Ford Coppola was going to come and he never came until the last day. And when he came I was like, oh, thank God I snuck into this — because I didn’t even go to this school. I went to USC and I snuck into UCLA. And he at the end talked to about 10 of us, 10 film students, talked to us about Super 8 cameras.
It was crazy. And I said, “You know, I’m about to do my student film. Can you tell me about rehearsal?” And he said, “Yeah, I’ll talk to you about The Godfather and how we rehearsed.” And he told this story — he said, “Well, we did some theater games. We all ate in character and Marlon was at the head of the table and everybody sat around and, of course, Marlon was that kind of mythic figure to these actors.” Everyone was trying to please him and he said that whole dynamic of the family all began that very day. And I always remembered that.
When we talked about doing rehearsals (for Dawn) at the beginning and I felt, in a weird way, the same thing. We had an ape camp rehearsal and some of the things were the scenes but other things were just exploration of daily life -– just what it would be. Andy was Don Corleone. They were all following him and that stuff was really important. We were trying to figure out how would they express themselves and this sense of community, and Andy was very specific about the kind of leader he wanted to be. All of that came absolutely through Andy and through rehearsal, so it’s a big yes to answer that.
Andy Serkis: But you were incredibly receptive. The point is you steered it in such a way because the arc of it was very important to get right. And so it was great to be able to bring in the detail. But I’ve got to say, you know, in such a behemoth of a production with all of that technology, shooting in the most crazy places with all of the stuff, I’ve never worked with such a great actor’s director, honestly, I swear —
Matt Reeves: Wow!
Andy Serkis: — who’s able to bring it back to what it’s really about. And that’s not blowing smoke up your ass even for a second. It was so important to have these nuances, all these shifts, all the changes and dynamics between the multiple characters, you know. It all requires total vigilance and Matt was there every single day creating space for the actors and, during the rehearsals, allowing the time to do that when everyone’s kind of going, “Come on, come on, come on. We’ve got to shoot the movie in this amount of days.”
So with all the effects available to a movie like this, it was still about the acting and the character.
Matt Reeves: That was everything. I mean to me that was the thing. I mean when I first got involved I asked to see all the footage of Andy and all the footage of Caesar. I just needed to understand the process. And when I saw the process the mystery went away. I was like, oh, the answer is that Andy’s amazing and that the emotional commitment that you (addressing Serkis) give is so profound. I was like oh, this is incredible, because at the end of the day this is a new experience for me to do mo-cap and to do a movie on this scale.
But the thing that has always drawn me into movies both as a viewer — you know, I always love to engage in a story emotionally, that’s the whole thing and that’s all about performance. And for me as a director the thing I’ve always been the most interested in is in just talking to the actors and sort of watching them and defining a way to discover the scene together.
Once I saw that that’s the way Andy was and then once we started talking I was like, oh, this is not going to be any different except for the fact that everyone’s going to be going, “Why are you not moving faster?”
But here’s the crazy thing. We had some huge scenes for a movie like this. And we had no prep because everything was so accelerated. What was great about that for me is that the studio would have loved it if I had everything totally pre-visualized. But I never work that way. I storyboard stuff but really what I’m most interested in is coming into a scene and saying, “Andy, you tell me — where do you think you would be?” Just trying to discover the scene together. And that part, even for giant scenes, was exactly how we approached every scene. We always started in an intimate place and that all come down to Andy and the other actors.
Andy Serkis: I mean it’s in a strange sort of way it felt like we were shooting a very small independent film.
Matt Reeves: Yeah.
Would you say that Caesar is the height of your work with this performance capture technology so far?
Andy Serkis: I don’t know. I mean the thing is I think it’s really important that people stop kind of differentiating between performance capture acting and normal acting because it’s kind of a misnomer in a way. Performance capture is a method of facilitating capturing an actor’s performance or filming it. It really is just another bunch of cameras.
When you approach a role, you don’t go into it in a different way in terms of embodying the character or psychologically investigating the character or finding the voice. If I was playing the character now with a costume or a suit, I’d do it exactly the same. People think performance capture is kind of — you know, I’ve heard people say, “How do you learn your monkey movements?” or “Do you have to keep moving all the time?” No. It’s just…you’re looking for the heart and soul of someone and the internal performance and that’s what you’re watching.
So to get around to answering your question, I think what was interesting about this is that Caesar’s journey is incredibly complex in this. And so it was about finding the right pitch, it was about what was too much, what was too little in terms of expressing emotions or thoughts or ideas or his philosophy at any given time. Sometimes we had to pull back and change things, strip out the dialogue, we won’t have dialogue here because it’s better to convey it through sign language or something else. It was a real voyage of exploration.
In terms of the timeline, Apes 3 has already got a release date and both of you are coming back…
Matt Reeves: We’re done shooting it.
Andy Serkis: We’ve already done it, yeah.
Is the timeline going to be analogous to the original movies and will we see more of the future that the originals didn’t cover? Will this have a finite ending?
Matt Reeves: I mean, in everything we’ve talked about — and of course it all evolves — the idea is that Rise sort of proposes a beginning of how things happened. And the ultimate end of that story is Planet of the Apes. The idea that this is the trajectory, it’s all about how do we get there and what are the stories worth telling about getting there.
I feel like Caesar takes on like a mythic status. You meet him as this sort of, you know, this wounded soul, he was ripped from his family and he’s imprisoned and then he rises up to lead this sort of insurrection. And he goes from being a revolutionary to then being a leader and the complexity of that. And then he starts to move into this sort of idea of a choice that’s going to have to be made about whether or not the humans and apes are going to be in conflict — that is one of the things we’re exploring in this movie. And where that goes from here and what future generations might be like, the descendants of Caesar, I mean — it all stems from Caesar. He’s Moses, you know. So the idea of that, to me, is let’s not get to the end yet. There’s a lot to do on the way there that’s worth exploring.
Well I hope we meet some human mutants down the line because they’re always fun.
Matt Reeves: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. We’re certainly aware of all those things, and in this film we do start the kind of tenets, the canons — we see the beginnings of language, the beginnings of writing, the beginnings of speech and how that works. You start to see these things that we know are part of the later canon. We are aware of them and they are a part of this. So the idea of trying to find a fresh way back to that -– like I said, we know the ending, so the question is, “How do you get there?” How you get to that is what’s interesting.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters Friday, July 11.