After directing the last half of Warner Bros’ Harry Potter films and plenty of British television before that, David Yates decided to take an unconventional route with his career by taking on The Legend of Tarzan, the first new version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle warrior in decades.
It’s still set in the 19th Century but at a point after Tarzan—this time played by Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood)–has left the jungle and taken up his life as John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke in England along with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). When he gets an invite by Belgian King Leopold to return to the Congo, he doesn’t realize that it’s a trap set by Leopold’s right-hand man, Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has been exploiting the area’s resources and enslaving the natives. Tarzan soon learns the truth when they arrive back in Africa and Jane is taken prisoner by Rom and his men, forcing Tarzan to return to his wild ways. Helping him out is Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. George Washington Williams, who has his own reasons for going to the Congo.
Den of Geek got on the phone with Yates for a far-too-short interview where we barely had time to cover The Legend of Tarzan let alone Yates’ return to the Wizarding World with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, coming out in November.
Den of Geek: As Harry Potter was wrapping up, I imagine you were getting a lot of scripts, so what got you interested in doing Tarzan? Was David Barron already developing it while you were finishing Potter?
David Yates: No, I brought David in actually, because he’s such a brilliant producer, but we had an equally amazing guy called Jerry Weintraub, who brought the script to me originally. Lovely, extraordinary man, but unfortunately, he isn’t with us anymore, and he had the script for about ten years before he brought it to me.
I was reading so many different scripts, and they always felt a little one-note. They had lots of action or they were comedies. If these scripts were a piece of music, they played a very straight set of notes all the way through. When I got Tarzan, once I got over the initial, “Ah, Tarzan, I think I know that,” and once I started reading it, it had so many different pieces of music in it. So many different tones. It had comedy, it had lots of action, it had these epic landscapes, it had animals, it had these extraordinary tribes.
At the heart of it, what really pulled me in, was all those gear shifts and different things that I could play with as a storyteller and as a filmmaker. It had this big beating heart. It had this really moving romance between Tarzan and Jane. None of the other scripts I was reading at the time, had that emotional core. It felt timeless in a very beautiful way, and it didn’t feel one-note. It felt like it had a lot of moods and I got excited by that. And so I dived in.
In most of the Tarzan movies we’re used to, he’s still in the African jungle being Tarzan. This one he starts out in England and a lot of what we know about him as Tarzan happened in the past. Did that also intrigue you or was that something you came up with as you were developing it?
That appealed in that it sort of turns the story on its head and you start with him in England as a civilized man living in a big house, being a member of the Houses of Parliament, all that was appealing. But what was appealing was the context of the story as well, that it actually took place in a Congo that… King Leopold existed, for example. He was exploiting the Congo at the time, so I liked the fact that you take this fictional character and you explore this story in a real world situation. That intrigued me, and I liked that.
Ultimately, I liked the sex of it and the romance of it between Tarzan and Jane and their need to sort of save each other was very moving to me. That felt fresh and connected. Also, I hadn’t seen a big action adventure romance for a while. It seems like people like lots of action, but it seemed like the time was right for something that had a bit of sex and romance in the middle of all that action.
Alex or Margot were on TV talking about their sex scenes being savage and animalistic and I was wondering how that would be handled in the movie, but it was very tasteful. I was a little nervous from the way they were talking about it.
Oh, no. Very tasteful. We took bits out that were a little bit… cause we had various versions of a couple of scenes. I encouraged them to really go for it in those scenes, but ultimately, you wanted to retain a sense of the sensual and the romantic, but yeah, they were great together.
Alex is no stranger to that sort of thing from doing True Blood. What made you think of him to play Tarzan? Was it hard finding the right actor? Obviously the actors who played Tarzan in the past, that role has defined their careers in some ways, but Alex has been working for years in other roles.
I liked his shape, his physicality and his length. There’s something lovely and graceful and beautiful about his long arms, his long legs. I’d seen some of his smaller independent movies like Melancholia with Kirsten Dunst and Lars von Trier, and I’d seen the series he’d done called Generation Kill. I could see that he could play really nuanced, beautiful delicate introverted characters in a very interesting way. I liked the fact that he had a bit of a profile with True Blood and the rest of it. People were aware of him but he wasn’t a major star. All those things combined for me, and then what really clinched it was when he came to meet, he really loved the script.
I’ve never seen such a sense of ambition with an actor who was willing to give 200% every single day, starting with the training that he had to go through—the physical training. He never stopped. In fact, I could categorically say that I’ve never worked with an actor who has put so much into a movie physically and emotionally. The work he put into getting into shape and to carry the movie was really impressive, I have to say.
I like the way Jane’s portrayed as well, and you got Margot early on before some of these other movies she’s done. How did you arrive at her and get her to play Jane?
Actually, you know it was the studio who said, when we were looking at a lot of Janes, the studio said, “Look, can you meet Margot? We think she’s going to be really special. She’s just made a movie—it’s called Wolf of Wall Street—and she’s on our radar and we think she’s got a great future.” So I said, “Yeah, sure, I’d love to meet her,” and so she came into London I think to promote Wolf of Wall Street, actually, and she came to the hotel to meet, and in came this really earthy—she’s Australian so very little pretense, very straight-forward, really down-to-earth, almost tomboyish, but very beautiful.
Immediately what struck me was that I loved the fact that she was so earthed and regular and pragmatic and bright and like a tomboy, but gorgeous, and I thought, “That is Jane.” Jane is really resourceful, straight talking, can look after herself, so all of those qualities were just perfect for the Jane that we wanted to develop for this movie, a woman that can really look after herself.
We sometimes joked that the movie wasn’t really about Tarzan saving Jane, it was really Jane is really going to save Tarzan, because without her, he would not survive. If he didn’t have her, he would falter and fall, because without her, he’s incomplete, and she can more or less manage her way out of anything. So Margot as a no-brainer, but the studio primarily, very smartly, put us together and said, “Look, what do you think of Margot, let us know,” and as soon as I met her, I thought she was great.
(At this point, the Warner Bros. handler called for last question, so we had to switch gears and ask about Yates’ other upcoming movie.)
You have a different relationship with J.K. Rowling while doing Fantastic Beasts because she’s now writing the screenplay. Has she been on set a lot and do you go to her to rewrite lines and things like that?
She came to set a lot more than when we were doing Potter and it’s lovely. It’s all original stuff and it’s all from Jo’s head, so it’s not adapting a body of work. This is the work, straight from Jo’s imagination, so it’s much more collaborative directly with her, which is fabulous and really, a great pleasure, so it’s Jo and (producer) Steve Kloves comes in and sits with me and we work together, and then Jo goes away and she’s super-fast at writing, and then she’ll visit set.
Generally, when we were making Potter, she didn’t have that much of a presence when we were actually physically making the movie, but Jo’s a little bit more involved now, beyond delivering the script. She’s a great partner. She’s obviously a gifted writer, but she’s immensely smart and understanding of this movie-making process and gets what’s important, what’s less important, so that’s been a particular pleasure of starting with material that is written specifically for the screen, as opposed to adapting a work that already has a life within the culture.
I love the cast you’ve put together, too, so it’s going to be interesting to see them play characters, who we don’t really know at all, so they can create these characters which will be a little different, too.
Oh, you know the cast are terrific, and Eddie (Redmayne) is so moving as Newt and funny actually. They’re all terrific, and I’m really looking forward to showing people the movie. It’s coming together really well. We’re editing at the moment and it feels great, and we’re going to take some of it to Comic-Con quite shortly, so it’s all going terrifically well.
Have you thought at all whether you’re going to direct the sequel or do you have other things going on? I know at one point you were going to do a movie based on the Fables comic, so is that still in the cards?
I am going to do a Fables movie, but we are working on the second Beasts movie. We’ve had the script which Jo has written, but Jo’s currently doing a second pass on that, and we’re all geared up for a second Beasts and we’re starting a cast and that’s in process.
The Legend of Tarzan opens nationwide on Friday, July 1 with previews on Thursday night.