Matt Reeves interview: Dawn, Andy Serkis and blockbuster filmmaking

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes director Matt Reeves talks about the making and ideas behind his remarkable summer blockbuster...

NB: This article contains spoilers for 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and mild ones for this year’s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Imagine you’re one of the bosses at 20th Century Fox. Then imagine that you have a date set for a sequel to your surprise hit sci-fi sequel, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. That date is less than two years away, and your current director doesn’t think he can have the film ready in time. He promptly departs.

So with the director’s chair now absent, who do you give the project to?

The answer: Matt Reeves. When we sat down with him in a London hotel to talk about Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, we could immediately see why a Hollywood studio would give him control of a $170m movie. In his trendily slim-cut suit and bowtie, he’s a dervish of enthusiasm, answering each question excitedly and at length. When he says that he’s been a fan of the Planet Of The Apes movies since he was a boy, you believe him.

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It’s that knowledge and fervour, we suspect, that led Fox to give the go-ahead to Reeves and his potentially risky concept for a sequel to Rise. Because while Reeves has no shortage of directing experience behind him – as well as TV shows like Relativity and Felicity, he directed the hit monster movie Cloverfield and the horror remake Let Me In – Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is unlike anything he’d previously attempted.

His concept is a sci-fi tragedy on an epic scale. Taking place a decade after a deadly virus has wiped out much of humanity, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is told from the perspective of the intelligent ape Caesar, and his attempts to avert a war with surviving humans. It’s emotional, downbeat and unusually intense, with some of the best performance capture work – courtesy of actors including Andy Serkis and Tony Kebbell, plus the effects studio Weta – we’ve yet seen. From a technical and storytelling perspective, it’s one of the best films of the year so far.

Realising that our time with Reeves was short, we went in with a handful of questions at the forefront of our minds: how did he get such a singular film made, how much of its core concept was his, and why can’t more summer films carry this much emotional weight?

Here’s what he had to say.

It strikes me that a lot of summer films are like pop songs, in that you enjoy them in the moment but you forget about them straight afterwards.

Right, right!

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But this one really stuck in my head.

Oh, wow, thank you. That’s great.

I wonder if you could talk about when you first came on board the production, what shape it was in and how you guided it.

When I first came in, Rupert [Wyatt] had left. I loved Rise [Of The Planet Of The Apes], and I thought he’d done such a magnificent job. I had a lot of trepidation; I thought, “What’s going on here?” But at the same time, I was really excited, because I’d loved Rise, and I was a lifelong Planet Of The Apes fan. I mean, I was obsessed as a kid. I had the dolls, I watched all the movies.

So I came in wanting to know what they wanted to do, and they showed me the outline of what they were planning, and it wasn’t Rupert’s. They’d hired in another writer, Mark Bomback, to write this outline, which came from a number of different sources. I’d never seen Rupert’s script, which he did with Scott Burns, and Rick [Jaffa] and Amanda [Silver] had drafts, and there was all this different stuff.

I said, when I read the outline, “Well, this isn’t the story I’d do.”

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I thought that was going to be the end of the interview. They already had a release date which they wanted to meet, and I figured they’d already thrown their lot into this story.

That story began in post-apocalyptic San Francisco, and the apes came down and started pushing up power lines, and they were very articulate. They could speak way beyond how they could not only in Rise, but also in [my version of] Dawn. And I was, like, “Oh.”

It also wasn’t Caesar’s story. I said, “This is not what I would do.” And to my surprise, they said, “Well, what would you do?” They were just picking my brain, I thought.

I said, “To me, what you earned in Rise – the secret of it – is that by the end it’s an ape point-of-view movie. By the end you realise that it’s Caesar’s movie. You’ve earned that. People love that character. I think you should start the movie on Caesar. If I were doing the movie, I wouldn’t want to start in the post-apocalyptic world, which I feel is somewhat familiar. I’d want to start in the ape world. I feel that’s the version of the movie I’ve never seen – the beginning of ape culture.”

I wanted it to be like the beginning of 2001 [A Space Odyssey] with the Dawn of Man, except it’s Dawn of the intelligent apes. Then you’re invested emotionally in the world that Caesar’s created – this civilisation is one big extended family that he’s the father of. He’s like Don Corleone of the apes or something.

Then you realise there are still humans, and then it would become this situation where everything after that is an anatomy of violence. You know it becomes Planet Of The Apes, and that’s not what this is, so how did we get from here to there? This is the one moment where it could have been ‘Planet Of The Humans And The Apes.’

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So I pitched this story, and figured they’d say, “Well, interesting ideas, but maybe some other day.” But instead they said, “That sounds great. Are you in?” So I asked, “What’s the catch?”

They said, “The catch is that the script doesn’t exist, and we still want to keep our release date, so you’ll have to jump in right away.”

So Mark Bomback and I sat down and just figured out that story, and it was irresistible, because to me… it’s interesting what you were saying about the idea of summer movies. I thought this was the most incredible opportunity. Because Planet Of The Apes, aside from the fantasy element of talking apes, is such an amazing franchise, because under the surface of that genre, you’re actually looking at human nature. And this movie, of course it has spectacle and all the things you’d expect of a summer movie, but it also had the potential to be about something.

Also, it had the potential to be a character drama. So the idea of getting to do what is essentially a drama on this scale, and a war movie, I thought, that’s not going to come around too many times in my lifetime. So I jumped at it.

That’s why I find this particular franchise so exciting, because they’re always about something, which is what great science fiction is. And what I liked about Rise was that it re-entered that world from an emotional perspective. In that way, it made it new again, because it’s not a remake of any of the earlier films, it’s a new film. It’s a weird reimagining of what it could have been the beginning of.

This was the opportunity to take another step into that story and not do a remake of any of the other films, but to in essence come from a different angle. And that angle is Caesar, and being inside the emotional life of the apes. So that, to me, was exciting. 

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One of the scenes that I found really striking, and possibly one of my favourites, is one that often appears in Planet Of The Apes films. And that’s the drama when someone hears an ape speak for the first time. In your film, the apes ride in and the humans collectively hear them, and you capture the horror and disbelief. I wonder if you could tell me how you conceived and constructed that sequence, because it’s so effective, dramatically.

One of the things that we were grappling with, was to set up what the humans did and didn’t know about the apes. And I thought it would be so great to start in this ape Eden, and see the beginning of their articulation and language. And as I said before, [Fox] were proposing very articulate apes. But for me, the deliciousness of Rise was watching them come into articulation.

When I watched the movie again in preparation for talking to Fox, the thing that struck me that time – because I’m a first-time father, my son is now three – was how much Caesar reminded me of my son. Because in the story, he’s so intelligent, and watching everything, and you can see that he has full comprehension of what’s going on around him.

But he doesn’t yet have the tools for full articulation, and you can see that moment when he does speak is just startling. And it reminded me of my son. I could see behind his eyes how much he understood of the world, and that was such a revelation to me. And when he was struggling to speak, I could see him fighting to articulate. He became so much happier when he could speak, because he could express himself. And so I was thinking, “This is an exciting thing to figure out – where they are on that continuum”.

Then, to think about the humans, who’d been on their own drama, which was all about the post apocalypse. When we went back to Rise, we realised that all the people who saw Caesar speak are dead. [James] Franco, who’s not in the film, if the idea is that he’s passed because of the flu, he knew that Caesar could speak. Then the guys who saw him speak in the habitation facility: they died. So nobody knew.

We thought, “Okay, that’s good.” That’ll give us the opportunity to spring that on this human population, and then that will have resonance. We wanted the humans to be taking in what we’re taking in. To feel what we’re feeling when we watch the first 20 minutes of the movie. So that first moment, when Caesar says, “Go” to a small group of people, we thought that was an opportunity to have a small group say, “What did we just see?”

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How would you go and tell people that you’d just had an encounter with a bunch of talking animals? People would think you were out of your mind. That conversation would not come to a satisfactory end. And in fact, that was the idea when Gary Oldman’s character has a conversation in the van, and he’s not fully taking that part in. He says, “What are you talking about?”

All he knows is that there are now animals that are living on this spot that we desperately need in order to get civilisation back. We need access to that van. But the idea that they may or may not have seen them speak – that just sounds crazy, and the conversation could go on endlessly. What if we said, “I went into the studio today, and saw a bunch of talking poodles”? You’d say, “Excuse me?”

That conversation would go nowhere. You’d say, “No you didn’t.” And I’d say, “Yes I did.”

So we thought it would be a real fun moment, if the humans woke up one morning and were surrounded by a huge army of apes. Then when one of them spoke, it would be a great dramatic device. I don’t know if that’s the question you’re asking, but that’s where it came from! 

The other thing I’ve been thinking is that the performance capture and effects blend so seamlessly into the storytelling that we’ve arrived at a point where CGI doesn’t have to be there to impress you anymore. It’s another tool you use to tell a story.

Yeah. It’s really getting there. The miracle of Rise was that Weta was able to translate performance so faithfully to the emotion that you were able to identify with a CG character at a level that I’d never had before. I’d appreciated great CGI before, but I’d never watched a movie where I essentially felt I was that CG character. Andy Serkis has played many CG characters, and you marvel at them. You go, “Wow, that’s a great character.”

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But the idea that you have this total empathy, where you become the character – I had never seen that. I did feel that way about Caesar in Rise. I thought that was amazing.

I wanted to push the photoreality further. They shot 75 percent of that movie on a stage. It was remarkable, and the most remarkable part was the emotionality of it, but the photoreality came in and came out. That didn’t matter, because you had total involvement with the story, but it felt like we could push the photorealism further. And if we could, that would make the emotional involvement even greater, or at least make the illusion that much more convincing.

So then, as you say, it would cease to be about special effects, and would instead become a film about story and character. When I went to Weta, I said I wanted to shoot in even more naturalistic lighting, and in more naturalistic environments. I want this to be Apocalypse Now with apes. I want to go into the woods. I want to be in the wild. What if we did actually go into the wild?

They said, “Well, we have to make the equipment more robust, but we think that, from a technical standpoint, you’re right. That if we take our models into those environments, that they will not only stand up to it, but the effect will be that much more heightened, because they’ll be in a real setting.”

One of the big sparks for me was this one shot from Rise. People might not think it was that exciting, but it’s where Koba is in the lab, and he’s in this fluorescent light. It looks like [cinematographer] Andrew Lesnie lit it with fluorescent light, and it’s this really unattractive, mundane, everyday light. He looked so real in that scene that I thought, “Wow, it’s crazy that he’s not a real ape. Why can’t the whole movie be done in this way?”

I didn’t mean that the whole movie had to be fluorescent, but that is should look as naturalistic as possible. And Weta said, “You’re right. That theory is absolutely accurate. We should put them in these realistic environments – the key is finding out how to do that.”

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So we took the performance capture cameras and the 3D cameras, which are really heavy, up into the woods in the freezing cold and the rain and the mud, and it was the hardest shoot most of us had ever been on. But then when the shots started come in from Weta, it was exciting to see that the theory was actually right. And beyond that, Weta had completely rebuilt their pipeline, so that the hair simulations, the moisture simulations, the models themselves, had been redone in such a way that not only was the lighting more realistic, but also the animals themselves seemed so much more real that it was breathtaking.

I do believe this is the new high watermark. And the crazy thing is, as I’m doing this I’m talking to Weta and our VFX producer, Ryan Stafford. And he was saying to me, “You know, as we’re doing this, they’re continuing to rebuild their pipeline, and they’re almost done. In the next movie, the effects are going to look even better.”

And I was like, “This is crazy.”

With each movie, they push things further and further. Weta is incredible. Just amazing. 

So it sounds to me as though the studio were really supportive over what you were doing. But I wonder whether they balked at some of your ideas. It’s surprising, for one thing, to see subtitles in a summer film.

I’d say this: there were debates. The way you’d imagine there would be for a studio heavily investing in a film. I kept saying, “Well, there’s a movie called Avatar that had subtitles, and you guys made that.” And they said, “Yeah, but that’s Avatar, so don’t get too comfortable about that.”

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And I said, “I’m not saying we’re Avatar, but I am saying it can be done. Also, there was another movie called Rise, which had some riveting subtitled sequences.”

For me, one of the coolest things in Rise is that whole sequence in the habitat where there’s no dialogue other than when Caesar finally says, “No.” Then there’s the moment where he and Maurice, even before Maurice has had the ALZ-113, where he’s signing. And I thought that was so uncanny, that you can teach an ape to sign, so this communication could happen. You’re crossing an ape who’s been given intelligence, and the intelligence that this other ape already has – and that’s thrilling.

I just kept saying, “Guys, this is exciting. You already did it, so it’s not that scary.” What was different was that I wanted to start in the ape world, so it was plant our flag squarely. “This is Caesar’s point of view. This movie is his.”

There were debates about that, but that was my pitch when I went in. They pitched me a version of the story that they were planning to do, which began in the city and it wasn’t Caesar’s story. I said, “You created this miraculous thing in Rise where the most human character isn’t human, he’s Caesar, an ape.” And I think this movie should declare that, and begin in the ape world rather than the human.

They were incredibly supportive given the number of things that you wouldn’t normally get to do in a traditional summer tentpole film. Which is why, when they accepted what I said, there was no way I couldn’t say no. I knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime. 

This might be a difficult question to answer. But while I was watching Dawn, I thought, “Why can’t more major films be more like this?” I mean in the sense that the plot developments come from logical character decisions and character traits, and the story makes sense…

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[Laughs] Yeah. Why can’t more stories make sense?

…it actually builds to a satisfying, understandable conclusion. Which is actually quite rare in summer films.

You know, I think that summer movies, especially, have become so driven by spectacle that it becomes the tail that wags the dog. We knew we were going to have spectacle in this film, but the great thing about it being a Planet Of The Apes film, is that it’s easy to do a story about human nature, which is all about character.

That was why it was so irresistible. We could do a tentpole film that would have all the spectacle, that would be driven by character, by Caesar, by the situation. And that it could be about human nature and real-world conflicts that are going on right now and have gone on since the dawn of man. I thought that was really ambitious, and really exciting. The franchise lends itself to that.

For me, the most exciting summer movies over the last 10 years have done exactly that. They’ve taken the genre as a metaphor for something real. There’s an element of fantasy, whether it’s a superhero with what Christopher Nolan’s done with the Batman series, or whatever – the idea of taking those ideas and then being ambitious with them, so it’s not about giving you the surface effect of the spectacle, but also giving you the story, that is a throwback to me. Back to the stories I loved as a kid growing up, like Spielberg’s movies. The movies that fulfilled the summer excitement quotient, but were also emotional stories about character.

That was definitely my intention on this, so I love that you say that.

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I’ve no idea why [more films aren’t like it]. But I will say this: I do think that Chris Nolan’s films, and the films like them, are the ones that made this movie possible. Rise made this possible. With Rise, nobody even expected it to be a hit, and then it was. So in a way, what happens when an audience sees a film like this and connects to it, it creates more opportunities. Because all the studio wants to know is, if they’re going to make this kind of financial investment, that it’s going to pay off. And so when these movies end up being successful, it creates the opportunity to make more.

That was what was exciting for me about The Dark Knight. It wasn’t just successful, it was crazy successful. It took all these elements that were on the surface really commercial, but there were ideas behind them. I thought that the Joker and the exploration of anarchy, the nihilistic terror of that film, was so singular and palpable. I was like, “Oh this is a summer blockbuster, but it’s of a sort that I’ve never seen before.”

The fact that the film was so hugely successful makes other studios say, “You can take these elements and also be ambitious with them thematically, and from a story and character perspective.”

Hopefully that means more people will be interested in doing it. And I think people do try to do it – it’s just so hard to get right.

Matt Reeves, thank you very much.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is out on the 17th July.

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