Matt Reeves interview: War For The Planet Of The Apes

The director of War For The Planet Of The Apes talks us through the making of his latest saga and his forthcoming Batman...

With his neat waistcoats and range of bow ties, Matt Reeves doesn’t immediately stand out as the kind of director who’d drag a film crew halfway across British Columbia to make a movie. Yet on Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and now this summer’s War For The Planet Of The Apes, that’s precisely what he’s done: taken performance capture from the relative comfort of a studio or backlot and out into the forests of Vancouver, the clammy humidity of New Orleans and beyond.

More than just eye-candy, though, Reeves’ Apes movies have used the collision of the earthy and the digital to tell engaging, sometimes disturbing stories about human frailty. In War For The Planet Of The Apes, the ape leader, Caesar (once again, played by Andy Serkis) has his empathy for humans tested well past breaking point by the murderous Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), and the scene is set for an epic confrontation that’s more Sergio Leone or Akira Kurosawa than your typical summer blockbuster.

So ahead of his latest film’s release, we sat down with Mr Reeves to talk about the film’s themes, its superb use of 65mm Alexa cameras, and how his human style of movie-making will continue into his forthcoming superhero outing, The Batman.

Congratulations on another great film. I love the sense that you’re building a myth here. 

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That is so cool that you say that, because that is literally what my goal was on the movie. I wanted to push us into the realm of the mythic. I felt like this was the thing that was going to create the legend of what Caesar would be to future generations of apes. That if he was going to be a seminal figure in their history, this had to be a Biblical epic – the final test that he must pass to have this mythic ascension into the pantheon of apes.

It’s exactly that. It’s why we moved into snow, too: I thought it was almost like a mythic fairytale. Let’s get out of the woods, while still keeping everything very grounded, let’s move into the realm of myth. 

It’s the book of Exodus, isn’t it. 

Yeah! Exactly. That’s exactly right.

It feels to me as though your approach to cinematography was different this time. 

There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that I shot on a new system – we shot on an Alexa 65. I wanted the movie to be, like, a widescreen movie like a David Lean movie, or a Leone movie, and see the apes against the landscape of the planet. What I’ve been excited about from the beginning was the idea of taking cutting edge technology and mirroring that with traditional forms, with the idea of myth, and a really classical story. So you’d have this odd experience of seeing something that felt very rooted, a kind of timeless story, and yet the uncanny aspect of there being these apes that are playing out that drama. And so on this one, I wanted it to be a very epic-scale movie, but still very intimate. 

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The beautiful thing about this system, and the way the lenses work, because of the larger film plane, with these adapted Hasselblad lenses, when they’re wide, and the detail on the camera’s 6K, it makes beautiful detailed vistas. But actually, the portraiture in the closeups is astonishing, because it’s like a medium format camera, so instead of being like a 35mm snap, when you’re moving in close, you have all this beautiful focus fall-off. So intimately, the lenses render the faces incredibly powerfully.

That was what I was excited about – somehow we could do the epic, but also the intimate. Visually, that gave us a different look. 

The other thing was that, I shot the last film in native 3D because we didn’t have time to convert. The difficulty of that is that it’s a very heavy camera system. So I was limited in the kinds of shots I could get, and I was also limited because, with the performance capture, you have to reproduce every shot that you shoot without the actors in it. So those shots – let’s say I wanted to pivot [the camera] around you. That’s a very hard to shot. It sounds like nothing, but it’s impossible for a camera operator to perfectly pivot around nothing in the same way you pivot around an actor. So there were certain shots that I wanted to do that I couldn’t.

One of the things that also changed the look of the film this time is that we discovered this camera system, this crane called the Technodolly. They use them in commercials and music videos and things. You can program the shot to play exactly the key frames that we want…

Ah, so it’s motion controlled.

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Yeah, it’s like motion control. You could play out these incredible shots. You could be incredibly detailed and repeat them and repeat them and repeat them. The great thing about the system was, we used it in a way it probably wasn’t originally intended for, which was, we could run the device live, record it, and then play it back. So suddenly I was like, “Oh, I can do all those moves I wanted to do.” I could put down track, because it came with track, and it would literally go through at the same speed and arc around and do all these moves that I so desperately wanted to do, and on this movie, I could do it. So that was really freeing.

Once that started going, I said, “Why don’t we use that device to do what it’s meant to do, as well”. I started choosing all of these key frames, and designing all these very detailed shots that otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to do with a normal camera system. It was creatively very satisfying. I wasn’t restricted in a way that performance capture restricts me visually. 

Right. So is that how you got that overhead shot of the battle near the beginning?

No, the way we did the overhead shot was, we found a better way to do pre-viz on the movie, too. When you work with a pre-viz company, based on how much time you have, the studio – because with VFX, you’re going to spend money on every shot, right? So on the last movie, we pre-vizzed everything, and I threw out 97 percent of the pre-viz, because we were pre-vizzing shots that were actor based, and I was, “Well, I’m not going to shoot it that way, I’m going to stage the scene with the actors.” But they needed some way to see if they could budget the scene right, and I was like, “Well, good luck with that. That’s not the way I’m gonna shoot it.” So I threw it out a lot.

So on this movie, I said I wasn’t going to pre-viz any of those scenes, because that’s a waste of time. I can tell you right now, I’m going to get out there with Andy and Woody, and we’re going to work on these scenes, and that’s how I’m gonna shoot them. I can’t tell you right now what I’m going to do. That took a burden off a huge portion of the scenes, but the action scenes, I could pre-viz. I used a thing called Lidar, where we scanned the actual terrain, of the actual set that we found, and then put it into virtual space. We did this with the camp, too, because not only do we have that flat portion, but we also, because James designed it in virtual space, we had the digital model of that space.

For the first time, I was able to crack the back of, for me, my process doing pre-viz. Normally what happens with pre-viz is, you make up boards, and then artists try to translate the boards. But my translation might not be the same as the artist’s translation. So what ends up happening is, they put a lot of time into something that I then get rid of. But this time, what I said was, “You know what I love? When I go onto a set, I like to have a finder and put it on an SLR, and take snaps, and figure out exactly how I might want to shoot it.” I said, “What I’d like to do, is figure out how to take virtual snaps.” So that overhead shot was one of those.

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I wanted to move up the hill, and as we’re moving up the hill, we realised that there was no way to do that with a Steadicam. It was too challenging a shot. So we were trying to figure out technically with the Lidar how to do that, and then the idea of cable cam came up. They were like, “We could put a cable cam through the trees.” Once I realised where the cable cam was, I was like, “Wait, let me just look up there, in virtual space.” One of the shots I found was, “Can I take a look down?” I was like, “Oh! This is a great shot.”

The thing for me is, there’s a great documentary about the making of The Shining, and there’s that amazing shot where you’re looking up at Jack Nicholson as he’s banging on the refridgerator, trying to get in.

I know the one!

And you’re going, like, “Kubrick was such a genius. How did he think of that shot?”

He was lying on the floor looking up, wasn’t he?

Yeah! And what’s so funny is, he’s got a little finder, and he’s looking at Jack Nicholson, and you see the moment where it happens! It’s not like things come falling out of your head. What happens is, you see something and respond. There’s a great moment where Kubrick goes, “Oh!” He gets under Jack Nicholson and goes, “This is kinda cool.” And that was how that shot was done!

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This is a process that, in pre-viz, is harder to do, because nothing exists. Once I was able to explore the spaces – once I was in it, I was able to discover shots that I would discover if I’d been on the set. Which I couldn’t have done, because I couldn’t have been physically on that set, looking down from the cable cam, because it wouldn’t have been up yet. On this movie, there were a lot of things that were a breakthrough for me creatively. I could better use all the technical aspects of everything we’re doing, that still felt organic. That still felt like being on a set and choosing an angle in a normal way.

I mean, I had a hard time with the virtual scenes – we have a few that are purely virtual. And what I was saying to them was, when an actor’s lined up on a set, I can look through a finder, and I can tell Andy in the staging, “Oh, if you take one step to your left, I have a great shot, so make that your mark.” And then that lines up to this part of the set. But in a virtual set, it doesn’t have that kind of specificity. So I tried to work with Weta and the pre-viz team, to take the stuff that is virtual and make it as real-world as possible.

Not that you asked that! 

No, that’s fantastic, because it leads me onto something else: in Dawn you took the franchise out of studios and into the woods. But what you’re saying is this is a step further on again.

That’s exactly right. The thing is that, there were certain things that were very restrictive on Dawn, that made it less organic than I wanted. I’m the kind of person that needs to see something in order to connect. So I get ideas for shots, but most of the shots happen when I’m on the set and I’m watching where they’re standing, where they are in the space, and I’m reacting emotionally, in the moment. I like to react in the moment as much as I can.

There were certain things that were more organic than I thought [on Dawn]. I’ve done other VFX stuff, like when I was on Cloverfield, everything was planned tremendously. You have to plan all the stuff with the CG characters in a very precise way, and I worried that the process of performance capture would mean that everything had to be so planned out that I couldn’t capture the happy accident. Because the best things in movies between actors when you’re on the search for something, and as you get to that emotional place, something happens that you don’t expect. Then you capture it – the camera has to be rolling at that moment. 

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What I discovered was that, to my relief, performance capture is very freeing in that way. I could change things on the set, and I could change things in post, so I could constantly have discovery. I could stage a scene, actually, big scenes – because you can only capture 15 motion capture actors at once. What you would do in a normal movie is you’d have a crowd of hundreds, but here, because they’re all CG apes, I could completely change my plan and go, “Wait, Andy do you feel like you’d walk here instead?” And he’d go, “Yeah.” So I’d say, “Let’s forget about what we were gonna do. Let’s get this shot here, and we can populate all the apes behind you and I don’t have to have the ADs getting a cast of hundreds.” I can just do it in the moment.

That part was very freeing, and allowed for a lot of improvisation. So on Dawn, I did a lot of stuff, which is why I was able to throw away the pre-viz, because I was able to go into the scenes and figure it out with the actors, just like a normal movie. That’s not the way most CG movies are done. But performance capture does allow for that. So there are certain aspects of performance capture that are very friendly to an organic process.

This franchise almost feels like an anomaly as it’s grown through these three films. 

That’s great. I feel that way as a filmmaker. I feel like the studios, what they’re willing to make is a very narrow band of entertainment, right? And these summer films especially, they live on spectacle. What’s a unique gift to this is that the spectacle is photo-real apes – that they emote, and you identify with them. That gives an opportunity to tell a story that you don’t get to tell in a grand scale summer blockbuster, which is that we’re holding a mirror up to ourselves.

The apes create just enough distance for the audience, that they’ll engage in a story that you couldn’t otherwise do on this scale anymore, because it’s not what people are going to. And so it allows us to do something different, and I feel that’s been the real gift of getting to be in this franchise. We could be thematically ambitious. 

It’s interesting how our brains are wired up. If we watch a war film, we tend not to react in the same way; when we see animals being killed or cruelly treated, it’s far more visceral. It gets you there [in the gut].

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It’s funny, one of the first people I showed it to was JJ [Abrams], because we were friends since we were kids. And he said to me, “You know, I love this story, and the fact that it’s apes means it’s going to be such an experience.” Because of exactly what you’re saying. There’s something about humans going through this that might push you back, but with apes, it pulls you forward. 

The virus, the mutated virus, throws up an interesting situation. It accelerates the fall of mankind. 

Yeah, in the original it took 5,000 years or something. Yes, exactly. 

And this could be decades, couldn’t it.

Yeah, and that’s the idea. We’re saying that this movie takes place 15 years after Rise. It’s highly accelerated, and people are asking, “Are you going to re-do the original.” For me, what’s so exciting about the original, aside from the fact that I love that movie, and as a kid I was obsessed by those movies, is that it removes the burden of the narrative “what.” We know “what” – it becomes the planet of the apes. So when you know the end of the story, the focus changes. It’s no longer a story about “Oh, what happened.”

It becomes “How did that happen.” I love that movie, it’s fascinating. But to be able to tell the story about the how is incredibly compelling to me. It’s more about characters, and our motivations, and our nature. And what it is about us that draws us to violence. We have to answer those questions, because we already know the ending. The story is not about what happens, it’s about how it happens. That, again, is an unusual place for a summer blockbuster to be.  

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There are lots of other places you or another director could take it. Because you aren’t tied to the pre-industrial planet of the apes depicted in the 1968 film.

For sure. This is really unique in that these three stories haven’t been told in the Apes universe. It’s been a very freeing process, because the original movies are only there as a trajectory for this series. We’re not beholden to anything. Anything we do is just about getting us closer to that idea, but we don’t have to achieve anything specifically accept the exploration – you aren’t held to some canon where it’s like, “Oh, you guys did this and it’s not part of the canon”. It’s been really cool.

Are you prepared for that with The Batman? Because there you have a lot of canon and a lot of fans.

Here’s the truth: I haven’t even started Batman. Because we just finished this movie eight days ago. These movies, you’re so involved with the VFX, and if you imagine, you’re making a movie with Brad Pitt and Brad Pitt didn’t exist until Weta actually made him? Like, the performance is Andy Serkis, and there’s a version of the movie that I could’ve released that had Andy Serkis in it, and you would be very moved by it because his performance is incredible. But it’s not Caesar until the very end, and so I have been working from nine in the morning until at least midnight for well over a year, and I have not had time to work on Batman yet.

I’ve met with them, and they were like, “We’d like to do this.” And I said, “I would love to do it, but you have to understand, I can’t engage in this until after I’m done making [War], which I’ve spent three year making.” I’m not going to not be completely invested in its completion. I worked in this world for five years now – I’ve done nothing but deal with photo-real apes and stories of the Planet Of The Apes franchise for the last five years of my life! So it’s very close to me. But that’s how I’ll be with Batman – I’ll be immersing myself in the same way.

And I think in terms of my approach, for me, it has to be personal. Genre filmmaking, the freedom of it is to use the surface elements of it, the metaphors, to get at something deeper. And unless that on some level is personal, it’s not going to be, first of all, something I’d know what to do with. I don’t know where to put the camera or what to tell the actors if I don’t have a personal way in. I felt that way about [War], and I do feel that way about Batman. I do see this kind of similarity. They’re both characters I’m drawn to: they’re both characters who are grappling with inner turmoil and are struggling to find some way to do the right thing in an imperfect world.

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So there’s this weird kind of emotional parallel that I can see, even though they’re such different characters. But it’s that same emotional makeup that draws me into it. I’ll approach that the same way. You can only be reverent to a certain degree. You can’t be reverent to the point where you’re not offering a perspective, you know what I mean? So I have a love and respect for the character, and a respect for the canon, but at the same time, you have to make choices that are personal, or you’re not going to produce something that affects people emotionally.

And if there’s an intent that I have, of what I’ll do with Batman, it’s to reach a level of emotionality and engagement with it. That’s what I’m hoping to do.

Matt Reeves, thank you very much.

War For The Planet Of The Apes is out in UK cinemas on the 11th July.