Visiting the set of War For The Planet Of The Apes

Last year, we braved the cold Vancouver autumn to visit the set of War For The Planet Of The Apes. Here's what happened...

NB: The following contains a spoiler for 2014’s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.

The great maverick directors of the 70s and 80s went to some very strange places in their quest for realism. Werner Herzog coaxed a legion groaning extras to drag a full-size, very heavy steamboat up the side of a Central American mountain in Fitzcarraldo. William Friedkin’s underappreciated masterpiece The Sorcerer sent Roy Scheider off in a truck over a long and very rickety-looking bridge. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now famously took in heart attacks, purloined corpses and fits of megalomania in the deeper, darker parts of the Philippines (standing in for Vietnam).

War For The Planet Of The Apes may not be quite as arduous as those productions, but director Matt Reeves is again going to considerable – and very muddy – lengths to bring us the latest chapter in Fox’s legendary Apes franchise.

Reeves’ involvement with the Apes series began in 2014, when he took over the reins of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes from Rupert Wyatt. In Reeves’ hands, a script that began as a post-apocalyptic story about the human survivors of a virus – the one unleashed in Wyatt’s surprise 2011 hit Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes – instead became the continued story of Caesar, the noble, freakishly intelligent ape played by Andy Serkis.

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“To me, what you earned in Rise – the secret of it – is that by the end it’s an ape point-of-view movie,” Reeves told Fox’s producers, back when Dawn was in its early writing stages. “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.” 

A tragedy of almost Shakespearian proportions, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes matched spectacle with genuine depth. It also offered the show-stopping sight of photo-real digital apes traversing the leafy forests of a near-future America. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Weta and some sterling mo-capture performances (including Serkis’s, which was nominated for an Oscar), it was difficult to tell where the digital trickery ended and the very real Vancouver landscapes began.

The decision to shoot Dawn almost entirely in real locations proved to be a masterstroke, with the cold, stark lighting of the great Canadian outdoors bringing a greater sense of realism to Weta’s CGI apes. It’s a trick Reeves and his team are repeating on a bigger scale for 2017’s War For The Planet Of The Apes, which explains why we’re standing in the middle of a pine forest one sunny yet decidedly crisp morning in October 2015. The unmistakeable smell of the pine needles hangs thickly in the air; as dew drips from the lush green ferns springing up all around us, we clutch paper cups of coffee in our numb fingers.

Reeves is just 10 days into what promises to be a decidedly earthy shoot. Located an hour’s drive from the bustle of Vancouver’s city streets and down what feels like a mile of rough terrain, the Apes team has set up production. There are articulated lorries and portable loos. Four-wheel-drive buggies trundle up and down with supplies. Crewmembers march purposefully back and forth with equipment and walky-talkies, carving out a loamy tracks in their wake. It was out here, we’re told that Alejandro Inarritu shot parts of his ice-cold period epic, The Revenant. All we can say is, Leonardo DiCaprio was wise to grow that beard.

The scene we’re here to see takes place near the beginning of the film. Following the events of Dawn, Caesar has acquired almost mythical status among the surviving human population. The apes’ very own Che Guevara, Caesar leads his clan from a hidden base deep in the forest. It’s here that a group of soldiers, sent by Woody Harrelson’s character, currently known only as the Colonel, finally stumble on the apes’ enclave – and in what producer Peter Dylan describes as an “epic opening battle sequence”, humans and apes clash. 

“The [human army] have been looking for Caesar since the events of the last film,” explains producer Dylan Clark. “They know he’s the leader of the apes, and they think that if they kill Caesar then the apes will be in disarray. In this opening battle, they got close; they found a hidden trench that goes all along, and the apes have their hidden fortress back here somewhere.”

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It’s after the opening battle that Caesar (Serkis again, of course) makes the dramatic entrance we’re here to watch. On a monitor, we watch as Andy Serkis, in his close-fitting mo-cap outfit, strides into view, a group of captured soldiers kneeling to his left. Most are human; one at the end is in a mo-cap get-up identical to Serkis’ – a sure sign that not all the soldiers are of our species. A handful of apes, Clark explains, have switched allegiance to the humans.

“In Dawn, there were apes that followed [Koba], and some of those are still alive,” the producer says, referring to the duplicitous ape who started the war with the humans in the previous film. “And other apes may not believe… because the human army is advancing to a great degree, some apes start to think maybe they should help the humans rather than fight them. Are they as duplicitous as Koba? No, but maybe more cowardly – and equally damaging if that makes sense.”

On the monitor, Serkis, in full-on Caesar mode, talks to the captured soldiers in a stern, gravelly voice. 

“I did not start this war,” he says. “The ape that did is dead… The apes followed Koba. They tried to kill me. They fear I do not forgive, so now they serve you just to survive…”

This is only the start, we hear, of a sprawling new story which takes us on a journey across the Sierra mountains, snowy plains and lonely beaches. As Den Of Geek and a bunch of other writers are ushered into a tent, we’re shown some pretty amazing pieces of concept art, which give us an idea of the scale of Reeves’ film. Where Dawn largely took place in woodland or the confines of a crumbling city, War is all widescreen vistas and open spaces – hence the use of 65mm film to capture it all, the producer tells us.

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Once again, Weta’s pushing the limits of its own digital technology to bring these grand images to life. War‘s VFX producer Ryan Stafford explains that the previous film’s scenes in real-world woodland locations will be joined with even more challenging sequences in snow.

“Taking the apes out of the equation, snow’s difficult to make it look real,” Stafford says, as a truck of supplies rumbles past the tent. “Shades of white are very, very difficult. Throw the apes into the mix, and it just becomes a very new territory. We can send the performers through the snow, but they move differently, their foot sizes and fists are different. So we have to abandon everything that we did in-camera and create it all digitally.”

The more technology moves on – the mo-cap equipment is now lighter and wireless this time around – the more demands the filmmakers put on the VFX team. It has to be said, however, that the imagery we’ve seen looks striking even by the series’ high standards. There are images of apes riding horses among a flat, lonely beach – a setting that clearly harks back to an unforgettable moment in the 1968 film. One piece of art shows Caesar charging forth with a burning flag in his hand. Another depicts a prison constructed from what look like huge concrete blocks. There’s something called a mountain lodge, which looks like a frozen palace festooned with chandeliers – an apparent nod to another 60s film, Doctor Zhivago. It’s in this frozen palace, a publicist tells us, that we’ll first meet Steve Zahn’s new ape character; like so many things related to this film, the ape’s name is currently a mystery. 

We do glean plenty of tantalising details from some of the dialogue in Caesar’s entrance scene, though; “We’re alpha and omega,” a female soldier says, ominously. “Beginning and the end. Humanity’s survival depends on us.”

This, Clark explains, is a reference to the virus from Rise: the man-made disease that made apes like Caesar super-intelligent also wiped out much of our species. And in War For The Planet Of The Apes, the virus is back in mutated form; the implication being that the battle between humans and their ancestors is set to reach a new, more desperate phase. All of this goes some way to explaining the motivations behind Woody Harrelson’s military leader, who Clark compares to the maniacal Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now; he’s a soldier who’s prepared to go to any lengths to save his own species – including, it seems, capturing apes and keeping them in some form of gigantic prison.

“We looked at the Colonel Kurtz character,” Clark tells us, “and one of the most interesting pieces of that character was, before Charlie Sheen goes up river, he goes through a dossier, and he’s looking at all the stuff that Marlon Brando was before he became the monster that is Kurtz. We thought there were a lot of interesting character traits in there. He was a Navy SEAL; he just had a very specific viewpoint of how this war needed to be fought. The audience looked at it through Sheen’s eyes and saw the horror of it.”

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As for Caesar, War For The Planet Of The Apes will see him head off on his own journey into the heart of darkness. Between takes, Andy Serkis himself emerges from the set to explain how the events of the previous film, and his deadly clash with Koba (Toby Kebbel) have left their mark on Caesar. You know how American Presidents seem to age drastically from the stress of the job? This is like that, but hairier.

“Caesar’s now very much bearing the responsibility of leadership – it’s beginning to show,” Serkis explains, his face studded with a precise grid of mo-cap dots. “It’s like a leader who’s been through a lot and has aged as a result of the process. At the beginning of this movie, as they try to find a way of getting themselves separated from the conflict, there’s a possibility of moving on – their home was destroyed in the last movie, so they’re living in a temporary hide-out. They’re getting battered by artillery attacks, and so they decide to make a move.” 

The bloody conflict, Serkis continues, begins to change Caesar’s way of thinking; where he once strove to forge a peaceful bond between humans and apes, the events of War will see him work up a thirst for revenge.

“That’s a big switch for this character,” Serkis says, “because up until this point, Caesar’s always tried to stand between the world of man and animal, because that’s exactly what he represents. Now he can no longer do that. So he goes on a trail, a journey, into a very dark place, where he seeks revenge on humankind.”

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes was a summer film of unusual intelligence, and while its portrait of humanity and the inevitability of war were bleak, there’s an overwhelming sense of warmth and care behind the scenes. Serkis is quiet and thoughtful in his brief conversation, perhaps still channelling some of Caesar’s statesmanlike air from the scene he’s just filmed, but he has an evident passion for his craft. Likewise Terry Notary, who’s back in the role of the young ape Rocket and in his other role of coach for the other actors who play alongside him in the movie.

For Notary, appearing in an Apes movie is clearly more than just another mo-cap gig; as he talks, in zen-like terms, about the process of discovering his inner ape, a flicker of youthful excitement passes across his eyes.

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“A lot of the training we did, I’d take the guys out and we’d just go and sit down, be quiet, shut up,” Notary says, looking each of us in the eye as though he’s telling a campfire tale. “Phew! You think that’s easy, but it’s not. Being in and present and just being quiet and being really simple – you want to move? Go ahead. Go and look at something. Examine it, look at it, make it everything. Lose yourself in that, so that it’s more important than you. When you make one thing everything, you become invisible – and then it’s not acting, it’s being. And that’s amazing.”

Being an ape, Notary says, is about existing in the moment, losing your sense of self, and forgetting about judging other people or how they might be judging you. This philosophy of acting is punctuated occasionally by Notary’s sudden and uncannily accurate whooping and roaring ape noises – which, disconcertingly, he does while maintaining full eye contact. 

When he talks about practicing his craft in public, and maybe freaking out a stranger in a coffee shop by trying to “connect with them on a deeper level”, there’s the overriding sense that, for all the hardship of walking around on all fours in a thin mo-cap suit, whether it’s in the Vancouver loam or the searing heat of a New Orleans summer, the movies’ ape cast thoroughly enjoy their work.

Take Karin Konoval, who in all three movies plays Maurice, the male orangutan who functions as the apes’ teacher and deepest thinker. When Konoval talks about playing Maurice, she brushes off any notion that wearing uncomfortable-looking arm extensions or trying to ride a horse while pretending to be an ape is anything like a hardship. She recalls how Dawn’s shoot shifted from the sleet and cold of Vancouver to the heat of the Deep South a couple of years before, but concludes that, “It’s worth it. No matter what they throw at you, it’s such a rewarding story.”

Besides, appearing in the apes movies has allowed Konoval to meet lots of real orangutans – many of whom have since become close friends. Back in 2010, she went to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle to meet Towan the orangutan – a furtive bit of preparation for her role as Maurice.

“I didn’t tell people I was studying orangutans because I was going to play one,” Konoval says, “because they’d have looked at me like I was a crazy person.”

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After Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes came out, word got round that Konoval had based Maurice on Towan, and so the zoo invited her back to be properly introduced to the great ape who’d inspired her performance. By the time Konoval went back to the zoo, more than a year had elapsed – and yet Towan appeared to recognise her immediately.

“I’ve met gorillas along the way, I don’t know any chimpanzees personally, but I’ve gotten to know several gorillas personally over the past several years, and they do remember,” Konoval says. “But with the orangutans, if they do choose to get to know you, then from the moment you’ve met, they do not forget you.”

Since then, Konoval’s regularly visited the zoo to sit with the orangutans. “They became very strong in my personal life, and getting involved in the conservation movement as well. Anyway, I continue to visit with them in Seattle every six to eight weeks. I paint with the orangutans – or I paint for. Towan is a painter in his own right.”

It’s this sense of fascination and intimacy that might be the secret weapon behind the scenes on the new Apes movies. Much has been rightly said about the series’ stunning effects work, but it’s the passion and care that’s gone into the movies that has made them more than forgettable blockbuster fodder. Director Matt Reeves – who was busy behind the camera when we paid our visit to the set – could have shot his Apes movies in a nice warm studio, but he knew instinctively that shooting out here, in the autumn chill next to a ravine in the middle of nowhere, would make them look better. Likewise, Andy Serkis, Terry Notary and Karin Konoval didn’t have to spend hours of work getting into character, frightening strangers in coffee shops or painting with orangutans at the zoo, but they knew that doing so would add richness to their performances. 

Reeves and his team set themselves a high bar with Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, which depicted a bleak yet starkly beautiful portrait of our species and its warlike failings. Whether War For The Planet Of The Apes can match it remains to be seen, but it won’t be for a lack of ambition on the part of the filmmakers; everyone we spoke to, from producer Dylan Clark onwards, talked about pushing themselves to make a movie that builds on what came before. Not just bigger and louder, but also observant and intellectually satisfying. The Apes movies may be sci-fi action movies about the rise of a new species, but they’re really about us: well-meaning, perhaps, smart when we want to be, but also self-destructive and inherently flawed. And the more the ape society evolves in the movies, the more they come to reflect our less flattering attributes.

“The difference between humans and apes is they don’t own things,” Karin Konoval says. “That’s just my perspective on it. There’s the sentience, the intelligence, the feeling of community, or filial affection and responsibility – all of that stuff. I’ve never seen an ape go, ‘That’s my piece of carrot, you’re not getting it.’ As I say, they’ll take things for use, but there’s not an abuse of others for the sake of ownership.”

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We’ve all seen how ownership can lead to some of the ugliest conflicts in real-world history. So brace yourselves: based on what we’ve seen of War For The Planet Of The Apes so far, it’s going to be a spectacularly hairy ride.