War for the Planet of the Apes Interview: Andy Serkis, Matt Reeves & Dylan Clark

We sit down with Matt Reeves, Andy Serkis, and Dylan Clark to discuss the biblical combat that will occur in War for the Planet of the Apes.

Before even stepping foot in front of New York Comic Con crowds, three of the most integral filmmakers involved in the current Planet of the Apes franchise have long considered what the fans want. After all, Matt Reeves himself started out as a fan of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes before going on to direct its sequel, and now both direct and co-write next summer’s War for the Planet of the Apes.

Hence why he sits next to producer Dylan Clark and Andy Serkis, the latter of whom famously plays via motion-capture the regal chimp called Caesar. The three have clearly established a comfortable rapport. Together, they made the universally loved Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which was celebrated as much for its intelligence and sophistication of storytelling as it was for sophisticated renderings of CG-rendered apes. And during our interview, it’s easy to watch them bounce off each other while trying to steer them into giving a glimpse at 2017’s carefully guarded War for for the Planet of the Apes.

While that delicate watchfulness continued, all were open about the creative process that naturally led from the ending of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where Caesar killed his one-time friend Koba, to the titular conflict in the third film. We also discuss what Serkis hopes to bring to a third outing as Caesar as the character grows in stature and worldview yet again, as well as what Reeves and his co-writer Mark Bomback sought to bring over from Battle for the Planet of the Apes and the other original 20th century movies (hint: not too much!).

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Tonight you’re screening footage for this movie to the public and fans for the first time. Does that ever get any easier after doing multiple movies in the franchise or is it still nerve-wracking?

Dylan Clark: It’s a little bit of both.

Matt Reeves: The thing is we’re incredibly excited. There’s a thing when you’re always working on something you really love, and this one we loved so much, it feels like you have a secret, and you can’t wait to let people in on the secret. But at the same time, there’s that moment where, “What if they get the secret and they think the secret is stupid?!”

So of course you’re nervous, but we’re really excited to be able to share what we’re going to share. And it’s cool, because what we’re going to be doing, I think for fans especially, we think is really cool, because part of the process that most people don’t ever get to see [is] that before these movies are movies starring photo-real apes, they’re movies starring the image of Andy Serkis and the other actors, who are playing apes. And that movie is incredibly engaging; it’s what drives the emotion of all these films. So tonight, we’re going to show a long sequence that’s actually going to be—

DC: We’re bringing people into the process.

MR: Yeah, we’re going to show you what the process is, and you’re going to see a sequence from the film, which is still in process, still being edited, and some shots are Andy, as you see him right now, except wearing dots on his face and in his mo-cap outfit. And then other shots are animation shots, so you’re not even seeing what it looks like in the final film; you’re seeing rough, crude animation. And also, you’ll see a glimpse of early lighting renders where it looks like a Caesar or the Maurice, and the apes that you know.

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And that process, I think, is really fun, because one minute you’ll be looking at the camera, going, “Oh, that’s the actor. Oh, that’s the ape!” And you’ll see how the emotion is coming through, and you’ll see it’s all from the actors. So we’re excited.

DC: Hence a big ball of excitement and terror all in one. [Laughs]

Andy, Dylan: I know this is the third Planet of the Apes film that you both have worked on. What does that mean to you and has it changed over the years?

DC: Well I, as an executive at Universal—I wasn’t involved with the making of King Kong, but my company Universal did, and I was able to see early on the DVD special that they were doing behind-the-scenes, and watching Andy do what he did. And I wish I could have said then that I knew what he was doing, but I didn’t. And on Rise, I went into Rise really not understanding the technology at all. I assumed it was all about digital effects, and very quickly, from day one it was only about acting and about performance—and about the only thing that mattered was the emotional portrayal of a character through an actor.

So that journey for me, watching Andy taking us from an infant Caesar to a mature Caesar, through Dawn and now War, you start to feel a little patrician, even though he’s a lot older than I am, I do feel like he’s my son, and I love him so much. He’s such a great partner, I’m excited to show this piece tonight because I’ve watched along the way with Matt—we bring people in and they get to see the scene with just Andy, not Caesar, rendered, and they fall out of their chair, because he is that exquisite of an actor. And so, for me, I love making movies. I feel so blessed. I love Planet of the Apes, and doing it with Matt and with Andy, they’re my brothers, so it’s really emotional. I’ve loved this journey, it’s incredible!

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Andy Serkis: Exactly, I was thinking about that. I was thinking, this is like our Boyhood; this is like our getting together over 12 years to make—this our Apehood! [Laughs] I mean, this is it! For me, the relationships, all of those things, over such a long period of time now with actors, but also seeing the characters grow, develop, and change, and go through different situations, and as [Dylan said] from playing Caesar from an infant to a revolutionary through to a mature statesman like character.

Working with people you adore and love. There’s just a sense, all the way through all of the movies, that you’re very rarely in a position where you have great material that you’re passionate about and a big audience who love it, and the detail and nuance, and the exquisiteness of the fantastic actors and director with great writing. It’s a really unique situation where you just—you make independent films or you make big blockbuster movies, but it’s very rare when all of those ingredients come together, and you can really tell a story that you care about with a character you absolutely love with the people you love making movies with.

DC: And it’s important to note when we were going from Rise to Dawn, and transitioning into who was going to be our leader, our main focus, our filmmaker, our storyteller, it took a person who understood the franchise but, more than that, had a love for the franchise and a love for the characters, and a real deep passion of providing a story that gave empathy to characters.

And it really was Matt who, when he became involved, he kept us—as I say sometimes, it took an outsider to keep us on the right track. There was a moment in time when we didn’t know where to go from Rise to Dawn, and Matt came in very firm-handed and said, “This is the movie. This is what you have done. Let me tell you how great you’ve done this, I want to remind you, and I’d like to take it even further.”

And thank God for that. Look, Rupert [Wyatt] did an amazing job with Rise, and I’m sure his version of the next movie, as well as other directors’ versions of what Dawn was, would be great. But Matt was this very special filmmaker who came in just at the right time to provide the exact thing we needed.

Matt, I know the last movie ended in a place where it seemed likely the story would continue. Did you know at the time what this film would be, since you are also co-writing this one, and did those ideas evolve in the process of making it?

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MR: It definitely evolved. One of the things I thought coming into the franchise, what I thought was a unique gift: you hear so much of these reboots, remakes, re-whatevers, and the thing about them is that a lot of them are retellings. And what I thought was so great about Rise was that it wasn’t a retelling; it was an entering of the universe at a different point. So it’s Planet of the Apes. We already know the ending. There’s no mystery in that! It becomes Planet of the Apes. So it’s not about what is at the end; it’s about how did we get there? And that enabled something that was totally fresh, which was an ape-point-of-view movie.

I didn’t know when I was going to see Rise that I was going to have this emotional connection with Caesar that is created. I had no idea. And that is the amazing secret; the idea of being able to follow that through and do something totally new, yet in a familiar universe, which is a unique gift in a lot of the movies that are made today.

And I think in War, as we were ending Dawn, we knew that he was going to be thrust into a conflict he didn’t want. I mean, it was the end of that story. Dawn was the one moment where they could’ve co-existed, and that didn’t work. And we knew he wanted peace, but then what was going to happen to him when he was forced to fight? What does that mean? So it was important to us that we tell this story, really, as an arc of a giant character, which is that Caesar begins in this sort of humble place where he’s sort of a discarded being, who then leads a revolution. And then in the next story, he has to move from being a revolutionary to a leader in really difficult times.

And now, he’s being thrust into a war that’s going to turn him into the seminal figure in Ape history, if there is such a thing. We almost think of it like a biblical epic, this story. We knew that going in, but the hows, we didn’t know. So we went back and watched all the movies; we watched biblical epics; we watched, and we sort of went, ‘Okay, this is really about how do we carry forth.’

Related to that, I’ve seen the synopsis, and it says Caesar is wrestling with dark impulses after losing many in his army. Andy, if Caesar is going to a dark place, could you talk a little bit about what that is for him, as well as how it affected your performance in motion-capture?

AS: I’ll answer the last part first, which is the motion-capture of it all hasn’t changed. That’s kind of reached a point where, technologically, we can achieve outside what we achieved indoors… which is to shoot out on-location in wild situations, and that’s just got better and more streamlined, and more efficient. But the character, there’s an age and a weariness that I was very keen to bring to Caesar in this one. At the beginning, you can see the strain and stress of having been a leader in difficult times that you witness in all statesmen and women. You see it in their eyes, that sense of: they’re battered, they’ve taken lots of hits, and you see the responsibility that they’re carrying.

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“But then this cataclysmic event happens very early on in our story, which sends him in a direction that he’s just not expecting. That is when it becomes very personal, a very personal tragedy that drives him to a place where he forgets himself and wants revenge, and that becomes his pure driving force. And that is an alien feeling to him, and he struggles to fight and battle that for the entire journey.”

DC: It was interesting to see Andy at the end of Dawn really feel—even watching Matt and Andy work to this idea of killing Toby Kebbell [who played the ape Koba]. This was hard, because “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” was the most important tenet, and watching that character wrestle with that act through the making of Dawn was key to this performance, I think. Obviously, the ape losses propel Andy in a certain direction for revenge. He’s their leader. But inside, he’s wrestling with this thing that carried over from the last one.

MR: That was one of the key things—when you asked the story about the writing of the story—one of the things we wanted to make sure was that it grew out of [Dawn]. And we felt that Caesar would be haunted by what he did to Koba.

In a way that’s almost as central at the beginning of this story as anything, because it wasn’t just that he had to kill his brother, which is painful, but it’s also he had a blind spot. He couldn’t empathize enough with Koba to understand that when pressed in that situation he would never be able to co-exist with the humans. So in a way, Caesar feels a burden of the war as if it’s partly his fault.

One of the defining aspects I think of the series, going back to the ’68 film, is that its best, it’s very smart sci-fi. It’s very socially conscious. The last film dealt with places in the world where peace remains elusive. This one is an all-out war, which is almost a different genre unto itself. Could you talk about how that opens up some of the issues up for this world?

MR: Well, I think the fun thing about this franchise, as storytellers, is that a lot of the franchises are very black and white. This is all about the gray areas; it’s really about the nature. And the big spectacle in our story? It’s that we’re experiencing emotion through photo-real apes, and that’s really holding a mirror up to who we are. It’s interesting, because as we’re showing the movie now, we’re getting a lot of response about things [people] think are very topical. And the intention is never to approach it from the outside-in, which is to say, “Ah, this is going on, let’s draw that in.”

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It’s more about trying to be true to the characters, and those things start to naturally resonate to events that are going on not only now, but in human history, because that’s sort of what the story’s about. And as things start to connect, you go, “Oh, look at that, this is actually going on right now.” But it’s not like we’re trying to construct it from the outside in.

Is this movie influenced at all by Battle for the Planet of the Apes?

MR: Because it’s a battle? [Laughs] Here’s the weird thing, Mark [Bomback] and I, because of people who are true crazed fans of all of the films—I hadn’t seen Battle since literally I was a kid, and I don’t know if Mark had ever seen it. So one of the things we did in preparation for writing the story for this one was, “You know, now that we actually have time”—because we didn’t on Dawn. I came in so late, and we just jumped in. And people were like, ‘Oh, you’re doing Battle, right?’ I was like, “Ah, were we doing Battle? I had no idea.”

We watched Battle, and we were like, “They kind of did Battle.” It was really weird. I mean [it’s] a totally different film, but certain key points were remarkably similar, just plot points. We didn’t do anything at all like that in this one. It’s really like a big grand epic, biblical story. It’s about Caesar and how he becomes this key figure. I don’t think that’s been done in any of the Apes films. This is really a different thing.”

DC: “We’re fans of the Apes movies, the originals, but we don’t use them as guideposts for the stories. We use them now as help to flesh out the mythology of the characters and the world, so that—”

MR: We try to be true to the canon in a way, but that’s why I was saying there’s never been an attempt—I don’t really think there’s anything [but] you could say it’s like that in Rise. It wasn’t our intent in Dawn, and for sure it wasn’t in this. We’re not trying to retell any story; we’re trying to tell new stories from a new perspective in a universe that people know.”

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War for the Planet of the Apes opens July 14, 2017.