War for the Planet of the Apes Interview: Andy Serkis, Matt Reeves, and Dylan Clark on Apes, Mythology, and Snow
I contend that the new Planet of the Apes trilogy is one of the most underrated franchises in recent memory. The stories are engaging. The characters are fully realized. They make interesting choices in a time where interesting choices are few and far. And most importantly, the acting is phenomenal. Under layers and layers of CGI, you can feel the love and the pain in every ape, chief among them Caesar played by Andy Serkis. These movies are consistently great.
And this summer, between the Wonder Women and Spidermen lies part three of the series, War for the Planet of the Apes. It already has an overwhelmingly positive critical response (currently sitting at a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes) and fans that have gotten a look at the film have echoed that response. War centers around the confrontation between the apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) and a human army led by a new figure known just as The General (Woody Harrelson). [Read out review here.]
A little while back, I got the opportunity to sit down at a roundtable with writer/director Matt Reeves, producer Dylan Clark, and Caesar himself, Andy Serkis. Here is our conversation.
What was your greatest challenge this time around?
Dylan Clark: Just tolerating Andy Serkis. Just the mood swings …
We asked Matt, I said this earlier but it was very important, he had a little bit more time (a little bit) to be … We said, “Be bold, Matt. Be ambitious in the storytelling.” We knew who Andy was, and we also knew who are other actors were. We weren’t sure yet about Woody, but luckily he was a gamer too.
We asked Matt to take this story and these characters and really put them through hardship because the hope was it was going to turn into this epic movie. That the experience was this great escapism to watch. The fears were … It’s always the practical challenges of, we’re shooting on our 15th straight night and everybody is … Can we actually survive in the snow, or is somebody going to go down? You’re worried about those things. Will Andy actually have another mood swing?
Andy Serkis, just for the record ..
Matt Reeves: There’s no mood swings.
DC: He is the most …
MR: The most generous actor ever.
DC: Always so composed. Again, Matt will come over to me at the monitor and say, “Andy is asking the other actors to push him down harder.”
MR: It’s true, Andy will do anything to get it right. He really is committed at a level that is astonishing. We are out there in the freezing cold, it’s snowing, and he’s like, “Push me down. He has to push me harder. Let’s do one more where they push me harder.” I was like, “Whoa.”
Andy Serkis: Look, this was not an easy film to make. It really wasn’t. It was emotionally exhausting. The level that I had to operate on, playing this character in this movie I think was probably the most challenging I’ve ever had to do in anything. Because the stakes are so high, the emotions are so raw, that in terms of psychologically of where the character is going, it’s the darkest places that you have to put yourself into.
What you might not know, when you’re acting and when you’re going for it and you’re going for the truth of a situation, you are altering your chemistry as a human being. You’re lying to yourself to take yourself to a place that you believe that this thing is true. You are physically, emotionally, psychologically really going through something. I think the day in and day out of doing that to the level that we were all required to do it was very taxing. You know, we had fun as well of course, but it was demanding. I’m not trying to make it anything that it wasn’t, it was really demanding.
How do you choose the different locations in which these films take place?
DC: It really is about, how do you capture the mythic journey in all of its grandeur? We wanted to take these characters from the Muir Woods and, as Caesar is grappling with the war inside of him, take them on this journey that leads to new places. Matt, we asked him to be as ambitious as possible and the journey just kind of naturally lead to these environments.
I don’t think we ever said, “Wouldn’t it be cool …” Well, I always said that, but it didn’t mean it was going to fit into the story. Wouldn’t it be cool to see apes in the snow.
MR: Well actually what Ryan told me, which I didn’t even realize … On Dawn one of the things I wanted to do was I wanted to … In Rise, they had done shooting on location but not in really difficult locations but I was noticing that the more that they were in real spaces, and it was more life, the more the models looked more real.
I was like, what if we just push that reality as far as we can go, and knowing we wanted to be in rainy forests and stuff, can we do that? Our team was like, “Yeah, we’ll find a way to do that,” so we did it. We shot in the winter, in the woods, in the rain. It was crazy because everybody was freezing and it was all wet and it’s like MoCap data and crazy 3D cameras in the rain.
I didn’t remember this, but Ryan said that as soon as we finished Dawn, I turned to him and said, “Great, did you like that with the rain? The next one is apes in snow.” I have no memory of that, which is ridiculous because that’s not the way we approached it at all.
We wanted it to be very mythic. We wanted it be like they start in a familiar world, which is the Muir Woods, that’s what we’re used to, that’s where the apes habitat was that they created after Rise. We wanted to see that sort of get blown out by war, and then create this mythic journey that would take us across the state and into the Sierras. That lead, in this kind of cool, mythic way, into moving into this world of snow and all of this stuff that was a different world.
When you guys described the process, you were really happy about the level of creative control you had as far as, “We didn’t like this, we can re-shoot it, we can make small changes here.” Does that ever become difficult to control yourselves as far as, “Okay, this is it. We’ve made the finished product?”
MR: You know what’s hard is in editing, when you’re looking at stuff and you realize things could be changed, and you’re wondering, “Is this the best version of this?” What you don’t want to do is fall down the rabbit hole of, “Let’s change this one little detail and do this other …” You want there to be some spontaneity, some life, because that’s what you’re following, right? We’re following what Andy was experiencing, what the other actors were experiencing in that moment. There are moments where you have to go, “Wait, okay, great. That’s what it is. Let’s not change anything more.” It’s resisting that, actually.
I don’t know if this is a big thing but why is it called War for the Planet of the Apes instead of War of the Planet of the Apes?
DC: I think this whole idea that, because co-existence was not able to be achieved in the last movie, there’s going to be war. We know that. It’s determined. The winner gets the planet, the victor gets the planet. The “for” was indicative of that, so good question. It was purposeful.
I mean, I know you guys thought about that for a while.
DC: We did. We think about everything. We really do. It was the more active preposition, right? This war was for this thing, it wasn’t of it. We weren’t watching the war, we were experiencing a war, because it determined what species was going to rule the planet.
That’s so great in this mythology, right? We know in the 1968 movie that Charlton Heston lands and the apes have it and they’re vastly different apes than the ones we’re experiencing through Caesar. How do we get there? That’s what we love in these stories, they’re about character, telling us how we’re going to get to this place eventually. We don’t know when we’ll get there.
What about working with Andy a second time? Obviously, he’s an amazing performer. Did you try to bring out something new for both the character and Andy’s performance?
MR: Well, we definitely tried to bring out something new for the character. The interesting thing … What’s cool about these first three films is that they all are centered on a pretty dramatic and pivotal moment in this character’s life. The challenge that Caesar has in Rise is very, very dramatic and we tried to take that in Dawn and up that one, because the idea was, well, in that one he had lead a revolution. What does a revolutionary do when he has to lead in a time that could either mean peace or could mean conflict that could destroy his kind?
That’s what Dawn was about, and then the war is coming. The war is here, and as we’re thrust into the war in War, we wanted to push Caesar further. One of the reasons that he’s taking this tremendous feeling of guilt into the war, is that he feels responsible for it. He feels like, on the one hand, he had to cross his own commandment, that ape shall not kill ape. He felt like, fundamentally, we should be better than humans. It turns out that one of the discoveries of Dawn is that their nature is not different from ours, this is a mirror and that we as animals, as creatures, have the similar failings.
In War, what we wanted to do was have him be grappling with, “God, if I could have understood just how much he hated humans, how it was impossible because of his life experience, that he could ever co-exist with them, maybe I could have helped to avert this even more. Maybe we wouldn’t be fighting this right now.” Maurice says to him actually, Maurice the Orangutan is sort of his conscience, says “No one could have known the darkness that was in his heart.” That becomes the key to War, because War is about Caesar going through such tragedy through the course of all of this fighting, and seeing his apes go down, and take terrible losses, that he starts to feel the way that Koba does, or did, about humans. That journey is basically not a war between humans and apes only, it’s a war in Caesar’s heart.
If Caesar is a mythical or biblical figure, how does the ape society react? Will we see a cult or a mythology develop around him?
MR: I think the notion … That wouldn’t happen within this one, but the word would be passed on. Let’s put it that way. That these events would take on mythic quality, the things that he did and who he represented in the community as the sort of seminal ape and truly the beginning, right? He’s the one who brought intelligence to —
DC: In Dawn, I would say that actually was there. You get these apes through the escape and collection of apes in the zoo to the Muir Wood in Rise, in Dawn we see that they understand who this leader is.
MR: Yeah, they already have that. What he does, his test is so much greater in War, and what he does, and how that will lead the apes forward is so dramatic, that you can’t imagine that the legend of that wouldn’t live on in a way that was almost biblical.
DC: One of the things I loved was the relationship between Koba and Caesar and Toby and Andy. It was such a powerful relationship because Caesar freed Koba from this horrible prison, and the torment that he was under.
MR: Redeemed him.
DC: Redeemed him and Koba loved Caesar. This idea where we start at Dawn, at that place which is he would do anything for him. Then to see that ripped away because of the issue between humans, and then see what that meant to Caesar in this next movie is so powerful.
All photos credit to and courtesy of 20th Century FOX.