Quick—what’s cooler than an ape on horseback? The correct answer: an ape on horseback in the snow. Which is just the beginning of what fans can look forward to in director Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, the latest entry in 20th Century Fox’s rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, which began with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued with Reeves’ 2014 Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But rather than succumb to the dreaded threequel curse that dooms so many film series, War refreshes the saga of Caesar (played once more by Andy Serkis) and his simian pals, in a tale that pits them against their greatest adversary yet, in the form of Woody Harrelson’s fanatical “Colonel.”
It all amounts to what should be the most epic Apes movie ever, one of many things we discovered when we visited the film’s set in Richmond, Canada (located about a half hour outside of Vancouver) in January of this year. After being escorted onto a large outdoor ape prison encampment, surrounded by green screens and coated in fake snow, we spoke with the film’s cast and crew, including Serkis, his co-star Karin Konoval (a.k.a. Maurice), visual effects producer Ryan Stafford, and executive producer of the Apes films, Dylan Clark…
Warning: the following article contains spoilers!
True to Its Title, War for the Planet or the Apes Begins in the Midst of War
Two years have passed since the events of the last Planet of the Apes movie, which ended with Caesar learning an army of humans would soon be arriving in San Francisco to fight his tribe.
“One of the things that was important to Matt [Reeves],” says Clark, “was, ‘Let’s start in a battle.’ They’re fighting military people. This is a war after all… We know they left San Francisco, but they didn’t get too far out.”
Serkis explains the details of Caesar’s team’s situation as it stands. “They had to leave their encampment in Muir Woods where they were,” the actor says while wearing his trademark motion-capture suit. “And Caesar’s had to lead them up higher into the hills and set up a sort of temporary base.”
Clark adds, “They’re fighting armed forces, guys in military fatigues and assault rifles and weaponry, not a rag tag group of militia men. These guys are kicking some ass. And Caesar’s had to have this horrible war against these humans, a war he didn’t start. Koba started this thing. He just feels responsible for it. What happens in this is, because of ape losses and human losses and just chaos and pain, Caesar is at some point not fit to lead the apes and goes on a very dark journey to end this war.”
The War Is Internal as Well as External
Whereas Dawn of the Planet of the Apes divided its time between Caesar and his ally-turned-enemy Koba, War is very much focused on Caesar, and the conflict raging within him, sparked by Koba’s betrayal. When War for the Planet of the Apes begins, explains Clark, “Caesar has broken one of his main tenets. He killed an ape. He killed Koba. Caesar had to do something, but that act was not lost on him and not forgotten… This is also a war inside of Caesar. All of the things that have happened under his leadership from Rise to Dawn and this movie and through the course of this movie and wrestling and grappling with how to make that right… Caesar goes on his journey at the end of that first act because he doesn’t believe he’s fit to lead.”
Serkis adds, “An event happens at the beginning of this movie that sets him off on a track which almost eats him up. He goes off on a revenge mission [because of] this event.”
Clark continues, “The narrative weight is on Caesar’s back in this one. The drama and the emotional focus is Caesar [asking himself,] ‘How are you going to end this war both externally and internally?’”
Serkis says, “He goes to a darker part of himself. Probably the darkest he’s ever encountered, this voyage of self-destruction almost.” Alluding to the massive prison camp on which he’s presently shooting, the actor says, “The set that we’re on here is where he claws his way back from this very, very dark, dark place, through reconnecting with his tribe; who have been holed up and taken prisoner here.”
Clark says, “It’s Caesar’s job to figure out where he fits into the world of the apes. ‘Do I want to continue the path that I started?’ or ‘Is my job to free the apes?’ or both. That’s the drama of this. So what you’re seeing here is kind of the bad part the apes are enslaved to do some horrible things.”
There Are Lots More Apes This Time Around
If it’s ape action you crave, War for the Planet of the Apes aims to satisfy you on a level beyond that of even the series’ two prior primate-heavy installments. “The sheer volume by which the apes are in the film is incredibly challenging,” says visual effects producer Ryan Stafford, another veteran of both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. “Rise was maybe 30 percent apes in the movie. Dawn was probably 60 or 70 percent. This is like 95 percent. Everyday we show up on set, it is apes, apes, apes, apes.” Stafford adds, “We have a couple new gorillas that are primary characters that we’ve given some really unique properties. And a couple of new chimpanzees.”
Woody Harrelson’s Antagonist Isn’t a One-Note Villain
In Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes offered a human antagonist with motivations as understandable as those of the film’s simian heroes. With Harrelson’s Colonel, War operates in a similar vein, albeit one more fraught with peril.
“We really looked at the movie almost in Western terms or great epic terms,” says Clark. “Who could be paired against Andy Serkis on the human side who would give him a run for his money? [Matt] liked Woody Harrelson. [The Colonel] has a point of view. It doesn’t coincide with the apes’ point of view. In a different time, in a different world, might they have been [able] to coexist? I think so. But where circumstances have brought these two to the table now in this movie, they cannot be on the same side. He’s after survival, and he believes that the apes stand in the way.”
The Apes Have Evolved Even Further
When we catch up with them in War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and his friends have put the last two years to bettering themselves, becoming ever more human in their speech and mannerisms. “They’re walking more upright,” says Stafford. “We’re definitely seeing that locomotion and things like that [are] getting more and more human. We took a small step in Dawn. We’re taking another smell step in this movie. Caesar is more comfortable speaking. Their communication is certainly evolving… We’re starting to bring together the behaviors that are going to take over the world.”
Serkis says of Caesar, “Physically, he is much more upright, much more humanlike. He’s continued to evolve. Linguistically he’s much more fluent. In this movie, he becomes almost humanlike… For Caesar now, the human word becomes his primary form of expression. That was a very big challenge for me personally in this movie, in terms of charting the next version of Caesar: Caesar Mark III.”
Steve Zahn’s Ape Character Is a Breath of Fresh Air
Joining returning ape actors Serkis, Terry Notary (as Rocket), Karin Konoval (as Maurice), and Judy Greer (as Caesar’s wife Cornelia) is newcomer Steve Zahn, the name of whose character has not yet been revealed.
“Steve Zahn plays a cool ape,” laughs Clark. “He speaks in a great way… What we haven’t seen [before] is apes meeting new apes. He’s going to give us a taste of the possibility and the question of what else is out there… Are the apes in France smart? Are they ever going to get to Germany and China and hopefully Tahiti so we can make a movie down there?!”
Stafford says, “Steve Zahn’s character is going to be taking some evolutionary steps forward, and it’s just a really fun character. It’s a breath of levity in an otherwise pretty grim world. He’s so charismatic and just has a great sort of presence. He’s just soft and warm and lighthearted.”
There Are New Ape Antagonists
Of course, this being Planet of the Apes, not all of the new apes we meet in the film will be friendly. Sadly, Koba’s legacy didn’t die with him at the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and apes who sympathize with his total and complete hatred of humans have emerged to challenge Caesar.
War for the Planet of the Apes Was Shot Old School
True to its roots in the Westerns and war movies of yesteryear, War for the Planet of the Apes was lensed in the 65 millimeter film format.“We decided to shoot this movie not on native 3D,” says Clark, “but on 65 mm because we wanted wide. Matt always wanted to capture the widest landscapes possible, and so we watched a lot of the old masters, the epics. I don’t think anyone is ever going to compare us to David Lean, but we watched all of his movies again. We love Kurosawa, we love Kubrick, we love Francis [Ford Coppola]. Apocalypse Now is an important movie to us.”
Clark is quick to point out that audiences will still be able to view the film in 3D. “We shot [Dawn of the Planet of the Apes] in 3D because we didn’t have time in our post schedule to convert it,” he says. “We have time now to convert. Not to hurt the 3D camera companies, but the 3D conversion companies have gotten so good at this that if you give them enough time you can deliver for the audience that wants 3D a very good experience in 3D. We are shooting this in our native 65 mil for filmmaking reasons, for directorial reasons. We have bigger sets, we’re outside more, we’ve got more rain, more snow, more action… We’re building a world, and 65, that wide-angle format, we thought that would capture it. We don’t like to be stage-bound. We like to be in exterior places. The benefits of making a movie is that we can get high and wide. Matt wants to get you some big stuff.”
Maurice Is Once More the Most Likable of the Apes
Everyone’s favorite orangutan is back in War for the Planet of the Apes, serving as consigliere to Caesar, and unafraid to tell him when he disagrees with his decisions. “I’m going to spoil something really big,” Clark warns us. “[Maurice] picks up a blonde girl, a little girl, along the way. Caesar and his group, they’re going to leave her. She’s young and not able to take care of herself, and Caesar says, ‘We’re not taking her.’ Maurice says to Caesar, ‘I understand, but I’m not leaving her.’ You love fucking Maurice, and the next cut is this little blonde girl on the back of a horse holding onto a big orangutan looking at Caesar.”
According to Karin Konoval (pictured on the far left in the photo above), “Maurice’s journey grows. There he was in Rise, making friends with Caesar, and then his story expands somewhat within Dawn. With this film, his journey and his story are richer and deeper and fuller and fuller and fuller, so you get to see so much more of him on many levels, and in terms of interaction and choices that he makes along the way… In terms of the war itself, Maurice’s place is as Caesar’s advisor and as his conscience. So, in whatever Caesar’s journey is, Maurice is very much a part of that.”
The Virus Has Mutated
Remember the ALZ virus that James Franco’s character developed in Rise of the Planet of the Apes? The one that wiped out most of humanity? Well, it’s back to play a new role in War for the Planet of the Apes, and it’s nastier than ever. “Much like the Spanish flu of 1918, the virus has mutated,” Clark says. “So it hasn’t stopped. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Serkis says, “The virus is having a rebirth, and is actually becoming much more aggressive, and attacking the humans in another way too.”
It Isn’t Easy Shooting in the Snow
While director Matt Reeves made the bold choice of setting much of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ CG action in the rain, War for the Planet of the Apes often takes place in an even more complex environment: snow. Ryan Stafford explains the challenges posed to his visual effects team.
“Our characters are digital and they’re played by humans, so their footfalls are different, they have a different gait. Every time that the apes are walking in snow, that entire path has to be digitally recreated. We basically erase all the human footfalls and replace them with ape footfalls. So that presents a huge challenge, just in sheer logistics. Additionally, what snow looks like when it’s balled up and icy on the tips of fur, something like that’s going to be a whole new challenge and that’s going to have to be applied to the fur dynamic. Last movie, we had a real big breakthrough with wetness on fur, and this movie, we’re going to take that ball and run with it. We have tons of wet fur in this movie, and then the added complexity of snow and ice on fur. But when Matt and I were finishing the last movie, and he was just starting to think about this movie, he said to me, ‘Next movie, apes in snow.’”
Are you a Planet of the Apes fan? Are you looking forward to War for the Planet of the Apes? Let us know below!
Images: 20th Century Fox