Just as fundamental to the science fiction genre as imaginative lands and creatures or thrilling set pieces is the endeavor to say something insightful about our world at large. Few sci-fi franchises have articulated quite the same harmony between spectacle and substantive discussion as has Planet of the Apes. Releasing in 1968, Franklin J. Schaffner’s original picture encouraged analyses pertaining to the active civil rights movement and the escalating threat of governmental tyranny across the globe; almost 50 years later, the latest series entries from director Matt Reeves have no less ground from which to mine material.
“The interesting thing about ’68 is that they were dealing with a lot of different issues,” says Dylan Clark, producer of 20th Century Fox’s active reboot series, which began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. “The state of affairs, who our leaders were. The final line, of course, was ‘[You blew it up]!’ which is about the escalation of the military industrial complex.”
Though amenable to the expression of many different important ideas, Reeves, director of second chapter Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and its forthcoming sequel War for the Planet of the Apes, suggests that the “messages” aren’t exactly blueprinted from the get-go.
“I wouldn’t say that we approach it in an overt way when we’re designing the stories,” he says, “but we’re trying to deal with the struggle in man’s nature, and our pull towards violence, our attempts to rise above it. All of those things do apply to current events, and really the history of man’s aggression, and man’s attempts to rise above.” Reeves adds, “The attempt isn’t to literally draw [a parallel between] current events and look at a way to dramatize them, [but to] look at events as they would effect all of us and try to tell a story.”
That said, contemporary society does indeed dictate the broad path down which to take the series. “One of the things I think that [was], in this series, a jumping off point, which was sort of different than the arms race at the time of the ’68 movie,” Reeves says, “had a lot to do with how far we’d pushed things in science. That obviously was the impetus that Rick [Jaffa] and Amanda [Silver] came up with for that story.”
Two movies later, the corollaries of those endeavors in scientific exploration have taken their toll. “Now we’re in this world where…humanity is trying to hold on,” Reeves says. “The apes are becoming more human and the humans are becoming more apelike.”
The illustration of that dichotomy raised an interesting question for the filmmakers: just how human should these films make their ape stars?
“I was so blown away with the apes and Andy [Serkis] and everything in Rise,” Reeves says, “and there was a question about how far they should have evolved and developed in the next movie. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute! Guys, don’t jump too far, because it’s actually that coming into being that’s so exciting!'”
For Reeves, it was more compelling to identify humanity in animal behavior than to render the film’s animals completely human. “At the time, my son was one and just starting to speak,” he says. “Andy’s performance reminded me of my son, and I thought this development [was] amazing because it reminds us of the animal in us.” For Reeves, keeping his apes… well, apes was of paramount importance. “We don’t want to lose that ape quality,” he says. “Terry Notary, who plays Rocket, also trains all of our performers and our stunt people to move likes apes. We have an ape camp. We do these crazy long improvisations. We did one on this film that literally lasted for hours. Everyone acted like an ape and didn’t speak and just acted like an ape for hours, just to create the bond between communities.”
Finding the sweet spot between man and beast proved one of the most complicated tasks in bringing War for the Planet of the Apes to life, even with two prior films under the production team’s belt. “We did a test,” Reeves says. “We had one of the characters talk, and they used a behind-the-scenes of the actor [for reference in designing the ape] puppet. And when you looked at it it looked like Wallace & Gromit, because it was so perfectly articulate. Apes don’t do that. It was amazing, but it was wrong.” Referencing a separate instance, Reeves says, “The problem was, we wrote a line that doesn’t sound enough like an ape, even one who is communicating these advanced ideas.”
This conflict arose again and again throughout development of War. “There was a shot where the apes were reacting to something that Caesar did—we’d have these long conversations with [Weta] and we’d say, ‘Does that look real?'” Reeves says. “The reactions were very connected to what the actors did, and I was like, ‘I think this is gonna be great!’ Then they did the lighting render, which is when you finally see [the apes] with the hair and the light. And at that stage, it should look totally real. The weird thing was, it didn’t. And I was like, ‘Why doesn’t it look real?!'”
Ultimately, it hit him: “It’s not just all the behaviors,” he says. “It was literally: Can that performance itself exist on an ape’s face? That’s the only thing that was wrong. The stuff that Weta was doing was incredible. But it was making a face that you’d never believe an ape would make.”
All this ties into the focal priority of the contemporary series: empathizing with its apes and understanding how their journey carries them from the world seen in Rise of the Planet of the Apes to the one invented back in the original ’68 picture. “What’s great about these movies is you’re following Caesar and his family of apes go to this next place,” Clark says. “We left the last movie in a very specific, challenging place for Caesar so we knew where we were going to pick up a couple years after.”
Reeves adds, “The idea [is] taking Caesar and bringing him to the realm of becoming the seminal figure in ape history—how does that happen?” He continues, “Caesar looks at what happened in the last film and feels the weight of the war on his shoulders and the blood on his hands of Koba…And when this movie happens, it’s very much about him coming to a deeper understanding of violence.”
As War for the Planet of the Apes is set only two years after Dawn, the stress will indeed be on further exploring Caesar’s internal journey, and less on the expansion of the invented world onscreen. “The difference in the world between Rise and Dawn is pretty dramatic, because what happens in between: literally, the world dies,” Reeves says. “For [War], we were less interested in pushing the extremes of a post apocalyptic world, which you’ve seen, and more interested in continuing the mythic tale that is Caesar.”
He jokes, “It’s not just, ‘Hey, in this one, it’s apes on rockets!’ We’re not doing it like that.”
Clark assures us, “We’re not doing apes on rockets.”
Image: 20th Century Fox
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.