War for the Planet of the Apes: Interview with Director Matt Reeves

Matt Reeves is the director of the new chapter of the Planet of the Apes series, which Fox will release in July.


Matt Reeves:  What has been exciting about being involved in this franchise is that in doing a story about the apes in a summer blockbuster we’re actually getting to hold the mirror up to ourselves. The whole idea of we are apes. We’re animals and we often forget that, and how we fit into the planet. The whole idea of doing a war movie is to look into our nature and look at our capacity for destruction and creation, and see how those two things are in opposition.  Of course, that has relevance today to the history of human kind and so as Mark and I were writing, we said, let’s take this situation today and make it.  It’s more like let’s look at who we are and that does relate to today.  This is the context in which we did it and so it was intentional to reflect our own struggles and our own failings, but also to find the path through it.


MR:  The key hope for the planet is empathy. One of the things that we set out specifically to do was to take Caesar and bring him to the place that he hadn’t yet been which was a place where he might lose empathy. The extremity of a war of the circumstances that they were in, pushing him to a place where he could be so filled with rage that he could no longer see his adversary as like see him and that is the danger of the world that we live in I think is this inability of us to see each other, for us to see each other as one and to see us as part of this organism that is this plan and I think in that way and that to me if you were moved by it as you say you were, it was – it’s all about empathy. To me that’s the power of cinema. You’re putting an audience into the shoes of a character so that they can relate to and empathize with an experience that is different from theirs, but also find commonality in that. That is our mission as storytellers.

Epic Scale

MR: The three films are actually quite different.  The “Rise” is a very different film from “Dawn,” and this is a very different film from both of those. But there’s one common thing and it is Caesar and his trajectory and Andy Serkis’ performance. That’s what draws you in. That’s what makes you feel and what we wanted to do in this film.  He’s been through a very dramatic journey. He rises from being a sort of no-one into a revolutionary in “Rise,” and then he becomes a leader in difficult times in “Dawn,” and he’s an outsider.

Andy brilliantly described to me in the beginning how he thought of his character which was that he was both human and ape and neither, that he was an outsider, he had a connection to both but he was also separate but that was the one reason why he was a bridge potentially to peace that did not happen and so this next story was very much about taking him into this extreme place where we finished that journey and he becomes a legend. We wanted to push it into the realm of the mythic, and make it into a biblical epic, to turn him into a seminal figure in ape history, to make him an ape Moses so that apes in the future would look back and say that without him we wouldn’t be here.  That was the creative goal as we set out to write the story.

Watching Andy Serkis

MR: We did the same thing in “Dawn” too. We looked back when we were coloring the film. It was weird like looking at baby pictures of you. The other thing is that it just didn’t have nearly the detail that the new apes have in terms of the fidelity to Andy’s performance.  We spend a lot of time making sure, working with who’ve now been doing it for eight years. Literally we’ve been tracking Andy’s performance and the other actors who play apes in a way to try and get the very best out of them for 8 years.  They are the ones who do this kind of thing and it’s all about honoring those performances.  I knew that we were taking Caesar on an extreme journey and I knew that it was going to be Andy like there’s something about making a movie with someone who you love so much and knowing what they’re capable of and saying okay, I’m going to push you really hard and knowing that he’s going to like that, that he’s going to want to – that he’s going to push me harder, that he’s going to go deeper and then knowing that these artists at Weta are so committed to working with us to make sure that everything that Andy makes us feel is what Caesar makes us feel and so when you are responding to what you’re seeing in the movie, when you’re saying that the movie’s emotional, you are seeing the essence of Andy as expressed by these amazing artists at Weta to make that.  I don’t see a difference between Caesar and Andy. It’s so weird. It sounds bizarre to say and it’s true of the other actors too like when I look at Maurice I can’t see anyone but Karin. When I look at Bad Ape it’s so Steve Zahn.  This is the great thing about this technology–it has arrived at a place where actors can play anything and watching them do this has been such a privilege for me.

MR: There’s a version of the movie which I really think we should share with the world one day. You watch that movie and you get emotional because what are you watching is Andy Serkis. You’re watching Karin. You’re watching Terry Notary and it involves you. It’s a weird movie but it’s a movie that works. You forget about it after the first 5 minutes. You’re like oh, I’m onboard. I get it and then what we do is after that cut it is being worked on, we send over shots to Weta and over the course of a year-and-a-half we literally take shots. I spend half of the day working on the cut with the editors. The other half of the day, 8 hour sessions we go to a room where one shot we put up is Andy in his mo cap suit and the other shot is what they’re proposing for the first pass of animation and I go well, look at Andy. He’s amazing. He’s so angry. You have that but he’s also really sad and you don’t have that quite yet. Why do we not have that yet? And it’s really about that process that goes on for a year on each shot to make sure and those artists go back oh, yeah, well, you know why that is because Andy’s not a chimp and that thing that he’s doing with his eyes is not on the anatomy of the chimp and so they have to figure out a way how to express the sadness that is in his brow that’s on a different anatomy on Caesar and that’s why when you look at the apes at the end, they look so much like the actors in these subtle ways that you can’t even put your finger on and it’s about that.

Terry Notary

MR: Terry’s a genius. He is such an artist and he, you know, we have ape camp is one of my favorite parts of the whole thing. You know, it’s so funny when I first met Terry on “Dawn” he came into my office and I started describing the story to him because at that point, you know, I came in and I had an idea for the story. It was not the story that we were going to do so I had to pitch the story to everybody whenever we were doing it and he started going oh, you mean like this and he literally jumped up on my desk and like the scene out of the square like he got on the desk and started acting as an ape and doing this thing and I was like this is the greatest job I think. This could be the most fun I’ve ever had on anything ever because this man is now an ape on my desk. He’s just incredible and he’s like I really think of him as like the zen ape master. He gets everyone to be in their bodies, to get to the essence and it’s so funny because he talks about, you know, I sit with my legs crossed, we all learn all of these behaviors and he’s about stripping that away so that we can get back to an essence of what we are and that way connect into the way that the apes are and he’s brilliant at communicating with the actors and getting them to do this and it’s so fun. He had me one day on crutches. I can’t do it at all but, you know, I suppose if I… It’s true. I can’t, yes, but he is incredible. I mean, you know, he’s just incredible.

Not only is he training all the actors and doing the ape camp and he plays Rocket but he also he’ll jump in because here’s the thing that people don’t understand. Our cast that we have, you know, 1000 apes in the movie, we don’t have 1,000 actors that play them but there is an actor that plays each and every single one and you know what a huge number of them is Terry. I mean, he plays. He’ll jump in, suddenly he’s playing this ape and then he’s playing that ape, he’s talking to somebody about how to be an orangutan like it’s incredible.

Blockbuster as Personal Filmmaking?

MR: I try to find something personal in everything I do. I can’t figure out where the camera goes or how to talk to the actors or what should happen in the scene unless I can relate emotionally so this empathy thing that you’re talking about it isn’t just a subject. To me it’s what cinema is about, right. We’re putting people through the experiences of others. I’m trying to extend your sympathies to them, your empathy to them and this was a very personal film series for me, the two films that I did and interestingly as Andy described for me they were very much about family and particularly fathers and sons and my son was one of the big reasons why I wanted to do “Dawn” because Andy in “Rise” reminded me of my son who when I saw the movie was 1 and just learning how to speak and that moment when Andy said no just blew me away and it was like this moment where it just so resonated with me about my son and being a father and reminded me that we are animals. The way that my son was I was like look at him, he’s like a little animal and yet all of that intelligence behind his eyes he knew long before he could speak what was going on and I could feel that and it was just this reminder of what we are and what the animal kingdom is like and the fact that we must never forget what we are and in this film that obviously extends further. It’s very much about the loss of a son, the loss of a father and I as Andy described in his life, my father died on the last day of production of the film and it was a very personal experience for me. It was something that is a big part of the movie for me so…

Relationship with J.J. Abrams

MR: He’s one of my best friends. I love J.J. He’s one of the first people who I showed the film to. I was really lucky to be one of the first people that was not involved in “Star Wars” to see “Star Wars.” It’s like he’s one of my best friends and as kids we would, you know, when he went away to college he would write stuff and make stuff and show it to me and I did vice versa and that’s continued to this day. I mean, it’s a really – he’s someone who I love personally and who creatively I feel so lucky to be involved with because he always has something brilliant to say about what you’re doing; something insightful and he’s a very inspiring person.