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Interview: Director Matt Reeves Talks DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Between films like Snowpiercer and Edge of Tomorrow, this summer has been a great time for fans of intelligent, slickly produced, incredibly entertaining sci-fi, and starting at midnight tonight we’ll be adding another name to that list: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, while marketed as a high octane action movie, is one of the most emotionally gripping, heartfelt, and thoughtful summer blockbusters I’ve seen in a long time. That isn’t to say it’s without its fair share of action; it has a scene in which an ape fires two machine guns into the air while riding a horse through a fiery hellscape, for crying out loud. Rather, it manages to hit both the elements we need for a big, summer popcorn flick and have something genuine to say about matters of race and ecology, a rare feat in modern blockbuster cinema.

Of course, these heartfelt performances from Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, and company, well-constructed shots, and keen sense of story development didn’t just happen on their own. That honor, rather, belongs to director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield, Felicity), who stepped in for departing director Rupert Wyatt. Under his watchful eye, the Apes franchise has risen to new heights and managed once again to make me feel foolish for doubting how good of a movie it would be. Recently, I was able to catch up with Reeves via telephone to talk about the film’s surprising stylistic influences, the film’s fifty shades of moral grayness, what he learned from past iterations of Planet of the Apes and much more.

Nerdist: Hi, Matt! How are you doing today?

Matt Reeves: Good, how are you?

N: I’m great! Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me. I have to say I really, really enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. A really fantastic job all around.

MR: Thank you.

N: So one of the things I wanted to talk to you about is that the core conceit is basically one of co-existence. To me, it almost evokes a Western of sorts.

MR: That’s exactly – I love that! That’s exactly what I wanted it to be.

N: What sort of stylistic influences were you going for there?

MR: Gosh, well, you know, not all the stylistic influences were from Westerns. I also wanted it to be sort of a collection of references. I wanted it to start off kind of like Apocalypse Now, go into the sort of tribal center of the apes, and sort of see them in this tribal way. Then I wanted it to be like the beginning of 2001, where instead of the dawn of man it was the dawn of intelligent apes. Then the idea was that once you got connected to Caesar and the apes, and then you suddenly found out that there were humans, the idea that that put forward was the question of violence lived under every scene.

Unforgiven is one of my favorite movies, and I love John Ford movies, and the idea of there being two tribes, both vying for co-existence on land was absolutely – and then the idea of shooting up there, Vancouver, with the riding the horses in the water and all of that – all of that imagery was deliberate, and I thought it was a cool way to tell a story of two families. It just so happens that one of the families was an ape family and the other was a post-apocalyptic human family, but that it was actually quite an intimate story, and like you say, like a classic Western.

N: Exactly. And I’ve got to say, the action set pieces were fantastic, but what really drove the film for me, and the heart of the film, are those interactions between human and ape, and then you see these families, and you see them trying to suss out the best course of action. It had a – the morality of the film, it’s all shades of gray. I was very impressed in how you toed that line.

MR: That’s cool. Thank you. That was definitely an idea. The idea was not to have any overt villains, but to have every character kind of arrived at their point of view through their life experience and their point of view, that they knew or didn’t know, so that you could have empathy for everyone. You felt that you agreed with everything that everyone did, but you could feel where these things were coming from, so it didn’t feel like they were easy choices.

I thought, for me, the idea of this world of grays was that in Rise [of the Planet of the Apes], it’s kind of a very propulsive prison movie. He’s unjustly in prison, and you’re kind of waiting for the humans to get there, and there’s no ambiguity. At that point, you really want – and it’s incredibly effective, when there’s that confrontation on the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s no question – you want the apes to win.

The idea here was to take a revolutionary, where there was not the same kind of ambiguity, and have him sort of now be the patriarch in a larger civilization. It was essentially his family. He’s almost a Don Corleone of apes.

N: [laughs] That’s great.

MR: You have him have to lead in difficult times. Have him be this sort of mythic character for the apes, and have him be the right ape at the right time to lead in the most difficult of situations. It’s the kind of thing where the idea would have been that they could have continued in this existence and have their civilization just sort of blossom, if ti weren’t for the fact that there were humans, and then this question of co-existence would then not only create tension between the apes and the surviving humans, but it would also reveal the fault lines that exist in the ape world.

Because the background that the different apes have had is not the same as Caesar’s.  He has–his father was virtually human, you know. Will was his surrogate father, and to hear Andy [Serkis] tell it, the way that he played it in Rise, he actually felt he was human, and then only realized later in the story, when he was being taken away from his human family, that he’s an ape. He suddenly realized that he’s an outsider. Then when he’s thrown in with the apes, he didn’t connect with anyone, and he has to sort of galvanize the apes and find it in himself to rise up. He’s really the ultimate outsider, but it’s the reason why he is the one in the film with the most complex point of view, and the one who understands how much there is to lose on both sides, and what the stakes are.

The key to the whole thing is that he’s a father, on top of everything else. That’s what we tried to do with Jason Clarke’s character too, was to make – in a way, when you look at the characters who are the most kind of impulsive and ready to fight if need be, it’s actually the characters who don’t have families. Dreyfus, who Gary Oldman plays, has lost his family, so of course there’s going to be a hair-trigger there, and he’s actually very measured and reasonable. He’s not really a villain. He doesn’t attack the apes, but he’s ready to, and you can understand why. But he also is ready to go to extremes if need be, because he’s really lost everything. Malcolm still has bits of his family – he has his son, and he has this relationship with Keri Russell. So the idea is he knows what they’ve lost, and wants the bleeding to stop. Caesar is very aware of what he can lose on his side. That’s kind of one of the guiding structural principles that we tried to tell that story through.

N: Yeah, and I think it was very effective, because you see that everyone has the capacity for evil within them, or the capacity to give into these more violent, base desires. As you mentioned, family and hope are the two things that seem to be keeping people afloat from giving into their more – I don’t want to say ‘animal’ desires, but more violent urges that they have.

MR: Yeah. The big question of the movie is can they resist violence? I thought that the real opportunity of this movie was to do – when I first came in, the outline that the studio was planning to realize was a very different story.  It started in post-apocalyptic San Francisco, and the apes came down into it and they were very articulate, and actually it wasn’t even Caesar’s story. He was in important character in it, but it wasn’t told like this one, through his point-of-view.

I really wanted to make it the ape’s point-of-view and tell this story really about these two families. For me, it’s the question of their nature, and for them to be – I thought this was the movie where it could be – the thing is, you know the ending of the story. It’s Planet of the Apes.

N: Right, exactly.

MR: This is not a world of co-existence. The humans are cattle, and the idea was that this was the moment in the franchise, we could tell that moment where it could have been different. That meant tapping into that hope and seeing those little moments of connection, like when Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Karin, who plays Maurice, the orangutan, they have that kind of connection where they’re reading together. Little intimate details, that sort of say, “Wow, it could have been this. This is the way it could have been.” To let that sort of be living against this sort of building snowball of dread.

N: And that makes what ultimately happens all the more heartbreaking, because you see these moments. You mentioned the scene where they’re reading together, or even just how Malcolm bonds with Caesar. You see that they can see eye-to-eye, but too many things have happened, and they can’t go back again.

MR: Yeah. In a way, the movie’s kind of an epic tragedy too, on many levels. There’s a brotherhood of apes that’s shattered, and there was the chance at peace. The human and ape characters were striving side-by-side, and actually, were incredibly close to achieving it, and they just missed. And so that, hopefully, has some poignancy.

N: I definitely think so. You came into this, obviously Rupert Wyatt directed the last one – were there any lessons or things that you took to heart from the last film going into this?

MR: You know, I was just so – I have been a lifelong Planet of the Apes fan, and as a kid I always wanted to be an ape. I loved John Chambers’ make-up, and I wanted to get – I wished I could have a mask where I could move the mouth and articulate the mouth the way Roddy McDowall’s did. I could never get that. I just wanted to be an ape, I loved it. I have the dolls and all that stuff.

When I saw Rise, I was so impressed, on a number of levels. Part of the movie was almost like a silent movie. The stuff inside the habitat I thought was absolutely riveting! There was virtually no dialogue, except for that, what I thought was amazing sign language between Caesar and Maurice, the orangutan, before the orangutan had even been given the ALZ-113, and then really, primarily, the thing that blew me away was the fact that you had that level of emotion, like identification, with an ape. I’ve never had that kind of identification in a movie with a CG character, and I thought, “Wait a minute – what’s going on here?”

Andy Serkis, I thought, gives such a powerful performance, and the way that WETA was able to realize that, and the way that Rupert directed the movie, I thought it was incredibly engaging. I thought that that was reason enough to do this franchise again, which was not to redo it, but to kind of enter into the universe of it and tell it from this perspective. This is basically like a whole new point-of-view on these stories, and seeing a story that you never have quite seen, but somehow it still fits into the gestalt of the whole ape universe, and that is really cool.

So what I took away from that was, and what I pitched to the studio when they brought me in, was I said, “Don’t forget what you guys did, which was you made a movie that was all about Caesar, and you made a movie about the emotional lives of apes. That’s what this should be.” They said, to my great happiness, “Yes, OK, great. You can do that.” That’s how we came up with the idea of doing this mythic ape and human Western. It’s basically two different tribes. One tribe is human, one tribe is apes.

N: I’m glad that they saw things your way as well. I have to say, the marketing was almost misleading. I was thinking of it to be more of a straightforward summertime action movie.

MR: Sure, of course.

N: It’s impressive the amount of heart you’re able to pack in there. You have to have that marketing to get your average viewer in there, but I think it’s going to be a really pleasant surprise for a lot of people when they realize there’s more of an emotional core.

MR: Well, that’s great. Thank you. I hope so. I mean, at the end of the day, you’re selling Planet of the Apes. As a kid, the sight of a gorilla on horseback with a machine gun was terrifying and captivating. It’s such a provocative image, and it goes right – somehow, it has some tremendous resonance, just the image alone. So of course, they’re selling that imagery, and I do really hope, just as it was with Rise, when you get into the theater and you start connecting with the apes – in a way, it’s harder, I think, in a short form to sell that emotion, like in a trailer. I don’t even know how you would do it.

It’s part of the experience of watching the movie, taking its time with the apes, and in a way you might not be able to convey that. So it’s, you know, probably a little bit misleading, and it’s probably that they couldn’t necessarily convey that idea as powerfully as you would hopefully from watching the movie, and it certainly comes from the fact that they think that will get more people in the seats. But I’m hoping that we’ll satisfy people who are coming to see that, as well. It’ll be like, OK, we do have that spectacle, but actually, the movie has a lot of emotion, and that was definitely our intention.

N: You get the spectacle, but you also get the joy of discovery.

MR: That’s great!

N: Are there any Apes-lore Easter eggs for eagle-eyed viewers out there?

MR: You know, we didn’t really do it in that way. I would say, they weren’t really Easter eggs, as much as they were overt things. Like we were referring to – the clearest thing is that we wanted to have apes on horseback. I thought, for me, one of the things that if you had was parity in numbers between apes and humans, the apes would completely have the advantage, because they’re seven times stronger than we are. They don’t need to live the way that we do. We’re much softer than they are. And that the balance would be – the only thing that would keep us from being annihilated would be firearms.

So the idea is that the gun had to become like the bone in 2001 – it’s the technological advance that gives the apes the advantage to dominate the earth, so that was a big part of the idea, was how do we get apes with guns on horseback? So that’s part of the story. The idea referring to the canon, the law giver, sort of ideas like the ape shall not kill ape, we have kind of the genesis of some of that, and the idea that the orangutans are the law givers, and Maurice is kind of teaching the children.

There are lots of details along that way, but I wouldn’t describe them as really hidden. They’re actually parts of the story, and they do absolutely clearly refer to the other movies. But hopefully in a way that makes you accept that it’s part of this movie. You know what I mean? It’s pleasurable for somebody who knows those movies, but then for people who don’t know those movies, it just functions in this context. So I wouldn’t say we tried to hide them.

Also, one thing that is kind of cool, I think, which I don’t know if people pick up on – they probably don’t – is that when we’re trying to come up with the ways in which language would express itself, we were trying to draw on parallels to our own kind of tribal development, but then also make it uniquely ape-y, and so borrow from the fact that Maurice knew American Sign Language, and have that be one of the elements, and then writing would be part of it.

But we also wanted to use pictograms, because we figured there would be a kind of visual sort of record of the history of the apes. So if you actually look on the wall, there’s actually a visual history of Rise, and you see in a kind of primitive fashion, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the kind of pictograms on the wall. Little things like that, but again, it’s not like – I know that Rise did true homages. They had characters saying certain key lines from the series. We don’t really do things like that.

N: Obviously, I’m very excited about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and I’m sure the last thing you want to do is think about what’s coming down the pipeline, but what’s coming down the pipeline for you? Is there anything else you have that we can get excited about now?

MR: [chuckles] Well, I mean, I’m supposed to do the next film – the next Apes film, so …

N: Oh, awesome!

MR: One of the exciting things about doing this film – somebody asked me was it boring, or is it boring, that you know the end of the story, because the ’68 film exists – it becomes Planet of the Apes. I said that that was actually the best part, because the story ceased being about what happens, and instead about how that happens and why that happens, which is all a kind of generational story about Caesar and his kingdom of apes and how it sort of develops and evolves and becomes that movie.

That, to me, is like chapter one of a very long, epic novel. I feel like one of the cool things about throwing our lot in so strongly with the apes is that we were able to sort of develop and unearth so many interesting ape characters, and I think the idea of Caesar and his children and future Caesars, and how I think we can continue telling kind of hopefully vaguely Shakespearean mythic ape stories that lead to The Planet of the Apes.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes swings into theaters on Friday, July 11, 2014. Be sure to check out the entire history of the Planet of the Apes franchise in Witney’s retrospective series “Great Apes” too.

Will you be seeing the film? What was your favorite part of the last one? Let us know in the comments below.

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