20th Century Fox brought Apes veteran Andy Serkis along with newbies to the franchise Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and director Matt Reeves to the 2013 San Diego Comic Con to talk about the latest edition to the iconic Apes franchise, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Serkis reprises his role as Caesar in this sequel which is set ten years after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and catches up with the ape and human population as they attempt to work out an uneasy peace.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Press Conference:
Can you talk about the specific vision for this sequel?
Matt Reeves: “It’s interesting because to me even though the movie deals with the viral apocalypse that comes from the end of the last film, the movie is not a post-apocalyptic movie. What it is is it’s a story that starts in the world of apes and you see what they’ve built. You see this kind of primitive majestic kingdom. You see a family and a way in which they come into being. Then they are thinking and wondering in this new creation, are the humans gone because it’s all from their point of view. And then not too long into the story they realize that there are still humans and it becomes a question of survival. That’s what the whole is about is how can these two populations exist and will it lead to violence. In that sense I really don’t think it’s strictly a post-apocalyptic movie; that’s just an aspect or one part of it. That’s what it looks like in the city. But it’s really much more about the nature of these two populations and whether or not they can find a way to live together.”
What can you say about the evolution of the apes and their language skills?
Matt Reeves: “The thing that was important to me was that the story not jump too far in a certain way from where things were in Rise. In Rise when Andy says ‘no’ in Rise it was so startling that it blew me away. And I think the thing that was exciting to me was watching the apes learn how to speak, watching all that happen. Obviously there are only three or four words in the first movie. We wanted this to be somewhere along the continuum toward the ’68 movie where, of course, they’re fully conversing. So that’s really what we worked on. One of the things in the beginning was just to spend time exploring that aspect.”
Keri, were you ready for a full-on action hero movie now?
Keri Russell: “I’m an action hero in this?”
Matt Reeves: “Very Lara Croft. What we tried to do is tell a story about all of these characters in a way that even though it’s a grand action story and she does have to do some action in the film, it’s really about…the thing that was exciting for us about it, the thing that blows me away about the first movie and why I was so excited to work with Andy…is that it’s really about character. The reason that Jason is here, the reason that Keri is here is that we wanted characters who had the level of depth that Andy brought to the first film. She brings some action, but really she’s here because she brings a lot of character and depth.”
Keri Russell: “I climbed down that ladder fast. I was fast, wasn’t I? To me, it’s really a story of survival is where I’m coming at it from. And the thing I was reading a little bit about before I started was more about this woman who’s been through a war and has lost a lot of people. That’s where my character is in the movie. You lost a lot of people you love, and you’re just trying to create an existence from that at that place, and then trying to survive.”
Will we be seeing overt references to previous Apes films?
Matt Reeves: “I’ll put it this way, we don’t do it in a sort of winking way. There is a reference to…first of all the franchise is something that as a little kid I was obsessed with. I wanted to be in it. We all love those movies so much, but what was done so brilliantly in Rise was to take it and they call it a reboot, a reinvention… I always wanted to be a gorilla when I watched the first movie, and what was amazing about what Andy did and WETA did and Rupert [Wyatt] did in Rise was that you did become an ape; you became Caesar. You cared about him and connected to him. Really, the thing we wanted to carry forward was the emotionality within the grander context of the story that that movie had. You all know that it leads to The Planet of the Apes not The Planet of the Humans and the Apes, so the story’s really about, ‘Where does this fit along that?’ So, in that way, this references just the knowledge of what that first film is. And within that, there are certain things within the canon, I guess you might consider them almost commandments and things that it does reference. They did it very cleverly in the first film. Our references are much more about trying to create a context for the world that Andy leads.”
Andy, can you talk about the evolution of Caesar?
Andy Serkis: “Because of the way that Caesar came into the world and brought up by human beings, for me he was always an outsider. There’s a sense of not knowing who he was. He was brought up by human beings and he believed himself in many ways to be a human being with our attributes. He learns human belief systems through his father, James Franco’s character Will, who he believed to be a good man.
I’ll never forget reading the script for the first time and seeing the trajectory of that character, the arc of that character and what an amazing character he is and then realizing and it’s an ape. Take that away and you’d still have an amazing character who’s going on a phenomenal journey. Here’s this creature who was going through all these recognizable human emotions of being an outsider, of being rejected, and then finding his people. So now, going through to this next stage, it’s very much about Caesar having become leader and not throwing away everything that he has grown up with as a human being. So in a sense he’s finding his way by galvanizing this group of orangutans and chimps and gorillas 2,000 strong and trying to evaluate that on a daily basis. And, not go about it absolutely but be open and empathetic. ‘How can I respond to this situation that I need to tend to?’
He’s also a father to a teenage son, he also now has an infant child. He has a wife, he has a council, he has a very, very big community he’s responsible for in their survival. And then he has the choice of reaction to human beings who he adored in a sense and still, deep down, he wants to be able to communicate with. And then on top of that, I suppose, how to communicate that.
One of the things that last time around, one of the beauties of it is the fact that they didn’t speak. So it’s a very pure and innocent way of experiencing what their thoughts and feelings were in the last movie. This time around there’s an evolution; there’s an evolution in linguistics. I’ve found that that has been one of the biggest challenges: how Caesar is spiritually, philosophically, how he commands, how he responds on a personal level. So, we worked very, very in great detail in terms of creating that level of sophistication versus finding language. We find it through the sign language that he was taught which is becoming a way to unify the other apes. Then also human words that he’s beginning to be able to use. All the other apes are beginning to use gesture and ape vocalizations, and of course the younger apes have been brought up in human society and learn to speak even better and faster than their parents, because that’s what happens. It’s a very rich and complex world that Caesar exists in and he’s under huge pressure as the movie goes on.”
Jason, what was it like landing the lead role in this Apes film?
Jason Clarke: “It feels good. I mean, four months in it hurts. It feels really nice. I’m playing, in a funny kind of way, a different mirror of Caesar. There’s many ways to talk about that. I play Malcolm, who was an architect, who has a son and lost a wife, who now has a new partner who is trying to find a way for his family to stay alive. That broadens to find a way to his community. He wants his community to stay alive, so he assumes a role in that. And then through the story, he finds his inner ape as well. Through the 10 years that we’ve had this apocalypse, this virus, this civil war and everything else that’s gone on, he’s lost a lot of people and finds a lot about himself through his interactions out in the woods.”
Matt, how tough was it to balance a believable story and genre escapism?
Matt Reeves: “To me, the great thing that you have going for you immediately is that they’re apes; you’ve got that and it’s amazing to me, what WETA does and how they can transform them. But the key to the whole thing is what’s going on under it, what Andy does and what the other actors do when they’re playing apes in a way that’s emotionally authentic. […]I asked them to show me the footage of everything that Andy had done wearing the markers, wearing the camera on his face, wearing this crazy gray suit that they wear. I just wanted to see what he was doing. I watched it up against the footage and I realized that the reason I was affected emotionally was because Andy, regardless of the fact that he was acting like an ape, he was just a brilliant actor. It was just so emotionally real.
The thing that is always important to me in whatever I do is trying to find the reality in that. And the key is that you take the one element that is the fantastical, which is that they are intelligent apes, and you let that be the one fantastic element. Everything else is about trying to realize a way that feels grounded and real. The first film was shot much more on stage, it was smaller shoot. This film because of what they’re creating, that kingdom, is out in the woods so we went out to the woods. I wanted to use as much available light as possible so you could create all that reality. And then of course the key to everything was just about the emotional reality of the characters that these actors play. Once you do that, you forget about the fact that they’re apes. That’s the thing: we tried to create a story that we would connect to, that would mean something to us, and then on top of that you look back and you go, ‘Oh, yeah, and they’re apes.’ That’s the thing that takes you to this other level because it allows you to tell a story that matters to you.”
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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters on July 18, 2014.