Star Interview

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" Director Matt Reeves

It’s not that he’s been lying dormant before now, though. After working in television, from directing an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street to executive-producing the hit The WB drama series Felicity, Reeves shifted his interests to film exclusively in 2008. First, he linked up with super-producer and childhood friend J.J. Abrams to direct the secretive monster movie Cloverfield, staging some truly tense and tightly choreographed urban destruction while ushering in genre cinema’s current obsession with found-footage filmmaking. Two years later, he bravely remade the widely beloved Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In into Let Me In, a tender and deeply disturbing kid-driven bloodsucker drama that sank at the box office but holds up as one of the best horror films in recent years.

Through those two films, Reeves has established a trustworthy reputation among artfully minded genre fans, but without the kind of name-recognition prestige his buddy J.J. Abrams knows all about. His latest work should change that. Following up director Rupert Wyatt’s successful 2011 Apes franchise reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Reeves is the driving force behind Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (in theaters today), a sequel that bests its impressive predecessor in every possibly way. Rather than showing how the worldwide effects of the first movie’s Simian Flu, Dawn centralizes the conflict in San Francisco, focusing on ape leader Caesar’s (once again played via performance-capture by Andy Serkis) attempts to keep his thriving ape community intact as a group of human survivors ingratiate themselves into the animals’ realm. Naturally, the peace-keeping efforts give way to death, warfare, and Caesar’s own self-evaluation.

In January, news broke that Reeves had signed on to direct the as-yet-untitled third new Apes movie, suggesting that all involved think highly of what he’s done with Dawn. It’ll only take one viewing for audiences to echo that confidence. The anti-Transformers, Dawn thoughtfully builds its world and characters without sacrificing any of the necessary summer-movie spectacle. It’s a blockbuster made with an indie drama’s mentality, and that’s largely to Reeves’ credit. Even though Dawn’s his biggest movie yet, Reeves hasn’t lost any of the heart and soul that elevated Let Me In above remake-haters’ cynical expectations.

In this candid discussion, Reeves explains how he was able to make a summer film anomaly, why never losing sight of Dawn’s emotional impact was tantamount, and the analytical care that goes into making action sequences feel like more than eye candy.

As a big fan of both Cloverfield and Let Me In, I was excited to learn that you’d be handling the sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I went into it with minimal expectations and was knocked sideways by it.
I had the same exact reaction. It felt like sections of that movie were from a riveting silent film, specifically all of that stuff in the habitat. For me, the big miracle of Rise was I’d never had that level of emotional identification with a CG character. The way Andy [Serkis] played that character and the way WETA Digital realized his performance pushed motion-capture performance to the highest level it’d ever reached at that point.

I’d already been a lifelong Planet of the Apes fan, and then I thought, wow, this idea of truly getting into the inner life of an ape, where the most human character in the film was an ape, was amazing. It was a great reason to reenter the world of the Apes films I loved as a kid. You could actually be that intimately connected to the emotional life.

I was really taken aback by how intimate of a story Dawn is, despite being a big summer movie with incredible visual effects and action.
That was the goal. What I think is so cool about Planet of the Apes is that the one fantastical element is that they’re intelligent apes, and of course there’s going to be spectacle because it’s a summer movie—for me, I love seeing apes on horseback. [Laughs.] That’s something from my childhood. But, at the end of the day, the movie’s secret is that it’s also kind of a drama.

What I saw in Rise and what blew me away was the intimacy, especially everything involving Caesar. When I first got involved, the outline they were talking about doing didn’t focus as centrally on Caesar, and I was really surprised. I was like, “Wait a minute, the secret of Rise is that it ends up being Caesar’s movie, and you totally earn that by the end—that’s what blows people away.” They actually started in the post-apocalyptic city with the humans and then the apes came down and joined the humans, and then there’s this question about what’s going on with the apes, and they’re very articulate from the movie’s beginning. It skipped all of this stuff, so I said, “Hold up, you guys did all this stuff so well in Rise, you shouldn’t skip so far ahead; in fact, make sure that this is Caesar’s movie.”

I wanted to do a movie that started like it’s essentially 2001: A Space Odyssey, where it’s not the the dawn of man but the dawn of the apes, where you saw this kind of eerie, almost frightening primal opening with the apes, after the humans have done themselves in, and then you start peeling the layers away and you start connecting to and identifying with Caesar and the kingdom that he has, which is essentially his family. He’s not only the leader, he’s the patriarch, the father.

For me, it’s like The Godfather and Caesar is the Don Corleone of the apes, and then we would reveal that there are humans left. And then, like you said, it would become an intimate-scale story, like a suspense story out of a classic mythical western or something, where two tribes are vying for survival on the same land. The question becomes, will they or when will they turn to violence? And is there a way for them to coexist? I wanted to really explore all of that, and to my amazement, the studio said “yes” to all of that. [Laughs.]

I envisioned it as having two families: a family that’s trying to heal itself after a terrible tragedy, the worst that humanity’s ever seen, and an ape family that was on an ascendancy and now confronted with conflict. I wanted Caesar to go from being a revolutionary in Rise to being a leader in difficult times.

The cool thing for me, again talking about intimacy, is that the movie’s tension is as much within the characters as it is between the characters and between the species. Caesar is just battling his own impulses as well; he has a root in the human world and he has roots in the ape world, and he’s torn. Things are tense for him, and he loses his temper. The question is, can you really master those parts of yourself, or is violence inevitable? The fact that that’s the central question in a summer blockbuster is crazy.

Speaking with Andy Serkis, I mentioned that I loved how Dawn opens and closes on Caesar’s eyes, showing how his goes from being primal to reclaiming his humanity throughout the course of the film.
Andy and I talked about that. I didn’t want the apes to be as articulate as was originally planned. One of the things I loved in Rise was watching him grapple with the situations that were before him and struggling to express himself. When he finally does speak and says, “No!” it’s an amazing moment. I was like, “We should really do that and explore the different ways in which the apes have sort of come into articulation.” That meant there would be ways in which it was easier for the apes to communicate.

One of the things I thought was cool about Rise and Project Nim is the concept that you can actually teach an ape to sign. In fact, one of the things that happened for in between first watching Rise and then watching it again before meeting with Fox was I’d had a son. I’m a first-time father, and it was amazing to me to learn that my son could actually use sign language before the spoken word. I could see this intelligence in his eyes before he could speak, how he could understand what was going on around him and was frustrated by that. So when I watched Rise again, I was surprised, like, “Look at that! That’s what my son’s doing!” It’s so much about human nature.

When I was working with Andy on the apes’ speech, we had to figure out that, at the beginning of Dawn, Caesar has been away from humans for a long time. He’s gotten in touch with his ape-ness, and gotten back in touch with his basics. They’ve created this kind of Eden. Without being too idealistic about it, it’s this idea that they could maybe have a world that will succeed better than the world that we, the humans, had, and that maybe they won’t succumb to the same things that we did. Caesar actually believes that apes are better until he realizes how human the apes are, which I thought was a cool through-the-looking-glass sci-fi revelation.

But you’re right, at the end, by that time his humanity has reawakened. In the beginning, Andy’s speaking in a way where his first words are really hard to understand; by the end, he can speak pretty clearly and coherently, and, obviously, better than all the other apes. That was a surface way of representing that idea.

Dawn opens with almost 15 minutes of life within the ape community, and it’s so well done that once the humans show up, and Kirk Acevedo’s character wrongly acts on impulse, I thought, “Dammit, why did these humans have to disrupt everything?”
[Laughs.] That’s great. I wanted to start the film in a way that’s elemental, primal, and eerie. You see Caesar and you see his eyes with this war paint, but then we start peeling layers away and you start to see the humanity and empathy in these apes. You see he’s a father, you see his son, and you see that, oh, they have these relationships that remind us of ourselves. There’s a real intimacy here. You start to see their world, and that had the humans been completely gone, the apes’ world would have proceeded uninterrupted and who knows what it would have been. But now, of course, things change. The idea is, when the humans show up, not only is it going to be a fight between the apes, it’s also going to unearth the kind of fault lines that would exist within the ape community based on the previous experience that most of the apes had with humans.

Caesar had a very unique experience with James Franco’s character, Will. Will was essentially his surrogate father. To hear Andy talk about it, when he played Caesar in Rise, he felt that he was human, and the revelation for Caesar is that he’s not human. He’s an outsider, and when he’s thrown into the habitat prison, he realizes he’s different from those apes as well, so he’s an “other” his whole life. He’s had a really unique existence, and that’s what makes him uniquely suited to lead at this particularly difficult moment, but it’s also a huge challenge. He has understandings that the other apes don’t have. How do you explain that? How do you lead?

In addition to Caesar, there’s also Koba calling shots in the ape community. In the beginning, it seems like he might become the film’s villain, but as the film progresses, you learn why he’s so hate-filled. Was the key to not give the film any clearly defined villains?
Yeah, definitely. It was critically important that there be no villains, in that sense, in the movie. I wanted you to have empathy for every character’s point-of-view, on the human side and the ape side. Basically, you’d see that they’ve come to their respective worldview in an honorable way; meaning, they’ve come to it through life experiences. Koba’s experience is so brutal; his background is that he was experimented on by humans. He went through an ape holocaust—it’s horrendous. Of course he’s not going to trust humans. But Caesar is his brother, he’s the one who led Koba through bondage. He owes everything to Caesar. They truly love each other, so that makes for a very complex relationship and story. Really, it’s a tragic arc, about how the revelation of humanity’s existence is the thing that threatens the relationship between these two brothers and their kingdom. It’s kind of Shakespearean.

And Koba is evolved in his own unique ways, too. You see it in how he manipulates the two armed soldiers. He’s super-intelligent in his own ways.
Yeah, what’s great about his character is that he’s wickedly smart. From that bitter experience comes a kind of terrifying, wicked intelligence. He has a real sense of how to exploit things. There’s another scene I think is great, and it’s such a weird thing, which is him planting the seeds of discord within Blue Eyes, Caesar’s son; after Caesar has humiliated Koba in a way that he’s not going to be able to come back from, he starts planting the seeds that maybe the humans are going to be threatening Caesar’s life, and it’s all very wicked and Shakespearean.

Toby’s amazing, he’s like a force of nature in this movie, and there are a couple of really key places where you truly feel for him. There are a couple moments like that where Caesar puts him in his place. You see the woundedness, and that’s Toby totally playing that woundedness. He’s a really damaged character who’s risen up in the worst possible situation, given his background.

You mentioned Blue Eyes, and he’s a great way to transition into Dawn’s action-heavy third act. Much of the huge battle sequence near the end of the film is seen through Blue Eyes’ overwhelmed and inexperienced eyes. It brings a vulnerability to this otherwise ferocious battle.
And that was actually the biggest challenge of the sequence. In Rise, the story was so stacked against the humans. You cared about Franco’s character, Will, and you didn’t want anything bad to happen to him, but there are some humans in that film, the guys who run the habitat where the apes are being held are being so cruel towards the apes that it becomes like a prison movie. You’re just waiting for the humans to get theirs, so there’s no question during that big bridge sequence—you want the apes to succeed. It’s a rousing battle confrontation. In our film, though, it’s more ambiguous than that. It’s not really a justified attack at all, but the idea was that you’d feel badly about the battle.

It was important for me that you would experience the battle through two points-of-view. One was almost from an Akira Kurosawa film, like Ran, where it’s this completely unleashed id version of Koba. That part of the battle is like a fever dream; it’s like seeing him just be a force of nature, riding through flames while holding two machine guns on horseback. And then you see the tragedy of it through Blue Eyes; in that way, it’s meant to be like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, having him have idealized Koba’s feelings towards war and battle but then being led into this actual battle and then suddenly be confronted with the reality of apes dying and apes being hurt, and him suddenly being terrified. He’s watching the cost that comes from this. The battle, in contrast to the one in Rise, was meant to be tragic and a bit nightmarish. That was its own challenge. You had to really make sure that you were filtering those points-of-view or the audience wouldn’t know what to feel. They’d be like, “Well, there’s some cool imagery here, but what am I supposed to feel?” So that was a really delicate thing to navigate.

Was your experience making Cloverfield any kind of preparation for Dawn’s big action sequences?
Definitely. Both of the films deal with the suspense of dread. There are scenes in both that are like slow-motion train wrecks, where you know it’s not going to end well for certain characters. Once you know that the humans are there, the question going forward in Dawn is when will the violence that lives within these apes manifest itself? It was meant to have that level of suspense while still maintaining intimacy and the potential for something good to happen. It couldn’t be too relentlessly grim. That meant that when we got to the battle stuff, it would be filled with suspense, dread, and horror, which was very much like Cloverfield. In that way, I had been prepared for certain things.

What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was that I’d never done performance-capture before, and that is a beast of another color. It’s crazy. The complexities of editing and shooting performance-capture are of a kind that I’d never experienced. You take any of those shots, like the tank shot, which is this big choreographed battle—the easiest part of shooting that was that actual shot. You take a 3D camera and mount it on the back of an actual tank, with a turret that’s actually turning and drive on a set with no actors around. The shot was gotten and driven right into the front of the colony, and then another year was spent creating everything that’s in that shot. We did the stunt in the foreground, the stuff going on with the guy in the tank, and then Koba’s performance on top of the tank, and all of the apes that come into view as the tank spins. It was a crazy carnival of material that had to be worked out bit by bit.

And in fact, when WETA works on shots like that, you get different numbered versions of them; the shot that ultimately give you, after all of their effects passes, might be version 100, or maybe even version 200. That shot on the tank, when we got its final version, was version 1,030. [Laughs.] I asked them if that held any kind of record at WETA, and they wouldn’t commit to it but they said it’s close. When I finally said, “I think we got it, guys,” WETA erupted into applause during one of these six-hour daily phone calls I had with them. They apparently popped champagne, too. The whole town that’s basically WETA worked on our movie.

When you’re conceiving shots like those, is it time to show and prove?
Maybe. To be honest with you, though, what those moments have been more about for me is point-of-view. We had some shots like that, which are much more invisible, in Cloverfield, these long, extended takes. The idea was, if you were in the middle of one of those moments, you wouldn’t turn off the Handycam. The thing that I find most powerful about cinema is point-of-view, and it’s the idea of having empathy for characters and living through their shoes, but sometimes there’s something really chilling about the kind of restricted but also indifferent point-of-view. That tank turret in Dawn is just sort of casually spinning and taking it all in, in this one slow movement.

That kind of approach is what I found chilling about Children of Men. It’s funny, certain people might interpret as, “Oh, it’s like a journalist of a news camera,” but a news camera would have been more like Saving Private Ryan, right? It’d be a guy who, when the shots go off, ducks, because he’s recording the thing; in Children of Men, and what I tried to execute with the tank in Dawn, is this point-of-view that’s there, is indifferent to the experience, and is just recording it very clearly. Moments like that can be really chilling, and that’s what that Let Me Inand the tank turret shot are about. It’s taking it all in.

I love those sequences in Saving Private Ryan, but I also love, which came out that same year, those landscape, running-up-the-hill battle sequences in The Thin Red Line, and just the idea of seeing the landscape and then the figures trying to take that hill. The tininess of characters against the landscape reminds of Kurosawa, the smallness of us. All of that stuff bounces in your head, and then, at the end of the day, you just hope it’ll be engaging to an audience and be in some way thrilling.

There is one particular moment in Cloverfield that gives me the same reaction. It’s when Hud’s running towards the subway staircase, quickly points the camera upward, and we see a brief glimpse of the monster.
Yeah, definitely! They’re all a part of the same vibe, the same feeling. The feeling of that shot in Cloverfield, and I’ve obviously never been in an event like that, is very reflective of my worst fears. In a way, for me, those shots are connected to me confronting my worst fears. In Let Me In, it’s the suddenness and randomness of a car accident; in Dawn, it’s taking in the horrendous nature of battle; in Cloverfield, it’s being in the middle of some horrific event that you didn’t expect or want to be in, whether it’s a giant monster or a city under attack.

What do you think it is about this Apes franchise that gives it the power to be something that leaves viewers thinking about it for weeks, whereas other big spectacle franchises aren’t able to be so character-driven and emotionally resonant?
I think it’s because Planet of the Apes has a strong legacy. The conceit is this fantastical idea that the animals have become intelligent and have taken over the planet, but the secret of that is, of course, we’reanimals. So when you’re staring into the faces of these apes, you’re really stating into human faces and our nature.

What’s crazy is that we got to do a war drama, this mythic western kind of drama, and the reason we got to do that was this crazy element of intelligent apes. I’ve always found this to be true of really interesting genre films—if you take the right metaphor, you can actually do a film that is about real things, emotional things that are engaging. You’re almost smuggling it in, but you’re not really smuggling it in because I think the audience really responds to those things. Of course they really want the spectacle, but when that spectacle comes charged with something that feels real, it deepens the experience, and the audience really likes that.

It’s crazy when you think about the Apes franchise, and how dark all of the endings are, and how dark the movies are, and yet there’s something very pleasurable about these movies. It really comes down to the potency of this idea, of seeing intelligent apes. I’ll never forget when I was a kid, seeing that first glimpse of when the nets are thrown, it pans up, and you see that the people throwing the nets aren’t people—they’re gorillas on horseback, and you’re like, “What?” [Laughs.] It’s such a provocative image, and so powerful. It somehow speaks to this idea of the animal in us and having to confront that, but conveying that through this fantastical conceit.

I kept pinching myself the whole time we were making this movie. There were certain moments where I said, “Wow, so you guys are really letting us make this movie?” [Laughs.] Because, as you say, it’s not your typical summer blockbuster kind of movie. I was constantly aware of that.