Those damn dirty apes are back! Scheduled for release on August 5th is Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel/reboot of the original series which starred Hollywood legend Charlton Heston. The new film features Oscar nominee James Franco as Will Rodman, a scientist working on a cure for his ailing father's Alzheimer's by testing on apes. Eventually a test subject named Caesar begins to mutate at an alarming rate and the scientist takes him home to care for him so that the other doctors will not abuse him. The film is said to take place before the original series and has absolutely no connection to director Tim Burton's 2001 re-imagining of the series Planet of the Apes, which grossed over $350 million worldwide.
The original series began in 1968 with Planet of the Apes, based on the novel La planete des singes by Pierre Boulle. Charlton Heston starred as astronaut George Taylor who left Earth in 1972 and lands 2006 years later on what he thinks is another planet run by apes with human-like intelligence and speech. One of the most shocking endings to a film ever occurs in Planet of the Apes when Taylor sees the ruins of the Statue of Liberty and realizes that he is not on another planet, but rather Earth in the future. While the new film is a prequel, it takes place in 2009 and will tell the story of how the apes began to take over Earth.
Besides James Franco's scientist, the other main character in the film is Caesar, played by Andy Serkis (Gollum from The Lord of the Rings series) with help from Weta digital. In fact, this will be the first time in the history of the series that CGI is used to create the ape effects rather than practical make-up. While Andy Serkis' character was featured in the original series, he did not appear until the third film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, so there is still some question as to exactly how this new film will line up continuity-wise with the original series.
But as hardcore ape fans know, continuity between the original five films is somewhat foggy to begin with.
Last summer we had an opportunity to travel to Vancouver, British Columbia and visit The Bridge Studios where Rise of the Planet of the Apes was shooting. While we were there, we had a chance to take a tour of the set, watch some filming and even talk with the director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist), and some of the cast including Oscar nominee James Franco, and Andy Serkis. We began our tour by walking through the set for Will Rodman's house, which is located in San Francisco in the film. Next, we took a tour through the Ape Sanctuary, which is where the apes are kept in captivity during the events of the film. It was like taking a tour through an empty zoo. We also had a chance to visit the volume room, which is where the motion capture actors were preparing for their work. One of the really cool scenes that we had a chance to watch them film is a scene that revolves around Caesar and several of his ape friends destroying a laboratory. Andy Serkis and the other motion-capture performers were dressed in blue motion-capture suits, acting like monkeys and throwing things all around the room. It was very cool to watch.
After Andy Serkis was done with the scene, he took a few minutes out of his busy day to speak with us.
While Andy Serkis is best known for his association with Weta Digital and his performance in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, its easy to forget that this is not the actor's first time playing a motion-capture primate on screen. Of course, he stared as the title character King Kong in director Peter Jackson's remake of the 1933 classic. The actor began by discussing the difference between his performance in that film and his role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
"It's entirely different because King Kong was a twenty-five foot baboon and this is the arc of, basically, a chimpanzee who is reared by human beings and has also inherited a certain amount of genetic intelligence so it's entirely different. In fact, I really didn't know I was going to be on board this job until very late on in the day. I think everybody assumed that because I played a twenty-five foot gorilla it would be a breeze but obviously gorillas, chimps and orangutans all move entirely differently and have different personalities. So it's like starting from scratch on a completely different role, its like saying King Lear or Hamlet are the same, when they're entirely different, Andy Serkis said.
"They're much more bipedal, they speak, they talk, they are in effect human beings in many ways and so their physicality ... there are nods towards it in the films and we're really a step before that," he continued. "With Caesar, he's a little bit more advanced, but he reaches a level of intelligence (in this film) which is in tune with where they're going to be heading."
We followed up by asking the actor how much he knows about the ultimate fate of his Caesar and if we will see him rise to leader of the apes in this film. "There has been some talk of future scenarios but we've not talked directly about Caesar in that way," Andy Serkis explained. "It's obviously set up for the next stage of the journey because there is a missing link between this film and where the original Planet of the Apes starts off. You could expand on that, you could keep going really. I expect if it does go on then Caesar will play some kind of part in it, he'd have to I guess."
One of the aspects of the original film that audiences loved was the idea of an upside-down world where apes are in charge and humans are the slaves. Since Andy Serkis is essentially playing the character that will usher that world in, we asked him if it is difficult to build sympathy for a character that will eventually do terrible things.
"That's a really good question and I think the thing is that I'm playing him...you do see his journey from the begining. You see how he responds to brutalization, witnessing brutalization and bullying and all these shocking things because he's brought up as an innocent. He's quite innocent and you see his journey from innocence into moments of realizing that actually it can be a cruel world out there. He has been brought up by James Franco's character and he is an incredible humanitarian. He's been brought up in a loved family. In a way you've got to forget that he's a chimp, you treat him as a child whose been brought up in a loving environment that then is suddenly subjected to brutalization. When they go to the Ape Sanctuary, it could be any institution, which has bullying, mistreatment and some kind of person who is dominating and subjugating other people. So you will feel sympathy because you will see how this young mind is witnessing brutalization."
Since Andy Serkis has been at the forefront of motion-capture filmmaking almost since its inception, we asked him to talk about some of the changes that he has noticed in the industry over the last decade. "We're at a point now where in this film we are pushing the boundaries, with the relationship to a live action shoot, more than ever before. Sixty, maybe seventy percent of the performance capture in the movie is literally graded on a live action set. That's a first. I'm not aware of any other film that has used it as much and it's a perfect ... I think this film is a perfect example of the usage of performance capture for that reason,"
Andy Serkis explained. "You are getting dramatic performances, they're playing creatures that are slightly abstract and it allows the actor to drive a character rather than certain movies, which have used performance capture recently that have tended to make the performance capture character look the same as the actor which, to me seems like a misuse of performance capture. When I started working on Gollum we had a very small tin shed basically with about six or eight cameras, you couldn't move out of a three meter square, it kept breaking down. Then you had just moving from physical capture, with King Kong we started to use the facial capture, wearing facial markers, because Gollum was shot on 35mm but was performance captured as well but the facial performance was key for him to be animated over."
We followed up by asking the actor what changes he would like to see made to the process in the future. "I think we're at a stage where we're moving away from using it, because we have head mounted camera rigs for capturing face movements and that can be a little bit conspicuous and get in the way. It's not going to be long, maybe two years or three years, where we're just going to be filming the performances, moving away from markers," Andy Serkis answered.
Finally, we asked Andy Serkis if it is difficult doing a scene with another actor who is not used to working with motion-capture and if he had any experiences like that on this film. "You're taking about the other live actors, James Franco, and Freida Pinto, and there's no question. We've arrived at a stage where other actors who are playing live action characters and not phased by it in the slightest. They can just see a performance going on and say okay, so we don't look the same but I think it would be equally as strange to act against someone in a chimp suit," laughed the actor. "We're engaging and finding moments which are real and just happening. You're just acting with someone else basically and I think that's the big realization across the board that the whole industry is responding to with performance capture. It's no longer this kind of strange, freakish activity that happens somewhere else, it's absolutely part and parcel to moviemaking now and is being accepted in that regard."
Next, we had a chance to speak with the films director Rupert Wyatt. Since Rupert Wyatt's last movie, The Escapist was an independent film with a significantly lower budget we asked him to discuss the adjustment that he's had to make as a director.
"Well my agent visited the other day and he said that he thinks I've made the biggest leap in movie history because of the budget size, so yeah, it's a huge challenge and it's a huge privilege. It's a huge responsibility but I think fundamentally it's the same thing," explained Rupert Wyatt. "You're working with a crew. I have an Oscar-winning DP, an extraordinary director of photography, I have an amazing crew, and I have a terrific cast. I have terrifically experienced and very supportive producers, so at the end of the day, it's making a film, it's telling a story, so the scale of it, although daunting initially in the early days of pre-production, is actually not the biggest challenge. It's the motion-capture, it's the technology, it's all of the things that we're doing that are quite groundbreaking I think for me as a director."
Considering that the main character is a motion-capture character in this film, we asked Rupert Wyatt if he believes that casting Andy Serkis was pivotal to making the movie. "Well it would be made differently I think. I think we put a lot on him and he pulled it off. With someone else we would have had to do it in a slightly different way where the focus wouldn't have been on Caesar. Of course James is the human protagonist and Caesar is the animal protagonist. They are on an equal billing in many respects. Caesar is the one that leads the story to its conclusion. It is great to go out in this film with Andy Serkis as our lead. Andy Serkis really was the answer."
"We tried to approach it ... you know, because you have a lead character that doesn't speak, and everything therefore has to be told visually," Rupert Wyatt continued. "The writers sort of addressed this with the script that if you have a chimpanzee that can use sign language, that's a wonderful thing to see, but then we don't want to make it a foreign language movie with lots of sub-titles, so we looked to really scale that back as much as possible. Although he continues to communicate with Will by way of sign language, it's a very minimal use of it and everything else we wanted to convey by way of visual storytelling. I suppose with somebody like Andy Serkis you can get so much in the cock of an eyebrow or some simple gesture that says everything. Therefore the casting is crucial."
We also asked Rupert Wyatt to talk about the adjustment that the other actors have had to make working with Andy Serkis in the motion-capture outfit. "James Franco has experience from Spider-Man. I know that was a different kind of film, different characters and different genre in many ways, but I don't think that the adjustment is hard. It's interesting for me, because I've never worked with anybody in a motion capture suit, and initially, it is a little surreal to have someone in a grey suit with a camera on their face. You're having to work with them and see them as a chimp, but he so easily inhabits that characters that you don't even think about it."
One thing we noticed walking around the set is that it has a very bright look, as opposed to the darker style that you might expect. So we asked the director to talk about how the bright colors play into his vision for the film. "It's not going to be as bright as what it appears. It's going to be a little more atmospheric. We're not trying to turn it into a genre it isn't. It's a fantastic story set in a setting that everyone understands. We're trying to keep the story real. It's not a fantasy. I've always seen it as a morality, cautionary tale," he explained. "Talking about Andy Serkis, Andy is one of the cast. We'd go into the process of executing scenes exactly the way in any conventional drama. I would bring in the cast and we would go through it, choreograph it just like if the actors are there or not. The process of visualizing the scene is done as if you were doing a straightforward drama. Andy Serkis is playing a role just as James Franco is playing a role. To me, that's the smartest way to play it. The story is about something and we're not trying to turn it into something else. It's a story/performance film."
Seeing as the original five films have such a huge following around the world, we asked Rupert Wyatt how important it is to him to fit in Easter Eggs and references to the other movies. "It's hard to answer that question. I certainly wouldn't say that we are looking to reference stylistically from the other films. This is part of the mythology and it should be seen as that. It's not a continuation of the other films; it's an original story," he explained. "It does satisfy the people who enjoy those films. The point of this film is to achieve that and to bring that fan base into this film exactly like Batman Begins. I'm sure there will be people who say it wasn't faithful to anything, or faithful to what they wanted, but at the same time I think it's closest in tone in terms of scale or actual result and narrative and all that. It's a total re-imagining with regards to certain characters, certain story points and the facts of the original films."
We then asked the director if he had been a fan of the series or the original film before he signed on to do this movie. "I was never an obsessive fan in a sense of someone who was a huge fan of the films. I loved it in the same way as everyone did. The script is what attracted me in so many ways, the basic mythology of it because I think all those stories comes from the seven story plots and this one has that. The key part of this story is ... in many other films its man vs. machine or the four walls of his prison, but in this it's an animal. I think the The Elephant Man is something we've always looked to in saying, how would we perceive something that looks a little different from us?"
"There's a moral dilemma," Rupert Wyatt continued. "The research I did was with a lot of the scientists that do animal research. One man in particular who I watched being interviewed was asked the question, how do you feel about the testing of animals? He said, I hate it, I don't sleep at night, but this is what I do so you tell me the alternative. I think for our lead that is something that comes up concerning his relationship and also his relationship with Caesar," the director explained. "How that affects their relationship and the realization of what he does. It all kind of interweaves into our story but we've not retaken a stand on it because I don't think that's the intention. It's a story of man against animal. That is our starting point, our springboard for this film. The world around him is very much our world. If one happens to see an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that's not a coincidence. It's very much, where are we going as a civilization? If our civilization were to end, what would take over? This story is all about setting that up."
After that, the director had to go back to shooting a scene and invited us to watch. The scene involved James Franco's Will pulling up to the building where he works with his girlfriend, played by Freida Pinto, in the front seat, and Andy Serkis as Caesar in the back. James Franco says a few comforting lines to Andy Serkis, before he and Freida Pinto exit the car.
Later we watched Rupert Wyatt shoot a scene inside the building where James Franco walks past a coffee shop inside the lobby of the building in which he works and gets on to an elevator. It should be noted that the coffee shop was named "Nova," clearly a nod to Linda Harrison's character in the first film.
While he was extremely busy shooting his scenes, recent Oscar nominated actor James Franco took a few minutes to talk with us and answer some questions. We began by asking him if it was difficult adjusting to doing scenes with Andy Serkis in the motion-capture suit.
"I don't think it took too much time at all to adjust. Actually, one of my reasons for doing this movie is to work with Andy Serkis. I didn't know Andy Serkis was doing it at first, but to work with all the WETA people was great. I have watched ever minute of the extra features on all The Lord of the Rings and King Kong DVDs. So, just from watching that, I kind of had an understanding of how it worked and I thought it would be a new and interesting acting experience, working opposite someone playing a chimpanzee. Then Andy Serkis signed on, he signed on like a week or two before we started shooting ... to my great satisfaction. He was so good at it, the imagination just kind of takes over, just like when you meet someone and the next day they are playing your mother. You kind of just roll with it if the scene is working. Andy Serkis was so good with the chimp behavior that it was actually pretty easy to fall into that kind of relationship.
"You can rebel against it or, I kind of have that discussion in my head, or I can just go with it and understand that it's what's necessary to make this kind of movie," James Franco continued. "When Andy Serkis's there, it's great, it's akin to a regular acting experience because he's a performer and I roll with it. Then, when he's not there, I guess I justify it. You think it's the death of acting but you know there are plenty of stage plays where you talk to no one or you are using your imagination in a similar way. You have to create an imaginary world in front of you and react to it, if its not there. So it's not necessarily the death of acting, as we know it, I tell myself. It's just physical memory and emotional memory and, as an actor, the process is basically having your motivation as a character and your reacting to the other characters. Both of those things kind of combine and that's how a scene arises. So I try and have, when I'm acting with no one, I have that motivation still but I guess I just try and conjure him in my imagination so that I can still kind of react off him as he was behaving."
The actor also spoke to us about the emotional arc of his character in the movie. "Well this movie, this rendition of the Planet of the Apes series is different in many ways than the other ones but one of the differences is that the others seem to be much more about commentaries on class relations, inter species relations, race relations, all of these things. Where as ours is a prequel and it's much more of a Frankenstein story where a scientist is maybe in our case not so moved by hubris, but in some ways he is. He starts messing with nature and it gets out of hand," explained James Franco. "So I guess my character is a pure science orientated man who has few connections in life, it's actually a pretty dismal existence. He doesn't have much of a relationship with his father and his father has Alzheimer's, so he then starts taking care of him and at the end of his father's life, he starts building this relationship with his father that he never had. Then this chimp is thrust on him so then he starts having almost a father/son relationship that he never had in his life. So he goes from a very isolated, scientific, cold kind of personality to a much more humane and caring person."
We followed up by asking the actor if he felt that the Alzheimer's issue helped him ground his character in a certain reality for this sci-fi film and if he felt that it was an important aspect to the movie working on some level. "Yeah, I mean, it's certainly the choice that they made. Like I actually haven't seen all of the Apes movies, I saw the first one a long time ago and then I watched it again and I watched a documentary about the making of all of them. I guess back in the day they spent a ton of money, at the time, what was a ton of money on makeup and effects. Now I assume the original Apes movie has kind of a cult appeal but you look at the mask and you say, I can't believe they are having serious philosophical conversations and they're wearing those crazy masks, but it's interesting on that level, the idea of apes talking has moved forward," James Franco said. "We have a different concept of that now of what is real. So not only have the way that they depicted apes changed and become much more realistic, but the storyline tries to be grounded in a more realistic world where it's at least conceivable that this could happen."
"The crazy thing for me was Kim Hunter, who played Stella in Streetcar was one of the apes in the original movies," James Franco continued. Malcolm McDowell and Sal Mineo were even in them and they all talked about how surprising it was that they could take that seriously. So I could probably do it if people were still in masks but I guess playing a scientist that's somewhat grounded in reality helps. It's just a type of movie. It would just be a different kind of movie if we went the other way and I as an actor would find myself, find my way into that other movie. It's not that I couldn't do that, but it's just a different movie." Finally, since the actor mentioned Frankenstein, we asked him if he feels like his character is a tragic character like Dr. Frankenstein. "Well, yeah, I guess he screws a lot of things up," the actor jokes. "Not on purpose but he does everything for the right reasons, it just gets out of hand. You wouldn't say it's justified but most people would do whatever they could for their ailing family members so it's at least understandable."