INTERVIEW: Finding a balance between thoughtful sci-fi and summer blockbuster

'Rise of the Apes' Director Rupert Wyatt: This Isn't Camp, It's 'Spartacus' With Apes

on August 02, 2011 by Amy Nicholson

Rise_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes-02.jpgHumans couldn't rule the earth forever. Especially when we all know that 3000 years from now, Charlton Heston will crash-land on a planet of apes parked just a horseback ride away from the Statue of Liberty. The original series toyed with the story with increasingly odd sequels; decades later, Tim Burton would monkey around with remaking the first film. But it's taken Hollywood 38 years to give the simian sic-fi classic the reboot it deserves. And director Rupert Wyatt is determined to surprise audiences who expect a popcorn cult flick with an earnest, emotional thriller. Read on to learn more about the man behind the monkeys.

You're making a movie where the audience knows the ending-and even what happens 3000 years later. How do you make this story feel immediate and suspenseful?

It's like mythology: we know the story, but it's the drama within the story that's the most intriguing part. For me when I watched the first films, I was always fascinated by how a human-to-simian transition happened. We saw the transition in Conquest of and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, but here we have a new spin on it that's a little more contemporary in its approach.

So you're saying you see the Apes almost like Greek tragedy. Everyone knew Medeawhat mattered was how Euripides told the story.


Do you see this as a story about Caesar and the simians ascending, or about the humans descending?

It's very much the story of the apes. That's always been our intention and it's always been our challenge, because obviously we're making it for a human audience. Even though James Franco plays the catalyst, the whole reason behind the impetus of the story, it's still Caesar's journey. And so despite what Caesar and his kind do to the humans-actually, it's not even what they do to the humans, but what we do to ourselvesthey will be our protagonists in our mythology. It's very important that we empathize with them. And that's easily done, anyway. The way we perceive apes as creatures that are very much our closest cousins, the way we see them as being sensitive beings in many ways, that contrasts to how people treat them and exploit them and subjugate them. I think people will empathize with them and understand that's why the revolution started up. If you look at Spartacus, we choose to side with Kirk Douglas rather than the Romans because he was the underdog.

Were you thinking of Spartacus as you were shooting the film?

Not narratively, but thematically certainly. There are moments in our film that reflect the bringing of the slaves and a leader who rises up from the masses, from within, to give people their freedom. Certainly there's echoes of that.

When Spartacus and the original Planet of the Apes came out in the '60s, they were made for audiences who were wrestling with the tensions of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement. What does this story mean to audiences today?

I think it's very easy to lambast and betray science and the scientific evolution by saying, "We shouldn't dabble with things we're not aware of," or "We've opened a Pandora's Box," or "Be careful what you wish for." Especially in Hollywood, there's that tendency to make a cautionary tale or morality play. I'm not particularly a fan of those. The catalyst of this story is similar to that, but I've attempted to take it away from that and make it a human storyironically, one that's about apes, not humans. But rather than harp on the scienceI mean, would you rather we all stayed in the Stone Age?science is the reason why we've progressed to the state we're in now in a positive way. It's not us or Pandora or our own scientific evolution that brought about our demise. It's individuals within us. And that's what the story is about: the hubris of people. There are humans that do bad things, and it's the same for the apes. Not all of the apes are heroic and angelic and whiter than white. There are also villains in their cast as well. I think it deals with contemporary themes, I think it dealsas much as possible for a Hollywood film of this scalewith the zeitgeist and where we are now in our civilization.

And so much of getting that across rests on the performance of Andy Serkis. Was there anyone else you could have cast in that role?

For Caesar, no. Andy came in pretty late in the day. That was actually really to do with our decision to go with performance capture came quite late in the day. As soon as we started to see this as humans playing the apes, we set out to get the very best of the people who understand that technology and what it can achieve, because I think it's very easy for people who are not the specific makers of the film to come from a higher place and say, "Well, the apes are played by stunt men or little people." I was very keen to make everybody know that our apes were portrayed by actors, to have people who could ground it in physical movement and play the roles. And Andy was an obvious choice and we were very fortunate to get him.

So there would be a tonal difference if the apes were played by little people in monkey suits?

Yeah. I mean, we knew we could never go with ape suits because we're dealing with contemporary apes as they are today. We as humans do not have the body shape and body mass; we don't have the long limbs and foreshortened legs.

Maybe it was the suits in the original, or Charlton Heston's performance, but the first film is a camp and cult classicnot a tone that would fit here. Talk about making that tonal shift so audiences are able to see Rise as its own film.

I think in many ways the ambition of the original film was a mess, but the tonal nature of it came about because of the nature of how they were able to make it in that time. From a technological point of viewor even just because of the cameras, nothing to do with the ape suitsthe opening scene with Charlton Heston inside the Icarus smoking a cigar is the most stage-bound scene you could possibly imagine. There's no movement, there's a back-projected light display going through the windows. We've come a long way in cinema since then. Therefore, it's a very necessary thing, as well as an obvious thing, to approach it from a contemporary angle. In the same way that the new Batman has taken a different tonal approach as opposed to the "Ka-pow!" and "Kaboom!" nature of how we originally perceived Batman to be in our youth. It's a reimagining of the mythology and one that in that respect plays very much into our time. But in the end of the day, we're dealing with apes who have evolved to take over humanity. And that is a heightened reality and something that could be perceived to be high camp in many ways. We're sort of riding that thin line between plausibility and science fiction.

Not counting Tim Burton's, there are five films that come after yours in the Apes timeline. As you were diving back into that mythology, was there anything you wish you could change and set up differently?

Our origin story, in a way, successfully avoided any of that because we're starting really at the beginning. What we're creating, hopefully, is a new platform from which future films can come and become the chapters that link ours to the 1968 original. In some ways, it's a reimagining of the franchiseit's a reboot, actually. The screenwriters when they set out to develop the story with the studio made the decision to in some ways not relate this film to the sequels from a historical point of view. We're sort of wiping the slate clean and starting again. There's many elements of the sequels that if I was to be involved, I would love to tie our story into them, such as the Forbidden Zone in New York and the nuclear disaster that befalls humanity. We've taken a slightly different approach here, but it could still include nuclear destruction in terms of what we bring upon ourselves. There's many elements we could play into, but I think as far as our characters are concerned, as far as our original narrative is concerned, we're starting again.

In terms of the timeline, how far ahead can this new potential crop of sequels go? Will they just catch up to where the Heston original started, or could they hit that point and go beyond and redo the rest of the series?

They certainly could. I suppose it depends on how big an appetite there is for that. I would say that there's a great opportunity with the next film after this to see the real conflict between humans and apes on a global levelon a continental level, even. Our film involves conflict in microcosm, it involves the initial stages of the revolution. And again, if you take Spartacus as an example, that plays out in microcosm if you see it in terms of the end of the Roman Empire. That's very much our story, too. So what comes after that with the various things that befall humanityone could call it a leveling of the playing fieldthat would allow over a period of 10-15 years after the end of our film, you could then really start to see the beginnings of the war between humans and apes in a much more realistic fashion. Because I think you could safely say that if the world population of apes at this point in time were to rise up, I don't think they'd stand much of a chance against our numbers and technology.

You were talking about the natural empathy humans have for apes. Could a revolution story like this be made starring any other animal?

I think when you look into the eyes of an ape, you really see a soul. You could look into the eyes of your dog and see love and loyalty, but I think there's something exceptional in the similarity of the facial features, of the thought process. An adult chimpanzee has the same understanding and feeling and capacity for learning as a four-year-old human. It's extraordinary. And if you think about that, and you think about what's done to them, it's amazing that we're allowed to do that when we talk about human rights. No other animal on earth has that capacity for feeling and is that similar to us. Yes, there's numerous things they cannot do, and can never hope to learn and achieve. And that is why we are the alpha and they aren't. But if you take their DNA and fiddle with evolutionwhich is basically what our story is aboutthen the world is their oyster. I think there's a simple reason why apes are rarely used in laboratory testingand they're used less now because of the expense and because finally the animal rights movement has been able to shore up a sense of responsibility. I remember watching an interview while I was preparing for the film with a cancer researcher who had worked on apes. He was asked the question, "How do you feel about your moral responsibility for testing on apes?" and he said, "Well, I don't sleep at night. It's a terrible thing, but it's what I have to do." You can really understand the moral twilight he's in and what he's juggling because his vocation and his desire-which is very, very admirable in so many ways-involves the nature of vivisection on an animal that's very much like our own.

There's a documentary out this summer called Project Nim that follows a chimp from the '70s who was raised with people then as an adult was thrown in a cage. To him, arguably a cage is torture because he thought of himself as a human. It sets up your film well.

I know the storyand I heard the documentary is great. The director James Marsh is a terrific filmmaker. That's the juggling act with a movie of this size. When you're making a documentary, you can absorb all of these themes and have very delicate storytelling. This is ultimately a summer blockbuster, but it needs to be made on a mature level, as well. We've attempted to find that balance. Our yardstick was films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Spielberg films of the late '70s which were great blockbusters that also had great human stories.

If you're going to set up a bar for yourself, that's about the highest you can reach.

Yeah, and I think more and more summer movies are all very much just about being blockbusters. I understand why this isit's not a criticism, more just the reality. Summer blockbusters are looking to appeal to those who want escapist fare. I do think you can entertain an audience as much as challenge them. Christopher Nolan with films like Inception is a filmmaker who's managed to accomplish that.

Tell me the truth: between takes, was everyone joking around and yelling, "You damned dirty ape!"

We were always quoting Charlton Heston. I'll put it this way: "It was a madhouse!"

Tags: Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt, science fiction, Andy Serkis

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