Producer Dylan Clark Talks WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

We chat with one of the guiding forces behind this summer's best blockbuster.

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The Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy is a staggering artistic and commercial achievement. Where most of our modern cinematic universes are almost utterly devoid of sizable dramatic stakes, these new Apes films have risen above their peers by providing a series of effects-driven spectacle pictures that utilize their advanced SFX tech to create genuine pathos, as opposed to whiz bang spectacle where two supermen punch each other in front of a pixelated backdrop. The rise of Caesar (Andy Serkis, consistently stunning) is a beautiful, tragic tale – stuffed with complex emotions regarding the nature of being, and War for the Planet of the Apes brings it all home with violently devastating clarity of vision. It’s not only the best blockbuster title of Summer ’17, its one of the better tent poles ever crafted.

We were granted the opportunity to chat with Dylan Clark, who’s helped shepherd this remarkable cinematic set along to its breathtaking finale. Take a look…

BMD: You guys go through a rather arduous journey to get these movies as perfect as they are. (Producer) Peter Chernin walked me through the post production process a few weeks back, and it sounds excruciating.

Dylan Clark: We plan everything out to the finest detail. We bring WETA and (Senior SFX Supervisor) Joe Letteri in really early to try and dial in the photorealism of this world at the earliest stages of pre-production. We want to connect with CGI characters in the most emotional way, so we talk about how to shoot it practically. That’s the biggest lesson we learned on Rise [of the Planet of the Apes]. WETA had done a couple sequences on Lord of the Rings where they shot with Andy (Serkis) as he played Gollum out in the swap. But that was really it, in terms of how many scenes were shot in a natural environment as opposed to a sound stage.

Matt [Reeves, director of Dawn of and War for the Planet of the Apes] really wanted to take this technology out into the environment, so it felt like those apes are there. With War, he’s really upped the ambition and taken it into the snow and mountains, and it’s just crazy. But in post, it really helps, because WETA now has all the natural light and elements to work with, so they can place that CGI character inside that world without stretching the “truth” of it. I hope it feels “real”. I does to me, at least.

BMD: Immersive is always the word I go back to whenever I try to describe this new set of films.

But what does Planet of the Apes mean to you as a whole? Were you a fan of the older movies? How did you develop a passion to make these films what they are now?

DC: I came into it with some trepidation, to be honest. My grandfather – my mother’s stepfather, but he was always Grandpa Stan (Hough) – was head of physical production at Fox under Dick Zanuck when they made the original Planet of the Apes (’68) with Charlton Heston, and went on to produce the television show. In my house – possibly even more so than the original film – the TV series became mandatory viewing.

When Peter [Chernin] and I were running [Chernin Entertainment, where Clark headed the film division] together, I read a script that someone had written, then I read Rick [Jaffa] and Amanda [Silver]’s script [for Rise] and thought, “man, this is such a great idea. It can stand alone as its own movie, but syncs up so well with the original mythology.” What I always say is that Rick and Amanda pulled the greatest trick, in that I’d never seen a movie start with a human protagonist, and by the end you’re following the animal. That was what drew us into this world emotionally. It was about watching Caesar be persecuted, and then figuring out “is he ape? is he human?” and then watching him lead this revolution to get his kind back to their homeland. It really moved us all, emotionally.

Of course, when Rupert [Wyatt, director of Rise] left and Matt came in, he was just a giant fan of the television series and loved what we did on Rise. He told me that he always wanted to be an ape when he watched the old show – the John Chambers makeup just captured his imagination at the time. But now, with the technology we used to shoot it with WETA, we allow the audience to be immersed in these apes’ world and connect with Caesar and his comrades in a real emotional way.

BMD: You mention reading the script for Rise and thinking it could stand alone as its own film, and it totally does. But I always wondered: did you guys envision this as a trilogy, or did you figure that out as you went along?

DC: Once we got into Caesar’s story, it really moved along quite fast. We start seeing him versus whatever human challenge he had to go up against. We never view the humans as “villains”, mind you, because we recognize that they have a point of view during this apocalyptic scenario that we connect to as human audience members. We try to emotionally connect to their situation as much as the apes.

The Caesar story – from his beginnings as a revolutionary leader, to President of the ape society, to something even bigger in War [for the Planet of the Apes] – always felt like a trilogy. But we’ve definitely been asked in the past if we viewed it as three new movies that lead into the old Charlton Heston movie, and that was never our design. There’s so much story left even when [War] ends. There’s a huge gap between where we end in War, and where we pick up with Taylor (Charlton Heston) returning to Earth to find that humans are now not only the subservient species, but have devolved beneath the apes.

BMD: In crafting the story beats, there are some familiar moments for fans who have seen Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (’72) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (’73), and I was wondering if you guys looked to the past while creating these new stories? Or is it supposed to exist completely outside those OG franchise entries?

DC: We all have our own interpretation of this question. We all love the Apes movies. There’re some bad ones in there, but we’re still fans. Peter, Matt and I are fans of these movies. Andy’s a giant fan. But we also wanted to make our own movies for this current audience. Of course, being fans and working within a franchise, we’re going to go back and watch the originals to try and get a feel for certain elements, and there are Easter Eggs and nods to things inside the franchise that people like you are going to pick up on. But my kid, and other people who’re coming to these movies cold, don’t have to of seen the original films to understand these ones.

BMD: The original films are almost relentlessly bleak and nihilistic. The misconception many have when talking about those first five Apes films is that they just campy fun, when they all end on down notes. Did you try and maintain or even update that tone for these current iterations?

DC: We let Caesar guide us. We’ve really fallen in love with this hero, and pushed that character so that we’re seeing the status of the apes, and humans, and Earth through his eyes. But there’s also a darker side to his nature that’s explored in War, that we only really started to get in Rise and Dawn.

I really think our movies are more character driven than anything. Those past films were allegories that were coming out of the late '60s when a lot of shit – Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, Nixon – was going down, and the book even had a lot of political elements to it. Our movie is about the character, but speaks to the times in which we exist now.

After Dawn, there were a lot of mixed reactions, and people came to us asking if Caesar is anti-gun, or if we were representing the Israeli/Palestine conflict, or North vs. South Korea. But what’s cool is that, since we’re focusing so heavily on character, people can come with their own allegory and thematic resonance and what it means to them personally. Like the world we live in now, Caesar is wrestling with a lot of positive and negative things occurring around him, and people can draw their own interpretations from that universal idea.

BMD: So you don’t consider these political movies, despite dealing with themes of oppression and revolution? That the politics are derived strictly from the character?

DC: These are emotional, character-driven movies that are grounded in reality; it just so happens that we’re dealing with photoreal talking apes, which is a little bizarre. Watching this nascent, intelligent species gain control really resonates with our society, and watching Caesar create the building blocks of their world causes us to ask how we would handle conflict and aftermath. Because we’re focused on character instead of allegory or a particular filmmaker’s political point of view, it allows viewers to walk out of the movie saying “that meant something to me and my point of view.”

BMD: In terms of Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves – what was it about their respective filmographies that made you say “these are the guys to make our Planet of the Apes movies”?

DC: They both had made movies that had very emotional cores. Rupert made this small movie called The Escapist (’08), which was set inside a prison and really hit you square in the heart and overlapped with a lot of what Caesar grapples with toward the end of Rise [namely: a prison break]. And Matt’s movies and television work really strove to find who each of his characters were and what drove them forward. Matt connected to the driving storytelling, but also didn’t shy away from these movies being big pieces of entertainment. Matt really is a commercial director, and wants to wow you. I think he’s the most like Steven Spielberg out of our young working directors – he wants to grab your heart while delivering spectacle.

BMD: With the motion capture and creating these apes, I imagine there had to be some hesitation regarding relying so heavily on it. Can you explain how you all came to the decision to render the apes like you did? Because you even mentioned John Chambers earlier, and Tim Burton used Rick Baker when creating his apes. This was a radical departure.

DC: We were definitely nervous about using it. There was a lot of discussion at Fox about it. The idea of doing Planet of the Apes again at all was questioned. Because if we just offered up more prosthetics and cool wardrobe, the audience would’ve probably rejected it. We knew we had to go to the next level somehow.

When I was at Universal, they did King Kong with Peter Jackson, and Andy of course had played Kong. I’d gotten to meet with Joe Letteri and, when you meet these guys at WETA, you realize they’re just on another conceptual plane. They’re really all about taking [SFX] technology to the most realistic realms in which it can exist. So, we brought them in, and did a test, and weighed our options.

You know, initially Andy was busy, and we weren’t sure if we even could get, or even needed, Andy. That would’ve been a giant mistake. Andy read the script, and loved it, and – look, this is important – Andy isn’t just a motion capture actor, or a voice actor, or whatever. He’s brilliant. He’s one of the greatest, most committed performers I’ve ever seen. He found ways to portray these apes that we would never think of and helped connect us to their emotional cores. Also, his familiarity with this technology and the shorthand he’d developed with team WETA saved us on so many occasions. So, we knew we had to get him in on this movie and threaded the needle with his schedule to make it work.

The other thing that Andy helped with was taking this tech out into the wild. We shot 80-90% of Dawn out in a real environment, where we’d shot the majority of Rise on a stage – about 75%. With Andy’s help, these movies were able to evolve and gain the look they have now.

BMD: I have to tell you, for people like me, these movies are a dream come true. I’m a guy who has an original Conquest of the Planet of the Apes poster framed on my living room wall. What has this new trilogy accomplished that you’re most proud of?

DC: When you tackle these big franchises there’s a lot of pressure. There’s fans like you who are very particular in how they view the movies, and then there are others who only have a vague understanding of the series, but still want to be wowed by a modern blockbuster. Any time you can make your own original big franchise movie, that’s amazing. But it’s really hard to tackle these characters and bring them to a new audience and convince them that they need to see a new Planet of the Apes movies. I think we’ve done this really well.

BMD: What should audiences expect from War? What does the end hold for them?

DC: It’s all about the journey Caesar goes on, and the changes he experiences in War are so extreme. He’s tested in ways that he hasn’t been in the previous two movies, and we stretch every emotional beat to its absolute limit. There are so many surprises, and it’s totally unexpected, and I think it’s just a really great time at the movies.

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