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With War for the Planet of the Apes (which we reviewed here), director Matt Reeves closes out a trilogy that has fully showcased the remarkable possibilities of motion-capture performance. In War, the digitally conjured chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are fully center stage; it is truly the apes’ story, with humans as secondary presences.
Reeves, who took over for Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ Rupert Wyatt when he assumed the reins of Dawn of…, admits to having some misgivings about dealing with a CGI cast. “I love to deal with actors; it’s one of my favorite parts of the moviemaking process,” he says. “As a director, I’m always trying to put myself into the shoes of the characters, and the angles that are chosen all have to do with finding an emotional compass about feels right. It’s an intuitive thing, and that’s the way actors work, and I was worried on Dawn that because it was such a technical project, it would interfere with that process. But it actually doesn’t, because what I learned on Dawn is that performance-capture technology is specifically that; everything is about performance.
“It’s all about how you stage it,” he continues, “and allowing the actors to interact and capturing those moments. Often when you’re doing these effects movies, there’s not a lot of room for improvisation and discovery, because everything has been planned out so meticulously—and we did that here—but what was surprising was, when I did all the scenes with the [ape] actors, it was like shooting an independent movie. We were able to change things and evolve and come up with moments. We would shoot the actors in these outfits; there’s a cut of the movie before it had any effects in it that’s not Planet of the Apes, it’s Planet of the Guys in Lycra Suits. But it actually works, and told us whether it was working emotionally. There was the technical side that followed to be able to turn that into what you see, and that part was very complex and difficult, but while we were filming, it was all about creating an environment where the actors could play, and we could discover those moments.”
Over the course of the new Apes films, Andy Serkis’ rebellious, fierce and troubled Caesar has become not only the compelling center of this story, but a standard-bearer for CG screen characters. With Lord of the Rings’ Gollum and King Kong under his belt for Peter Jackson, Serkis had plenty such experience when he came aboard Rise, and Reeves wanted to push his possibilities further in the sequels. The director recalls watching Serkis/Caesar’s before-and-after footage from Rise, “and what I noticed was that Andy was so good in many [of his performance-capture scenes] that he was even better than Caesar was in the end. So I wanted to make sure to get as much as we could of Andy’s performance in the final version of Dawn, and we continued to do that on War.
“Andy will go anywhere you want him to go, and we’ve had a wonderful collaboration and exploration. It’s taken five years to do these two movies, and I’ve spent a lot of that time with Andy, and we’ve developed a shorthand together. As Mark Bomback and I were writing War, it was a different experience to know Andy and craft scenes we knew he was going to play. Going back to the same well, already having this relationship, we were able to give him some very cool stuff to do.”
If Caesar is the tortured soul of Planet of the Apes, his orangutan advisor and confidant Maurice, played by Karin Konoval, becomes its empathetic heart in War. “Maurice is one of Mark’s and my favorite characters,” Reeves says. “He’s sort of Caesar’s conscience, and though he doesn’t speak, there’s something about their non-verbal communication that makes you lean in to watch it. I love the quiet moments he has with Nova [a mute human girl played by Amiah Miller in War], and we had a scene like that in Dawn with Alexander [Kodi Smit-McPhee], where Maurice becomes fascinated with his comic book, and they sit together, just reading. There’s something about that interaction between the species that is fascinating.
“People have asked me, ‘The orangutan’s real, right?’ and I tell them, ‘No, not at all.’ It’s a combination of the visual realism of the CGI and the soul of the character that Karin brings so vividly to life. She’s an amazing actress, and spent a lot of time with orangutans. She went to a zoo, and actually became very close with an orangutan there. They would paint together and do all these other activities, so she has a very intuitive feel for how to express herself through Maurice.”
The flip side of the gentle Maurice is the antagonistic Koba (Toby Kebbell), the human-hating chimpanzee who becomes Caesar’s nemesis in Dawn. He’s central to what is arguably the best single scene in the Apes trilogy, in which Koba infiltrates a human armory, acts like a silly monkey to get a couple of soldiers to let their guard down, and then suddenly, chillingly turns violent on them. “That’s one of my favorite scenes too,” Reeves says. “Mark and I came up with that based on the notion of people underestimating animals or others who are different from them, and writing them off as less intelligent. Koba, we felt, was smart enough to perceive and manipulate that, and that made him fascinating to watch. We thought it was an opportunity to bring some humor into a scene that would then take a very rapid and dark turn.
“What was so interesting, and it’s a good mo-cap story, is that Mark and I wrote that Koba starts taking a drink with the soldiers and then spits the liquor into their faces, and when they open their eyes, he’s holding a gun on them. When we started rehearsing, Toby, who’s amazing, said, ‘Can I try something? This is very personal to me.’ He told me about how he used to go to pubs, and some of the scariest fights he ever saw started with guys who were being very jovial, and one minute being your friend and then turning on you in a flash. So at the moment I thought he was going to pick up the gun, instead he started patting the guys on the head and on their legs, and they were laughing, laughing, and then he picked up the gun and started toying with it. That we did not write; it was Toby who came up with that brilliant idea, which we could add right there on the set. It just demonstrated how much improvisation and freedom is possible when you’re doing performance capture, so even a big effects film can still allow the kind of freedom you have when you’re making an independent movie.”