Rise of the Planet of the Apes totally revived the Apes franchise into a smart drama series that pits human against ape. And now Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has taken that drama to the next level. But how far do we need to go until the humans become the dumbed-down slaves we see in the original film? We asked Dawn director Matt Reeves.
Very small spoilers ahead.
In the first part of our two-part, exclusive interview with Reeves for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we plunge into the the ape world building, look for shout-outs to the original (Caesar's son, for example, is named Blue Eyes) and discuss the de-evolution humans must go through to get back to where this all started.
The majority of this movie takes place with the apes, among the apes. Almost all of the dialogue is between the apes; very little time is spent with humans. Why did you decide to spend the mass of this film with the apes?
Matt Reeves: It's an ape-centric movie exactly. When I first got involved, when they approached me about doing the film, they sent me an outline for a story that actually wasn't centered around the apes. The apes were a part of it but it wasn't really their story. And it wasn't Caesar's story. The thing about Rise that so affected me was that the big secret of the film was the most human character (the character that you most related to) was not a human at all; it was Andy Serkis as Caesar. I was so affected by that.
As a kid, I was obsessed by Planet of the Apes. I wanted to be an ape so badly. I loved the John Chambers makeup. I had all the dolls. I had the treehouse set, the cave set and all of the toys. When I saw Rise, I realized I finally had my childhood wish of becoming an ape, but not by looking like one—but by feeling the emotions of one. I thought that, that was the highest level of emotional identification with a CG creation that I had ever experienced. I thought it was so moving what Andy did and the way Weta was able to turn him into Caesar. I got very emotional when they abandoned him in the habitat.
When I got involved with them I said, if I were to do this, I want to make it Caesar's story. Because, to me, he's the hero of Rise, and that's what makes this whole series worth doing. Which is as a kid, I was so fascinated with the apes and the way they looked, but this is the first time where you emotionally become the apes at this level. And I think it's a reason to re-do this story. And the cool thing is to do different stories all along the line that lead toward the original but actually aren't the original. That's really fresh; I've never seen that before. I'm less interested in doing a post-apocalyptic human story, because I feel like that we've seen before. I'm more interested in seeing an ape creation world story, seeing what the other apes have created. 2001 has that beginning section which is the "dawn of man." I thought wouldn't it be great if Dawn is the dawn of intelligent apes. And we look at the world in the beginning of the story and think maybe humans are gone. Maybe humans did themselves in, and this is now the species that inherited the Earth. I thought that could be really exciting and new and powerful. That was really my goal and amazingly, the studio said OK.
I'm interested in ape world building. How much do the apes want to be like humans and how much do they want to avoid being like humans?
It's probably the first Planet of the Apes film to spend this much time just with apes alone in their society. I can't think of one that dedicates this amount to time to ape world building.
That was absolutely the goal. The human characters are critically important to the story. I wanted the story to be, in essence, a story of two families: a human family that has been so wounded by the viral apocalypse that they are trying to heal themselves and become a family again, and the ape family, which is on the ascendence and starting to expand and grow and develop and evolve. I just thought that, that development and evolutionary story is one that was so delicious just to see the intelligence as it was sort of born into the apes in Rise. I thought, you can't skip that, that's what this whole movie should be about. The stuff in Rise that blew me away was the stuff in the habitat, where you're watching as Caesar is trying to figure out how to master this situation. That moment where he says his first word, it's so powerful. That's what this movie should be about. This is the chance to explore the one moment in time, given we already know the ending of the story because of Planet of the Apes, that this was the one moment in time where it could have been Planet of the Humans and the Apes. And in order to do that, you really need to get inside that ape family and understand the stakes. It's one thing for Caesar to be a revolutionary the way he is in the first movie. But it's another thing for him to lead and to make him into this mythic character. And that ambition, I almost wanted it to be like the Godfather with apes. Have him sort of be the Don Corleone leader and figure. And the studio was on board, as a result it meant we spent way more intimate time with apes than probably any of the films before.
How did you decide how uplifted apes would behave as a culture? Obviously "ape shall not kill ape" is a well established part of the Planet of the Apes canon (and it was fun to see that introduced).
I was very interested in this idea of seeing their development as it kind of reflected our own, but I wanted it to still be uniquely ape. The idea is apes don't need clothing because they're apes. Every time we talked about adornment, unless it's symbolic which may mean sometime because of their intelligence, the clothing seemed superfluous and silly. Apes are so much stronger than we are, they don't' need all the things that we do. The idea of "what they need in their world" we wanted it to be driven by the fact that they are apes, that they could live in the wild, that they were intelligent, that they are seven times stronger than we were. And that they had this kind of developing level of expression and communication. I was excited to have it tie in some way into the canon of the apes story. And to begin with some of that lawgiver stuff.
When you know the ending of the story, the story ceases to become about what happened. And it starts becoming about "well how did that happen?" When a story is about the how instead of the what. And the why instead of the what, it's all about character. This was all about the intimate revelation of how the world that we know from the original film came into being. We wanted this to be the beginning. There are all really excited aspects about that that we got to explore in Dawn.
Was naming Caesar's son Blue Eyes a nod to the first film? Bright Eyes?
It was. It was. It was definitely done with that being a part of what we're aware of. It just felt like this was in a way a reference to Bright Eyes, but because of the ALC1-13 all of the apes eyes were all green. And we thought it would be interesting in this next step of evolution if there was something different about his son. And that, that had a kind of mythic quality too, and he was going to be tested and unexperienced and uninformed having to live in the shadow of the his father and the creator of their civilization. We thought it would be cool to give him something special that differentiates him. Also given that this was a society mostly made up mostly of apes that don't speak and don't speak, I recognize him, but I wanted to make sure the audience recognized him as well. So he had blue eyes as a way of differentiating him as well.
Do you think we will ever see a new Apes movie that features the dumbing down of the human race?
Yeah, there's all kinds of things that we're on the exploration of. It's not necessarily that we're meaning to go exactly back to the '68 film and redo that film exactly as it is. But, to me, it's like a signpost up ahead. There's a trajectory, we're in that direction. And all of those details that we know become a kind of unraveling. It's like, "how did we get there and how did that happen?" That is something that I'm very interested in exploring. That world is so rich to me, being the world that I was obsessed with as a child. I'm very interested in trying to, sort of, wind our way back there. And figure out how we got from here to there and let that be part of the story as well.
And it's tricky because Taylor is technically from the past?
Someone was saying to me, which I thought was cool, that Rise is this revolutionary story and by the Planet of the Apes the whole thing is inverted and the apes are the dominant species and humans are in bondage. There's this whole idea of dominance and revolution and grappling with our nature and the ways in which we're like each other. Dawn has a lot to do with the evolutionary development and the oncoming war.