'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' Q&A with Matt Reeves, Gary Oldman, and Andy Serkis

Posted Thu Jul 3, 2014 at 06:10 AM PDT by
Matt Reeves, Gary Oldman, and Andy Serkis talk 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

High-Def Digest recently attended an early Hero Complex screening of 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' presented by Dolby. If an exciting, emotional, and powerful film weren't enough to win the evening, director Matt Reeves along with stars Gary Oldman and Andy Serkis stopped by for a question and answer session.

Below you will find the transcript of this Q&A hosted by the Mark Olsen of the L.A. Times. It's a pretty incredible look into the development and production of the film, along with the way two extremely talented artists approach their respective crafts. 

However, if you have not seen 'Dawn' just yet -- which, at this point, is probably most of you -- I would suggest holding off on reading this Q&A because this post-screening event is brimming with SPOILERS of all kinds, big and small. First, second, and final warning, friends. Proceed with caution until you've had a chance to see 'Dawn' for yourself, or if you don't care about spoilers.

Mark Olsen: This is the kind of movie Hollywood's not supposed to be making. It's got thematic depth, it's got emotional richness, a broad sense of scope. How did this happen? What was it about the first movie that made you want to be involved with the second?

Matt Reeves: I have been a lifelong 'Apes' fan. I love 'Planet of the Apes', 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes'. I love the TV show. I have the dolls. And desperately wanted to be an ape, actually. Loved that John Chambers makeup. Was really mad I couldn't get a mask to articulate the way Roddy McDowall's did. Man, why is mine not like that? So when I saw 'Rise [of the Planet of the Apes]', the thing that blew me away was how Andy played Caesar and that Weta was able to translate it in such a way that I could emotionally identify with the most human character in the story, which was not a human, it was an ape. I was like, wow, I just got my childhood wish of becoming an ape, but emotionally instead of looking like one.

Amazingly, the studio called me and they said, we'd like to talk to you about doing [the sequel], and I was incredibly excited because of how moved I was, but also because it had been a lifelong interest of mine. So I watched ['Rise'] again, and came in and spoke about it. The movie they pitched me was not this movie. We started in post-apocalyptic San Francisco and the apes... It wasn't Caesar's movie. He was one of the characters, but I wasn't sure I was going to do this movie. So they said, wait, what would you do? 

I said, well you guys just did something miraculous. You created a hero in Caesar, and you found a way to completely reinvent these movies because this gives you a reason to do them. The idea of that emotional identification with the apes, entering the inner lives of apes, that's crazy. So I said, I think this needs to start with Caesar, and I don't think you should start with the post-apocalyptic, which is of course important feature in these stories. I think you should start thinking that the humans might be gone. That we might have destroyed ourselves. So almost like '2001' with the dawn of man sequence, we have the dawn of intelligent apes sequence. It's almost terrifying at first, and then we go on. I hope that we could have a sequence like that great one in 'Rise' where we're in the ape habitat for 15 minutes and it's almost like silent film.

I figured [the studio executives] were going to say I think you should leave now. But then I said, what's so cool about 'Rise' is that it sets you on the beginning toward a trajectory toward the '68 film. That world [in 'Rise'] is nothing like the world of 'Planet of the Apes'. Obviously, this is the one moment... that moment in time where it could have gone differently. It could have been 'The Planet of the Humans and the Apes'. And that became the impetus of the story. I pitched it to them and thought they would say, goodbye, and they said, that sounds great, are you in?

And I was like, wait you're going to let me do that story? So I was shocked, because I didn't think they'd let me do that story. But they said yes and we dove in.

Matt Reeves, Gary Oldman, and Andy Serkis talk 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'Tell me a little bit more about developing the parallel story between Caesar and Koba, and then the humans.

Matt Reeves: I felt it was really important to the story that there be no villains. To me, the great thing about 'Planet of the Apes' as a world, as a story, as a metaphor, is that obviously the conceit is that they are animals have taken over the world, but the secret is we are the animals that have taken over the world. So these apes are really us, and looking into the face of apes, we see ourselves. So I thought, wow, here we are making a summer blockbuster that's really a drama and I thought there was an opportunity to have empathy for all the characters so you come to understand the anatomy of violence. And you could also be drawn into the potential for connection. Because this could have gone another way. It's actually a poignant idea, I thought, wouldn't it be great if we could create two families: An ape family that's on the ascendency, and a human family that has just gone through the worst tragedy in the history of  humanity, a family that is fractured in pieces that is trying to find a way to come together to heal itself?

So you have these two families, almost like a mythic western, these two tribes that both want to survive, that are both on this same area of land and the question is, will they turn to violence, or is there another way? To let all of that play out in a way you understood how each character arrived at their worldview. How Koba, having been treated the way he was would have a very justifiable worldview. And Dreyfus [Gary Oldman's character] having lost his entire family to a flu that came from the apes would have an understandable mistrust and terror of them. But also that there would be a chance to try to find a way and see if there was a way to make [cohabitation] work. And that's what the story became.

Andy, I wanted to ask you about the response to the character of Caesar. Have you been surprised by how much people responded to the character from the previous film and were you excited by the idea of returning and digging deeper with that character?

Andy Serkis: Yeah, what I loved about Caesar when I first read the original script for 'Rise', it was incredibly... you know, I almost forgot it was an ape. The trajectory of the character, what he'd gone through, playing a character from infancy through where he believes he's human, in effect, and then getting to a point in his adolescence where he realizes he's an outsider, and his father was not his real father, and is suddenly discarded and thrown in with a bunch of apes who he cannot connect with. So again, he feels outside and very, very conflicted. Having to somehow find a way of galvanizing them and leading them to freedom and breaking out and taking that responsibility. Forget the fact that he was an ape. The trajectory of playing that character was incredible. I just forgot he was an ape for a moment. It was just that well written. It wasn't patronizing and didn't undermine the integrity of being an ape; it was just this complex, rich mix of an internal conflict of someone who feels an outsider. 

So coming into this story, Matt [Reeves] and I met, and he told me where he wanted to drop anchor with this story, which was ten years later and Caesar now being responsible for taking on the mantle of leadership into another generation. It just became an even more enriched and complex experience. I think it's fair to say it's one of the most challenging rolls I've played, in a sense. We didn't want to get to a place where the apes are too articulate, particularly Caesar. We didn't want to jump a few generations and they're all sitting around chatting quite freely and very articulate. We wanted to find this moment, as Matt was saying, where we're really seeing them and every aspect about them evolving. Caesar has inherited this enhanced intelligence drug, the ALZ drug, so he's rapidly evolving in many ways. Finding the journey though his physicality and his emotional intelligence and his sense of being a leader, responsibility of course of having a family, a counsel, a wider circle, and an entire community to take care of. And throughout that see this evolution, this reawakening of his human side once he comes into contact with Malcolm [Jason Clarke's character]. We spent most of this film very, very minutely pitching the character up and down, twisting and turning over the course of many takes and many scenes, trying to really identify his journey. To not over anthropomorphize, not make him too human, and yet keep some of his ape behavior and really play that in terms of conflict. So it was a great challenge.

Gary, Matt was saying the story doesn't have a traditional villain. I think in some ways, in a more simplistic version of the story, your character [Dreyfus] might be the most villainous, but here he's not the warmonger. He's not a hawk in the way that character could be. Was that one of the things that appealed to you, that it was much richer and complicated, more than simply a guy who just wants to fight the apes?

Gary Oldman: When I first read the script, it says 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' on the cover. And then when I turned the last page, it was a surprising read because it was about family and community and loss and compassion and all of these things. It was just not what I expected. And Matt and I had a conversation. As he said, it was a purposeful thing not to make anyone a villain in the traditional sense. The character Dreyfus, in fact, gives Malcolm the benefit of the doubt. At one point, [Malcolm] says I'm gonna go back [to speak with Caesar], and Dreyfus says to him, you have three days. Now, [Dreyfus] is airing on the side of caution because he's saying, look I'm going to the armory and I'm going to have a Plan B. But he's not lacking compassion. Like Andy's Caesar, [Dreyfus] has this mantle of leadership and responsibility, and when the apes turn up at the camp, it does reignite that loss and that pain and blame, I guess, too. Look, Dreyfus wants to save the human race, I mean, thank you. And don't forget that the medicine that helps Caesar's wife and also helps him when he's shot is 20th Century medicine, which is a human invention...

Andy Serkis: Tested on apes, though.

[Audience laughter.]

Gary Oldman: Where do you come down, you know, that's a shame. We should all just jump into the sea.

[More audience laughter.]  

Gary Oldman: For me, [Dreyfus] makes the heroic gesture. He makes the ultimate sacrifice. 

Matt Reeves: The apes attack the humans completely unjustified. What Mark Bomback, the writer, and I really wanted to create in this moment just before it happens is that [the humans and the apes] are incredibly close. They miss making it go another direction -- though it might have unwound in another way because, again, this is all about our nature -- but there was a chance that the first step [to coexistence] could have worked. They restored the power. The humans would have left. There was this bond that had been created. Malcolm could have explained it to [Dreyfus]. But it all turns. So what is [Dreyfus] supposed to think at the end? It's a very sacrificial gesture that he makes. He does believe he is saving the human race. One of the thing that I felt strongly about, the things that drove the characters to extremism that had a lot to do with family. Dreyfus had lost his family and at that point, giving the memory of his family...he's going to sacrifice himself because it's the last thing he can do. The last gesture he could make that might give his life meaning. [Dreyfus] wasn't meant to be a villain.

Did you feel like you had to top the Golden Gate Bridge sequence from the first film?

Matt Reeves: We had a battle scene where you couldn't root for the apes. I'm sure some people do because there's that certain pleasure of going, yeah here they go, but it's meant to be a tragedy. That was a challenge because, here's a moment that supposedly the audience is waiting for. Apes are holding machine guns in each arm and riding horses and all this stuff that everybody thinks the big summer movie's supposed to do. And I wanted you to feel sadly about it. I wanted you to feel like it was a nightmare. A fever dream. Something terrible. And I kept pinching myself that they were letting us make this movie. 

I suppose the thing that's sort of the more traditional thing is the mythic showdown -- in a way that I absolutely love -- between Caesar and Koba, and Malcolm and Dreyfus below, in this suspense sense. The movie is a war drama, and people are expecting... so much of the 'Planet of the Apes' is watching the humans get theirs, watching us be destroyed by the apes. And I wanted exactly the opposite. It was an nontraditional thing for a studio to let us do.

What is it about the image of an ape on a horse with a gun?

Andy Serkis: It is interesting seeing animals using other animals as transport. I remember we talked about it. It's a very strange thing. What other situation do you ever see that happen? It just doesn't really happen that often.

[Matt Reeves cracks up.]

Andy Serkis: Actually, I have to say, the horse we had on set -- mine was called Shirley -- didn't really like us being apes. We went and had riding lessons leading up to the shoot, and we went as apes. Mounted the horses as apes. Dismounted. The way that we held them. Making these vocalizations. Really, just to train them so when we turned up on set, they weren't going to be freaked out...

And then we turned up on set and they were freaked out.

Matt Reeves: And one of the performers was freaked out about horses, and he was giving bad mojo to the horses and, suddenly, Shirley was not so happy. 

Andy Serkis: Actually, I'm going to hand this off to Gary. He can tell you the story from his perspective, as to what he saw when he walked out, when the doors first opened at the compound.

Gary Oldman: When [the apes] first appear at the compound, we have that wonderful shot of the blank screen that sort of separates, and you see Caesar there on the horse. The horse freaked out when you said "Apes!". And it started doing this sideways, I don't know what you call it, a horsey shuffle, and he hit the other horse and then the other horse and they all started getting freaked out by this. So what happened is, they put the main actors, I think there were about five, and they put them on red step ladders that they had got from Home Depot, or something like that. 

So my image of first working with Andy Serkis is a man in a unitard with a camera strapped to his head on a stepladder...

[Audience laughter.]

Andy Serkis: That was our show of strength.

Hero Complex Q&A for 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' -- Mark Olsen, Matt Reeves, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis

Matt, I have to ask you. Andy has done this sort of performance capture work a number of times. What was it like then for you to be stepping into this world for the first time?

Matt Reeves: I was actually really terrified because the thing that's most important to me as a director in working on a movie, is actually my collaboration with the actors. Not having done mo-cap before, know about it obviously and Andy through his work, I was like, how exactly is it done, even though I know sort-of how it's done. I thought, wouldn't there be an obstacle to my interaction with him? Would there be some technical thing I needed to know about, how to work so we could navigate this thing together? The first thing I did was ask for the footage of Andy from 'Rise', from the whole movie, with him wearing his facial cam and the unitard. And then I asked to see every shot of Caesar so I could see what's going on.

It was a huge relief because I saw immediately the reason I was so affected by Caesar was that Andy was giving an incredibly emotional performance. In fact, in certain scenes, scenes that I had been deeply affected by when I watched the movie, I saw Andy doing even more. That scene where he was against the glass being abandoned, in 'Rise', he gets so emotional, pressing his face against the glass. Andy was doing all of that. And, in fact, there's a mixture, a kind of rage that he has of being left that he's crying. But there was even more vulnerability in his eyes. There was even more there. I was blown away. I actually spoke to Weta. I was so blown away that they could do this. Andy doesn't look like an ape, but you're translating his performance onto the anatomy of an ape. That's astonishing. I said, but I even noticed in a few places, that something he was doing, and I thought, can we get even more of that? And they said, absolutely. That's what we're here about. We're here to try and get as much of the emotion that the actors give and put them into faces of the apes.

So the exciting thing was that the staging of the scene, the shooting of the scene is, to begin with, absolutely the same as anything I've ever done. Basically, the [mo-cap performers] are wearing these cameras, these outfits, but once you forget about that, it's basically, I'd say to Andy, where do you think you'd stand in this scene? I thought there'd be some technical, oh wait I gotta make sure we get the gizwagonflu, but none of that happened.

The hard part was after that. The hard part was getting actors who played the humans to replay their scenes afterwards and make it clear to them that the shot that had just happened with Andy, that might have been amazing, was not what I could use in the movie. That was reference for Weta. And it meant that the thing that might have happened that was magic they had to recreate on their own. For the most part. There were some shots where I said, come on, they're so good, you guys gotta find a way to just paint Andy out and actually put Caesar over him. There are a few shots like that in the movie, but in general the actors had to reproduce it. We had to get the camera operators to reproduced certain shots. All the shots that Andy was in, without him in it. So I got the camera operator doing this [mimes looking at playback monitors], what did Andy do? 

And it's a very weird... You need those things because those are the shots you put Andy into. That's really hard, and the editing is the biggest... perplexing [wants to curse, but doesn't]. It's crazy because these ape shots take forever to do. The last shot of the movie, that's the last shot we finaled. We finaled that probably a week ago Thursday. Literally, saw it, there it is, came in, put it in, okay last day, good, there it is, let's put it in. And that process means that you're spending a long time looking at the movie in a form that it's not going to be in. The great thing is, it actually works. There's a version of the movie I could show you -- I won't, but I could, or we might one day -- which is the actors interacting not with apes, but with humans and other humans in unitards and head cams. For the first five minutes, you're going, this is the weirdest thing I've ever seen, but it actually works. You actually get emotionally involved because of the performances. You actually take the leap, like seeing theatre or something. 

That part of it, I have to ignore 90 percent of what else is in the frame. Ignore the fact that Andy doesn't look like an ape. When you're doing mo-cap, huge crowd scenes, each of those performances is actually a performance, but you don't get them all at once. You have to build them and layer them. So when we shot on the set, like what Gary was saying, it was five guys on ladders, yet that scene has literally a thousand apes in it. We had to build all those shots. So your mind starts to twist, and you start thinking this is never going to work and I'm going to look like an idiot. I have no idea how Rupert Wyatt, doing the first movie, because I at least knew that 'Rise' had worked, but he didn't know. He certainly knew other movies that had done it had worked, but I would have had a nervous breakdown. And I almost did.

Matt Reeves, Gary Oldman, and Andy Serkis talk 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'Andy, are you anticipating the technology, knowing the next stage that is to come, or are you in the scene with the actors as if you were in a costume?

Andy Serkis: There's nothing to anticipate. There is nothing other than the moment. Acting the part. Playing the part. And working with the director and the other actors. Being in the moment. Inhabiting the character. And living it. There's no difference. You do that whether you're playing a live action role or a performance capture role. The acting process is entirely the same. There is no magic. The great thing about this movie, with the pressure of the shoot and the scale of the production, that Matt, to his credit, spend every single day, every single moment, creating the performances with actors on that set. With a huge film crew standing there waiting to get shots underway, where to set the cameras and everything. It wasn't about that. And that's very, very unusual on a film of this size. It was entirely about the drama. Entirely about mining every single moment for its dramatic content. As an actor, and I maintained this through every single performance capture I've ever played versus a live action role, there is absolutely no difference whatsoever. 

You have to imagine what your character looks like. One thing you do get to do, in the rehearsal bay, you're working in a motion capture volume where I can see on, like a magic mirror, it's the equivalent of getting a costume on for the first time, when you go in for a costume fitting for an actor and you put on a pair of shoes or you put on a jacket. Whatever. And you start to feel like, yeah this feels like the character. You do that in the motion capture stage by looking a big screen where I can see Caesar standing there. And I raise my right arm, and Caesar raises his right arm. And I get into character. I start to move my body around and Caesar starts to move his body around in real time to what I'm doing. Your body then encodes that, your muscle memory encodes that, so when you go onto set, you know what your "costume" is. But that's the only difference. The rest of it is purse acting.

Gary Oldman: It does put some new challenges to the acting process. I don't know if the Actor's Studio, or Stella Alder, has updated their program for those moments where, okay, now you've got to [act] to no one. [Laughter] "you've caught the magic, now you really need..." I guess, it's the same way you do it in a play, but in that way you have found it in rehearsal, and you've had weeks and weeks of rehearsal so you are actually recreating every night, or trying to capture every night something you found in the rehearsal that was just instinctive. And then technique takes over. But [acting against motion capture] is somewhat a new compartment for acting, doing a performance, doing a take, and then [the director] saying to the actor, now you've got to recreate it without anybody there.

Matt Reeves: The thing is, with green screen, that kind of stuff you've had to do for a long time. But on this level of intimacy, that's unusual. But that's actually the part of it that I think will change as the technology changes. Someday people will look back and say, they did it like that? And it worked? Because it's absurd. The basic part of it, the important part which this became, is getting in a space with actors and finding the truth of the scene and then shooting that scene. Some of these other processes, I think, will go away. 

[recording cuts out. My apologies. I just learned iPhones won't record sound AND take pictures at the same time.]

What references or Easter Eggs to the original series did you put into the film?

Matt Reeves: There are references like "ape not kill ape", the idea of the cannon. There are a lot of details that refer back. Even the idea of apes on horses, that's a reference to [the originals]. That's why people, who know the series, got so excited. That's the thing that I remember. When I saw that first movie, and the nets get thrown over the humans, and you look up and see that gorilla on horseback, it's the craziest thing you've ever seen. 

So ['Dawn'] is meant to be both new, because you've never seen an ape, tribal-like, dawn of apes thing, but a lot of the details actually refer back to the trajectory of the originals. So the movie is on that trajectory. The ideas was to show the seeds of certain things. We're doing things like the language. On the [ape compound] wall, there were pictograms. If you look back at the pictograms, you'll actually see the history...the idea is Caesar is starting a whole new civilization. Actually on there is the Golden Gate Bridge, because that incident is really seminal to the creation of the ape world, to reflect the conflict that happened there. "Ape not kill ape", obviously, the beginnings of laws. So there are a lot of details, but I wouldn't describe them as Easter Eggs because they're quite apparent in the movie.


Thanks again to Dolby for hosting us, and Hero Complex for the terrific Q&A. If audience reaction is any indication, the movie works really well, and is a rare summer blockbuster that is equal parts intelligent, human drama and suspenseful action. I can't recommend it highly enough.

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Tags: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes', Matt Reeves, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, Dolby, Q&A (all tags)