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Time Warping With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Director Matt Reeves!

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I went through a bit of a personal time warp when I met with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves shortly after the global premiere of the Fox release. When I sat down with the gregarious and chatty Reeves, who previously made his mark by creating TV's Felicity and directing Cloverfield before helming the current number one movie in the country, I started our conversation by showing him some issues of the Planet of the Apes fanzine that I self-published twenty years ago when I was in high school (way before that kind of thing could remotely have been considered "cool" or "retro"). With that, the lifelong Apes fan began fondly reminiscing about his own boyhood love of the franchise, and away we went. What follows is the transcript of our conversation, which includes details on his particular approach to illuminating the apes' dawn, where he sees the series going next, and how he's tried to tie in with the larger Apes legacy:

So, as we start, I wanted to share something with you.

Oh my God.

This is a fanzine that I published in 1995.

Oh my God!

So, twenty years ago.

So cool!

Yeah. So this is, I did this myself. I was in high school.

Oh, really?

I was a sophomore in high school.


So, for me, this is a surreal moment where I wish I could go back in time to myself and be like, "One day..."

That is so cool. You know, I was, 'cause as a kid, I was so obsessed with Planet of the Apes, and I had all the dolls. I had the tree house, and actually --

All the Mego figures?

All the Mego figures. I had the treehouse and the cave set, and the cave set I didn't like 'cause it was basically cardboard, but that treehouse was -- and actually, weirdly, not weirdly, but Michael Giacchino, who I've worked with two times before, when we were doing my last film, which was a small film called Let Me In, we were scoring it, and he was working on it inside of an office in his house which is filled with all of his favorite sort of memorabilia, and the room had a section of it that was filled with all those dolls, and I was so jealous. I was like, "Oh my God, those dolls, those were my favorite!" I had all of them, and then, one day, I guess my parents just threw them away, and I lost them, and it was heartbreaking.

So, on this movie, one day when we were scoring, I showed up at his house and, you know, he was writing the music and he was gonna play me something, and he said, "I have a present for you," and it was the treehouse. He had gone onto eBay and got me the treehouse, so...I have been obsessed with Planet of the Apes in a crazy way since when I was a kid, and I love that John Chambers makeup and all that stuff, so, the Sacred Scrolls and all, it's just so cool. The one -- I loved Planet of the Apes, but the one that also really captivated me, which I thought was terrifying, was Beneath the Planet of the Apes. God, I loved that movie.

That scarred a bunch of kids, I think.

So scary! I mean, they pulled off their faces, "I reveal my inmost self unto my God," and you're like, "Noooo!"

(Note: It's true. Read my retro review of Beneath here.)

That's kind of where I wanted to go with my question. I think the Apes series is subversive, in that this is blockbuster quote-unquote family entertainment, and we end the second film by not just killing our lead, but destroying the Earth, and saying, "That's it. The Earth is dead. See ya later."

It does what the best, for me, what the best genre films do, which is that they use a fantasy to explore something that's real. And I think that the great thing about Planet of the Apes, for me, is this notion of the conceit being that the apes have taken over, the animals have taken over the world, which is this weird kind of denial in ourselves about the fact that we are animals, and the secret is, of course, that we are animals, and that this becomes, then -- it can become -- and I think the series, this is what the series does at its best, is an exploration of our nature, and the things that sort of tear us apart, but also the hope for the ways we could come together, and that was very much what I wanted this film to be about.

I thought this was a -- knowing the trajectory and trying to think about the original series, and the way this -- what I thought was so neat about Rise was it was this crazy origin story that was from a totally new perspective, and that you could be emotionally inside of the apes in a way that was not possible when the original -- as much as I loved the John Chambers makeup, this emotional identification that happens with Caesar is something totally new, and in a way, it's a completely new version of the series.

But it still has a knowledge of the other series, the way the Icarus [Charlton Heston's spaceship in the '68 film, referenced in Rise] went up and all that stuff, and I thought this was a great chance, if they would let me do it, to come in and do a moment where it could have been "Planet of the Humans and the Apes," and see the ways in which that didn't happen, but also see the ways in which it could've happened, and make the movie about empathizing with all of the characters, and sort of anatomy of violence, to see where violence comes from.

So, in the Q&A, you alluded to the idea that we all know where this is headed. This is headed towards Chuck Heston getting chased through a cornfield.

Well, not literally, but yes, exactly.

In a figurative sense, in that, once you say Planet of the Apes, there's an iconography.

Absolutely. Classic film.

And people who haven't seen the film know the iconography of the film.

Exactly, yeah. Well, what's cool, too, is thinking about the younger generations who haven't seen that movie, and the idea that they would discover it through this, and they would go back and look at those movies, like, that's pretty mind-blowing too.

So my question is, in terms of the original series, it was bigger than Taylor [Heston's character]. 

Sure, absolutely.

So, you have essentially 2,000 years of story available to you. 

Yeah, that's exactly right.

Is this series bigger than Caesar?

I think it is. I think that Caesar is like, he's like a mythic, almost god-like, Moses-like figure.

Is he a tragic figure?

I think it is a tragic figure.

He almost has to be.

He has to be, because the truth of the matter is, is that, as Andy [Serkis] describes, he's connected very deeply to humans and apes. Those are two parts of him, and reconciling that is the struggle of his life, and the idea of this story is that this is kind of a mythic moment where there could've been peace, and that moment is missed. The whole thing, for me, was building toward that thing between him and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) at the end.

When they put their heads together. That's the closest they'll ever be.

That's the closest they'll ever be, and that's the last moment of that, and that he has to engage in a fight he doesn't want. How is that gonna test him? How is that gonna test his leadership? He doesn't want this fight, but this is a fight he knows -- the die has been cast. He's gotta find a way through this, and he knows that he has to protect his family and this burgeoning civilization of apes, it's their survival. And so, that's a pretty dark path that he has to go down, and there also is the idea, to me, it's generational.

There were other Caesars, right? And that was why we tried to sort of reference things, like the Sacred Scrolls, and "Ape shall not kill ape," and all these things. The idea is, like, for me, what was new was to be able to reference those things, but to see the beginnings of everything, and I felt like that we hadn't seen. The one thing that I wasn't so interested in was starting, when I first came in, the story started that the apes were already very articulate, they already could talk, very much like they do in the '68 film, and I was like, "Wait a minute! We've missed too much!" I said, "The whole point is, I already know what happened in that film." The question is getting there.

Was it set further ahead?

I don't actually know the year that it was. It must have been, but it couldn't have been so much further because Caesar was still alive, but they were, I guess the idea was -- the thing about it is, the conceit is there's a choice that could be made about the ALZ-113. It could've been a conceit that it just gave them the potential for intelligence, or there's the idea that it literally continues to increase their intelligence, and I chose specifically to define it as this was the source of their sentience, of their intelligence.

And I wanted that to them be giving them the potential to "become," because I thought that, in Rise, what was so powerful was watching Caesar "become," and watching him gain the ability to express himself, and that, I thought, was delicious, and I wanted to see that with the apes, and that was the thing I thought you'd never seen before. I thought, we can both do something that's part of this larger legacy, refers to the canon, but at the same time, is something you've never seen before, which is the creation of an ape world, and see how this all began, and to see the beginnings of all those things, and see Caesar, who is this sort of, you know, seminal figure in ape history.

I noted, while I was watching it, what felt like almost echoes of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, structurally.

(Note: Read my retro review of Battle here)

People have said that. It was not a deliberate intention to actually evoke that. I mean, it was more the gestalt of all of the Apes films that we were trying to refer to. And actually, I haven't seen Battle since I was a kid, I'd have to go back -- you would think, and, actually, now that we're gonna do the next one, 'cause I'm writing the next one with Mark Bomback, that we would go back and watch -- I'm gonna go back and watch all the films now. I didn't have time to do that. It was like, this was so fast, all of this, and so, it was much more my memory of the films, and I remembered them really well, especially those two. I mean, Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes, those movies, I can't tell you how many times I've watched those movies, I love them so much. So, those were probably the most foremost in my mind, but I'm gonna go back and watch them all.

What was your entree into this universe? What was that moment when you were like, "I dig this"?

As a kid? I mean, it was the first movie, and I would say it was -- the moment that I'll never forget is that moment when the net was thrown, and you look up, and you see gorillas on horseback. I mean, that image is so terrifying, and captivating -- and thrilling at the same time that it's terrifying. And the crazy thing was, of course you fantasize about being, you know, Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, but there's part of you that also just so looked at Darth Vader and thought that was the coolest thing ever. And I really kind of loved the way the gorillas looked. I wanted to look like a gorilla. I just thought it was so neat.

And they made all those Don Post masks that were very successfully just because of that.

Yeah, but the thing that really bummed me out is that the John Chambers makeup had the different latex appliances so they could actually articulate their mouths, and I was so upset that I never had a mask where I could articulate the mouth. That really, that bummed me out.

You were referring to Michael Giacchino, and...

Who, by the way, is as big an Apes fan as I am. He wanted to be an ape when he was a kid. We talked about this. It was so funny.

Well, and I wanted to ask about, because I felt, again, I use the term "echoes." I felt echoes of [Jerry] Goldsmith and Leonard Rosenman.

That's exactly right. I mean, the thing about it is is that, first of all, what I love about his score is that Michael, I feel, is a composer working in a mode that's not done any more today, which is that he writes memorable themes to movies. He's a filmmaker, he's a storyteller, and the first thing he played me was a suite that was inspired by a viewing of a version of the movie that was almost three hours long, and had, you know, Andy wearing just his -- there was no effects, not a single effect in it. I was horrified having to show it to him, but he so loved the movie, and he wrote this suite, and in it, it had that theme that plays, the processional theme that plays at the end, and I was so moved.

I felt like it was, like, some classic -- somehow, he'd written anew a classic theme. I was like, this feels like Dances With Wolves, or, like, a John Barry thing. It sounds like, you know, Out of Africa, like, "Wow, it's so beautiful and expansive and epic." I said, "That's the movie we have to make. I don't know if we've made that movie yet, but that's the movie I wanna make." But part of the thing that we were really aware of, and that Michael really wanted to do, was pay homage to the Jerry Goldsmith score, so there are little, subtle, playful things like, literally, there are these bowls that one of our percussionists, Emil, played on the original.

We literally have the percussionist from the original film playing on the film, and he played these bowls that were made, that Emil had made, for Jerry Goldsmith's score, and he talked to Michael, and Michael said, "Can we make a new set? I don't want to make the exact same, I want its own sound." And so, we had these percussive bowls, and he did stuff with the xylophone, and the mallets, and all that stuff. And so, all of those little homages that you're picking up were intentional. Michael was really careful about wanting to sort of pay homage to where this film series came from.


Many thanks to Mr. Reeves for being so generous with his time and energy. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is currently playing at theaters everywhere, and to hear the audio from this conversation, as well as my chat with writer Mark Bomback, don't miss our "All In on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes!" episode of the MovieFilm Podcast. You can download at the link, or listen via the embed below: