If “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the second chapter in the reboot of the much-loved sci-fi franchise, feels like a different sort of blockbuster sequel — deeper, richer, more involving — that may be because director Matt Reeves is not your typical blockbuster director.
“I’d been offered a lot of tent-pole movies after my last two films, but I hadn’t taken one because I never found one that I felt I could tell from a personal enough perspective,” says the 46-year-old director of “Cloverfield” and “Let Me In.”
“What tells me where to put the camera and how to talk to the actors — or what the movie should look or feel like — is something instinctual that comes from an emotional understanding of the world,” says Reeves.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” picks up 10 years after the previous film, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Humanity has largely died off, due to the spread of an experimental virus, while leading ape Caesar (performed by Andy Serkis via motion capture) and his small band of evolved primates are thriving in the ancient forests near San Francisco. The human race has not entirely disappeared, though, and a small scouting party of survivors led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) stumbles upon them. Conflict seems inevitable, but the film has us rooting for both Caesar and Malcolm as they try to overcome their groups’ suspicion of each other.
When Reeves was presented with the project, he initially turned it down because the script was focused more on the humans than the apes.
“It wasn’t actually Caesar’s story, and the thing that so moved me in ‘Rise’ was that by the end of it, you realized it had been told from the point of view of an ape,” says Reeves. “I felt like I understood how he felt — that’s incredible.”
Further discussions led to a pitch to 20th Century Fox executives, who liked what they heard.
“I wanted to start the movie sort of like the beginning of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ — the dawn of intelligent apes. And once you’re fully drawn in, and have become completely connected to Caesar’s point of view and the civilization he is the father of, only then do you realize that there are humans. At that point the film functions like this mythic Western, where there are two tribes vying for survival, for territory, and the question is whether they will coexist or turn against each other. It becomes a story about our nature, our inability to resist violence.”
Reeves first sold them on that idea, and then, with his story locked down, pitched an even wilder idea. He proposed filming the motion-capture sequences not in the controlled environment of a green-screen studio, but on location, where actors such as Serkis could perform as the apes before being replaced with digital creations.
Reeves describes how he was “blown away” that the actors playing apes in the previous “Planet of the Apes” film were able to communicate emotion, yet he thought it could be better.
“Sometimes the apes looked totally photorealistic, and other times not so much. In those moments where they seemed totally real to me (the realness) had a lot to do with the kind of lighting they were using and the set. So I thought that if we were in real locations with natural light, it would change the feel of things, and (digital effects studio) Weta Digital completely agreed with me.”
While over two-thirds of “Rise” was shot in a studio, Reeves ended up shooting nearly 90 percent of “Dawn” on location. This led to an incredibly unconventional approach with Reeves shooting in forests near Vancouver (where he came down with pneumonia) and overgrown areas of New Orleans, using buildings that had been abandoned following Hurricane Katrina.
“It was remarkable to be in areas that were untouched since Katrina and see how much they looked like what we were trying to create, because the Earth was really starting to reclaim the city,” says Reeves.
When it came to creating a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, the landscape they captured in Louisiana also served as a model for Weta Digital, whose artists added natural-looking decay to actual shots of the city. (A huge Francis Ford Coppola fan, Reeves manages to slip in a shot of the offices of Coppola’s American Zoetrope studio.)
Filming “Dawn” on location, though, proved to be a daunting task.
“The way performance capture works, you shoot the performances, and that is then used as reference by the animators,” explains the director. “They take the performances and try to translate them onto the (digital) 3-D puppets. So you end up having to shoot the scene, then once you get it the way you like it you have the ape (i.e., the actor) step out, and you shoot the scene again. It’s not about green screen, it’s about getting an empty shot, where they can take the (digital) apes and place them into the shot. It’s very weird, you have to get the camera operator to operate the shot again filming nobody! If I’d known how hard it was, I don’t know if I would have recommended that we do it,” says Reeves, laughing. “But now that we’ve done it, I don’t think we can go back.”
Reeves bemoans having spent up to six hours a day — on top of editing the film — speaking with Weta Digital over the phone, comparing each shot from the original performances with what the animators had created, to make sure they were accurately “translating the emotion,” as Reeves puts it. “It was an amazingly painstaking process,” he says.
Watching the finished film, though, the illusion is complete: The suspension of disbelief is total.
“That to me is the most exciting thing,” says Reeves. “I’m hoping people will see the movie and say, ‘Well, certainly somewhere in the movie they are using (real) apes because you can’t have all those apes and not any of them are real.’ But, of course, there isn’t a single real ape in the entire movie.”