Inside 'War of the Planet of the Apes': Filmmakers Set Up the Final Battle, Break Down the Humanity of the Apes

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·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Andy Serkis as Caesar in 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' (Photo: Everett)
Andy Serkis as Caesar in ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ (Photo: Everett)

War for the Planet of the Apes unleashed a mighty roar on the opening night of New York Comic Con, screening seven minutes of unfinished footage, plus an all-new teaser trailer, from the third installment in the revived Apes franchise that started with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Set two years after the events of the previous film in this new series, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War depicts the final battle between men and apes, pitting our simian hero Caesar (Andy Serkis) on a collision course against the mysterious “Colonel” (Woody Harrelson). Serkis appeared at the screening alongside producer Dylan Clark and returning director Matt Reeves to introduce the intimate clip, which found Caesar and his small band of trusted soldiers happening upon the remains of a human settlement and acquiring an unexpected new passenger on their journey to find Harrelson’s Colonel. Yahoo Movies sat down with the trio the day after viewing that footage to discuss the new movie’s Apocalypse Now overtones and the importance of performance in performance capture.

Watching the footage last night, and hearing your descriptions of the plot and Caesar’s character arc, it feels like War for the Planet of the Apes is shaping up to be the Apocalypse Now of the Apes franchise. Will Caesar be venturing into his own heart of darkness?
Matt Reeves:
We’re not doing the plot of Apocalypse Now, but there’s definitely a commonality to that idea. The fun thing about Planet of the Apes [as a franchise] is that it’s holding a mirror up to ourselves; we’re looking at these apes, who are really us. Woody’s character definitely has a Kurtz-ian aspect to him, which Caesar is drawn to, even as he’s really struggling internally.

Dylan Clark, Andy Serkis and Matt Reeves at New York Comic Con (Photo: Ethan Alter)
Dylan Clark, Andy Serkis and Matt Reeves at New York Comic Con (Photo: Ethan Alter)

Andy Serkis: This is the part of the story where we find Caesar the most damaged by the guilt that he’s feeling. He grew up loved by human beings, so he was never been able to appreciate the hatred that Koba had for mankind in Dawn. At this point in War, though, the ape losses are so massive, it’s beginning to dig into his soul and he finds himself on a path towards revenge. He almost hates himself for it; the posse that’s following him along is trying to pull him out of [that self-hatred], but he fends them off. He’s on this inexorable journey towards cleansing himself. The shooting of this film, and where it’s taken us all psychologically, is a very deep experience.

You can see that internal journey reflected in all the external landscapes Caesar travels through; we see him on beaches, in forests and also among rugged mountains.
Reeves:
Yes, the movie starts in familiar territory in the Muir Woods outside of San Francisco where there is — no pun intended — guerrilla warfare going on. But as the story continues and the stakes escalate, it spreads out. It’s a mythic journey movie for sure. There’s epic movement across the state of the California and into the Sierras. So Caesar isn’t only dealing with his internal struggle, but also these external elements

It was interesting that you deliberately picked a more intimate moment to show audiences last night rather than an action-heavy set piece.
Dylan Clark:
We wanted to show the more intimate side of the film that happens against the backdrop of this giant war, epic battles and big locations. We shot the film in 65mm, so the quality of the acting and directing in those intimate moments, and the epic moments, brings the film a level of quality that’s hard to match.

Reeves: The whole movie is like that [scene]. When the film begins, you’re thrust right into the war, and as that’s happening, you’re seeing the stakes of the battle for humans and apes. Then you’re with Caesar and he takes you through the story, and along the way he encounters many new characters and experiences. All of that is intimate; this canvas is a giant war, but what’s in the forefront is character.

The scene also allows you to see the level of acting done not just by Andy, but also his fellow performers like Karin Konoval, who has played the orangutan, Maurice, in all three films.
Serkis:
These movies really test the mettle of actors, because we all start from the same place in terms of not having the luxury of props or costumes. There’s nothing external, it all has to be drawn internally. It’s been a big journey to find these characters, and Karin’s a good example of someone who spent ages and ages researching orangutans to depict the changes in Maurice from film to film. She’s phenomenally devoted to the character, and so is Terry Notary, who has been playing Rocket the chimpanzee since Rise. And not only does he play this character, but Terry basically coaches every single ape performer in these movies. He helps those actors find their inner apes, if you will.

Clark: In showing that unfinished sequence last night, we wanted audiences to see the level of acting that Andy and all the actors have to give in order for the CG to work. We felt it was time to give you guys a view of the way we watch these movies for months and months. Maybe we should put this version out. People would love it!

Andy Serkis and Jason Clarke in 'Dawn' (Photo: Everett)
Andy Serkis and Jason Clarke in ‘Dawn’ (Photo: Everett)

You could do the “Ape Cut” and “Andy Cut” of War for the Planet of the Apes, sort of like how George Miller is releasing the “Blood & Chrome” edition of Mad Max: Fury Road with both color and black-and-white versions of the movie.
Reeves:
We totally want to do the Andy Cut! [Laughs] That was my education for making Dawn. When I saw Rise, I didn’t understand why I was having a level of emotional identification with a CG character that I had never experienced before. So I asked to see every shot of Andy and every shot of Caesar, and I was so moved by what Andy was doing. That’s the key to everything. It’s called performance capture, which means you need the performance.

What are we meant to think about the last shot in the sequence, where Caesar and his posse ride on horseback along a beach? It’s awfully reminiscent of the ending of the original Planet of the Apes.
Reeves:
The way these movies bring back the iconographies of the other movies is not really narrative — it’s more about homages. We love those earlier movies, so they resonate through these films. There’s also some Alpha-Omega iconography in War, for example. But in terms of what people should take from that moment, it’s an homage as well as the beginning of Caesar’s mythic journey: the posse is moving on up the river to find the Colonel.

Matt, one of the moments that everyone remembers from Dawn is the tank sequence, which was stylistically reminiscent of the way you filmed a car crash scene in Let Me In. Do you think of that as your signature shot? Will we see it again in War?
Reeves:
I try to do those kinds of things when they present themselves in the material. In War, there are definitely visual things that I haven’t done before, but I’m not trying to necessarily continue that specific motif. What I always try to do is find a way to put you in the point of view of the characters, so all of these shots are really about perspective. To me, it’s one of the keys to powerful cinema: letting the viewer see things from the emotional and visual perspective of the characters so you can have empathy — so you can walk in the shows of a character who you are not.