Exclusive: 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' Director Rupert Wyatt Q&A
by Alex Billington
April 15, 2011
Our greatest discovery will become our greatest threat. I've been following director Rupert Wyatt ever since seeing his break-out film The Escapist at Sundance years ago. When he got the job to direct Rise of the Apes, I was excited because I knew it would be an undertaking but as a fan of his style, I knew he would deliver something great. Here we are in 2011 and the teaser trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been unveiled. I first met up with Rupert on the set of the movie last year, but spoke with him yesterday in hopes of answering any questions that have come up recently. So I present my first Q&A with Rupert Wyatt!
I decided to ask Rupert questions that I've noticed have arisen since the recent trailer reveal. I also asked on twitter for question suggestions from fans, which I worked in a few of as well. There's still a ways to go in terms of finalizing all of the work from Weta and the entire story still hasn't been revealed, but we covered a range from what it was like to work with a motion capture rig, to Andy Serkis as Caesar, to the societal connections this new film has with our world today. So without further ado, let's get into our exclusive Q&A!
How did you refresh the story in this to make it different from the other movies?
Rupert: The original was made in 1968, that's over 40 years ago. We're telling a story that has never been told before in many ways, which is a real-world contemporary narrative set in 2011 about how the apes started the revolution. Now I know there has been a different take on how that happens with the earlier films, but this is actually setting up perhaps a more scientific approach to why that happened. I think it was the writers when they first started writing this for the studio, they could have decided let's go with the original mythology. To be perfectly honest with you, I think that would be a terrific approach as well. You could do that, but that's actually in a way replicating what's already been done before. So why not try something different?
How did the idea originate to use realistic looking apes rather than the men-in-suit apes that everyone is familiar with from the early movies? How and when did Weta get involved?
Rupert: It was a narrative issue, frankly. Our story is an origin story. It takes place in the modern day. For the most part in the film it deals with real apes – real orangutans, real gorillas, real chimpanzees. The other films in the franchise don't do that. They deal with humanoid apes, so therefore you can have a human play a chimpanzee in an ape suit. But that was just never the case. There was no way that we could ever physically achieve that because we're talking about chimpanzees as we know them. We could've gone the Every Which Way But Loose route, or where could try something different.
I think in order to dictate to an ape what to do, it's a hierarchical society. You have to dominate an ape. Therefore performing apes are not the happiest of apes, put it that way. And morally it just never really appealed to me. So bearing in mind Fox's relationship with Weta, we put it out to them as to how realistic was it, how feasible was it that we could achieve what we needed to achieve using digital technology and performance capture? And they responded very positively.
The only other CGI reference, if you're talking about a creature with hair that is similar, you can look at King Kong from 2005. And Joe Letteri said very early, he said 2005 is like stone age in terms of where they have now come to. The first shot [seen below] that was released last week was one of the earliest shots that we saw. It just floored the studio. We couldn't believe that we pulled it off. We kept thinking that we made the right gamble, because I do think the people who watch the film will realize that this film proves that CGI can now replace animals in film.
How many of the shots from the trailer are completely finished, rendered work from Weta?
Rupert: They are always evolving… Every studio film is looking to meet a release date, and therefore you're set upon a path of a deadline, and sometimes that deadline is far more punishing than at other times. We took the jump very early on to come out pretty much 12 months from wrapping the film, and that's a very big ask of Weta when they have close to 900 ape shots to achieve.
We've been in a fortunate position to have locked the picture from the point of view of understanding that we have a fully finished film pretty early on. That's allowed Weta to really, really hone and perfect each particular shot. The more time they have to do that, the better the shot becomes. The more integrated the ape comes into the actual scene. The more detail in the hair, the lighting, all of that. So I would say whilst we're always looking to further the shot, there comes a point where you just have to basically make sure that you can finish 900 shots and you have a movie.
So are you waiting to show more until you have fully finished footage from Weta which will then really blow us away?
Rupert: I think so, yeah. The plan has always been to show less is more and keep our powder dry as much as possible. There are going to be more trailers to come as and when we have other shots that are fully finished and rendered. There's always a tendency to put everything out there so you can get the audiences' interest piqued. But the audiences these days are so sophisticated in terms of their expectations, especially from a technological point of view, that I think it's very unwise just to put a shot out to the public domain when it's not finished.
Can you speak about the importance of having Andy Serkis embody the Caesar character and how it meant so much to developing that lead character in relation to the story?
Rupert: We live or die by how he pulled that off because he's our central character. When we shot the film we had Andy in the scenes. He was performing that character. When we cut the film, it was Andy – albeit in his motion capture suit – but it was Andy playing that role. Same with all of the other apes. Then gradually you start to transition from the human performer to the very early version of the animation and the blocking. Then you go and you put the skin on. Then you put the hair on. Then you start to really work on the nuance. That translation is very much like making the movie for a second time, because you're trying to recapture basically the performance you had with the human performer by putting it into a digital creature. And along the way certain things can go awry.
For example, Andy's body shape is different to an ape. So if part of his performance has come through the tightening of his brow or something like that that's as subtle as that, if that's not properly echoed within the digital creature, within Caesar, you lose the performance. You lose an aspect of it. So it's a torturous process. You really have to sit down and go through every shot. Daily we are on the CineSync to New Zealand with Weta where we just inspect and study. It's forensic in terms of the attention we pay to each part of the shot.
It seems like it was a big challenge to integrate a motion capture camera system with the shots. It involves having a performance capture rig in the middle of a set while everyone else is performing live, as well as shooting multiple takes for FX plates. There's a lot going on to just shoot one scene, yet you have to do this in almost every single scene?
Rupert: Yeah [laughs]… it was ambitious. In so many ways this movie is, I mean, it's a huge first for me coming from my background of independent filmmaking. But I think ironically I was not the only one who was looking to experience certain things that we pulled off in this film for the first time. Using witness cameras on the scale that we did, which essentially takes the volume work that you would have seen in Avatar or many other digital environment films, and places it in the real world, essentially taking the technology out on location.
If we were shooting on a suburban street, we had to turn that into a studio. We had to essentially create a 360 degree world with witness camera that were picking up every aspect of that area so the guys could then shoot and really follow Caesar's movements and pick up his performance. The amount of prep involved and the team… they were like a separate army to our motion picture crew working alongside us. Just the everyday practicality of that with people chucking cables across each other and stuff like that, it was a big, big deal. It was amazing that we pulled it off really.
Did you find it challenging to focus on important areas, such as the lead performances, while still deal with the technicalities and shooting the different takes? Is it tough to make sure you don't lose vision of the storytelling aspects that you really want to make sure are key?
Rupert: It was absolutely. I think my saving grace was working with Andy Serkis. His experience was really the linchpin for me to understand how to pull it off. I would probably say the same would be said for all the rest of the ape cast. Because Terry Notary – who is our movement expert and who played Rocket, one of the other apes – he has experience from Avatar and other films. But the vast majority of our actors playing the roles, some came from the theater, others were stunt men. This was their first experience of it as well.
So Andy was the bedrock. He gave us confidence. He gave us all the ability to realize this is no different from putting on a play in many ways. This is theater performance from a practical point of view. Filmmaking is the world of make believe. Although this film is set very much in a real world and we're looking to make it as plausible as possible, the technology involved requires that you mount this as a stage production in many ways. His whole approach to the character and the way we worked together was to try and push everything back space and just keep the front space just for the performance and just for the character and forget about everything else.
How much work is involved in crafting Andy Serkis' character? How did you develop each of the intelligence points for Caesar along his evolution to make sure that when it's put together as a film we see the true intelligent progression of the character?
Rupert: There were pivotal moments within our story where we certain things happen to Caesar along the way as he's growing up that change him fundamentally. I always looked to the story of John Merrick and The Elephant Man for this in that he's different from us and he has an innocence and an optimistic look upon the world. We deviate slightly from The Elephant Man in that Caesar makes a transition to a darker personality, to a darker character, because he realizes that there is no way that he can rely upon human kindness and humanity itself to save him or to help him. He will always be the same as the rest of the other apes in this film, which is very much exploited. That's what brings about the revolution; that is the seed.
We chose to capture the film, the story of his growing up, physically as well as emotionally. There is a very young baby Caesar that becomes this little toddler living in the human household. He's quadrupedal and is very much a chimpanzee; there's very little different to him. Then he starts to display certain signs of intelligence that are far accelerated from a human child of his age. He starts to evolve basically. What I found fascinating is if you take human history and you see those moments along the way of our own evolution such as the discovery of fire and the manipulation of fire or the understanding of what the wheel does and how that just pushed us forward. All of those moments I've tried to graft into Caesar's story.
We see his evolution through the narrative. It's not The Fly. It's not Cronenberg-esque in that sense. It's much more cognizant evolution. That is then matched with the subtlest of changes in his posture and his bearing. If you think of Cheetah in Tarzan and the way he moves in his freneticism and then compare that with how a human would be far stiller and far more focused. We see that change in him and his voice as well, his voice just gradually dropping.
What I hope that will do for the audience as they're watching the film they start to see early on where this is headed. Because it's very important that people understand that this is a film that is a story. It's the baby in the basket that's floating down the river. It's where that evolved from. It starts small and gets bigger and bigger and bigger, but there's a very subtle build to it. I think that's actually quite unusual for a summer blockbuster, and so much the better because I think it's therefore a slightly more thoughtful film.
How did you make the apes a menacing force that we could believe is capable of taking on humanity? Fans have been wondering if we'll see the apes use any weapons in the movie?
Rupert: I don't know if I can really answer that without giving too much away… so I'm not going to. [Laughs] I'd like to answer it, but I just don't want to spoil it for everybody. We're talking about the beginnings of a revolution. Just to be clear, are you asking whether these apes take up arms?
Rupert: [Pause]… There is a possibility that may happen. To be really honest with you, there are a lot of questions we're posing. We're setting everything up for… what will come next. Really what lies at the heart of this story is the breaking of the bond between human and ape. That is fundamentally encapsulated between the father/son relationship between James Franco and Caesar. That's what we focused on in this.
How do you deal with the pressure from the Planets of the Apes fanbase? Does it affect you at all while making the film or even in post-production?
Rupert: To be honest with you, my whole outlook on it is you're never going to please everybody. Actually in a funny sort of way, I suppose, if you try and please everybody you're going to please nobody. I am very respectful of the original films. All the people who have worked on this production are in varying degrees huge fans of the franchise and the original film in particular, even the film that I say that we might be closest to which is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
I think the whole approach for this film from the moment that the writers starting writing this script, which was way before my time, was that this similar to when Batman Begins started the new franchise. I'm sure that there was a fan base of the Batman mythology that wanted certain aspects of the cartoon in that film. I'm sure that there were people who wanted more and maybe they were disappointed when they didn't see it, but I would imagine that they weren't because the idea was that actually if you are able to offer something that has a fresh perspective and actually takes the subject matter seriously, if it takes the mythology seriously, then that's giving it proper respect it deserves. I think it means nothing to replicate.
If this isn't really an action movie, as it seems, what can it be called instead? Would it be more of a thriller or suspense or just a drama? How much action can we even expect to see?
Rupert: I haven't seen the film and I can't wait to see it, but it's the same world from a genre point of view as a film like Super 8 in that I don't know if you could say that Super 8 is an action film, because from what we've seen of the trailer it looks to be a child's coming of age story as much as it is a visual spectacular. So I would be really hesitant to try and categorize this. Is it an action movie? Is it not an action movie? Is it a drama? I mean, it's everything. In many ways it's a fairy tale. It's a Bible story. If you're talking about how many set pieces there are in this film, that doesn't really interest me. The story is the payoff.
But what I will say is that by the time the revolution starts, we are talking about a huge catalyst and a huge action set piece. This film is, what I hope and what I think the studio hopes, it's laying the foundations for future films to come. I personally think what would be wonderful after this story is that the real conflict between humans and apes is told in this next film, because that's what we're setting up. This is about leveling the playing field in terms of if a revolution were to start in our day and age with a species that was looking to take on humanity, I think we could all safely say that it wouldn't have a chance in hell. We are the alpha of our world. But if you were to take certain things away from us, whether it be numbers or technology or whatever you want to call it, of course there's that chance.
The previous Planet of the Apes movies spoke about the society and who we were at the time they were made and I think that's very important to what the films are and why they're so great. From your perspective, how does Rise of the Planet of the Apes connect with our society today and how is it relevant with our world now?
Rupert: Well, I'm a big believer in science and I'm a big believer in pushing the boundaries of science as much as we can. I'm not somebody who's a believer in the kind of cautionary tale in terms of careful what you dabble with, because I do think that there are certain aspects of scientific research and medical research that are part of our evolution. There's good reason for that. When I was researching medical research using animals, there was one interview that really, really affected me which was this one particular scientist. He was asked the question: 'how do you deal with the fact that you experiment on animals? Where are your morals?'
He said, 'Well, it affects me hugely and I don't sleep at night, but my vocation is my science. My vocation and passion is finding a cure for the diseases that I'm looking to eradicate. Therefore this is the way that it needs to be done, and that's what I have to do. Do I like doing it? Do I enjoy doing it? No.' That moral twilight in a way is, I think from a dramatic point of view, a really interesting one. That's where James Franco's character is situated in the film. I always say that's the place where he gets to. His way of dealing with it at the beginning is to cut off all emotion. He doesn't call the chimps by name; he calls them by number. It's Caesar that changes him, and changes him for the better.
But his drive to find a cure for the disease that he's trying to eradicate is really what propels him. I guess you could say like a lot of our world, it's driven by hubris. It's driven by this sense of the need to do good or the need to bring about change. Whilst there is so much good in that, there is also bad and there is also destruction that's wrought from that. You've only got to look at Einstein and see the splitting of the atom and what that can do and the fact that how he thought it would bring about so much good, but yet it can bring about so much destruction. When you open that Pandora's Box, it's really up to the individuals to make the choices as to which way to take it.
That's the world we're living in in this film. We're living in a world where our civilization has reached a point where we're on a knife edge; we could go either way. We could go either way environmentally. We could go either way militarily. We could go either way in terms of our population. We could go either way in terms of diseases. Without giving it away, the film is getting to a point where suddenly we drop one side of that knife edge and those that look to succeed us take advantage of that. I think if you're looking at any species that has been abused by humans, apes are pretty high up there. It's a very bitter irony that our closest cousin is actually one of the most exploited.
Thank you to Rupert for taking the time to talk with me! Now he has to get back to working on finishing three months of work on Rise of the Planet of the Apes before the release in August.
I hope you those of you with some pressing questions about Rise of the Planet of the Apes after the teaser had those questions answered from this Q&A. The teaser released yesterday was just an early glimpse and I know more about what is going to happen, and I am genuinely excited. I think we're still too far out and once we get closer and see the final footage coming in, everyone is going to be very impressed. I don't think many people have had the chance to even see Rupert's film The Escapist that impressed me so much, so I suggest finding that, although it's entirely different. Stick around for more updates throughout the summer!