Andy Serkis, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman and Matt Reeves Discuss ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Press Conference
Andy Serkis, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman from 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' at the 2014 WonderCon. (Photo © Richard Chavez)

By Rebecca Murray

20th Century Fox will be releasing the latest entry in the Planet of the Apes franchise – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – in theaters on July 11, 2014. The new Planet of the Apes movie finds the apes have evolved even further than they had by the end of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with Caesar (once again played by Andy Serkis) leading the genetically altered apes against the last surviving humans on Earth.

Together at the 2014 WonderCon in Anaheim, CA, director Matt Reeves and cast members Serkis, Gary Oldman, and Keri Russell discussed this new addition to the film franchise and why performance capture should not be considered any differently than any other performance by an actor.

Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis, and Matt Reeves Press Conference:

What do you remember about the first time you saw the original Planet of the Apes movie with Charlton Heston? How did that experience impact your enthusiasm to come aboard the franchise?

Keri Russell:  “These guys are all much older than me.  I, obviously, wasn’t alive.”

Gary Oldman:  “You weren’t born.  She wasn’t even a twinkle.”

Keri Russell:  “I’m just kidding!”

Gary Oldman:  “I can’t imagine childhood without Planet.  I was nine or ten when the first one came out, so it’s not only the opportunity to work with these good people, but you’re also being asked to be a part of cinema history.  That was above and beyond the story and Matt.  You’re involved with something that, for the most part, comes with a very good pedigree.  It went a little wobbly for a while, but we’re back on track.”

Matt Reeves:  “The thing about Planet of the Apes was that, for a long period of time, it was my childhood.  I was so obsessed after seeing that movie.  As a kid, seeing the movie, it’s an interesting thing that the first thing you want to do is actually become one of those apes.  It’s so fascinating.  I was so interested in John Cambers’ make-up and seeing gorillas on horseback with guns.  That’s a pretty powerful image.  And, I had the dolls.  I had an 8mm reel of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which I would watch until all the sprockets broke.  I was obsessed.

The great thing about when I saw Rise, having been a life-long fan was that having always wanted to be an ape, when I saw that movie I suddenly was an ape.  The reason was for a reason that I never would have suspected would ever able to be done was that I had an emotional identification with an ape.  That blew me away.  I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I can’t believe that now I know what it is to feel that character’s feelings.’  The most human character in that story is Caesar and what Andy did.  I was so blown away by that.

What’s so exciting about Planet of the Apes is that, of course the secret is that people say it’s all about how the animals get in charge, but we are the animals.  The idea of doing a story about how the animals can get in charge, since that’s what we are, the story is about us.  What I thought was so exciting about getting to get into this world was to explore really how it’s a blockbuster – it’s a big, giant effects movie, and it’s a summer movie – but it’s a very unique one in that it’s about our nature.  To explore that from both sides and to extend the story and everything that they did in Rise was such an exciting thing for me.  That’s really why I wanted to do it.”

Andy, in your first performance of Caesar you received such a great groundswell of support, what was that like for you?  Do you have any expectations of recognition for what you and others do with performance capture work?

Andy Serkis:  I’ve unwittingly become a spokesperson for a perceived discrimination between actors who act in motion capture suits or in costumes with make-up.  I’ve just ended up in this rather weird position and I shouldn’t be because in actual fact, performance capture is just another bunch of cameras filming an actor’s performance.  The most important thing is that that needs to be understood.  Regardless of any awards or accolades, it’s really an understanding, not just within our own acting community, but also within the filmmaking community at large.  The people who know the most about it are the audience.  They seem to be so aware.  The younger generation of people who become avatars through video games, they have no problem understanding you can become something else sitting at home and doing that.  So, I’ve played lots of different roles, whether they be live-action or performance capture, and you don’t alter your performance because they’re using a different camera to film you.  That’s what I feel. How do you feel, Gary?” 

Gary Oldman: “You put it very well. The question that is often asked is, ‘What’s it like working with Andy Serkis as the ape?’ I come to work and I get into a costume, and Andy comes to work and gets into a costume.  At least you can see his face, you can see the eyes, and you can see the emotion.  I would actually rather that than if you were wearing a mask, then the question might be, ‘What’s it like working with someone who’s behind a mask?’  But, he’s not.” 

Keri Russell:  “It’s Andy.  The great thing is that it’s not anything other than a really talented actor.  I’m seeing Andy’s eyes and hearing his voice, and hearing him talk about his family.  It’s exactly the same as any other scene.”

Andy Serkis Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Interview
Caesar (Andy Serkis) is the leader of the ape nation in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. (Photo credit: WETA TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)
Andy Serkis: “In this film, there are brilliant performances across the board from a load of talented actors playing apes.  It is an ensemble piece and on the human side, as well. It’s interesting going back to the question about the original Planet of the Apes. There are all those sort of stories about how the orangutans sat at one table and the chimpanzees sat at another table at dinner time and nobody ever talked to each other. We certainly don’t have that situation. The actors are the actors.”

Gary Oldman: “That’s where I drew the line!”

Matt Reeves: “The thing about it was for me was I’d never done motion capture.  My main interest in being a director, I love telling stories but the important thing that’s the most important to me is that world with the actors.  Getting to work with these people was such an incredible experience, and I thank them for that.  But the thing that I was worried about was because other than seeing Andy’s work as it had already been translated already, I knew that those performances were captivating and I knew that I had been deeply affected by Caesar, but even I didn’t quite understand it.  I said, ‘This is amazing what they’re doing, but I need to understand it more.’   So, at the beginning actually what I did was say, ‘I want to see every shot that Andy did as Andy, and then I want you to show me Caesar.’  What blew me away about it was that Andy was better than Caesar.  I was so emotionally affected by what he did.  I was saying to WETA, ‘Wow, it’s amazing that you’re able to translate as much as you did. I would love in this film if you could translate even more.”

At the end of the day, it was such a relief.  I thought, ‘Oh, so the way it works is that you work with a brilliant actor.’  That’s the secret of mo-cap, which really shouldn’t be a secret.  You’re just capturing motion. The genius of what WETA does is faithfully turning that into something.  What’s crazy is that Caesar’s anatomy is not Andy’s anatomy, so how are they doing that? Now I found out after spending all this time with them what details they are trying to take from Andy’s face. His mouth is a different shape; it’s very weird. Sometimes I’d go, ‘Well, Andy didn’t do that.’ And they would go, ‘Well, Andy’s not an ape.’ It’s a very interesting process but at the end of the day the heart of the story and the heart of everything that we’re doing all comes down to these guys. It all comes down to performances that have the kind of emotional authenticity that you can get when you’re working with great actors. That’s what Andy is, that’s what Keri is, that’s what Gary is. As a director, there’s no greater pleasure than being able to just basically sit back and watch the actors.”

Matt, as a fan of the franchise were you at all hesitant about directing this film or was it a dream job?

Matt Reeves:  “It was a dream and it was terrifying.  What essentially happened on the project was that I had a great affinity for Rise and I thought it was really moving. When they approached me about it, I thought, ‘Why? Rupert Wyatt has done such a beautiful job on with this film.’  But it turned out that, for a number of reasons, he didn’t want to do what they wanted to do, and he also thought that the schedule wasn’t enough.  Now, having done it, I can tell you that he’s right, the schedule was not enough.  So I said, ‘What I would be interested in is carrying forward what was established in Rise, which is the emotional heart of those apes.’ Look, we all know that it doesn’t become Planet of the Humans and the Apes.  It seemed to me that this was a moment where you could actually explore that question, the co-existence between these two populations that are struggling for survival.

The thing that was really important to me was that we carry forward the apes in an emotional way that you could relate to, and that we take the humans in a way that was really different from Rise, take those humans and depict them in a way where they’re not villains either.  There are no villains in our story.  It’s all about survival and trying to find the way to master our nature and the impulses within us.  So, I went in and pitched that and they were like, ‘Okay.’  I said, Oh, okay. So, what’s the catch?’  And they said, ‘The catch is that you need to start shooting very soon.’  That was the crazy thing about it was just that I had to jump in and seize the opportunity, but they were giving me the opportunity to make the movie that I thought would be so exciting to be a part of. And to dive into this world was something that I couldn’t resist.

There were a million things I’d never done before.  The idea of doing motion capture and the idea of doing effects on this level, and yet the big sort of relief of it all was that at its center it was exactly the same as making any movie, except that after you’ve done that, you have to do a number of really strange things, like shooting the scene again without the actors. It’s like, ‘Hey, we just did something great!’ And then it’s like, ‘Yeah, now you guys get to go back in there and do it again and this time he won’t be there.’ All of those things were added complexities that were challenging, but that was part of the thrill of it.  It was really like jumping out of an airplane and saying, ‘I’m doing this.  I’m just gonna do this.’  I’ve gotta tell you, I would never jump out of an airplane but I was happy to jump into this.” 

You’ve agreed to direct the next film. How would you expand the world further?

Matt Reeves:  “The thing about it is that I think there’s a particular luxury with getting involved with the story.  We already know the ending, so the story immediately isn’t about the ‘what’ happens, it’s about ‘how’ it happens.  I had a screenwriting instructor that I loved many years ago who talked to me about stories.  He said, ‘There are the kind of stories that are about the what, and then there are the kind of stories that are about the why.’ If you already know what happened, then it becomes about the why and the why is about the psychology and character. That is what I find interesting. When I got involved, they had actually jumped further down the line closer to Planet of the Apes than I ever wanted to. I thought I was not going to do this movie.  I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what you guys want to do? I think you should start earlier.’  There’s a long and interesting path that’s all about the lives of these people and how they’re affected in this situation. The idea would be that the next phase of this story would be how those lives continue in this struggle. It’s an ongoing struggle, the way that our lives are every day.”

Gary, is the human colony you lead in this movie the last of the humans as the apes are taking over?

Gary Oldman:  “Initially, we don’t know that there are apes there.  This community has survived the epidemic, which has sort of wiped out a huge part of the world.  We believe that the military have done their job and basically wiped out the apes.  The thing is that we have food and we have water but the currency in the movie, for want of a better word, is electricity. That’s the currency. We need that to communicate to the outside world, to actually find out if there is anyone out there, how many are out there, and who is out there. We believe for all intents and purposes, we believe we could be the only survivors.  And then, of course, we discover a community of apes who believe that we’ve all been wiped out.  We discover each other and that’s the drama.  Can the apes and can the humans co-exist?”

Matt Reeves: For me, the idea was that it’s really a story of two families.  There’s a human family and there’s an ape family, and that’s what the colony is: that’s the human family.  The difference is that the apes, they are on the ascendency.  The idea is that we start in this ape world and we’re following their development.  In ways, it almost sort of mirrors our own tribal development.  You see as language is coming into being.  You’re seeing all of the bonds that have been formed and the next generation that’s coming, and the civilization that they’re building.  They’re really on the way up.  But the humans, the colony, they have just had the most massive tragedy happen to them.  They are a family that’s trying to heal itself.  So, these two families have to find some way to survive, and the stakes are all about the things that they care about.

Also, there’s the question for the humans deeply about what it is that they’ve lost. The idea in this story of the humans is what it took for them to still be here and what was lost along the way, and what’s worth fighting for at this point.  All of those questions are very emotional questions.  It was one of the reasons why I was so excited to have these guys in that story is because the emotional depth of that was really important to me so that this would not feel like we had sort of like strawmen humans that you sometimes see in these movies where it’s like, ‘Let’s see the apes destroy the humans. I can’t wait!’  That’s not what this story is about. That’s really the struggle is the struggle about what are these two families going to do to avoid killing each other.”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes WonderCon Photos

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