Swinging through the jungles of London on a visit to the set of ‘Tarzan’

London – We are here at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden, where the Harry Potter films were shot, among other works.  Working at the studio today are a number of people who participated in that legendary franchise.  There is the production designer for all eight films, Stuart Craig; producer of six of them, David Barron; and the director of four (five if you include the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which Craig has also worked on), David Yates.

On this September 2014 day, however, Yates and company aren't telling some improbable tale of a boy wizard, no, they're telling the improbable tale of a boy who was raised by animals in the jungle and, as a man, finds himself back in that very same jungle to save the woman he loves.  They are at work on The Legend of Tarzan featuring Alexander Skarsgard as the legendary vine-swinger.  Also appearing in the movie are Margot Robbie as Jane; Christoph Waltz as the villainous Captain Rom; Djimon Hounsou as Chief Mbonga; and Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams, who is working with our hero.

This film has been a long time coming.  Certainly not the first on board, Skarsgard started to talk to Yates about this project about two years before I met him on set in 2014. 18 months ago he started training, as the film was originally scheduled to shoot in the summer of 2013.  

“It was really devastating,” Skarsgard explains about the delay and the potential the movie wasn't going to ever get made.  That sadness though turned back to something more positive when, after going off the grid to ski at the South Pole, Skarsgard finally made it to a place where “they actually had internet there, like really slow dial-up” and received an email from Yates saying that things were looking good for Tarzan.

While that may be Skarsgard's origin story for this role, the movie itself is not an origin tale.  In fact, it isn't even based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan tale.  David Barron informs us, “None of it comes from Burroughs.”  It is, Barron says, “based on the character” Burroughs created but an original tale.  Legend of Tarzan features its hero (John Clayton III, as he is known in England) returning to Africa as a trade emissary, Jane getting kidnapped by Rom, and Tarzan having to save her.

Skarsgard promises us flashbacks to the character as a boy, but the bulk of the story is about his adult life and return to Africa, “The emotional journey isn't, you know, the man from the jungle trying to readjustment or adapt to life… in Victorian London.  It's quite the opposite. When you first meet him, he's in England… he's Lord Greystoke and he's very civilized and a British lord and then he goes back to his home-his emotional home-the Congo, and it's that kind of dichotomy between man and beast.  He's not really happy in England.  He's got an amazing wife; a fantastic manor… a really good life on the surface, but he's not happy.  He's not really himself there.”

As the movie progresses, Skarsgard says, there is, “more Tarzan and less John Clayton III.”  Sadly for those of us on set this day, they are filming a scene relatively early on in Tarzan's return to Africa.  There is a train car set up on a stage and Tarzan is having a moderate disagreement with some Belgian soldiers, a disagreement mainly expressed through some violent physical acts.  We can't get a good look at what's happening inside the train car-although we do see a soldier wearing a harness get lifted out of the car after being manhandled by Tarzan-but we get to see the movie magic of the car rocking back and forth along with the lights moving so as to simulate the motion of the train.

What is impressive is not the fisticuffs on this stage, but the jungle that exists on another.  Well, the jungle that exists on two other stages.  Rearranging the trees and paths that run through these two stages, seven total looks have been made available to Yates when filming in the trees.  Speaking of this jungle, Craig tells us that what we see on the set isn't quite the way it would be in the rain forest – the trees, for example, are grouped too close together.  He describes them as “a piece of architectural sculpture.”  Try to tell the actual mushrooms growing on the set that things aren't real though.  

Yes, the jungle is in England.  No principal photography for the movie is taking place in Africa-six weeks of shooting will take place in Gabon, mainly the aerial unit for visual effects background plates, says Barron-due to the difficulties of shooting there and the cost.  Barron explains that it's “not a nice place to work.  Fun place to go to, but not a nice place to spend several months shooting.”  He says that with the help of visual effects, “no one will ever know this is not Africa.”

One of the things that will add to this verisimilitude is the number of extras who portray the tribes.  The film's makeup and hair designer, Fae Hammond, describes getting 160 people ready as “like a factory” with each individual going around to various sections (hair, scars, etc.).  It takes as long, Hammond says, as three hours for a team of about 40 to 50 to get the makeup done for the tribes people.

Many questions posed to the cast and crew this day are about other Tarzan films as the character does have such a long big screen legacy.  How big?  Well, this is not Craig's first experience with the character.  He was also the production designer on 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.  While the two films may not be directed related, that film, he says, is “in a way, the kind of prequel to this.”  

As Craig explains things, the former movie takes Tarzan from his birth out of the jungle and this one is “his return to Africa” and consequently “they kind of follow on, in narrative terms.”  He also notes though that they didn't have the use of computers for that movie.  Having people in ape suits performing stunts limited production design in a way that this film does not have to worry about.  As he puts it, “it compromised the set, the jungle set.”   

While Craig's previous experience with Tarzan might lead into this movie, he also acknowledges that the way the worlds that are being portrayed are not the same.  “I think there was an attempt to be deliberately different,” he says after noting the use of a different look for the paddle steamer, tree house jungle home, and ancestral home for Tarzan's family (this time it's Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, last time it was Floors Castle).

Discussing an entirely different sort of “look” for the film, namely nature of the action, is stunt coordinator Buster Reeves who can delve into everything from vine-swinging, to the tight confines of the train fight being shot today, to the “CGI padded suit” worn by some members of his team.  With this last one, Reeves describes how they took the measurements of gorillas for this suit so that it could be appropriately padded.  They also, “designed a set of arms to make them elongated… [since] monkeys arms are longer than the legs and we're vice-versa.”  He adds, “it's a real interesting process that when you put that stuff on, how much you feel your body physically change” and just how different it is from way most people would act while doing a monkey impression.

How, exactly, audiences respond to the world that Yates and his team have put together remains to be seen.  Barron promises that this is “just a great, big, fun action-adventure romp.”   That is, of course, precisely what has made Tarzan so popular in both literature and on the screen.  Perhaps, if they have gotten everything just right and those who go to the theaters love it, Skarsgard will supplant Johnny Weissmuller (whom Skarsgard himself lists as his favorite) as the classic depiction of the character.

The Legend of Tarzan is swinging into theaters in just a few short weeks.