What Matt Reeves has done with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and now War For the Planet of the Apes, has been remarkable. Look, even if the Apes films aren’t your favorite things (but, it seems, most people do like them), the fact that Matt Reeves got a major movie studio to go along with his distinct vision of what these movies should be is almost unheard of these days for a major franchise.
And his direct vision was always to make Andy Serkis’ Caesar the main character of these movies. And, to be honest, it’s kind of crazy that it works.
Before joining Dawn of the Planet of the Apes late in pre-production, Reeves had eschewed franchises. He’d had success with Cloverfield and Let Me In, but wanted to avoid tentpole movies for this very reason. He didn’t want to lose control. But with Apes, that never happened, even being allowed to rewrite major amounts of Dawn late in the process to give the apes a bigger role.
Now, Reeves is moving on to The Batman, starring Ben Affleck. For a director who say he’s avoiding franchises, he’s sure doing a lot of franchises now But will Reeves have the same kind of control with The Batman as he did on Apes? Ahead, he explains.
Also, when I met with Reeves at Fox’s News Corp headquarters in New York City, we were joined by Oscar-winning effects supervisors Dan Lemmon and Joe Letteri, who just may have don’t their finest work on War For the Planet of the Apes.
I cannot believe this movie exists.
Reeves: It doesn’t exist. But I’m glad you came here. How did you mean?
That it’s this summer blockbuster movie made in this way…
Reeves: Okay. Yeah, that’s very true…
That looks like it is very much a person’s vision of what this movie should be.
Reeves: I feel like that has been the gift of this particular franchise at this particular moment for me personally. And it’s actually the reason why up until doing Dawn I had resisted doing any franchise films, even though I’d been offered a few. Because I’d only made small movies. And even Cloverfield, which was a small movie, was really an independent movie, which we made that Paramount released.
After Cloverfield, did they want you to make that into a traditional franchise? I realize it is, but more of a direct sequel?
Reeves: Actually, that was J.J.’s idea. We were originally going to do a sequel, and then because I started getting involved in Apes and J.J. was doing Star Wars and Drew [Goddard] was doing The Martian and everything – we just had never had come together on what exactly to do. And then one day, J.J. called Drew and me and said, “Guys, I know we’ve been trying to figure out this movie – and by the way, this wouldn’t keep us from doing that movie one day – but I have this idea that Cloverfield might not just be a literal sort of continuation of the story, but might be a kind of universal stories, almost like a Twilight Zone kind of thing.”
Well, you say you’ve tried to avoid this, and now here you are.
Reeves: Well, what I try to do with whatever I do is find a personal way in. And I have to say that the amazing thing is that with both of these movies – like they let me make these movies, and they were incredible partners. And I think it has very much to do with, certainly, the fact that Weta was able to do what they were able to do in Rise. Like, what an incredible thing: To have that level of emotional identification with a CG character meant that the subject of these movies – and combined with the idea that this is really what Planet of the Apes is – is human nature. So you get to explore ourselves by holding a mirror up to ourselves, looking at ourselves as reflected in these photo-real apes. I get to do something that feels very personal, and it does feel different from the spectacle of so many other movies that are at this time – toward what you’re saying about this movie, that it exists is so strange…
In a good way.
Reeves: Oh, I hear you. But usually what happens is, at this time of year, is that the movies that come out have some level of action or spectacle that is so sort of grand that you can’t get it in any other sort of form of movie, or that there’s like super powers or some sort of thing. But here, the spectacle is this emotional relationship.
For Dan and Joe, you two have been involved in so many movies so maybe this is crazy to suggest, but is this your best work? The effects are so good I forgot about them.
Lemmon: They’ve been a really unique and special opportunity. I think that’s one of the things that’s great about these movies, is that the spectacle isn’t about, you know, the whizz-bang flashy stuff. The spectacle is that you’re able to empathize with characters that aren’t humans – that are, in fact, working in some ways in opposition to the humans, and that you’re able to connect emotionally more with the apes than you are with the humans. And that, for us as the creators of those characters, of those apes, is pretty amazing, to be able to fashion a character that an audience can empathize with more than even their own kind.
Letteri: Yeah, on every film you build on what went before, and we’ve been really lucky here to be able to build on three films. We’ve learned how to portray apes, both realistically at the start of Rise, then how to take them through that character arc of showing more and more human emotion. How to deal with things like the detail in the fur and the eyes, to the point where that becomes almost second nature. That becomes your practice. The first film, we were trying to figure out does Caesar look right? Is his mouth the right shape? Are his eyes the right shape? The more you can put that behind you, the more you can focus on just the performance.
Reeves: And these guys won’t say it because they’re modest: but it absolutely is the high-water mark for these effects. They’ve never been better than this. When you look at Avatar, it absolutely was totally groundbreaking – you look back and say that’s amazing. But what they’ve done over these three movies — and it’s funny, because we want to have some continuity and look at the last movie, and we pull up these shots of Caesar, which we thought were amazing at the time. And it’s astonishing how much more realistic the apes look in this movie. And it’s just a testament to their work. I mean, they are just the best in the world.
The first film that Rupert Wyatt directed, Rise, felt like it was about the humans. Dawn was half humans, half apes. Now with War, it’s the apes’ story.
Reeves: Well, that’s what I wanted to do, because I thought that’s what they had earned in Rise. Rise, I went in thinking, oh, okay, it’s Planet of the Apes and I thought that I was going to be just identifying with the humans, which is very much like what happens in the ’68 movie. And then you realize the secret of the movie by the end is the character that you empathize with the most is an ape. He’s the most human character in the movie!
I’d never had that level of emotional identification before. I had fascination and enjoyment, but never that level of emotional identification with a CG character, and I thought that that was a breakthrough. And so when I came in, Dawn wasn’t the same story that we ended up making. Caesar was in it, but it wasn’t as much his story. And I said, “Guys, as an outsider, I can tell you what you achieved: which is that this story, it needs to be Caesar’s story because you earned that.” That’s what people loved about this movie, and I have been trying to push that all the way along.
And because in Rise there was such a jump to the world of Dawn, you had to have a human story that was a counterpoint – partly because it was what the story was about, but also because there was such a huge change between that world and the world of Dawn. But we were over with that before War. So I finally was able to do what I really wanted to do in Dawn, which was to make it a full ape point-of-view movie. And because the effects are so good, it’s possible, right? You’re able to go on this journey and connect emotionally with Caesar – and there’s not a scene in this movie that doesn’t have apes! I mean, the complexity in this movie is so much greater in so many ways than it was on Dawn that it’s amazing. And it’s all because these effects are pulled off at a level where you don’t question it, where you just relate.
Did you get any pushback from anyone saying that there isn’t any human speaking characters that you empathize with at all?
Reeves: It was the first thing I said. I said, “Here’s what I want.” Because when I came in on Dawn, I said, “Look, this story isn’t enough Caesar’s and I think it needs to be.” And it really was Caesar’s story. But as you say, there was a counterpoint.
Right, and we see the humans in that movie.
Reeves: Yeah, for sure.
They have some points in Dawn, too. This one, no.
Reeves: And in this one, my pitch was that I didn’t want to do that. That I felt that it was important because the movie was about a character who you connected with losing his empathy for another species. I wanted to implicate the audience in that experience. I wanted the audience to feel like they wanted revenge, too – and then have them come to question, wait, was that really the right thing? So there were certainly moments where along the way they said, “Can’t we have this?,” or, “Can’t we have that?” And I just kept saying, “But this is the concept of the movie!” And so, I always push back and they let me do it.
How do you get people to listen to you? Because I feel like you are in a very unique position. We are all watching what just happened on the Han Solo movie…
Reeves: I think I have the benefit of a lot of things. One is that this franchise, the subject of it, allows for an exploration that’s maybe different from other franchises. And I think also, you know, I’ve had really good partners in Fox. I can’t say why except that it’s been my experience. I mean, I think what you have to have is you have to be passionate about what you’re doing, right? And what I try to do, I’m coming from a place where these movies mean a lot to me…
Well, that’s obvious when you watch…
Reeves: Well, I try to make them personal, right? Look, a director’s job is to not only make everything personal, but to draw the personal out of everybody that’s involved, right? So everybody from every artistic level, from every place, is contributing emotionally from themselves. That’s where this all comes from. Like, Andy is exposing his emotions, and everybody’s doing that. Steve Zahn’s doing that. Woody’s doing that. And so are the artists at Weta. And so, it’s really just about people really caring and for whatever reason – and I have to really thank the studio, they’ve allowed it.
So there’s trust now.
Reeves: Yeah, I think there was a lot of trust that came. It was a harder experience on Dawn because there was so much uncertainty. They didn’t know me. I came in and pitched them a new story that they said I could tell, and I was like, uh-oh, I’m being duped. And they said, “No, the deal that we’ll make is you have to make that movie in two years instead of the three that we had scheduled to make it, because we still want to make that release date.” And that put me in a pretty good position in this way. Things were moving so fast relative to two years, but that was good for me. At least my experience was with Fox – and by the way, they did this with Logan – they’re making movies with filmmakers that are different from the usual breed.
Reeves: Yeah, which is a great thing.
So you’ve mentioned how you didn’t consider yourself a franchise filmmaker and now you’re going to go do a Batman movie.
Reeves: I’m spoiled.
Did you want assurances from Warner Bros. before agreeing? That you’d have a similar work environment as you did on Apes?
Reeves: Well, here’s the thing: I have always approached everything the same, no matter what it was.
Because studios trust you by now?
Reeves: Let me tell you something. Because when you do a small movie, like when I did Let Me In, right? So that movie costs $13 million. I can tell you this: that $13 million meant as much to those financiers as the $200 million means to Fox. You are asking people to give you money that is, no matter what you’re doing, a ton of money.
And you better spend this wisely?
Reeves: Pretty much, right? So it is always the case that you have to come to an agreement about what you’re going to do. Here’s the thing: one thing I never do is I never begrudge anybody, who’s putting down the money for their movie, what it is they want. It’s just, if we don’t want the same thing then I’m not the right filmmaker. And that’s the way I approach it. I’m very sanguine, always, about saying, “Look, I respect that it’s your money, and so if at the end of the day you don’t want to do what I want to do, then that’s okay. But then we don’t have to do it.” Because what I’m not so good at is doing what somebody else wants me to do – because then I don’t know where my emotional compass is. It’s not out of any kind of arrogance, it’s about that’s the only way I know where to put the camera or how to talk to the actors.
So the answer is yes, you did want assurances. Maybe assurances isn’t the right word…
Reeves: No, it is.
So you are telling them, “Here’s what I want to do with Batman”?
Reeves: Yeah. When I come in, what I say is, “Look. First of all, you’re asking me if I’m interested in this franchise. I am. I love this franchise. I’ve loved it since I was a kid. But here’s the way in which I’m interested in it. And if you’re not interested in it in that way, then that’s totally fine.” And the good news was, they said, “Yeah, we’re really interested in that way.” And I remember this on Dawn, too. There would be moments where I came in for a pitch that was a certain version of the movie, and somewhere along the way, because they didn’t know me or whatever it was, they’d say, “Why don’t we do this?” And I would just simply say, “But that’s not the movie that we talked about. That’s not the movie I want to do.” And I have to say that they always backed down when it came down to that. And it’s kind of the way that I’ve always done it. And here’s the thing: I’m always happy not to do something. I’m usually looking for the reason to say no.
That’s a great quote, by the way.
Reeves: Well, because the thing is that it’s too hard. You spend too much of your time putting yourself into something, and for it not to work, that’s a nightmare, right? I can fail for every single reason because of myself. I don’t want to fail because of something that I don’t believe in in the first place – because I’m not going to know how to do it. I can respect that somebody else might know exactly how to do it. Like there are plenty of things that I’m not the right director for and I love to go see those movies. I love to see what people can do. But I can only do what I can do, and so I have to work from that perspective for self-preservation. It’s not out of any kind of like, Oh, my way or the highway, it’s because that’s the way I have to do it for me to feel confident in my choices. And so, I’m happy to part ways not even in an acrimonious way.
From the outside looking in back at Rise, when you first hear about it, there were a lot of people who were like, “Boy, I don’t know about this.” They tried this reboot like 12 years ago and it didn’t really work out.
Lemmon: And there’s something incredibly liberating about having the world have maybe slightly lowered expectations having had a few missteps along the way. But having such a rich property behind it, to be able to go in and really surprise people.
Letteri: It’s like, this is a great film and you want to go wherever it’s going to lead, because you could see there was more beyond that first film.
Reeves: This is the weird thing: this iteration has been the underdog franchise for its entire life. Nobody thought Rise was going to be anything, and then they saw it and go, “Wait a minute, this is amazing.” And then they thought that was a fluke and there’s no way Dawn was going to work. And I still feel like we’re continually flying under the radar – that we are secretly some people’s favorite thing, but a lot of people are still discovering us.
Lemmon: Which is amazing.
Reeves: It’s a weird thing to say about a movie – because it made like almost three-quarters of a billion dollars – but it really is true. That in a landscape where there’s all these giant movies, this is still people’s little private thing. You know, it’s like their relationship to the franchise.
Well, I really enjoy these movies and I’m sad the trilogy is over.
Reeves: But the movies aren’t over, just this trilogy.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.