Interview: Director Rupert Wyatt on ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ and The End of Cinema

By  · Published on April 16th, 2011

Even with a single teaser trailer, director Rupert Wyatt has already laid further waste to Tim Burton’s abomination. While that’s not exactly a tough thing to do, Wyatt looks to have made a genuine Planet of the Apes film. Burton and co. missed out on what made the Apes series interesting: social commentary. Rise of the Planet of the Apes seems to be another man abusing science fable, and it fits perfectly into the Apes mold.

With further hating on Burton’s Apes “film” out of my system, Rise of the Planet of the Apes looks to be what the fans want. Judging by the trailer, it isn’t about explosions, it has a doom-ridden atmosphere, and looks to be one of those films that builds up to a real bang of a climax like the other (good) installments.

I recently had the chance to discuss all this with director Rupert Wyatt, along with the trailer reaction, getting to make an inherently dark studio film, returning to social commentary, the hopefulness in the film, and how Justin Bieber is lending a helping hand to the end of cinema:

How do you think the trailer has been received so far?

It seems to have gone down very well.

Do you think it’s an accurate representation of the film?

I think it is. What I’m really pleased about is that they’ve taken the film seriously, which was definitely our intention. Trailers can be very indicative of what you usually end up getting, but what I quite liked about the trailer was the indication that our film had a very strong story.

The trailer sets up what seems to be an eerie atmosphere. Can you talk a bit about the mood of the film?

Is it dark? I don’t know if it’s dark. Well, it’s not literally dark [Laughs]. It’s the story of evolution, in many ways, with this one character, Caesar. It’s a transition from a certain world, which is a lot more brighter and innocent and more hopeful, to a world that is perhaps more cynical, violent and harsher. We definitely see that. It was always our intention to chart that visually as much as narratively. We tried to place it in the real world as much as we possibly could and make it as plausible as we could. In some ways, bearing in mind we’re dealing with real apes, that certainly takes us away from the franchise of dealing with humanoid apes.

Wouldn’t you say the film is inherently dark with the ending it has?

Yeah, there was a certain… what’s the right way to say this without sounding critical, because it’s not my place, but there was a certain camp to the Tim Burton film that this film doesn’t have.

Go ahead, you can say it’s terrible [Laughs].

To be honest, I haven’t seen it in a really long time. I remember going to see it at the cinema. I think everyone has to acknowledge that the effects and prosthetics in that film are pretty phenomenal, but for some reason, it was a story that played out in a world that wasn’t similar to our world, so we couldn’t really connect to it. In a funny way, it was much more faithful to Pierre Boulle’s novel than the original film, especially with the ending. I understand the reasoning why they went there.

I always thought ‐ and this is what attracted me to this film ‐ to see the evolution from its inception and why an exploited species rises up against its dominators. To me, that is really dramatic and fascinating. To attempt to do that in a very real world setting is what I wanted to achieve.

Judging from the trailer, you seem to have gone back to what the series is about: social commentary. Was it important to make an Apes film with something to say?

We’ve taken a different approach to the origin of the mythology. It was apes being brought into domestic households and being enslaved, but we’ve taken a different approach, which is a more scientific approach with how the apes have evolved. I actually find that more plausible. To speculate on a period of time, we’d be talking about generations and generations of how a chimpanzee could actually evolve into a humanoid creature, which could cause a revolution. I think there needs to be some sort of scientific reasoning behind that, and that’s what we’ve gone for.

So you’re going for realistic science versus “movie” science?

To be honest with you, I think “science-fiction” is called science-fiction for a reason. I’m not a major fan of Arthur C. Clark, because I think his science is so phenomenally researched and plausible, that it becomes incredibly dry as a result. If you look at a Philip K. Dick story, he’s a fantastic science-fiction writer because he’s skirting away from the plausibility factor, because it’s all about story to him. He’s using it for a metaphor in our real world, so then we can understand it in that way. To me, that’s more interesting. I was trying to be as respectful and faithful to real world science as we possibly could, but that’s really not the driving force of the story.

Would you call the film hard sci-fi? How would you label it?

I don’t know. I don’t think I can. I’ve been asked that question before. Actually, when I was being interviewed for the job I was asked that [Laughs]. I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to that, because it’s so many different genres. It’s a fairy tale, it’s a love story, it’s about a father-son relationship, it’s an action movie, it’s a dark drama, and it’s a cautionary tale. It’s all sorts of things. I think the best representation of this ‐ and this is a very high bar to reach for ‐ but think of a film like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. To me, that’s a fantastic story in terms of its canvas, but at its heart, it’s very much a human drama.

From what I know, most of the action takes place in the third act, so would you say the film fits the general idea of a summer blockbuster?

You’re asking all the hard questions [Laughs]. What we’re doing is laying the groundwork for, hopefully, future films to come that’ll deal with the actual conflict between apes and humans. We’re leveling the playing field, in terms of the film and what the story is. I think, at its heart, the real focus is the breaking of the bond between humans and animals, and seeing how that comes about with the betrayal of a species’ trust.

I’ve said this before, but it’s a very sad irony that our closest cousins, in a way, are exploited. There’s something fundamentally wrong about that, but also understandable. If we were to take this science-fiction story, you would understand why this species would rise up when given the chance.

Would you say the film is cynical about humanity, like the other Apes films, or a little more hopeful?

It’s a little more hopeful. It’s very important for a human audience to come in and watch this movie understanding that we… so often it’s very black and white to tell cautionary tales about how “science is wrong” and that we “shouldn’t tamper with things that we can’t understand the consequences of,” and so many movies go down that road. My personal belief is that that is a mistake.

The very reason we have evolved as a species is through progress, through research, and investigation. Einstein split the atom, therefore he believes he created something wonderful that would benefit all of mankind, but little did he know that it would inevitably be used for mankind’s destruction. It’s all about the individual and the society we make. There’s certain humans in our film that represent our worst instincts, but there’s certain humans that represent our best [instincts].

Is Will [James Franco] like a less evil Dr. Frankenstein?

If you look back at the original Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein, he’s as conflicted as that character. There is a real moral twilight to him. Will is a scientist that experiments on animals, and there’s a huge moral quandary to that. I’m sure if you ask anyone in that field how they feel about that, they would never be able to give a black and white answer about if they believe it to be right or wrong. It’s something that’ll keep them up at night. I think that’s where the drama in his character lies.

Would you say this is Will’s story, or Caesar’s?

It’s very much both their stories, in many ways. It’s the breaking of the bond between the two. As our human protagonist, Will is very much that. As our ape protagonist, Caesar is the leader. It’s their story.

Did you approach the film as a character-driven piece, like The Escapist?

I always think it’s a mistake for people and studios to believe that an audience is only looking for non-narrative action set pieces in their films. I think films like Inception have proved that you can earn a phenomenal box-office for telling a great story that’s told on a huge canvas. What I like to think is that this is a great story, but with an epic sensibility. That’s why I think Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, because he’s always understood that, and more people should, or the money people should.

Do you think of the film as an epic?

I would say it starts off in a very personal way, and then grows from there. It becomes bigger and bigger.

The film seems to be shot in a very slick and realistic way. Is that how you approached the style of it?

I think when you’re making a movie of this budgetary scale; there are certain demands that you have to fulfill. Like, you can’t take a skeleton crew out on the streets of San Francisco and shoot from the hip, which is the way of filmmaking I was used to and loved. You just can’t do that on a film of this scale; it’s not feasible. I always said whenever possible ‐ and this is definitely shown in the trailer and is in the film ‐ I’d try to give it a real world look as much as possible.

Andrew Lesnie, the cinematographer, and I discussed very early on the feel and lighting of this film. Sometimes we were dealing with quite dark scenes and certain aspects of Caesar’s evolution, and that would usually be shot in a very dark way, but we looked to avoid that. We were very fortunate when shooting that it was a terrific summer in Vancouver. While certain story points may play out that are darker in tone, the lighting and the feel is a really nice counterpoint. In many ways, I think that’s what lends to the film feeling very much like a fairy-tale or a bible story.

In terms of production size, you made a pretty big leap from The Escapist to this film. What’s something you learned through that shift?

That it’s not that different [Laughs]. I mean, there are certain responsibilities and requirements that you have to fulfill when you’re making a studio film, but you perhaps have more freedom making an independent film. At the end of the day, I still had a huge responsibility to my budget. I mean, there were long and hard arguments when I was making The Escapist. I think people always assume when you’re making a low-budget indie that you have final cut, but you still have to earn it. I didn’t have final cut on The Escapist and there were many battles that I had to fight.

It taught me well for this. I came onto this film quite late in the day with a script that was already pretty evolved. My background as a filmmaker was always to generate my own work and write my own scripts, so this has been very different for me. I’m a director for hire, and that’s this feel unto itself. I think there are some really good positives to that. You’re able to tap into other people’s minds instead of just your own. You also have to learn that skill of taking something, but making it your own. I feel like this film has taught me that.

So the collaboration on this film hasn’t been radically different than your experience on The Escapist?

Well, there are more people. That’s the big difference, I’d say. I’m fortunate on this film of having to outstanding producers, Peter Chernin and Dylan Clark, who have been incredibly strong from day one. There’s an irony in that Peter Chernin used to actually run 20th Century Fox. To have a producer such as him, who has been very closely involved with every aspect of production, we were quite fortunate. I like to think one of the reasons why he employed me, instead of a far bigger name director, was because we saw very eye-to-eye early on with how we wanted to make this film.

There are deadlines, there are requirements, and there are compromises you have to make, but it’s just like anything. When you’re inside it looking out, you really start to understand… I’m a lot less critical of other people’s films now because I’ve made a film like this. You start to really realize how difficult it is. Having made this, I’d say I’m a far better filmmaker than I was when I made The Escapist.

With the ending, how much discussion has gone into the tone of it? You could call it very bleak, and I’d imagine there must have been a lot of talk about how it was going to be handled.

At its heart, it’s a very hopeful film. There’s some redemption to it, and for that reason, I think it’s a very un-cynical film. The cynical version of this would be to really echo Charlton Heston’s words on the beach with seeing mankind’s demise for all of its worst traits. That would have been a darker tone. With this, it’s kind of a more human story about certain personable decisions.

As far as the studio, the producers, the writers and myself, we’ve always looked to tell the story of how this new civilization has begun. It’s a real origin story, and in the truest sense of the world. We’ve been real faithful to that. When it comes to the studio, there has never really been any wavering about that.

I think we’re ending with certain questions, which is quite exciting. To me, I can think of all sorts of sequels to this film, but this is just the beginning. This is laying the foundation for what it to become. We’re fortunate enough to have 3,000 years of evolution before we get to the original Planet of the Apes [Laughs].

How much of the effects were completed in the trailer?

It’s all constantly evolving. With the more time we have, the more we can integrate, define, and texture stuff. We’re working on this right up until the film is coming out, and that’s very sensible. The good thing is that quite often teaser trailers are pushed out with unfinished shots, and we were fortunate enough that everyone decided that shouldn’t happen with this. We’re going to live or die by how people see the apes. The more time we have to get every shot right, which is a huge task, in terms of getting that texture. It helps having one of the greatest companies behind it [WETA], but that’s still a mammoth task.

The Green Lantern teaser did the opposite of that, and it’s had bad buzz for awhile because of those unfinished effects.

It’s why we’ve taken so long to release any material. I think people, probably you included [Laughs], and we’re not so much discounting us, but were quite understandably having questions with, “What’s this all about? Are they just cashing in on the franchise?” I think we’ve always hoped to just put our best foot forward and make the right choice when to do that. It’s been great with the marketing team. So far the reaction has been pretty good.

Fur is always discussed as one of the most difficult visual-effects to do. How did WETA approaching that hurdle?

You’d have to ask them to get a really complete answer, but you’re absolutely right. I think hair and water are always the two parts of CGI that are the most difficult to realistically create. They’ve come off King Kong and The Lord of the Rings, which have involved hair, but this is light-years ahead of what they achieved with that. They’ve always said the from the beginning that 2005 is the stone age compared to where we are now.

I think they got somebody down from San Francisco, who’s a specialist in digitally recreating individual strands of hair, and they’ve used him as sort of their think tank. They do digitally grow every strand of hair that you see, and it’s amazing the amount of work that goes into it, especially baring in mind there’s hundreds of apes in our film. That’s a big job.

How far along in post-production are you?

We are quite progressed. I don’t know, actually. I think we wrapped in September, so we’ve been at it since then. The really demanding thing is, besides the traditional aspects of post-production, is that we are essentially making this movie three or four times over. Every shot that is motion-captured is then replicated and echoed. There’s the transition from human performance to digital performance. There are a lot of nuances that you really have to keep an eye on to ensure that certain micro muscle movements in the faces are not lost. Everyday is a conversation with having a two-hour call with WETA in New Zealand where we go over every single aspect of each shot.

We’ve got enough time, that’s all I know [Laughs]. There’s that saying, “Nothing is ever completed, but just abandoned,” and you could spend forever on any movie just constantly re-tweaking it. I would say the building blocks that we have now are all very firm and much in place. Now it’s just about crafting, detailing, and the more typical aspects of post-production are now fully underway with music and sound-design. It’s just about keeping an eye on everything and making sure it’s as good as it possibly can be.

Do you already have a Director’s Cut?

We’re way beyond that. We’re locked, basically. Again, that’s quite unusual for a studio movie. I think I heard the other day, much to my horror, because of the Justin Bieber movie and how everything is now released digitally, they can actually take a film back after its initial release and re-cut the film according to what people say about it. I think that’s the end of cinema as far as I’m concerned.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters on August 5th, 2011.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.