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With ‘War for the Planet of the Apes,’ Matt Reeves Crafts a Personal Blockbuster

Variety logo Variety 7/11/2017 Andrew Barker
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Before he took the helm of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise in 2014, Matt Reeves had no intention of ever directing a studio blockbuster. In fact, he figured he had a foolproof plan for getting himself out of any potential tentpole assignment: Insist on doing the story he wanted to do, the studio’s franchise-development apparatus be damned.

So when he was approached to direct “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the second entry in the rebooted series inaugurated by Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Reeves put his foot down right away.

“I was initially excited, and then I saw the [studio’s] outline and I said, this isn’t really the story I would want to tell, I don’t think this is for me,” Reeves says. “To my shock they said, ‘no, no, wait, just tell us the story you want to do.’ I said, ‘I don’t see what the point of that is, because you’ll probably try then to get me to do some version of 20% what I want and 80% what you want, and I’ll have to do a big showdown at Candlestick Park or something…’ ”

But the producers insisted on hearing Reeves’ concept, and offered him a deal: If he could pledge to finish the film on the initial schedule that had been set for the departed Wyatt, they’d let him do his own thing. “And I said, ‘that makes it really hard, because now you’re not giving me the reason I needed to say no. Which means I have to say yes.’ ”

With Fox’s July 14 release of “War for the Planet of the Apes,” Reeves brings to a close the saga of super-evolved chimpanzee Caesar — once again crafted by the gold-standard motion-capture collaboration between actor Andy Serkis and New Zealand visual-effects studio Weta Digital — and once again managing to balance the commercial and technical demands of the blockbuster trade with an uncompromised, surprisingly intimate scale. If Wyatt’s “Rise” was essentially a sci-fi prison break film, and “Dawn” a tense rumination on the nature and inevitability of conflict, “War” is an old-school epic, drawing its inspiration from the likes of David Lean and John Sturges.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

Initially asked to have the film ready for summer of 2016, Reeves once again gambled on the studio’s indulgence, and persuaded Fox to give him and co-screenwriter Mark Bomback an extra year to work on a script. Bringing the story to within striking distance of the primate-populated planet glimpsed in the 1968 original, “War” pits the revolutionary-turned-conflicted spiritual leader Caesar against the last brutal remnants of human civilization, led by a Colonel Kurtz-like military commandant played by Woody Harrelson.

For a PG-13 summer movie, “War” is unusually bleak and violent — “if we were doing this without apes, they never would have made it,” Reeves says — but also deeply morally engaged, with visual and thematic echoes of everything from the Exodus to the Holocaust.

“For this film, I wanted to move into the realm of the mythic,” Reeves says. “This would be the story that would be the defining part of [Caesar’s] arc, that would challenge him in darker places, and the end would be his ascension into something like an ape Moses.”

The idiosyncrasies of “War for the Planet of the Apes,” like George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” before it, can’t help but stand out in a studio landscape where auteurist approaches have become rarer and rarer in tentpole filmmaking. Questions regarding how, and to what extent, a director can hope to maintain a personal vision within the machinery of big IP-driven properties could hardly be more relevant, after the high-profile director departures in the Marvel and “Star Wars” franchises. For Reeves, who is slated to move right into yet another high-pressure franchise situation as director of the DC Universe entry “The Batman,” these questions are as much practical as they are philosophical.

“For me it’s about survival,” he says. “I couldn’t make a movie that would function if I couldn’t make it personal. Every choice I make comes from an emotional compass that I’m holding. How do I know what to tell the actors? How do I know where the camera goes? How do I know what to tell the artists at Weta? It all comes from a personal place.”

That personal vision is one he’s been cultivating from a frighteningly early age. Raised in Los Angeles, Reeves began making his own films when he was 8 years old, and had his first short film broadcast on a public access TV channel at age 13. Through the station, he met and befriended a similarly aged young prodigy in J.J. Abrams. Two years later, the 15-year-olds landed the unusual summer job of cleaning and re-splicing Steven Spielberg’s childhood Super 8 films.

Shortly after graduating USC, Reeves sold a screenplay for the 1995 Steven Seagal actioner “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory,” and wrote and directed the 1996 indie comedy “The Pallbearer.” His chops really came into focus, however, when he segued into television for the better part of a decade, eventually reuniting with Abrams to create the WB hit, “Felicity.”

“I actually feel a kind of spiritual connection between Caesar and Batman.”

Matt Reeves

By the time Reeves returned to feature filmmaking, his years of experience were obvious: His 2008 found-footage monster movie “Cloverfield,” produced by Abrams, was a major success. As a follow-up, Reeves wrote and directed a remake of Tomas Alfredson’s teen vampire festival favorite “Let the Right One In.” Though its commercial appeal was modest, Reeves’ “Let Me In” attracted the right attention.

“I was really knocked out by ‘Let Me In,’ even more than ‘Cloverfield’,” says producer Peter Chernin, the guiding force behind the revived “Apes” franchise.

“There were three things about Matt that impressed me. One, the combination of something like ‘Cloverfield,’ which was very popcorny, and ‘Let Me In,’ which was darker and much moodier, suggested a broad range. Second, I really liked what he had done reimagining someone else’s movie, which isn’t easy. And most importantly, I found him to be extraordinarily emotional. He was incredibly compelling in how he talked about his ideas.”

For “Dawn,” Reeves expanded on the first “Apes” film’s ability to render lifelike apes from motion capture, diving deeper than before into simian society. “War” presses the limits of photorealistic motion-capture techniques even further, this time not only confining the action almost entirely to ape characters, but also lingering on tight closeups, and drawing strikingly subtle emotions out of the faces of digital gorillas, chimps and orangutans.

Per Reeves, the chief directive of “War” was always the attempt to further marry cutting-edge digital effects with classical filmmaking principles. Ninety percent of the film was shot on location, particularly in the snow-covered Kananaskis mountains of British Columbia (“when it’s snowing, those characters are really there in the snow”), and Reeves shot on 65 mm, using natural light whenever possible.

The juxtaposition of naturalistic shooting techniques and painstaking digital post work is surprisingly seamless. While conventional wisdom would dictate that CG-heavy films are most convincing when the effects are used cleverly and judiciously, with the camera never dwelling long or close enough for the digital strings to show, the level of ability at Weta convinced Reeves to put the effects on even more prominent display.

“That’s one of the surprising things I learned from working on ‘Dawn’: The closeups in particular were the strong points,” Reeves says. “Those were the places where the models looked best. The eyes are amazing, and the details in the face are some of the best parts of the models.”

But as eager as Reeves is to get up close, he’s just as willing to pull out wider, capturing striking images of apes on horseback framed against snowy wilderness. Reeves and his crew watched “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Apocalypse Now” before shooting, and the influences are easy to detect.

“What I wanted to do, because I wanted to tell a big epic war story, was have the context be these grand vistas. But I also wanted you to connect very intimately to the internal war within Caesar. So I guess I wanted it to be like a Sergio Leone movie. Because he’s got these incredible vistas, but he’s also got these great closeups, and he’s not afraid to move in really, really tight. I was inspired in many ways by Westerns, but specifically by Leone, in this juxtaposition of the grand and the intimate.”

Matt Reeves on the set of “War for the Planet of the Apes

Courtesy of James Dittiger

Another way that “War” draws inspiration from Leone is its sparse deployment of dialogue. While Caesar first learns to speak in “Rise,” “Dawn” explores the apes’ gradually evolving language skills in detail, with some apes learning to speak Caesar’s increasingly fluid English, others communicating in grunts, and some, like Karin Konoval’s orangutan Maurice, fluent in sign language. For “War,” Reeves introduces another wrinkle: the character Nova, played by Amiah Miller. An orphaned young girl adopted by Caesar and Maurice, Nova has been rendered incapable of speech by the same virus that caused the apes’ evolutionary leap.

“A lot of the communication in this movie is totally unspoken,” Reeves says. “One of my favorite moments in the movie is where Maurice and Nova first see each other, and they have no words, so they have to communicate using just their eyes and sounds. There’s something about that that feels purely cinematic, and purely instinctual. And very human, even though there’s an ape there. There’s something about that I found very moving.”

Indeed, the series’ theme of evolving communication was actually one of the director’s emotional entry points into the series itself. Then a new father, Reeves drew parallels between Caesar’s language breakthrough in “Rise” and his son’s development.

“I was very affected by that moment in ‘Rise’ where Andy finally speaks,” Reeves says. “My son was just learning how to talk, and there was an experience I had watching Caesar that was so personal. I could look at my son and see all this intelligence behind his eyes, and yet he didn’t have the tools to articulate it, and I could see that frustration. When those words first came, they came with the same kind of urgency that I saw Andy performing when he said ‘no!’ Caesar has wanted to say that word the whole movie, and finally he has the tools to say it.”

Again and again, Reeves stresses the importance of allowing his emotions to guide his process, and the necessity of finding a personal connection within even the noisiest action movie moments.

“Among the truly great directors working today, I think Matt may be the most emotional of them,” Chernin says. “These movies are so technically difficult to realize, but through it all, he’s relentlessly focused on ‘where’s the emotional core in this scene?’ ”

With “The Batman” next on his schedule, Reeves notes that there are a number of emotional throughlines between the Caped Crusader and Caesar. “I actually feel a kind of spiritual connection between Caesar and Batman; here’s this character who is a tortured soul, figuring out how to do the right thing in a very imperfect world.” And he hopes that his successes with the “Apes” franchise have taught him how to retain his own sensibility even on the largest stages.

“When I’d made independent films and television, I’d always managed to maintain my voice,” he says. “But I felt, looking at it from the outside, that when you got into the realm of a film that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, you’re dealing with a machine. I could feel that sometimes watching those [types of] movies. So I had tremendous admiration for filmmakers whose point of view seemed to come through on a large scale. When I saw a Christopher Nolan, I was very inspired by the way he’s working in this grand scale, yet I’m very aware of a perspective and a point of view.

“And I think I’ve discovered that there’s a way to do that on this scale, which is to use the metaphors of the genre. I never saw myself as a genre filmmaker growing up. But I do feel like there are ways you can use the cover of genre, the metaphors of genre, to explore something real. [‘Apes’] was confirmation that it could be done, and that’s the most gratifying part.”

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