The director, actors, and special effect supervisors met with Paul Salfen in this series of interviews by the Golden Gate Bridge for the summer blockbuster “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”
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In DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES a growing nation of genetically evolved apes, led by Caesar, are threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.
At one time the concept of successfully rebooting the Planet of the Apes series into a viable new franchise seemed impossible. But 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, along with the majestic performance of Andy Serkis and groundbreaking visual effects from Weta Digital, did indeed launch a new franchise. The film became a global hit, grossing nearly $500 million and receiving critical and audience acclaim. It was the first live-action motion picture to star and be told from the point of view of a sentient animal — a character with human qualities and with whom moviegoers experienced a real emotional bond.
Rise was an emotionally arresting story, which the filmmakers wanted to carry forward in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Rise of the Planet of the Apes concluded with the apes breaking free from their human captors – just as a deadly human-created virus spread globally. Caesar, the benevolent ape leader, leads the apes to Muir Woods, a haven outside of San Francisco, where Caesar, then a young chimpanzee, was taken by his human friend Will to escape the confines of the city.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES director Matt Reeves wanted the continuity of his movie to fit into that timeline. “The story we are telling will lead to Planet of the Apes, and not Planet of the Humans and Apes, so it’s about how this film fits into that narrative.”
In the new story, the apes have continued to build a community in Muir Woods. Beyond the apes’ enclave, a pandemic, the Simian Flu, has wiped out much of the world’s human population. Gradually the lights of civilization began to dim and become non-existent. For all intents and purposes, humanity has perished.
Producer Dylan Clark notes, “A viral apocalypse hit the humans and 10 years later, their numbers are severely depleted. Apes, on the other hand, have done quite well. Caesar has led them to freedom and he’s built a new home. The apes have risen, and the humans have declined. And now they’re about to collide.”
Still, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is about survival and not an apocalypse. “There is a sense in the beginning of the story that apes have inherited the Earth,” says Reeves. “A small group of humans is struggling to come back from devastation, and the apes are fighting for survival. It’s an ape world, and we explore whether apes and humans can figure out a way to live together without violence.”
These events again revolve around Caesar, whom Andy Serkis brought to life in an acclaimed and stunning performance in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Caesar rules a nation of apes, having established a rich life for the simians in the years that followed their liberation. Now, a decade later, he finds himself grappling with the challenges of maintaining his benevolent leadership, and protecting his mate and two children in the face of renewed interaction with humans.
According to Serkis, the challenges that defined Caesar in the previous film have evolved: “He’s still developing his ‘inner-ape,’ this time by galvanizing this group of orangutans and chimps and gorillas – 2,000 strong – while being an open and empathetic leader.
“Caesar is the alpha-ape,” Serkis continues. “He’s a natural leader. The other apes respect him because he has an innate sense of fairness, he values their opinions, and he includes them in the decision-making. He’s definitive in his decisions but also relies heavily on the advice of his inner circle, his council.”
At the same time, Caesar is conflicted about humanity because of the way he came into the world and was raised among humans. He was an outsider, even though he learned human belief systems and thought of Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ character Will as his father. He’s a creature who is going through the very human experiences of being rejected and finding his people.
Caesar as a leader, parent and mate provides abundant ground for Serkis to explore as an actor. “Caesar is a father now: he’s got a mate, a son and a baby,” the actor notes. “He is responsible for the survival of a community. On the other hand, he has empathy for humans, and still, deep down, he feels a need to be able to communicate with them.”
In DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Caesar’s principal human contact is Malcolm, portrayed by Jason Clarke. Malcolm is a former architect who lost his wife to the virus that wiped out most of humanity. Left on his own to raise his teenage son, Malcolm is desperate to maintain the hope and stability he and Alexander have found within a small colony of fellow survivors in San Francisco.
“Malcolm is sort of a mirror to Caesar, trying to rebuild his community in the ruins of a world that is gone forever,” says Reeves. “There’s a lot of mistrust and throwing of blame on both sides,” adds Clarke. “From the point of view of the humans, there’s a lot of anger about how mankind has suffered because of the virus. The humans wrongly blame the apes for causing the virus, though humans actually created the virus in a lab a decade earlier.”
Caesar and Malcolm must make choices, compromises and decisions that not everyone respects. Both are fathers and must protect not just themselves but also their nascent societies.
In this respect, the film is the story of two families – one human, one ape.
While Malcolm is a pivotal figure in the human colony, its leader is Dreyfus, played by Gary Oldman. Prior to the breakdown of society, Dreyfus was a law enforcement professional. Now, he has taken on the role of a leader of the human colony surviving among the ruins of downtown San Francisco — an authority figure intent on not only saving, but rebuilding what’s left of mankind a decade after the Simian Flu destroyed human-run infrastructure. Oldman describes the colony as “a melting pot of survivors. The virus has just wiped out millions and millions of people. We are just the lucky few that were genetically predisposed to have been immune. As a community we’ve come together and we’re trying to survive and restore our world.”
Working hard to rebuild her life is Ellie, a nurse who worked with the Center for Disease Control in its failed efforts to contain the viral outbreak. Ellie has managed to attain some measure of security amidst her fellow survivors in San Francisco, including Malcolm, with whom she has a burgeoning relationship. “Ellie is strong and tenacious because she has to be to survive in this world,” says Keri Russell, who portrays Ellie. “It’s a tough place that’s always on that verge of panic as everyone starts to realize that this little society they’ve built is coming close to bursting at the seams. She’s a strong woman and that’s just what Malcolm needs.”
Ellie and Malcolm’s relationship impacts the latter’s teenage son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Alexander’s mother has passed away – one of countless victims of the Simian Flu. Alexander has grown up in this decimated world, and has little memory of what normal life was like. His reality is a daily struggle to exist and survive, with his father and the other humans, amongst the ruins of civilization.
Smit-McPhee says the film is a story of survival, as well as one “about trust and love between Malcolm and Alexander.” Though Alexander and all the humans are under constant threat, Smit-McPhee notes that “it’s the only world that Alexander has known, so it’s all he’s used to. If anything, that’s given him the strength necessary to survive.”
A formidable antagonist for the humans is Koba, played by Toby Kebbell. The milky-eyed and scar-faced bonobo, introduced in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Koba spent much of his younger life confined in laboratories, where he was subjected to experimentation in the name of science. In the decade following the apes’ liberation, Koba has evolved into a grizzled warrior who harbors a strong hatred of the human race, believing that the only good human is a dead human.
Kebbell, who recently landed the role of the iconic villain Victor Von Doom in The Fantastic Four, says that Koba’s relationship with Caesar is one of “son and father, if not younger brother and older brother. Caesar is very much in control, and Koba appears to be fine with that.”
A far gentler ape character is Cornelia, the young female chimp who in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was held at the San Bruno Primate Center, and who is played in this film by Judy Greer. Ten years after Caesar’s uprising against humanity, their budding relationship has blossomed. Cornelia is now Caesar’s wife and queen and the mother of his two children: an impatient and sometimes-rebellious adolescent male simian named Blue Eyes, played by Nick Thurston, and a newborn baby chimp.
When Rise of the Planet of the Apes was released, fans immediately recognized that Cornelia was named in tribute to the 1968 film’s lead ape character Cornelius, played by Roddy McDowall. Given her romantic connection with Caesar, her name is also a historical reference to Cornelia Cinna, the first wife of Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar.
Another ape introduced in the last film, Rocket, played by Terry Notary, is a skilled combatant and one of Caesar’s closest allies. As in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Notary also served as the ape movement coach and stunt choreographer.
Also returning is Karin Konoval, as Maurice, an ex-circus orangutan who was forced to perform for the entertainment of his human captors. Now the wise elder, Maurice serves as loyal consigliere and advisor, serving Caesar and educating the youth of his ape kingdom.