To say that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the surprise hit of the summer would perhaps be an injustice to this film. Andy Serkis and Rupert Wyatt were always assured that they had made a great film and were hoping this would translate to box office success and considering its performance on its opening weekend, they have been pretty accurate in their expectations. I was lucky enough to catch up with Andy and Rupert in London during the week where we chatted about performance capture, Oliver (the chimp, not the singing orphan) and possible (perhaps inevitable) sequels.
Flickfeast: Andy, considering the summer blockbuster and what you guys have been up against this summer, are you at all surprised how well Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been doing?
Andy Serkis: One can never predict what’s going to happen with a movie, but I was pretty certain we had made a film that was an honest film with characters and story that really tells a good tale, and that it was paced very well. Rupert had directed an amazing movie; I knew that because you can feel that on set when you’re making something. You can never predict what an audience is going to do and I think, at the end of the day, people want good stories and want to be emotionally involved in characters; perhaps some others haven’t delivered on that level but have delivered in the fireworks and the display of it all. But I know this is a great story…
FF: In terms of performance capture, can you tell us what you would do on set to bring Caesar to life?
AS: There’s a lot of mystery that surrounds performance capture, but really it’s a tool that’s an incredible piece of technology that allows you to do a simple thing which is to act with other actors and play an extraordinary character without having to put a lot of make up on basically. So instead of me dressing up in a monkey suit with layers of latex all over me and my face which would obscure my facial muscle system and my eyes and my performance, you put on a performance capture suit with markers on and a facially mounted camera rig and you’re free then to act that role. The visual effects team paint the pixels on top of your performance after the fact, so you’re free then to totally engage with the other actors. So the actors, like James Franco, they are all being filmed by the film cameras and you’re being filmed by the performance capture cameras which are just a different way of recording that performance. In terms of the connectivity, it’s exactly the same as shooting a live action movie.
FF: Is it then difficult to bring that character through that?
AS: Of all the live action roles I’ve played or the performance capture roles I’ve played, I’ve never approached them differently than the acting process. It’s all about finding the character and the emotional centre and what it means to the story and how you engage with the other actors. When I first read the script, it was just a fabulous role, and any actor, regardless of whether they had done performance capture or not, would have thought this is an amazing role. Your job then is to bring it to life, bring it off the page, with no dialogue, and communicate that character through body language, physicality and facial expression and so on… Luckily our director, Rupert, he was so in tune with the story and wanted to make this a very powerful, believable and plausible story with real science behind it and not disappoint the fans too. It grows from this incredibly domestic and quite intimate relationship story, father son story almost, through a prison story into this big, epic revolution. You do get a connection to these characters before you go on this big journey.
FF: How did you research the role? Did you look at projects like Nim Chimpsky?
AS: Absolutely, I research the role very thoroughly for anything I do but specifically we based this character on a chimpanzee called Oliver, who in the 1970’s, was an extraordinary specimen because he was known as the “humanzee” and basically he walked bipedally, had human facial characteristics and behaviour and he was reared by human beings as well, similar to Nim. He just stood all the time, in a very upright way and people thought he was the missing link. All sort of scientific experiments were carried out on him and he became this sort of media freak and eventually was thrown into a cage and left there for 30 years. He was my role model and from there you draw your own set of assumptions and again, it’s all about how you anthropomorphise. With Caesar, there’s the added intelligence because he’s inherited this alzeimhers cure drug that’s affecting him. I was thinking about when he was very young, because I play him from when he’s very tiny, toddler and all the way through to adult, in terms of prodigy children who can play concertos when they are 4 years old so when Caesar is two or three, he has the intelligence of a 15 year old. We didn’t want to over anthropomorphise so that we would lose the animal.
FF: Rupert, in relation to what you have done before and where you have reached in this film, this is a huge production. You have been compared to Christopher Nolan…
Rupert Wyatt interrupts: (exhales) who compared me to Christopher Nolan????
FF: You have been! How does it feel with that pressure?
RW: Well, that’s amazing. I mean, it’s huge pressure obviously, there always is when you are making a film of this size, well any film actually. The Escapist was my first film, I was dealing with a lot of money relative of peoples, and there was an expectation level there. I needed to pull it off. I’ve worked for the past 16 years now trying to get films made and it was about 12 years before I got The Escapist made so the moment I had that opportunity, I felt like that was more pressure than this in a funny sort of way. I think you realise when you go into a project like this, that it’s the same job and the same experience in many ways, it’s just more people and more voices.
FF: I know the special effects have been discussed in great detail in relation to the film, was it difficult to balance out the effects with the emotional side of the story?
RW: It’s always a challenge when you’re working with a new technology. I never worked with performance capture before and I think when you go in, you get blinded by the science. What is it? How does it work? How do you turn a human into an ape? Is it just a guy in front of a computer doing that? Very quickly, you realise that that’s not the case at all. It’s an actor. In our case, it’s Andy Serkis and that’s the lead and there’s other actors playing apes that we cast. You then start to focus on their performance and that’s what it’s about. It was Weta’s job to make the transformation from Andy Serkis, an actor in a grey leotard, into Caesar, this extraordinary highly evolved chimpanzee. They had to do that with every single one of our actors and ultimately with 150 apes. I think it’s one of those things where as a director, I’m on set and I’m working with James Franco and his human role and I’ve got Andy Serkis standing next to him as Caesar and you just play the scene as you would on a stage and you shoot as you would a traditional film. Everything that comes in post-production is time consuming and very laborious because you have to stay true to their performance. If you stay true to that performance, you will get that performance on screen. You need to echo that when his physical embodiments are transferred to Caesar.
FF: With this film, a framework already exists. What is important for you to honour the other films, particularly for the fans?
RW: Origin stories are often told from a cynical point of view. They run out of ideas down the line and go back to the beginning and start again. The great thing about us is, we had the opportunity to do something that has always been there for the taking, which is to act on that final moment of the original Planet of the Apes, which is when Charlton Heston is on the beach screaming at the sky, cursing us for what we have done to our own planet. I was always fascinated by that moment. How did that come about? How did these Apes rise up and create this revolution, which turned them into the Alphas of this world? We’re telling that story. We’re laying the foundations for that. I think it’s what makes it very fresh.
FF: There is already talk of a sequel, is this something you want to pursue?
RW: I haven’t been asked so I’m playing it cool! (laughs) But Andy and I have speculated where we could go with this story and we have plenty of ideas. There’s so much material to mine with and what’s great about the second film is that we have laid the foundation for ultimately, the conflict between humans and apes and that great clash of civilizations. That story, in many ways, is very representative of what is going on in the world today in terms of military conflict that is happening in certain parts of the world. We could tell that story with apes and this extraordinary leader of this new civilization, Caesar. It’s an extraordinary story to tell so yeah, I’m sure given the opportunity I would be very enthusiastic.