Q&A: ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Director Matt Reeves on Nostalgia, Nerves, and the Joys of Destroying Humanity

In 2011, little-known British director Rupert Wyatt took table scraps — a long-doddering franchise; a generally questionable prequel approach; James Franco, genius scientist — and whipped us up a feast. Rise of the Planet of the Apes had us fall in love with Caesar, the boy-monkey-genius turned reluctant revolutionary — then went ahead and copped half a billion dollars in worldwide box office, instantly rejuvenating the once-proud Apes dynasty. But Wyatt became a victim of his own success: When an eager 20th Century Fox pushed for a sequel to hit an ambitious May 2014 release date, the director walked away.

And that’s when Cloverfield helmer Matt Reeves, a lifelong Apes obsessive (and a childhood pal of J.J. Abrams, with whom he went from making 8-millimeter movies to cocreating Felicity), entered the frame. With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Reeves, remarkably, has managed to land within two months of the studio’s rushed date while proudly upholding the way of RiseDawn is a bloody, loving, heartfelt epic, complete with ape brotherhood, human folly, and all kinds of teary, tragic stuff. (And it doesn’t end here: Ol’ Matty is signed up for at least one more installment, and hints at possibly more to come.) Ahead of this week’s release of Dawn, we spoke with Matt Reeves.

Growing up as an Apes fanatic, did you have a particularly prized possession in your toy collection?

I had it all. I had the Mego dolls and the treehouse set, and I had the fortress set, which I liked less ’cause it was made out of cardboard. [Composer] Michael Giacchino and I, we’ve done three films together now, and the last one [Let Me In] was a low-budget film, and we scored it a lot in his home office, which is filled with all of his movie memorabilia. And I noticed that he had all the same dolls as me when I was a kid, and I was looking at them all lovingly, and then on this movie, when we were doing the score, he bought me that treehouse set all over again. It was pretty cool.

Do you remember when your parents tossed out all those old toys?

They were in the attic for many years and, you know, you kind of move on to other things, and then somewhere along the way, one day, they’re gone. I looked through the attic and they weren’t there and I was heartbroken. I also had the Star Trek television series dolls, which were also made by Mego — I had all those dolls. I loved those toys. They were really important to me. I played out all my fantasies on them when I was a kid.

I also read that your first movie as a kid was a Planet of the Apes homage.

I started making movies when I was about 8, on an 8-millimeter film camera. And when I was making these little movies for a few years, I saw Planet of the Apes. And then not only was I obsessed with Apes, but also I saw Star Wars. And my movie was called Galactic Battles, and it was a kind of a space opera, and the aliens were apes.

Was there a full-on Apes mania still when you were a kid? Everyone had the lunch boxes and all that?

Yeah, you know, everybody did, but what I remember is I had my best friend since kindergarten, Tina Giovana, and I would call up Tina after school every day, and we’d do this very serious conversation: What are we gonna play today? Were we gonna be the Bionic Man and Woman, where I, of course, would be Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man? Would we do a Western thing, where we’d both be cowboys? Or would we play apes? And more often than not, we’d play apes. I’m really fortunate, I’m still friends with so many of my friends from when I was really young, and I have to say, I share with all of them the passionate fascination with Planet of the Apes. That was the coolest.

Was there any iteration of the expansive Apes franchise that you didn’t really get down with?

You know what’s funny, I only found out recently that people now say the TV show’s not so great. I loved that TV show. And I was shocked to hear how short a time it was on the air. Your memory as a kid, you know, time expands — a day is forever, a month is really forever. And that was only on for three months. I remember it like it was on for my entire childhood! It was just one of the seminal shows for me as a kid. I was just obsessed with those apes on horseback.

One of the things that’s interesting about doing the movie is, I came in with the schedule so accelerated. I pitched the version of the movie I wanted to do, they said ‘Yeah,’ and I didn’t have a chance to go back and look at all the movies. [Dawn screenwriter] Mark Bomback and I are supposed to write the next film now, and I’m gonna go back and watch all the films, and contextualize to reexplore the days of my childhood. And I’ve never read the book. Dylan Clark, the producer, gave me the book on the first day that I started and I didn’t have time to read it because we had so much to do so quickly to get the story going and get it ready for the release date. Now I’ll be watching all the old movies for the first time since my childhood, and I’m definitely gonna read the book.

Oh, so you guys are already working on the third installment?

We’re just starting. The studio approached me after seeing the very first cut [of Dawn]: They were so excited by what we showed them, they said, “Let’s continue this.” I was really flattered and excited because it was a world I was definitely fully engaged in. I wanted to make a movie that started like 2001 — the dawn of man — but make it the dawn of intelligent ape. It felt like there were all kinds of paths to follow because the world of Rise and now Dawn is quite different than the ’68 film. But we’re going down the path where Caesar becomes this seminal, mythic character in early intelligent ape history. It’s a mythic generational story of the evolving, developing ape world, that leads to that ['68 movie] world.

Everything is gonna emanate from Caesar: He’s the seminal figure. Now he’s being forced to engage in a conflict that he did not want. He considered himself in many ways as much human as he was ape: Now the reality [of the conflict between the two] is before him, and that will [affect] future situations. I think that will be the starting point, and we’ll see where it goes.

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And do you have a sense of whether the next movie after Dawn would be the one to bridge the universe all the way up to the ’68 original? Or would there be a chance for more installments in between?

With Rise, they really opened this completely new version of the franchise. The idea behind it, which came from [screenwriters/producers] Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, was starting the story from inside the soul of this ape. The original told a grand science fiction story, and it’s a science fiction classic. And now to revisit that universe, but from an entirely different character and emotional perspective, it’s very exciting. I think there’s a whole world there. And so I think [the number of sequels] depends on how compelling and rich that world can be. It seems, to me, like there’d be many chapters in this long and epic novel. And I’m really excited and blessed to get to tell the story.

One of the things that’s so great here, and is also what was so great about Rise, is that the movie somehow conveys a great amount of realism. I found myself thinking with Rise, You know, if there were a monkey revolution, this is exactly what it would look like.

When I see a genre film, I get excited about the fantasy being presented as utterly real. And I just thought that there was a chance here to take the photo reality of the world further, and to just try and ground something as much as possible — aside from the one fantastical element of these talking, intelligent apes.

We wanted to start by connecting to the last film, which ends in this place where the bio-apocalypse is about to happen. To parallel as much as possible, what could and might happen in real circumstances. The movie’s weighted heavily toward the apes’ point of view, which we thought was something we’d never seen before: a burgeoning ape society. But we did want you to look at the humans and say, “My god, these people have been through this tremendous tragedy. How would I feel, if I’d gone through this?” And then you begin to understand how they would be so desperate to survive. It’s meant to show empathy. To show them as characters not easily discarded. We wanted you to look at them as humans, and not objectify them, and not look at them as potential villains.

There’s a part of the audience that wants to be around destruction. There’s people that really get the rooting interest in this: “Bring it on! Let’s destroy humanity!” That of course is part of the fascination with these movies. In a way, the fantasy of it all comes from our greatest fears. For me, what was important was that we find empathy for the characters. If humanity has gone through this level of tragedy, let’s try and give them some level of dignity.

In even the most responsible war movie, at some point you’re rooting for someone to kill someone else. Here, that’s not quite ever the case. It seems like an extremely difficult thing to pull off, but you basically manage to make us root for peace. Like, in general.

We were trying to have that tone in the movie, like a war drama, or like an epic Western. You’re sitting there, and it’s moving inexorably toward violence. But it does feel like there’s a way they could work it out. There’s a hope they will work out. But then there’s the knowledge that it doesn’t become Planet of the Apes and the Humans. This does not end well.

As many have noted, you and your childhood buddy J.J. Abrams are both shepherding franchises that you were obsessed with as kids. Having gotten out of the gate first, do you have any advice for J.J.?

No. Here’s the thing: When I started, I was incredibly excited and, for obvious reasons, incredibly nervous. This is the world of my childhood, and it’s a lot of people’s childhood, then there’s following up Rise, so it’s a continuation of a beloved film — that puts a certain kind of pressure on you. It was exciting, but nerve-racking. And I’ve spoken to J.J. and I know how nervous he is, and that to me is the best sign. It shows that he cares that much. I’m sure he’s gonna do something remarkable.

He’s of course been super-secretive with Star Wars in general. Has he let anything slip to you so far?

I don’t wanna know! I just wanna be surprised. I think he probably will, at some point, share things with me; everything I’ve ever done I always show J.J., and vice versa. But I have mixed feelings about it. I’m dying to see it, but part of me wants to just come out on opening day and see it.

Looking at Dawn now, and this whole massive undertaking that was behind it, is there any one moment that sticks out for you more than others?

There are so many. One of the great things when you’re a director is, you try to create an environment where the actors feel they can express themselves, and there are moments that all the actors did that blew me away. But one of my favorite moments was the birth scene. And it’s because it was one of the things that, when we first started talking about the ape civilization, we said, wouldn’t it be cool to see an ape being born? A proud father reacting in that way? Andy [Serkis] is so powerful, and there’s a special place in my heart for the birth. Seeing Caesar rejoice as a father in this very elemental, beautiful moment — that’s a really neat thing for me.

Filed Under: Movies, dawn of the planet of the apes, Matt Reeves, Q&A

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Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

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