Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Set Visit) (2)

Post-Katrina New Orleans, Louisiana seems like a perfect place to shoot a film in which the human population has been largely irradicated. There are pockets in and around that city where entire towns have become  completely vacant. Nature has taken back control of areas that once hummed with life. It would seem to be the most obvious setting for the sequel to ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’. However, we aren’t in one of those desolate places – we are in the heart of the the iconic French Quarter. A few blocks from the world famous Cafe du Monde is the set of Matt Reeves ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.’

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The NOLA financial district is subbing in for the San Francisco Waterfront, some 2,000 miles away. If it weren’t for the camera cranes and a large blue screen above the skyline you wouldn’t have a clue when or where you were. The set is massive in scale and the attention to detail is breathtaking. Grass and vines have grown over where cement streets and plaster walls once occupied. San Francisco remains but she is but a shell of her former self.  From my vantage point atop a rusty San Francisco cable car, you can’t quite make out where the Hollywood set ends and the actual city begins.

When we last visited this city a line hand been drawn in the sand. The intelligent Caesar (Andy Serkis) had freed a group of apes from science labs and zoos and fled into the woods above San Francisco after an intense fight on the Golden Gate Bridge. The simian flu then spread across the planet wiping out nearly all of humanity, leaving small pockets to live out their days scavenging for food and taking several steps backwards in their evolution. The apes, however, have been living out the past ten years in positively keen circumstances. They continue to developed and the absence of humans have meant peace. However, that peace is short lived when Caeser and his contingent cross paths with a small group of human survivors who have taken up shelter nearby. The tables have turned somewhat in Dawn.

Producer Dylan Clark on the approach of the conflict this time around versus the first film,

Let’s just get them across the bridge so that we can figure out for the next one how the world feels a little bit more balanced and that you can have a real conflict. Caesar has had a great experience with humans. He was loved by Will and Charles, and he’s seen good in humanity. Other apes have not. He also sees, as he comes into this area of California, the desperation that humans are living under, and he knows what they’re trying to do, and he knows it’s serious.

So you get to see him grappling with these decisions. Do you go to war? How do you avert war? What’s the best way to thread the needle? And that’s what this movie is about.”

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Today we are on the set watching the human side, led by Jason Clark’s Malcom, as they return from Muir Woods. Rusty pickup trucks with gas canisters on the bumpers rumble down the street and into frame in front of what will be the San Francisco Ferry Building (human refuge). We aren’t exactly sure what they are looking for but it’s said it is a basic reconnaissance mission. All we know for sure is, soon, Andy Serkis and a handful of other talented actors with cameras strapped to their heads and dots on their faces will be standing right outside their doorsteps. In between set-ups we are able to speak with Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) on his role and his relationship with Caeser,

Malcolm is a guy who is gradually taking more and more responsibility for the society that he’s in, whether he wants to because…. I wouldn’t say he’s a natural leader or he wants to be a leader, it’s a matter of survival. Then meeting a guy like Cesar kind of takes it another level I think in the understanding of what it means to be responsible. We’re both men in a leadership role in our own societies and we’re both fathers.

It’s that last aspect that has me most excited. The first film had some of the best visual effects in recent memory and really set the bar for what can be achieved with performance capture. But at the heart of the film is this incredible and gripping narrative of discovery and loss. This parallel journey Caeser and Malcolm will be taking seems to be at the center of Dawn.They are on opposite ends of the spectrum at the start of the film, but they are both striving for the same thing: to protect their families.

We don’t get to see anything really substantial on this day in regards to that plot element. Instead the theme of the day seems to be gravitating towards the incredible set and the films monumental strides in performance capture. We are reminded throughout the day that to-date no one has done performance capture on this scale before. The film takes place outdoors so the filmmakers and the studio wanted to make sure that is how it was captured on film. A studio rep informs us that a small handful of shots involving Caeser were done on a soundstage as the scene in question, which I won’t spoil for you here, takes place inside a familiar location.

Other than that, the production set up rigs hung from trees and the sides of building to capture the apes performances outdoor and in the elements. Filmmakers have far more control when they can move inside a large volume soundstage to capture these actors. For example, most of the Na’vi scenes in James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ were filmed indoors and digitally altered to look like they were happening outdoors. Dawn blows the roof off of that notion. They will eventually go into a soundstage to get better detail but having a chance to truly interact with the human side of the story, on-location will lead to more immediate and honest performances from both.

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It was also incredibly refreshing to hear how much respect the cast and crew have for the simian cast. Every person we spoke to on set mentioned how rewarding it is to work with the likes of Andy Serkis, Terry Notary and Toby Kebbel each day. It is early June and the weather is unrelentingly awful in New Orleans. These actors are stuck inside unitards with dots painted on their face and camera rigs strapped to their heads each and every day. In fact,Toby Kebbel (The East, Dr. Doom in the upcoming Fantastic Four), who is playing the vengeful Koba, mentions that because of the long and arduous process for the ape set-ups, he generally keeps the dots on his face all week, even when going out on the town.

In this perpetual sweating heat they do not remove. I keep them almost all the time. I don’t have a girlfriend, no one wants to hang out with me at night. I go home and pretend to be an ape, I cook some food and I sleep. Women, the make-up sucks, taking off your make-up every night sucks. I hated it.

 Kebbel’s Koba has a natural prejudice against the human race, being the subject of hundreds of experiments during his lifetime. As much as he respects and follows Caeser, who had a very different upbringing, Koba just doesn’t see the humans in the same light. Why would he? On the human side, Kirk Acevedo (Band of Brothers) has a similar prejudice. His character, Carver, sees the ape similarly to to how Koba see’s the humans and I am interested to see how these guys interact with one another in the story.

Carver is a mechanic. He has a big attitude problem, let’s put it that way. One of the antagonist. I just don’t like the apes, They killed off my people. There is a lot of animosity there.

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There seems to be a lot of parallels in the human and ape camps that should play out quite nicely during the film. One such parallel is that both Malcolm and Caeser have teenage sons. You can imagine how it must be like living in this world as a adolescent human. Nick Thurston plays the chimp River, who is essentially heir apparent to Caeser. When asked about the relationship with his father Nick is quick to quip “How was your relationship with your dad at 15?” He also discusses the contradictory nature of growing up with a good example, Caeser, and a bad example, Koba, and how being an impressionistic teenager, this could lead to having a rebellious attitude,

River is trying to find his place in the world, his place in the community. So, it’s a struggle for how much of that do I want to try and become? How much do I see, and try to live up too? I don’t want to be looked at as just my father’s son. I want to be my own person.

Caesar has a really deep strength to him, he’s got a really deep power, but it’s more subdued. I can see the strength in Koba more. It seems like he’s stronger, even if maybe that’s not the case.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (7)There are also striking differences between Nick’s character River and his human counterpart, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who was the star of Matt Reeves “Let Me In” (The US remake of “Let the Right One In”) River’s only knowledge of the human race has been the stories he has been told but his upbringing seems a lot more ideal than what the humans are living through. The ape race used to be captives, performers and test subjects and now live anyway they desire. The humans used to rule the planet and now live hand to mouth. Smit-McPhee mentions that his characters has only grown up in this post-apocalyptic world and how that naturally shapes his characters narrative. He also mentions that he and River do meet in the film at some point, so we’ll have to wait to see how that goes.

We see director Matt Reeves darting all over the set. He’s hard to miss in his all white outfit (someone was prepared for the heat). Reeves replaced Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt over a year ago. Wyatt breathed new life into this franchise, making Rise one of the break-outs of 2011. When you are successful with the re-imagining of such a beloved franchise the theory is that you’ll stick around to hopefully shepard the remaining films to equal success. Wyatt passed on the sequel and Reeves stepped in hitting the ground running. Dylan Clark talks about losing a great director and picking up another great director in the process,

 I was bummed out that we couldn’t figure out our schedules. Just doing these kinds of movies takes a lot out of you. It took Matt, as I say, it took an outsider from us to come in and sort of tell us, remind us, what we did really well on Rise. He’s never off the clock. Once Matt leaves, he’ll be up until one o’clock doing stuff. He’ll be in the editing room. It’s relentless.

I think you guys will be reminded of this conversation when Dylan Clark said there is some cool shit in this movie. Matt, he gets all the credit. Matt has been perfect. He’s been perfect.

I know I’m not alone in saying that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is my most anticipated movie of 2014. The flick seems to be moving in the right direction with all the right people involved. One of those people is Andy Serkis.


Stay tuned for part 2 of our Set-Visit report from the New Orleans set of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in which HeyUGuys chats with Caeser himself.