It seems strange now to remember how recently we took for granted that Tim Burton had killed the Apes stone dead. But in 2011 Rupert Wyatt’s impressive Rise of the Planet of the Apes revived hopes for the franchise as just effectively as it entertained. And earlier this year Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes thundered into cinemas and took our breath away. With intelligent writing, immersive 3D, pragmatic use of real world locations and Andy Serkis’ pioneering motion capture artistry, this curiously ‘human’ blockbuster was a genuine game changer.

This month we spoke with Matt, ahead of the DVD/Blu-ray release of Dawn, to explore redemption for Koba in the next chapter, Matt’s response to Rupert Wyatt’s intentions for his Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the prospect of an alternative female action hero joining the ape’s war. We also discussed the realities of distributing a blockbusting budget with the man who brought us Cloverfield and Let Me In on a comparative shoestring.

With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes you and your team have created this beautiful and resonant blockbuster which avoids conspicuous splashes of cash. As you’ve personally had a film career that has straddled micro and macro budget features, can we talk about the realities of working with a mammoth budget?

What’s interesting about this is that – of course it was much larger than anything I’ve ever done – but it wasn’t as big as you would think about it in one key way. The reason I was drawn to it was that the spectacle of this particular tent pole was photo real apes. And the thing about photo real apes is that it’s about them having character and soul and emotion. So it’s actually a character piece. The thing about certain tent pole movies it’s really about ‘whizz bang’ pyrotechnics, this is actually focused on character and the thing about those characters – the apes – is that they don’t exist in the final version that they appear in the film until visual effects are done. That means if I shoot a shot of Andy Serkis, literally each shot that I do costs somewhere between fifty to sixty thousand dollars every five seconds. Suddenly something that seems like a huge budget…

I actually had to watch the number of ape shots that I had in the movie – and they’re my main characters! It’s true, because there are 700 artists working at Weta creating all the shots. So we are a HUGE budget movie because these effects are being done but it’s a little different than another blockbuster in that, even when it comes to shooting intimate moments, you have to be careful about how you realise them because it costs so much.

As weird as it sounds I was just as aware as when I was making Cloverfield or Let Me In – a real low budget movie – those movies moment to moment I was watching the pennies and we absolutely had to do that on this too. It’s just we weren’t watching the pennies we were watching the thousands and millions of dollars going to the effects…so much time and effort and expertise. It was a really special thing when we were making the movie – we were up there with native 3D cameras on cranes on the hillside – that is tremendously expensive but also tremendously cumbersome. There we are watching the pennies because we have to finish our days and this equipment is very difficult to do that with.

And when you’re doing performance capture everybody assumes that when you want a shot of Caesar you just get a shot of Andy and someone turns it into a fact. But actually you get a shot of Caesar and that becomes a reference and you use that in your edit. But then you take the shot again without Andy Serkis in it – and get the take right so that it follows your favourite take in the same motion – so later an ape can be put in that shot. They don’t actually cover Andy, they put an ape into another shot that we shoot that’s meant to duplicate that shot. And we’re not shooting this motion control these are operators and film technicians who are trying to reproduce the feeling of shot. All of that means twice or three times as long as to shoot a conventional shot. So this wasn’t all that different in terms of feeling under the gun and being really careful spending the money!

Through the extraordinary collaboration with Andy (Serkis) and Terry (Notary) you’ve really pushed boundaries for action and motion capture – with the apes in Dawn at times appearing more human than the humans.  Would you be prepared to break boundaries for women in action with the next chapter? I believe Cornelia, though unseen, was involved in the battle on Golden Gate bridge. She shares Caesar’s enhanced intelligence – could Cornelia be our way in? 

We’re working on the story now and we have plans to engage our female characters. I can’t tell you until we break the story how far Cornelia will go into what you’re talking about but obviously our apes are extraordinary and that’s not restricted to gender. Well definitely be having extraordinary female apes – whether that’s Cornelia or not remains to be seen.  And Judy’s fantastic, we love her.

Is there anything significant you were able to share or address on the Blu-ray – through deleted scenes or your commentary – that hadn’t been noted or interpreted as you wished in theatres? 

I did a commentary because when you’re making a movie you’re not very aware of what the world does or does not see. The aim of what we put on the disc and extra features is about revealing the process and ideas behind what you saw. So there’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff, this particular process is so unique, I’d no idea how complex making a movie like this was. I knew, obviously, that a tent pole movie would be difficult but shooting performance capture is so complex.

In certain ways it’s as simple as shooting conventionally – because you’re staging everything around performance – so that was liberating. But there are a lot of technical things you have to do in set up and afterwards that are so complex and used different muscles in my brain than I’m used to using. We’ve got a lot of features that deal with that and we did include scenes, with commentary, that had been cut with explanations as to why.

At one point I thought about releasing the movie with the additional scenes but I realised there weren’t enough to warrant a movie but I tried to cut the footage from where it had existed to where it was cut back in. So you get the bookends and understand where it would fall in the story. One in particular was kind of a heartbreaker for me to cut it, the cut helped the narrative of the story, but it was a moment I really liked.


Rupert Wyatt spoke to Collider yesterday about what his take on Dawn might have been. And his inclination was to take events straight to the cities. By first allowing the apes’ story to play out in the forest you’ve given us something far deeper. How did your storytelling priorities evolve? 

It’s really interesting, I didn’t know what Rupert’s plan was, I was presented with an outline that I believe was taken from a number of ideas in development. There were a number of different scripts before I got involved that we’re done with Rupert in charge – by Rick and Amanda, by Scott Burns and I think by Rupert. There was a lot of material that reflected him arriving at the movie he wanted to make. The outline I was presented with – the only material I ever encountered from what was done prior to my involvement – was I think an attempt to take a number of those ideas but also incorporate what the studio and producers had decided would be a good way to go. One of those ideas actually was that the film started in the city. When I read that in the outline I felt that I had missed something. One of the things I loved about what Rupert did in Rise was coming into being – articulation of the moment to moment evolution that I thought was so exciting.

At the end of Rise he says to Will “Caesar is home” and there the apes go into the woods and they must have created a home there – what is that like? In a way I wanted to see the story they had told and take it from there. I get what Rupert’s saying, there really are exciting ideas about apes interacting in our world and that juxtaposition is pretty interesting and one of the kicks of the franchise. But I felt – not specifically about the apes genre but movies in general in the past 20 years – the one thing I’d seen (including in movies that are contemporary right now) were post-apocalyptic movies/landscapes.

But what I hadn’t seen was what i felt was implied at the end of Rise – the beginning of ape civilisation in nature. I had this idea that it could be like the beginning of 2001 with the dawn of intelligent apes instead of the dawn of man. And that we would get drawn into that world and get drawn in emotionally and experience it in a way that to me was something that Rupert had done in the habitat section in Rise. That was riveting, there was almost no dialogue and you saw Maurice and Caesar use sign language for the first time. I thought that part of the film was so extraordinary.

So I thought it would be great to see where Caesar has gone and to invest in that world. To see it as an achievement – I wouldn’t see it as paradise – not only a civilisation but a family of apes led by Caesar. And then discover that there still are humans and make it like a classic Western. That was my take. I think you can establish that world and start in a mode where the apes seem actually frightening, like in 2001, and then peel away the layers and there’s this familial bond and brotherhood between them. Then when you wonder where this movies going you realise “Uh oh” there are humans and a question about survival on the land that they’re on. Then it would be like a classic Western.

Then it was an opportunity to do a story about the nature of violence and an anatomy of violence. Because we know it becomes Planet of the Apes. And we know at the beginning of this story there are humans and apes so we know somewhere along the way it doesn’t work out. That could be what the whole movie was. And when I pitched that to the studio and producers, to my pleasure, they said that sounds great. To me it would’ve been really cool to see what Rupert would’ve done – I loved what he did with Rise – but it was a real exciting opportunity for me and one that I’m incredibly grateful and glad I got to do. Having done Dawn and now doing the next movie is a real thrill for me.

We can’t close without addressing those closing credit hints of Koba’s survival. He was very much the tragic figure of Dawn. Would you like to find redemption or at least peace, of a kind, for Koba as the apes go to war? 

I thought Toby Kebbell was so extraordinary and when you talk about him being a tragic figure, that was our intention, but the reason it works is that Toby played him with such humanity. You have such empathy for his character, you feel for him, he is a tragic character. One of the things that was important to me was that the story start with him having been redeemed by the experience of having been freed, that he and Caesar were truly like brothers. If this was going to be like a tragic Shakespearian story you would see that had the humans never shown up this brotherhood may have continued to flourish and build.

Then when history rears its head – and suddenly they have to grapple with the implications of their different upbringings – it starts to undermine everything that has been built. And that to me is a great tragedy, he is so broken. I really thought what Toby did with that was extraordinary. And so when we were making the film we kept thinking – he’s so extraordinary we should just (even if it is a little Easter egg at the end of the movie) we should keep that possibility alive.

As we continue to explore down that world we have that possibility open to us and the explorations that we’re doing in the beginning of outlining the story now, I can tell you that the notion of what happened to Koba figures very, very prominently in the story and is definitely something that is part of Caesar’s emotional and philosophical struggle. Whether or not he lives he resonates throughout the entire film and…I don’t want to give anything further away than that. But yeah, to me, I think he’s redeemed in the sense that he was meant to be someone whose mistakes you could understand and it becomes tragic that he falls so far.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD