Interview: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Matt Reeves & Dylan Clark

"Maybe Caesar should be President of the United States!"

War for the Planet of the Apes
20th Century Fox

One of the biggest stories coming out of New York Comic-Con in 2016 is War for the Planet of the Apes. 20th Century Fox debuted the first teaser for the third film in the rebooted franchise and debuted some early footage from the shoot. As the title implies, in this film Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads his ape followers against an army of humans led by a vicious man known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

War for the Planet of the Apes will be released on July 14, 2017.

At Comic-Con, spoke to War for the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves, who also directed the previous film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and producer Dylan Clark, who has produced all three films, about the next chapter in the Planet of the Apes saga.

Matt, in addition to directing this time you also co-wrote the screenplay with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes writer Mark Bomback. What was it like collaborating with Mark on the screenplay?

REEVES: It was so fun. One of the first things that Mark and I did because we had just finished Dawn was that we decided to watch a million movies. We decided to do what people fantasize what Hollywood screenwriters get to do but no one actually does. We got Fox to give us a theater and we watched movie after movie. We watched every Planet of the Apes movie, war movies, westerns, Empire Strikes Back...

CLARK: We watched Empire just for fun.

REEVES: Yes! [Laughs] We just thought, "We have to pretend we have all the time in the world," even though we had limited time. We got really inspired. It's interesting because Mark lives in New York and I live in Los Angeles, and we Skyped every day. My day began by just chatting with Mark on Skype as if he were right in front of me.

We laughed, he sent me beef jerky, and we just had a ball. We would write stuff and share it with Dylan. It was great, and I love Mark.

Though many people complain about remakes and reboots, the Apes films have won critical and fan approval and have had blockbuster success. Why do you think this version of Planet of the Apes has succeeded where other reboots have failed?

CLARK: [Producer] Peter Chernin and I read an old draft of Rise of the Planet of the Apes that we didn't have involvement in. We came to it a little skeptically because of what you just said -- should this franchise be made? Can we do a remake? Then I read Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver's script and I realized it wasn't a remake. It was its own story and it had the most brilliant idea inside of it -- which is that it was going to be Caesar's story. Once we saw that we knew that it was going in a direction that was going to be Planet of the Apes for this generation and this time and place. The science angle was not the mythology of the last one. There was no rocket ship and no time travel. It was based in today. I thought that was very smart it was key for us getting involved. Then the sequel became about the exploration of that character that we really loved from Rise.

Watching Caesar go from infancy to the leader who freed the apes set the course for us to follow.

All of the best tentpoles are when they are developed through character. The ones that I don't think work are all about the plots or the end of the world in some gimmicky way. This is about what these characters are going to do to navigate these conflicts.

The series is Casesar's story, but every film has a different human cast. Are there challenges or advantages to that?

REEVES: I think it's very exciting. When we were doing Dawn we talked about what the human connection would be. The impact of the apocalypse needed to be felt. We wanted to connect it back to James Franco's character, but it didn't seem right that he would be in the film. It was the same thing with War. The story really is Caesar's and the apes', and through his journey he encounters many different characters.

Some of them are human and some are apes.

CLARK: It is a real opportunity because of what has been set in motion with this virus. We want the counterbalance of the human side because I think people need to see that. Really, when Matt came to this series he loved Planet of the Apes. There was a passion about it because as a child when you watched it you wanted to be an ape. The technology and what Andy Serkis does allow the audience to be apes. There's a pull into that society where we get to really experience these movies through the apes' eyes. There's a lot of stories to tell with Caesar, Maurice, and Rocket, but we need to counterbalance the human side even though we're most interested in the apes.

Speaking of your love for the original series, are there aspects of the original films that you thought about incorporating in your version of the franchise but couldn't make it work?

REEVES: The way we've tried to do it in Dawn and War -- and I know Rick and Amanda did the same thing on Rise -- is that because we are passionate fans we are aware of being in the universe, but the stories are so different and the entry point is so different. One of the cool things about this reboot is that it's truly an entirely different perspective. The first Planet of the Apes film was like an amazing Twilight Zone episode. You didn't even know that you were on Earth until the reveal. It was all about the arms race, what humanity had done to itself, and that the apes had evolved. But we already knew the end of that story, so when you start the reboot you realize it's the story of how we get there.

The fun for us is to find little "Easter eggs" to use. After watching the whole series, Mark and I looked for little details to use to connect the film to the universe so fans would feel the connections. We have a reference to Alpa-Omega, which is a pretty key thing in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. We're not going to redo any of those plots, but it's about connecting fans to the universe so they can enjoy that as well and if you're never seen the originals it doesn't change it at all.

CLARK: Rick and Amanda handled it the same way. In Rise there's a scene in the ape habitat office when a TV in the background shows a rocket going off. Of course that's the Icarus, but the camera is not featuring that in any significant way. We know that Charlton Heston's character from the original film is in there, and it's a nod to show that we recognize and love the franchise that came before us.

As for the ape actors, they have to attend "Ape Camp" before shooting begins. Can you talk about Ape Camp?

REEVES: Ape Camp is so much fun. There's a period of rehearsal right at the beginning where Terry Notary, who plays Rocket and is an amazing artist and former Cirque du Soleil performer, trains all the actors to settle into their bodies as apes. He spends time with them walking on crutches to get them to walk in the ways that the different types of apes walk. Then we have a giant acting exercise where we do very long improvisations where they have to remain as apes during it. When we began War, we did a three-hour improv scene where some of the apes didn't speak, so they had to communicate for three hours as apes.

We were taking scenarios from the movies to develop and bond them as an ape family. It's an amazing theater exercise that really bonded the actors. It was really cool.

Going back to Dawn, Koba made for an amazing villain. What's the challenge of coming up with a villain of equal or even greater stature for War?

REEVES: We don't think of any of the characters we have as antagonists as villains because we want to make sure that they come to whatever their villainous actions are in an honorable and justifiable way. I think circumstances create who you are. That's absolutely true for Woody Harrelson's character. The humans are in an extreme situation. They are fighting for existence. He is really extreme, but part of the journey of this movie is discovering exactly why he's so extreme, which is really particular to his history. He's really out there, but in a way that when you get to the destination you realize why. You don't know given the circumstances that you might end up the same way. At the same time, you hope that you could rise above it and not be that way.

CLARK: That context is key. Matt has done this in such a beautiful storytelling way. There are encounters along the way for Caesar where characters run contrary to where he's at. I think a lot of people come to these movies to see what a real hero does in difficult times. While we're not trying to look at any conflict in the world and say "let's do that in this story," I think people come to this movie and feel thematically an experience that is powerful to them because of that. Caesar is wrestling with what it means to be a leader.

It's a very interesting time for this movie to be marketed with the election going on. We think people will come to this movie thinking, "Maybe Caesar should be President of the United States!"

REEVES: We think he should be!