Director Rupert Wyatt on Organizing the Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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For Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox plucked a 38-year-old British director out of virtual obscurity to tackle a high-priority franchise with a fanbase going back years before “Star Wars.” After helming the Brian Cox thriller The Escapist, Rupert Wyatt set out to establish a whole new mythology for the socio-political series while ramping up the action and making the title characters entirely computer generated.

We talked to Wyatt exclusively in New York about landing the job, working with Andy Serkis, his thoughts on Tim Burton’s remake, and what the future holds for this bold new vision of apekind.

ComingSoon.net: Didn’t this start with a different screenwriter and kind of evolved into the film it is now?

Rupert Wyatt: Yeah. You’re the first person to ask me that. It did, as far as I know, Scott Frank… Well, funnily enough, just after I had finished “The Escapist” I was sent the script for this, pre-Scott Frank, and it was a very different movie. It was written by the same writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who originated the script. Contrary to a lot of reports, people think this was Scott Frank’s project from conception, which it wasn’t. They had a take on it that ultimately was very different from the film you saw. Scott Frank got involved in that and developed it in a certain direction the studio didn’t want to go, didn’t see eye-to-eye, I’m not entirely sure what happened but he left the project. Rick and Amanda came back onto the project and then the studio decided it was a film they really wanted to make. They started seeking a new director, which is when I came in. Rick and Amanda in the meantime had reconfigured certain aspects of the original script and evolved it to such a place that when I got the script I remembered it from three years before but it had become very different and much more exciting to me. It became less a story of domesticization of a pet and more about an uprising and a Che Guevara story.

CS: Going from a low budget project like “The Escapist” to a $90-million-dollar studio franchise movie, what were you the most surprised you were able to get away with?

Wyatt: Getting the job surprised me in many ways! I was so bowled over when I got the call, ’cause I went to the interviews mainly for the experience. I then found myself amongst a rarified group of filmmakers, then I found myself being offered the job and couldn’t believe it. It’s a huge privilege and an amazing opportunity. As far as getting away with stuff, the great thing is there’s always so many moving parts to a movie at this scale. More often than not, sadly, in Hollywood the story is not always a priority. When you’re making a film like this it’s my job as a director working with the actors and having really terrific actors to be able to support and enhance this. Your focus is telling the best story possible in the most visceral and entertaining way. When you’re making a movie of this scale it’s there to entertain, it’s not a documentary about hard science or the cure for Alzheimer’s or the subjugation of apes. It’s there to tell a story with all those elements, and that’s what makes it really intriguing, but in such a way that is going to appeal to an audience that is vast. Otherwise, you could never make movies of this scale with this much technological ambition.

CS: In terms of that, in what regard does having a veteran of performance capture like Andy Serkis make your job easier?

Wyatt: It makes it very easy for one simple reason, which is why Weta loves to work with him, which is that Andy is just a great actor. He’s had the experience now with performance capture so he’s not phased by it. He knows how to embrace the technology then discard it, get rid of it, just focus on the role. So he’s not overwhelmed with the trappings that come with the leotard and the suit and all that stuff. He was then able to relay his experience to our other ape cast, of which there were many. Most of them had never seen a performance capture suit. I was casting them for their abilities to play the role, not because they were great stuntmen. Andy was able to relay his experience as an actor to them and become their leader, but that totally mirrored the film ’cause he was the leader of these apes. That was really helpful to me, and I learned on the job in many ways.

CS: So few directors have had access to this level of visual effects firepower.

Wyatt: Yeah, and it’s such an amazing quiver to have in that way. I now understand it, and I now can see what it can do. It’s an incredibly liberating technology, and at the end of the day it serves one thing and that’s a great story or great character, that’s what it’s there for. Weta are probably the best in the world because that’s their focus too. They’re not tech geeks particularly. They’re all about story, making it plausible, making it real. I’ll give you a really good example: when certain people wanted the apes to jump 50 feet, Weta were all about making sure they jumped just the 10 feet because that’s what they can do. That’s a testament to them. They are all about making an audience believe.

CS: Keeping it grounded at a certain level is what’s going to make it more conceivable and thrilling for an audience. The film is not about, “What if there were superapes!” It’s about what if regular apes that exist in real life were given a little boost.

Wyatt: Yeah, and of course at the end of the day you have to make it thrilling and exciting. There’s a moment, I think you’ve seen it in the trailers, where a gorilla leaps off the Golden Gate Bridge into a helicopter. You can turn around and say, “That’s never gonna happen,” but at the same time movies are all about heightened reality. As long as you believe in the intents of what that gorilla is feeling and why he’s doing it then it doesn’t matter. The great thing for me was at the premiere the other night somebody said afterwards that the moment after they saw that they felt there was so much more to come with this mythology and what these apes can do. I always envisaged when I was making this film, moreso now, that one day this ape civilization will build statues to our characters, statues to Buck, because he was the original gorilla of the revolution, and it’s a Bible story in that way.

CS: Very much like the end of the last “Planet of the Apes” movie with the statue of Caesar.

Wyatt: You mean the Tim Burton one?

CS: No, of the originals, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.”

Wyatt: Oh right, yeah yeah, exactly. Sorry, I thought you meant Abraham Lincoln and Tim Burton and all that.

CS: No we’re gonna forget that happened.

Wyatt: (laughs) If you want to talk about that film I’m happy to. You have to acknowledge with the Tim Burton film that there were some extraordinary renderings of apes and ape characters, like Tim Roth. That was a great great character.

CS: Right. That was Rick Baker’s make-up.

Wyatt: Yes. He won an Oscar! But I think the big difference between that film, the original films, and certainly our film, is that to me the great appeal of the mythology is what happens on our world. By setting it on another planet you take away from that. Obviously from the get-go there’s a big difference between that film and this.

CS: How do you see future sequels in this continuity integrating elements from the original five films?

Wyatt: Oh God, you got all day? I’ve got plans for the sequelsÂ… I think the great thing for me where this is gonna go, I hope, is I’d love to start the next film a generation on. The great thing about apes is they reach adulthood within 8 years, so you’d still have a very vital Caesar as the leader but you’ve got a whole new generation of apes growing up within a world of conflicts. That world is where we’ve leveled the playing field in terms of the human pockets of resistance. Think apes but “Full Metal Jacket,” apes going into urban environments and fighting street-to-street with human resistance. Maybe you’ve got humans in the employ of the apes working as spies against the humans. Or you’ve got Cobra who’s split off from the other apes and he’s looking to commit genocide and just wipe humans off the face of the earth, whereas Caesar is more conflicted. There’s so much you can do, it’s so Shakespearian in a way. I guess I’d like to follow in the steps of Chris Nolan, the way he’s taken Batman into a place that’s really intriguing and pretty dark. This film in many ways is a fairy tale like a baby floating in a basket down the river. It starts small and gets biggerÂ….

CS: Like Moses.

Wyatt: Yeah, exactly, but it is laying the foundations for what you can call a more Shakespearian drama that’s wrapped up in a visually fantastic action thriller.

CS: You spent years struggling as a screenwriter with a pile of unproduced scripts. Let’s pretend “Apes” makes a billion dollars and you can pluck any script from that pile to make. Which one?

Wyatt: I want to make a three-part TV miniseries which I’ve written for HBO and Sky in the UK. It’s called “Echo Chamber,” and it’s the true story about British spies who infiltrated the IRA in the early 80’s. It’s a fantastic story, and it’s a story that’s never been told before. It’s not a political story but a story about a man finding his identity. That’s what I hope to do next, but like you said when you’re writing and writing there’s a whole drawer full of stuff. There’s a great story about stealing the Mona Lisa that’s like “The Sting” but much more visually ambitious, and that’s something I’d love to do one day.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes begins its revolution in theaters this Friday.

(Photo Credit: Brian To/WENN.com)