Director Rupert Wyatt Talks Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I think this is a very big movie in many ways but in large proportion it’s quite a small, intimate film.” So says British director Rupert Wyatt of his summer blockbuster, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. “It’s very much a character piece. It’s about human folly, kindness and selfishness says Wyatt as he lists traits you wouldn’t normally associate with a summer blockbuster. “It’s great to be able to explore that, especially with really fantastic character actors.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a prequel film, which Wyatt describes it as, “a genesis story.” He also points out how his latest film is different from what we’ve seen in the Apes films of yesteryear, largely due to being set in the present day. “I think the very fact that it is set in the modern day and it’s a contemporary story, whereas none of the other Planet of the Apes films are, lends itself to a bit more of a basis in reality,” says Wyatt. The story itself has scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) creating a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Intending to save his father Charles (John Lithgow) from the ailment, he first tests it on chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis), who begins to show signs of increased intelligence. He becomes so smart that he breaks out of his cage and uses the cure on other apes. Soon, millions of apes join Caesar as he leads a revolution against mankind. “I think what’s good about this is that it deals with the real world,” says Wyatt, “and with aspects of the mythology and the previous films, but does something very differently.”

I was very new to the game in the sense that this film was a very different kettle of fish to what I’d done before,” says Wyatt, referring to the special effects. He had previously directed the crime thriller The Escapist, which was his first feature film released in 2008. In comparison, Rise of the Planet of the Apes involves CGI in almost every shot, courtesy of the award winning effects company Weta Digital. “Joe Letteri [Senior Visual Effects Supervisor] of Weta said to me when we first started that this movie was light years ahead of King Kong in terms of what is now technologically possible. They’ve really pulled off something that can actually defeat the eye in terms of what’s real and what isn’t. You can see the performance coming through, and it’s a chimp. It’s not an otherworldly creature; this is an animal we can relate to.

Leading the performance capture is Andy Serkis as Caesar. “He’s just one of those actors who has the ability to raise the game of everyone around him,” says Wyatt of Serkis, who has become proficient in the art of performance capture, having provided the voice and movements for iconic characters such as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Kong in King Kong. “Andy is a very physical actor, which is what lends itself so well to performance capture, but his gifts for timing and for comedy and drama just makes it all incredibly easy. I would say that Andy would succeed in every aspect of acting—not just performance capture—and he does, but he’s got a real passion for it.” Serkis has also set up his own performance capture studio, The Imaginarium, which he hopes will push the boundaries of digital characterisation. “With performance capture, there’s still a hell of a long way to go,” says Wyatt. “You do need to rely on the animators to not so much create their own performance – that’s what the actor is for – but to pick up on certain subtleties and nuances. Those tiny, tiny little head moves that Andy would give – it’s up to the animator to recognize those and understand their intent.

Of his leading man James Franco, Wyatt describes him as, “a unique and unusual guy.” One of the reasons Franco joined the production was simply to work with Weta, after being taken in by their work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. “His instinct

for performance is really quite remarkable,” says Wyatt. “So often, when you’re working on a scene, you already have a preconceived idea of how that scene is going to play out. For me, trying to find the key reason for the scene is always the most important thing. James does that as an actor and quite a lot of actors don’t. They’ll circle around the issues and sometimes out of that will come something quite brilliant, but more often than not you need to guide them into the center of the scene. James immediately hits it, and it can be quite unnerving in a way because you start to feel like maybe your job is actually redundant!

Wyatt explained that he did feel a huge weight of responsibility at various times, given the legacy of the franchise. He does respect the previous films, particularly the original, which also helped inspire the story. “The original was obviously very much a play on the civil rights movement, and it was at the real rise of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs and nuclear potential. The Charlton Heston lines on the beach at the end very much reference that. And that’s our inspiration for the starting point of the world in which this story is set. It’s all about mankind’s hubris and a genuine and sincere attempt to progress as a civilization and a species.

Wyatt said he wanted to avoid the, “science is evil” route for the film, thinking that, “it would be overly simplistic to say that we should not tamper with things we don’t understand, because the whole point is that we need to understand them in order to progress. But out of that you can go one of two ways.” When it comes to those two ways, he believes that people can use the knowledge they’ve acquired to do either good or bad things. “Within humanity there is both good and evil, and we also touch on that with the apes as well, there are good apes and bad apes.

Wyatt hopes that his film lays the groundwork for future sequels and that audiences understand that this is a blockbuster with a real message. “We’re not dealing with some mythological idea of dogs and cats dying out in a plague or any of that. We’ve done away with that and gone with something that’s very much of the here and now. It deals with animal vivisection and the progress of science and the necessary or unnecessary idea of using animals to find cures to human diseases. It’s about the opening of that potential Pandora’s box. That’s what I hope people will tap into.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens in the US on August 5th and in the UK on August 12th.

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