Interview: War for the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves

Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Lemmon, left, and Director Matt Reeves on the set of Twentieth Century Fox's War for the Planet of the Apes.
Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Lemmon, left, and Director Matt Reeves on the set of Twentieth Century Fox's War for the Planet of the Apes.
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As a lifelong fan of Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves tells Alistair Harkness that he jumped at the chance to take over a saga which forces its audience to experience life through the emotions of an ape

I’m trying to pin Matt Reeves down on whether or not there’s any chance he might direct a Star Wars movie. Though he’s in London to discuss War for the Planet of the Apes – his second entry into the revitalised Planet of the Apes saga – it feels like a natural line of inquiry. And not just because the new film confirms him as one of Hollywood’s most thoughtful blockbuster directors: as a teenage super 8 filmmaker, Reeves actually worked for Kathleen Kennedy, current head of Lucasfilm and thus overseer of all things Star Wars.

“That’s true!” he says, referring to his and childhood pal JJ Abrams’ now legendary apprenticeship restoring the home movies of Kennedy’s then boss, Steven Spielberg.

Abrams, of course, fulfilled his Star Wars destiny with The Force Awakens. But with an ever-expanding universe of Star Wars movies, surely there’s scope for Reeves to do one too?

Reeves just laughs.

“It would be very exciting,” is all he’ll say on the subject. He does, however, have a lovely story about how his late father (who worked for a television network) got a Betamax video recorder before they were commercially available and gave it to him as a Christmas present when he was eleven, along with two tapes containing a full copy of the original Star Wars.

“Nowadays, that means nothing,” marvels Reeves, who watched the tapes everyday after school. “At that time, it was mind-blowing. My father gave me Star Wars for Christmas. I will never forget that.”

That kind of formative experience can make a director. If Reeves is being honest, though, he was probably destined to make a Planet of the Apes film rather than a Star Wars movie. “Planet of the Apes was my Star Wars before Star Wars became my Star Wars,” he confirms. “I was obsessed. I had all of the dolls. I had a little 8mm reel of Beneath the Planet of the Apes that I used to play before there was any videotape. I had records; I had comic books. I wanted to be an ape, desperately.”

That desperation meant he leapt at the chance to take over the saga when Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt withdrew from the sequel shortly before production was due to start. Having never done performance capture before, Reeves found 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a steep learning curve.

“I was worried that it was going to be something very technical that was going to keep me from my usual process of working with actors,” he says. “And I was relieved to see that it was just the opposite.” Indeed, he soon realised there was a lot of freedom to the process. He was able to try things out with actors, particularly Andy Serkis, who plays Ceasar, the highly evolved chimpanzee who becomes a revolutionary leader over the course of this prequel saga.

With the new film, Reeves had more time to lock down the script, which in turn gave him more time to work with the effects artists at WETA to figure out ever more intricate ways to translate his casts’ nuanced performances into the faces of the film’s simian protagonists. “The whole point of these stories is to get you to commit to the experience of being an ape emotionally,” says Reeves.

War for the Planet of the Apes certainly does that. As Ceasar and his fellow apes attempt to flee the last remnants of humanity, they find themselves in a war against a megalomaniacal army colonel (Woody Harrelson) determined to make his little pocket of America great again by enslaving the apes and forcing them to build a wall to protect his vanishing way of life. The political resonances are plain to see. They’re also entirely accidental, emerging from Reeves’s desire to make a war film that would also function like a biblical epic, with hard labour one of the trials the hero has to endure en route to his mythic ascension. “It wasn’t as if we were trying to say: ‘let’s take this current event and just ape it.’”

Still, he knows the ongoing relevance of the Planet of the Apes films is down to their ability to reflect the world around us. “It is about holding a lens up to human nature and grappling with the fact that we are the animals and that we have the capacity for good things and for horrors.”

As for where the series is going, its prequel status means we already know it’s going to link up with the 1968 original. But what fascinates Reeves is how Ceasar’s apes become the less sympathetic primates of the first movie. “Maybe future conflicts are not going to be between apes and humans, but apes and other groups of apes,” he says, tantalisingly.

It would make sense if Reeves did take the series to its natural endpoint given the way he’s quietly made this franchise one of the most acclaimed blockbusters sagas of recent years. Besides, thanks to Cloverfield, he already has form destroying the Statue of Liberty. “That’s true! Yeah, I already got to do that. I don’t have to do it again.”

Before he can even think about more simian adventures, though, there is another iconic cinematic world he has to figure out. No, not Star Wars, but The Batman, which he recently signed on to do after star Ben Affleck decided against directing it himself. “I’m interested in figuring out how to use the metaphors of the genre and the fantasy to indulge in something that is in some way relevant to our world,” says Reeves of his initial thoughts. “What’s exciting about his character is that he’s a superhero in name, but not in actuality. He’s just a man. He’s donning this costume as a façade, as a cover to achieve his goals. It’s a cover that is meant to conceal him, but in many ways reveals him. I find that very exciting.” ■

War for the Planet of the Apes is out now