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Matt Reeves on Directing ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ and the ‘Apes’ Sequel We Almost Got Instead

dawn of the planet of the apes matt reeves
20th Century Fox

Though he won’t admit it verbally, there’s something in the tone of Matt Reeves‘ voice that reveals that he knows that he has something special with his new film, ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.’ I suspect Matt Reeves would be a terrible poker player.

It’s interesting to listen to the director talk about the marketing for ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,’ which even he acknowledges is a little misleading, creating conflicts that don’t exist through the magic of editing. Then again, ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ isn’t a typical summer action movie: Characters have actual motivations instead of simply wearing black and white hats. Unlike most summer movies, the world isn’t at stake. Instead, it’s a dam. The humans who survived the deadly flu need the dam for power. The apes control access to the dam. There are reasonable humans. There are reasonable apes. That’s hard to put into a trailer. But, regardless, Reeves (who directed ‘Cloverfield’ and ‘Let Me In’) has directed what people (including this reporter) are calling the best studio film of the summer — even though Reeves won’t quite admit that he knows that.

You know you have a good movie here, right?

[Laughs] Well, no. I mean, you know, we just finished the movie like, literally a week and a half ago. So, I’m still processing it myself. I hope it’s good! But, when you say that, it makes me feel much better.

The reviews have been good.

So far the response had been good. I hope it continues. I’ve been excited to see the response so far, absolutely.

Here’s how good I think this movie is: If your next movie isn’t good, you’ll get a pass.

[Laughing] Well, thank you!

People will say, “Well, I didn’t like this one, but he did direct ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,’ so he gets a pass.”

[Laughing] Well, that’s very nice. I hope I won’t need it.

It’s interesting you’re taking over the second film of a story, but since most of the characters are new, it’s kind of a brand new movie.

Yeah, here’s the thing: I am a lifelong ‘Planet of the Apes’ fan. And it’s very interesting because I’ve had exactly the same perspective you just said, which is that it’s a universe that I have been attached to since I was a child. But, I don’t feel in any way we’re remaking anything. I really wanted it to be like the beginning of ’2001′ and make it the dawn of intelligent apes instead of the dawn of man … so, I had this feeling of both entering the world of my childhood, but doing something that was totally new. I think that ‘Rise’ was so creative with its reinvention of the franchise.

It caught people off guard.

Yeah! People weren’t expecting and I know I wasn’t expecting that level of emotionality.

It was an interesting phenomenon, because people assumed ‘Rise’ wasn’t going to be good, and it didn’t help when the star of the movie, James Franco, started distancing himself during interviews. Then it came out and people responded very well to it.

Right. Yeah, it’s one of these things where I think the elements came together and, in a way, it was really to the movie’s advantage that it could sneak up on people like that. Because people thought it wasn’t going to be good, it was a testament to how good it was. People loved it. We didn’t have that this time, but I wasn’t afraid of it, I thought it was a good thing because I thought, “You know what? There’s a lot of goodwill.”

And the way the first movie ends, it’s like the story is just beginning.

Yeah, it was so cleverly done. And, yet, at the same time, it also didn’t make it utterly clear what the next step would be. And that was an opportunity, too. When I came in, the movie that they were going to do was quite different from the movie we ended up doing.

What did they want to do?

Well, the original thing, they gave me an outline they had put together. Mark Bomback, who wrote the script, they were going to have him write this outline. And this outline started in the post-apocalypse San Francisco. And the apes came down into the city and started pushing up power lines and they started living together — both species in the city. And the apes could really speak very articulately. And it was entirely different. And it wasn’t even a story. And I said, “Guys, do you realize the miracle that you guys pulled off with ‘Rise’?” It’s a movie in which the secret is that it’s not a human point of view story at all. That movie is Caesar’s. That’s amazing.

And this movie breaks the new rule of blockbuster movies: The world isn’t at stake. There’s a dam and a small group of humans and apes at stake.

Well, because I think, to me, the great secret with these movies is that when you’re making a movie about intelligent apes, it actually it actually gives you the genre you need to do a character story. And at the end of the day, because the movie is so based in Caesar, it’s actually a character drama. What I wanted the movie to be about was an anatomy of violence. I wanted it to be a story that had empathy for all of its characters and showed how all of them arrived at their world views … and all of those things are not traditionally what a summer tentpole will be, but it was an amazing gift that the world of this movie allowed for that.

The trailer for ‘Dawn’ fooled me. I enjoyed Gary Oldman’s character quite a bit, but based on my preconceptions from the trailer, I didn’t think I would. All the characters, for that matter, all seem to have reasonable motivations.

Well, that’s I wanted to do.

Even Koba, who is the closest thing to a bad guy, has reasonable motivations.

Well, that was very important to me. I wanted the movie to have empathy for every character. You understood where their world views came from. And the idea of Koba having a problem with humans, you know, you feel really badly for him. He’s meant to be a deeply wounded character. And that’s true of all of the characters. They are all deeply wounded. I mean, it is a double-edged sword about the way they have to sell the movie. And of course they’re selling conflict. And I know it was very important to Gary and important to me that he not be portrayed as a villain in the film. That he was really a character that we were meant to have empathy for and you understand the painful experiences that he’s been though. And, yet, part of selling the movie is they are selling him as a villain because I think they feel that will appeal to an audience. On some level, it’s disheartening, on another level I found it exciting because … I honestly believe no one has seen the movie in the trailers.

If you have preconceptions, they’re wrong.

And I can understand where they would come from, because I’ve seen and enjoyed the advertising myself.

Do you get input on what the title of the next movie will be?

Sure! I didn’t have any input on this one. They told me this one was called ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.’ It just so happened that I was interested in exploring the dawn of intelligent apes in a way that paralleled the dawn of man. So, to me, it was an incredibly appropriate title. But, I know that people have issues with these “of the,” “of the,” “of the,” titles because the titles are so long. But, I actually like the title. I know some people have taken issue with it because it’s so long and people didn’t like ‘Rise’ either. I know they’re awkward and long, but I sort of like them.

So if you told them you want the next movie to be called, I don’t know … ‘Fragrance of the Planet of the Apes,’ that might happen?

Well…

I realize that’s a dumb title.

I could probably have input into that title. That I would succeed in getting that to be the actual title, I think is highly unlikely.

There’s my scoop. The next movie will not be called ‘Fragrance of the Planet of the Apes.’

It probably will not be. And that’s an important point to be made.

You’d spend your free pass right there.

Yeah, there you go. That’s it.

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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