Star Apps: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

The cast and crew of summer's simian smash talks apes and apps.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," set a decade after humanity and its power supply are nearly decimated, portrays the difficulty of rebuilding civilization without software. How would one navigate without Google Maps, see at night without Flashlight, or speak to intelligent life without FaceTime? Virtual city building via Minecraft or Civilization is also off the menu. But what if there was a way to get power from a hydroelectric dam? The only obstacle is a nation of spiteful super apes. That's the predicament for surviving humans in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Malcolm (Jason Clarke) tries to make peace with apes Caesar (Andy Serkis), Koba (Toby Kebbell), and Maurice (Karin Konoval) in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

I chatted with "Apes" actors Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, and Terry Notary, as well as director Matt Reeves and visual effects supervisors Dan Lemmon and Joe Letteri, about the summer blockbuster and the apps they'd have the hardest time living without.

Some of you have worked with director Matt Reeves before, and for others it's a new collaboration. What was so appealing about working with him on this new endeavor?
Keri Russell: Matt and I had worked together on "Felicity," and we've had a close relationship and were trying to find something to work together on. I never thought it would be "Planet of the Apes." But he called me last summer and said, "Come do this with me." What's special for me about this is that it's a big action summer movie partnered with Matt's sensibility, which is this incredibly detailed, sensitive, emotional storytelling, and that could only serve a movie I'd want to see. Matt has a very specific voice and a very specific way he sees the world. I'm doing small, quiet, intimate scenes in this movie, and it's exactly the same way he worked all those years ago. He likes people who are very vulnerable and trying so hard to be brave against all odds, and that's what he does very well. I'm so happy about this particular film, because he was able to capture that and create that intimacy in this giant arena.

Gary Oldman: I received a letter from Matt. That's how I got involved, and then I subsequently spoke to him on the phone. I had seen his previous work and thought the idea of Matt with this material was a wonderful marriage. Then when I read the script, I was surprised that it was a touching emotional story about family and community. He really contaminates you with his energy. He's really happy to be there and really loves the job so much. He is so passionate about the process and cinema and actors, and just contaminates you. In a movie like this, there are things stacked against you, the most being time. The clock is ticking, and no matter how stressed he was, he could always come out of that with a smile on his face and say, "What do you need?"

Jason Clarke: It's Matt Reeves and then guys like Andy Serkis and Terry [Notary] who are the best at what they do, who continue to lead the way and educate the new guys who do it, and really take it forward.

Andy Serkis: I had an amazing time on "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." But what was so great about Matt, coming off of working with [director] Rupert Wyatt, was that rather than a new director coming in and saying, "This is my movie," [Matt] really wanted to honor what Rupert had done with "Planet of the Apes." When I sat down and had lunch with him about where he wanted to drop anchor with "Dawn," it was just spellbinding -- about not rushing too far into the future, about landing where you still see the apes evolving, about a civilization that was still being created. He was not wanting to make an imbalanced polemic on the part of the apes, but looking at two species struggling for survival. He's done that with incredible tenderness. He's zoned in on the most important thing -- the emotional truth of every single character and their dynamics.

Terry Notary: I was upset when Rupert decided not to do the film. Then I went into it with Matt and was like, "Wow, this guy is going to do a great job with this film, because it's about the story for him." He wants the apes to begin to create a culture and communicate and have an intelligence that was percolating under these primal beings. I thought, "That sounds amazing. Let's do it." I was honored to come back and continue from where we left off.

Dan Lemmon: He's great. He's just a fantastic storyteller and collaborator with boundless energy and enthusiasm. His love for movies is so palpable. In some ways, it's like going to film school. He'll constantly reference his favorite auteur filmmakers, and you know he just loves them. He's not ambivalent about anything. He just loves or hates it. He's really dynamic that way.

Joe Letteri: It's great, because Matt is very character-driven, which is great for us, because we're creating characters. We don't want our apes to be creatures, to just jump out at you and scare you. We want them to be engaged as part of the story, and I think Matt understands that this is their story, the film where they really establish themselves. They are developing emotional intelligence.

Both apes and humans have deep-seeded prejudices about the other. Did you learn anything about yourselves or your own biases from playing these roles?
Terry Notary: Yeah, I learned a lot about myself, playing Rocket. I realized that we're all animals. And when you're playing an ape, we looked at what made us human and the social conditioning that gives us our sense of self. You peel these layers away, and what you're left with is an instinct-driven animal that is open and vulnerable like a baby. Going into Rocket is like dropping into a deeper sense of who I am, just no BS, shedding all the cerebral guard and opening up. With the actors, we each found our inner ape and built a character on that. All actors playing apes are finding their deeper self sitting in a deeper frequency and performing in that space. When you do that, you really learn about yourself. All this superficial stuff and idea of who I am is nothing.

Gary, you play the leader of the surviving humans in the film. What is the greatest challenge one faces as a leader?
Gary Oldman: I think that your leaders will always have very difficult decisions to make, and it comes down to choices. In this kind of situation, my character is coming at this to some degree conflicted. All these people have been wounded emotionally and physically in some way, so he is coming to it with that baggage of that history, and that is revealed much later in the film in a beautiful way. Matt holds those cards close to his chest until he delivers the hand, and I think my character is a heroic character who makes the ultimate sacrifice. There's a lot to save if you're going to come down on the side of humanity, in that he believes that he's saving the human race and makes the most heroic gesture. But in extraordinary times, leaders often have to make difficult decisions.

One of the most moving scenes in the film, which I'm guessing you were just referring to, was when you were swiping through photos of your lost family members on your iPad.
Gary Oldman: I've always used music and photographs for emotions. The family on the iPad is my family. They're my kids and wife and dog. So the production wanted me to submit some pictures, so they could Photoshop them as they often do in movies. So I asked Matt, if I could find the right kind of photos, then why don't we just go with that? That helped me reach where I had to go.

Matt, how did you balance emotional moments such as the aforementioned one with special effects in the film?
Matt Reeves: My biggest fear going into it was whether the technology would get in the way of my relationship with the actors, because, as a storyteller, working with the actors is the most important thing. What I discovered very quickly is that it didn't at all. What I wanted to do was take us off the stage and as into reality as possible. The technology is very sensitive, and being in the forest and in the rain is not the ideal place to be. But I said, "Could we do it?" They said, "Yeah." The hardest part was after shooting a scene, I'd have to reshoot it several times, sometimes just to get a plate, which is the set without Andy in it, so that was weird. And if Jason Clarke had a terrifying scene with apes, it was like, "Now you need to throw yourself around." So the idea was that the ape performances were captured in a reference pass, and then what had been referred to as an actor pass would be filmed. The hardest part was the editing -- looking at actors and blocking out what you're seeing visually, because you're looking at Andy Serkis with a head cam and pretending he's an ape and looking for emotion.

What's the key to great visual effects?
Matt Reeves: Having as much real in the scene as possible. The more that the interaction is real, the more your mind tells you that it's real.

Dan, do you develop new software for each "Apes" film?
Dan Lemmon: We take anything off the shelf or out of the toolbox that we can use, and we build our own tools as well. We're constantly making new hardware and software, and the nature of our craft is that it's incremental. You're always adding to the tools you've got and building and pushing things further. The great thing about working on these types of films is that you get to work with creative, exciting people who bring new ideas to the table, who say, "You did this in the last film. Can you do that?" And talk about taking the technology that exists and tailoring it into these new story ideas.

Joe Letteri: When Dan says "off the shelf," he means what we had working on the last film. [Laughs] Generally there's a lot of custom hardware and software developed, like everything that went into the performance capture -- we designed the hardware, the suits, and everything that goes with it. We wrote the software that we needed to do all the facial recognition and muscle dynamics for the skin, everything that drives and simulates the performance from the interpretation we take from the actor's performance.

Which software do you use to do your job?
Dan Lemmon: A lot of photo searches and gathering of reference images on YouTube and Flickr. We use Skype constantly. It's the de facto way we communicate with people that we need to collaborate with, especially when we send images along with audio. We use CineSync, a collaboration tool where you can play a QuickTime and draw on it, and you can see it on the other end. That's a really powerful filmmaking collaboration tool. We have an app called Sun Seeker, which will tell you where the sun will be at any time of day, and that's really important for figuring out lighting.

Which apps are your favorites for personal use?
Dan Lemmon: I use Kindle, because I like to read. I use Safari for Web interfacing. I'll use Yelp quite a bit. Any apps that help you find the signal in the noise, find the information of where is the best place to go, and getting the good information.

Joe Letteri: I use Kindle and iBooks, because when you're on set, you have a lot of time, and that's a good way to catch up on your reading. I've been reading a lot of history lately, which is interesting about this movie, because it's kind of a history of the future.

Let's say that we were in the midst of a civilization-threatening war between man and ape. Is there an app that could save us?
Matt Reeves: Twitter, because of the idea of communicating with others. The great thing about these devices is that, as much as I believe that they remove us from each other, there are also ways that they connect us to each other.

This is one of the things that we're looking at in the film: this sense that we're connected technologically but also distanced from each other, that there's this weird kind of paradox, and that as civilization fell apart, so did our sense of connection to each other. As the humans are trying to heal themselves, part of that is trying to find the restoration or power and energy, everything that we take for granted in our daily lives. I think there's a weird thing about technology. First of all, with what these guys do [points to Dan Lemmon and Joe Letteri], we create dreams and fantasies and make these things look utterly real. We shoot it in 3D, and you watch it and say, "Yeah, I believe that." How did we do that? But I think the idea of the positive part of technology is the idea of reaching out to others, and that's what movies are about. When I think of cinema, the most powerful thing is taking you, the viewer, and putting you in the shoes of someone that's not you, whether that's a person or ape. Through that, you can understand the point of view of others and then bridge the gap between us. That's the goal of this movie, and that's the goal of apps -- to find a way to connect.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Andy Serkis: I think it's all about empathy. Having the capacity to not be blocked down or prejudiced, and in times of great difficulty to find survival by keeping the channels of communication open and finding your way forward. That's what this film is all about. I also think it's about anti-fundamentalism or any belief system that shuts you off from having a true emotional response and seeing the plight of another person, species, or culture. I think it's a powerful movie for our times that will reach and resonate on a variety of different levels. It's both entertaining and incredibly moving.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Cast members Dan Lemmon, Terry Notary, Andy Serkis, Matt Reeves, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Joe Letteri, and Jason Clarke pose by the Golden Gate Bridge. (Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.)

About Joshua Rotter

Joshua Rotter is a copy editor for Download.com and covers iOS.

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