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Monkey See: Matt Reeves on 5 ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Scenes

The director of the new ‘Apes’ blockbuster sheds light on five of the film’s key sequences

dawn of the planet of the apes

David James

When we last saw Caesar, the intelligent chimpanzee-turned-simian freedom fighter of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), he was leading his ape army into Muir Woods, determined to find sanctuary and safety for his species away from human interlopers. Much has changed when we pick up the story a decade later in the sequel to the successful franchise reboot, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. A "simian flu" has wiped out a huge amount of the homo sapien population; Caesar (again played by Andy Serkis, the Marlon Brando of motion-capture performers) has formed a tribal ape society among the redwoods. Then an engineer (Jason Clarke) and his fellow human survivors stumble across the peaceful monkeys, and things start to get heated. Tentative agreements are reached. A militant ape named Koba wants to go all Kong on those hairless intruders. Everybody knows that all-out inter-species war is just one misunderstanding or banana-peel slip-up away.

Human See, Human Do: A Complete History of 'Planet of the Apes'

Best known for the giant-monster found-footage movie Cloverfield (2008) and the child-vampire remake Let Me In (2010), director Matt Reeves grabs the reigns of the Apes series and expands on the first film's ideas of animalistic evolution, social devolution and reverse Darwinism. Rolling Stone got him on the phone and asked him to dissect five of Dawn's key scenes. As told to David Fear


Introducing Caesar

[The film's opening sequence features Caesar and various apes, out on a hunting expedition.]

"When I first met with the studio, the version of the story they had started in a postapocalyptic San Francisco. Caesar was in the background; the movie wasn't going to be Caesar-centric, and the apes didn't come into the picture until much later. So I said, You created this amazing character — it should start with his point of view. The beginning of the movie should be like 2001: A Space Odyssey's "The Dawn of Man"…only it's the Dawn of Apes [laughs]. Make it a silent movie, more or less, for 15 minutes, then bring the humans in and turn it into a classic Western. That was my pitch, and I assumed they'd say no. To my surprise, they said, 'Yeah, great, let's do it.' Jokingly, I replied, 'Okay, what's the catch?' And they said you have to start right now, because we have a release date to make. You need to be shooting in the next few months."

"The idea of starting out with the hunt was to introduce these apes in the most primal way possible, and then when you see them coming back, they are in an ordered procession. Some are walking on two legs; others are on horses. You've seen them go from being purely animalistic to being organized and almost militaristic in one or two cuts. We actually did a lot of research into apes and how they hunt, and what you find out is that chimps actually hunt like they are Navy SEALs. It's almost like a paramilitary operation. When you see that first shot and they have their war paint on, you're supposed to wonder whether they're already engaged in a war. No, they're just hunting. The war will come in a bit."

"The notion was to take you through a day in the life of these intelligent, advanced apes, and do it in a way that mirrored our own tribal development. We wanted to push the photorealistic aspects as far as we could, so we shoot in a real forest, in the rain and the mud, in cold horrible winter…with 3-D cameras and a cast all in mo-cap suits. It was tough to film, and amazing once you saw the results."


Barbarians at the Gate

[Caesar and his army march to the human's compound, to let them know that they do not want war…but will fight back if threatened or attacked.]

"We call this scene 'the show of strength.' It's the Apaches surrounding the calvary fort. We had a number of apes on horses here, but every time Andy Serkis would yell 'Apes…do not…want…war!', the horses would get spooked and start jogging to one side, right out of the frame. So what we did was, we had these actors in mo-cap suits sitting on…orange ladders from Home Depot. That's what Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke are staring at when they're being handed down an ultimatum from this dangerous tribes…guys with balls on their suits, sitting on step ladders [laughs]. Very intimidating."

"When you make movies like this, there's always this sense of faith you have that once you fill in everything, it will all look fantastic. And then there were days like the day we shot that scene, where you'd look out at the actors on furniture and think, this is simply ridiculous. This looks like an outtake from Plan 9 From Outer Space. You're thinking I have to get these actors to do mo-cap business, then have the human actors film their reactions against a blank screen, basically, and deal with all this digital wizardry to add in later. Then you'd call action and you'd see Andy Serkis start to go into his ape performance, and you'd think Wow, this is…how does he do this? This could actually work! Add in the special effects, and you get what you see onscreen, which is this very intimidating stand-off. [Pause] The magic of modern moviemaking, right?"


The Gun Show

[Having found a stockpile of guns, the militant ape Koba puts on a monkey-business act to fool the humans. Then he turns the tables.

"You go in wondering whether the technology will hinder you from working with the actors…whether the performance-capture method ultimately impedes upon them giving a genuine performance, or that something vital will get lost in translation. And this scene, which we shot pretty early on, convinced me that you could do a performance-capture model without losing the sense of play or exploration."

"The sequence was originally written as: Koba spitting the alcohol, the men close their eyes and then when they open them, he has the gun. Toby [Kebbell, who plays Koba] came in that day and said, 'I have an idea for this. Let me take this further.' So we're rehearsing, and he starts with the goofing around, then he spits the whiskey in their faces. Then Toby keeps going, and starts joking with them, really sort of befriending the two guys. Then he takes the gun, and he's still joking, waving it around, acting like a fool. It was really a genius move; it makes what follows so much more chilling."

"Toby told me that he based that moment off of these scary guys he knew who'd get drunk with you, they'd joke with you and tease you, then the next thing you know…bam. There was horrific violence, seemingly out of nowhere. It's just such an inspired choice, and it's one of my favorite scenes in the film."


The Siege

[A group of militant apes attack the humans, resulting in a huge, fiery bloodbath.]

"Unlike Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which you were building toward a battle where you were unequivocally on the side of the apes, this film has a sequence that's simply a flat-out attack. It's an act of war. The idea is that Koba has become like one of those wild generals you'd see in a Kurosawa film like Ran (1985), just attacking the castle. We designed the battle to have moments when you'd see Koba just going into a berserker rage, riding through flames with machine guns in each hand. And then you'd see the battle from the perspective of Caesar's son, Blue Eyes, who'd always romanticized the notion of being a warrior, and how that mentality just leads to devastation. So we had to make sure both of these points of view came across in the sequence, or else it's just a lot mindless spectacle with apes in tanks and gunfire."

"That said, there are shots in that siege that took people a year to work on and perfect. There are folks at Weta Workshop [the special-effects company out of New Zealand best-known for its work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy] who will point to certain bits and tell you that, if you add in digital hair simulations and voice simulations and all sort of effects, the shot went through a 100 passes before we signed off. I had a phone conference with them New Zealand FX crew, and when I said, Okay, we have it, there was suddenly this burst of applause coming out of the speakerphone. There may have been some crying as well, I'm not sure [laughs]."

David James

Serkis Maximus

[Andy Serkis, playing Caesar, interacts with the human actors near the end of the film.]

"I was initially afraid that there was some sort of technical secret that Andy Serkis did to make the mo-cap thing work. But then I watched his raw footage from Rise and the secret is that Andy Serkis is a fucking amazing actor, period. What he and Weta do to make Caesar a fully fleshed out character is astounding."

"Let me tell you a story: There's a scene in the film that involves Jason, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Andy…I don't want to see which one it is, because it involves a crucial plot point. But it's very emotional; you'll know it when you see it. So I'm talking through the scene with the four of them, and I'm focused on Jason, Kerry and Kodi, because there's a lot they have to get through. It's very informal. As we're casually going through this, I want to make sure everybody is ready to go and they feel comfortable. I check in with Jason, he's okay. I check in with Keri, all good. Kodi, same thing."

"I turn to Andy, to see how he is, and there are tears streaming down his face. And he sort of looks up at me and smiles, very gently, and says, "Yeah, I'm fine, all ready to go." We're just blocking the scene out for the camera, and he's already inside of the character, right where he needs to be. Most actors, when they're at that level, they're good for one take. He then gave me nine takes at that exact same intensity and with that sort of emotional depth. That's Andy Serkis."