When some actors and directors promote an adaptation or remake they’ll pretend they’ve always been fans of the original movie or the comic. You can generally tell when they’re lying, trying to pander to fans. Thankfully, real die-hard fans often get to be a part of properties that actually mean something to them. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director, Matt Reeves, is one of those people.
Like most kids growing up in the ’80s, the New York-born filmmaker gravitated toward E.T., Close Encounters, and Star Wars. For Reeves, though, those films never held a candle to Planet of the Apes. “That was my obsession. That was my Star Wars,” he tells us over the phone, counting the hours until the film opens this Friday.
When it comes to the Apes franchise the original film and, the strangest of the series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, are his favorites — Reeves is still shaken by the image of the mutated humans removing their faces in the latter film. He also has a deep fondness for the television series which only lasted, to his surprise, three months back in 1974.
“I thought for sure it was on for years because it took up so much of my childhood. I had dolls, the records, and these comic books. I was so obsessed with that world.”
Beyond playing with dolls, he made short films inspired by Apes. When most kids were playing cops and robbers, there was little Matt, playing an Ape in his own 8mm film. “I had a best friend named Mark Sanderson,” Reeves shares. “We’d call each other on the phone and say, ‘Let’s go play apes!’ We would act out Planet of the Apes. I made a Super 8 movie with the title ‘Galactic Battles‘.”
Quite the title for a film starring aliens wearing ape masks. That Super 8 film likely doesn’t match the production value of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but it’s an experience Reeves remembers fondly, even though his camera was stolen and he never had the chance to complete his unfinished masterpiece.
It wasn’t the last movie he tried to make as a child. In the 1970s a public access channel in Los Angeles aired short films made by young aspiring filmmakers. One night Reeves discovered the channel when he caught a Super 8 horror movie made by a 13-year-old. He jumped at the chance of having one of his own shorts aired.
The man who ran the show, Gerard Ravel, not only loved Reeves’ film, but he also introduced him to J.J. Abrams (future screenwriter behind Forever Young and Regarding Henry), and they’ve remained pals ever since.
Neither of them are making their films for a public access channel these days. Abrams rebooted Star Trek and is now taking a crack at Star Wars, while Reeves has signed up to make two Planet of the Apes films starting with Dawn. The experience has put the Super 8 and ape mask back into his hands.
“It’s weird how much the same it feels, but of course it’s different,” Reeves says. “The pressure of doing a big movie is thrilling, but it’s also terrifying. I always resisted doing a tent-pole movie, because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find my way in.” Reeves has turned down some high-profile projects for that very reason. If his heart ain’t in it, he won’t be on set yelling action.
His first feature film, 1996’s The Pallbearer, was deeply personal. Reeves, like the late 20-something main character of the film, was living with his mother, struggling to find his way and was deeply affected by the death of a high school friend. Naturally, all of that experience led to writing and filming what could be called a romantic comedy set at a funeral. After his directorial debut Reeves worked in television, not returning to feature films until 2000 with The Yards –a dramatic genre flick he co-wrote with one of his best friends and its director, James Gray. The old-fashioned drama was a box office disappointment, but it remains Gray’s best work.
Although the two personal films Reeves worked on didn’t blow critics and audiences away, when he made his found footage monster movie, Cloverfield, he stuck to his guns. “In my experience of making it, it was about my anxiety of being at the center of events that were larger than us, and being stuck in that terror,” he says. “I learned you could make a film like that personal.” The same goes for his remake of Let the Right One In. A potential rehash and cheap money grab was transformed by Reeves into an exploration of the isolation he felt as a child. Like Let Me In‘s young and disturbed protagonist, Reeves was also a child of divorce who suffered at the hands of bullies.
In the case of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, his connection to the material went beyond his fandom and into his family life as well. “When I rewatched Rise of the Planet of the Apes I had that revelation of seeing my son in Andy’s performance, and that gave it a personal impulse that was important for the rest of the film,” he explains. “That’s one of the reasons why family was so important to me in the story. It was important for me that Caesar have a newborn son, and to see the preciousness to protect that child. That’s even true on the human side, imagining what it’d be like to lose members of your human family.”
While I speak to Reeves, he’s still pinching himself over the fact he made a $150m potential blockbuster all about family. When we discuss the heavier side of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – an Akira Kurosawa-influenced set piece, the brutal violence, and the quiet character moments — he can’t help himself from laughing at what he was able to get away with. After Fox approved his pitch, he had to ask, “What’s the catch?” A quickly approaching release date was their answer. Reeves delivered the sequel on time, while also making a movie on his own terms.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a movie made by a true fan, sticking to the moral complexity of the series and its penchant for dark realities. Imagine if someone told 13-year-old Matt Reeves he’d get to make The Planet of the Apes he would want to see. The kid who once “really dug apes on horses” is now filming those apes on horses. His unfinished childhood fan film has jumped out of a long-lost Super 8 camera and onto an IMAX screen.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens in theaters July 11th.