“The reason I cast Steve Zahn is he made me cry over Skype.”
Matt Reeves directed the final two parts in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, and by anyone’s standards the three films collectively rank as one of the best trilogies ever made. Epic story meets technological wizardry to create believable worlds and compelling action. He’s clearly a capable director, but Reeves’ commentaries also show him to be a filmmaker fueled by engagement, wonder, and compassion.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
Commentator: Matt Reeves (co-writer/director)
1. He took a few weeks off after completing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes before returning to work on this film, and they spent a year on the script.
2. They wanted to create “a mythic, final leg to Caesar’s journey, to turn him into kind of an ape Moses, the seminal figure in all of ape history like we were gonna do sort of a Darwinian, biblical epic.” As preparation they watched all of the Planet of the Apes film, westerns, war movies, films by Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and more.
3. “Performance capture is just a technology that records performance,” he says in regard to Andy Serkis being labeled a brilliant mo-cap artist as opposed to a great actor.
4. Caesar demonstrates empathy with both apes and humans through the trilogy, but the goal with War was for him to understand Koba’s pain in Dawn that led him to attack the humans. “For the first time, Caesar would be in danger of losing his empathy.”
5. The code name for the film during production was The Hidden Fortress.
6. He used a technodolly for the cave assault scene — a piece of equipment he wished he had on Dawn — and it enabled him to shoot scenes with Serkis (in his mo-cap getup) and the “play the shot back” while adding new elements.
7. He discovered on Let Me In that composer Michael Giacchino was also a huge Planet of the Apes fan, so was the first person Reeves called when he was hired to direct Dawn.
8. The filmmakers’ kids play the young apes in the film (as they did in Dawn). Performer Terry Notary (The Square) actually trained his kids to “quadruped” and move like apes.
9. They spent “over a year” in post-production working to make the apes — particularly their expressive faces — look and feel as perfect as possible.
10. “Point of view is one of the most important things that you use in a story,” he says, adding that while this was a summer blockbuster whose spectacle is something different than super powers or grand action sequences. “Our spectacle is that by the end of this movie you’re an ape.” Viewers end up identifying with emotional beats expressed by apes.
11. The horses on the beach scene was shot on Vancouver Island, and they chose it because it was rainy season and expected to be gloomy. He was initially upset to find it sunny on the day of shooting, but he realized it was better than what they had planned thanks to the light and reflections in the sand.
12. The “donkey” apes used by the humans are named not because they’re being used as animal workers (like I assumed) but as a reference to Donkey Kong.
13. They showed the film to primatologists and were told that their apes displayed a surprising degree of realism in their behavior. Karin Konoval‘s performance as Maurice the orangutan was especially noteworthy to them.
14. Nova (Amiah Miller) is on Maurice’s back at the 39:11 mark, and that presented a challenge as Konoval is not actually the size of an orangutan. Weta stepped up and created a special backpack for the performer to wear that would add girth and support Miller.
15. The way the virus shifts after killing off 99.9% of humanity towards a mutation that leaves the survivors unable to speak was an idea that originated in the original Planet of the Apes franchise where the apes used mute humans as slave labor. Co-writer Mark Bomback researched viruses and discovered details on the Spanish flu that mutated into catatonia and other non-lethal physical effects. “The humans are beginning to devolve while the apes evolve.”
16. The shot of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) at 43:09 is the only time Zahn appears onscreen without the mo-cap gear. It’s a shot from behind, and he’s wearing a big, hooded winter coat, but it’s him.
17. All of the horse shots during the Bad Ape chase were done using real horses and stunt riders except for the one of Caesar riding up the ridge at 44:11 which is entirely cg.
18. Bad Ape’s fall at 49:25 was a real fall on Zahn’s part, but Reeves liked it so much he kept it. “The great thing about performance capture is that in any other movie you plan out shots to such a degree that there’s no spontaneity, but here because all it is is just a series of cameras we go on an exploration.”
19. Many of the snow-set scenes were shot in real snowy conditions. It required not only special attention from the digital wizards at Weta but also for the performers to wear wet suits beneath their mo-cap gear. “I could look like the Michelin Man.”
20. The Colonel’s (Woody Harrelson) greeting to Caesar includes a whole Wellington/Napoleon reference that was added by the actor himself. Reeves thought it wouldn’t work seeing as he’s speaking to an ape, so Harrelson added the “you’re probably not much of a reader” line. It was also his suggestion to shoot an ape early on to spur Caesar and the apes back to work.
21. The alpha/omega is a nod to Beneath the Planet of the Apes where they’re praying to a nuclear weapon. Same goes for the apes on X-shaped crosses.
22. They originally had the Jimi Hendrix version of the National Anthem play during the scene where the humans put the apes to work on the wall, but they weren’t able to secure the rights.
23. The wall was meant as a reveal regarding the viral mutation, “but it’s interesting how that ended up having a different resonance to current events as the story continued. It was strange and entirely coincidental.”
24. The technology behind performance capture “can only capture about a dozen apes at a time, there’s so much data that the computers have to hold on the movement of just twelve people.” Larger scenes required a focus on the performers with small pockets of extras in the background that would be adjusted and blended in post.
25. The water dumped on Caesar (and by definition on Serkis) at 1:27:28 was supposed to be warm, but the crew forgot to heat it up. Caesar/Serkis’ shocked reaction is authentic as the very cold water was unexpected. They were all apologetic afterward, but Serkis said simply that it worked for the scene.
26. The score playing as Caesar is pulled from his cage to be put to work features a “spur-like” sound that comes from an instrument designed by one of Giacchino’s sons. The composer apparently likes to include his kids in his compositions, and this “little piece of metal that has some nuts and things on it that shake and have a huge reverb” added a western tinge to this showdown scene.
27. A horn sound can be heard at 1:48:29 as Rocket stands up to face the guard he threw poop at, and it’s actually Giacchino blowing into a ram’s horn he acquired from the original Planet of the Apes movie. “I told you he was a Planet of the Apes fanatic.”
28. The scene where Caesar confronts an ill Colonel as the other human army attacks features real tears from Serkis. Weta tried to recreate them via cg onto Caesar’s face but were unable to capture it right, so they instead chose to lift the footage of the tear and then layer it atop their cg ape face. Serkis told Reeves that a similar thing happened on The Lord of the Rings — Weta used some of his actual spit for Gollum’s excited talking. [Note: A lead artist from Weta emailed regarding this particular point saying “He is entirely CG including his tears. We created the ‘eyes welling’ effect in combination with CG tears over many many shots. Seems like Caesar spent most the film on the verge of tears. Because tears are transparent, refractive and not perfectly tracked…I can’t imagine we would have gone through the pain of using footage of tears and attempting to comp them over a CG ape with a different face shape. The gollum thing is true however. FX weren’t as developed back then ;)”]
29. The big tanker explosion at the end was felt in Vancouver and landed the production in the news as people were concerned as to what the tremors were from.
30. Reeves doesn’t mention why the faces of the Northern Army are never shown. While watching for the first time I assumed they would be revealed to be apes as a twist of sorts — apes up north are even more advanced and had been playing the Colonel all along — but that’s not the case. They were just humans dressed for cold weather.
31. Weta designed a new rendering program “that enables them to grow forests and to have the trees have that natural variation.” This was one of the first applications of the software.
32. The script didn’t have Maurice speaking verbally at the end, but while they were shooting the final scene of Caesar’s impending death after getting his apes to the promised land Reeves and Konoval both realized it needed to happen.
33. It was an emotional shoot for obvious reasons — the closing of the trilogy, the end of Caesar — but it was made more so by the deaths during production of both Serkis’ mother and Reeves’ father.
34. Caesar wasn’t originally meant to die on camera — the were going to pan up into the sky and then have his eyes superimposed onto the screen — but Reeves suggested Serkis do a take where simply lets go, “and the way that Karen played it as Andy was passing was just so heartbreaking, and everybody just fell silent.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“I’m not a great actor, but I’ll tell you who is, Andy Serkis.”
“Before this movie becomes planet of the apes it’s planet of the mo-cap actors.”
“Oh that’s kind of a cheat!”
Buy War for the Planet of the Apes on Blu-ray from Amazon.
Reeves’ commentary is a rarity in that he stops speaking before the end credits begin, but happily the two plus hours preceding them are filled with anecdotes, insight, and plenty of technical detail for film buffs. It’s a pretty great listen for fans as he discusses narrative motivations and the emotion behind the film and his involvement.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.