Interview: Rupert Wyatt Brings Darkness and Smarts to ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’

By  · Published on August 6th, 2011

Tim Burton’s failed reboot/remake/whatever it is lacked everything that made the Apes series fun and interesting. His cheesy actioner was all about Mark Wahlberg running through empty set-pieces. The Apes franchise isn’t just the Statue of Liberty and Charleton Heston doing his awesome Charleton Heston shtick; they were morality tales loaded with social commentary. They were cynical films that declared human beings to be monsters, with exceptions being far and few between. For awhile, it seemed the franchise was dead in the water, and had nothing left to say.

Fortunately, Rupert Wyatt has come along and made a real Planet of the Apes film.

There’s a real darkness and cynicism to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I spoke to Wyatt a few ago months about Rise, and he labeled the film as being “hopeful.” That’s a questionable idea for a film that doesn’t close on the brightest of notes and is, basically, a symbolic horror film at times. There’s certainly some hope, but it’s still inherently bleak. But in a world of forced happy endings, you have to admire a summer tentpole that willingly sets out to wipe away and/or enslave humanity.

Here’s what director Rupert Wyatt said about the darkness and hope of the film, the character sacrifices he made, and how one finds realism in a tale of ape revolution. ** There are potential SPOILERS below. **

You mentioned a few months ago that you saw the movie as very hopeful, but there’s also a lot of cynicism and darkness to it. Do you see the film as being cynical, at all?

I don’t know if that’s entirely true. I feel like, in many ways, all great science-fiction has a certain edge to it. I don’t know whether it’s cynical, because the central part of the movie is a heartfelt relationship. Bearing in mind the themes and the nature of a potential Armageddon scenario [that] we may pursue going into the next film, I felt like what we attempted to do was keep the human emotion at the heart of the film, and not allow the morbid aspects in.

There’s goodness to the relationship between Will and Caesar, but wouldn’t you say most of the humans in the film are fairly despicable? Like, there’s nothing redeeming about Tom Felton and Brian Cox’s characters.

This is true. I think that had the most to do with ‐ there’s a certain kind of shorthand in Hollywood that can overtake nuanced characterization, and I’d say that that’s the perfect example of it. Our goal was to keep the film as lean as possible. We wanted to keep the film around the 100-minute mark. What that therefore inevitably does is you have to make certain choices in what you prioritize, and some characters inevitably just end up serving the story, and not necessarily themselves. I think those characters you’re referring to ‐ and I’m assuming the villains ‐ end up being that. That’s not to say that’s for the better, but like I said, it was our choice to prioritize certain aspects of the movie, and give that more time than perhaps of this size and length would normally allow. I’m pleased with it, because the pacing of the Caesar and Will story is, actually, quite a different type for a Hollywood film. There had to be certain sacrifices made for that to happen.

As for the ending, you mentioned how it was hopeful. Literally and thematically, isn’t what happens pretty dark?

It’s like E.T., there’s a non-human character looking to escape our world because of the realization he doesn’t belong. I think a dark ending would’ve been the rounding up, the capture, and the annihilation of the ape, and we all know that’s not going to happen. At the same time, if you took that idea out of the mythology and considered this as an alternative ending, then I do feel like the apes winning their freedom is hopeful. We always wanted to tell this story from the point of view of the apes, so with that in mind, I would say it is a very hopeful film. They find their salvation, their Shangri-La.

Wouldn’t you say their salvation comes at a pretty big cost? [Laughs]

Well, it does, essentially. We’re setting ourselves up for something that is to come, and that’s not to say we’re talking about the end of the world as we know it, but it could go that way. Ironically, that comes about through our own acts, not from the apes themselves. There are repercussions from the ALZ-112. We’re also trying to walk that fine line of not portraying medicine in an unsympathetic light, because for me, modern science is what we’re really all about. It represents us as a species, as civilization, and how we’re always looking to evolve, discover, and solve ‐ [that] is all a part of our own evolution. The decisions fall into the hand of the individual, and that’s always the way. If you have a bad leader, then bad things happen to the subject. That doesn’t make humanity evil, though.

So it was important to make what Will was doing noble, and not having him wrongly playing God?

Yes, absolutely. I didn’t want to be judgmental about a man looking for a cure to a disease that everyone is looking to find a cure for. At the same time, he’s not a particularly personable person, especially when we first meet him. The whole nature of his evolution and his arc, which I think is very important, James [Franco] played greatly. You have to play that role as a support to our protagonist, and you have to play it straight. We always wanted to have him be a support to Caesars’ story. It takes a real actor and one without a great deal of ego to do that.

Structurally, can you talk about the challenge of having Will be a supporting character to Caesar, with not forsaking the journey he goes through and just focusing on Caesar’s?

It was a real challenge. As you know, our story diverges at a certain point. It’s clearly broken down into three acts. Our first act is the fairy-tale aspect from Caesar’s point of view, especially with seeing the world of how it can be and seeing humanity’s positives. The second act turns that on its own head when he’s cutoff from our society, where we then enter a darker and merciless world. Again, it’s all from Caesar’s point of view. The decision he makes is to be with his own kind and to turn his back on humans after he realizes they’ve turned their back on him, so he goes to revolution in act three. That is very clearly Caesar’s arc, and in a funny sort of way, it’s not a lot different to Will’s [arc].

Will’s a guy looking to find this cure, which he does, and makes the decision to test it on his father. At the same time, he’s gradually humanized by this chimpanzee. He starts to experience the world and love with this woman. It’s all positives in act one, then he gradually starts to rage against the machine. In act two, much like Caesar, he is trying to find a way to overcome the fact the system he is using is not working. In act three, he then becomes the reactionary to the uprising. Obviously, Caesar is very much our protagonist at that point.

The first two acts set up a very grounded world. Was it key to establish that realism, tonally, to make some of the potentially silly ideas in act three more believable?

Totally. Those are your words, and not mine, but I know exactly what you mean. At the end of the day, we’re a part of a mythology that some people find absurd or think of it as camp. I think the whole drive of making this film was to take it seriously, because we believe in the mythology and all the great things The Planet of the Apes allows one to do, which is really to hold a mirror up to our world and society to show who we are. They use apes to tell those stories, and it’s really a unique opportunity in storytelling. With setting it in the here and now, you couldn’t compare it to any number of science-fiction films that are actually set outside of our world, and that are not a part of us. I think I told you this before, but that’s why I love Philip K. Dick as a science-fiction writer. All of his work are grounded in a certain reality.

Was the decision made early on to make the film as serious as it is?

It’s great that Fox allowed us to do that, because there’s always a tendency for irony, especially in this day and age of modern filmmaking. I think the Christopher Nolans of the world have really allowed filmmakers to explore things in a more, not so much earnest way, but in a thoughtful way. We would be dead in the water if we make fun of the idea of Apes taking over. If I have the opportunity to make further films, the hope that I have is to really explore wonderful themes in the concept of being human, using those apes as very much a storytelling device to comment on our world today in terms of our global conflicts going on, young apes showing fear going out into the world for the first time, Caesar being this conflicted leader, and apes occupying cities that are crumbling, and ultimately, becoming the occupier. At the same time, they’re led by Caesar who is not looking to wipe out humanity, where Koda is all about the genocide and about wiping humanity off the face of the earth, so you really got an interesting relationship going on there. Any number of things we could explore, so fingers crossed we’re going to get the opportunity to do so.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is now in theaters.

Related Topics:

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.