‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’: ‘Godfather’ inspires Serkis’ Caesar

July 04, 2014 | 9:00 a.m.
apphoto film summer preview4  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Caesar, the leader of the ape nation, performed by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

la ca 0220 planet of the apes 040  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (right) (in performance capture suit) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a representative of a colony of human survivors, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

apphoto film summer preview3  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Jason Clarke in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

dawn of planet of apes andy serkis  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Andy Serkis and director Matt Reeves on the set of the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (20th Century Fox)

la ca 0226 planet of apes 004  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Jason Clarke and director Matt Reeves on the set of the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James)

la ca 0220 planet of the apes 041  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit), in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

la ca 0220 planet of the apes 042  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit) in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

apphoto film summer preview11  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Caesar, performed by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

apphoto film summer preview2  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Caesar, performed by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

la ca 0220 planet of the apes 043  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit), the leader of the ape nation, and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

la ca 0403 dawn of planet apes 027  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Caesar (Andy Serkis) ponders his next move as he faces a threat posed by a colony of humans in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (WETA)

la ca 0403 dawn of planet apes 029  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar

Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is surrounded by apes as he tries to make peace in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (WETA)

Before Francis Ford Coppola shot “The Godfather,” he gathered his cast for a meal during which the actors all reflexively began deferring to Marlon Brando, establishing a crucial dynamic of the film.

Last April in a forest in British Columbia, when director Matt Reeves wanted to inaugurate another feared and respected screen leader, Andy Serkis’ simian ruler, Caesar, in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” he remembered that story, which Coppola had shared with him at a film class.

“I had imagined that Caesar was the Don Corleone of the apes,” Reeves said. Reeves sent his cast of ape actors through improvisations to help establish Serkis’ character as the alpha. “The emotional life of the apes was the thing I was desperate to explore.”

And just as Brando relied on a quiet virility to communicate Corleone’s authority, Serkis built Caesar from the inside out, approaching the role by asking the same questions he would of a human character, such as, what is his history and what’s driving him?

“Caesar is one of the most complex, conflicted, interesting roles I’ve ever played,” said Serkis, who has also portrayed a serial killer, a punk rocker and King Kong and who has an undisclosed role in the upcoming “Star Wars” film.

 Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance capture suit), in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

Caesar, portrayed by Andy Serkis (in performance-capture suit), in a scene from “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” (David James/20th Century Fox)

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which opens July 11, is the eighth movie in the 46-year-old science fiction franchise based on an evocative French novel by Pierre Boulle, which posits that the difference between humans and animals is razor thin, with both capable of intelligence and savagery.

The new film is the second installment in a technologically audacious reboot of the story that began with 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” in which performance capture, a combination of acting and digital artistry, has allowed the animals to become more expressive, relatable and central to the narrative. The technique helped “Rise” become a surprise hit with both critics and audiences and earned Weta Digital an Oscar nomination for its visual effects work on the film.

Reeves picks up the tale 10 years after “Rise” director Rupert Wyatt’s origins story, in which Caesar, a super-intelligent chimp raised by humans, leads an ape uprising. In the new movie, written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback, Caesar has established a thriving colony of genetically evolved apes in the Bay Area’s Muir Woods, and the human race has been devastated by a virus.

The early scenes unfold as a nearly silent film, without human characters, as a community of 2,000 apes, including a peace-loving circus orangutan named Maurice (Karin Konoval), an angry lab survivor named Koba (Toby Kebbell), a gentle escapee from a primate shelter named Cornelia (Judy Greer) and a skilled fighter named Rocket (Terry Notary), live their lives, hunting meals, escaping predators, teaching youngsters and building a home under Caesar’s benevolent leadership. But with the arrival of human survivors from a nearby colony, including characters played by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman, conflict comes to the woods.

Caesar, performed by Andy Serkis, in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (David James/20th Century Fox)

Caesar, performed by Andy Serkis, in a scene from “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” (David James/20th Century Fox)

The London-born Serkis, 50, who has become a kind of Lon Chaney of digital characters since playing the groundbreaking role of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” series, reprises his role as Caesar from the 2011 film, in which he portrayed the chimp from birth to adulthood using the tools of performance capture.

Building on the character established in “Rise,” the new movie’s power and its point of view come from Caesar — two crucial shots in the film are simply long takes of his eyes.

“To play a character through his entire life and then to reach a point where he has a huge amount of responsibility,” Serkis said. “This is not an external thing. It is about very honestly using parts of your personality for the character. People say, ‘So how do you do the ape facial expressions? Is it difficult to do the monkey movements?’ It just doesn’t work like that. The facial expressions are to do with your state of mind. You wouldn’t ask that of any other actor in a scene. You wouldn’t say, ‘Can you do the “Taxi Driver” expression?’ “

The other actors who play apes have their own processes — Konoval, who returns as Maurice, spends her downtime painting with orangutans at a zoo; Notary, a former Cirque du Soleil performer, trains the ape actors, stuntmen and extras in finding an apelike bearing by encouraging them to shed their cerebral human tendencies.

“It’s almost a look,” Notary said, dropping his brow, tipping his chin and issuing a guttural grunt. “When we’re training [the actors] we decondition them. We learn what makes us human. Being an ape is going back to being a more rooted, grounded animal. It’s a liquidy power that’s strong and agile. We go into techniques of standing, walking, quadrupeding … then we build the social conditioning of the ape into the character. Has he been a subject of human torture? Has he been a circus chimp? Has he been abandoned? What are the scars and the tensions? Are they heart driven, back driven? Do they hide over one shoulder?”

The apes’ capacity for language — introduced with a single, dramatic word Caesar utters in “Rise,” has expanded here — mostly they rely on a primitive sign language, but occasionally they speak in halting sentences. The style of speech sprang in part from conversations Reeves, a new father, had with the actors about watching his son learn to speak. He also enlisted a child development specialist to help create the syntax.

Andy Serkis and director Matt Reeves on the set of the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (20th Century Fox)

Andy Serkis and director Matt Reeves on the set of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” (20th Century Fox)

As the actors were honing their performances, the visual-effects artists at Weta underwent research of their own. A zoo in Wellington, New Zealand, where Weta is based, allowed the artists to photograph chimps that had gone under anesthesia for medical reasons and to take casts of their bodies. Because humans don’t have muzzles or heavy brows like apes, the work would help the artists craft the footage of the human actors into their furry, finished counterparts.

“One of the questions we get asked is, how much do you change from what Andy did?” said Dan Lemmon, the film’s visual effects supervisor. “It’s not just button pushing, there’s a lot of artistry. Artists have to make decisions about how best to translate his facial expressions onto an animal humans aren’t as used to seeing making those kind of facial expressions.”

Weta had a unique new challenge on this film — performance capture, which relies on hundreds of cameras to capture the movement of actors wearing markers on their bodies, is a technique that has primarily been used against green screens on soundstages. Lemmon and his fellow visual-effects supervisor Joe Letteri brought their cameras outside and into the rainy, snowy woods of British Columbia for the film, making them wireless, hiding them in bushes and clamping them to tree branches.

The advance allowed the actors to perform their scenes not on blank soundstages but in real outdoor environments.

Koba (Toby Kebbell) races into battle in a scene from the movie "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." (WETA)

Koba (Toby Kebbell) races into battle in a scene from “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” (WETA)

“There’s a parallel to when film cameras started being lightweight enough that you could take them out on location and not be studio bound,” Letteri said. “And that’s what we were trying for here.”

One crucial close-up of Serkis’ eyes was accomplished via Skype, when the actor was in London at his own performance capture-based studio, the Imaginarium, donning his headgear as Reeves watched from a monitor in Los Angeles.

Early reviews for the film have been strong, with critics offering particular praise for the ape characters. The Hollywood Reporter compared Serkis’ Caesar to another compassionate wartime leader, Abraham Lincoln, “his eyes weary from all the suffering he’s seen.”

“Dawn” enters a summer moviegoing season that is traditionally short on that kind of feeling and longer on explosions and set pieces. “Dawn” has those too, as well as a dramatic portrait of a weed-strewn, post-apocalyptic San Francisco.

Still its most dazzling effect is to tell a human story from the point of view of an ape.

“I find it easier to understand myself by playing characters that are further away from me,” Serkis said. “I aspire to Caesar’s empathy. His empathy is enormous. He’s kind of a guiding force.”

–Rebecca Keegan | @ThatRebecca

RECENT AND RELATED

ape tall  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Godfather inspires Serkis Caesar‘Apes’: Andy Serkis hails Caesar

‘Apes’ director Matt Reeves set for third film

‘Apes’ trailer: Caesar stares down the world

‘Planet of the Apes’: John Lithgow on moving sci-fi

‘Apes’: New app asks, are you smarter than a chimp?

‘Apes’: Weta wizards speak (but the monkeys won’t)

‘Apes’: Tom Felton excited about ‘brilliant script’

‘Apes’ again? Hollywood has a monkey on its back

Zanuck recalls ‘Planet of the Apes’ gamble

 

 

Close
E-mail It
Powered by ShareThis