Think of the lifespan of a job. As a teenager, there’s raking lawns or jockeying a cash register. In college, staffing the cafeteria or delivering pizzas. Out of school, maybe an entry-level gig with limited upward mobility. These are impermanent phases, rungs on a ladder. The movie industry is much the same, a series of passing encounters with collaborating strangers who become close for brief periods of time before departing and rarely reuniting. Unless you’re Matt Reeves. With his new film, War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves is returning to the franchise that brought his greatest commercial success, after 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. War is significantly different from its predecessor, but it is a fundamentally all-in enterprise for both viewers (who must buy a movie told entirely from the point of view of a talking ape revolutionary) and for the filmmakers (who devote years of their lives to bringing that talking ape revolutionary to life). The release of the movie this week caps five consecutive years for Reeves devoted to Caesar, memorably created via motion-capture animation by the actor Andy Serkis, and to this unlikely franchise success story.
Reeves is an earnest type who’s using the somewhat absurd canvas of Apes to tell a story that is at once biblical, cautionary, and goofy enough to support a Steve Zahn mo-cap performance as a character literally named Bad Ape. That his movies are as effective and sometimes affecting as they are is a testament to an equally surprising background. Fresh out of film school, Reeves cowrote the script to what became Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, then directed the David Schwimmer flop The Pallbearer, and cocreated the beloved WB drama Felicity with his close friend J.J. Abrams. He had a nomadic, undefinable trip through late ’90s Hollywood. Eventually, Reeves found his way back to features, working with Abrams — with whom he’s been close for decades — on the secretive monster movie Cloverfield and later a remake of the Swedish child-vampire story Let the Right One In called Let Me In. As Reeves told me, he was a last-minute replacement for Dawn (for the exiting Rupert Wyatt), though it wasn’t a struggle to enclose himself inside its universe for half a decade. Next, he will vacuum-seal his creative thoughts into another universe: DC Comics. Reeves is beginning to write the script for The Batman, the forthcoming Ben Affleck–starring installment in the Dark Knight’s big-screen saga. We talked about what it means to turn your life over to one planet, the difficulties of making digitized apes seem human, and what to expect from The Batman.
After having so much success with the second film, Dawn, and also coming into that film fairly late, was there any part of you that wanted to move into something new? What brought you back?
Well, no, the thing is that when I came into Dawn, it was very accelerated. And I came in with a story. [20th Century Fox] weren’t able to work out the movie they wanted to do with Rupert Wyatt, and so he stepped away and I stepped in — and initially I said no. Because the story they had proposed to me, which was not Rupert’s story, I wasn’t interested in it, I didn’t want to do. And they said, "Wait, we really would love to hear if there’s a story that you would want to do." And I was like, "Well, you’ll never do my story." And amazingly, I came in, I thought about it for a week. I pitched them the story I would do, and they said, "That sounds great, are you in?" And I was like, "But what’s the catch?" And they said, "The catch is we have spent a year doing a story that we’re not going to do. We still have a release date, so now a movie that would normally take three years we’re going to do in two years. You’ll get to tell your story, but you’re going to have to do it by jumping in right now." And so I did. Which was crazy, because I didn’t know anything about motion capture.
I learned all about that in the process, and as we were getting toward the end, they were really liking the movie, and they said, "Hey, we would love you to do the next movie." And I felt at the end of the process that I had just spent two years doing this and now understood so much more about it and felt that it would be great to have the full three years to go at it again and to try to be more ambitious and to try and take the things that I learned and push things further. And so that’s what we did. They initially said, "Hey, you did that in two years, could you do this next one in two years?" And I was like, "No." Because I don’t know what the story is. But I knew that I wanted it to be [about] the mythification of Caesar. I wanted him to become the seminal ape figure in all ape history and that this would be this big mythic test. And so [coscreenwriter] Mark Bomback and I spent a year writing the script, and I’ve been making it for the last three years and yeah, I absolutely love being in this world, I’ve been in this world for five years now. Five straight years. Doing these movies.
That’s an amazing amount of commitment. So do you spend that whole year that you didn’t have last time just writing and cracking this?
Just writing, yes. We did a thing where the writing period was so intensive that we pitched only the first half and they said, OK, good so far. And then we pitched the second half. And what we pitched is the movie we made. And then that was the script we wrote and that was the movie that you see, except a few missing scenes because of course it was really long. The really exciting thing for me and why I had been reticent in the beginning to get involved with Dawn is that I had never done a studio film. And I felt that if I did it might be some weird Faustian bargain where you wouldn’t be able to tell the story you wanted it. You always hear all these nightmare stories about this kind of committee approach that a studio might take. And I have to say that I didn’t have that experience on these two movies. These two movies, for whatever faults there may be there, that’s as a result of whether it’s schedule or creative failures or whatever there, these are the movies that I set out to make, and so I feel really fortunate. And I do feel like we were more ambitious; I’m excited for people to see this one.
I think a lot of people hear "IP" and this preexisting world and having to exist inside of something that’s been happening for 50 years in the movies, especially with the Apes series, and they think that this is a very micromanaged scenario.
No, not at all. It’s not like the Marvel world, where people know so much about every single character that you feel like, "Wait a minute, you’re violating the canon in this way." This is more like, every single one of even the original Planet of the Apes movies was remarkably different. And what’s exciting to me about this iteration of the franchise, Rise, Dawn, and War, is that the original really serves as a trajectory. It doesn’t serve as anything but that. So what it means is, you know, at the end of the story, it’s going to become Planet of the Apes. It doesn’t become Planet of the Humans and the Apes. That means that the focus of the story is very different. You can only do that amazing Rod Serling ending to the Pierre Boulle story that, as he adapted the script, where the Statue of Liberty [is buried in the beach] — you can do that once, right? So that’s over. And the great thing is that means that the burden of the "what?" is gone and everything becomes about "how?" And when you make a movie about "how?" that is a story that focuses heavily on character and psychology and philosophy. All of the things that are juicy and fun and so you’re not in any way hemmed in. It’s actually a relief. You’re like, "Oh, OK, so I know this is where we’re going." And now we get to tell all of the stories that take us to get there, and none of that has been laid out. It was really an exciting world to be in, and it didn’t feel constricted at all. Except just, the actual production itself — these mo-cap movies are not easy. They’re hard.
You noted that you already know the "what" so you’re focusing on the "how." But how do you capture tension inside of a story like that? You have this biblical war epic but we already know the end result.
There are a lot of movies where you know the end of the story and the question is how. Just because you know it becomes a planet of the apes, there’s so many differences between the world that we’re in, and the world that is in that ’68 film, and so how we get there and which characters may not make it along the way — the idea is to be very intimate. So the movie is supposed to be very epic, right? It’s like a biblical epic, it’s like a war movie, a Western. But that is the context. The story really lives or dies in the intimate moments. And the war that’s the most important in this story is the war for Caesar’s soul. There’s a battle of wills between him and Woody Harrelson’s character, the Colonel. And they face off, and that is much more important than the spectacle, although we have spectacle.
And then the question is, "Oh wait a minute, how did we get from here to there?" And you lean forward to find out. The journey is the fun. The journey is the pleasure. It makes it more emotional in a way. And for me, what’s the most exciting about from Rise onward is the surprising thing about these films, especially given I loved Planet of the Apes when I was a kid. And I found them fascinating — I loved Beneath especially because I was really freaked out when they took off their faces and they were praying to the nuclear weapons. But those weren’t emotional movies, they were really fascinating movies, and they were suspenseful. There was something very eerie and dynamic about seeing these talking apes in that amazing John Chambers makeup. But they weren’t emotional stories. These are emotional stories. And you know Caesar’s character, when I saw Rise, the thing that I really responded to was it was the first time I’d had that level of emotional dedication with a CG character. And I think that that is what is continually surprising to people when they see these movies. They know they’re gonna go see these apes that are acting in ways that remind us of ourselves. … I mean look, the whole idea of Planet of the Apes and what we’re doing is not that we’re seeing what the apes are like, we’re seeing what we are like as reflected in these apes. And so the fact that the stories are very emotional I think has always been the thing people take away. I knew that at the end of Rise I was like, wow, that was a really emotional story. And I think that’s what we tried to do in the next two movies as well.
In War, there’s a huge focus on the apes. The story’s essentially told through Caesar’s eyes.
Yeah, that’s what I wanted to do.
We spend a lot of time with him.
Yes. When I came in on Dawn, the story that they had didn’t have Caesar as central as he ended up being in Dawn. That was part of my pitch, and I wanted to start in the world that the apes had created. I wanted to be like 2001 with the dawn of man; I wanted it to be the dawn of intelligent apes. And I wanted it to be like a Western, where you have these two tribes who are both on this one piece of land and the question is would they be able to coexist. And we already knew the answer. So it’s kind of like an anatomy of violence. What draws us into conflict? And when I came in I wanted to make Caesar more central. I wanted to really make it his story. But the jump between Rise and Dawn was so dramatic that you owed the audience a tremendous amount of information about the difference between Rise, which is a world very much like our world right now, and the world of Dawn, which of course was the post-viral apocalypse. Right? So it begs narrative questions. What are the humans struggling with? But the focus really in my mind centrally was about Caesar and Koba and the apes and then the human story reverberated off of that. What my major ambition for this film was was to move now fully off of that and to make this entirely an ape point-of-view movie. And, one of the reasons, even in Dawn, that some of that was restricted was not just storywise that they were worried about whether or not people would identify, which I think was one of the aspects, but the other was just doing the visual effects alone — that’s a very high-wire act because those effects are so expensive, and the character who you’re going to be following through every scene. Unlike Dawn, there is not a scene in this movie that doesn’t have apes.
Is that true?
There’s not a single scene that doesn’t have apes, and that’s not true of Dawn. And, in fact, part of the makability of Dawn had to do with making sure we had some scenes that were going to have human drama between humans, and that way we knew that we could sort of put the resources that we had toward the effects, but that we’d also have a counterbalance.
You know so many summer movies have a certain kind of spectacle. That’s what people go to see these popcorn movies for. So spectacle can be tremendous action in a certain kind of way. It can also be some sort of supernatural element — you’re seeing something aspirational, some sort of character that has a superpower that you wish that you had — it’s like a mythic god story, like a Greek myth. But ours is this very strange uncanny experience that you have where the characters that are the most human, the characters that you relate to the most, are CG apes. And that’s a very strange experience. You start connecting to them. And I felt, I was quite confident that — and I hope that this is born out to be right … but I know from the first two that people, when they leave the thing they remember of course is Andy Serkis as Caesar. And I just feel like the movies finally reached a place where we could do that.
[But] the human story, which is very important. Woody Harrelson is great in the movie, and what he’s doing, from the outside he looks like a monster. And as Caesar gets closer and closer to him, and they finally connect and they sort of have this major scene together. You suddenly understand that he’s an extreme character, but he’s been made in extreme circumstances. And so, it’s not as easy to write off his motivations. In fact, some of his motivations make total sense. In fact, all of them do. He doesn’t say a single thing in the movie that isn’t true, but you encounter him entirely from Caesar’s perspective. So he begins as a kind of horrific mystery, and then as you get closer and closer and Cesar finds out, so does the audience. So that you, in essence, become apes in this movie. That’s our spectacle: The audience goes and for two hours they are apes.
It’s very effective. Going back and watching Dawn, there is clearly some evolution happening, just in terms of the technology. Maybe you couldn’t have pulled this off three years ago. It is truly more realistic.
Well, I couldn’t have. Everything that I learned on Dawn is what I used in War. You know, you asked at the beginning why I was anxious to come back. I was anxious to come back because I felt like that was my crash course.
That’s a high-level crash course.
Yeah! Well, that was a crazy thing. It was an opportunity that I thought, "When is that gonna come back to me again?" Because I had turned down a lot of franchises as somebody who really only made — I had been in TV and I had made small movies. And Cloverfield people think of as a studio film, but it really wasn’t. It was an independent movie that was made at Bad Robot that was released by Paramount. I mean, it was not the same experience. And I had turned these movies down because I — you know, you look at my filmography, everything I’ve done, and it seems very disparate, but actually for me it’s all the same. Which is it all comes from an emotional point of view, point-of-view filmmaking. And I had turned down a lot of franchises that had been offered me after I did Cloverfield and Let Me In because there was a lot of interest like, oh, maybe you’d wanna make a studio film. And none of the films I could connect to emotionally where I knew that I could say where the camera would go, or what I would tell the actors, or what story I would tell. And so, I turned them all down, and when they told me that I could do the story that I wanted to do in Apes, they gave me every reason not to say no for the first time. And I was like, "Well, I think I have to take this. Even though it’s gonna be hard because I’m gonna do what apparently should be a three-year movie in two years. I’m gonna jump into it because I don’t know when that opportunity will present itself again." And so, it was a crash course that I couldn’t resist.
Was there anything you got close on accepting before Apes came along?
I engaged in a few things. I was developing Twilight Zone with Warner Bros. for a couple years. There were a few different things that I was developing but nothing that I felt reached a place where I was willing to commit. And the things that I’m talking about came to me, came to me fully formed. Which is another thing, too. For me to understand something fully, I like to be part of the creation of that story. And a lot of these things were, you know … [they] turned out to be good movies! But not necessarily movies that I would have made well. Because you have to come from your strength. It’s not some precious thing, like I don’t wanna do somebody else’s story. It’s about being inside something so that I can be confident in my choices, and then the choices will hopefully be the right ones.
On a purely practical level, what is the hardest part about making the Apes films?
Well, the shooting was hard because everything you shoot, you have to shoot multiple times. You have to shoot the scene with the mo-cap actors, and maybe they’re going to be interacting with the characters who are human. And then you have to shoot those shots again without the mo-cap actors in it. On [Dawn], that was very restricting because we were shooting native 3-D because we didn’t have time to convert, which we did this time, and that’s very hard because those cameras are so heavy and you have to shoot everything off a crane and certain things you might wanna do, you can’t actually do because the empty plate is too hard to repeat. So, for example, if I wanted to arc my camera around a character who was walking, he wouldn’t be walking for the clean plate, so there’d be nothing there — I can tell you that we tried it and it didn’t work. So I was really limited. This time, because we didn’t have to use those cameras — I shot on 65 millimeter, the new Alexa 65, which is a beautiful system. We used a new piece of equipment called a technodolly, which allowed me to set very precise frames, and actually after I’d shot, let’s say Andy, he could step out and I could actually play back that exact frame. It was a long set-up time — again, it’s much more cumbersome than shooting a normal movie, but actually I was able finally to get all of the shots that I wanted to get. So I felt much freer visually in this movie. But that part is very trying and very hard. And people don’t necessarily know it, but when we’re in the snow, we actually shoot in the snow. And when we’re in the rain, we shoot in the rain. These are real places we shoot in, and we shoot there with the actors, and it’s a hard experience. But that part weirdly pales in comparison to the postproduction period, because the postproduction period I work with my editors and we put together a cut of the movie that has the actors in their mo-cap outfits. And that movie exists. You can see that movie, and it works, you know. You have to make sure that movie works before you begin turning over shots because the effects are so expensive that Caesar can’t appear before you make sure the story you’re telling with Caesar works, right?
That feels like something you’ll want to give to the Academy when you push for Andy to show what kind of performance he gives.
Yeah, for sure. We’ve done this a little bit where we’ve showed the 50–50 [visual side-by-side]. And we wanna do more of it because you’ll be astonished at how well it works. I truly mean it. The movie works. It’s not Planet of the Apes. It’s Planet of the Mo-Cap Dudes, but it works, and so that part of it is a trying experience because what happens is once you get toward a cut that you start feeling is working — and you don’t have everything nailed down because at the same time you’re starting to work on the effects, you’re still working on your movie. We’re in post for over a year and during that time, I’m not just refining effects, I’m also refining the cut. And it’s a crazy process because I don’t have my final shots until very late. And what we do is we put up the shots that have been chosen — the take of Andy, let’s say — and we put it 50–50 with an image that is of the proposed animation from Weta and then we get into these debates. And we spend half the day doing this, so my days were long. I would come in at, like, nine and I would leave at midnight, sometimes two in the morning, and we did that every day, except on the weekends this time. On Dawn, we did it on the weekends too.
How long is that process?
Over a year. And I would spend half of the day in a dark room with the editors and the VFX people, my VFX producer, and we would look at those shots and I would look at what it was proposing. We were on a link to Weta in New Zealand, and we had a screen, they had a Skype camera on my screen, and I could use laser pointers and I could point to things that I was seeing in Andy’s face that I wasn’t seeing in Caesar’s face. Caesar’s anatomy is not the same as Andy’s. So their first try is to say, hey, here is how we think we can express what Andy was doing in the mo-cap data and in what we’re seeing on Caesar’s face, and a lot of times I would look at it and I would say, "Well, I feel like we’re missing something that Andy has," whether it’s more intensity, or maybe he’d have a mix of emotions, he’d be angry and sad at the same time, and maybe Caesar would look just angry or look just sad, and I would say, "Well, we have to get this other aspect out, how do we do that?" and so we would get into that discussion and then the animators had to figure out what shapes were on Andy’s face that were conveying those emotions. And then figure out how to put them on Caesar’s face, though he didn’t necessarily have all the same anatomy.
So in some cases, Andy’s eyelids, they call them fatty packets, but there was something about the way his eyelids sat on his eyes that could be profoundly emotional, and you looked at Caesar and he didn’t have the same eyelids. So it was like, well, "How do we express that shape?" And they would find ways, with the animation puppet, to stretch and shape things, his brow, so that it gave you the same emotional impression as what Andy was doing. So the emotion all does come … the source is Andy, we’re looking at a performance we got on the set. But then taking that shot by shot until you have his performance, Steve Zahn’s performance, Karin [Konoval]’s performance [as orangutan Maurice], Terry [Notary]’s performance [as Rocket], until that translates into apes — you do it literally shot by shot for over a year until you feel like you’re getting the emotions, and that part was a head-spinner. I’d always thought that editorial was a bit of a relief from the craziness of shooting, and that’s not true in a mo-cap movie. It’s a harder period.
So that’s an amazing three-part process you talked about. The one year spent with your partner writing the story; a very arduous shooting process theoretically —
The writing was the most fun. I don’t mean that, that’s not true. I love working with the actors and I love working with the editors, I love working with my crew. That part’s fun, but it actually is intense work. And the writing can be intense, but you’re more in the dreaming phase. That period … Mark and I, we literally … he lives in New York, so we literally Skyped the script together. Our computers were connected via Skype and through this program called Screenhero, and we could type on each other’s computers and it was like having my friend next to me and we would just talk through every moment. It was a ball, it was really great. I think writing is the most important thing you can do, because if you don’t have a blueprint for your movie, that movie doesn’t work, so the script is critically important. But the process didn’t feel as brutal as the shooting, which was for a number of reasons, the conditions, and just the trying things in mo-cap, and then the brutality of the intensity of the volume of work and the attention to detail, shot to shot, that the post takes. Those are just … the difficulty level is super high.
How do you keep that experience creative and not just mechanical?
Because I’m trying to do … everything is driven by this emotional compass. That’s why I’m saying I have to understand the story. When we’re writing the story, I’m weighing it against that, and then when I’m shooting a scene, I’m weighing it against that. You have a plan, but when you go to shoot, you have to create an environment where things can surprise you, because that’s where the true emotional things come from. You go on an exploration, you’re exploring with the actors and you’re exploring with the camera until something strikes you in a certain way. And I consider that the hunting-and-gathering period. We go out and we get all this stuff and in this head I’m ticking emotionally the things that made me feel something in a way that I thought was relevant to the story we’re telling. And then when you get into post, you put that movie together based on that very same thing, which is I know that I want the audience, I want to feel his rage, this is what this scene is about, let’s find the thing. And it’s like a piece of music. You just keep refining it and the rhythms of it, and then after you do that, you have to make the movie again because you have to take it from the performance-capture actors’ faces and turn them into apes.
I have a capacity and I guess probably an illness where I enjoy repetition to some degree. I would say that this presses the limits of what that is. But I do like to do things again and again and look for the detail, like when I write I often will say to Mark, I want to start by reading from 20 pages back, so that you can feel the flow like it’s a piece of music, so you can tell what that next piece should feel like, because you’re in the flow of the music, and I think that that’s the way it is with good acting; when you’re watching it, there’s a kind of flow, there’s a rhythm to it, and so in that sense I have an addiction to rhythm and to filmic rhythm, and I enjoy that and I think it’s the thing that sustains me.
When I shoot … let’s say I was shooting a scene between you and me and we were just going to shoot a conversation: If you and I really hit it off in a particular take, I could take that series of takes and I could cut it together and there’d be a real flow from the fact that you and I had a flow, but with performance capture each shot is done by a different artist, so even something as simple as an over-the-shoulder, it changes based on whether or not the artist has placed that character in exactly the same position to the camera that the next time I cut to that shot is, and if each time you cut the camera’s moving just a tiny bit, you’re having this subliminal break in flow. So I’d be like, they’re not in the same spot, they’re not in the same spot. It’s an exhausting detail that you would never think would matter, which wouldn’t matter in any other version of making a movie because you wouldn’t have to match. I shot you, you shot me, and then we put the shots together, it’s fine. This was like, oh my god, even the most basic thing requires attention and that part’s exhausting.
It’s now 10 years ago since you were shooting Cloverfield, which you mentioned earlier.
Is it 10 years?
I believe so. Shot in ’07, right?
God, that’s right.
And before that, obviously, you cocreated Felicity, you worked in episodic television, you’ve had a long career. When you were in that stage before Cloverfield, was the goal to get to this place where you were moving into major filmmaking, major studio pictures, summer blockbusters? Or did you think you would have a different kind of career?
I never thought this was the career I was gonna have. My first film, which a lot of people don’t know or remember, was actually a comedy for Miramax that starred David Schwimmer and Gwyneth Paltrow and it was called The Pallbearer. When you’re a band and you write your first album, and you’re like 25 years old, that album really took you 25 years to write. And then it’s how do you write your next album? How do you do the next thing? And I think that when you’re first breaking in, the whole idea — The Pallbearer was definitely for that — that for me, like it was like, "Oh, OK, this is very personal." Somebody recently told me that I said at the time that what I was interested in making was painful comedies, and what I wanted to make really were movies like Hal Ashby movies. I wanted to make a movie like Shampoo, or Harold and Maude. I wanted to — by the way, movies that are not made now. These are not the kind of things that are done. And [The Pallbearer] didn’t work for a number of reasons.
When you imagine when you’re breaking in, "OK, it took me 25 years to write this, and this is the thing that I’ve been doing all my life, led to this moment," and then it comes out and then it doesn’t work, 100 percent. And so when it doesn’t work 100 percent, what do you do? And I wasn’t sure what to do. And one of the things that happened was TV presented itself to me — I suddenly discovered in doing [Felicity] with J.J. that I could explore a lot of emotionality through this young woman. Through this character. And that that was incredibly exciting. And that — again, everything was very driven by point of view. I’m always interested in empathy. I want the audience to become the characters that are the subject of the movies that we’re doing. And so that was totally unexpected. And then I actually wrote a very personal film as [Felicity] finished that I still have yet to make that I really want to do. And Naomi Watts was attached for a brief period of time, and then she fell out, and then J.J. came to me and he said, "Look, you’re going to make that movie. I know you’ll make that movie one day." And I really believe I’ll make this movie one day. But he said, "You should do Cloverfield." And I was like, "You think I should do Cloverfield?" And he goes, "Yeah." And I said, "Why? I don’t know anything about visual effects." He goes, "Yeah, I know." He goes, "That’s the easy part. You’re going to learn the visual effects. But I know you’re going to ground it in this point of view, and in this perspective that’s going to make it feel real and stand out in a way that’s going to be different from somebody if I brought in a V-effects person." And when I got involved, there was only an outline, and I was like, "Gosh, I don’t know. Can I do this?" And then I started getting into the metaphors of genre. And [screenwriter] Drew Goddard and I sat down and talked and we re-broke the whole outline and then he went off and wrote the script while we went out and shot the teaser trailer that was sort of the legendary teaser trailer. The point of which was actually — of course it was to publicize the film — but also I wanted to shoot the film in a certain way that the V-effects people weren’t sure we could do. And this was basically a proof of concept. If that hadn’t worked, we’d have a trailer for a movie we couldn’t make. And then it worked. And that opened up a lot of doors for me — I always love genre films, but I never necessarily saw myself as a genre filmmaker, and then I started discovering that through genre, you could smuggle things into movies that maybe you couldn’t make otherwise. And so when Let Me In came to me as a possibility, I turned it down because I love the Swedish film. I thought it was great, and I tried to get my movie made — the little movie I wrote. And at that moment, it was a bad moment in the independent film world, and a lot of companies went under.
All the studios closed their shingles.
Yeah, they all closed their shingles. And I was like, Whoa. This is a bad moment to try and make this movie. The one that kept sticking with me was that that story reminded me of my childhood. And I was bullied and there were all these things about it that felt really personal and I read the book, and in reading the book, I was like, wow, this guy, John Lindqvist, he grew up at the same time I did. He grew up in the ’80s and we must be the same age. And so I wrote to him and I said, "Look, this is very strange because I love the movie that you and Tomas Alfredson did, but I’ve been approached about doing this and it’s the most personal thing that I could do even though technically it’s a remake." And he said, "You know what, I love Cloverfield. I want you to do it. You should do it." But it was one of these things where I thought, "OK, well here’s a chance to tell a vampire story that’s really about the pain of adolescence."
And the same thing happened with the Apes movie, when that came too. So suddenly I started realizing that, you know, right now, studio films are a really, really narrow band of subjects, right? There’s like a superhero, there’s gotta be some kind of spectacle. There’s gotta be some known IP. And it just so happened that Planet of the Apes I loved as a child, and that the metaphors I find really powerful — it’s a way of holding a mirror up to our own nature. It was a way for me to think about my son, who is very young and just learning how to talk and reminded me of Caesar. And so I ended up having a path that I never expected to have. And I never thought I would be a genre filmmaker, even though I love those movies. I always wanted to be a personal filmmaker, and what I’ve discovered is you can be a personal filmmaker making genre films.
It’s well known now that you’re making The Batman next.
Obviously this dovetails completely with what you’re describing, which is entering headlong into another genre picture.
For sure, yeah.
How do you apply some of these lessons into an even bigger story like this?
I want to be ambitious, and I feel like there’s a chance to do a very heavily point-of-view-driven character story that is an emotional and psychological explanation of who that character is. Of Batman. And I think that — it’s weird because I find there’s an interesting parallel between Caesar and Batman in that they are these tortured characters who are struggling within themselves to find the way to do the right thing in a corrupt world. And —
And maybe a personal metaphor?
Personal metaphor. … That’s me! Um, well, I never thought of it that way. They’re much more heroic than I am. But I think that there’s an opportunity to do a story that is different as a result of that. The Bob Kane original, the Golden Age comics were really — you know, it was Detective Comics, right? That’s what DC is. And I think that there’s a chance to do an almost noir kind of take, which is very point-of-view driven. Where he takes you into that world and where you are looking at the way he sees the world, and experiencing the film as it emanates through him. And then finding the way to crack him open in some way so that you can get at his emotion without it being an origin tale. I think we’ve seen that. But getting at, you know, the origins matter, and his past matters, and his emotional makeup matters, and I feel like, Wow, this could be really exciting to do an emotional Batman with this kind of heavy point-of-view noirish take. So, I don’t know anything more about it than that. We’re literally just starting. I’m really excited.
How do you deal with the expectations ahead of this?
You have to block it out. You can’t — it’s irrelevant. You know, because I can’t make something for someone else. I have to make it from the perspective where I think it’s going to work. And I remember specifically that thing on Cloverfield. I remember everybody was speculating about what that movie was, and I was like, "This is crazy." Because we’re trying to make this movie and we’re still finding what it is, and they think we have all the answers, and we still don’t have all the answers yet, and the other thing that was happening — and it was a strange thing that happened with the publicity — is the publicity came out in such a way where people wanted to know the answer and they thought the movie was gonna give the answer. And there are a lot of people — there are people who hate Cloverfield. And I contend that one of the reasons they hate Cloverfield aside from maybe not liking, you know, handicam monster movies, is that things were positioned in such a way that they thought they were going to get the answer, but the concept was always not about the answer. The concept was about being at the center of something that was larger than you that you couldn’t possibly, from the vantage that it was told, know all the answers. It was to imply some answers, but not to have the answers so that that was part of the terror. That was part of that experience. Being at the center of an unfolding nightmare, and to have to deal with that. And the movie was never meant to answer all the questions that, interestingly, the trailer that we did and all of the ads ended up provoking and the audience, like, "What is that? Are we gonna find out what it is?" And I don’t know that we ever gave people a satisfactory answer to that.
But there’s nothing you can do about that. All you can do is tell the story from the perspective that makes sense to you and work as hard as you possibly can and hope that that’s going to work for people. And I don’t think you can really calculate it beyond that, because I have to hope that my love for these characters and my excitement for this world translates when people will see the movie, that those people who have those same feelings are going to engage in a similar way. But you never know.
This interview has been condensed and edited.