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What we learned from the War for the Planet of the Apes Q&A

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We recently attended a one hour preview of upcoming blockbuster War for the Planet of the Apes and whilst an embargo is currently in place, let us tell you that it's good. Like seriously, properly good, and very emotional.

Following the screening we were delighted to be witness to a Q&A session featuring, among others, actors Andy Reeves and Steve Zahn, and director Matt Reeves.

Serkis is back in the movie as intelligent ape Caesar whose battle against new enemy the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) takes him down some unnervingly dark routes. Zahn is on hand to provide much-needed comic relief as zoo escapee Bad Ape. Here are some highlights of the conversation between them and Matt Reeves.


Andy Serkis on preparing for the third movie...

"Caesar starts off in this series as a chimpanzee and in fact when I first got the role originally, I studied the most humanoid chimp I could find. A chimp called Oliver who in the 1970s was considered to be the missing link. He was very intelligent and standing bidpedally most of the time. He sat down in chairs and was brought up by human carers. He was taken around on this bizarre circus and had DNA experiments conducted.

So I based Caesar on that chimp but also I approached Caesar as a human in ape skin, because Caesar was brought up by humans. Part of my experience studying gorillas both in zoos and in the wild was that apes reflect more human behaviour if they're surrounded by people. But more philosophically from a character point of view, Caesar is an outsider so I always approached it mentally that he thought he was a human in ape skin.

In Rise, when he's taken away from his human carers, he has to learn to be an ape again. So for me the observations around that first movie were based around chimpanzees. Then gradually we moved away from that. Caesar's evolution, both intellectually and emotionally and physically across the later movies, was my task for this movie."

Steve Zahn on his preparation for Bad Ape...

"When I came into it, I was petrified. Just as an actor, you know? And I had a limited amount of time to figure this out. I wasn't studying it on an intellectual level. Because of these guys and what they had done before, the character is the thing that you really respond to. Just being around the actors and picking up their movements. I spent hours and hours on YouTube looking up chimpanzees and I watched every stupid zoo video. i watched them in their natural habitat and also in zoos.

My character in the movie has escaped from the Portland Zoo and he was taught to speak and I thought, oh most of his behaviour was learned at a zoo. So I was fascinated to learn that when most people film apes in zoos, they're often focused on the fight. I was more often than not focused on the one sat in the corner who didn't do anything. I was like, how is that different? I just tried to embody that. I tried to focus on those things that would get me through the day throughout the five month shoot.

I really wanted to get it right. I'm a physical actor, I danced for years and I knew I could do it. It reminded me of the years spent doing crazy theatre, and I was both extremely excited about it and also very nervous. I just kind of dove in.

Matt Reeves on the impact of the Planet of the Apes series...

"It's interesting because the metaphor for me as a filmmaker is we're looking into the faces of these apes and seeing ourselves. We're looking for a connection we have to the rest of the world. We spend so much time imagining that we're not animals, but we are animals.

I think in a war film, it's really about the question of empathy and our ability to look at others and find ourselves in them, to understand that we share this planet. Planet of the Apes has always been about that and that's what excites me about it."


Ecologist Lauren Brent on her relationship with the movies...

"Well I wasn't alive when the first movie came out! I learned a lot from The Simpsons. I found them really interesting for some of the reasons you just said, actually. To look at human society through the lens of these fictional ape societies. It did make me pause and think of that message."

Ape behavioural expert Dr. Zanna Clay on the success of the series...

"I think they're really impressive, actually. How much amazing feats they've done with the CGI and so on to make the apes so realistic. As an ape expert researcher, some of the mannerisms captured on film really are amazing. In all of the characters there are definitely facets that remind us of real apes. So when you get the chimps in the big community scenarios, you see them all moving around and grunting and interacting. This is really what happens when apes meet after being apart for so long.

To me, the orangutan Maurice has amazing similarities. You can see it in his facial expressions. We know there's something called the 'captivity effect'. Apes that have been reared in human environments seem to gain abilities that apes reared in non-human environments do not. Captive apes have all these remarkable tool-using abilities for example, that wild apes do not."

Matt Reeves on creating Bad Ape...

"It goes back to what Steve was talking about, which is a character who's not been treated particularly well. His name was the first thing we thought of. This idea that they would say 'bad ape' every day and that was the message he got every day. That's how his personality formed. It was more to do with living as a second class citizen in captivity. Being treated as if you didn't matter."


Andy Serkis on balancing the human and ape characteristics of Caesar...

"We talked about it a lot, actually. On Dawn, we start to see the ape society evolve and an early form of communication between large groups. We started off with notions of ape vocalizations that came from a place of truth. Then it went onto sign language that some of them had been taught in zoos and facilities. That then grows into a language that's shared.

Caesar of course learned a proto-language in the first movie. He says about four words in that one and in the second we see him wrestling with the idea of human speech as he increasingly comes into contact with more humans. It comes out of character and story but we wanted to ground it in these ape camps that we studied before shooting.

Caesar in this latest film is much more linguistically articulate and the big challenge for Matt and I came when [Mark Bomback] had written the script. Certain sections felt like what Caesar would be thinking but when said out loud, it's going to sound weird, and casual and too human."

Lauren Brent on whether apes could talk in reality...

"Well I liked how in the second film most of Caesar's speech was limited, making one sound per breath. That's what chimps do. Whereas whilst I'm talking now, I'm making a whole bunch of sounds. Chimps can't do that. Their vocalisations are very similar to what happened in the second film.

In the third film when you're starting to speak a bit quicker, multiple sounds and stuff, that's maybe taking a bit more of a leap because it extends beyond chimp anatomy."

Zanna Clay on chimp speech...

"They can extend their larynx by using their tongue, vocal folds and all that. They've got the full mobility there. What they don't have is the cognitive connection between the brain and those vocal muscles."

Andy Serkis on the development of Caesar across the series...

"It's been both a phenomenal challenge and an absolute joy. You don't get the opportunity as an actor to play the entire life of a character. I can't think of any other film series that's allowed an actor to do that. This series has offered so many hooks and emotional arcs and the notion of being brought up by humans before struggling to fit in with your own kind.

From there Caesar becomes a revolutionary leader and then forms his own society. By default he is an empathetic character who when he created that society was a leader who listened. He values the opinions of others and when that falls away at the beginning of this film... it's a huge arc."


War for the Planet of the Apes
is released on 11th July.