Friday, August 12, 2011

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes Writers Amanda Silver & Rick Jaffa

After the weeklong build-up of my mega-Apes reviewing jam session last week, I was gratified to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes not only measure up to its lineage, but also open to an impressive total that exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, in the process giving the legendary franchise cultural currency of a kind it hasn't enjoyed in a very, very long time. Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to speak with Rise screenwriters Amanda Silver & Rick Jaffa, the married couple who sparked the initial idea for the revival five years ago, and nurtured that idea from concept to completion.

In my lengthy and in-depth chat with the pair, we talked about the project's genesis, some of the narrative roads they chose not to explore, and also where they see Planet of the Apes going from here now that it's gotten a second lease on life. While we didn't delve too heavily into spoiler territory, there are a few in there, so if you haven't watched the movie yet (for shame), you should probably think twice before reading past the jump.

First of all, give me a sense of how you're feeling after this opening weekend.

Amanda: We’re…(laughs)…We are so kind of stunned and excited, and…we were thrilled.

Rick: Yeah, we were.

Amanda: We're really proud of the movie and excited to get it out there. You know, we've been working on it for a long time, and it was always a leap of faith for this movie. We all, our team, fell in love with the apes, fell in love with the story, and the apes felt real to us and we got -- we grew attached to them and their narrative and there was always that question, that buy-in question that the audience would follow us. And, so, we're very excited.

Rick: Yeah, we're thrilled, we're thrilled. And part of us is wondering if we landed on some alternate planet or something...

Amanda: (laughs) Maybe we're just hallucinating!

Rick: this is just some kind of bizarre dream or something.

Now, you mention that this has been a pretty long-in-developing process and I was wondering if you could fill my readers in. I know that you've probably told the story a few times already, but if you could give us a sense of where this started, and your journey from the first inkling to where we are now.

Amanda: Well, Rick, has this great habit where he cuts out articles of interest and keeps them in this big folder for when we're in between -- when we're looking for jobs. And so we were looking for a gig and Rick had cut out these articles that fascinated him about chimps being raised as humans in homes. And what invariably happens in all these instances is that the chimp grows into an aggressive, powerful animal and things go awry. You know, he attacks the owner, he or she attacks the owner or a neighbor or...

Rick: It always -- yeah, it always --

Amanda: It always ends badly.

Rick: Tragically.

Amanda: Then the chimp is always put, you know, like Nim, in some sort of facility and traumatized by that. And they're extremely smart sentient beings without even having any extra smarts put in them, like Caesar. So anyway, Rick saw these articles and he knew there was a juicy thriller in there somewhere for us. And then he had that crazy lightbulb epiphany, and he said, “Oh my God, this a great way to reboot Planet of the Apes.” And he came to me, and he said “Honey, we're gonna reinvent Planet of the Apes.” And I kind of faked a smile and -- a supportive smile -- and said, “Well, how the hell are we going to do that?” And he started talking about this character of this chimp, and that's how Caesar was born.

We fell madly in love with Caesar, and -- almost immediately -- and the bare bones of the story kind of presented themselves to us in a way that is rare in storytelling and so we took our pitch to Peter Kang at Fox and he's just this great executive, we'd worked with him before, and we pitched it to him and he got really excited, took us down the hall at that time. This is 2006, so Hutch Parker was President of Production then and, you know, we got so lucky. We were sure that Fox was already developing this.

Rick: Yeah, I mean the truth is we almost didn't call. We had just assumed that they were probably developing something and the idea seemed so simple that maybe they even had the same idea, which of course is crazy. But it just came together very quickly. And the science came in quickly, the character of Will [Rodman, played by James Franco] and his job, his profession presented itself, and we knew enough about the Apes mythology that we knew we had to name him Caesar, because Caesar was the ape that led the apes' revolution. So, that original story came together to us pretty quickly.

And would you say there was any resistance to bringing Apes back? I mean, it seems like the Burton version kind of went away and they weren't really doing anything with it.

Rick: Well, we can't speak to the specifics of what was going on in the halls at Fox, and their meetings and stuff. What I can say was that, as far as we know, they weren't developing it. I think that they were not looking to reinvent or re-present Planet of the Apes. But, the reaction to the pitch was very, very strong. And I know that a lot of people got pretty excited right off the bat. "Oh, wow, this is something new, and it's original," and so let's take a shot.

This is actually a question that I've seen floating around on the message boards as well, and maybe you can address it. This has been called a prequel, it's been called a reboot. What would you call it?

Rick: Well, it's funny. We were interviewed on the set last summer, and I said, “Well, it's a reinvention,” and someone quickly said, “Well, that's exactly what Tim Burton told me in 2001,” you know? So, it's really hard to say. I guess, if I had to pick, I would say reboot.

Amanda: What would you call it, Zaki?

Rick: Yeah, what do you think?

Well, it's definitely…from where I sit, it stands apart from the movies that are already out there. And obviously, you put a few things in there that allude to what could possibly happen, but what's interesting is that somebody had mentioned, “Oh, now they need to redo the Heston version,” and I said, well, I'd almost not want to see that. I'd almost prefer that that's just something that's out there that we as the audience know will happen at some point.

Amanda: I agree with you.

Rick: Well, I totally agree with that. We never wanted to compete with the original and the Statue of Liberty. What our concept was really, from what we said to Fox, was we want to approach this in a very realistic way. Meaning, what's going on in our world today, that if the right dominoes were to line up, touch each other, it could lead to apes taking over the planet and, perhaps, getting Colonel Taylor on that beach in thirty-nine hundred years.

You've gotta tell it realistically, and everyone was on board with that and always through the whole process. So we tried really hard to create a story that would stand on its own and yet also pay homage and honor the movies that came before us. We really took the Planet of the Apes fans very, very seriously and really wanted them to be engaged, and happy that we're trying this. You know, let's take this journey again together, let's do this, but tell it in a fresh and interesting way.

So, it does explain how the apes took over, but this is a different Caesar we're looking at, it's not the same Caesar. It's a different story of who Caesar is, and how he came to be. So it's really kind of hard to put a label on it. We are hopefully rebooting it. We hope there's a sequel and we hope we get the chance to continue to tell stories about Caesar and the apes and so forth, and where the Icarus [the fan-given name of Taylor's ship in the original Apes, alluded to in the new film] comes in has yet to be determined. So it's kind of tough to put a specific word to it.

Amanda: Maybe we need a new word.

Rick: Yeah, maybe we do need a new word.

As long as it's not "reimagining," because that seems to have --

Amanda: (laughs) Yeah, no no, we wouldn't go there, we wouldn't go there. Promise.

Now, you mentioned something that kind of dovetails with a question that I had actually jotted down here. You said this was a different Caesar, than the McDowall one. And, having just rewatched the series in the past few weeks, one thing that really hit home for me was how the Roddy McDowall Caesar, his arc in Conquest is really motivated by revenge primarily, in that Ricardo Montalban gets killed and that's sort of what pushes him over the brink. And I noted that you didn't go that way here.

Rick: Right.

And in fact, going in, I almost expected James Franco's character to die -- and I believe that that was the case in an earlier draft. So I was curious how that changed, and how you arrived at the decision to make revenge not so much a motivation, and also as far as some of the other tweaks with the ending.

Amanda: Well, in early drafts, the character of Caesar has changed. I don’t know how many drafts we’ve done. Like, maybe thirty drafts -- whatever. But in early drafts, like, 2006, 2007 drafts, Caesar is motivated more by revenge. He has more of a...I would almost call it a Michael Corleone trajectory

Rick: He becomes a great leader, but he’s darker.

Amanda: And his heart closes down, and although that worked dramatically, it was kind of less satisfying. We all as a group decided that we loved Caesar too much to let him go so bleak. And that as a figure for revolution we wanted him to be hopeful and positive for the other apes, rather than so dark and negative.

And that was just…maybe it would have worked either way, maybe it was just a question of taste. But this is going to sound really crazy, Zaki, so you have to excuse me, but I feel like sometimes, when you really have created a character that feels three-dimensional, at least in your mind, and then on the page, and then to other people, and then...sometimes they take on a life of their own.

Yeah, I get that.

Amanda: And this character of Caesar didn’t want to go so dark.

Rick: Yeah, he really emerged as a hopeful, populist kind of…it became, it was always structurally a Moses story, but it became more of a Moses story once his character transformed in development to where he ended up. But in one draft, and I can’t recall which draft that was, but in one draft we changed Michael Corleone to Che Guevara.

Amanda: Yeah, and it felt good.

Rick: It felt really good. We were hesitant, but we thought, “No, no, this is right.” He’s got an incredible heart. And lot of those scenes in the house with John [Lithgow] and James [Franco], he shows heart. He loves them, and they love him, and it’s a family.

Amanda: And he’s a compassionate leader.

Rick: He is very compassionate, and so we just kept that compassion as he became a leader in the end.

I think what's interesting there is that when the project was announced, it was titled Rise of the Apes, then it became Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and I mentioned in my review that when you put "Planet of the Apes" in the title, that immediately carries with it a set of specific expectations.

So, we know going forward it has to end up a certain way, so is that a process that you're looking to explore? At some point Caesar -- and you see it throughout, he's the one who's telling his compatriots not to attack and whatnot -- is his story a tragic one? Because he's doomed to fail?

Amanda: Wellll…see, we can’t…we know the answer to that, but we can’t tell you.

Rick: One thing about what you're saying though is that there’s really, I guess, the interesting thing dramatically about what you’re saying is that it’s okay for the audience to know where something is going and the fun is how you're going to get there. So that’s going to be the challenge, really, for us if we get to do the sequel, if a sequel’s done, is how we get there, and get there in a surprising and emotionally satisfying way. And that’s what we’re looking to do.

And do you see a kind of multiple picture arc the way we got with the previous series?

Rick: We would love to see that. There hasn’t been any special discussion with the studio. I think that we were all afraid to jinx it. I think, just personally, Amanda and I are superstitious enough, and no one’s really been talking about it, but I think we’re in pretty good shape.

Yeah, it sure looks like it.

Rick: Yeah, and we’ve certainly set up in the narrative, in [director] Rupert [Wyatt]’s great shots there towards the end of the movie, we’ve certainly set up the opportunity for going on.

Actually, speaking of that, of how the original Apes did create so many sequels, did you feel constrained by what was already out there, such a volume of material that’s done this story, to some extent, of the apes taking over or having taken over, or was it more like a puzzle piece where you’re figuring out the right way to put it all together.

Amanda: Its crazy, because I think that if we had been writers-for-hire and they had come to us and said, “We want to reboot, and we want to start here, and...” we probably would have felt a lot more of the pressure that you describe. But because we were already -- because Caesar had already taken us by hand and pulled us into the story, that helped us navigate it and set out what this is about. Because we followed this story that felt original to us, and tried to stay true to it, and therefore were less pulled down by the expectation of, and the competition of, the other stories.

Rick: We also looked at those movies for inspiration and fun. We had a lot of fun over the years. There were some drafts that were much more painful than others. But it was a fun adventure. I just really can’t tell you how much we loved the originals and, for us, Rod Serling and Michel Wilson, who wrote the original movie, were like heroes of ours.

So, we looked at those movies both for ideas and for inspiration. Like I said before, we really wanted the fans of the other movies to like what we were doing, and we thought inevitably there'd be a group that wouldn’t like it, for whatever reason, but...

Amanda: When we needed ballast, we looked to the exigencies of our story. Like, what was our beginning, middle and end, what was our structure, and so we would be influenced by the larger Planet of the Apes stuff, but when we felt off-kilter, we would return again and again to our theme and our characters.

Rick: Yeah. We haven’t talked about our theme, Zaki, but we landed on a theme, which we really believe was the theme, or could have arguably been the theme, of the original movie, the ‘68 movie, which was that man’s hubris can lead to his downfall -- that man is not meant to play God. And that apes didn’t put Colonel Taylor on that beach, man put Colonel Taylor there. So, that also helped us a lot, because we felt that we were really being true to the spirit of the movies.

Yeah, I would definitely agree with that, because, that’s something that plays out through all of the original movies. Every one one of them plays on that angle, whether its Cornelius and Zira getting killed or, y'know, Caesar taking over, it’s always, it’s kind of man that’s pulling the trigger on it.

Rick: Yeah, exactly. I think people are picking up on that. As a matter of fact, I’m sure of it, because we’ve been hearing all kinds of stuff like that. We were just very, very secure, that was our theme, and that, we knew, or certainly hoped, would connect with the fans and have a connection to the earlier movies.

And I have to say that from the very beginning everyone kind of understood that was the theme. First the studio, then Peter Chernin and Dylan Clark, who were our producing partners, and then Rupert Wyatt, it was always the theme and I think that really helps in making any kind of movie, if you’ve got a solid theme and everybody’s on board with it.

Amanda: They know what story you’re telling.

Rick: Yeah, and everyone likes the material, and it’s a safety net, really

You mentioned you re-watched the entire series, and you've mentioned the first one already, I'm curious what your thoughts are on the sequels and which was your favorite among those.

Rick: Well, yeah, its hard for me to…it's tough to compare the sequels to the original


Rick: It's just really hard, although I can remember, as a teenager, going to a drive-in outside of Dallas to watch a dusk-to-dawn Apes marathon. It was, like, one of the most joyous yet painful experiences. But it's hard to say. There are moments in every one of the sequels which I think are terrific, and for me to pick exactly one, I don't know…

Amanda: Which is the one where they end at that boat, and there’s the baby…?

Oh, that's Escape.

Amanda: That was my favorite.

Yeah, I picked that as the best of the sequels as well. I tend to look at it kind of like there's the first movie, and then there's all the rest.

Rick: Yeah, its hard not to, its hard not to. It's just hard to live up to that first one. I'm glad that they did it because it's a great part of our cultural history, and just a lot of fun. If I'm channel surfing and one of them's on, I'm like [makes zap noise] I just stop and watch. But yeah, it was really tough to live up to that first one.

Amanda: The bar is very high.

Rick: The bar is impossibly high, yeah. But it has great stuff in it, and we picked a part of…we constructed the narrative around this one bit of Apes mythology which comes from --

Amanda: -- which I'm sure you know...

Rick: Yeah, which I'm sure you know. I think it is Escape, also...

It’s in Escape, that's right.

Rick: …where they talk about the first chimp that spoke. So, we knew that was going be a big part of the narrative, and we kind of worked forwards and backwards and we kind of built to that and, God, to watch that on the screen, watching people respond is really, really rewarding.

Yeah, that moment, absolutely. It brought down the house when I watched it.

Rick: Oh, cool!

For me as, a fan, so much of who I am as an educator and as a film buff and as a filmmaker is shaped by Planet of the Apes – that's not an exaggeration – so, for me, seeing it back, and seeing it good is something that makes me extremely happy

Rick: Thanks! Well that's exactly what we were hoping to hear from people, and the fact that we've heard it from so many…I don't even know that I've really wrapped my mind around it, to be completely honest. Because we had a dream five years ago, and what you just said, to hear that from you, was part of that dream. It’s mind-blowing that we’re getting this kind of response.

There were so many moments along the way that led up to this thing working that if they hadn't…it's funny, we talked about dominoes and we talked about that in the pitch, if the dominoes lined up just right and start to tip and everything would work out, apes would take over. And in retrospect it's kind of what happened, y'know? Because executives changed, people came back and forth…

Amanda: …and we were dead like so many times…

Rick: …and we were dead a couple times and we were re-written a couple of times.

Amanda: And by the way, when we came up with this idea and sold it, the technology did not exist!

Rick: We were really naïve. We thought it wasn't going to be a very expensive movie, and it won't cost you that much. The technology didn't exist but then, but we, it was weird, we had a certain kind of calmness and faith that this thing was gonna work out and Peter Chernin and Dylan came on, and Rupert was the right guy.

Amanda: Well, also that Avatar, and the technology…

Rick:Avatar got made, and suddenly the technology existed, and the WETA people, Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon...we were just extremely lucky and fortunate. A lot of really talented and smart people came on and worked very, very hard. I mean, I've never seen people work so hard in my life, and then, we got Andy [Serkis] a week before we started shooting.


Rick: Seriously, can you imagine? (laughs)

Amanda: He was going on vacation.

Rick: He was going on vacation. Joe Letteri really pushed hard to get Andy.

Amanda: Joe Letteri is the head of WETA.

That's right.

Rick: He pushed really hard to get Andy, and Andy read it and loved it and came on. It's just been one kind of really lucky stroke after the other and, like I said, a lot of people worked really, really hard on it, and in very genuine and sincere ways. Like, yes, there were disagreements along the way, but everyone had the same goal, and I think it really shows. It really shows in the final product.

Yeah, as I wrote in my review, what I appreciated most is that it asks for a sequel rather than demanding a sequel.

Rick: Yeah, I think that's right.

I think in that sense it's very much like the first film which was intended as a one-off but it was so good that people were sort of clamoring for more, and I think that’s what I appreciated about this one.

Rick: Thanks.

So, what's next? You mentioned that you have some potential ideas for an Apes sequel, but what's next other than Apes?

Amanda: We did a rewrite for Sony this past spring that we loved working on. It's a big time travel action-adventure movie, and may work some more on that. And we've been pitching some TV.

Rick: It’s the television pitch season, so we've developed some TV ideas and…

Amanda: …I think because we were lucky enough to be producers on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where we spent a lot of time on that movie and we're really fried! (laughs) We need time to kind of regather our creative forces.

Rick: We're kind of in that period where we're figuring it out, but we are very excited about the Sony thing, and we've got a few television ideas. We like for our movies, for our work, to actually have a message, and actually try to create some amount of good in the universe.

That's great.

Rick: We’ve got a couple of ideas we're excited about for TV, and we'll see. We'll see.

Alright, I hope everything pans out!

Rick: Thanks.

Amanda: Zaki, thank you so much, and thanks for your wonderful review. It brought a big smile to my face.

Oh, that's fantastic! Well, I hope I'll get a chance to talk to you again should a part two materialize at some point.

Amanda: That would be great. I’m touching wood!


Brian said...

Great interview! I liked the movie and enjoyed reading a discussion that dug deeper than the average, fluffy interviews I read elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful, insightful interview, Zaki. You posed thoughtful, intelligent questions and got thoughtful, intelliget answers (though I'm a little surprised that Amanda didn't know the title of ESCAPE). ;) Jim (member of the Yahoo Groups POTA list)

Minhaj Arifin said...

Thanks for this great interview Zaki. It was coll that they asked you questions as well! Thrilled to hear from the brains that created such an interesting film! I loved the character of Caesar. His whole journey from a bullied fearful creature to a calm, cunning purpose driven leader was inspiring and feels very real. Best wishes to this wonderfully talented writing team. I think they will bring quality to whatever they touch.