‘Kingdom’ Director, Producers On the ‘Planet of the Apes’ Franchise

21 Min Read

After 10 installments and 56 years, “Planet of the Apes” is one of the longest-running science-fiction series in film history.

Even Pierre Boulle, who wrote the novel upon which the 1968 film was based, never imagined a future this long, complicated, or full of talking simians. Yet “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” released May 10, not only pushes the franchise’s story another 300 years into the future, but sets up what its filmmakers hope is (at least) two more chapters. Following a young chimpanzee named Noa (Owen Teague), director Wes Ball’s sprawling, luxuriant epic examines a time when the balance of power leans confidently on the side of the apes, even as the arrival of a human woman named Mae (Freya Allan) introduces a new complication into the species’ tenuous coexistence.

Both Ball and his producers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, have lots of experience with multi-year, multi-film sagas. Ball made his explosive directorial debut with the 2014 adaptation of James Dashner’s “The Maze Runner,” and helmed both of its two sequels. Jaffa and Silver helped relaunch the “Apes” series by writing “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” They’ve remained with the franchise through the years as writers and producers. Ahead of the release of “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” Ball, Jaffa and Silver spoke to Variety about franchise filmmaking, explored the complex, sometimes contradictory mythology of the “Apes” films and what’s to come.

Ball also discussed his “Legend of Zelda” video game adaptation and how he’ll juggle that movie plus the two “Apes” sequels that distributor 20th Century Studios has already outlined.

Wes, you developed a good relationship with Fox because of the “Maze Runner” movies, but your follow-up with them, “Mouse Guard,” was canceled right before it was set to begin shooting. What, if anything, did you need to hear to regain a sense of confidence working with them?

Wes Ball:  I had a year and a half of getting so close to the finish line of that thing. I’d built every little blade of grass, designed all the characters, and then it went down in flames. As I was licking my wounds, Emma [Watts] called and was like, “Sorry, but what would you do with the next ‘Planet of the Apes’?” And I was working with Matt Reeves on [“Mouse Guard”] as producer, and I cast Andy Serkis and I was learning all this mo-cap stuff. So in retrospect, it was an obvious choice to move right into the same thing where you have to wield all this technology and tell a story. The only hesitation for me was could we come up with a story that followed up that trilogy without being constantly compared to it? And so we found a way to get some distance from it while still being kind of tethered to it — we can stand on our own but still honor everything that came before, including the ’68 original movie, which is what we see us sandwiched between. We’re both a prequel and a sequel.

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

From the ’68 film to now, there have been people like Paul Dehn, and then Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who stuck with the franchise for a long time. How were you able to stand on the shoulders of these giants to tell a story you considered the beginning of a new journey?

Ball: We knew early on that we wanted to be a bit of an adventure, a road movie. But having the DNA tied to this long legacy of movies was important, and that started with getting Rick and Amanda involved early. [They] wrote “Rise” and came up with this whole reboot concept. And then having grown up on the ’68 movie for so long, those images are etched in my brain, and we could be our own style, but still feel like we kind of belonged in that universe.

Rick and Amanda, did you always expect to shepherd the franchise forward over multiple installments?

Rick Jaffa: At first, we just wanted to get “Rise” made. We were really just focusing on what seemed like a very big mountain to climb, starting with selling the studio the idea. Because the Tim Burton film created a lot of ill will, although it made enough money. And the technology to do the movie didn’t exist when we first pitched it. We just thought, we’ll write what we’d want to see, and then someone hopefully would come along and figure out how to actually do it.

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Amanda Silver: This crazy idea that it would be told from an ape’s point of view, when we came up with the idea and we pitched it, it seems like a given now. But back then, it was a real leap of faith for the studio, and it took a lot of guts to sink their money in that. When we pitched the idea, we were thinking that it had to deliver on the thoughtfulness of the franchise… that it’s not just action and spectacle. And Caesar’s story fit very well into that. We had little Post-its of themes on the walls as we were writing — we were really focused on man’s hubris will be his downfall. And “Rise” turned out to be kind of an animal rights movie, thematically, although we didn’t set out to do that. And always this question from the very original: can ape and human live side by side? Is there room on the planet for more than one intelligent species?

Jaffa: And that carries through all of the movies right up to “Kingdom.” [And] we did see, in terms of this carrying forward, that if we played it right, there’d be at least three movies.

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

When Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback took over as screenwriters, did they take the story at all in a direction that you hadn’t intended, or set something up you hadn’t expected?

Jaffa: Once “War” had its run, there was this long fallow period where none of us really thought much about what would come next. I don’t know if anything was happening internally at the studio, but we hadn’t been contacted. [“War”] was dark, but it had an uplifting ending to it, meaning Caesar completed his task. When we set the movie up originally, the pitch was “Pinocchio to Moses.” It was the natural thing for him to die. But in that death, you did feel like he was leaving something incredible behind. So we picked up that opportunity to say, “Caesar’s gone, but he’s built something beautiful. He’s planted these seeds and made us create this incredible garden.”

Were there favorite earlier films you were particularly inspired by?

Ball: We were picking up from the Caesar storyline, but the original “Planet of the Apes” was on my mind constantly.

There’s an amazing sequence where the apes are chasing the humans, that’s a reversal in perspective of what happens in the ’68 film. How tough was it to create the parallel lines of what’s going on with the humans and the apes?

Ball: We got to do a little turn, essentially, where ours is very much the ape world and how a human comes into that story. And so as the movie begins, you think it’s a story about an ape named Noa, and it’s actually a story about an ape named Noa and a human named Mae. And we have big ideas where we want to take this storyline with these two characters.

Over these performance capture-driven installments, was there a concrete thread that you followed toward the events of the ’68 film, or are you writing just in terms of telling the most interesting story?

Jaffa: Both, with the emphasis on the latter, meaning to really focus on this story. But when we first met with Wes Ball, his ideas about how far we’re going to go forward in this one and ours were pretty much the same. It takes place approximately 300 years after Caesar died, and we asked ourselves the questions of what are some logical things that could happen so that we’d land there? And we also asked ourselves what seeds can be laid in order to get us to a very interesting and magical telling of how the ’68 movie comes to be. So in a perfect world, that would be great if we could pull that off. But for now, we wanted to do a real kick-ass, emotional, interesting, thought-provoking, new installment.

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Silver: And introduce new audiences who are too young to remember the older movies. Always, the wish is to satisfy the fans in a real way and while bringing in new fans at the same time. We had to really create a new world and figure out a journey for our new ape protagonist that thematically also keeps us strongly in the realm of “Planet of the Apes” storytelling. Because his legacy is alive, and part of what we explore thematically in this movie is how his legacy is helpful in some ways, and how it’s been twisted in other ways.

Ball: We always felt we had plenty of runway — there’s many stories to be told before a spaceship crashes down to the planet of the apes. Actually, it was a very comforting thing to have on the horizon these signposts that could guide us. So we certainly laid in a lot of things that we think are going to be important moving forward, if we’re lucky enough to make more.

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

These movies have always had this canary in the coal mine element. How much did you intend to tell a story with real, timely relevance?

Ball: It was not a conscious effort to make some comment about the world. But like you said, good science fiction holds up a mirror to the things that resonate to us today. But also, the things you see in this movie can be looked at through the history of mankind. These are tried and true stories of greed and power and passion and courage.

Were there things with this film that you wanted to do that the earlier performance-capture films were not capable of doing at the time?

Ball: Probably a bit more world creation, because those movies were very much in our world. We got to be hundreds of years later, and that’s something about the ’68 version I always thought was awesome — that time had eroded away all evidence for the most part of humanity. We’re showing the steps towards that process, where whole buildings are becoming mountains. It was really fun to play around with that lost knowledge of an ancient world. And technologically, there was a lot of stuff we did in the movie that would not have been possible five years ago. After [“Avatar: The Way of Water”], we got to use a lot of their R&D to push it further in this movie.

The parallel of that is the thematic evolution with Noa, who follows a similar path as Caesar but regards humans differently than his predecessor.

Ball: Yeah, they’re creatures to him. We assume that they’ve gone all gone feral; the last thing we saw was Woody Harrelson getting the virus and couldn’t speak, so it’s a cool little enigma to play around with with the character of Mae. But with Noa, it was great to have a character that was kind of a blank slate, that got to discover the world around him and the truth behind it. And by the end of the movie, he’s changed forever by the people he’s encountered and the information that has been pushed at him. He’s got to interpret all of these different ideas, from Raka, Proximus, his father. So by the end, this innocent character has found a bit of cynicism. And he hopes there might be peace between these two species, which is always a thing in these apes movies, but he’s not sure.

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

You talk about the fact that there’s many more stories to be told in this world. There obviously is an intention to do at least two more of these movies.

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Ball: Yeah, three is a good number.

But you also have already committed to making a “Legend of Zelda” movie.

Ball: It’s a good problem to have.

Christopher Nolan did “Inception” and “The Prestige” in between his Batman films. Given this other opportunity, is it tough to know that you want to do both of those things? Or that you can?

Ball: My first three movies were a trilogy, so I know what it means to go into that and devote yourself for so long. I’ve got a lot to think about. I think there’s room for both, of course. But it all comes down to story and script. So we’ll see where it goes. Like I said, it’s a good problem to have. I’m honored to have the opportunities before me, such amazing projects to be a part of. But certainly I wouldn’t turn anything down.

“The Legend of Zelda” is obviously one of the most beloved gaming properties ever. Does knowing there’s anticipation put pressure on you? And how excited are you to jump into that world, which is a different kind of immersion?

Ball: It’s very different. I can’t say a lot about it, but “Zelda” is hugely important to me. It’s up there with “Star Wars” for me in terms of what shaped me as a kid. Talking about adventure? That’s the thing. And you’re right, it’s like one of the last untapped properties that is dying for a cinematic treatment. But we’ll see what happens. The expectation game, I got a taste of that with the “Maze Runner” movies. It was a small fan base, but a very passionate one, and they let me know when I didn’t do it right for them. And it leveled up to a different level on this one where you understand people’s passion for those stories, the Caesar trilogy in particular. So I take it in and then I let it go, because obviously you can’t have that while you’re making a thousand decisions a day. You ingest it and hopefully you make good choices along the way in a string of thousands and thousands of choices that you make. And so I count myself as a gigantic fan, and I trust that in a way as we move forward, and hopefully it lines up with other people that want to see the same thing.

There are so many people who have fallen in love with the “Apes” series — not just audiences, but creators. What makes this world so irresistible that people want to return to it over and over? And what makes this franchise so unique that it has endured?

Ball: One, it’s a great fantasy. They’re so close to us, apes, that we see ourselves in them in a way, and it allows us to look at ourselves in ways that maybe are a little easier. That aspect of the truth we talked about — it analyzes very interesting, resonant themes of the world that you’re in today. And these movies in particular always couple with it the spectacle thing. I was talking about the ’68 movie, and a part of the reason to go see that movie, in addition to it being a great story with the best makeup effects you’d ever seen, and the reboot movies became the best visual effects you’ve ever seen. It’s mesmerizing to watch these amazing feats of technology, and I think that’s a big part of it too. So again, that spectacle and truth is I think a big reason why these movies seem to endure for so long. I’m just thrilled and honored to be a small part of what’s been 10 movies now, with eight different directors. So I have a lot of respect and honor for what’s come before, and hopefully we continue on.

Jaffa: The irony is that all the “Planet of the Apes “movies going back to ’68 is, by creating apes that are like us, it allows to, in a safe way, explore what it means to be human. Audience members relate to these apes and they project onto these apes. And for whatever reason, they feel deeply when these characters feel deeply.

Silver: And that is partially helped by the incredible performances and by Weta.

Jaffa: It’s a way of exploring who we’ve always been as a species — in some ways, it’s like going back in time.

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

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