Going Ape – Finding Bad Ape and Discussing CGI: A Conversation with Steve Zahn
War For The Planet Of The Apes continues the wildly successful series of films that began with 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and 2014’s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. In the wake of the viral outbreak that devastated much of the human population, the simian community has grown more and more powerful. But simmering tensions between the two species has begun erupting into conflict, and the ramifications will be dreadful for everyone…
Andy Serkis has developed a reputation for fantastic acting work both using digital performance capture in films such as the Hobbit trilogy and Star Wars and without it in everything from Avengers: Age Of Ultron to Wild Bill and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. For the modern Planet Of The Apes franchise, he has originated and brought incredible depth and heart to the main character, Caesar.
After encountering humans for the first time in years in Dawn, War finds Caesar locked in a conflict with the survivors, a battle that he doesn’t want to fight, but must to protect the future of his ape brethren. When tragedy strikes, an embittered, war-weary Caesar embarks on a mission of revenge, one that will forever change his life. Andy talks about finding this latest stage of Caesar’s journey, welcoming a new cast member and working with director Matt Reeves…
You’ve been one of Hollywood’s great character actors for many years now. What new challenges does motion capture bring to an experienced actor?
When I showed up in Vancouver I was paired up with Terry Notary, who plays Rocket, the movement coach. He’s the guy on set. With everybody he’s like, “no, yes, do it like this, a little quicker, you’re smaller apes!” With him, it scared me, man.
I realised with this technology, the beauty of it is, it doesn’t get in the way. The lesser technology, in the old days, got in the way. You were performing for the technology. You were in front of a green screen or whatever… you were double acting. You were acting that you were a person and there was a dinosaur chasing you, or whatever.
Now the technology is that now you don’t think about it, they just want you to give the best performance you can give.
What’s the audition process like for a very specific role like this? Do you need to go method and turn up in chimp mode? Seems like you’d need to show off a very specific set of skills…
That was crazy. I was in Puerto Rico shooting a TV show, Mad Dogs. I’m down there and I get word that they’re interested in me for this part. I’m like, “Great, what have I got to do?” They said, “Matt [Reeves, the director] wants to talk to you.”
Matt and I had a Skype conversation for an hour and fifteen minutes about movies. We just talked about westerns. He said, “Hey, will you read?” I said, “I’d love to audition.” He said, “I can give you a couple of days, is that cool?”
You know, talking on Skype is weird to begin with – it’s just bizarre – let alone auditioning for Planet of the Apes. I can’t go full-on chimp. I got to go about 33% of what I think being a chimp is, so I entered the frame and did this thing… so I Skype auditioned with Matt and got the part, and I was so excited.
Tell me about creating the character of Bad Ape. Was there a lot of research into real-life apes? Or was it more important to find his human qualities?
The good thing is, the character was really on the page when I read it. It was a brilliantly written character. Not knowing motion capture and the way that worked, I knew it would be a difficult job and I’d have to learn some things, but first it was just about who this guy was. They can make you look like an ape, but they can’t make you be one.
Because so much of this story telling is subtle, I realised embodying a chimpanzee would be that much harder because it’s minimal. It wasn’t about quadrapedding. I would watch videos over and over again of these chimpanzees in zoos. And I wasn’t interested in the ones throwing shit – I was fascinated with the dude who was just sitting in the corner and watching. How is that different to how we do it? I was fascinated with that, and spent two weeks watching.
What sets Bad Ape apart from the apes we’ve seen so far in the Planet of the Apes movies? What makes him unique or different? Why will audiences be drawn to him?
He’s a different speed, a different tempo, just generally speaking. There’s a heaviness to these apes, and I thought of him being him completely opposite.
I developed very quickly this rocking back and forth. It’s very subtle, I don’t even know if you’d see this in the movie, but I’d do this doo-doo-doo-doo-doo [rocks back and forth quickly]. The fact he learned in captivity also changes him as a simian. He’s been taught everything – he was with humans all the time. I’ve read that apes who are with humans a lot are more human-like than ones out in the elements.
The fact he doesn’t have fur is another interesting quality. I always thought, well maybe the poor guy’s stressed a lot and he’s lost his hair.
You have a background in theatre and Broadway. How much did the experience with the physicality of theatre acting help you bring Bad Ape to life?
This is the closest thing that I’ve done that was like that. My birth was at the American Repertory Theater in Boston. It was a two-year acting programme at Harvard, very small. It was all just classically trained. The theatre did these amazing big productions with Andrei Șerban and Eastern European and American directors. And you’d be in a show that would be highly stylized, down to movement, down to your speech, down to your costumes. You had puppets, they incorporated live music… it was brilliant theater, just really exciting. And yet you had to be believable, raw, and truthful. That’s what this reminded me of.
I told Andy [Serkis, co-star], I’m so grateful for that training, for that experience. I don’t know how I would have done this otherwise. I felt like I was in some movement class being an ape. It felt like you were in some performance art group, with the grey unitard and the helmet with a camera on, like some German performance group, eating cereal and counting [laughs].
Bad Ape brings some levity to an otherwise very serious film. Were you conscious of balancing the comedy and darker themes of the film?
Oh yeah, it’s a heavy movie, man… so yeah, a little bit. I cringe a little bit when I hear “comic relief”, but I understand it. But it was never presented like that. Matt [Reeves] never talked about, “Hey, we need some funny stuff here”. It was just all about character. I just assumed it would create some levity.
I couldn’t help but laugh when I was doing it, even scenes that weren’t like the binoculars – that were obviously gags – but most things were like, he’s just wearing a vest, man. And it’s just amusing in contrast. They [the other apes] are doing nothing, and there’s a guy with a hat on, you know, a monkey, because he doesn’t have fur. You know what I mean? [laughs] The first rule is, don’t play it, play against it. Even the crazy comedies, like Saving Silverman or Happy, Texas – those guys didn’t think they were funny, they were fucking serious guys.
What do you think you’ve learnt about yourself as a person from playing an ape? And is there something we can all learn from these smart apes?
Oh, I don’t know, that’s such a deep question. I would love to give you some brilliant answer, but the real answer is I don’t know, dude.
Watching the film back, you and your co-stars have obviously been fully digitised, but how much of your original performance can you still see on the screen? Is it recognisable from the shoot or were you blown away by how much the effects work added to those scenes?
It’s not CG. I’m telling you right now, man, that’s why you react to it, because it’s not. I live in Kentucky on a farm. My neighbours and buddies have nothing to do with this business, and they go, “Well that was CGI, wasn’t it?” and you go, “Well what’s that?” “CGI… computers and stuff…” As if they know what the fuck they’re talking about.
So what, it’s a half performance? I phoned it in? Like it was a voiceover? No, it [War for the Planet of the Apes] was the most painful experience of my life. I took epsom salt baths every night. It was imperative that I moved like an ape, that I got off the horse in a way that looked effortless.
When you see a river, we’re next to a river, man. When we’re climbing trees we’re climbing not trees but other things. When we’re quadrapedding across the prison yard that was built in Surrey, British Columbia, that was the size of three football fields, that’s where we were. The only thing in this movie that was completely different and I didn’t experience was the avalanche. That’s it.
The set of my chalet… I walked into that and could not believe it. Every detail… the carvings on the wall… the sets were frickin’ amazing. That cave… the wall with all the timber and spikes at the prison yard… it was amazing.
We live in the age of superheroes, but the Planet of the Apes revival has been hugely popular. What is it about Planet of the Apes that’s struck a chord and made it such a major and relevant hit for modern audiences?
Because it’s simple and everyone can access it. Everyone can understand. Everyone can relate to it. Because it’s simply about human and apes.
I’m not a sci-fi guy. I don’t have that head that can take me away to far away galaxies, and on ships that are in the future. I watched war pictures when I was a kid. That was my thing. I watched A Bridge Too Far fifty times. But this is totally different, even though it’s in that genre, because those movies [the original Planet of the Apes] were all about the characters. You understood those characters, Zira and Cornelius. You knew were they came from, you knew what they thought, you knew Charlton Heston, and in the same way I think you know these characters [from War for the Planet of the Apes].
And that’s not something that’s just inherent in this story, that’s something you literally have to do when making a movie. And with something of this magnitude that’s a hard thing to do, because you’re always under some constraint. It’s usually time. Time, time, time – got to keep moving, it’s a huge machine, we’re spending how many thousands of dollars a day – and yet in order to make it a good movie, you’ve got to take a breath and concentrate on character and story.
Most big pictures nowadays don’t do that. They don’t replicate life, they replicate moments from other movies. Characters talk to each other in ways that sound really great and deep, but you think, people don’t really talk like that. They string these moments together and they’re shot beautifully and you’re meant to feel something, but you don’t really feel something – you do because the movie swells and they’re using slow motion or whatever – but it’s about connecting those moments, and that is understanding where all these characters come from.
Look at Woody [Harrelson, co-star], man… what a bad dude. What a brilliant job he did. You actually sympathise with the guy. You know exactly why he’s doing the things he’s doing. I get it, man. And what did they do, like a five-minute scene between the two? [Woody Harrelson and Andy Serkis] It’s like a production of King Lear. Usually the introduction and the amount of character study in big films is fifteen seconds at the office. It’s like, “There’s the guy with the doughnut – oh, he’s the fat guy who always forgets stuff!” And that’s about it, right?
Mad Dogs comes from a British TV show. As a comedic actor, are there any other British comedies that have been influential to you or that you’ve particularly enjoyed?
My god, I am just clueless when it comes to this. You can ask me the same about any American show and I’d be like, “Ugh, I watch Deadliest Catch” – it’s a fishing reality show. I’m serious, it’s almost embarrassing. I don’t even watch my own shows!
I love watching movies. It’s two hours of your time and I like that encapsulated storytelling. I’ve never binge-watched a show, other than Making a Murderer. I don’t know what that is. It’s entertainment to me, it’s not work, and when I entertain myself, I’d rather watch Life Below Zero on Discovery. I just like doing them [making shows], man.
At the end of the year the Academy send me all the movies and I sit up and watch all the movies, and it’s just wonderful. What’s great for me in that position is that I don’t know anything about any of those movies, so I just get to really purely watch them. And then people go, “Did you watch that movie?” And I go, “Course I did! Good, ain’t it?!” They say, “When did you see it, like three months ago?” I say, “No, last night at my house!” [laughs]
When the apes finally do get smart and take over the world, what advice – from your perspective as an ape on the front line – would you give to the human race to ensure their survival?
Just be cool, man. That’s what it’s about. Fear is a very dangerous thing. It’s very timely, this movie.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES IS AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL NOW AND ON BLU-RAY AND DVD FROM 27TH NOVEMBER