Magazine article Variety

Rise of a Reluctant Multiplex Maestro

Magazine article Variety

Rise of a Reluctant Multiplex Maestro

Article excerpt

Before he took the helm of the "Planet of the Apes" franchise in 2014, Matt Reeves had no intention of ever directing a studio blockbuster. In fact, he figured he had a foolproof plan for getting himself out of any potential tentpole assignment: Insist on doing the story he wanted to do, the studio's franchise-development apparatus be damned.

So when he was approached to direct "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," the second entry in the rebooted series inaugurated by Rupert Wyatt's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," Reeves put his foot down right away.

"I was initially excited, and then I saw the [studio's] outline and I said, this isn't really the story I would want to tell, I don't think this is for me," Reeves says. "To my shock they said, 'no, no, wait, just tell us the story you want to do.' I said, 'I don't see what the point of that is, because you'll probably try then to get me to do some version of 20% what I want and 80% what you want, and I'll have to do a big showdown at Candlestick Park or something...' "

But the producers insisted on hearing Reeves' concept, and offered him a deal: If he could pledge to finish the film on the initial schedule that had been set for the departed Wyatt, they'd let him do his own thing. "And I said, 'that makes it really hard, because now you're not giving me the reason I needed to say no. Which means I have to say yes.' "

With Fox's July 14 release of "War for the Planet of the Apes," Reeves brings to a close the saga of superevolved chimpanzee Caesar - once again crafted by the gold-standard motion-capture collaboration between actor Andy Serkis and New Zealand visual-effects studio Weta Digital - and once again managing to balance the commercial and technical demands of the blockbuster trade with an uncompromised, surprisingly intimate scale. If Wyatt's "Rise" was essentially a sci-fiprison break film, and "Dawn" a tense rumination on the nature and inevitability of conflict, "War" is an old-school epic, drawing its inspiration from the likes of David Lean and John Sturges.

Initially asked to have the film ready for summer of 2016, Reeves once again gambled on the studio's indulgence, and persuaded Fox to give him and co-screenwriter Mark Bomback an extra year to work on a script. Bringing the story to within striking distance of the primate- populated planet glimpsed in the 1968 original, "War" pits the revolutionary- turned-conflicted spiritual leader Caesar against the last brutal remnants of human civilization, led by a Colonel Kurtz-like military commandant played by Woody Harrelson. For a PG-13 summer movie, "War" is unusually bleak and violent - "if we were doing this without apes, they never would have made it," Reeves says - but also deeply morally engaged, with visual and thematic echoes of everything from the Exodus to the Holocaust.

"For this film, I wanted to move into the realm of the mythic," Reeves says. "This would be the story that would be the defining part of [Caesar's] arc, that would challenge him in darker places, and the end would be his ascension into something like an ape Moses."

The idiosyncrasies of "War for the Planet of the Apes," like George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" before it, can't help but stand out in a studio landscape where auteurist approaches have become rarer and rarer in tentpole filmmaking. Questions regarding how, and to what extent, a director can hope to maintain a personal vision within the machinery of big IP-driven properties could hardly be more relevant, after the high-profile director departures in the Marvel and "Star Wars" franchises. For Reeves, who is slated to move right into yet another high-pressure franchise situation as director of the DC Universe entry "The Batman," these questions are as much practical as they are philosophical.

"For me it's about survival," he says. "I couldn't make a movie that would function if I couldn't make it personal. Every choice I make comes from an emotional compass that I'm holding. …

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