There are films that, on paper, look impossible to pull off, and it takes a special kind of director to shepherd them onto the screen—let alone establish them as fan favorites. With each new title in his filmography, Matt Reeves has established himself as that sort of director, a filmmaker capable of incorporating his own style and tone into projects that many others would struggle with. How do you approach found-footage horror after The Blair Witch Project? Reeves gave us the best possible answer to that question with the J.J. Abrams–produced monster flick Cloverfield. How do you pull off a remake of Let the Right One In, a virtually flawless Norwegian art house horror darling with a vocal legion of fans? Reeves gave us an equally enthralling American version with Let Me In. His following project was similarly daunting. Coming into the second entry in Fox’s Planet of the Apes revamp, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Reeves was faced with helming a franchise coming off of critical and financial success. Expectations were high. Once again he delivered, adding his signature style to establish the new Apes franchise as one of the most compelling in the industry. Now entering the third installment, War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves spoke with Boxoffice Magazine’s Daniel Loria about his unique approach to creating a world destined to be conquered by primates.
What drew you to this franchise?
I was a huge fan of the franchise as a kid. I was obsessed with Planet of the Apes, I wanted to be an ape, I loved the John Chambers make-up, I had all of the Mego dolls. I was a lifelong fan. When I saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I was emotionally affected in a way that I never expected to be. It was a through-the-looking-glass moment, where for the first time I felt like I was one of the apes in the film, thanks to Andy Serkis’s character, Caesar. I got really excited when I was approached to direct Dawn of the Planet of the Apes because my son at the time was just learning to speak. There were these moments when I would look at him and be reminded that we’re just animals. Andy’s performance in the movie really reminded me of my son, and I thought it would be a rare opportunity to do something that I loved as a kid and that felt relevant to me both emotionally and thematically now as an adult. In a world dominated by superheroes and science fiction, the core of this franchise is the spectacle of having these emotive, talking, photorealistic apes. Of course, the big secret of the franchise is that we’re actually holding up a mirror to ourselves — looking at the apes and experiencing their emotions informs who we are.
Your movies are very much grounded in reality despite having fantastic scenarios. Cloverfield works because it feels so authentic, as if it’s developing in real time in front of you. With Let Me In you were able to introduce a child vampire into a small American town while still retaining an overall sense of normalcy—that sets up the foundation for the rest of the film to work. You continued that trend with Dawn, and it looks like you’re sticking with it for War for the Planet of the Apes.
It’s funny, I never thought I would be a genre filmmaker. I always loved genre films, but I was more interested in the emotional content of whatever I did. The one thing about Cloverfield that got me so excited was realizing that you could use the metaphor of a giant monster to talk about our fears. The whole idea was to keep the monster as the sole fantastic element in the film, grounding everything else in real emotion. I took the same approach with Let Me In; it reminded me of my childhood — I was also bullied — this idea of the vampire being a metaphor for the pain of adolescence. I’m always looking for what is under the surface of the metaphor. Trying to ground emotionally some great fantastical tale comes to be what I find most exciting about these kinds of movies.
Despite their differences, all these movies have an aesthetic consistency. Was that difficult to achieve when you tackled an established property like Planet of the Apes?
To be honest with you, I had been resistant to getting involved in any studio franchise because I specifically feared that I would lose any kind of perspective and not be able to express my point of view. I came in very skeptically to talk about doing Dawn, and I was ready at every point to say no. I wanted to tell a specific story with that film, something that felt very personal to me—which is all I can really bring to a project. I expected some sort of Faustian bargain, where I would get 30 percent of what I wanted to do as long as I did a crazy fight at Candlestick Park or whatever. To my surprise, when I came in and passionately pitched my perspective about the project, they said, “Great, are you in?” I had to step back and ask, “Wait, you really want me to make that movie?” And they did. Because I was so clear about the direction I wanted to take, every time something came up we already had a compass to lead us in the right direction. At the end of the day, it’s self-preservation; I don’t know how to tell a story unless I’m deeply connected to it. These two Apes movies are very personal to me; it’s rare to do that on such a large canvas.
How did you approach War for the Planet of the Apes? What were you able to explore with the characters and the story this time around?
We wanted to take Caesar on a journey that was new and surprising, yet inevitable. The last film ends on the precipice of war, a war that he had done everything he could to avoid. In the course of trying to prevent that war from happening, he ends up having to kill his brother, Koba, and he’s devastated by that. Entering this story, I wanted him to be burdened by this war while acknowledging the blind spot of being unable to predict Koba’s reaction in the last film. Koba had such a different experience of dealing with humanity than Caesar, and he couldn’t possibly conceive of living side by side with humans. I wanted to take Caesar on a journey that would haunt him and push his character to a place he’s never been before. It’s not only a war movie in the sense that it’s two species fighting each other, it’s a battle for Caesar’s soul. It’s an epic war movie that feels very intimate. This movie is told entirely from Caesar’s point of view. We wanted to take that journey with Caesar and set the film on a bigger canvas, leaving behind the Muir woods and making our way across the state and up the Sierras. This movie has a much larger scale in that sense. We wanted to put him in a place he had never been before and discover an entirely new world, including the idea of characters he didn’t even know existed. The idea was to continue making this world larger and larger as the story keeps on getting more intimate.
There’s a constant foreboding atmosphere in your movies, a very unsettling feeling. Is it fair to call it a horror sensibility or is it more closely tied to suspense?
I really do love suspense and dread because I’m filled with my own anxiety. It was exciting when I first started doing horror because it was a place where I could express those fears. That’s always exciting for a filmmaker because you get in touch with the parts of yourself that feel the most out of control, finding a way to marshal those feelings so audiences can share those anxieties with you. The most powerful thing that cinema can do is to put you in somebody else’s shoes. I’m a huge Hitchcock fan. I originally came to Hitchcock through Scorsese; as a teenager I loved movies like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. Those films were very personal but borrowed a point-of-view style of filmmaking from people like Hitchcock. I love that style of storytelling, one that finds a way to put you in a situation of slow-burn dread. I always thought of Dawn as a slow-motion car wreck; you know it’s going to turn into the planet of the apes, but the movie shows you a moment when peace almost could have happened. But we know it won’t, we know that from the start, and the movie becomes an anatomy of things that go wrong—an anatomy of violence. This story has a bit of that, too. You have a sense of where it’s leading, and there’s tremendous suspense in getting there. I don’t know if I would describe it as a horror sensibility. I would call it a point-of-view-driven aesthetic. For me cinema is about empathy, you put yourself inside another perspective so you can feel connected to it.