Playback: Matt Reeves on ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ and How Batman and Caesar are Alike

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Franchises and trilogies are difficult because every time you step up to the plate, you have the specter of success hanging over your shoulder. Why come back if not to top yourself? More often than not, diminishing returns win the day, but not with Matt Reeves and his two spins with the “Planet of the Apes” franchise. With “War for the Planet of the Apes,” he completes that rare breed: a trilogy that topped itself with every subsequent installment.

That was very much on the director’s mind when he dug in on the new film, putting all of his instincts about personal storytelling into a project that, on its face, could merely have been a popcorn actioner geared toward selling concessions.

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“I wanted the story to be the first really full ape point of view story,” Reeves says. “I felt the technology had reached a place where the artists at Weta were doing such an amazing job of getting the performances from the actors that you really had a level of emotional identification … I wanted to push the film this time into the realm of the mythic. If you look at what the trajectory of [Caesar’s] story implies, he would be like the seminal figure in ape history. So it felt like we needed to come up with a test that was greater than all the tests he had gone through.”

The evolution of performance-capture technology has been key with every step. It allows him, this time, to linger on faces in the film, pushing past the epic and into the intimate with grace and tell the story at a more grounded, but no less emotional level. It’s been very specific to these projects obviously, but he’d be willing to use it again.

“What’s great about it is it feels like it’s one more tool that I understand how to use,” Reeves says. “A lot of VFX, it’s about what’s not there. What’s great about this is, from a practical standpoint, it’s about what is there, which are the actors. In that way it’s more intimate. It’s more like traditional filmmaking. What’s interesting is this notion, especially for actors, that they’re not limited by their physical appearance, that they can express themselves in this pure way and we have all these cameras recording them.”

No spoilers, but “War for the Planet of the Apes” certainly leaves the impression that Reeves has put a bow on his journey with this franchise. But obviously the studio isn’t finished with it. Would he come back?

“Part of the thing we were doing with Bad Ape [Steve Zahn’s character] was to imply that there were other apes out there,” he says. “I do love this world. I have a lot of affection for these characters. I spent five years feeling like they were my family. So the right story and the right circumstance, I would definitely come back in some way.”

For now, though, he’s diving headlong into the DC machine for the next Batman movie, with Ben Affleck. It’s very early stages as he literally finished “Apes” two or three weeks ago. But Reeves was a childhood fan of the character. He had all the old Mego dolls and was captivated by the Dark Knight as a character. His connection to “Planet of the Apes” had a lot to do with his son, so though he never thought he would be a genre filmmaker, he’s learned that in today’s landscape, that’s one of the few places where you can actually do something that is personal. He’s eager to apply that to DC’s popular character.

“What I see in Batman that I find so interesting is that, in a way, he reminds me of Caesar, in that he is a character with a really troubled past who is grappling within himself to try to do the right thing in a really imperfect world, in a corrupt world,” Reeves says. “That provides an opportunity, again, if you want to take that point-of-view storytelling — and I can imagine the story as being like a noir. The originals from the golden age were detective stories. I think if you can marry that with the personal, there’s a chance to do something very exciting.”

Negotiations with Warner Bros. reportedly broke down at some point along the way. Obviously everyone came back to the table and made a deal, but nevertheless, Reeves says he remains hopeful that he can go into that system and make the movie he wants to make.

“Let’s put it this way: I’ve never worked with them but my experience so far is really good, and as I describe what I want to do, they seem really excited,” he says. “So it’s the beginning of a journey.”

For more, including thoughts on using the 6K Alexa 65 camera and working with the incredibly busy and dedicated Woody Harrelson, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

Matt Reeves photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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