Fox’s “War for the Planet of the Apes” is generating strong buzz before its July 14 launch. When the film series began 50 years ago, nobody imagined it would last this long. In fact, they weren’t even sure the first one could get off the ground.
Early tests for makeup, costumes, and art direction were so challenging that the film’s production was delayed two years.
The premise of the book (and the first film) was so radical — as Variety termed it back then, “an ape-human switcheroo” — that the filmmakers knew they needed to create a world that looked realistic and dangerous: Their biggest concern was that audiences would giggle at the idea of monkeys ordering around humans.
Pierre Boulle’s French-language novel “La Planete des Singes” was published in 1963; British author Xan Fielding translated it into English the following year. In January 1965, producer Arthur P. Jacobs told Variety’s Army Archerd that he would film the adaptation at Warner Bros., with director Blake Edwards (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and the first two Inspector Clouseau movies).
Just a few weeks later, Jacobs and Warner Bros. announced an 18-month delay for R&D, but it turned out to be longer.
In October 1966, “Planet” moved to Fox, as a joint venture between the studio and Jacobs’ Apjac Productions. The following week, they announced Rod Serling as screenwriter and that the film would reteam star Charlton Heston with director Franklin J. Schaffner (after Universal’s 1965 “The War Lord”).
Cameras finally rolled on May 22, 1967, more than two years after the first announcement. The props and sets were complicated in the pre-CGI era, but the biggest challenge was the makeup: It needed to look realistic and also allow actors to eat meals without removing three hours of makeup. (The idea of a liquid diet was rejected.)
Archerd said security around the set was unusually tight. “The reason: The unusual ape makeup worn by most of the 235 actors in pic. The studio is not permitting any stills to be published until pic’s release next Easter and is also guarding sketches and photographs of the simian city, which the art department created over two years.”
They wanted to maintain “the surprise element,” as Jacobs said, for audiences. They also wanted to keep rivals in the dark. There was fear that the $5 million film could be ripped off in lower-budget version.
Jacobs said that the makeup tests had started back in 1965 when he acquired the book: “The makeup was our biggest expense on the film — costing about $1.5 million, or nearly one-third of the budget — and applying and removing it used up almost 60% of our total shooting time.”
“We knew we’d never have a full shooting day. There weren’t enough makeup men in Hollywood so we had to train them. We had 10 trailers that were turned into classrooms for makeup,” Jacobs said. “It took three to four hours to put it on every day and about an hour and a half to get it off.”
They wound up with 25 makeup artists working on the film.
The film opened Feb. 14, 1968, on a single New York screen. It opened wider on April 3, which was in itself a victory. The filmmakers considered their movie to be in a race with another big-budget astronaut film: MGM’s Stanley Kubrick epic “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
When the Fox film opened, hard-to-impress Variety reviewer A.D. Murphy wrote on Feb 1, 1968, “’Planet of the Apes’ is an amazing film. A political-sociological allegory … an intriguing blend of chilling satire, optimism, and pessimism.” He praised the script by Michael Wilson and Serling, Schaffner’s direction, the cast, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score. Murphy also praised the makeup, with John Chambers given credit as creative makeup designer, adding, “Ben Nye and Dan Striepeke superbly executed the design.”
Two months later, Variety critic Robert B. Frederick panned “2001: A Space Odyssey,” saying the plot made no sense; as for the Dawn of Man segment, “the makeup is amateurish compared to that in ‘Planet of the Apes.’”
No matter, they both have stood the test of time. Kubrick’s film was a one-off, but “Apes” turned into a mini industry, with five films (1968-73), TV series (both live-action and animated), Tim Burton’s 2001 redo; and the three revived movies, which were born again in 2011. That’s in addition to videogames, merchandise, etc.