From Rise to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Mark Bomback on the Apes franchise, on talking Ape and script doctoring.
by Christopher McKittrick
While 20th Century Fox is currently enjoying the box office success of X-Men: Days of Future Past, the studio is hoping to score its second live action franchise hit of 2014 with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Though the franchise’s origins date back to the 1968 sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes, the dormant franchise was revitalized by the critical and box office success of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and a sequel was put into motion in the wake of that success. As an initial script was being worked on by Rise of the Planet of the Apes screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) was hired to direct the sequel and he brought with him a new take on the story. Producers had previously reached out to Bomback to help work on the prior script, but now they asked him to write a largely new script based on Reeves’ ideas.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set about a decade after the previous film and finds Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the now-intelligent apes, forging an uneasy alliance with a human population decimated by contagion, some of whom blame the apes for the disease. While Rise of the Planet of the Apes was in set a world not far removed from our own, the ten years since that film was set has left the remaining humans in a society on the brink of collapse.
However, Bomback was no stranger to the material. As an in-demand script doctor he had worked on the script for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and has written a number of other scripts for Fox, including The Wolverine and Live Free or Die Hard. His franchise film experience has often put him in the position of being responsible for polishing a script to reach its audience-pleasing potential. He will continue his association with the Planet of the Apes franchise with the next sequel, which he is currently co-writing with Reeves. Creative Screenwriting spoke to Bomback about his second journey to the world of the Planet of the Apes, his changing relationship to the material, and how his work as a script doctor is both gratifying and confidence-boosting.
How did working on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes compare to working on other scripts?
I worked on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes probably harder than any film I ever worked on, maybe with the exception of Unstoppable. It’s not that films ever go on cruise control, but sometimes as a writer there’s enough worked out before you start shooting that during production any issues are really just creative issues. With Unstoppable and even more so with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the technical difficulties of making these movies requires another part of your writing brain, which is “How do we solve this problem? This is an unaffordable idea, or what we proposed here can’t be done in any less than eight days and we only have five, so what do we do?”
There was a big learning curve on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for director Matt Reeves as well. Nobody had made a film that was motion captured to that extent, outdoors, and in native 3D. Setups that would normally take an hour took five. While we were making the film it became readily apparent that the schedule was never going to work the way it was initially conceived, so a lot of the work I did as a writer wasn’t simply just “Oh, can this scene be better?” because it was also “How can we get this scene information across in a more economical way because truthfully we have no ability to film what we wrote?” [Laughs]. It was an interesting process because I probably spent about 18 weeks in New Orleans over the course of the shoot, which is more than I usually spend on a movie set.
You actually did an uncredited rewrite of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. How did that lead to you writing the script for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?
I started working on Rise of the Planet of Apes about four weeks before production began and wrote it into production. It was script doctoring to get the story to work a little better and a little faster. Right before Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt and the studio decided to part ways on the sequel, I got a call from producers Dylan Clark and Peter Chernin saying that maybe they could bring another brain into the room. By the time I decided to do it, Rupert had left the film.
The studio had just met with Matt Reeves and he had a strong take on the material that was truthfully a pretty big departure from where the movie was going in its development. The bad news was, they still needed to make the start date and the release date! So there was a lot of work to be done in an insanely short amount of time. I was a little wary, but I put everything aside about the relatively short commitment. I don’t think Matt was overly familiar with my writing, so it was suddenly an arranged marriage very quickly. [Laughs]
We spent about a week together in Matt’s office every day brainstorming trying to figure out what is the best version of the next iteration of this Caesar saga and in doing so we came to like each other’s style. We have a different pace of working that complements each other. I tend to go fast and keep moving and moving and if Matt were left to his own devices the odds of making that start were pretty slim because he likes to be methodical [Laughs].
It was really collaborative with Matt. He almost functioned as a silent partner for me as a writer. At the same time he was prepping the movie, so a lot of things we were doing actually impacted the art department that afternoon. We started working in earnest in the beginning of September and by January or February we were gearing up in Vancouver. Since we’re basically talking about a new screenplay, that’s a really short amount of time from outline to camera. It was a pretty wild way of working, and I think Matt and I both feel very lucky that our personalities meshed. If we had any kind of personal conflict within that kind of schedule it might have become a total nightmare.
Luckily I also benefited from having worked on Rise of the Planet of the Apes because I knew Dylan and Peter very well and I’ve written a bunch of other stuff for Fox, so I knew the studio really well. There were a lot of things that worked in our favor.
Last time we spoke we talked at length about your extensive experience writing franchise films. Planet of the Apes is a nearly 50 year old franchise, but this new series and new special effects technology has brought the franchise into new territory. Still, how did you confront the challenge of doing something that hadn’t been done in the previous Planet of the Apes films?
I actually think this is a fairly easy franchise to do that with. I did a bit of script doctoring on Fast & Furious 7 and I don’t know how they avoid repeating themselves with those movies. They seem so difficult because how many permutations of car crashes and car chases can you do? If you look at the old Planet of the Apes movies I feel like we’re sort of aware of them within our franchise, but they’re such hard, fantastical sci-fi movies.
Sometimes I think we inadvertently have a moment that is an echo of the other films, but it’s not even conscious because I almost think of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as its own franchise unto itself that is a descendent of that earlier franchise. If you look at Conquest of the Planet of the Apes or Battle for the Planet of the Apes, they’re really, really out there in terms of their relationship to the real world, where even Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set in a recognizable world. The challenge that we’re up against – and I think we’ll be even more aware of it in the next film – is how we circle back to the original franchise’s fundamental premise that apes have taken over the earth and humans are their prey. How do you get back to the 1968 universe that started it all?
If you look at how the original franchise explains how we arrived at that, it’s a crazy time travel conceit where two apes from Planet of the Apes traveled back in time to the present, had a child who could speak, and then started the revolution that eventually created themselves, sort of a chicken and the egg conundrum. Ours shows very clearly that Caesar is where it all began. So I don’t think repeating ourselves is the tricky thing. It’s really more about doing honor to those old films and making sure that there is a continuity that we can trick out in the end where it can circle back. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who wrote Rise of the Planet of the Apes, did something really brilliant where they launch the Icarus [the spaceship in the original 1968 film]. I remember when I read the draft I said, “What a great idea.” At least the seeds have been planted in our universe to get back to there.
You also mentioned when we spoke last time that in the case of Live Free or Die Hard that you had grown up watching John McClane and how exciting it was to write him. You’re too young to have seen the original Planet of the Apes movies in theaters, so what was your experience with Planet of the Apes before working on this franchise?
BOMBACK: It’s funny, I think of it as a TV world more than a movie world. I know I’ve never seen any of the films in theaters, and I’m sure I must’ve seen the original film on Channel 11, which was our go-to movie channel in New York before cable. I was probably seven or eight. I’ll be honest, it didn’t have a massive impact on me other than the strangeness of the story and the world with these really weird creatures that don’t quite look like apes and don’t quite look like humans, either. It’s the same feeling you get when you first see Chewbacca; it’s this crazy movie invention that’s so exciting when you’re young. I’ve watched the other films since in the process of working on the films, but I’m not so sure I even saw the other films when I was a kid. Then there was the TV show and the cartoon, and I was aware of them, but I wasn’t a fanboy for them.
When I got the script for Rise of the Planet of the Apes it wasn’t like when I got the call for Live Free or Die Hard where I said, “I can’t believe I reached the point where I’m working on a Die Hard movie!” With Rise of the Planet of the Apes it was more like, “Are they making another one of these? I don’t recall the Mark Wahlberg one doing that well.” So I wasn’t super-excited to read it, but when I read it I realized it was a great script that Rick and Amanda had written. I thought, “This is the best hour and a half Twilight Zone episode! It’s a crazy idea for a movie.” What I loved so much about it, and what I love about Dawnof the Planet of the Apes too, is that I know that never in a million years could we convince a studio to make that story if it wasn’t going to be called Planet of the Apes. It’s too expensive of an idea to get a studio to gamble on it without that built-in awareness. It’s allowing a studio to have the comfort of knowing people have heard of Planet of the Apes and it has a built-in audience out of curiosity, so they will put in the money that’s required to make it a really good film. But nevertheless Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a crazy idea for a movie, and that was the thing that got me really excited.
It’s ironic that many people predicted that Rise of the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t do well back in 2011, and now Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most anticipated movies of summer 2014. What do you think drew people back to this franchise.
It’s fascinating, especially for me being fortunate to be on the inside of it. I remember when I was working on Rise of the Planet of the Apes and mentioned it to one or two people they said, “Oh my God, they’re making another one of those?” Then when I mentioned I was working on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, they said, “Oh my God, I loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes!” It’s a completely different experience. Also, when I got the script for Rise of the Planet of the Apes it was titled Caesar. I remember when they said they were changing the title to Rise of the Planet of the Apes in my head I was thinking, “Oh my God, that is the wordiest title! They’re making an already dangerous idea for a movie more dangerous.” As it turns out, it was a genius idea and it allowed people to understand its place in moviedom with a very, very faint awareness of the original film. It’s not a sequel or a prequel in a traditional sense, it’s a film unto itself.
One major difference between Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that there is more ape dialogue in this movie. How did that affect the way you wrote the script?
We were always playing with how much is too much. We played with a version where there’s almost no dialogue at all. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes it’s clear that Caesar and Maurice are capable of sign language, so it’s completely plausible that in the ten years that have passed they taught everybody how to use sign language because they’re all bright enough to be able to use it. For that reason, sign language became the default and most believable way that the apes would communicate, and it’s certainly a demonstration of intelligence on their part. But too many subtitles can be tedious and truthfully you did see Caesar speak in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
So what we arrived at was this idea that apes will speak when they’re at such a heightened emotional place that it requires more than the typical way they communicate or if some reason their hands are unavailable to them. You will see that when the film begins there almost is no ape dialogue for a long time because they don’t need to unless they’re speaking to humans. But their speech is still rudimentary, still being worked out, and still missing the grammar and syntax that our language has. It’s a community that’s evolving, and ideally their speech reflects who they are as a people and what words they would choose versus what words we would choose.
Actually it was a lot of fun, but it was a challenge and when you’re doing it and you’re filming scenes that have sign language it’s very hard to tell whether or not the scenes are working in the way you hope because you’re not hearing the lines delivered. All you’re doing is seeing people look expressive, who, by the way, are also going to be converted into apes. It’s quite scary when you’re working that way because if you don’t shoot them talking you’re not going to be able to go back and have them talk. There was a lot of hand wringing on the studio’s part and on our part trying to figure out what was the right balance.
Obviously people who aren’t accustomed to seeing that many subtitles are going to see the film, and that’s something you think about. It also limits the conversation between the apes because you don’t want a subtitle that’s longer than a sentence at most.
It was a huge challenge as a screenwriter just on a dialogue level that I never experienced before. In the end, it was actually useful because since I’ve been working on other stuff I’ve been more economical with my dialogue. You do realize less is more and that you can be more explicit sometimes and be more succinct. In real life everybody talks around everything and it takes forever to get an idea across, but when you boil it down to the ape way of communicating, even if you have one character speaking that way in a human story that has nothing to do with apes, it creates a really interesting dynamic. It was useful as a screenwriter, but challenging.
Did knowing that Andy Serkis would be returning as Caesar influence your writing at all?
Of course. It’s impossible to overstate how amazing his performance as Caesar is. The marketing department has been trying to communicate to people that what they’re seeing is Andy Serkis. It’s not like the WETA team creates the behaviors, facial expressions, and all the other things that make you understand and root for a character. That’s literally coming off of Andy’s body and his face. I had been fortunate to see what it looked like on Rise of the Planet of the Apes and it was critical. Andy makes everything much easier, and he is incredibly collaborative. He’ll never do that actor thing where he’ll say “Caesar wouldn’t do this.” It’s always all of us sitting together and thinking what would be the most appropriate Caesar response. He certainly owns the character, but he’s very, very savvy about how a movie gets made and the collaborative nature of it.
Actually, the bigger concern were actors who were cast in this one who had never done it before. They all go to ape camp and learn how to become apes. Toby Kebbell, who is a brilliant actor who plays Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, didn’t play Koba in the first film and this was the first time he ever did this kind of thing. So the bigger concern is if Koba is going to be able to sell what we’re writing down here. But as you’ll see there’s no way to overstate this either, he’s insanely great.
Ape camp sounds like it would be fun!
I didn’t go to ape camp, but it is pretty fun to watch the footage [Laughs]. The genius behind it is Terry Notary, who plays Rocket in the first and second film, who is a former Cirque du Soleil performer. He does double duty as an actor in the film and he is also in charge of all the ape stunts and he trains everybody.
Often sequels remain firmly in the same genre. However, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is more of a war/diplomacy drama than the prior movie. Did you find the shift in genre challenging?
It is a little. It’s more like, does this feel like it’s organically coming off of the last film? I’m so old that I always think of where movies would be shelved at Blockbuster, and I think they would both be shelved near each other. But I think tonally Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a lot more similarities to Westerns, family sagas like The Godfather, or even Apocalypto. You could never say that about Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
But it’s also the difference between something that’s set in the immediate world that we live in and something that’s set in a post-apocalyptic near future. Already it’s going to be tonally different because in the last film there’s one big buy: Apes gain the intelligence to learn how to speak. In this film there’s a double buy: Apes are doing that and the world as we know it is completely destroyed. It’s begging to be tonally different right there. What I love about these films, and truthfully even more than the original films, is that they are a softer sci-fi. The 1968 film is ultimately a pretty soft sci-fi movie too, it just has more futuristic trappings to it. But that’s what I love about them because they’re just “What ifs.”
You could watch the first half hour of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and if someone didn’t tell you the title you wouldn’t know what you were about to see. However, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes you’d be quick to think that something completely bizarre is going on here because you’ll be fifteen minutes into the movie and there haven’t been any human beings yet! [Laughs]
Though you’ve written many franchise movies, this is the franchise that you’ve been most deeply involved in since you’ve been working on multiple films in it. How has your relationship with the material changed since you first started working on Rise of the Planet of the Apes?
You get more of the sense of authorship. It begins to feel more your own and not necessarily something that belongs to everybody in a way when you briefly work on something. I literally worked on Fast & Furious 7 for a week. When I’m doing something like that I’m very aware of what the fans of the franchise and what the studio that owns the franchise are expecting. For the Planet of the Apes franchise I’ve been working on it long enough that I feel like I have as valid or more valid of an opinion on it as to what is appropriate to be in these films than the fanbase does because I worked on it so long. You still feel the same responsibility to make sure that people who are excited about these films get a film that satisfies, but there’s a comfort level when you’ve been working on it long enough that you really feel like you’re inside the characters and inside the world of it. That burden of the fanbase becomes a little less, but they are obviously still super-important.
The truth is, it’s weird that I’m one of these guys who hops around these franchises. It’s not what I set out to do when I became a screenwriter. I think it’s as much a function of the fact that these are the kind of movies that get made more readily than anything else, but I think a good film is a good film. If I think something is going to be exciting and something I would want to see I don’t care if it’s a sequel or a prequel or any of this nonsense. I also think that the fact that TV has become of such amazing quality and the serialization of that demonstrates that people like the continuum and like to see what other avenues can be explored. It doesn’t seem as crass as, “We’re just making another one to make some money,” not to say that doesn’t happen as well.
Since you’re already signed to write the sequel, do you expect that you will receive notes based on specific things from this movie depending on how audiences respond to them? If so, how do you handle that?
Well, studios are always going to give you notes no matter what. I will certainly not be surprised if there are things that audiences like and the studio urges us to revisit that whether it’s a certain set piece or certain behaviors in characters. Truthfully, we need that sometimes. With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the studio was very smartly always reminding us that Caesar’s journey is what people really responded to in the last one.
I think there’s a misconception that studios are just trying to make things as big and bombastic as possible. They have that concern, but actually it’s on a micro-level. A good example is the Golden Gate Bridge sequence in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I’m sure there was lots of hand wringing about what the most exciting version of this is, or what the biggest pop that we can get is, or what’s going to play well in trailers and all that stuff. But most of the studio notes on these films, whether it’s ours or something as different as The Fault in Our Stars, mostly have to do with if the story is working as well as it can, or whether the characters doing what they’re supposed to do.
Studios want to make good movies. I would actually say that a lot of more crowd-pleasing things are driven by marketing concerns about what’s going to look good in the trailer, but that’s not really my department. Most of the time the studio is wondering if this is the best it can be, can it go faster, can it be more emotional, can we get a bigger arc out of this character, those kind of things. I could sound like the typical disgruntled screenwriter and say, “The suits don’t get it!”, but maybe I’m lucky because the “suits” I’ve worked with for the most part are trying to make good movies. Not to say that we don’t get ideas that are driven purely by spectacle – but you’re making a big action franchise, of course they should be worried about the spectacle!
I think in terms of what the audience reaction to this one I think we have a pretty good sense of what audiences are going to respond to just because we get so excited about it when we watch it in the editing room or even in dailies! [Laughs] I think there will not be a lot of grey areas as to what people like because there are a few great moments. My only regret is that I feel some of them have been given away too quickly by marketing already.
The next one Matt and I are actually going to co-write. That luxury wasn’t afforded on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes because of how much of a crunch it was, so I’ve never written with an “and” before so. But we’re so accustomed to working with each other right now from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes it won’t be weird. I think the only challenge we essentially have is geography since I live in New York and he lives in Los Angeles, but we’ve been Skyping and I’ve spent a week out there periodically so I’m not too worried about it.
It’s obviously a shot of confidence that the studio trusts your vision to work on the first film, write the second one, and then ask you to write the third movie.
Again, we spend a lot of time together when we’re working on these things. It’s not like you turn it in and disappear for a month. We have, whether it’s studio executives or producers Peter Chernin and Dylan Clark, a lot of back and forth discussion all the time. I think if I was out of sync with what the movie should be I would’ve been long gone by now! [Laughs]
It’s nice to be trusted because I know these movies are really important to the studio. There’s something gratifying about that, whether it’s this or The Wolverine or anything that’s going to be important to the studio’s bottom-line that there’s a sense that they trust that you are able to understand what makes these movies work, though it certainly doesn’t make the job any easier! [Laughs]
I do lots of script doctoring these days. I actually really enjoy it. I feel like it’s a unique skill set that helps you hone your own work. I worked on 50 Shades of Grey, which couldn’t be more different than these and you’re simply sitting there thinking, “How do I help this filmmaker and these people who have so much invested in this realize the movie that’s in their head that for some reason isn’t there on the page?” You’re sort of a midwife in that process.
There’s something really gratifying about turning in pages and seeing the relief on their faces when they say, “This finally starts to seem like the way we thought this scene should be.” It’s a marathon writing these scripts, and very rarely can one writer get you all the way there. People get written out or for whatever reason they themselves have to move on to other things. It’s a very fortunate position to come and be the relief pitcher or run those last laps. It’s almost impossible to use that part of your brain if you’ve already been writing it for seven months.
People are really appreciative when that work goes well and there’s just the pure satisfaction of a job well done when you’re doing it under a very constrained time period. You just have to do something for a long time before you began to genuinely trust yourself, and that confidence in yourself gives other people confidence in you.