War for the Planet of the Apes: a “Biblical Epic Western War Movie”
Screenwriter Mark Bomback on finding inspiration, balancing tone, and developing backstory for antagonists
One of the most surprising movie successes of 2011 was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise.
The new take on the nearly fifty-year old film franchise, which explores the origins of the ape society depicted in the classic film series through the rise of the ape Caesar (played by Andy Serkis), was praised for its visual effects and inventive sci-fi storytelling.
After doing an uncredited final rewrite on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, screenwriter Mark Bomback was given the opportunity to write the sequel, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which was directed by Matt Reeves. This proved to be both a blockbuster and critical success, and Reeves and Bomback then collaborated again on the script for this second sequel, War for the Planet of the Apes.
For Bomback, who has also written scripts for the Die Hard and Wolverine franchises and worked as a script doctor on films like Furious 7 and Fifty Shades of Grey, his multi-film association with the revitalized Planet of the Apes franchise has become a career highlight.
In War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and his tribe of apes are faced with total destruction by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a brutal military commander who hunts Caesar. And while most of the tribe heads on a journey to safety, Caesar and a small band of apes – Maurice (Karin Knoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) – go after the Colonel.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Bomback – whom we previously interviewed about his work on the screenplays for The Wolverine and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – about Caesar’s evolution as a character, balancing the tone of this entry in the series, and how writing the Planet of the Apes films has improved his ability to write dialogue.
You and director/co-writer Matt Reeves watched a lot of movies before writing the script for War for the Planet of the Apes. What movies influenced this screenplay?
After Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was released, the studio was anxious for us to get started on the next one in the hopes of making a summer 2016 release date. Matt wisely said, “We’ll try our best, but we really can’t promise anything. What we need to do first is get inspired.”
He asked if they could give us a screening room so we could watch a ton of films to see what would inspire us. We couldn’t believe they actually said yes! You always hear about screenwriters doing that kind of thing, but I’ve never actually done it for that length of time or that in depth. [Laughs]
We knew the mix of tones that we were going for, which was Biblical epic / Western / War movie, so we watched everything from Spartacus to Braveheart to Bridge on the River Kwai to The Great Escape. We also watched movies like The Empire Strikes Back, A Man Escaped, Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and El Cid.
We would watch a film and then go into a little office that the studio had given us to spitball ideas. Inevitably, that day of spitballing would have the flavor of the film we watched to it – but usually it was little moments in those films that we wound up picking up inspiration, from because the tone was something we were constantly trying to remind ourselves of.
We would note how we could understand a character’s agony from a little moment, and then we would try to find our equivalent.
It was very helpful, and we were able to do it for a few weeks. Every now and then someone would say, “Oh, you need to check out this,” so we had people pitch in. For example, Matt’s friend James Gray recommended El Cid.
I understand that the two of you did most of the writing over Skype?
I was out in Los Angeles for the spitballing part, and we got to a point where we had something resembling an outline. We pitched the studio and producers and walked them through what we were intending to do, and luckily everybody was on board. Then I went back home because I live in New York.
How we did it was that around noon or 1PM my time – 9AM or 10AM Matt’s time – Matt would text me to see if I was ready to go. We would begin Skyping and using a program called Screen Hero that allowed us to share my computer. We had the Final Draft file open on my computer, and the two of us could type on the same file across the country while we also had Skype going so we could see each other and talk.
We spent about eight hours a day for a few months doing that. It was a little awkward at first, but after a while it became so natural that it really did feel like we were in the same room. It’s one of those things that you could only do in this day and age, and one of the few blessings of technology.
What has set this franchise apart from other tentpole films is character development. Where is Caesar as a character when War for the Planet of the Apes begins?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is almost a coming-of-age story. We see Caesar realizing that he’s reluctantly becoming a leader. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he’s faced with the challenges of leadership and getting people on his side – namely Koba – to put the apes’ greater interests at heart and above any hatred for humans.
By the time War for the Planet of the Apes starts, Caesar is starting to question if peace with humans is actually possible. He is at a point where the trials and tribulations of war are wearing him down. He spares some human soldiers in what he thinks is an act of mercy, but it ends up being the final straw that breaks him, because it winds up having repercussions that he couldn’t have foreseen.
As the story moves forward, Caesar reaches a point where he can’t put his distain for what humans have done to his people above the greater good of his people. Caesar starts to truly understand what it was that brought Koba to the place that he arrived at in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The struggle is whether Caesar will fall prey to that same fate.
If you stayed until the very end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, you hear Koba’s breathing. We did that to give us a tiny crack of a possibility that we could revive Koba if we wanted to. Very early on in spitballing, we realized there was nothing more to do with Koba – certainly nothing that would exceed what he had done in the last story. But we knew we wanted to keep him alive as an idea.
In playing out the reality of what happened at the end of the last film, Caesar would be traumatized by having to kill his brother. That would have resonance, and we wanted to make sure that didn’t get lost. So the answer was that we could go inside Caesar’s mind at this point and revisit Koba that way.
Each film in this series has had a positive human connection, and in this film it’s Nova. Can you talk about the importance of her character and her role in the story?
She emerged as an idea we had very early on. I think Matt was inspired by The Searchers and I was inspired by The Jungle Book notion of someone being raised by a species not their own. There is also this moment in Ben-Hur with a colony of lepers, and we had an idea about a similar colony populated by people who were like Nova – outcasts who are unable to speak.
We started running with the notion of “What if they had no choice but to take her along with them? What would that do to Caesar’s determined stance not to engage with humans again?” It’s an additional challenge because she is incapable of speech, and in that sense she’s not unlike how Caesar was in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in that she is being raised by another species and is learning sign language from that species.
In her Caesar starts to see not only himself, but also his children. He is forced to reckon with the fact that they aren’t so dissimilar despite his newfound belief to the contrary.
Her presence also allows for many wonderful character moments with Maurice, too.
Maurice is childless, and yet even in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes you see he has such affection for Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character. Once we saw that connection happening as we were starting to break the story, we thought it would be great to make her a surrogate child for Maurice.
Maurice is really Caesar’s conscience throughout the film. It allows that spark that Nova has already ignited in Caesar to become stronger when he sees how Maurice is parenting this child.
Another new character that adds a lot to the film, including humor, is Bad Ape. How did his character develop?
We love Bad Ape. As I mentioned before, we had this notion of a colony of humans which never made it into the film. But we had this idea that there was an ape who was a scavenger plucking things from them and hoarding them in a little, decrepit hotel that was long abandoned.
We started thinking about where he would’ve come from. We really liked the idea that Bad Ape comes to represent the fact that there are other apes out there, because there’s a sense that the ape population in the films is limited to Caesar and the apes who are with him. But now you discover that wherever humans ended up getting sick, apes ended up getting smart. There’s a possibility of many apes all around.
We were thinking about who this ape was and what his backstory was. We thought that he would’ve probably come from a zoo. Then we were thinking that all the language he had was what he picked up on from his keepers in the zoo. They would yell at him and say, “Bad ape! Bad ape!” so he thinks that’s his name.
We started getting really excited because it gave him a style of speaking that was at once comical but also a little tragic. The mandate when we worked on Bad Ape was that there was something funny about him, but there was a hint of sadness.
When we pitched it to the studio, I remember sitting there thinking, “No matter how this goes, once we get to Bad Ape we’re going to get over the hump,” because we were so excited to tell them about Bad Ape [Laughs].
Luckily, they got on board with him immediately. In fact, after we turned in our first draft there was a consensus to make his scenes longer because he was so much fun to write.
His scenes also lighten the tone of the film somewhat, which is overall darker than the previous movies.
It was a challenge for us because we really haven’t had any comedy in these films. That’s not to say his comedy is broad, but we felt that because we knew this story was going to be the darkest of the three we thought it was incumbent on us to find moments of levity that are tonally appropriate but nevertheless give you a bit of a relief valve. Not unlike the role Yoda initially plays in The Empire Strikes Back.
Obviously, you don’t want that in and of itself – it’s also how the character fits in the larger ideas of the story. We thought he had a great role to play there as well. He becomes a testament to Caesar’s leadership abilities because you see Bad Ape’s character transform under Caesar’s guidance, to the point that he becomes quite integral to saving the day.
Speaking of the darker tone, the antagonist of the film is The Colonel. Like Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, on the surface he is the “villain” of the film. However, he is an extreme character reacting to an extreme situation.
Koba was such an appropriate and intense nemesis for Caesar, because there was so much grey to him. We knew we had a challenge to find an antagonist who would, if not surpass Koba, at least get us to the same level of intensity in terms of your concern for Caesar’s ability to defeat that person.
We started thinking about who Caesar was and what human foil that would be the most terrifying, which is someone with equal conviction who is fully sure of his moral right. But unlike Caesar, he has long since abandoned any code, and simply decided that everything is justified if he can at least save his people.
In drafting The Colonel’s backstory, we thought about details in his life that would – if not make you feel sympathetic for him – at least give you a full picture of how he arrived at the place where he is. In these kind of situations when massive stakes are on the line, people do tend to want to fall behind a leader.
Caesar is very well aware of the power that he wields and has always tried to temper it, but we see the dark side of that kind of cultish devotion to a leader when you are desperate to cling to a mode of survival. That type of leader would be the perfect person to exploit everyone’s fears and anxieties, and get people to act in a way that they might not normally have acted.
You told me that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was one of the most challenging scripts you ever wrote, particularly when it came to the dialogue. Do you feel similarly about the screenplay for War for the Planet of the Apes?
The identical challenges existed, but now Matt and I had a lot more experience in writing that way. We had gotten used to having a real economy of words if we knew something was going to be said in sign language. We even had just gotten better at having swaths of dialogue move faster and being more economical because we knew the challenges of reading sign language.
On the flip side, we were also interested in exploring the evolution of communication among the apes. There’s more articulation from Caesar, and Bad Ape and Red are capable of speech. We gave a few more apes the ability to speak, though the idea is that most of the time apes will sign because that’s their native mode of communication. Caesar has evolved to a place where he is more comfortable speaking, and we’re hinting that in the future that will be the way that all apes will communicate.
It is challenging when you’re writing for sign language. You’re trying to keep the subtitles to a minimum, but also have the dialogue feel plausible. It’s actually been helpful when applied to any other script, too. I find that all of my dialogue since working on Apes has gotten a bit more economical and leaner. I can get to the point faster.
You always seem to be working on something interesting, whether it’s a rewrite on a Fast and the Furious movie or Fifty Shades of Grey. What’s next?
I will say that there’s a project that I’ve loved forever that’s now at its third home. It’s an adaptation of the novel The Art of Racing in the Rain. It started out at Universal, then it went to Disney, and now it’s at Fox 2000. I’m hoping the third time’s the charm, and I’m optimistic that next year will be when it finally goes into production.
It’s a beloved book, and at the risk of sounding immodest the script came out really well. The challenge is to align the right director, budget, and star. These things take time, but usually when it’s a really viable project they somehow find their way. I’m hoping that’s the case.
Where do you think the Planet of the Apes franchise can go from here?
We were very aware that we wanted this film to end a certain cycle of storytelling. We wanted to give the possibility of moving elsewhere, whether it’s in time or with another character. That’s a discussion that the studio and the producers are probably having, and one that I’m sure I’ll be happy to be part of.
It sounds disingenuous, but the truth is that it’s such a slog to get to the finish line of these films that you don’t think of the next one at this point in the process. People wonder why they take three years – Matt will probably tell you that he was working on this film until a few weeks ago. It’s just that long of a process.
Featured image: Andy Serkis as Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation