Echoes of Trump? New 'Apes' Movie Is "Weirdly Resonant of the Moment"

This latest talking-primate movie features a leader with authoritarian tendencies, a refugee crisis and a giant border wall (that Mexico is definitely not paying for).
Courtesy of Doane Gregory/Twentieth Century Fox
Woody Harrelson did performance capture with Andy Serkis on the Vancouver set of 'War for the Planet of the Apes.'

A fierce leader with authoritarian tendencies. A refugee crisis. A great wall. If it all sounds vaguely familiar, it’s purely coincidental.

"It was totally unintentional," insists Matt Reeves, director of War for the Planet of the Apes, in which Woody Harrelson plays an Army officer obsessed with making planet Earth great again by enslaving and wiping out the tribe of intelligent apes living near the border. "We wanted the movie to be like a biblical epic, like the pharaohs building the pyramids. We wanted the apes to undergo this trial. The wall was not a conscious choice, but it is weirdly resonant of the moment."

The $150 million film, shot in the Pacific Northwest, also stars Andy Serkis as Caesar, leader of the apes. It is, of course, a role Serkis has played before — in the two previous Apes reboots — but this time the character has been given VFX upgrades. Additionally, there are 1,470 visual effects shots, nearly triple the number in 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. “The most important thing was Caesar’s emotional performance," says Weta's Dan Lemmon, VFX supervisor on all the recent Apes movies. "Caesar was fighting for his soul. And you really [need to] read that in the way his face is moving."

All of the ape effects were done with motion capture on the sets — like an ape prison camp that took five months to build — but shooting was complicated by weather. “One day we shut down production because of a blizzard,” recalls Lemmon. “The performers wore Gore-Tex under the performance-capture suits, but it was bulky and their ability to move was a concern.” For Serkis, the weather set the mood. “It was a brutal, emotionally raw shoot,” he says. “But I had to be in that headspace. I was playing him very close to myself and my emotions.”

As for the movie’s eerie similarity with current events, Harrelson backs up his director: “You would think there are a lot of parallels,” he says, “but when we shot the movie, the idea of Trump becoming president seemed unlikely.”

This story first appeared in the July 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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