'Man Playing God Will Bite Him On the Ass': A Conversation With the Writers of 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

10:00 AM PST 07/30/2014 by As told to Seth Abramovitch
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa on how they used primates to find the essence of humanity.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The other night, a friend jokingly asked, "You guys ever going to write a movie with human characters?" We hadn't really realized that a common thread through all the movies we've been writing, from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to Avatar 2 to Jurassic World, is man's hubris in the face of nature and, by extension, over animals. When we started on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we wrote down on a Post-It, "Man playing God will bite him on the ass." Whenever we got lost, we would look at that Post-It. We didn't set out to write an animal-rights movie with Rise, but we're very proud it is one.

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It started when Rick was trying to come up with what might be our next script. He had been collecting articles about families that raised chimps in their home. The research showed there were thousands of people who owned chimpanzees in our country. Baby chimps are incredibly smart and sweet, and you can communicate with them on a very involved level. But every one of those stories ends badly: The chimp bites its owner, attacks a neighbor or there's a misunderstanding and it displays its power and strength. The chimp can no longer be housed in a human residence, and there's this unbelievably painful split, like having a child wrenched away from a parent. People have had to leave their chimpanzees at facilities, literally drop them off at an orphanage. So Rick was going back and forth between another article on genetic engineering and the apes articles, and he said: "You know what? We're going to reinvent Planet of the Apes."

The key was, the film had to be from the apes' point of view. It's worth noting that the emotion in both movies comes from the buy-in that these creatures have an emotional life you invest in. You're relating to them. We knew the only way it was going to work was to get an actor to convincingly play an ape and have that rendered in a way that you buy in. We didn't know that Peter Jackson's Weta Workshop had the technology to achieve that when we wrote it, nor that Andy Serkis would be the knockout punch. (How lucky we ended up being because Jim Cameron and Weta were able to figure it all out for Avatar. In fact, we're still in the land of the deep blue people, as we have been working on Avatar 2 for a while.)

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We based Rocket, one of the characters in both movies, on a chimp we met at Black Beauty Ranch in East Texas. Rocket was the alpha male: He wasn't as smart as the others, but he had a Little Tykes refrigerator and was sliding that thing all around just trying to scare the hell out of us -- we used that in one scene. His personality carried through.

In both films, we really enjoyed writing a character's intentions and feelings playing out without words. But we did it because our research said that apes' voice boxes aren't constructed for the way we speak, which is a theory as to what has prevented them from taking the great leap humans have. There are all kinds of research about the communication they do with sign language, and apes who know sign language have been able to teach it to others. With the first movie, the studio's fear was the audience would be taken out of the movie: "Wait a minute, they're signing?" The success of Rise led to less resistance but a lot of wrestling back and forth as far as where we should land on language and communication in Dawn. Our first draft of Dawn, there wasn't a word spoken for the first 40 pages. 

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We could watch them hanging around in the ape village in Dawn all day, but it's Caesar's and Koba's story. There was a guy behind us at the ArcLight opening night, who at one key moment screamed, "NOOO!!!" Anyone who's ever been wronged is angry about it and has trouble letting go -- that's a human emotion; it's part of the human condition. We just posited that it's part of the apes' as well.

In addition to Avatar 2, Silver and Jaffa wrote a draft of Jurassic World and Ron Howard's Heart of the Sea.

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