You say you want an evolution? With his revisiting of the Charlton Heston classic, Tim Burton hopes to mine sci-fi gold

By Benjamin Svetkey
April 27, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

One gorilla is reading Variety and sipping a Frappuccino. Another is sharing a chef’s salad with a chimpanzee. A third is gabbing into a cell phone.

An upside-down planet where apes evolve from men? Actually, it looks more like brunch at the Ivy — only with less fake fur and better table manners.

About 100 of these pseudo-simians — each the result of up to six hours in a makeup chair — are on a break before filming a battle scene for Twentieth Century Fox’s long-awaited $100 million update of Planet of the Apes. The location is at the northern tip of the Mojave Desert, the Trona Pinnacles, an otherwise barren, prehistoric-seeming landscape spiked with the same weirdly jutting rock formations that Charlton Heston traversed during his sojourn in the Forbidden Zone more than 30 years ago.

This Planet, though, turns out to be worlds apart from the original. For starters, the remake — or ”revisiting,” as the producers insist on calling it — is directed by Tim Burton, the Goth cinema god behind such cheery horrors as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Mars Attacks! In this version, Mark Wahlberg is the astronaut who takes a wrong turn (although Heston does cameo — as a chimpanzee). Tim Roth plays the ambitious ape general who loathes him. Helena Bonham Carter is the sympathetic chimp who loves him (perhaps really loves him, but more on that later). And Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) is a silvery gorilla soldier.

Another difference: This time the folks in the hirsute suits actually look (and jump and growl) like real apes. ”I almost had a heart attack the first day of shooting,” Wahlberg recalls, lazily twirling the Flintstone-style club he’ll be brandishing in combat later that day. ”We were standing on a hill, and I was looking down at my feet, and next to me I saw these big furry toes hanging out of these sandals. I looked up and there was this huge gorilla smiling at me. I had to run to the monitor and sit with Tim until I calmed down.”

”It was pretty weird at first,” Burton concurs. ”But you get used to it. In fact, it got to the point when it was more disturbing to see the actors without their makeup. I kind of preferred dealing with them as apes.”

Fox had been monkeying around with the idea of an Apes remake for nearly a decade. At one point, James Cameron took meetings with the studio about the project. ”I would have gone in a very different direction” is all he’ll say today about his concept. What sorts of bottomless conspiracies Oliver Stone might have uncovered — back when he too was contemplating going Apes — will probably never be known either. Nor will the ideas of Chris Columbus, the Hughes brothers, or Arnold Schwarzenegger — all of whom talked to the studio about updating the 1968 sci-fi classic.

But it wasn’t until recently — around the time Tom Rothman took over as studio cochief last year — that Fox got down to serious monkey business. The screenplay by William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away) was polished by Lawrence Konner and Mark D. Rosenthal, who share writing credit; Richard D. Zanuck (who nursed the original Apes into theaters when he was head of Fox production in the ’60s) was tapped to produce; and Burton was approached to direct. ”Picking Tim was the easiest,” Rothman says. ”He was just what we needed to reinvent the material — an iconoclastic, auteuristic visionary.”

Only Burton wasn’t so sure. “The first rule of remakes is never remake a great movie,” he says. “But that’s part of what appealed to me. I guess I’m kind of perverse that way.” Exactly how the visionary plans on putting his signature on the film is hard to say: Plot points are being kept top secret, even from visitors to the set. Still, a few details can be divulged. This time, there’s no Statue of Liberty; the planet Wahlberg lands on doesn’t turn out to be a future Earth, although producers promise a different surprise ending. Also, on Burton’s Planet, the resident humans speak. In fact, here’s one chatting away right now.

“It’s sort of a slave/master world,” offers Estella Warren, the 22-year-old synchronized-swimming champion-turned-Sports Illustrated swimsuit model who costars as a rebellious human named Daena. “Some of the humans are angry and some have sort of reverted to becoming slaves. I’m very aggressive, but at the same time I’ve been taught never to look apes in the eye because they’re so powerful and can hurt us. So there’s this combination of anger and fear…”

There is also, of course, lots of hair. Originally, Fox chose Stan Winston (Edward Scissorhands) to design the ape makeup, but Burton ended up replacing him with Rick Baker (Ed Wood). “I have a relationship with both of them, so that decision was hard,” he says. Finding actors willing to endure the painstaking devolution process, however, turned out to be a snap. “I had no qualms about the makeup at all,” says Paul Giamatti (Man on the Moon), who plays an orangutan slave trader named Limbo. “My agents asked me, ‘You want to play a human, right? So people can see your face?’ And I said, ‘No way! What’s the point of being in Planet of the Apes as a human?'”

Helena Bonham Carter was a bit worried about how her combustible chimpanzee makeup might affect her smoking habit, but the producers solved that problem by giving her an elegant 1920s-style cigarette holder. “Oh, I’m still highly flammable,” says the Merchant Ivory mainstay, puffing away in her trailer while covered in latex, “but I look fabulous.” In fact, the only actor who seemed seriously concerned about his wardrobe was Wahlberg. “The last thing I wanted was to wear a loincloth,” says the onetime underwear model. “It would have been hard for me to walk out of my trailer with that thing on.” (Mercifully for him, he gets to wear long pants.)

But clothes alone don’t make the monkey: All the actors playing simians were required to attend a six-week course in ape behavior. (Incidentally, Bonham Carter initially flunked: Her ape breathing needed work.) Even so, the five-month shoot was not entirely without incident. During filming at the Pinnacles—where Roth’s ape army clashes with Wahlberg’s human legion—more than a few clubs and spears went awry, with on-set medics periodically rushing to attend to the injured. Burton himself busted a rib demonstrating how he wanted some extras to roll down a hill.

Of course, the real danger comes when the film opens July 27. As Rothman remembers from Fox’s event movie last summer, sci-fi enthusiasts can get ugly when you mess with their sacred texts. “On X-Men,” he says, “the comic fans were like, ‘What? They’re not wearing yellow? Alert the President!’ They didn’t want anything to change.” But if Burton creates an entirely new Planet while simultaneously satisfying the purists, he’ll have taken a cherished classic and turned it into a franchise—something he hasn’t accomplished since Batman. Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes—expect big-budget revisitings to them all.

On the other hand, if the movie turns out to be less fun than a barrel of you-know-whats, he’ll have some explaining to do—especially about that rumored love scene between Wahlberg’s astronaut and Bonham Carter’s chimp. “I know there’s been gossip about it in the press,” says Burton. “And, yes, there is some sort of romance in the film. But it’s not like you see any actual animal penetration. There’s no bestiality. Nothing like that.”

Let’s just hope they don’t cut any of the steamy pillow talk: “Put your stinking paws on me, you damn dirty ape!”