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When director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Mark Bomback came on board for 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the film already had a release date, which led to an accelerated production schedule. “We were always running like maniacs to make that movie,” says Reeves. The result? Dawn was a critical and commercial success, grossing over $700 globally and setting the stage for a sequel.
But Fox, the studio behind the Apes franchise, did something unusual when it came to developing a sequel. “They actually gave us time,” Reeves says. “Mark and I began by doing the thing everybody thinks writers do, but they don’t, because there’s never time. We talked about our lives. We talked about history stories. And then we watched a lot of movies.”
The collaborators went back and watched all the films in the Apes franchise, but they also sought broader inspiration. “We watched Bridge on the River Kwai,” says Reeves. “We watched The Great Escape. We watched Biblical epics, because I really felt like this movie had to have a Biblical aspect to it. We watched Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments. We didn’t go, like, ‘Let’s take a little bit of this, a little bit of that.’ When you surround yourself with something that feels emotionally right, there are connections that make sense to you that somebody else might not see…[the films] informed the vibe we felt about this thing.”
As Reeves and Bomback set to writing the screenplay, there were echoes of some of their favorite films. In the film, heroic ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) comes into contact with Woody Harrelson’s Colonel, a military leader with vague pretensions toward godhood. Reeves compares their relationship to the dynamic between Alec Guinness’s British Commander and Sessue Hayakawa prison camp Colonel in Bridge on the River Kwai. But War is also a quest narrative, with mythic western overtones. After a stunning opening sequence that throws the audience into the human-ape war, Caesar sets off on a journey to find the Colonel, flanked by a posse of close friends – a situation Reeves explicitly ties to Clint Eastwood’s war-weary soldier in The Outlaw Josey Wales.
War, of course, stands on its own, a uniquely character-focused blockbuster film albeit one in which many of the characters are primates played via performance-capture. And Reeves is sincere when he refers to Caesar in biblical terms. “The movie is totally about his mythic ascension,” says the director, “The battle for his soul that cements his position as the key figure in early Ape history. You can imagine the story of him would inspire religions.”
War for the Planet of the Apes opens July 14.