Exclusive Interview: <i>Rise of the Planet of the Apes</i> Writers Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa

We tried really hard to create a story that would stand on its own and yet also pay homage and honor the movies that came before us. We really took thefans very, very seriously and really wanted them to be engaged, and happy that we're trying this.
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After the build-up of my mega-Apes reviewing jam session two weeks ago, I was gratified to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes not only measure up to its lineage, but also open to an impressive total that's given the legendary franchise a renewed cultural currency. Last week, I spoke with Rise screenwriters Amanda Silver & Rick Jaffa, the married couple who sparked the initial idea five years ago, and here are some highlights from our in-depth chat. For the unabridged version, click here.

Give us a sense of where this started, and your journey from the first inkling to where we are now.

Amanda: Well, Rick, has this great habit where he cuts out articles of interest and keeps them in this big folder for when we're in between -- when we're looking for jobs. And so we were looking for a gig and Rick had cut out these articles that fascinated him about chimps being raised as humans in homes. And what invariably happens in all these instances is that the chimp grows into an aggressive, powerful animal and things go awry. You know, he attacks the owner, he or she attacks the owner or a neighbor or... it always ends badly.

Rick: Tragically.

Amanda: Then the chimp is always put, like Nim, in some sort of facility and traumatized by that. And they're extremely smart sentient beings without even having any extra smarts put in them, like Caesar. So anyway, Rick saw these articles and he knew there was a juicy thriller in there somewhere for us. And then he had that crazy lightbulb epiphany, and he said, "Oh my God, this a great way to reboot Planet of the Apes." And he came to me, and he said "Honey, we're gonna reinvent Planet of the Apes." And I kind of faked a smile and -- a supportive smile -- and said, "Well, how the hell are we going to do that?" And he started talking about this character of this chimp, and that's how Caesar was born.

This has been called a prequel, it's been called a reboot. What would you call it?

Rick: Well, it's funny. We were interviewed on the set last summer, and I said, "Well, it's a reinvention," and someone quickly said, "Well, that's exactly what Tim Burton told me in 2001," you know? So, it's really hard to say. I guess, if I had to pick, I would say reboot.

Amanda: What would you call it, Zaki?

Rick: Yeah, what do you think?

From where I sit, it stands apart from the movies that are already out there. And obviously, you put a few things in there that allude to what could possibly happen, but what's interesting is that somebody had mentioned, "Oh, now they need to redo the Heston version," and I said, well, I'd almost not want to see that. I'd almost prefer that that's just something that's out there that we as the audience know will happen at some point.

Amanda: I agree with you.

Rick: Well, I totally agree with that. We never wanted to compete with the original and the Statue of Liberty. What our concept was really, from what we said to Fox, was we want to approach this in a very realistic way. Meaning, what's going on in our world today, that if the right dominoes were to line up, touch each other, it could lead to apes taking over the planet and, perhaps, getting Colonel Taylor on that beach in thirty-nine hundred years.

You've gotta tell it realistically, and everyone was on board with that and always through the whole process. So we tried really hard to create a story that would stand on its own and yet also pay homage and honor the movies that came before us. We really took the Planet of the Apes fans very, very seriously and really wanted them to be engaged, and happy that we're trying this. You know, let's take this journey again together, let's do this, but tell it in a fresh and interesting way.

So, it does explain how the apes took over, but this is a different Caesar we're looking at, it's not the same Caesar. It's a different story of who Caesar is, and how he came to be. So it's really kind of hard to put a label on it. We are hopefully rebooting it. We hope there's a sequel and we hope we get the chance to continue to tell stories about Caesar and the apes and so forth, and where the Icarus [the fan-given name of Taylor's ship in the original Apes, alluded to in the new film] comes in has yet to be determined. So it's kind of tough to put a specific word to it.

The Roddy McDowall Caesar, his arc in Conquest [of the Planet of the Apes] is really motivated by revenge, in that Ricardo Montalban gets killed and that's sort of what pushes him over the brink.. so I was curious how that changed, and how you arrived at the decision to make revenge not so much a motivation [here].

Amanda: Well, in early drafts, the character of Caesar has changed. I don't know how many drafts we've done. Like, maybe thirty drafts -- whatever. But in early drafts, like, 2006, 2007 drafts, Caesar is motivated more by revenge. He has more of a... I would almost call it a Michael Corleone trajectory

Rick: He becomes a great leader, but he's darker.

Amanda: And his heart closes down, and although that worked dramatically, it was kind of less satisfying. We all as a group decided that we loved Caesar too much to let him go so bleak. And that as a figure for revolution we wanted him to be hopeful and positive for the other apes, rather than so dark and negative.

Rick: Yeah, he really emerged as a hopeful, populist kind of... it became, it was always structurally a Moses story, but it became more of a Moses story once his character transformed in development to where he ended up. But in one draft, and I can't recall which draft that was, but in one draft we changed Michael Corleone to Che Guevara.

Amanda: Yeah, and it felt good.

When you put "Planet of the Apes" in the title, that immediately carries with it a set of specific expectations. So, we know going forward it has to end up a certain way, so is that a process that you're looking to explore? At some point Caesar -- is his story a tragic one? Because he's doomed to fail?

Amanda: Wellll... see, we can't... we know the answer to that, but we can't tell you.

Rick: One thing about what you're saying though is that there's really, I guess, the interesting thing dramatically about what you're saying is that it's okay for the audience to know where something is going and the fun is how you're going to get there. So that's going to be the challenge, really, for us if we get to do the sequel, if a sequel's done, is how we get there, and get there in a surprising and emotionally satisfying way. And that's what we're looking to do.

Did you feel constrained by what was already out there, such a volume of material that's done this story, to some extent, of the apes taking over, or was it more like a puzzle piece where you're figuring out the right way to put it all together.

Amanda: When we needed ballast, we looked to the exigencies of our story. Like, what was our beginning, middle and end, what was our structure, and so we would be influenced by the larger Planet of the Apes stuff, but when we felt off-kilter, we would return again and again to our theme and our characters.

Rick: Yeah. We haven't talked about our theme, Zaki, but we landed on a theme, which we really believe was the theme, or could have arguably been the theme, of the original movie, the '68 movie, which was that man's hubris can lead to his downfall -- that man is not meant to play God. And that apes didn't put Colonel Taylor on that beach, man put Colonel Taylor there. So, that also helped us a lot, because we felt that we were really being true to the spirit of the movies.

You mentioned you re-watched the entire series, I'm curious what your thoughts are on the sequels and which was your favorite among those.

Rick: Well, yeah, its hard for me to... it's tough to compare the sequels to the original. It's just hard to live up to that first one.

Amanda: The bar is very high.

Rick: The bar is impossibly high, yeah. But it has great stuff in it, and... we constructed the narrative around this one bit of Apes mythology which comes from... I think it is Escape [From the Planet of the Apes], where they talk about the first chimp that spoke. So, we knew that was going be a big part of the narrative, and we kind of worked forwards and backwards and we kind of built to that and, God, to watch that on the screen, watching people respond is really, really rewarding.

What I appreciated most is that it asks for a sequel rather than demanding a sequel.

Rick: Thanks.

Amanda: Zaki, thank you so much, and thanks for your wonderful review. It brought a big smile to my face.

Oh, that's fantastic! Well, I hope I'll get a chance to talk to you again should a part two materialize at some point.

Amanda: That would be great. I'm touching wood!

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