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Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is absolutely not a remake. Hal Hayes pays a visit to its distinctly Burtonesque universe.

In the final days of World War II, E.E. Cummings wrote a short poem in which he rehearsed the reasons for pitying - or not pitying - “this monster man (un)kind”, before concluding with a bleak joke that went

listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go

The poem was written 16 years before Tim Burton was born, but it could serve as a motto for his career as a director. Ever since the delirious anarchy of his debut feature, PeeWee’s Big Adventure (1985), Burton has been building next-door universes, albeit mostly worse than the one we actually live in.

There have been the demented suburbia of Edward Scissorhands; the dark inner cities of the first two Batman movies; and the Gothic countryside of Sleepy Hollow. Each one - generally created in conjunction with regular production designer Rick Heinrichs, who went to college with him - seemed to get bigger and more detailed, with an off-centre but definite logic of its own. This time, however, he has been able to go several steps further and create a whole planetary system.

Fans of the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes must have been relieved to learn that it was Burton who was going to recreate its upside-down world, which is precisely what he did last winter, shooting amid the beaches and canyons of Lake Powell, Arizona (on a different part of which the original movie was shot); among the other-worldly Trona Pinnacles near Ridgecrest, California; and on the Sony soundstages in Los Angeles, where Ape City was built, complete with its own houses, furnishings, tableware and even currency. After all, if you’re going to build a universe, you might as well do it properly.

“Like a lot of people, I was affected by the original. It’s like a good myth or fairytale that stays with you”

“The idea of re-imagining that mythology is very exciting to me,” says the 41-year-old director, who is arguably the only mainstream Hollywood film-maker to fit the French definition of an auteur. “I wasn’t interested in doing a remake or a sequel of Planet of the Apes,” he adds (after all, the original movie had four sequels of its own, not to mention a two-season TV series). “But I was intrigued by the idea of revisiting that world. Like a lot of people, I was affected by the original. It’s like a good myth or fairytale that stays with you.”

“Tim has a very clear idea of his own universe,” says French cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (who won an Oscar for A River Runs Through It) in a recent issue of French weekly, Le Film Français, “but he never gives you instructions on how to work it. That comes out more when everything is being co-ordinated. He takes in lots of ideas and chooses the ones that work for his team. He’s the one who gives it all coherence and unity, but it’s never rigid.

“It’s great working with him,” continues Rousselot, “because he’s always ready to listen. I remember there was a battle scene that we shot in the Mojave Desert. I suggested the idea of having it happen in a dust storm. Tim, the production designer, everybody… picked up on the idea. We found it gave a weirder, more tangible atmosphere to the scene. It also meant we could show some things and hide others. We did a few tests and went with it.”

Rousselot also points out that, for a blockbuster set on a distant planet (one big difference between Burton’s film and the original is that the world in question is not Planet Earth in the distant future), Planet of the Apes is not a special-effects extravaganza. “Tim wanted us to do as much as possible on set,” says the cinematographer, “so that we could explore all the possibilities on a direct visual level. Of course, there are lots of digital effects - getting rid of wires or extending sets. But, for the kind of film it is, there are very few of them.”

“I like making them characters and bringing out the individual differences”

What there are, of course, are some very complex ape costumes. The story’s starting point is the same as that of the original film: an interplanetary craft, lost in space, crash-lands on a strange world with two suns. Escaping from the wreckage, the pilot - Mark Wahlberg taking over from the original’s Charlton Heston - finds himself hunted by a superior race of talking apes. The latter (who were pretty impressive by 1968 standards in the original film) are quite breathtaking in the new version - as well they should be, since they are the work of multiple Oscar-winning make-up artist (and ape aficionado) Rick Baker.

Like Burton, Baker was hugely impressed by the original film. But, for him, it was more than just a part of growing up: it all but inspired his career. “When I was a teenager,” Baker told a journalist visiting the set of Apes, “I actually saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes in the same week. And I couldn’t understand why you saw [the apes] moving their lips and showing their teeth in the first but not in the second!

“The make-up was great for the time, but basically they had one sculpture - in gorilla, chimp and orangutan versions - which they duplicated for everyone. They all had the same slicked-back hair and button noses. The teeth were in the mouth, but you never saw them. I wanted to be sure our apes had lips that move so you can see the teeth. In addition, I wanted each creature to be uniquely different. I like making them characters and bringing out the individual differences.”

“The biggest challenge was to get the actors’ performances to overcome the make-up”

That, of course, was also the key for Burton, who wanted the film to be a drama about two sets of characters - humans and apes - just as some films are about, say, Americans and Australians. There are cultural differences, but that’s not all the story is about. Burton didn’t want audiences to focus exclusively on the make-up or even the way of speaking. His Planet of the Apes is about the conflict between characters, some of whom are human, others simian.

“The biggest challenge,” he says, “was to get the actors’ performances to overcome the make-up. And I think we pulled it off. I’m more affected and moved by actors’ performances than by illusions and masks.”

The screenplay for the 2001 version of Planet of the Apes was written by William Broyles Jr, who was Oscar-nominated for Apollo 13 and recently penned another Tom Hanks hit, Cast Away. Broyles was responsible for removing the big shock effect of the first film: the moment when Charlton Heston sees the remains of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand, and realises that he has somehow ended up on his planet far into the future, long after human civilisation has been destroyed in a series of nuclear wars.

Broyles wanted the surprises in the new film to come from elsewhere. “We’re definitely not in Kansas any more,” he jokes. The new film, he says, “makes us look at people who we think are across some deep divide - be it cultural, racial, intellectual, national or religious - and then look at those people in a different way.”

The central human character is USAF Captain Leo Davidson (Wahlberg), who finds himself running for his life from a patrol of armour-wearing apes on horseback, led by the huge silverback gorilla Attar, played by Green Mile star Michael Clarke Duncan. Attar reports to the tyrannical General Thade (Tim Roth, exuding menace from behind chimpanzee make-up).

“He’s definitely the villain of the piece,” says Burton. “He represents a certain point of view in ape culture, especially the aggression of the species. As we’ve seen in several of his films, Tim can be terrifying. Thade is actually a chimp - the primate that Rick [Baker] says is the most volatile.”

Wahlberg’s “dominant onscreen characteristic is a ferocious determination to the point of obstinacy”

But not all the apes are bad. Indeed, the best of the them is the chimp whom Thade secretly loves: Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), who would be an animal-rights activist if she was human, but who, in the context of Planet of the Apes, is a human-rights campaigner. She quickly forms a bond with the human newcomer, as does Daena, a strong-willed human female played by supermodel Estella Warren. Rounding out the story’s central characters are an orangutan slave-trader called Limbo (Paul Giamatti), plus the fathers of the two lead females: David Warner as Senator Sandar, Ari’s father; and Kris Kristofferson as Karubi, father to Daena. There’s even an ape cameo for Charlton Heston.

The complexities of the new planet’s culture are experienced by Captain Davidson, who organises the humans into resistance, and finally leads them in an assault on the Sacred Temple in the heart of the Forbidden Zone which holds the secret of the Planet of the Apes. It’s the kind of role which might have been written for Wahlberg, whose dominant onscreen characteristic is a ferocious determination to the point of obstinacy. A bit like Charlton Heston, in fact.

“What I like about Mark is he’s got a real gravity to him,” says Burton. “He’s an actor of strength and clarity. If you want the audience to see things through the eyes of your lead character, you want to feel like here’s a human being that you can relate to - who sees the weirdness, the intensity of it all and is dealing with it.”

“the original had a life of its own, and we’re trying to be respectful of it…”

For the director, however, the one crucial element in creating the unique universe of the Planet of the Apes is that the film should have its own, unique world, not be a loving recreation of the world of the 1968 movie. But, he says, “the original had a life of its own, and we’re trying to be respectful of it…”

As well he might, since his film and the original share a producer, in the shape of veteran Richard D Zanuck, who has filled the intervening years with such cinematic trifles as Jaws, The Sting and Cocoon. Zanuck had not been involved in the new version prior to the hiring of Burton to direct the movie. But he couldn’t wait to get involved when Burton came on board.

“He was just what we needed to reinvent the material - an iconoclastic, auteuristic visionary,” he says. “When you say Planet of the Apes and Tim Burton in the same breath, that idea is instantly explosive, like lightning on the screen.”

Published August 2, 2001

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