Everybody knows Tarzan. Ever since Edgar Rice Burroughs published his first Tarzan story back in 1912, the King of the Jungle has been swinging through pop culture in books, films and television with occasional, short-lived breaks between the iterations. One such lull in Tarzan’s enduring narrative is about to come to an end with David Yates‘ The Legend of Tarzan, But don’t expect your momma’s Ape Man because Yates and co. have scrapped your standard Tarzan’s well-wrought origin story in favor of an original story and a new twist on the iconic character.
Set after the events of his wild upbringing, The Legend of Tarzan picks up with the Alexander Skarsgard‘s title hero when he has built a life in England with his beloved Jane (Margot Robbie) as Lord John Clayton III of Greystoke, and finds him pulled back to his roots thanks to the machinations of the ruthless, greedy Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz).
Back in the fall of 2014, when The Legend of Tarzan was in the thick of production, I had the opportunity to visit the sets and soundstages at Warner Bros. Leavesden studios, where they filled African landscapes and let the King of the Jungle loose once again. While there, I joined a small group of journalists to chat with producer David Barron, who previously worked with Yates on the Harry Potter films. We chatted about why they opted out of the standard Tarzan tale, how the timing worked out just right for him to come aboard the project, re-creating Africa in England, Skarsgard’s insane diet and exercise regimen to get in vine-swinging shape, and a lot more. Check it out in the interview below.
Can you talk a little bit about the development of the movie? There’s been reports about the two parallel scripts and things like that.
DAVID BARRON: Unfortunately I can’t because I wasn’t involved in the early development. I’ve worked a lot with David in the past and he asked me to come and work on Tarzan with him but I was working with Kenneth Branagh on Jack Ryan and then Cinderella which we’re still finishing off. And luckily for me David didn’t manage to get all the stars to collide at the same time in terms of his financing, logistics of the film, budgeting and the other logistics of the film, the cast, and getting the script finalized, before I finished filming Cinderella. So three days after I finished shooting I came over here and started prepping Tarzan, putting it together so unfortunately the early days of development are not something I can talk with any authority about.
Can you talk about how much of the script comes from Burroughs and how much is created out of whole cloth?
BARRON: None of it comes from Burroughs. It’s an original script that Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad, somewhere in there, I’m not quite sure, who contributed the most at the beginning. But Adam has taken over in the last two or three years. It’s majority his work now. It’s based on the character obviously, of Tarzan, it’s Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan but it’s a completely original story.
Can you talk about the decision to shoot Africa here, to shoot all the jungle stuff on soundstages?
BARRON: Yeah, it’s a lot easier to shoot here than it is to shoot in Africa. If you go into the deep rainforest a, you have to take everything with you, there’s no infrastructure in the rainforest. You have to take everything with you which is very expensive, it’s kind of non-productive expenditure because it costs a lot just to get it there and keep it there and once you get there, in a proper rainforest, it’s actually hard to move about, it’s very hot, you get bitten a lot and it’s just not a nice place to work, a fun place to go to, but not a nice place to spend several months shooting. Visual effects technology, nowadays has advanced to the extent that you can do…no one will ever know this is not Africa. It’ll be so convincing. Stuart Craig’s sets, which I’m sure you’ve seen some of this morning. Yeah, he’s a genius and so he’s completely convincing. And then the extensions of… well, we’re gonna shoot the end, we’re gonna shoot for six weeks in the Gabon, mainly aerial unit for visual effects background plates and so you’ll get some great, big, sweeping beauty shots over the rainforest and Savannah and whatever. If you hadn’t been here you wouldn’t know it wasn’t shot in Africa.
Once the characters get back to Africa, does the story take place over a day or two?
BARRON: It’s kind of over a week, really, I think.
But there’s no… because it sounds like all the costume stuff all sort of deteriorates over the course of one.
BARRON: It does because they hit the ground running. Do you know the story?
A little bit, yeah.
BARRON: Well Christoph Rom makes off with Jane, with Margot Robbie, and so it becomes a chase movie at that point. Tarzan hits the ground running. It actually has to do… he rediscovers the primal Tarzan in the course of this mad dash to rescue Jane.
How would you describe the tone of it?
BARRON: It’s kind of reality based in that Adam Cozad in particular is very keen on getting historical facts right, King Leopold of Belgium’s rape of the Congo. So we’re set in 1889, it’s a great big fun action-adventure romp with a bit of solid underpinning of reality. We’re creating our own reality, but should I say you would actually accept absolutely as being real? We’re not slaves to the period but it’s not any kind of mashup presentation of period either, so it looks period but has quite a modern feel to it. It’s just a great big fun action-adventure romp with some really good, strong characters underpinned with this reality.
I know you said you weren’t around for early pre-production, but if you were around can you talk about casting and finding the right guy to fill an iconic role?
BARRON: Again, well unfortunately that was already done. The reason it all coalesced at the time that I finished shooting Cinderella was that David had just screen-tested Alexander and so everyone had got really excited because the film had had its peaks and troughs in terms of its road to actually getting made. And it had gone quiet a bit during last summer and then David screen-tested Alexander and they talked to him and everyone got very excited and he always had his eye on Christoph Waltz and Sam Jackson and Margot and obviously you need Tarzan before you can really do too much. The moment he got a Tarzan that everyone was excited about, the whole thing could come together so again unfortunately I can take no credit for that.
Can you tell us about the Jane character? I think we’ve got an idea of who Tarzan is but who’s Jane?
BARRON: Well Jane she went to Africa with her father who’s a biologist and spent her formative years growing up in and around the Kuba village, which you may have seen the remnants of this morning. We burnt it down last night. Actually just harking back to the Africa, the believability, we actually had the head of the national parks in Gabon here the other day who went down to look at the village before we’d set fire to it. Obviously bearing in mind we need distant views of Africa in the background, he said it was completely convincing. Yeah so Jane obviously, Tarzan saves Jane from a beating from his ape father and she rescues him and takes him in with her father and they over the course of time, which we don’t show this particular journey, we show abbreviated parts of their meeting. We then find them in London, they got married, they moved back to London. He’s Lord Greystoke the Third and she is trying to fit in. She’s not only come from the jungle, not in quite the same way as Tarzan, but she’s an American out of place in a very stuffy, English, aristocratic home. And she’s a really feisty character, she misses Africa, she loves Africa and she wants to go back. She’s a fish out of water like Tarzan in some respects because she’s American in this very fusty aristocratic environment.
I like the fact that the movie isn’t an origin story because we’ve seen so many origin stories this year but you do have to explain a little bit for people who don’t know Tarzan, how much the movie does set up his story before the whole thing?
BARRON: We don’t set it up beforehand at all. We actually jump straight into the movie and then through some flashbacks we discover what we hope is sufficient of Tarzan’s backstory to understand who he was, how he changed by becoming Lord Greystoke and how he then changes back again during the course of the film.
Can you talk about shooting the movie? Is some of it 70mm?
Is it all digital?
BARRON: It is. Yeah, it’s all digital.
BARRON: You’ve got me there actually. I’ll tell you what, I don’t know because this is the first film I’ve ever shot fully in digital. Because the last two or three films… on all the Harry Potter’s we shot on film and the cinematographer for Jack Ryan and Cinderella was Haris Zambarloukos and he was a die-hard film man. So apart from the Jack Ryan in Moscow night which we shot on the Red, we shot on film. Nik Korda, who’s our exec producer is a digital veteran.
Is it gonna be in 3D?
BARRON: It will be in 3D, post conversion. So Nik understands the aspect ratios. I understand the film aspect ratio, it’s a fabulous ratio. [laughs]
What are they shooting today? What can you tell us about what we’re gonna see?
BARRON: Part of Tarzan’s journey involves taking the train which he boards in a very unorthodox fashion. They dive down through the trees and swing through the vines in a very typical Tarzan fashion and land on the roof of the train which is full of Belgian soldiers and some African slaves and Tarzan very quickly deals with the Belgian soldiers, releases the African slaves and then at some point a bit further down the line gets off the train and carries on his journey on foot with George who is played by Sam Jackson.
How much CGI will we see? Will a swinging Tarzan be CGI at times?
BARRON: It will be a combination. In order to make things truly graceful and very slightly defy gravity we need the help of CG.
But you’re still aiming for a realistic?
BARRON: Yeah, absolutely.
Has Alexander been scanned?
BARRON: He has. We might actually need to rescan him because he’s actually worked out so much that he’s in such fabulous shape. When he first started, when he was still shooting True Blood, he was on a diet of 8,000 calories a day. Getting up and eating every three hours, getting up in the middle of the night to cook steak and eat it and working out for four hours a day. He’s in incredible shape.
Was there any trepidation about approaching this material? I mean the last Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation was John Carter.
BARRON: I mean for me, certainly not. I was lucky enough to inherit, not fully formed but well on the way, really good script, and it’s fun. I’m old enough to remember Tarzan from way back so I love Tarzan and I was just very excited to be part of it so I’d been constantly disappointed that I wasn’t available so I was very secretly pleased every time David couldn’t quite get it together although I couldn’t tell him that.
Like you said the movie had its ups and downs before you guys started shooting. What was it about Tarzan that David was so attached to, that really made him want it to be his follow-up to Harry Potter?
BARRON: Well that’s a question you’re gonna have to ask him, but again he was just very excited about it. When he was first sent the script he wasn’t actually excited by Tarzan, he didn’t want to read it, particularly. And people in his office, his development team, read it and said “you’re nuts, you’ve gotta read this,” and he read it and said he “you’re right, i’m nuts, i love this.” As far as I’m aware he was just hooked on the material.
Obviously there have been a lot of cinematic variations on Tarzan, there’s the Disney movie, there’s Greystoke. But it’s been awhile since there’s been a big-budget version out. Have you done any research to see what the public consciousness is of Tarzan?
BARRON: I’m sure Warner Bros…There is a high awareness of Tarzan, even young kids. And sometimes you ask them how they know about it and they don’t know how they knew about it but they know about Tarzan. And so Warner’s if they hadn’t felt confident that there was a sufficient fanbase out there to allow us to establish the film properly I don’t think they would have gone ahead with it.
Is it safe to assume that if the film does well that we’ll see a sequel? Because it feels like it could be a franchise.
BARRON: We hope so. I’m training with Alexander’s trainer now just in case he’s not available. Yeah obviously, we’d love to. It’s a fun world to work in. It’s a world that we haven’t seen anything similar to recently.
Have you talked to David about it?
BARRON: Absolutely, yeah. We would love collectively to make more if we don’t mess this one up.