Last week, actor Steve Zahn joined director Matt Reeves at a special Fox presentation for their upcoming film, War for the Planet of the Apes. Continuing on from 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the tensions between the humans and apes have escalated to the point where battle is the only option and countering Caesar on the side of the human army is The Colonel, a new character played by Woody Harrelson.
Caesar and his fellow apes Rocket, Maurice and Luca go looking for The Colonel, as Caesar tries to get over his guilt for killing Koba in Dawn. On this journey, Caesar and his apes meet a new chimp that’s able to speak and understand English like Caesar, and who refers to himself as “Bad Ape.”
The next day, Collider had a chance to talk with Zahn about bringing a new character into the Planet of the Apes mythos.
Collider: I was at the presentation yesterday where they introduced Bad Ape. Since they’ve been making these apes for a couple years now, you must have known about the mocap stuff beforehand, but did Matt show you a picture of the chimp they used as a basis for Bad Ape? What was your introduction to him?
STEVE ZAHN: You know what? They all assume that I saw this picture and I didn’t. (laughs) We were like well into shooting and they were like, “You know, the ape!” and I’m like, “No, I’ve never seen the rendered picture.” They were like, “You’re kidding. Oh my God!” I said, “You know, I really don’t want to see one.” I kind of know what he looks like; I kind of get the idea. You know what, honestly? I’m kind of one of those guys that it’s fun to pretend I know what’s going on, and I do know what’s going on, but I’ve learned over the years that the more you know, it kind of slows you down and it doesn’t necessarily help you. So I’ve kind of stayed naïve to a lot of things in this business. Motion capture, I really kind of understood it in a sentence, but not at all. When I went into it, it was really kind of an eye opening new thing.
Did you have a lot of time to rehearse or work with Andy before you got on set and started shooting?
ZAHN: Andy was shooting, so I came in while they were shooting, so me and Terry Notary, who’s kind of the guy as far as movement. Terry plays Rocket. I would meet with him. I missed the camp because I was shooting down in Puerto Rico, and then I came in, and they had already started shooting and they said, “Well, you should come in a couple weeks early just so you can get going.” And then I got there, and I got really scared and I thought I need more than two weeks. Terry and I would meet. I would work all day on stuff and then I would meet up with Terry in the afternoon when they were getting close to wrap. Terry and I would work for hours every day. It was really incredible, because I thought it was going to be a lot more like, “You’re a dancer. I’m a dancer. Here’s the moves. You do this. You do that.” It was more kind of theater work. It was organic. Terry, the first day, we just sat in chairs and looked at each other. He was like, “What is it about apes? What is it about monkeys that …” We really kind of went to this essence, this organic thing. Then I started realizing, I was like, “Oh, this is important.” It’s not about pretending you’re an ape, it’s about being an ape. It’s about being this character. We don’t have ape suits on, so we really have to become apes. If you pretend you’re an ape, it’s going to look like sh*t. If you be one, and it’s second nature, then it’s going to work. To get to that point takes a lot of work.
That makes sense. It was really interesting seeing the footage yesterday, which was partially rendered and partially just the actors. I actually was on the set of the first Apes movie, so I got to see Andy on set doing stuff, but it’s still really interesting to see the four or five actors interacting without seeing the final CG of them as apes.
ZAHN: Yes, because in my head, it was really cool because that’s all I remember is us, the people with dots on their face. That’s what I’m used to. That’s what moved me, and that’s what made me laugh. It’s wild to see us as apes. It kind of got to the point where you didn’t even think of being an ape. You just thought of being this kind of subculture kind of subhuman. I don’t know. These people with gray suits on and dots. Do you know what I mean?
Bad Ape actually speaks just like Caesar does. Did they use a lot of the narration you did on set? Did they actually use a lot of that stuff? Is there still an amount of dubbing stuff afterwards once the animation is done?
ZAHN: You mean the voice? No, it’s all production.
It’s all on set.
ZAHN: Oh yes. I didn’t do any looping. I added one line, which was an added line. You know how you usually go to a looping session and they’ll add lines? This was all production. The voice you hear is the voice that I did on the day.
Okay. I was curious about that. I know it’s capturing all your facial movements, but I wasn’t sure if it was able to do that and you’d still be able to use your regular voice.
ZAHN: That’s what’s kind of incredible about it. I kind of thought that too going into it. Like, “Oh, this is going to be all these things, and oh, I’m going to have to do so much post work.” And then I realized, no, this is actually more organic and kind of theater-like than anything I’ve ever done, which blew me away. I really thought it was going to be a completely different … challenging on a completely different level.
A lot of the other actors had already done these movies with Andy, so in a way, your character is coming into the group in a same way that you were as an actor.
ZAHN: Right. It’s true. That’s interesting. That’s not … it’s a different speed altogether, which makes it interesting.
I don’t know if you know anything about horseback riding, but we did see a bit of Bad Ape on horseback, so did you have to do that stuff, too?
ZAHN: Yes. We did a lot of that stuff. The real crazy stuff, obviously, was stunt people because it’s hard to do and also time. We don’t have time, you know? We did a lot of horseback. When you see us traveling together and going on the journey, that’s all us.
I’m curious about whether Bad Ape is actually involved in that whole journey. I know we follow Caesar up to certain point and then they meet Bad Ape. I wasn’t sure if Bad Ape continues with them for the rest of the movie and gets involved in more of the battle scenes and all that stuff.
ZAHN: Yes. You hear Caesar in that stuff we saw yesterday. So you know where this place is where you take us. I’m like, “No, no, no. You don’t want to go there, it’s horrible.” And then it ends with me going, “Look. Look. Snow. We can’t go now. It’s snowing.” I know where to go, basically.
I just assume you had a full script at some point early on, so was it obvious that the Bad Ape was going to add more of the levity to the mix?
ZAHN: It wasn’t like, “Oh. This is the funny ape.” It was just like this isn’t like that at all. In fact, there’s a lot of this ape that’s not funny in the least bit. Caesar and him share a lot of experiences and that’s one of the reasons they bond. It’s like they’ve been through a lot of shit. When I read it I was like … It’s not written like, “Oh, this guy moves fast.” Or he thinks riding a horse is going to be cool. It just says … this is the character. Those are things that I kind of developed, like, “Oh. I bet he’s just excited about everything.” Do you know what I mean? Those are just things I kind of developed while we were shooting. He did come off as a different speed during this kind of really dark story, this heavy story. It’s like, “Oh. It’s going to be nice to have a guy who’s like kind of preoccupied with the fucking trees.” You know, whatever. Like, “Oh. We get to ride horses? Great.”
It seems like Bad Ape gets distracted very easily…
ZAHN: Yes, definitely.
I assume you finished shooting a while now, so have you had the chance to see how things are turning out or was yesterday the first time you’ve seen your character fully realized?
ZAHN: Seeing literally the footage? This was it, dude. I saw a little bit … we did re-shoots like three weeks ago, whatever, a month ago. He showed me just a little snippet, just so I could see what I look like. But yesterday was kind of the first stuff I’ve seen.
I don’t know if you can say much about this, but do you see your character maybe continuing into other movies? I don’t know what Matt or anybody else’s plans are after this one.
ZAHN: I don’t know what their deal … You know Matt. This is his job. For the past three years this is what he’s been doing. The post is so long on it. It comes out and then he moves on and they start shooting another one. I really have no clue as to what they want to do.
War of the Planet of the Apes opens nationwide on Friday, July 14, 2017.