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‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ Director Wes Ball on the Franchise’s Future and What He’s Directing Next

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[The following story contains mild spoilers for Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.]

With strong reviews and a projected opening weekend as high as $145 million worldwide, Wes Ball’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is poised to carry out a successful relaunch of the Apes franchise. The film picks up right where Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves’ reboot trilogy left off with ​​War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), as Ball depicts Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) funeral before jumping multiple centuries ahead to a time where Caesar has become the stuff of legend. 

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In 2019, after his three Maze Runner films grossed nearly $1 billion on a $156 million spend, Ball was days away from production on 20th Century Fox’s Mouse Guard adaptation, but then the Disney-Fox merger abruptly canceled his ambitious mocap-centric project that counted Reeves and Serkis as producer and actor, respectively. However, later that year, Ball got a call from 20th’s longtime president of production, Emma Watts, which he believes was her way to make amends for Mouse Guard’s collapse.

“Yeah, that’s probably what it was … Emma Watts called me and said, ‘Sorry about the Mouse Guard thing, but what would you do with the next Planet of the Apes?’” Ball tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So it took me a minute to get my head around that idea. I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do until we found our way into something that I thought was worthy of following up the previous three.”

Ball’s way into a new potential trilogy began with the aforementioned time jump where different clans of apes now reside in their own villages, including the Eagle Clan and their sheltered yet serene existence alongside their loyal eagle companions. Noa (Owen Teague), a sensitive young chimpanzee, is on the verge of adulthood within the Eagle Clan when Proximus Caesar’s (Kevin Durand) coastal clan of hostile apes pillages his family’s community, forcing him to go on a journey where he finally learns about the real world and who the real Caesar was from the learned orangutan, Raka (Peter Macon), and who he wasn’t from the power-hungry bonobo, Proximus.

The kicker is that Noa also encounters a seemingly feral human, but she’s really an intelligent young woman named Mae (Freya Allan), establishing that this new potential trilogy won’t be an ape story that resets its human cast with each movie like the prior trilogy of the 2010s. 

“You think Kingdom is going to be an ape story, but by the end of the movie, you realize that it’s actually an ape and a human story,” Ball says. “Mae was always going to be this little enigma that we had to slowly unravel throughout the storyline, and by the end of the movie, we literally open a door to a whole new world that we’ll get to play in if we’re lucky enough to make more movies. Can apes and humans live together? Can we coexist? So that will be a continued theme throughout future movies, and if there’s any chance for peace between these species, it will probably be between these two characters, no matter what happens.”

With Kingdom trending in the right direction, Ball is going to have some tough choices to make, as he’s also in development on a live-action Legend of Zelda movie for Nintendo and Sony. It’s early days still, but Ball knows that he wants Zelda to be more than just “Lord of the Rings lite.” He is also hesitant to helm another entire trilogy as director, having just done that with the Maze Runner franchise. So, as of this moment, Ball is optimistic he can swing both projects, but he’s also keeping his options open, something directors are conditioned to do in such a volatile industry. 

“Yeah, hopefully, I’ll be able to do both. That’s the honest truth, and we’ll see if that’s going to be possible or not,” Ball admits. “It really depends on how well this movie does, but I’ve tried not to put too many eggs in that basket, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Ball also discusses Kingdom‘s other human character that he cast with the intention of playing an expanded role in a potential trilogy. He then previews the Blu-ray release’s mocap cut of the film, as well as his hopes for an extended version.

So, to set the stage for how you got here, you made three Maze Runner films that cost an average of $52 million, and they each made nearly six times their production budgets. Did that collective bottom line open a lot of conference room doors and water bottles for you? 

That’s a good question, and yeah, I think so. But the thing is, I’ve made all my movies at [20th Century], so it’s never really been a problem. We created a little family together there. Some people have left, but a lot of people are still there and they’re the same people that I met when I first started. So that’s always been the easy part, but you’re right. It is wild to think that those three [Maze Runner] movies combined to cost less than this single movie [Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes]. It’s a different scale in terms of resources; that’s for sure.

You were deep into development on Mouse Guard until it became a casualty of the Disney-Fox merger. Did you ever get the sense that 20th’s eventual Apes offer was a way to make amends to you in some way? 

Yeah, that’s probably what it was, but it’s also an important franchise for them and they needed to find someone that could, frankly, handle the very unique technical challenge that these movies require. With Mouse Guard, I had just worked with Matt [Reeves] on that movie, and I cast Andy Serkis. So I was already getting my feet wet with the whole mocap thing, and it made sense, I suppose, when [20th’s former president of production] Emma Watts called me and said, “I’m sorry about the Mouse Guard thing.” That was literally the conversation: “Sorry about the Mouse Guard thing, but what would you do with the next Planet of the Apes?” (Laughs.) And I was like, “What!? Planet of the Apes? What are you talking about here?” (Laughs.) 

So it took me a minute to get my head around that idea. I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do until we found our way into something that I thought was worthy of following up the previous three. But I’m super thankful for it. These movies are unique in that they have to be both a spectacle-oriented thing, but also a kind of truthful, honest drama at the same time. So I don’t imagine there’s a lot of people that would be comfortable with that — or would want to be as limited as you are in the process of making these movies — because it’s a very unique process.

Director Wes Ball on the set of 20th Century Studios’ Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. Jasin Boland/20th Century Studios

If you had to pinpoint the most valuable piece of insight Andy and Matt offered you, what would it be? 

From Andy, it was about making sure that the actors aren’t pretending to be apes. They have to really internalize the whole physical transformation, so that when they’re on set, they’re not thinking about the Ape part of it and they’re just performing. “How do you speak? How do you hold yourself? How do you internalize that whole transformation?” So that was a huge aspect of ape [boot] camp, as well as the eight-cam [motion capture system].

And then, from Matt, he told me a lot about trusting the process in a way, because it’s such a strange thing when you’re shooting a scene with an actor, not an ape, who has dots on their face. So his insight was about trusting that process, and if you make it real on set, if it works in the camera, if the cut works in that raw form, then it’s going to be amazing when it gets translated into an ape. 

When I first started, there were times where I was just like, “This isn’t going to work. This is ridiculous. What is this guy doing? He’s talking funny, he’s walking funny.” But, man, when that translation happens, it enters into a different world. So Matt’s insight gave me a lot of confidence because he had gone through this before and was aware of the leap that’s required.

As you mentioned, this movie cost more than your three Maze Runner films combined, but did you still try to bring the same resourcefulness that you brought to those films?

Yeah, we made this cheaper than anyone thought possible, and we were very responsible on that side of things. [Writer’s Note: The budget is reportedly $160 million to $165 million.] So, hopefully, the movie feels just as big [as the last three films], if not bigger, and doesn’t feel compromised at all in terms of its scope and scale and all that big theater screen stuff. But you’re right. My partner, Joe Hartwick Jr., and I, we really try to put the money on the screen. We try to be efficient with that stuff, and we certainly continued onto this. 

Noa (Owen Teague), Soona (Lydia Peckham) & Anaya (Travis Jeffery) in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Was it helpful that you already had relationships with Wētā from Maze Runner and Mouse Guard tests?

To some degree, yeah. For sure. It probably helps a lot that I also have a background in visual effects. That’s such a key part of this process, and to be able to speak the language made it a little bit easier for them. I can find those compromises as well, and that’s ultimately what a director does: problem solve and compromise. And so to find those things and get the biggest bang for your buck is key when you’re wielding this really powerful tool of visual effects, especially for a movie like this where the visual effects are literally up in your face as part of the experience. So that probably all helped. I’ve made three-and-a-half movies with them now, because Mouse Guard got close, but I can’t say enough about Wētā. They’re the best in the world at what they do, and it’s humbling to work with these people. They’re not just technicians; they’re artists and storytellers. So I couldn’t have made this movie without them, period. No one else could do this.

[Mild spoilers ahead for the next four questions.]

So we briefly see Caesar’s funeral at the beginning before we jump centuries later. Was that always going to be the maximum amount of time spent in the time period of the last trilogy?

Yes. That was one of the first scenes that I came up with. It was one of the first scenes I storyboarded, actually, but the scene was a little longer at first. It always is. We got trimmed down, but the idea was always that we would just have that little opening reminder of where we started. It’s the moment where an ape became a legend, and there’s this thematic visual idea throughout the movie of fire and embers in the sky. There are some cut scenes, and I’m hoping that maybe there’s an extended cut we can do that continues that theme throughout. The very first shot of the movie is this closeup on Caesar’s face that’s lit by fire, and the very last shot of the movie is a closeup of Noa, lit by fire.

So there is this passing of the torch that happens in the movie, not that Noa necessarily becomes Caesar, but that he embodies what we attribute to Caesar. It’s the things about Caesar that we aspire to be as people, in a way. So the idea of Caesar, the concept of Caesar, the myth and legend of Caesar hangs over the entire movie, and it’s looked at through different lenses and different characters. So it was important to us to see him. It was a way to keep us tethered to that world, while still standing on our own two feet with the story of a young character experiencing the world for the first time.

Knowledge is such an important aspect of this movie. The Eagle Clan didn’t necessarily crave it, but other groups pursue it in one form or another to fulfill their agendas in the present. That said, for a stretch of this movie, we’re ahead of the characters since we actually knew Caesar. 

Yeah, for sure.

So can you talk a bit about that dynamic where some of your characters have to catch up to the audience’s understanding of Caesar, while we then have to familiarize ourselves with the history we missed in the centuries following Caesar’s death?

Yeah, it’s something we try to balance. The irony that exists throughout is that none of the characters really know the truth anymore, which is the interesting part. So we tried to manage that as the characters misinterpret the history that came before, but none of the characters really have any further knowledge. I love the concept of the Dark Ages after Caesar died. Even as human beings, there have been plenty of times throughout our history where figures have made some profound scientific discovery, and then it’s been lost for hundreds of years, only to be rediscovered. So I love that concept in connection to Caesar’s storyline and the history of the world. It’s also cool that we know what’s around the corner. The marketing has given away so much stuff now; I wasn’t always planning on that. There’s always a struggle between artists and marketing, but I hope the surprises still exist. I hope the turns throughout the movie still land.

Freya Allan as Mae in 20th Century Studios’ Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes . Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

To that point, Mae is a far more complex character than her deer-in-the-headlights introduction would suggest. As the trailers also show, she can actually talk in coherent sentences, and the end of the film has since caused me to rethink her entire arc. So how much of her decision-making was premeditated versus impromptu?

Well, the previous trilogy started in the human world until an ape came into it. So you think Kingdom is going to be an ape story, but by the end of the movie, you realize that it’s actually an ape and a human story. Mae was always going to be this little enigma that we had to slowly unravel throughout the storyline, and by the end of the movie, we literally open a door to a whole new world that we’ll get to play in if we’re lucky enough to make more movies.

So her whole premeditation thing is a good question, and I just think she’s a survivor. She does what she needs to do to survive. But her goal and her quest is to get to the same place that Noa is going to, and her journey is to figure out if she can trust these apes. And ultimately, she finds that the apes aren’t what she thought they were. Her whole journey is changed by meeting Noa, just as much as his journey has been changed by meeting her. So we wanted to ultimately end up in this sticky gray area in the middle, which is the central question of all these movies. Can apes and humans live together? Can we coexist? So that will be a continued theme throughout future movies, and if there’s any chance for peace between these species, it will probably be between these two characters, no matter what happens. So, hopefully, we closed this story up well enough that it felt like a satisfying journey, but with a lot of room left for exploration as we potentially move forward.

My only nitpick of the last trilogy is that each movie did away with the preceding movie’s human cast. I know the trilogy was about Caesar at the end of day, but I always wanted one human from his past, namely Jason Clarke’s character, to reunite with him in some capacity.

Yeah, they come in and out of his life.

But it sounds like there’s a future for your human characters such as Mae. 

Yeah, that’s the goal, and that’s also why you see Dichen Lachman from Severance at the end. I begged her. I was like, “Hey, I know it’s only three shots, but I’m trying to set up a character that [the audience] is going to want to see more of in the future.” I suppose you can call it a cliffhanger, but the end of our movie is more like a door opening to the next movie in a weird way. So there’s a lot more to come, and there’s going to be a lot more drama and conflict. These characters [Noa and Mae] have now saved each other, and they have a complicated connection. There is now a history and real feelings between the two, and that’s going to be important moving forward. So, as you can imagine, that’s going to be really fun to explore as it gets messier.

[The spoiler section has now concluded.]

(L-R): Noa (played by Owen Teague) , Freya Allan as Nova and Raka (played by Peter Macon) in 20th Century Studios’ Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

So how specific is the plan moving forward? Is it mostly broad strokes? 

Yeah, it’s probably broad strokes, but it’s probably better for it. As we were making this and thinking about it, we knew we had the ‘68 original [Planet of the Apes] that we’re heading towards. So we already have these interesting guide rails that are in our periphery, and as free as we are to go where we want to go, we’re still thinking about that end result. When does the Statue of Liberty blow up? When do Apes suddenly decide that it’s best to erase all knowledge of humans? When do the Sacred Scrolls come into this thing? What about all the stuff that Zaius talked about? There’s so much stuff that we could get into with these characters, and it’s really exciting.

So we’re starting that process now, honestly. We’re starting to drill down, but it depends a little bit on whether audiences connect with the characters in this movie and storyline. So we’ll adjust, but we’ve certainly got good ideas and a good team, especially [producers] Rick [Jaffa] and Amanda [Silver], having been on these movies since the first reboot. That DNA is consistent throughout, and they’ve obviously spent a lot of time thinking about all this stuff. So, if we’re lucky enough, we’ll keep going.

Director Wes Ball on the set of 20th Century Studios’ Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. Jasin Boland/20th Century Studios

I hope you come back for a potential sequel, but I also wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to make every single film in back-to-back trilogies. 

I know! (Laughs.) My first three movies were a trilogy, so I am very aware of what that means and the time commitment that it involves, but I do love this cast. That’s what brought me back to the Maze Runner movies. I wasn’t planning on doing the first Maze Runner trilogy. I thought I was going to do the first movie and then go on to something else, but I loved the cast and the crew. A lot of the same crew followed me over onto this movie, so we’ll see what happens. It’s a good place to be. I’m very thankful to have opportunities in front of me, but there’s room to make one and the other. We’ve still got to do our work and get these movies right. They don’t have to suddenly hit a release date. They’re an important franchise for the studio, but I don’t think we’re going to be rushing it or anything. So we’ll see where this journey takes me, but it’s a good place to be and it feels good.

I heard you’re putting the “special” back in Blu-ray special features, as you’re really releasing a mocap cut.

Yeah, I’m not sure if I got in trouble for that. I just realized, “Oh, they probably wanted to announce that, didn’t they? Oops.” I haven’t heard yet, but I think it’s going to be fucking awesome. There’s this whole mystique and a misinterpretation around the visual effects and what’s actually involved to make these movies, and I think it’s criminal that these movies have not won best visual effects. It’s crazy, and I think it’s because people don’t understand the process. People think there’s a button that says, “Convert actor to ape,” but it doesn’t work that way. There’s artists at the top of their game, who are probably doing harder work than other movies that are full CG, because they have to not only create a character that you believe was photographed through cameras, but they also have to put it into real world environments and have it interact with real people.

So these movies have the highest level of visual effects that can be done, and it’s going to be awesome to show people what the movie is, as we edit it, as we put it together, and what comes through and what doesn’t come through. I debated a little bit if it ruins the magic by showing behind the curtain, but I don’t think it does. I think it actually enhances the magic. People will say, “Wow, that’s what they shot and that’s what it became? Holy crap.” So it’s really incredible to watch it that way. Now, it’s not going to be for everybody, but for the people that are interested in this kind of stuff, they’re going to fricking love it.

Noa (Owen Teague) in Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

What exactly is the Eagle Clan’s relationship to eagles? Are they mostly meant to be their protective eyes in the sky? Are they their alarm system and security team, essentially?

Yeah, I left it somewhat vague so people could decide for themselves. The previous movies were the apes in the Stone Age, and now we’re going to witness them enter into their Bronze Age where they’re developing cultures and rituals and different ways of life and all that kind of stuff that we’ve seen in human history. You can look at this thing like a historical epic. So I thought about man and when they first domesticated the dog. It then became a man’s best friend, hunter and loyal companion, and so that’s a cool idea for apes to also undergo that step  in their journey. But I couldn’t do dogs because that’s too obvious, and so that’s when I came to eagles. I thought about the Mongolian culture, but we tried not to culturally appropriate things. That’s a very sensitive subject, as you can imagine. So we tried to draw inspiration throughout human history for our march towards modernity, and that’s where the idea came from. There’s that one shot where the eagle comes in and brings the fish. So they’re hunters and gatherers, and then we obviously see that they’re also protectors and weapons. They’re also just fucking cool. 

You attended Florida State at the same time as Barry Jenkins, Amy Seimetz, David Robert Mitchell among many others, and now you and Barry are both working in similar arenas for Disney. 

Yeah, I can’t wait to see [Mufasa: The Lion King]. I’m so looking forward to what he’s going to do with it.

Have the two of you discussed your shared experiences yet? 

Yeah, a little bit. I remember when they were first starting, Barry and his producing gang called. Adele [Romanski] and Mark Ceryak, who I also know, are producers and friends on his side, and they were just like, “What advice do you have?” And I was like, “Dude, you’re going to have all the help you need around you. You just need to focus on doing what you do, which is great storytelling. That’s all that matters.” And then James Laxton, his shooter, is a fantastic DP. James was a class under me, but I remember seeing one of his student films and saying, “Who the hell shot this? It looks fricking fantastic.” It looked better than everyone else’s stuff. So you could tell the talent was there already [in both of them], and I’m just happy to have known these guys. But I love to see that Barry is going for it, and he’s just a personal filmmaker with a great voice.

There’s a viral marketing campaign of apes riding around on horses in several major cities, and they look incredibly realistic. Did you sneak a practically costumed ape in the movie just for kicks and to see if anyone would notice? 

(Laughs.) Funnily enough, I tried, but visual effects warned me against it because it’s a pain in the ass to paint them out. It actually becomes more difficult to do that than not. I thought, “Well, maybe I can do the bottom half on the horses,” or something like that, but because the actual ape’s legs are shorter than the human’s legs, it just becomes more of a pain in the ass because you’ve got fur instead of a tiny thin leg that they can paint out. So, yeah, I thought about it, but the truth is that the difference between the man-in-a-suit thing and a visual effects ape is pretty significant. So, for the time being, we’re still all in CG land.

Noa (played by Owen Teague) in 20th Century Studios’ Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

So you’re apparently developing a live-action Legend of Zelda movie. In a genre where everything is compared to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, what tone do you have in mind?

I’m very aware of that, and I will be making moves so that we’re not just Lord of the Rings lite. But that’s probably more than I should say, actually.

Well, congrats on a great Apes film, Wes. Again, I want you to come back for a Kingdom sequel, but I’ll also understand if you want to do something else, such as Zelda.

Yeah, hopefully, I’ll be able to do both. That’s the honest truth, and we’ll see if that’s going to be possible or not. It really depends on how well this movie does, but I’ve tried not to put too many eggs in that basket, so we’ll see how it goes.

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Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is now playing exclusively in movie theaters.

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