Set Visit: Dylan Clarke & Karen Konoval Talk War For the Planet of the Apes

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

It’s a still and gray afternoon in Vancouver, British Columbia. As I exhale, I see spiraling ghosts of precipitation escape my lips with every breath. All around me the air smells like a combination of drenched pavement, freshly baked bread, and the burning of oil. I can hear the mechanical chatter of gears as workmen navigate cranes – several of which are carrying a green canvas the size of two drive-in theater screens. As I look on, each loudly-colored panel is in the process of being arranged into a concave pattern, creating an arc of bright-green nothingness. Contained within the enclosure is the Tower Rock Armory – a militarized compound operated by both apes and humans alike. The depot’s walls are made of tarnished metal, rock, and rust. Wooden X-shaped racks are scattered throughout the courtyard, waiting for confessions and sacrafice. Everything looks cold, drained of color, and in desperate need of disinfectant. Surely, this is a safe-haven for both apes and humans alike.

Then, through the hustle and clatter of the steam-spitting instruments, I hear shouting amidst a chorus of stomping boots. Suddenly, I am surround by men and women dressed in military fatigues. I can sense their exhaustion as they pass me by, their body-language telling tales of tense muscles and not enough sleep. However, despite their lassitude, I also see a fire burning in their eyes. And inside each optic blaze is the desire to fight, to protect, and to survive. These people will stop at nothing to win the battle they are fighting in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Throughout the course of that afternoon, I – alongside other members of the internet film press who had been invited to walk the faux-snow-blanketed earth of the Tower Rock Armory – witnessed an impressive crane shot via a muted monitor, dined with the cast and crew, and participated in a series of roundtable interviews that included key members of the film’s cast and production staff. It was a hell of a good time. Each discussion was packed with information, insightful stories, and more than a few laughs!

Our first interview scheduled for that afternoon was with Dylan Clark, the producer for WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. On the far side of the set grounds, gathered beneath a heated canvas, I sat patiently beside my peers while clutching a steaming hot cup of coffee. Dylan then enthusiastically entered the tent, eager to share his positive energy and information about the movie.


How many years have passed since the events of DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES?

“We’re calling it 2 years. What we never wanted to do was jump too far down the road, so that we weren’t watching detailed chapters of where the apes were in their nascent intelligence. The fun is watching their next years of evolution. We really want to create an ape society, culture, mythology and characters where we’re seeing them be apes. What does it mean to grapple with intelligence, and how do you start to become the leading species on the planet? That’s the fun, right?

The other thing that was important to us is, on DAWN, Matt had a great opening shot – pulling out on Caesar’s eyes. Then, we said to the audience, this is going to be a different looking movie – there’s rain, it’s in 3D, and it’s all pretty cool. Of course, at the end of the movie, as we push in on Caesar, it’s a much different look. He’s much more pensive. He’s been told by his human best friend, Jason Clarke (Malcolm), that the humans have made contact up North and that significant military forces are coming. You know, not colonists with pitchforks and BB guns. That’s going to be a major complication, and hopefully you can see that drama and conflict in Caesar’s eyes.

The other thing, of course, is that Caesar has broken one of his main tenants. He’s killed an ape, he killed Koba. And despite Koba going completely off the rails and fucking it up for the entire ape crew, co-existence was almost achieved until you had crazy Koba on one side and crazy Gary (Oldman) on the other. Caesar had to do something. That act was not lost on him [Caesar]. So when we push in on him, that was a key moment. We start this movie 2 years later, and there’s a serious thing going on. They’re fighting armed forces, guys in military fatigues with assault rifles, real weaponry. These guys are not a rag-tag group of militiamen, they’re ready to kick some ass. Caesar’s at the head of this horrible war against the humans, a war he didn’t start but feels responsible for.

What happens in this, because of ape losses, human losses, chaos and pain, Caesar feels he’s not fit to lead the apes – and goes on a very dark journey to end this war. This is about the war inside Caesar,  and through the course of this movie he’s wrestling and grappling with how to make that right.

The longest answer in the history of answers! I want that noted: Clark talked a lot!”

Since it is called WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, as the film begins, are we at war?

“You are right at war. I believe we have the best opening of all the movies. And again, what I really like about it is, I think the audience has been waiting for this kind of fight to happen. But I also think, people don’t just want to see a human army versus an ape army. You can’t have an entire movie about that. What I love about it is that the journey is that we’re in the apes point of view. We are experiencing this movie through Caesar – the narrative weight of this film is on his back for this one.

We pay some homage. Some of it is just cool for the mythology, but we’re never sitting in our story meetings going, “How do we link up to what they did in BENEATH?” Or, God, they did that in CONQUEST, can we do a better version of it? Never. We love those movies, well, most of those movies – some of them are not so good. Rick and Amanda wrote a really good screenplay. It was one person’s movie and then it became another APES movie. We decided to follow that trajectory and make it its own film, and I think that’s what the audience wants. A contemporary audience does not want to relive the old mythologies. Again, those movies were made at a certain time, with a different audience, and was about different things.

These are different characters. We have much more of an ability to realize them in authentic ways. We want to create and further our own mythology.”

In the previous films, we’ve seen the apes use sign language to communicate with one another. How has that evolved during this 2 year gap, and at what point will we see the apes speaking in whole sentences to one another?

“Well, we say to ourselves, “What have they learned in 2 years?” Would Rocket learn how to speak? He’s not the smartest guy in the world, he leads with his fists, and he’s been kind of a thick dude. But, he’s emotional. So we’re more interested in how he expresses his emotions through actions. That’s the other thing too, it’s a great silent movie. Terry is so brilliant at physical movement. He’s a vaudevillian actor, I mean he’s off-the-charts great. So he can communicate more with a gesture and a huff than a piece of dialogue.”

Earlier in the day we’d witnessed a scene being filmed in which an ape is crucified near the entrance to the Tower Rock Armory. How important is that imagery to the themes tied to this film?

“I went to catholic school. So reporters would come to me and say, “I see a lot of Noah in this.”, and I think, “Really? Okay great, let’s talk about that!” We’re not making The Bible story. We are the most practical-minded people ever. Our production vetter, James, he will say things like this to me, “Apes don’t dig. They would never dig with their hands.” That may or may not be true, but the guys that are building this stuff have to do it in ways that the [production] departments believe. So, it’s not meant to be a cross, but if it’s perceived as one, I think that might be an interesting conversation – however, that’s not the intent.”

So far, the Apes films have been very localized in that we’re looking in on small groups of individuals contending with a change in the evolutionary status quo. Will we be seeing the repercussions of this war from a more global perspective this time out?

“I think you’re in a global perspective as far as the state of the world. A global perspective from the Apes society, no. Because again, we’re following these main apes, specifically Caesar. As I said, Steve Zahn is going to show up, and is going to give us a taste of the possibility and the question of “What else is out there?” But really, the emotional drama is Caesar. How is he going to end this war – both internally and externally? Since we don’t have television or radio, we can’t just cut over to France and see what’s happening there.”

Now that you’ve reached the “war” portion of the Apes story, do you find yourself going back to re-watch epics from the likes of Kurosawa, Stone, and others?

“We get it from everywhere. We love cinema, so we’re constantly watching movies all the time. But we’re not looking at them and going, “Okay, we’re going to take that piece.” Certainly though, the way these movies are lit, we’re trying to achieve a quality and there are certain filmmakers that have shown us the ways. We’ve all seen artificial light, camera movements, we’ve all seen CG dominate characters in ways that offsets the balance. We always want you sitting forward.

The way we shoot things, it should feel the way it does in the real world. The camera can’t pass through walls, there has to be a source for light. So, what kind of directors, filmmakers and other teams that have done that, we’re looking at it. We decided to shoot this movie not on native 3D but on 65mm. Matt always wanted to capture the widest landscapes possible, and so we watched a lot of the old masters, the epics. David Lean, you know I don’t think anyone is ever going to compare us to David Lean, but we watched all of his movies, again. We love Kurasawa, we love Kubric. APOCALYPSE NOW is also an important movie to us. The most important thing a movie is supposed to do is make you feel something, and if we’re not doing that than we’ve completely failed.”

In regard to motion-capture technology, what are you doing to raise the bar this time out?

“Motion-capture probably has been done in the snow, but not like we’re doing it. We are shooting this film in native 65mm, and the movie will be able to be seen in 3D. We have bigger sets, and we’re outside more. We have more rain, more snow, more action, more levity, more emotion, more, more, more, more.”

What are your thoughts about the APES films being a part of the Science Fiction genre as opposed to a more traditional category like Drama?

“I’ve always believed that we are Sci-Fi. I think Sci-Fi has changed throughout this era. I mean, there was a guy who wrote THE TWILIGHT ZONE writing the original PLANET OF THE APES. It was meant to mess with you. An allegory was a bigger thing then, or rather, a more direct thing, then. How Sci-Fi do we get? It’s grounded. We talk to scientists, people who’re developing drugs – virus based, blood barrier mechanisms that are being developed. So it’s in the vernacular, we just put it together in ways that can only happen in a movie.

Look. studios have a tough job. These movies cost too much money, they do. These are big bets we’re talking about. Unfortunately, Sci-Fi got a bad knock. So they [the studios] started subverting the Sci-Fi genre. We weren’t subverting it, we inherited PLANET OF THE APES – it’s a Sci-Fi premise. We’re not leading with the craziness, we are giving our audience this emotion connection to characters that’s not typical in Science Fiction. It’s tricky to do, but if you do it right, they [audience members] come, and they love you for it.

Most people are comfortable with Pop radio, and not Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Making movies is a lot like music to me, right? You’re trying to give your audience Bowie but Bowie is hard to find. It is a commercial endeavor. The job is to get butts in the seats, and to be entertained and be moved. Then hopefully go, “Oh, this is better than the song I heard that sounded like the song I heard last year.”

From this point forward, the remainder of our time with Dylan turned to talk about the late and legendary David Bowie. The singer/songwriter had only been gone for less than 48 hours at the time of our meeting. We spoke of the enigmatic musician’s greatest achievements, and the genius in how Bowie created a musical eulogy for himself when he recorded his final album, Blackstar. It was a great way to end a solid interview session.   

Shortly thereafter …

Huddled over my coffee, I watched the steam rise from the cylindrical cup in vaporious looping swirls. As I took a sip of the sweet, caffeinated nectar, I could hear the oncoming footfalls of Karen Konoval – the actress who lends her theatrical talents to the altered orangutan, Maurice, in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. As she shuffled into the tent, I could hear her remarking about how she had brought along some props to our interview session. Tucked beneath her billowing coat was a pair of custom-made arm-stilts. Finding her place at the center of the room, Karen began talking with us about her involvement with the film, how new technology had enhanced her acting capabilities, and her personal connections with the ape species since getting involved in the making of the APES franchise.


How does it feel to be working at the forefront of motion-capture technology?

“What’s the most interesting thing about performance capture aspect of  working with this technology, is that it is very interesting, for sure. The most challenging thing for me, as an actor, is to be an orangutan. I get to be Maurice, a 300 lb male orangutan, and I’m a 125 lb woman. It’s both liberating and challenging in different ways than if  you were working in a hard-suit prosthetic (which I’ve done several times before). You know, you sit in the makeup chair, in the morning, and get into the full latex. Trust me, endurance wise, that takes a lot out of you.   

One of the things you have in a hard-suit prosthetic is that I can look in the mirror and actually see where I’m going. With performance capture, I have to come up with everything on an instinct first. The integrity of Maurice as an orangutan is something I find completely from within without any visual reference. Now, because I’m on my third performance as Maurice at this point, what is wonderful is that I’ve had an opportunity, over time, to be able to look at my own performance and see the challenges that I’m running into. It’s freeing in the sense of that I’m free to do anything, while not being stuck within the hard-suit prosthetic.”

What’ve been some of the challenges you’ve faced while creating your character for the film?   

“In terms of the challenge of creating Maurice from nothing, it’s exponentially larger. I was helped very early on by Andy Serkis. I asked him, if when working with this technology, do you have to do more to get the performance across? He then told me that it was very much the reverse. The job that I would do playing any role of a human character – which is to find the inner truth of the character and then follow through with my objectives. With this, it becomes even more important. Anything that I would do, as Maurice … if I didn’t have that in my body, in my mind, and in everything that I’m following through. If I didn’t take authority over that and find his integrity as an orangutan … it’s going to look like crap.

I think one of the really cool things about Maurice – and of orangutans in general – is that they are very specific. The orangutans that I’ve come to know and study over the last 5 years, are very subtle and very clear in everything they do. They’re watching, they’re observing everything in the room. If I was an orangutan sitting here right now, I would be memorizing, quietly, everything that’s going on behind me. And I would leave this tent with the sense of knowing where everything was, where everyone was sitting, who was wearing what. I’d certainly notice if there was any food available [laughs].

I felt, in portraying Maurice, that it was important to follow through – that throughout the course of these three movies his integrity cannot be broken. Orangutans are incredibly intelligent, incredibly observant, without even receiving some special drug to make them more intelligent. I’ve witnessed so many examples of this over the last five years that have left me with my jaw hanging open. So, that is something I’ve sought to keep with Maurice.”

Is there any degree to which we are seeing a more evolved Maurice?

“With this film, his story is richer, deeper, and fuller. You get to see much more of him on many levels, and in terms of interactions and choices he makes along the way. So psychologically, yes. Physically, to become a male orangutan, there is a great deal of frontal body weight, there. Their bodies work differently than chimps or gorillas. Chimps and gorillas have a quadrupedal walk that has a flat-footed back foot. With orangutans, their legs are literally half as long as their arms. Their feet function more like four hands that they can use to reach out and grab a branch or eat with. I know of an orangutan at The Center for Great Apes, whose name is Mari, that has no arms. She does everything with her feet and is extremely agile. In terms of evolution, I have been exploring that physically. I do find that, even to bring Maurice’s forward position to an upright, I’ve still got all of this weight. There is more that comes into my performance, but still, I find myself very quadrupedal because that’s where Maurice’s energy is.”

Maurice has always been portrayed as a very non-confrontational character. Where do we find him in this war and how have the circumstances of this film changed who he is?

“Maurice’s number one commitment since meeting Caesar was linking with him, and a devotion as an advisor, as his conscience. Maurice’s role here is a furthering of that. In terms of the war itself, Maurice’s place is, once again, in that advisory role. Whatever Caesar’s journey is, Maurice is a part of that. He also has a very special journey of his own that I will not discuss here today. I will say that it’s another aspect of his character that gets explored in this new film and that it is very beautiful.”

How have the advancements made to the technology used in the making of the film affected your performance as Maurice?

“In terms of the technology, I have noticed some things. On RISE, all of the lights and wires that were stuck to us, they weren’t as sturdy as they might be for the vigorous stuff we’re doing. By the time we got to DAWN, they’d covered those parts with a rubberized material, so we could do all the climbing and skyscraper stuff. We’re equipped with several of these fifteen to twenty pound battery packs. On RISE, they were these big square things that were attached to you, everywhere. So, it was very tough when trying to get through foliage. I think I remember getting caught up in my hammock at one point [laughs] and needed to be rescued. On this film, we actually have little backpacks that we can put all the batteries in which are then set with velcro along our spines. That would be the major thing, I would say.

What has been the most amazing development for me, as Maurice, is Terry Notary and his “arm stilts”. That man is a genius, and he’s created the cadillac of arm stilts, as far as I’m concerned, and I will show you why …”

At this time, Karen unpacked a pair of arm stilts that looked quite different from the gear I’ve seen being used in the making of the previous APES films.

“On the previous films, the arm stilts went straight down, and then had a more traditional, crutch-like bottom. Well he streamlined this little affair, now, and put this wonderful rubber ball on the end. Now, why this is a technology development that has been fantastic for me is, with the other arm stilts, one of the things I’ve always had to do [as Maurice] is to create his weight. It’s got to come from me first. WETA digital cannot make that up in post. In RISE, we put five pound weights on each of my arms so that I could register [the weight] more fluidly.

When I was trying to keep up with the chimps, that was really difficult for me. Because chimps and gorillas walk in an entirely different way. Chimps can do a quadrupedal gallop by using their legs, so they get a lot of propulsion from their back feet. For an orangutan, the back feet are purely balance points, so it’s totally opposite to how we as human beings work. The reason I’m mentioning this is because, not only did I have to create the weight, I have to get all the propulsion from my front arms as fluidly as possible. With this ball feature, I can now roll through and give all of my weight to my front arms. Basically, I can give my full weight to the stilts and be okay. It’s the best cardio workout you’ll ever get in your life.”

Do you have a workout or relaxation routine that you engage in after spending a majority of your day affixed with arm stilts?

“What do I do at the end of the day? It’s called a hot bath with epsom salts, a glass of red wine and a grilled cheese sandwich.”  

Do you find that after participating in these films that you have a newfound appreciation for chimps and orangutans as a species?

“That would be an understatement, really. During our filming hiatus, I immediately hopped on a bus and went to spend time with several orangutans. I’m fascinated by them as a species, and I still feel, five years later, that I know just one tip of the iceberg. Every single one of them, they are each such individuals.”




About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.