Remaking, Not Aping, an Original

Richard Natale is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Even the devilish Tim Burton couldn't have come up with a more amusingly incongruous anthropomorphic image for his upcoming remake of "Planet of the Apes" than the sight of British actress Helena Bonham Carter, in full primate face, a cigarette dangling from her lips as she picks her nose.

It is mid-afternoon and Bonham Carter is on a break, sitting on a stoop outside a sound stage in downtown Los Angeles indulging her nicotine habit and delicately trying to scratch her real nose through the left nostril of her simian prosthesis without creasing or tearing the many folds of rubber, glue and hair that obscure her naturally porcelain skin.

Bonham Carter, famous for her many roles in British costume dramas such as "A Room With a View" and "Howards End" (she's been described as pre-Raphaelite so often that it's practically part of her name), has spent so much screen time in ornate, constricting costumes that she once swore she would never accept another role that required wearing a corset. Now she finds herself trapped behind an ape mask that requires 41/2 hours to apply every morning and almost two hours to remove. With her shooting schedule drawing to a close, Bonham Carter confesses that impatience sometimes gets the best of her, and "I tend to tear off my face." Master makeup artist Rick Baker's prosthetic design is so lifelike that Bonham Carter ably conveys a pang of guilt through its many layers.

"I must be a bit of a masochist," she says, trying to laugh. If so, she is not alone. The on-again, off-again "Planet" remake is one of the most anticipated films of the summer. It has a great deal to live up to, including the 1968 original starring Charlton Heston and its four sequels, as well as what-might-have-been ruminations if the new movie had been directed by James Cameron, Chris Columbus or Oliver Stone, who at various points had signed on. After almost a decade of false starts, "Planet" finally came together last fall and is rushing toward a July 27 opening, less than three months after the completion of principal photography.

"People keep thinking it's coming out next summer," says Burton, who is holed up in an editing room in New York, where he lives. "It's a ridiculous kind of schedule. It took longer to greenlight than to make, but that's the way things happen on movies like this. They're such big monsters that it takes an unnatural act to get them going and keep them moving."

Producer Richard Zanuck's involvement in the new "Planet of the Apes" is one of those "only in Hollywood" stories. Without him, there would never have been an original "Planet of the Apes." In 1967, when he was running 20th Century Fox, Zanuck was approached by a former publicist turned producer, Arthur Jacobs, with Rod Serling's screenplay adaptation of Pierre Boulle's novel. The project had been put in turnaround by Warner Bros., who he said "got scared of the idea" of a dominant ape culture with enslaved humans.

"When he [Jacobs] presented it to me, I didn't take it seriously," Zanuck remembers. "I only read it because of Serling [the mastermind of the classic "Twilight Zone" TV series] and because the writer of the book had also written 'Bridge on the River Kwai.' Even then I read it with skepticism."

But he became intrigued by the idea of an upside-down world. When Charlton Heston agreed to play the lead and Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and Edward G. Robinson accepted the prominent ape roles, Zanuck tentatively moved ahead. "I wasn't going to commit until we'd done makeup tests."

After the tests were satisfactorily completed, Robinson dropped out. "He said, 'I'm way too old to be getting into heavy makeup and eating through straws,"' Zanuck explains. (Robinson was replaced by Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans.)

Director Franklin Schaffner was signed to direct, despite misgivings that he might not be able to handle a "big" movie. At the time, Schaffner had worked mostly in television. Ironically, after "Planet of the Apes," Schaffner directed nothing but big movies, including the Oscar-winning "Patton."

That was just one of the many pleasant surprises in the history of "Planet of the Apes." Still not sure of what he had, Zanuck previewed the film for the first time in Phoenix. "If we could get by the first scene of talking apes and the audience didn't laugh hysterically, I knew we'd be OK," he recalls. The moment passed without incident and by the end of the preview the audience was applauding wildly and hanging around to discuss the film in the lobby afterward for the better part of an hour.

"I'd never seen anything like it before," Zanuck said.

'Planet" became one of Fox's biggest hits of the decade, grossing $34 million (on a $6-million budget) and spawning four sequels of decreasing quality and appeal, as well as two short-lived TV series in the mid '70s. In addition to its trendy anti-nuke message, which played into the late '60s counterculture movement, the film arrived around the same time as "2001: A Space Odyssey," helping fuel a science-fiction movie craze, spawning other films such as "The Omega Man" and "Soylent Green."

Zanuck, who left the studio ranks soon thereafter to become a producer (including the Oscar-winning "Driving Miss Daisy"), had kept tabs on Fox's intention to remake the film. When he read last year that it was going ahead with Tim Burton as director, he thought about calling Fox studio head Tom Rothman to tell him what a good selection he'd made, but never did. A few weeks later, Rothman phoned Zanuck and asked if he wanted to produce the film.

The intention from the start was to make a remake that wasn't a remake, says Burton. "You can't really remake 'Planet of the Apes,' because the whole vibe and feeling of the original movie was very '60s. You have to look at it from a different perspective, and I saw something oddly compelling about the concept of talking apes. When you do primate research, you start thinking how weird our perception of apes is, that they're kind of close to us, yet they can rip you to shreds. That's kind of frightening. Even when they smile at you, they don't really mean it" in the way humans do.

You mean they smile the way Hollywood executives do? Burton is asked.

The director begins to laugh until he comes close to choking. "Anyway," he continues, "you put all that into the mix and sometimes things that don't seem like a good idea become exciting because there's something risky about it.

"And besides," he adds, "'The Beverly Hillbillies' had already been remade and the 'Gilligan's Island' script wasn't ready." From anyone else that would obviously be a joke, but with Burton you wonder. This is the man who brought "Batman" to the big screen, and earlier, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." Think of it. Johnny Depp as Gilligan and Jack Nicholson as the Skipper. The mind reels.

"Tom [Rothman] told me to start with a blank page," says William Broyles Jr. ('Apollo 13" and "Cast Away"), who shares screenwriting credit. "And I thought it would be very intriguing to create this movie from scratch."

Since Boulle's book had been heavily mined for the 1968 original, Broyles kept only the premise. He never read any of the previous remake scripts and only heard about them vaguely (one reportedly involved a virus that drives humans underground). The new version does not take place on Earth, which provided the surprise ending of the first film, and the characters and locations are all new. Broyles presented Fox with an outline based on his research of Roman history. "What I described was a structure and class system on the ape planet, how its economy worked, what their religion was like, and how humans fit in as the slave culture. I had a great deal of fun with it."

The subtext, which Broyles says became less "sub" as the project moved along, was the whole issue of consciousness. "If someone believes that creatures have a soul and spirit that is uniquely theirs, that can hold true across religious and racial lines--and in this case across species--and that's what we all have in common."

Which is not to say that the new "Planet of the Apes" has become an existential art film. Broyles brought spectacle to the project--elaborate, primitive battle sequences (there is no gunpowder in the ape culture), giving the film an epic sweep.

The biggest battle over "Planet of the Apes," however, took place before filming. "Big, bloody budget battles," Broyles laughs.

At the ShoWest convention in March 2000, then-Fox studio head Bill Mechanic announced that after almost a decade of talking about it, "Planet of the Apes" would finally be released in July of the following year. But Mechanic left Fox early last summer with the studio in a bit of a slump and reluctant to undertake a project that could potentially spiral out of control.

As Burton and Broyles continued refining the script, it became apparent that efficiency was crucial. "It would have cost us $200 million if we'd done half of what was in that script," says Burton. Fox was thinking about spending half that. Before production began, Broyles agreed to leave the project rather than make Fox's budget-minded revisions, and the team of Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal ('Mighty Joe Young") were brought on to fine-tune and simplify the script.

"These movies get made in prep," says "Apes" executive producer Ralph Winter ('X-Men"), describing its production schedule as a "logistical nightmare" involving constant changes and compromises in order to adhere to the parameters of the film's budget--a 24-hour schedule beginning at 2 in the morning for the 80 days of principal photography, as well as a separate crew for second-unit work.

For those who are curious about some of the ways $100 million can be spent on a single motion picture, Winter cites the preparations for the battle sequence filmed at Lake Powell in Arizona. The dozens of horses that appeared in the sequence had to be cared for and fed for a month before the scene was shot. By mid-winter, the water level of the lake was dangerously low, so a million gallons were pumped in. The sections where the filming took place also had to be heated. "The Humane Society won't let horses in the water if it's too cold," explains Winter, "not to mention the actors."

The film's main set, Ape City, was constructed on a rented sound stage at Sony Pictures Studios, since all the Fox stages were occupied. Construction began last July and took four months. "Then we have a week after we wrap to tear it down, since 'Spider-Man' is due to come in right after us," Winter says. ('Spider-Man" is now filming for release next summer.)

The Ape City set resembles a giant pop-up jungle storybook, with every alcove holding another, more compact location. "The great challenge with Ape City," says production designer Rick Heinrichs, who is a veteran Burton collaborator, "was not only that it serve the action, but that it say something about the apes, their dual nature. Aspects of their culture and civilization had to be intertwined with their natural animal habitat."

More creative differences saw the departure of the film's original makeup artist, Stan Winston. He was replaced by Oscar perennial Baker, who considered using animatronic apes, but was more excited by the challenge of "actor driven" gorillas, chimps and orangutans, with movable faces (unlike the stolid masks in the original film). (See box, Page 7)

As astronaut Capt. Leo Davidson, who lands on the simian-run planet, Mark Wahlberg is sleekly and simply clad throughout the film. "I'm basically there just to get my ass kicked by guys in gorilla suits," he says. Wahlberg sheds his blue-collar screen persona in "Planet of the Apes," taking his first step toward playing a more sophisticated leading man. He's currently in Paris shooting Jonathan Demme's remake of "Charade," in which he plays the Cary Grant role.

But, he says, "I'm still having dreams about gorillas--that I'm in prison with a bunch of apes."

Last August, all the actors playing simians enrolled in "ape school" under the tutelage of Terry Notary, a former UCLA gymnast turned Cirque du Soleil performer. Like Baker, Notary had just come off "Grinch," for which he had taught "Who" school. "Tim wanted the apes to be realistic, about 20% ape, 80% human, since they were fairly developed," Notary explains. Most of the six weeks of training was in ape movement--shoulders down, knees bowed, arms swinging like independent appendages. "The walk took a long time," says Notary. "Once they got it, we started to develop how they would sit, eat, pick up something, throw a sword. Every little thing had to be learned. Nothing was normal. And there was a lot of maintenance."

Some of the actors, like Tim Roth and Paul Giamatti (who plays an orangutan) took to it quickly. Notary, who also plays Roth's stunt double in the movie, says "Tim did so well that, after a while, he was correcting me." Bonham Carter, however, had to take remedial courses. "I failed ape school," she laments. But, Notary points out, she made up for it by remaining in character even while off-stage and hanging out with some of the real live chimps who appear in the film, "so lovable and affectionate one moment, and if you don't do what they want, they practically rip your arms out of their sockets," Bonham Carter says.

The method to all this madness is Burton. "When you have a guy like Tim Burton, people come," says Wahlberg. "Everything he did was spot on."

On the set, Burton is a dervish, climbing into nooks with his viewfinder (he rarely storyboards anymore, he says, preferring not to limit his options) to assess new angles, different shots, completely absorbed and utterly unflappable. He is the calm in the center of this storm. In person, Burton, who resembles his own Hirschfeld drawing, is anything but disheveled and lax--he's completely focused, never wasting a moment, never losing his inimitable sense of humor.

"Planet of the Apes" is being marketed as a giant action film. But everyone involved is there for the bizarre wit he brings to every project. "Tim comes at everything that way," says Zanuck. "He's always surprising us. The other day there was a scene that called for Helena's character to be brushing her hair. Tim started the shot from the waist up and we notice that she's writing something. But the quill seems to be moving by itself. Then we pan down and we see she's writing with her foot. It's a fun moment. And those things happen every day. It's part of his magic."

Still, as with his "Batman" movies and "Sleepy Hollow," Burton says he is being careful to delicately sculpt the humor into the film and not lay it on with a trowel. "Each project has its own nature. You don't want to interject too much humor into a story about talking apes, because it can quickly turn into 'The Chimp Channel.' It's a tricky balance. It remains to be seen how much humor there will be [in the final cut]. It's definitely not going to be campy."

Plot specifics are a closely held secret, as is the surprise ending. Those script pages were given only to the people who participate in the final scenes. Zanuck promises it will be as big a doozy as the original's and will explain why apes on a distant planet speak English.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Friday June 29, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction Writing credit--A May 6 Sunday Calendar story on "Planet of the Apes" should have said Michael Wilson co-wrote the screenplay of the 1968 original. For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday July 1, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction Writing credit--A May 6 Sunday Calendar story on "Planet of the Apes" should have said Michael Wilson co-wrote the screenplay of the 1968 original.
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