Exclusive Interview: Rupert Wyatt On Birdsong & Why He Quit Planet Of The Apes
If you were unfortunate enough to have missed, or dare I say never heard of, the thrilling prison drama The…
If you were unfortunate enough to have missed, or dare I say never heard of, the thrilling prison drama The Escapist, then for you Rupert Wyatt came out of nowhere and stole the summer of 2011 with Rise of The Planet of The Apes, that rare beast of a genuine high-quality, intelligent and exciting blockbuster. After storming the box office, the British director is now the toast of Hollywood, having almost directed Sherlock Holmes before Guy Ritchie came on board and rumoured to be attached to The Twilight Zone reboot way back when.
Wyatt has since departed the Apes franchise, leaving it in the rudest of health, and has now moved on to direct Birdsong, Sebastian Faulk’s wartime epic which is regularly hailed as one of modern literature’s greatest works. No pressure… But what makes this extremely talented man tick? Wyatt was kind enough to give up his time to briefly touch on his departure from Dawn of The Planet of The Apes, why he loves Birdsong so much, and his general attitude to the state of cinema, and his filmmaking methods.
Hi Rupert, thanks for speaking to me. I think the question many people are wondering at the moment is why you decided to leave Dawn of The Planet of The Apes- was it an issue with time restraints, or did you just feel ready to move on to other projects?
I had a take on the sequel which didn’t marry with the Studio’s [take]. Regardless, I was hired to direct Rise of the Planet of the Apes against all odds, and I was given that opportunity by a studio and producers who were prepared to take a chance on me. For that I’m very grateful.
Have you been in contact with Matt Reeves? Has the project changed much since your departure?
No. Matt Reeves is a Filmmaker, and a very good one, so I’m sure it has.
Brian Cox is obviously your lucky charm, but you’ve worked with character actors like Andy Serkis, John Lithgow and Liam Cunningham- the latter two are both heroes of mine- and rising/established talent like Dominic Cooper, Tom Felton and James Franco. Do you find your direction of their performances differs at all?
Sure. All actors are different. Some bring a great deal of ideas to the set, like Andy or John. Others like Brian, bring their experience and real belief in a particular way of playing the part. Franco, like a lot of American actors works mostly on instinct. I found acting as his mirror was the most effective way of giving him direction.
But all of them need to be versed in the story and their place within it. You have to set the right tone so they understand how their instrument fits into the piece of music that is being played if you know what I mean. I remember reading an interview with John Gielgud where he took a note from a director, thought about it and then said, “I think what you’re trying to tell me is that you want a little less flute and a touch more trombone”. That kind of sums it up!
In your opinion, does your filmography so far have any signature themes to them, or a distinct visual style? For example, The Escapist and Rise of The Planet of The Apes seem to deal with captivity and liberation…
Yeah, not sure what that’s about. Perhaps it something to do with having gone to boarding school! — I like films that tackle classical themes, regardless of their scale. A film like Kes is for me as epic as any blockbuster. It’s working on the human level that interests me. And I guess redemption or searching for it is very much a part of who we are.
Before you directed The Escapist, you made short films, wrote the film Ticks, did some cinematography work for some TV series, and worked at Picture Farm- do you feel that gaining some experience outside of the world of features better prepares you for it?
Ticks actually was a short I wrote and directed set in a London bar on the eve of the Millennium but it gets mixed up with a horror film of the same name…
Any time with a camera and an idea helps prepare you. There’s so much more than just the story telling to learn how to navigate. Working with a team and getting the most out of them. Staying within budget. On schedule. Understanding eye-lines for continuity, shot coverage. Doesn’t really matter what scale you’re working at, it all stems from the same basic rules.
Obviously making the leap from the indie world to Hollywood is jarring enough, but how much of a challenge did you find it to helm the seventh instalment of a beloved franchise and make it your own?
Well the script was an original and unlike the other films of the franchise was real world sci-fi so I was lucky in that I had the opportunity to create an origin story and lay fresh foundations for a mythology rather than building an extension. It’s funny because the perception of the film was, I think, quite different to the one we were making, which was good for us as I feel like we surprised many people. That, and the fact that expectations were pretty low. It’s always nice to be the underdog.
What advice could you give to any aspiring young filmmakers looking to get their work seen?
I wish more cinema chains embraced the idea of showing new film maker short films before features. It’s the perfect opportunity to showcase new talent in front of a wide audience. I don’t know if this happens in the UK but Pixar often screen a short from one of their up and coming film makers prior to a Pixar feature. It’s a way of giving birth to new ideas and giving them a life in front of a paying audience, without the pressure of a need to succeed.
It’s one of the many downsides of not having a studio system in the UK. It would be great if younger film makers could learn their craft under the same roof of others who could teach from experience. It happens in Hollywood. In fact it happened in Renaissance Italy with the apprentice workshops. It’s rough working in isolation.
My personal experience is that I made dozens of short films that were never seen outside of a few living rooms and the odd festival if I was lucky. If I had my time again, in the digital age, then I’d be looking at the distribution possibilities that vimeo, youtube, and netflix and their like offer up. The right Short has the potential to go viral.
Since you have experience on both sides of the pond, do you find there is a distinct difference in the sensibility of American and European filmmakers?
In European and Eastern cinema the film maker often looks to capture a frame from the landscape, whereas the Hollywood approach is to create a landscape to fill their frame. It’s perhaps an over simplification but that sums up in a way how modern Hollywood likes a controlled approach to the creative process. It’s why technology plays such a large part in so many studio films and that’s not just what’s on the screen but the process itself. Pre-visualization being a good example. While I admire and trust the Industry work ethic and extraordinary attention to detail, I find there is always that danger of sucking the life out of a film.
It’s safe to say it’s no longer the liberal creative playground of the 1970’s, but then again Hollywood is stacked with great individual Film makers working in the main stream: Nolan, Tarantino, Scorsese, The Coen Brothers…And each of their movies are an event. Simply I think because they all look to entertain as well as provoke and move us. And so while I am so often inspired by Filmmakers like the Dardenne Brothers or Michael Haneke, I have never managed to have a career working in Europe. In the US I have that. It’s a choice I had to make. And I’m very happy working there.
Are there any particular filmmakers or films that influenced you early on, and any particular contemporaries you greatly admire?
Aside from the above, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Lars Von Trier, Sergio Leone, Gilles Pontecorvo, Robert Bresson, Werner Herzog, and early Spielberg.
As for contemporaries, Chris Nolan is I think a trail blazer and is to be hugely admired as a master film maker but also someone who has given others behind him a stick to beat back the naysayers who never thought a modern mass audience would be willing to embrace story and character as much as spectacle.
I believe you’re helming an adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong- what exactly attracted you to the source material, and why do you think another adaptation is needed after the BBC’s recent adaptation?
I’ve long been a huge fan of the Novel, and have worked on developing the adaptation for some years. What’s so great about the book is that it isn’t bogged down in the history of the period but works on a very human level, something that makes it very contemporary and probably why it has had such a cultural impact. And so it therefore doesn’t just speak for the lost generation but for all generations especially those who have experienced war.
It’s a story about a world where timeless themes and iconic characters are explored in great detail, an I think any literature like that , from Dickens to Shakespeare, has many shades to it- so I don’t feel our version will necessarily reflect what has come before.
Now that Birdsong seems to be your next project, perhaps we could set the record straight without jinxing anything- were Agent 43 and Londongrad in active development? And is there any movement on the supposed Netflix series you were working on with your wife, screenwriter Erica Beeney?
I don’t know what is next. And I probably won’t until the Premiere. But the one’s you mention are all films I would dearly love to make and hope someday soon I have the opportunity to do so. The key is for others to want to see these films made. The financiers, the producers, the actors. It’s a painstaking collaborative process, and the only way I could ensure a film were to happen would be if I won the lottery and pay for it myself, or if I made films out of a garden shed at the bottom of my garden.
The Escapist is available on DVD. Rise of The Planet of The Apes is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Birdsong is coming soon.