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Classic Horrors Goes Ape!

As part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the release of Planet of the Apes (1968), the USC School of Cinematic Arts and its arts and humanities initiative (USC Visions & Voices) hosted a screening and panel discussion on Friday evening, February 9, in the Frank Sinatra Hall at the Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre Complex on the USC campus. The panel, called “Legacy of the Planet of the Apes,” featured crew members “from across the Planet of the Apes universe,” both old and new.

The event was free, although I pre-registered online when I learned I was coincidentally going to be in Los Angeles the same weekend. My brother and I arrived around 5:30, with the doors opening at 6:30. The line wasn’t too long at that time, but soon stretched to three times the length. The event was overbooked to ensure a full house.

We were greeted in the lobby by what seemed like a life-size Lawgiver statue. Although moderator Alessandro Ago thanked the owner during his opening remarks, I do not recall who it is or if it is an original or a replica. On the other side of the lobby was a black “photo op” backdrop with logos for “50 Years of Planet of the Apes,” USC School of Cinematic Arts, and USC Visions and Voices. Perhaps it was used for photographs when the guests either arrived or left. We did not witness it, though.

Once inside, it was literally standing room only, with some of the reserved seats surrendered from guests who had not arrived by 7:00. Two rows behind us were placeholders for one of them, makeup legend Dan Striepeke. His seat was not surrendered. However, next to him on his right was a seat for director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes.) Although he appeared later during the panel, he apparently didn’t watch the screening (or sat elsewhere).

Inside the theater, the familiar “Go Ape!” poster from the mid-70s theatrical marathon screenings of all five original Planet of the Apes films was projected onscreen. When the lights dimmed shortly after 7:00, the image zoomed-in to the gorilla soldier’s eyes, then pulled back out to reveal the beginning of a slideshow featuring behind-the-scenes photos from the entire Apes franchise, from Planet of the Apes (1968) to War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).

I had seen Planet of the Apes on the big screen a year ago when Alamo Drafthouse hosted a special screening. Every time I watch it, I notice something new. This time, I (and the audience) reacted more overtly to its humor. I sometimes take offense when an audience laughs at something I don’t believe is intentionally funny, but my guard was down and I was able to relax and enjoy the full entertainment value of a movie that, as much a classic as it is, is nevertheless a sometimes dated product of its times.

After the movie, the panelists were welcomed to the stage and consisted of:

  • Dan Striepeke, original makeup artist

  • William J. Creber, original art director

  • Rick Jaffa, screenwriter (with Amanda Silver) for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

  • Dylan Clark, producer of Rise, Dawn and War for the Planet of the Apes

  • Matt Reeves, director of Dawn and writer (with Mark Bomback)/director of War

  • Rupert Wyatt, director of Rise

  • Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor for Rise, Dawn and War

At 90 minutes, the panel ran for nearly as long as the movie.

My interest lies primarily in what Striepeke and Creber had to say about the original production, although more time seemed devoted to the new trilogy and the motion capture technology that brought Caesar (Andy Serkis) to life. Where the two eras crossed was with the common idea that both the makeup of the vintage and the CGI of the modern require actors beneath them or behind them to convincingly make either method successfully work. In their own ways, each approach accomplished the mission.

According to Striepeke, he had just finished working on a season of Mission: Impossible when Ben Nye, the head of 20th Century Fox’s makeup department, called and said he’d like to submit his name as a replacement because he was retiring. He “went back a long way” with John Chambers (creative makeup designer) and began work with him on Planet of the Apes. “It was just damn difficult to come up with a reasonable look that was not comedic or laughable.”

As opposed to the “perfectly modern, technologically advanced society” of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, La Planète des singes (or, Monkey Planet), as Ago described it, the screenplay for Planet of the Apes called for a different vision. Creber had read the book and suggested to producer Arthur P. Jacobs and director Franklin J. Schaffner that they go to Brazil to recreate Boulle’s city. Jacobs told him, “I’m not sending anyone to Brazil!” He didn’t want anybody to know it was Earth. “You’re going to find places that nobody’s ever seen.”

Creber then had a meeting with the head of the art department, Jack Martin Smith, who reminded him of the Lake Powell locations used when he worked on The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).Some of the rocks begin to look like the buildings.” He and Schaffner filmed many of these shots from a helicopter. Creber said that he suggested the subjective camera “to fly the audience into the lake” at the beginning of the movie rather than witness the spaceship Icarus crash into the water.

Creber told a story about the contribution of which he is most proud. He and Schaffner were at a bar in Lake Powell when Schaffner told him the end of the picture was too abrupt and asked him if there was anything they could do to extend it. He grabbed a cocktail napkin and sketched a little storyboard of Taylor’s approach and the views of the cliff… over the back of the Statue of Liberty. Schaffner said, “Fine, we’ll do it.” Creber replied, “I don’t have a budget for these shots.” Schaffner said, “Don’t worry about it.”

Near the end of the panel, Ago announced a last minute guest. From the back of the theater walked… Dr. Zaius, or the spitting image of him. The comedy that followed was bizarre and initially seemed inappropriate. However, once we were used to it, it was truly hilarious, like a stand-up routine with a lot of insider jokes by someone who was actually in the cast of Planet of the Apes. We’d later learn that this was comedian Dana Gould, commonly recognized for being a huge Apes fan.

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