Return to The Planet of the Apes (Book Extract)

In this extract from the book Tales from Development Hell, David Hughes look at the evolution of the return of The Planet of the Apes franchise.

“I thought it was gonna be fantastic, like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. The movie they actually made was a bad Twilight Zone episode.”

—would-be Planet of the Apes producer Don Murphy


In 1962, the publication of Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des Singes (‘The Planet of the Apes’) caused something of a sensation in his native France. Not just because the novel — in which three astronauts crash-land on a planet populated by intelligent apes — was an inspired and dramatically different science fiction fable with a seam of socio-political satire running throughout, but because, at the time, Boulle was considered one of France’s most gifted ‘serious’ writers. His previous novels such as Face of a Hero, A Noble Profession and The Bridge on the River Kwai — the film adaptation of which had won him an Oscar in 1958 — were all rooted firmly in the real world. Boulle’s single, extraordinary idea — that of an “upside-down” world where apes were a highly evolved species, and men little more than their pets — was triggered by a visit to the zoo, where the apes’ mimicry of human mannerisms set him thinking about the relationships between the two species. It was his sole contribution to the field of science fiction; indeed, Boulle protested that the book hardly belonged to the genre at all.

Shortly after the book’s publication, a French literary agent brought it to the attention of Hollywood producer Arthur P. Jacobs, aware that Jacobs was looking for “something like King Kong” that he could turn into a major motion picture. “He told me the story,” Jacobs later recalled, “and I said, ‘I’ll buy it — [I] gotta buy it.’ He said, ‘I think you’re crazy, but okay.’” As Jacobs would discover after some three and a half years of rejections, the agent’s belief that Planet of the Apes was unfilmable was an opinion shared by many, Boulle included. “I never thought it could be made into a film,” the author later admitted. “It seemed to me too difficult, and there was a chance that it would appear ridiculous.”

Even Jacobs’ friend Charlton Heston, who had committed to the lead role within an hour of hearing the producer’s pitch on 5 June 1965, doubted that the film would ever be made. “The novel was singularly uncinematic,” said the actor. “All Arthur had was the rights to the novel and a portfolio of paintings depicting possible scenes. There wasn’t even a treatment outlining an effective script,” he added, despite the fact that Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling had admitted spending “well over a year, and thirty or forty drafts” trying to translate Boulle’s novel to the screen. Nevertheless, the Oscar-winning star of such epics as Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and El Cid stuck with the project through months of Development Hell, “trudging studio to studio with [Jacobs’] paintings and being laughed at: ‘No kidding, talking monkeys and rocket ships? Gedouttahere!’” He even brought an A-list director, Franklin J. Schaffner, on board when Blake Edwards, Jacobs’ original choice, moved on after spending more than a year attached to the project. Yet even the combined track record of Jacobs, Heston and Schaffner, who had directed Heston in The War Lord, could not get the movie made.

The problem, it seemed, was the one Boulle had foreseen: that there was every chance that a film featuring a principal cast of talking apes might appear ridiculous to a cinema audience. Finally, Jacobs convinced 20th Century Fox’s head of production, Richard D. Zanuck, to let him spend $5,000 on a make-up test, which was filmed on a jury-rigged set on 8 March 1966. “Rod Serling wrote a long, nine-page scene, a conversation between Taylor and Dr Zaius,” Jacobs recalled of the test, directed by Schaffner, and featuring Heston as the misanthropic astronaut Taylor and his Ten Commandments co-star Edward G. Robinson in full ape make-up as the orangu-tan science minister Dr Zaius, with a young James Brolin and Linda Harrison — who would later be cast as the mute beauty Nova — as the sympathetic chimpanzees, Cornelius and Zira. “We packed the screening room with everyone we could get ahold of,” Jacobs added, “and Zanuck said, ‘If they start laughing, forget it.’ Nobody laughed. They sat there, tense, and he said, ‘Make the picture.’”

The make-up test had also impressed John Chambers, a former prosthetics designer turned Hollywood make-up artist whose innovative creations had been seen in Star Trek (Mr Spock’s ears), and John Huston’s film The List of Adrian Messenger (completely disguising the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis and Robert Mitchum for their cameos). “The make-up was crude,” he remarked of Ben Nye’s work for the test, “but they had a semblance of what they wanted. That’s how the concept was started.” Chambers was required to solve a number of problems before filming could begin. Should the evolved apes look like Neanderthal Man, like animals, or somewhere in between? How could the three subspecies in the script — and the various gorilla, chimpanzee and orang-utan characters — be differentiated? How could masks be made to express the actors’ own facial movements, and handle the voice projection required for sound recording? How could the make-up be applied and removed quickly enough to make filming practical?

While Chambers struggled to solve the make-up problems, the film-makers continued to reshape the script, initially with Serling, and later with Oscar-winner Michael Wilson, a once-blacklisted screenwriter — originally uncredited on The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia due to his suspected Communist allegiances — who knew all about senseless prejudice. Wilson’s experience at Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC hearings lent authenticity and added poignancy to the tribunal scene, the simian equivalent of a typical ‘kangaroo court’. With each new draft, the story drifted farther from its source novel, largely because Boulle’s depiction of the simians as a technologically advanced race with cars, buildings and helicopters — all re-scaled for primates — required a far larger budget than Fox would allow. “The early designs were of a very high-tech civilisation, which meant you had to design all kinds of special vehicles and buildings and so on,” Heston explained. “And Frank [Schaffner] said, ‘I don’t have enough budget as it is. Why don’t we say it’s a very primitive society, and they use horses and wagons and very primitive buildings?’ And that’s what we did.” Production designer William Creber based his revised concept drawings for the simian community on what he described as “a troglodyte city” carved into mountains in Turkey.

The greatest alteration, however, was the relocation of the book’s action from an alien planet with its own simian civilisation, to a devastated, post-holocaust Earth of the far future, 2,000 years after a nuclear war has wiped almost all traces of mankind from the face of the planet, allowing simians to become the dominant race. The terrible truth would be revealed to Taylor in the last shot of the film, when his journey into the ‘Forbidden Zone’ leads to the discovery of the wrecked Statue of Liberty, half-submerged in the desolate wasteland which is all that remains of New York City, circa 3955 AD. Although the credit for this devastating idea has been attributed to — or appropriated by — just about everyone involved with the picture, Jacobs claimed that it came to him during an informal development meeting with Blake Edwards at a Burbank delicatessen. “As we walked out, we looked up, and there’s this big Statue of Liberty on the wall of the delicatessen,” he said. “If we never had lunch in that delicatessen, I doubt that we would have had the Statue of the Liberty at the end of the picture.” Jacobs further claimed that Boulle thought the twist was “more inventive than his own ending, and wished that he had thought of it when he wrote the book.” Boulle remembered it differently. “I disliked, somewhat, the ending that was used,” he said, referring to perhaps the greatest coup de théâtre in the history of cinema. “Personally, I preferred my own.”

Premièred on 8 February 1968, Planet of the Apes was a critical and commercial smash, grossing a staggering $26 million — more than four times the production budget of $5.8 million. “It not only grossed enormous numbers, it created a new film genre: the space opera,” Heston said later. “Fantasies set in outer space had long been a staple of the comic strips and Saturday-morning kiddie TV, but had been disdained by Hollywood,” he added, possibly explaining the studios’ initial reluctance to green-light the project. Planet of the Apes endured one of the most prolonged and difficult development periods of any film, only to become one of the biggest successes of the year — and a virtual lifesaver for 20th Century Fox, which, less than a year earlier, had lost a fortune, even by today’s standards, on the epic costume drama Cleopatra. The following year, as the first of four sequels was going into production, Planet of the Apes received two Academy Award nominations, famously beating out the monkey make-up of 2001: A Space Odyssey to earn a special Oscar.

Although a number of reasons were cited for Apes’ across-the-board appeal, it was obvious that the film worked on at least two distinct levels. “Whether by design or accident, [it] had this double appeal,” explained Maurice Evans, who ended up playing Dr Zaius in the film, and returned in the first sequel. “The appeal to youngsters [was] as a pure science fiction film, but it had a message to deliver which apparently communicated very clearly to the adult audience.” But had Schaffner set out to make a sci-fi action adventure with an intriguing premise and an unbeatable twist, or a Swiftian satire with a polemical commentary on the politically turbulent times of the late 1960s? “I had never thought of this picture in terms of being science fiction,” Schaffner asserted, echoing Pierre Boulle’s opinion of his original novel. “It was a political film.” Indeed, Planet of the Apes can perhaps be viewed as symbolically similar to its most famous image, the Statue of Liberty itself: an uncomplicated political message delivered to a mass audience via a populist medium.

The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, was released in 1970, followed by another in each of the following three years: Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Two television series followed: Planet of the Apes in 1974 and the animated Return to the Planet of the Apes in 1975, by which time the entire concept seemed to have been driven to extinction.

Nevertheless, barely two decades later, Zanuck’s “Make the picture” evolved into a different imperative: to remake the picture. Yet the film which Batman director Tim Burton was to bring to the screen in 2001 originally began not as a remake — or a “re-imagining”, as the spin doctors in 20th Century Fox’s marketing department euphemised — but as a sequel. In 1988, a twenty-one year-old film-maker called Adam Rifkin made a low budget teen flick entitled Never on Tuesday, with cameos by Nicolas Cage, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez. Although barely released and seen by few, the film so impressed Fox president Craig Baumgarten that he invited the young auteur to pitch anything he wanted to make. Instead, Rifkin pitched something he wanted to remake. “I had always been a huge Planet of the Apes fan,” he says, “and when Craig asked me if I had any ideas for the studio I immediately pitched him on bringing back the Apes. Having independent film experience, I promised I could write and direct a huge-looking film for a reasonable price, like the sequel to Alien.” Although made for a paltry $18 million, James Cameron’s Aliens looks like it cost five times that sum, and became a huge success for the studio.

Instead of pitching a story which Fox might then ask him to turn into a screenplay, Rifkin took the unusual step of pitching the trailer: “It would open on a barren desert, sand to the horizon. Then a dot would appear in the distance — very Lawrence of Arabia. A craggy narrator would begin telling the cryptic tale of a long forgotten race, decimated by turmoil, strife, war. All the while the dot is getting closer. It’s a shrouded man on horseback. Wearing all black, scarves hide his face from the buffeting sand. Closer and closer he rides, the narrator’s words growing in intensity. Finally, as the storyteller’s words apex with some corny, critical, euphemistic phrase, like “… and now, from out of the sand, they’re back!” the Horseman at that moment would ride into close-up. His horse would rear just as he pulled off his scarf to reveal the face of a gorilla, bellowing a deafening war cry. The camera would then ascend up over the ape’s head to reveal an army of thousands of apes on horseback charging over the horizon.

Rifkin says that Baumgarten commissioned him to write what amounted to a sequel, “but not a sequel to the fifth film, an alternate sequel to the first film. I had pretty much decided that all anybody really remembered was some random imagery from the first film,” Rifkin explains, “particularly the end scene on the beach. All the other films were just a blur. Fox agreed, and that’s why it was decided to branch the franchise off in the direction that we did.” Rifkin describes his version as “Spartacus with apes. The film would open on the last scene from the first film where Charlton Heston was screaming up at the Statue of Liberty, then fade to black. A card would read: ‘300 years later’. When we would fade up, the ape empire had reached its Roman era. A descendant of Heston would eventually lead a human slave revolt against the oppressive Roman-esque apes. A real sword and sandal spectacular, monkey style.”

“The legend throughout the humans is this one man who came from space,” Rifkin elaborated to Creative Screenwriting magazine, “so our descendant takes on that cause.” At the same time, a power struggle has erupted within the ape empire, with gorillas and chimpanzees hovering on the brink of civil war for dominance of the planet. “The general of the gorilla army stages this coup d’état, slaughters a bunch of orang-utans, and takes control of the ape empire politics. In a way,” he added, “Gladiator did the same movie without the ape costumes.” Rifkin says that 20th Century Fox loved the draft. “Fox was dead set on making this movie, and fast. Their marketing department went nuts for the idea of bringing back Apes, which just fuelled Craig’s determination to get it into production as fast as possible.” The studio’s only request was to shorten the draft by ten or so pages, a decision he says was based more on budget concerns than creative ones. “As soon as I was to turn in the cut-down script we were to commence official pre-production. Needless to say, I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe it.” Rifkin was set to direct, with Academy Award-winning make-up man Rick Baker working on the apes, Danny Elfman (Batman) composing the score, “and possibly Tom Cruise or Charlie Sheen to play the young slave. Both were hot young actors at the time and were pretty much neck and neck as far as who would turn out to be the bigger star. I can’t accurately describe in words the utter euphoria I felt at knowing that I, Adam Rifkin, was going to be resurrecting Planet of the Apes,” he adds. “It all seemed too good to be true. I soon found out that, of course, it was.”

Days before the film was to commence pre-production, Craig Baumgarten was “quite unexpectedly and unceremoniously replaced” by what Rifkin describes as “a succession of new studio heads. Though the new heads of the studio didn’t specifically kill the project, the momentum certainly shifted from active pre-production to active development. Many new drafts were commissioned and it seemed for a while like the simple Spartacus parallel that I had originally intended was beginning to lose its focus and shape.” One bone of contention was that, like the original film, Rifkin’s script ended on a pessimistic note. “[Fox wanted] a happy, harmonious ending between apes and humans, this ‘we can all finally live together’ happy ending, which I always thought was a bad idea,” Rifkin told Creative Screenwriting. “I thought it was a little corny, because you want a hopeful ending for the characters you care about, but you still want there to be the tension between the apes and the humans for all the [proposed] sequels.”

As the script went through draft after draft, the hope of Rifkin being allowed behind the camera seemed to fade. “Eventually the script evolved to a place where, though different than the original idea, I actually liked it again. Somehow, through all this development, ideas hatched that otherwise would have never been thought of. I was excited again. But alas,” he says, “it wasn’t meant to be. Eventually, as is so often the case in studio development, my Planet of the Apes just died on the vine. There was no grand deceitful moment, or imposing closed door meeting that put the final nail in its coffin. Trends shift, culture changes, new ideas replace old ones and what once seemed like a great idea to a studio and its marketing department now seemed like old news.” Although he would obviously have preferred to have seen the project through, Rifkin (whose career has since included writing Mouse Hunt and directing Detroit Rock City) says he has no hard feelings: “It was my first studio job, and was a valuable personal and professional experience all the way around. It enabled me to join the Writers Guild and opened other Hollywood doors as well. All in all it was a wonderful project to be a part of, if only for a brief moment.”

It was to be several years before Fox resurrected the idea of remaking Planet of the Apes, this time when Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher, who produced Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, became involved. Says Murphy, “I called [Fox executive] Peter Rice, who was and is a good friend of mine, and said, ‘I have to do this. What do I gotta do?’ And he said, ‘You gotta find a director. Why don’t you find somebody interesting, like Sam Raimi?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s interesting, but I don’t know how to get to Sam Raimi, and I’m not sure he’s the right guy anyway.’ And he said, ‘Well, fuck, why don’t you walk down the hall and ask Oliver?’ So I walked down the hall and asked Oliver… and he didn’t say ‘No.’” He didn’t exactly say “Yes,” either. According to the account in Jane Hamsher’s book Killer Instinct: How Two Young Producers Took on Hollywood and Made the Most Controversial Film of the Decade, Stone may not have known what he got himself into. “I imagine the conversation going something like this,” Hamsher wrote. “‘So, Oliver, Planet of the Apes,’ says Don. ‘What about it?’ says Oliver. ‘Do you like it?’ says Don. ‘Um, sure,’ says Oliver… ‘So, if I could get us involved, you’d like that, huh?’ says Don. ‘Huh? Sure, Don, whatever,’ says Oliver.” According to Hamsher, Rice responded by saying that he would only be interested if Stone would direct. “What we don’t want is an expensive executive producer.” Murphy said to leave it to him.

Before long, a top-heavy meeting was arranged at the offices of Stone’s production company, Ixtlan, with everyone present from Fox president of production Tom Jacobson, and going down through the ranks of vice presidents all the way to Rice — on whose shoulders the whole experience (not to mention his future career) was resting. What Stone said first caught everyone by surprise. “I watched the original movies again a couple of nights ago, and they were awful,” he told a stunned boardroom. “I’m only here because of Don Murphy. You should talk to him.” As Hamsher recalled, “[What followed] was the most dreadful silence I’ve ever heard in a room. Oliver had clearly gotten wind of all of Don’s shenanigans in the process, and was now hanging him out to dry.” Murphy apparently did his best to encourage the executives on the basis of marketing potential merchandising tie-ins, McDonald’s Happy Meals and the like, but it was abundantly clear that there was no idea, no pitch, to back up the generalisations and jargon. “The collective embarrassment level in the room was quantumly higher than anything I’ve ever registered before in my life,” Hamsher went on. “When suddenly, Oliver seemed to tune into something.”

Stone — who had mixed politics and science fiction in the television series Wild Palms, and written an unproduced adaptation of Alfred Bester’s sci-fi novel The Demolished Man — had apparently become intrigued by the prospect of time being circular, not linear, with no difference between the past and the future. “What if there were discovered cryogenically frozen Vedic Apes who held the secret numeric codes to the Bible that foretold the end of civilization?” he wondered. His interpretation of Planet of the Apes would, as he later told Empire, be “a sci-fi movie that deals with the past versus the future. My concept is that there’s a code inscribed in the Bible that predicts all historical events. The apes were there at the beginning and figured it all out.” Nevertheless, he added evasively, “I don’t want to say too much, except that the stars will be hairy.”

According to Hamsher, Fox thought almost as much of Stone’s ideas as Stone himself did. Thus, wrote Hamsher, “Oliver Stone got Fox to take exactly what they didn’t want on the project — an expensive executive producer. They called the next day and offered him a million dollars to do just that.” When the project was announced in Variety in late 1993, Hamsher sounded more confident than she felt about Stone’s approach. “Oliver’s notion is kind of in the Joseph Campbell-mytho [sic] vein,” she was quoted as saying. “It’s about what a separate, parallel planet might be. He’s reinvented the story with a contemporary scientist going back in time to this simian universe.” Although news that Oliver Stone might direct a new Planet of the Apes spread like wildfire, Murphy says that was never the intention — “he may have led Fox to believe that, so we could do the deal, but no” — and that he only ever intended to executive produce the film. Nevertheless, Hamsher asserts that Stone was enthusiastic about the project. Murphy agrees: “I think Oliver saw there was a very exciting story to be told and a very exciting concept in a very exciting world.” Soon the director was working closely with British-born screenwriter Terry Hayes, who had scripted two Mad Max sequels and Dead Calm, on a brand new screenplay.

Entitled Return of the Apes, the script opens in the present day with a plague that causes human infants to be stillborn — within six months, there won’t be a live birth on the planet, signalling the end of the human race. Geneticist Will Robinson discovers that the plague is a genetic time bomb embedded in human ‘mitochondrial DNA’ 102,000 years earlier. Hoping to save mankind, he uses a unique form of genetic time travel to journey back to a time when Palaeolithic humans were locked in a battle for the future of the planet with highly-evolved apes, one of whom plans to defeat the humans with the plague that will ensure ape dominance over Earth. Will and Billie Rae Diamond, a pregnant colleague who follows him back in time, soon discover that a young human girl named Aiv is the next step in Homo sapiens’ evolution, and they embark on a race against time to protect her from the virus, thus ensuring the survival of the human race 102,000 years hence. Hayes’ ending is bittersweet: Billie Rae ultimately gives birth to a healthy baby boy, Adam, whose future coupling with Aiv (pronounced ‘Eve’) will effectively found the human race; however, Will and Billie Rae are unable to return to the future. (“I never worked out how to get back,” Will confesses. “Give me some credit,” Billie Rae retorts. “I’m a scientist — I knew that.”) The closing image riffs on the ending of the original film, as Will builds a replica of the Statue of Liberty’s head, “to make sure we never forget where we came from.”

According to Hamsher, Fox chairman Peter Chernin subsequently described Return of the Apes as “one of the best scripts he ever read.” Yet Dylan Sellers, one of the lesser executives steering the project through Fox, thought it could be improved. “What if our main guy finds himself in Ape land, and the Apes are trying to play a game like baseball, but they’re missing one element, like the pitcher or something,” he suggested. “And when our guy comes along, he knows what they’re missing, and he shows them, and they all start playing.” In a style which is customary in such meetings, everyone agreed that it would be a great idea, while secretly having no intention of including it, or anything like it. In the meantime, two 700-pound gorillas became attached to the project: one was Australian director Phillip Noyce — who had helmed Hayes’ Dead Calm and the Jack Ryan blockbusters Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games; the other was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the kind of star the studio needed to justify the film’s considerable budget. Although he appeared better suited to the Charlton Heston role in a more straightforward remake of the original — a suggestion reinforced by his interest in reprising the Heston role in a mooted remake of The Ωmega Man — Schwarzenegger loved Hayes’ script; furthermore, he would only work with ‘A-list’ directors, and Noyce was one of them. “At one point,” Murphy recalls, “I was in the biggest meeting I’ve ever been in, with Peter Chernin, the head of the studio, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Phillip Noyce to direct based on a Terry Hayes first draft; me and my ex-partner Jane to produce and Oliver Stone to executive produce, and that was all looking pretty damn good.”

Sellers refused to give up his baseball scene, however, perhaps aware that he ought to put his stamp on the project, for better or worse, in order to justify his involvement in the process. (This tendency among executives best exemplified by the cliché, “This script is perfect. Who can we get to rewrite it?”) Thus, when Hayes handed in his next draft — sans baseball — Sellers fired him, a move Hamsher described as “incredibly stupid”, not least because Hayes and Noyce had remained friends since they collaborated on Dead Calm several years earlier. As a result, Noyce moved on. Understandably, Fox became frustrated by the distance between Fox’s approach and Hayes’ interpretation of Oliver Stone’s ideas — as Murphy put it, “Terry wrote a Terminator, and Fox wanted The Flintstones” — and, perhaps feeling that they were not getting the full value of their million dollars from Stone, decided to take back the reins. Suddenly, says Murphy, “it turned into a whole political thing, and before you knew it we were going nowhere.” Several events occurred in rapid succession: Stone went off to pursue projects of his own; Tom Rothman replaced Tom Jacobson as head of production; a drunken Dylan Sellers crashed his car, killing a much-loved colleague and earning himself jail time; and Murphy and Hamsher were paid off.

“After they got rid of us, they brought on Chris Columbus,” says Murphy, referring to the writer of Gremlins and Home Alone, and director of Mrs Doubtfire. “Then I heard they did tests of apes skiing, which sounded pretty ludicrous to me.” Having recently failed to get a film based on Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four off the ground at Fox, Columbus teamed up with that project’s screenwriter — Batman scribe Sam Hamm — for a new, kiddie-friendly version of Planet of the Apes. As Hamm told Creative Screenwriting, “What we tried to do was a story that would be simultaneously an homage to the elements we liked from the original series, and would also incorporate a lot of material from [Pierre Boulle’s novel] that had been jettisoned from the earlier production. The first half of the script bears very little resemblance to the book, but a lot of the stuff in the second half comes directly from it, or is directly inspired by it.”

Hamm’s script borrowed Hayes’ device of the baby-killing virus, this time brought to Earth by an ape astronaut, whose spacecraft crashes in New York harbour. Nine months later, babies throughout the world are being born prematurely aged, dying within hours of their birth, and it is up to Dr Susan Landis, who works for the Center for Disease Control, and Alexander Troy, a scientist based at Area 51, to use the ape’s spacecraft to return to the virus’ planet of origin, hoping to find an antidote. Instead, they find an urban environment, similar to that described in Boulle’s novel, with apes in three-piece suits armed with heavy weapons, helicopters and the other trappings of civilisation — all used to hunt humans. Landis and Troy discover the antidote and return to Earth, only to find that in their seventy-four year absence, the apes have taken over the planet. Once again, Hamm puts an ironic twist on the Statue of Liberty ending, revealing a statue whose “once-proud porcelain features have been crudely chiselled into the grotesque likeness of a great grinning ape.”

Although Arnold Schwarzenegger remained attached to the new script, Fox was still not convinced that this was the version they wanted to make. And when Columbus subsequently quit the project following the death of his mother, James Cameron began talks (during the filming of Titanic) about the possibility of writing and producing — but not directing — a new version, drawing on elements of the original film and its first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. “Schwarzenegger… is talking with Jim Cameron on 20th Fox’s Planet of the Apes,” Variety columnist Army Archerd wrote in January 1997. “Arnold tells me Stan Winston has already created amazing apes… and although [Cameron]’s banner, Lightstorm Entertainment, does not have a ‘formal arrangement’ with 20th on Apes, it’s anticipated he will produce it. He loves the project and the franchise.”

Given their history together — two Terminator films and the mega-hit True Lies — it seemed more likely than ever that Schwarzenegger would remain aboard, but in the wake of Titanic’s critical and commercial success, Cameron began to re-think his future. “I’m forty-four,” he said in November 1998. “I make a movie every two or three years — it should be something that I create. I’ve always done that, with the exception of Aliens. The Terminator was my creation, so were Titanic and The Abyss. With the amount of time and energy that I put into a film, it shouldn’t be somebody else’s [idea]. I don’t want to labour in somebody else’s house.” Of his possible interpretation, “I would have gone in a very different direction,” is all Cameron would say. With Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich and a pre-Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson all declining a proffered place in the director’s chair, Planet of the Apes was back to square one.

By the summer of 1999, the studio which had revived the science fiction genre in the early nineties with Independence Day and The X-Files, was busy ruling the planet with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and the prospect of a new Planet of the Apes reared its head once again. At around this time, American-Armenian producer-director twins Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) became intrigued by the idea of making a new version of Apes. “The original movie is about race in America,” Albert told Empire later. “[Ours] would have been more socially significant and would have been more reality-based [than the 2001 version].” Added Allen, “We wanted to take the premise and revamp certain elements. But From Hell had a green light and we hadn’t worked in five years. I think they didn’t really want us to do Planet of the Apes anyway.” (“I don’t think the Hughes brothers had anything more than a conversation with Fox,” says Don Murphy, who produced From Hell, which was written by Terry Hayes.)

In the meantime, the studio hired screenwriter William Broyles Jr, who marooned Tom Hanks in space in Apollo 13 and on a desert island in Cast Away, to write what amounted to a third story about a man stranded far from home. As Broyles told Creative Screenwriting, “[Fox president] Tom Rothman called and said, ‘Look, would you like to do Planet of the Apes?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And then he called back and said, ‘Well, you could really do whatever you wanted [with the project].’ And I said, ‘No.’ Then I went outside. I was looking at the stars and thought, ‘You know, this could be fun!’ Because with this kind of imaginative science fiction, you can deal with themes that are hard to deal with in a more realistic movie. And there was no producer. There was nobody to tell me anything I had to put in or not put in. It was an interesting act of faith on Fox’s part just to give me a blank piece of paper and say, ‘Go for it.’” Aside from a projected release date — the summer of 2001 — there were, he said, “zero parameters. That was the fun thing about it. [They said,] ‘Don’t read any of the earlier scripts. Don’t feel limited by the previous series. Just follow your imagination.’ It was a completely blank slate.” At one point, Broyles called Rothman, demonstrating the extent of his departure from previous versions with a single question: “Does it have to be apes?” He was only half joking.

Broyles sent Fox an outline and a chronicle of the fictional planet which would be the setting for his version, before beginning to work on a first draft. Entitled The Visitor, and billed as “episode one in the Chronicles of Aschlar,” it was conceived as the first of three movies in a whole new cycle. Although it was pointedly not set on Earth, in other respects his story — in which an astronaut crash-lands on a world of civilised apes and enslaved humans — remains faithful to the basic structure of the original, although Broyles ups the ante by having a powerful chimpanzee named General Thade (an anagram of ‘death’) plotting the genocide of the human race.

A subsequent draft grabbed the attention not only of original Planet of the Apes producer Richard D. Zanuck, who signed on to produce the new version, but also director Tim Burton, fresh from the sleeper hit Sleepy Hollow. “I wasn’t interested in doing a remake or a sequel of the original Planet of the Apes film,” Burton said later. “But I was intrigued by the idea of revisiting that world. Like a lot of people, I was affected by the original. It’s like a good myth or fairy tale that stays with you. The idea of re-imagining that mythology [was] very exciting to me.” This “re-imagining” would, he said, “introduce new characters and other story elements, keeping the essence of the original but inhabiting that world in a different way.” After more than a decade in Development Hell, Zanuck suddenly felt that Burton was the right director to bring Planet of the Apes to a new generation of moviegoers. “When you say ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘Tim Burton’ in the same breath, that idea is instantly explosive, like lightning on the screen,” he said. “All of Tim’s films are highly imaginative and highly visual. I can’t think of a more perfect pairing than Tim Burton and Planet of the Apes. It spells magic to me.” Burton’s box office credibility, which had taken a knock with Mars Attacks!, had bounced back with Sleepy Hollow; equally importantly, he was available, having spent a year developing a Superman film for Warner Bros which failed to materialize.

Under Burton’s direction, Broyles wrote another draft which, the writer says, was much closer to the finished film. “Some of the more complex themes of time and destiny that I had in the original draft [were lost],” he explained. “But the heart of them is still there. They were the same things, just more complex versions of them. Riddles of time and destiny that I had to the third power are now just to the second power.” When budgetary concerns began to intrude — Burton famously stated that, as scripted, Broyles’ version “would cost $300 million” — Fox brought in Mark Rosenthal and Larry Konner, who had previously scripted another ape-related remake, Mighty Joe Young. “[Broyles] came up with the characters pretty much as they are,” said Zanuck, “but his script was impractical in many respects. It had monsters in it, all kinds of other things. We wanted to go back to the basic element — the upside-down world.” As Burton said in his sparse DVD commentary, “We did some work on the script after I got it, basically because of budget, but also because it helps the script. Because you read things, and it’s kind of like a radio programme — if you actually were to see it, it would be too much. So therefore that process of bringing it down, I think, was actually good for it in some ways.” Rosenthal and Konner worked with Burton throughout pre-production, and share the final writing credits with Broyles. “I have a lot of respect for the work they did,” Broyles said of Konner and Rosenthal, “and think that given what I’d done and given what Tim wanted, they navigated the right course.”

This is more than can be said for astronaut Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), who crash lands his egg-like spacecraft on a strange world in the distant future, where intelligent lower primates, evolved from chimpanzees, orang-utans and gorillas, have enslaved humans, who now live like neanderthals. Tim Roth, Paul Giamatti, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Warner and Burton’s then-girlfriend, Lisa Marie, were among those required to don Rick Baker’s ape make-up, yet none had quite the frisson of original Planet of the Apes star Charlton Heston’s cameo as Thade’s father. “I was so happy when CH said yes to this, because the circular nature, or the reversal nature of the material is that he came to do this as an ape was amazing. He’s so much a part of the Planet of the Apes mythology, he was a part of what made that movie work, the intensity and weirdness and strength.”

Despite the thirteen years, manifold drafts and numerous directors which came and went between the unproduced Adam Rifkin version and Tim Burton’s interpretation, Don Murphy denies the notion that the film was in Development Hell. “I suppose it was, in a way,” he allows, “but it really wasn’t. What happened was they tried to reboot it with Rifkin. Then some years later they tried to reboot it with us. Our reboot led them to believe they had something big there, and that led to trying to get other directors interested. Looking back,” he adds, “at the time we may have been a little bit over our heads. It became a really big thing pretty freaking fast. Everybody started to try to grab onto it. And we were soon out! I would do things differently today, but… that’s just the way it is.” Like many, Murphy was disappointed with the final film. “I thought it was gonna be fantastic,” he says, “like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. The movie they actually made was a bad Twilight Zone episode.”

By all accounts, including his own, the production of Planet of the Apes was a bruising experience for Burton, largely because the targeted release date, July 2001, meant that everything from pre-production to editing and effects work was rushed. “Tim had three months to edit the film where he’d normally spend a year, so there were a lot of elements that were shot that were missing,” actress Estella Warren told Arena. Yet problems began long before shooting started. “I’m fascinated by the studio technique that sort of leaves you bloodied, beaten and left for dead right before you’re supposed to go out and make a great movie for them,” Burton told The Independent newspaper. “They give you a script,” he added, “and you do a budget based on that, and say, ‘This movie would cost $300 million to make,’ and then they treat you like a crazy, overspending, crazy person! It’s like, ‘Well, you gave me the script!’” Asked by the same interviewer whether he’d like to make a sequel, Burton’s response was simple: “I’d rather jump out of the window.” Nevertheless, despite withering reviews, the film grossed a record-breaking $68.5 million on its opening weekend, the second highest opening of 2001, with a total worldwide gross of $362,211,740. For one summer, just as the tagline suggested, Apes really did ‘rule the planet’.

Heston’s casting was one way in which Burton attempted to recapture the magic of the original 1968 production; he also needed a killer ‘twist’ ending — which were, after The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Others, fashionable again during the period in which Burton’s Planet of the Apes was made. “We always hoped for something like that, and I did a version of it which they then expanded on,” said Broyles. Thus, when Captain Davidson escapes the planet of the apes at the climax of the story and returns to Earth, he finds that apes now rule the planet. It was cool, but it didn’t make a lick of sense. “Can I explain the Planet of the Apes ending? No,” admitted Tim Roth, who played General Thade. “I’ve seen it twice and I don’t understand anything.” Commented Broyles, “The ending [should] be viewed in proportion to the rest of the movie,” Broyles said, “not as some huge, big pay-off, but as fitting with the story itself.” “I thought it made sense. Kind of,” Helena Bonham Carter told Total Film. “I don’t understand why everyone went, ‘Huh?’ It’s all a time warp thing, isn’t it? He’s gone back and he realises Thade’s beat him there. Everyone’s so pedantic,” she added. “You start bringing logic to an ape film, it’s always dodgy.”

If audiences had difficulties getting their heads around the ending, trying to make sense of Burton’s explanation would prove equally tricky. “Let’s say Fox wants to make another movie. If I explain this ending, it kind of screws up other things. It’s thought out enough to where it could be explained, but if I want to start explaining it, it might damage things. Even not wanting to do another movie, I wouldn’t want to ruin it for somebody else that might. So I can just say that it’s been thought out, there’s a thought to it, but… you can figure some things out through the film, but… Part of what happens is… Part of it for me was ending up on an image that has a big question mark on it. Sometimes I like to do something, and I think it’s sometimes as a reaction to other things… To me, somebody going back and landing in a place he thinks he’s at, and then finding out he’s not there, that to me is logical. There’s a logic to that. There’s less logic to exactly know what he’s going back to, so I actually had no problem… I’m not quite sure what people were responding to because I had no problem with the ending. There were several elements that needed to happen, one of them was an image I had of complete reversal, which I felt was somehow weird and compelling to me, so if they do another movie, the movie is about sort of finding things out, sort of…”

Burton’s view proved quite prophetic: within five years, Fox was developing a new Planet of the Apes film which was neither a sequel nor another re-imagining, but a prequel to the entire story, based on an imaginative pitch by husband and wife screenwriting team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the latter best known as author of the smash hit The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992). “Rick has always kept a file of articles and ideas to look at for inspiration,” Silver told the Planet of the Apes fan site The Forbidden Zone, “and when we were in between projects, in 2006, Rick had some articles about chimps that had been raised as humans at home, and how that had always come to trouble, for the chimps and the humans. He knew there was some kind of thriller there, and all of a sudden he had this light-bulb moment, and he said, ‘Oh my God, it’s Planet of the Apes!’ He had an idea to re-boot Planet of the Apes… and he started talking about this chimp raised at home as if he was a little boy, and before we knew it, we were both in love with this little chimp named Caesar.”

Jaffa and Silver had no idea of Fox’s plans for the Planet of the Apes franchise, but pitched the bare outlines of the idea to their friend, Fox executive Peter Kang, who pitched it to president of production Hutch Parker. Jaffa and Silver subsequently wrote two years’ worth of drafts, before Scott Frank, screenwriter of three Fox films (Minority Report, Flight of the Phoenix and Marley & Me), came aboard as director. “We did two drafts for Scott,” said Jaffa, “and then he told Fox he’d like to take a crack at the script. So then he went off and did a draft as writer-director, and that subsequently did not work out and they moved on and ultimately came back to us. We brought the story back to where it was before Scott started writing.”

Without realising it, Jaffa and Silver had set themselves a breathtakingly ambitious goal: to tell the origin story of the entire Planet of the Apes franchise, primarily by dealing with the two key questions: firstly, where did the intelligent, talking apes come from; secondly, where did all the people go? “We said, ‘Let’s look at what’s going on in the world right now in terms of culture and science, that certain dominoes could line up, and if they should touch each other in just the right way, apes would take over the planet. And let’s try to tell that story, but also use the Planet of the Apes mythology to do that.” Directed by Rupert Wyatt, best known in his native England for well-received prison drama The Escapist, Rise of the Planet of the Apes1 tells the story of Will (Academy Award nominee James Franco), a scientist searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, who injects Caesar, a baby chimpanzee, with an experimental serum, unwittingly sparking a chain of events which unleashes an army of intelligent apes on San Francisco. Although the film bore superficial similarities to certain events from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Jaffa and Silver claimed this was coincidental. As Jaffa explained to Entertainment Weekly, “We laid out the story and pitched the idea to Fox, and had gotten hired, and okayed to write and produce this thing. It was at that point we went back and started studying the old movies. We already had the movie laid out. I think some of the connections to Conquest are on purpose,” he added, “but others are coincidental. ‘Unlikely character becoming a leader and leading his people to freedom’ — it’s also a Moses story.”

In the run-up to its release on 7 August 2011, Fox predicted that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would gross somewhere in the neighbourhood of $35 million in its opening weekend; as it turned out, the film vastly exceeded the studio’s expectations, grossing nearly $55 million — and almost the same again the following weekend. A sequel was suddenly a certainty – perhaps even more than one. “When we started this,” Silver told Entertainment Weekly, “we knew that this movie would stand on its own, and we designed it that way. But… we pictured a trilogy that would start with this movie. We definitely have ideas for where the sequel — plural, where the sequels — would take us.”

1The original title, Rise of the Apes, was changed in the run-up to release, as Fox felt audiences may not realise it was intended as part of the Planet of the Apes franchise.

Tales from Development Hell is available in bookshops, and is also available on Amazon in the US and UK, as a large format paperback and e-book.




About David Hughes: Published Work

Empire and Time Out film critic, screenwriter of award-winning drama "Where the Road Runs Out", and MD of movie marketing agency Synchronicity, and author of books about Kubrick, Lynch and films that were never made.

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