Tim Burton remains one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic and unique filmmakers, able to take conventional material and make it his own. His latest project sees him at the helm of one of the most talked-about films of the year, a new version of Planet of the Apes.
Tim Burton is determined to set the record straight. With his wildly thick hair and oversized dark glasses, the man in black wildly gesticulates when asked about those press reports that claimed Planet of the Apes was facing an uphill battle to be completed in time for the film’s US debut.
“What person who’s working on a film ISN’T going crazy or working on it right to the end?” Burton exclaims with added gesticulations. “Those last two weeks are sheer hell, and even once it opens, you know the damn thing isn’t finished, at least in your own mind.”
And as for those five endings he reportedly had shot, “a complete fabrication. Where do people get this crap from? We shot just one ending about two-thirds of the way through production, end of story. We certainly TALKED about alternatives, but we settled on one.”
Burton remains a huge fan of the 1968 classic original, which is why, he insists, “I’d have a better chance of jumping off the Empire State Building than doing a remake of that, because not only is it a classic, but it’s a classic of its TIME.” Which is why, the director says emphatically, there is no way to “recreate that ending or Charlton Heston.
Some things are meant to be kept as they were, and thus admired for what they were and always WILL be.”
In Burton’s ‘reimagining’ of the Pierre Bouille premise, the new film is set in the 2020, and deals with a young pilot (Mark Wahlberg) stranded on a planet dominated by talking, militarist apes. He is aided by a sensitive chimp (Helena Bonham Carter) who believes in equality of the species.
Burton’s attraction to this project, he recalls, harks back to what he describes as “the whole mythology of Planet of the Apes”, and became increasingly intrigued with it all, started doing a lot of “ape research” and decided that the new film would treat the evolutionary cycle differently.
“Here we come upon the apes in an earlier part of their evolution, so to speak, where you have some apes turning more humanesque or some, like the Tim Roth character, who wants to maintain their apedom. To me, that represented more like it is today, in a certain way.”
The first film, Burton emphasises, remains a product of its time. “I can look at the late ‘60s, and you know what the issues are of the day: ... the war, race, all of that was very out there at the time as major issues. The difference, then to now, to me is globalisation, instant access to media.
It’s like the world has gotten much more fragmented. Ask anyone now what the major issues are and it might take people longer, because it’s not so clearly defined.”
Yet Burton doesn’t necessarily agree that we are a less issue-orientated society today. “That globalisation has made us a more confusing society and nobody can figure out what these issues are.”
That brings us back to Burton’s take on the Apes mythology. “In a weird, simple way, we’re showing that side of it, because it’s NOT that same time and that same movie.”
Burton adds that the good thing about working with the Ape material, in its overall form, “is that, like a good mythology, it puts an image to those unanswerable questions, as to where we come from, are we coming, are we going, are we evolving and Darwinism vs. religious beliefs. It puts you off edge, and seeing something from the opposite point of view.”
It appears that Burton’s complex approach is at odds with his producer who downplays the film’s thematic importance, preferring to define this new Apes as more escapist that profoundly allegorical.
“Look, I come at from a different perspective, because I’ve gotta do it”, he adds laughingly. “But he’s downplaying because it’s a different time. Those issues which were strong clear and a part of that movie are not as delineated here, but still those issues are there.”
The irony about Burton working on this movie was that before he started on the film, he was terrified of apes. Now that it’s all over? “”I don’t think anything has changed that much”, he confesses with a wry smile.
Throughout his career, Burton has remained something of an anachronism within a very conservative Hollywood system. His unique visionary style has made him almost too independent for mainstream Hollywood. Yet asked why he continues to work within the mammoth bureaucracy of the studio system, Burton admits that his struggles, within that system, become tougher as the years go by.
“It’s because these companies get bigger and the conglomerates devour the other. But more than that, is that this is business is a gamble, no matter what studio executives tell you: Every film is an experimental film, and thus the business is a house of cards. My tolerance as a filmmaker goes down, because there are fewer individuals. It’s like that whole Wizard of Oz mentality: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain; I’d like to help you out but.... It’s the old Wizard of Oz... where is he, I want to talk to him? He’s in a board meeting. It’s almost like a business tactic to not let you deal with whatever issue it is you need help with.”
Yet, as Burton’s voice trails off in mid sentence, the question arises: Why work within such a system?
“I don’t know; that’s a good question. Look, talk to any independent filmmaker and they can’t wait to make a studio film; while a studio person can’t wait to go independent. You’ve got to be careful, because the bottom line is, film is a hard one, it IS a lot of money and you’re dealing with a lot of issues, so maybe that’s the nature of it, no matter WHERE you are.”