It had been 20 years since the cancellation of RETURN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES when filmmaker Adam Rifkin walked into 20th Century Fox’s offices to pitch some ideas. One of the things he brought up was an idea on how he would continue the PLANET OF THE APES franchise. His idea would ignore all but the first film and be something akin to the old sword and sandal movies, taking place generations after the original APES and following HEston’s character’s descendant as he led a human revolt against the ape society, which at this point had become something similar to the Roman empire.
Fox fast tracked the movie. Rick Baker was brought in to do the ape make-up. Danny Elfman, who was getting ready to do the score for 1989’s BATMAN, was hired to score Rifkin’s APES film. Tom Cruise and Charlie Sheen were both interested in taking the lead human role. Rifkin was about to go into pre-production when Fox saw a change in leadership, and the new leadership was not into the idea. Rifkin’s APES film was cancelled.
Shortly after, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, hot off BRAIN DEAD, pitched their own APES movie. This one would see the ape society in the midst of a Renaissance with the government concerned about the art that was being created while humans revolted against them with the help of more liberal apes. Roddy McDowall was set to play a Leonardo Da Vinci type ape, but once again, Fox execs balked. Jackson and Walsh left the project, putting their focus on HEAVENLY CREATURES.
In 1993, Fox brought in Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher to lead the APES ship and get the franchise back in theaters. Sam Raimi was considered to direct, as was Oliver Stone. Stone signed on as a producer and agreed to co-write a script with Terry Hayes. The story, titled “Return of the Apes”, took place before the first film and was… well, you decide if you like the concept:
In the near future, a plague is wiping out mankind. Geneticist Will Robinson discovers that the virus is from the Stone Age and was created by a race of super intelligent apes. Will, along with his pregnant colleague Billie Rae Diamond, travels back in time to help the Palaeolithic humans battle the apes and stop them from creating the virus. While there, Will and Billie Rae meet a girl named Aiv – pronounced Eve – who is the next stage in human evolution leading to current day man. They protect Aiv from the virus while Bille Rae gives birth to her son who she names… Adam.
Fox president Peter Chernin was gaga for the script and Arnold Schwarzenegger signed up to play Will Robinson with Phillip Noyce directing. Stan WInston was brought on to create the apes and everyone was excited. That excitement diminished when Fox execs started looking for ways to make the movie more kid friendly. Studio executive Dylan Sellers, for example, became obsessed with the idea of a scene where Will teaches the apes how to play baseball, and when Hayes refused to write the scene, he was fired, leading to Noyce leaving the project. Shortly after that, Sellers was drunk when he crashed his car, killing his friend and getting himself a year in prison.
Chris Colombus was brought in as the new director, and he brought in Sam Hamm to write a new script. In this version, an ape astronaut from another planet crashes into New York. The ape unknowingly brings a virus with him that infects humans. Dr. Susan Landis and Alexander Troy fix the ape astronaut’s ship and head to the ape planet in hopes of finding a cure for the virus. What they find is a planet where apes hunt humans. After some fighting and adventure on this planet of apes, Dr. Landis and Alex head back to Earth with the cure for the virus, only to arrive 74 years after they had left, finding that Earth has been taken over by the apes.
Columbus ended up leaving the project, and James Cameron came on to direct, keeping Schwarzenegger as the lead. The plan was for Cameron to direct this new APES film after TITANIC, but when TITANIC ended up being a monster of a hit, Cameron left the project but agreed to stay on as a producer. Peter Jackson was offered the director’s chair again, but turned it down, feeling that he and Cameron would butt heads. Michael Bay was in talks but ended up turning down the movie. Jackson was asked a third time, but he chose to stick with LORD OF THE RINGS. The Hughes Brothers were offered the film, but chose to make FROM HELL instead.
Fox decided to go back to the start and brought in a new writer, William Broyles, Jr. Broyles script, titled “The Visitor” was envisioned as the first in a new series of films that Broyles called “The Chronicles of Aschlar”. Tim Burton, who was finishing up SLEEPY HOLLOW, was offered the director’s chair and while he was hesitant at first, Broyles script convinced him to take the job. Burton signed his deal in February 2000. In March, Richard D. Zanuck, the man who first brought PLANET OF THE APES to Fox, was brought in to produce.
Fox set a release date of July 2001 before Burton and Broyles finalized the script. Once they did, and Fox’s numbers people did a quick check, Fox freaked. The budget for the script was projected to be $200 million, twice the amount Fox was willing to spend. Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal were brought in to rewrite the script and get the budget down. Disagreements over the script pushed filming back a month, and drastic changes were made to the story – the chimpanzee Ari, played by Helena Bonham Carter, started off as a princess before being turned into the liberal daughter of a senator. An ending showing Mark Wahlberg’s Leo Davidson crashing landing in Yankee Stadium only to see that the players were all apes was heavily considered (and probably would have made Dylan Sellers happy) before the Lincoln Memorial ending was chosen.
Adding to Burton’s headaches was Stan Winston’s decision to leave the project over creative differences. Rick Baker took over the makeup work. A drought also made filming at Lake Powell difficult. As the forced release date was quickly approaching, Burton found himself constantly behind schedule as he argued with Fox execs who kept demanding script changes.
Burton made the release date, but the movie was far from what he had envisioned. Still, PLANET OF THE APES opened big, taking in $68 million in its first weekend and ending with a worldwide gross of $362 million. While the film was a box office success, the trauma of making it – including on-set tension between Tim Roth and Charlton Heston – along with the poor reviews and less than enthusiastic response from audiences – many of whom laughed at the ending (which was closer to the ending of Pierre Boulle’s book, made everyone agree that a sequel wasn’t worth the effort.
Despite the poor reviews, some aspects of the film were praised. Rick Baker’s apes makeup was rightfully pointed out for how impressive it looked, as was the design work of Rick Heinrichs and Colleen Atwood. The performances of Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter both stood out as exceptional. Movement coach Terry Notary became something of the face of the movie despite all of his work happening off camera – his amazing work training the actors and ape extras was highlighted on the DVD special features, in part because no one wanted the real behind the scenes drama to be shown.
While Notary didn’t playing any characters in this PLANET OF THE APES remake, he would return to the franchise to take on a major role ten years later.