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Known for being the master of the motion-capture performance following his roles as Gollum, King Kong, Caesar (in the “Planet of the Apes” movies), and currently Supreme Leader Snoke (“The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi”), Andy Serkis is throwing a major curveball on all of us for his feature directorial debut.
“Breathe,” about the life of Robin Cavendish – who became paralyzed from the neck down from polio – and his wife Robin, is a traditional biopic that is fueled by the performances of its leads Andrew Garfield as Robin and Claire Foy (Netflix’s “The Queen”) as Diana. The intimate love story is a departure from the usual CGI-focused work Serkis is known for. The movie was made through his production company, The Imaginarium, which mostly focuses on mo-cap projects.
But this is only a brief departure.
The opportunity to make “Breathe” came to Serkis while he was in post production on an extremely ambitious project: A live-action “The Jungle Book” movie for Warner Bros. that will feature a lot of big name actors doing mo-cap of the legendary characters that were brought back to the zeitgeist after Disney’s CGI blockbuster release of its own “Jungle Book” movie in 2016.
Business Insider chatted with Serkis in New York City about finding the time to make “Breathe,” why he’s completely okay with movies resurrecting deceased actors through CGI, the status of “Jungle Book,” and how he created the Snoke voice.
Jason Guerrasio: You run The Imaginarium with Jonathan Cavendish, the son of the main characters of “Breathe,” Robin and Diana. How did you meet him?
Andy Serkis: Jonathan had seen a film I had made called “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” about Ian Dury, who was a polio sufferer, and a punk rocker first and foremost, and he loved it and began telling me the story about his father. And then he told me he had been developing the script for five years. So we started The Imaginarium.
Guerrasio: So basically you were like, good luck with all of that with your family script.
Serkis: Yeah, it wasn’t really the idea I was looking for. We were looking for other directors to direct it. And then I took the script home and I was just floored by it. It was just so incredibly powerful and emotional and you never read scripts like this in terms of the emotional content of it. So I was like, “S—, I’m having lunch with him tomorrow and I think I’m going to pitch me directing his parent’s life story.” So I did.
Guerrasio: At this point it’s just script stage, no talent attached.
Serkis: Right. None. And he said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So we started developing it and then “Jungle Book” came along and we started working on that and then that became a long preproduction. We shot “Jungle Book,” principal photography, worked on it for a year and a half, and then this weird opportunity came up in the long post production we’ve had. Andrew and Claire became available and we raised the money in seven weeks and we shot the whole thing in seven weeks.
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Guerrasio: Was that a nice time to shut off the part of your brain that was focused on “Jungle Book” or while making “Breathe” are you juggling that as well?
Serkis: Juggling lots of plates.
Guerrasio: But was it fun to shoot something that wasn’t going to be as heavy motion-capture as “Jungle Book” is?
Serkis: I was so looking forward to it. This joy of seeing the performance at the end of the day rather than waiting a year and a half to see how a character is going to turn out eventually was a joy.
Guerrasio: Is that the big difference of directing “Breathe” versus “Jungle Book,” the immediacy of it?
Serkis: In many ways it’s the least complicated shoot I’ve ever done. On “The Hobbit” for Pete Jackson I was his second unit director, so that was my first grand scale experience as a director. Stepping onto a set with 150 crew and working for 200 days straight. The technical side of it was a huge education. So I felt prepared when I went into “Jungle Book.”
Guerrasio: Was it nice to go back to basics, so to speak, of traditional filmmaking with “Breathe?”
Serkis: The simplicity was tied together with the brief shooting days. On those big projects you have nothing but time, this was like we have to get all of this in seven weeks. There was pressure. I didn’t want to just make a film that felt like a drama-documentary that’s handheld and not lit well. I always wanted to make it cinematic. It’s based on truth but I wanted it to feel like a fairy tale which gradually gets stripped away towards the end of the movie.
Guerrasio: What did Jonathan think of the movie?
Serkis: He was by my side every day.
Guerrasio: But it’s one thing if you make a biopic and the person it’s based on is still alive, you may meet them briefly and maybe they’ll come out and do press. This is the son of the main characters right next to you. Was it more pressure?
Serkis: We’re such close friends, it was a joy. And he’s so objective about his life. He wanted to see it from the outside. That was a gift.
Guerrasio: So you found the right guy to be your business partner.
Serkis: [Laughs] That’s true. It could have gone horribly wrong.
Guerrasio: What’s the latest on “Jungle Book?”
Serkis: We’re in a really good place with it. We shot the performance capture, it’s live-action, so we shot in South Africa with this amazing young actor named Rohan Chand. Our version is darker in tone to the Disney one. Which I loved.
Guerrasio: So you have seen it?
Serkis: Oh, yeah.
Guerrasio: You didn’t feel like, “I can’t see it, I have to go in fresh with mine.”
Serkis: No. No. Because I just wanted to make sure we weren’t covering similar ground and I don’t think we are. There was a point where we were neck and neck, these films were potentially going to come out within months of each other.
Guerrasio: Could you sit back and enjoy Jon Favreau’s movie and not analyze the heck out of it?
Serkis: When we were shooting at the same time there was a bit of that worry, but I knew our script was for a PG-13 audience. It’s a story about identity and we’re using performance-capture as opposed to the whole jungle being CG. So, honestly, you can’t think about the other one, you focus on what you’re doing. I love where it is. We have designed these animals that you can very much see the actors’ faces we have – Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch – in them.
Guerrasio: So you’re just deep in post right now?
Serkis: Yeah. The animation is flowing. I think it’s in good shape.
Guerrasio: I would like your thoughts on motion-capture in general. We’ve now had CGI versions of living people – Michael Douglas in “Ant-Man,” Robert Downey Jr. in “Captain America: Civil War” – but also people who have passed away – Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in “Rogue One” – is there a certain line the industry should not cross in regards to using the tools we have?
Serkis: You mean digital resurrection?
Serkis: I think if it’s handled with taste and it honors actors who have passed and their families are happy, the estates are happy, if it’s done in a respectful way, I think that’s perfectly fine. But there has to be a good reason for doing it. Dramatically. Storywise. I mean, I think digitally resurrecting any character from history, Abraham Lincoln could have been performance-captured or Winston Churchill for that matter, it’s a way of doing it. It’s so funny because we love real stories and bringing people back to life through them. Think of how many actors have done an impersonation of somebody else. Wouldn’t it be great to have the real Elvis Presley or someone through 3D imagery?
Guerrasio: The recent “The Last Jedi” trailer has Snoke’s voice prominently featured. How did you come up with the voice?
Serkis: When I first worked on it with [“The Force Awakens” director] J.J. [Abrams] there was an evolving design of the character. It was going through lots of changes. But it’s all about where a character carries his pain, or aggression, or emotional centers and with Snoke it was very much there [putting his hands to the back of his head]. And his skull has got this big scar in the front, so for me it was a fracturing. He’s got this cleft in his head and I think it’s very painful for him to speak and yet there’s an imperiousness about him. He’s severely damaged but there’s a vulnerability that’s he’s trying to cover so that was sort of what I was trying to do.
Guerrasio: I’d like your thoughts on the recently news about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment and assault. Weinstein was an executive producer on all the “Lord of the Rings” movies. What’s your reaction to the revelations?
Serkis: I think there’s no excuse for a culture that allows for any kind of bullying or coercion on predatory behavior and I think we are behoove not just in this industry but across all industries to be vocal about that and to encourage and help and support people who are brave enough to come out and to challenge people who are in positions of authority if they behave badly. That’s it.