Unfinished Monkey Business: The Making Of Planet Of The Apes

With Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes out this summer, we remember the first time someone dared combine space travel and civil rights with talking chimps...
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A genuinely groundbreaking production, it's perhaps not surprising that Planet Of The Apes spent so long in development limbo. After touting Pierre Boulle's book around Hollywood, producer Arthur P Jacobs spent most of the Sixties waiting for the green light, only to see the film plagued by script rewrites, effects hitches and budget cuts.

Original trailer

But as it turned out, Planet Of The Apes became one of the finest science-fiction films ever made, and is remembered as much for its Spielberg-surpassing set pieces (the cornfield hunt, the chase through Ape City, the discovery of the doll, the finale of all finales) as for the way director Franklin J Schaffner used the baggage brought by Charlton Heston (who made his reputation playing heroes) and screenwriter Michael Wilson (a victim of the McCarthy witch-hunt) to add irony and steel to the symbolism.

The film not only changed Hollywood's attitude to science-fiction, it completely altered the way movies were made. Before Apes, it hadn't occurred to anyone that box-office success could be replicated in a sequel, and likewise it was Apes that spawned novelizations, the spin-off TV series and mass merchandising. More significantly, it remains the film that lifted SF out of the B-movie ghetto, reinventing it as a serious cinematic genre. And with Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes' release imminent, it shouldn't be long before the film world goes ape yet again.

I went into every film company I could think of, hoping to get them interested. But they all said it couldn't be made.

Pierre Boulle (author, La Planète Des Singes): After I'd written the novel, I never thought it would be made into a film. It seemed to me too difficult and there was the chance of it appearing ridiculous.

Arthur P Jacobs (producer): I first read Planet Of The Apes in 1964. I commissioned several drawings of how I thought the apes should look and, armed with them and the novel, I went into every film company I could think of, hoping to get them interested. But they all said it couldn't be made.

Charlton Heston (actor, Taylor): The book was singularly uncinematic. Still, I smelled a good film in it. I liked the idea of the talking monkeys and the different civilisation. But Arthur had gone to the studios and they'd said, "What are you talking about? Spaceships? Talking apes? You're out of your mind.

Arthur P Jacobs: Immediately Chuck saw it, he wanted to do it. So I did the rounds once again.
Mort Abrahams (associate producer): Arthur prepared a merchandising book for Planet Of The Apes like nothing I've seen before or since. It was 130 pages, full of ideas. And that's what Arthur was - an ideas man. And he was marvellous at it.

I read it over the weekend and was captivated. But I had some reservations.

Richard Zanuck (studio head): I'd made a picture with Arthur and we'd signed him to a multi-picture deal. So he presented the script, which needed a lot of work, together with these sketches and he gave me a small pitch. So I read it over the weekend and was captivated. But I had some reservations.

Linda Harrison (actor, Nova): I was dating Richard at the time. He told me about this very exciting, very unusual script. He told me about the apes and the humans and how he thought it could be a really big hit. But his major concern was the make-up.

Charlton Heston: Dick Zanuck had said, "Look, this is all fine, but what if people laugh at the make-up?" The point was reasonable as was the offer he made. "We'll spend whatever it takes to get the make-up right, then do a test. If the test works, we'll go on with the film."

Linda Harrison: Richard said, "I want you to do this make-up test for Apes." So I went through the whole procedure where they put the mould on my face and then got made up. Of course, this was in the early stages where they just used little pieces and glued the appliances to your face. They thought they had to do it that way so that you had the mobility to speak. We did the test, Richard loved it, and the film got the green light.

Then he told me the story and pledged me to secrecy. I guess he knew an ape when he saw one.

Charlton Heston: There are usually no good parts for an actor in science-fiction films. But the part of Taylor offered an interesting role, because he changes during the course of the story.

Roddy McDowall (actor, Cornelius): I was on an airplane with Arthur Jacobs and he said, "I want you to do a role that nobody wants." Then he told me the story and pledged me to secrecy. I guess he knew an ape when he saw one.

Kim Hunter (actor, Zira): My agent sent me the script. I thought it was fascinating. They flew me to LA for a test. I figured I'd be going to the costume department. Wrong! I couldn't believe what we had to go through. It took about five hours to put the make-up on.

Roddy McDowall: One of the reasons the project was so interesting to me was that a chimpanzee isn't often called upon to act emotionally. So the acting choices were very specific - but they had to register through this mountain of make-up.

William Creber (art director): Arthur Jacobs called me one day and said, "We're getting nowhere with the make-up. See if you can help the guys." I said, "Has anyone thought of looking at an ape?" He said, "If you think you could get an ape, we'd love to see it." The next day I walked into make-up with a chimpanzee. The guys went crazy.

There's an old saying: "If you have to choose betwixt Hell and Arizona, live in Hell and rent out Arizona."

Leon Shamory (cinematographer): When it came to finding locations, we were looking for a landscape that was weird and 'unearthly' enough to suggest the terrain of another planet. We hoped to find a place where the earth was a ghostly grey-green colour, rather than the characteristic red of Arizona.

Charlton Heston: There's an old saying: "If you have to choose betwixt Hell and Arizona, live in Hell and rent out Arizona." Still, that's where we went to make our monkey movie.

Mort Abrahams: I said to [director] Franklin Schaffner, "Why are you so particular about the opening desert sequence?" He said, "It sets the mood, tone and objective of the film - we don't know where we're going and we have no idea of what's gonna happen. That's the body of the film.”

Richard Zanuck: The cornfield hunt sequence really had to grip you and convince you that what you were going to see was extraordinary. I knew we'd made the right choice of director when I saw Schaffner shooting that sequence. Franck was a visionary.

Planet Of The Apes – the hunt sequence:

Charlton Heston: Since the humans in the story were animals, they should have been naked. That wasn’t a feasible option in 1967 and it would have been a distracting choice even now. But sometimes there is a point to nudity. The scene in the courtroom where Taylor is stripped naked is obviously intended to show that, to the apes, it couldn't mean less. It's as if they're taking the collar off a dog. Did the nudity bother me? Actors have the modesty of mice. Besides, when we were getting ready, one of the girls delivering the coffee walked by and said, "Mmmm, nice buns!"

Arthur P Jacobs: It was terribly difficult for the cast. Their make-up took hours so they had to arrive for work at 4am. Then, after shooting, it took more than an hour to take off. And the heat in Arizona was terrible - about 150 degrees. Add to this the fact that their face make-up made eating virtually impossible and you'll understand why they found it pretty depressing at times.

Now I know why monkeys hate people. When I got dressed up that way, everybody stared and pointed and yelled

Kim Hunter: You had to keep the appliances moving or else they began to look like masks. And Roddy McDowall and I had to kiss which was hard as we had no sense of feeling.

Roddy McDowall: Now I know why monkeys hate people. When I got dressed up that way, everybody stared and pointed and yelled. You have no identity. You feel helpless.

Kim Hunter: I had people come up and poke my face, asking what it felt like. The lighting people would speak about us as monkeys and they tried to tease us with bananas. I grew to hate bananas!

Roddy McDowall: It was a very challenging acting assignment. The physicalisation was different because you were dealing somewhat with animal movements. And it's not easy being encased in all that rubber for that length of time.

Ken Chase (make-up artist): We used spirit gum which required lots of repair work during the day, and had nowhere near the holding power of today's adhesives.

John Chambers (make-up designer): The actors' chins would pop loose if they were overworked. So at lunch, we told them to get soft foods and milkshakes. When they came back, the lower chin would be lying down and there would be a sack and there'd be carrots and peas in it!

At lunch, the ape actors lunched separately. But beyond that, they self-segregated by species

Ken Chase: Maurice Evans [Dr Zaius] salivated abnormally and was famous for spitting when he delivered his lines. Because of this, it was nearly impossible to keep his lower jaw piece attached to his lip. In fact, at the end of the day, the appliance was literally soaked with his saliva.

Charlton Heston: I noticed a curious anomaly on location. At lunch, the ape actors lunched separately. But beyond that, they self-segregated by species: gorillas ate at one table, chimps at another and orang-utans at a third. I leave it to the anthropologists to figure that out.

Richard Zanuck: I looked at Apes as an adventure piece. I didn't see it as a breakthrough movie. A lot of people have added layers of meaning that we, or at least I as the head of the studio, weren’t aware of.

Mort Abrahams: Without every saying it, we were doing a political film. We didn't ever say it very loudly between ourselves because at the time we were in Vietnam. Science fiction can be a way of preventing controversial material from being attacked as controversial because it's slightly disguised.

Richard Zanuck: The final scene was not really designed to send a message but just to throw in a big surprise from an audience standpoint, as if to say, "Look where we've been all the time!"

William Creber: We found a location for the ending at Zuma Brach which was the right scale. Franklin didn't just want to cut to the master shot. He wanted to introduce the Statue of Liberty without the audience knowing what it was. What that entailed was building the head and the torch one half actual size. We built a tower 70 feet high to get the right perspective. Leon Shamroy was the cameraman and he was close to 70 and he looked at the tower and said, "I'm not going to go up there." So Franklin said, "You build it and I'll meet you at the top." So Frank and I got the shot and the rest is history.

Mort Abrahams: Apes had been doing extremely well at the box-office and we were patting ourselves on the back and giving Dick Zanuck credit for putting his neck on the line and so forth. Arthur Jacobs, [studio executive] Stan Hough and I left Dick's office and walked downstairs. As were walking across the lot, Stan said, "Why don't you do a sequel?" And I said, "You've got to be kidding?!"

Roddy McDowall: I wound up being an ape for seven years. I did a lot of other things in between so going back home to my dear old chimpanzee was fun. And the thing that was so invigorating was having the opportunity as an actor to be invited into this wonderful theatre of invention. I think the whole cycle was a marvellous project. The films are well executed and are superior within the genre.

Charlton Heston: The important thing about Apes was that it created a new genre. It was the first space opera, as they called it. The marvellous twist was that their aliens turn out to he humans.

Roddy McDowall: For what seems like decades, I was regarded by the public as Lassie's 'brother' [McDowall co-starred with the world's favourite collie in 1943's Lassie Come Home]. I suppose that I officially ceased being Lassie's 'brother' when Apes came out.

Charlton Heston: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas went out to explore space wonderfully with far better technology, but Apes broke the ground.

Roddy McDowall: It's wonderful to realise how many children growing up wanted to be chimpanzees.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes trailer:

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