Jewish Journal

The writers behind ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

by Naomi Pfefferman

July 30, 2014 | 10:43 am

Jason Clarke in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa are the married screenwriting team behind 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and now its hit sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” So it’s only fitting that Silver was sipping tea from a mug inscribed with the words “chimpanzee lover” during a recent interview with the couple at their Pacific Palisades home, where a prop can of “primate chow” from “Rise” graced a coffee table.

The duo virtually reinvented the “Planet of the Apes” franchise, which began with the original 1968 film starring Charlton Heston. While the original spawned sequels and television shows, the franchise seemed to stall after Tim Burton’s ill-received 2001 movie remake, “Planet of the Apes.” 

“Rise” follows the journey of Caesar (portrayed by Andy Serkis, courtesy of elaborate motion-capture technology), a chimpanzee rendered hyperintelligent as the result of laboratory testing. He is rescued from the lab and lovingly reared by humans, but ends up in an inhumane ape facility, eventually leading an uprising and escape of his primate brethren into Muir Woods outside San Francisco. 

“Dawn,” written by Silver and Jaffa along with Mark Bomback, catches up with Caesar 10 years later, as he presides over a thriving ape civilization in the woods after most humans have succumbed to a Simian Flu pandemic. His community dwells in peace until they’re visited by a ragtag group of human survivors who live in the ruins of San Francisco; their decaying settlement is about to run out of fuel, and they want to know if Caesar would allow them to reboot a hydroelectric power plant located on ape land. Misunderstandings and violent clashes over territory ensue, as Caesar (Serkis again) is torn between hawkish colleagues — especially the scarred laboratory survivor Koba — and his own fond memories of being raised by a benevolent human surrogate father.

Silver, 51, who grew up in a Jewish home in Manhattan, said that Caesar’s clan in “Dawn” could be seen, in part, as a stand-in for militant Jews after the Holocaust. 

“It can be argued that the apes have been oppressed, that they bear scars of that oppression both psychically and physically, which makes them say, ‘Never Again,’ ” she explained. “It makes them more bellicose, more dangerous and intractable, because they are so angry about [the past].”

Some critics have perceived “Dawn” as a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with apes representing Jews who require a safe and secure home after centuries of anti-Semitism, and the humans as suffering a fate akin to what Palestinians endure in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Silver and Jaffa, for their parts, said they did not intend to create a symbolic rendering of the Middle East. “But [the film] certainly is an exploration of conflict between neighbors who see each other as enemies instead of brothers,” Silver said.

“We’re addressing themes of intolerance and trust between people who are different,” added Jaffa, 58. “And also how quickly judging another clan can escalate into violence when people give way to hatred.”

Silver and Jaffa, who have been married and writing together for 25 years, said they were each blown away when they saw the original “Planet of the Apes” film as children. The movie’s allegory of racial and political strife in the 1960s resonated with both writers: Jaffa grew up Methodist in Texas, but his great-grandfather was Jewish and his father encountered anti-Semitism at a military school. 

“Having grown up in a Texas small town, I was also very aware of racism, so the film struck a chord in me on a very deep level,” he said.

Silver recalled how her grandfather, the Oscar-winning screenwriter Sidney Buchman, was blacklisted during the McCarthy Communist hearings of the 1950s, which many perceive to have had strong anti-Semitic undertones. “It really broke his heart, and he never got over it,” she said.

Even so, Silver followed in her grandfather’s footsteps, studying screenwriting at the University of Southern California and writing a thesis project that ultimately became the 1992 thriller “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” Jaffa, whom Silver had met at a party the first day she moved to Los Angeles, was an uncredited screenwriter on that movie; he previously was an agent who had worked his way up from the mailroom at the William Morris Agency.

Silver and Jaffa married in 1989 and went on to collaborate on a number of screenplays, including the 1997 science fiction film “The Relic.” They were in between projects in the early 2000s when Jaffa locked himself in a hotel room in Ojai for three days, determined to think up another movie idea for the couple to tackle. He brought with him myriad articles about apes who had been raised in captivity.

“I had read about incidents where chimpanzees were brought up in homes like children — and it always ended badly,” Jaffa said. “When they’re cute and cuddly little animals, you dress them up like toddlers and everyone thinks it’s adorable. But when they hit adolescence, chimpanzees become aggressive, and more of what their DNA destines them to be, which is an animal. They would eventually attack their owners or bite a neighbor, and then they’d usually be placed in some kind of facility, sometimes as horrible as a laboratory.”

Jaffa spread the newspaper and magazine stories all over the floor of his hotel room, along with a number of articles on genetic engineering. 

“I kept staring at them thinking, there’s got to be a movie in here,” he recalled. “Then a voice in my head very clearly said, ‘It’s “Planet of the Apes.” ’ I drove home and told Amanda we were going to reinvent the [franchise].”

Silver piped up to say that at first, “I thought Rick was kind of out of his mind. But the second he mentioned that there would be a chimp from the lab raised in a human home I realized, it’s like Moses in the bulrushes. … And the script virtually wrote itself.”

Twentieth Century Fox eventually signed on to the project, which indeed became a kind of allegory for the biblical story of Moses. 

“Caesar is raised by loving people who are not his people,” Silver said. “Eventually he sees apes being mistreated and he has the epiphany that he’s found his tribe. He is sensitive and brave enough to speak his mind, and he eventually leads his [brethren] to freedom across the Golden Gate Bridge — which you could say is like crossing the Red Sea.”

These days, Silver and Jaffa — who now regularly attend the IKAR congregation with their two grown children — have written the script for the fourth installment in the “Jurassic Park” franchise, “Jurassic World,” for executive producer Steven Spielberg. They have also helped outline the stories, beat by beat, of James Cameron’s planned three sequels to his 2009 science fiction blockbuster, “Avatar,” and will write “Avatar 2” with Cameron.

Those projects all share with “Apes” a warning about what happens when humans mess with the natural world. 

“They’re about man’s hubris, and about how playing God will inevitably bite you in the a--,” Jaffa said.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is now in theaters. 

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Naomi Pfefferman Magid is the arts & entertainment editor of the Jewish Journal, where she’s spent the last quarter century interviewing everyone from Seth Rogen, Natalie...

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