By Iain Blair
Filmmaking is a notoriously slow, labor-intensive business, and most directors would be thrilled if they could get a major movie made and released every couple of years. And then there’s David Yates, who has two mega-productions — each featuring tons of moving parts and cutting-edge VFX — out in the next five months alone.
First up is the Warner Bros. action-adventure film The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård as the Lord of the Apes, along with Margot Robbie as Jane. The cast also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Oscar-nominee Djimon Hounsou, Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent and two-time Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz. Not a bad cast!
The film features an impressive behind-the-scenes creative team as well, including director of photography Henry Braham (The Golden Compass, the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), editor Mark Day (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 & 2) and Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Tim Burke (the Harry Potter franchise).
Yates, who previously directed the last four Harry Potter films, also recently helmed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a return to the wizarding world created by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who wrote the screenplay. The film, starring Eddie Redmayne and Colin Farrell, will open worldwide in November.
I spoke with Yates about making Tarzan, and why post still makes him nervous.
You have two big films coming out. Are you a workaholic?
(Laughs) You know, I was shooting something on Beasts two months ago, and after a long, grueling week, I said to one of the actors, “You’ll need a holiday after this.” And he looked at me and said, “David, every day’s a holiday being able to do this.’ That’s exactly how I feel. It’s a bit like playing rather than working, although after finishing the back-to-back Potter films I was really knackered — more than I realized. So I’m a bit more cautious now, and I take more breaks.
How big a leap was it after four Harry Potter films to do this?
It felt quite natural, as I was looking for another film with an epic feel, full of action and adventure, and it just grabbed me.
What’s the eternal appeal of doing a Tarzan movie?
There’s just something about the character that’s so appealing to everyone. He was probably our first superhero — with all these extraordinary abilities — who is somehow human and also “other,” and he’s kinetically connected to the wild part of all of us. We’re all fascinated by where we came from and what’s inside us when we are really tested, and that’s a very enduring aspect. I also think there’s something very sexy and sensual about it, especially the Tarzan-Jane thing. Even in the early silent Tarzan movies… there’s something quite thrilling about them going back to the wild, primal state. That love of nature and animals is so strong in most of us, and he can reach them in ways we can only dream of.
How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
We used the same process we established on Potter, where we would edit a sequence, let it sit for a bit, then after a few days or a couple of weeks we would go back in and fine-tune it. Then we’d turn it over to the VFX guys. They would do their initial blocking and we would fine-tune it again.
It’s a remarkably fluid system in the sense that six months later, when the picture’s done and it’s all shot, I go back again and do another fine-tune. That gave me an enormous amount of flexibility if I wanted to change my mind about anything, and we’d be swapping out shots and changing shots quite late into the process. The VFX vendors were always great and accommodating, even though I put them under pressure a lot. They were always very helpful when I changed my mind about something.
Did you do a lot of previs?
A little bit. I start with storyboards, then I previs the bigger sequences, and those previses are sometimes based on the boards I’ve done. Especially with a big movie like this where you’re focused on several big sequences, you tell the previs team to just do it and then you start editing and refining it all. So I use a mix of storyboard, previs and the good, old-fashioned way of making it up as you go. That’s often oddly more liberating, and I did that on Potter for some sequences — just go for it and shoot it without too much prep.
Where did you post?
At De Lane Lea in London. That was our base for all the editing and post. We did some pre-mixing at Pinewood.
Do you like the post process?
I love it. I love every aspect of filmmaking except the tech recces, which I try and avoid if I can. Post is one of the best parts of the whole process, but also one of the scariest, as it’s when it all comes home to roost and you have to really nail the movie. I don’t know a single director who doesn’t have that initial nervous feeling when you first see an assembly and go, ‘Oh my God. This is scary.’
Even after all the big Potter films, I get nervous because you have so much invested. But I would hate to lose those nerves. I like that sense of adrenaline. These are big bets everyone’s making, and you want it to work for the audience. You also have the experience to know that whatever isn’t working, you can always fix or salvage it in post in some way. That’s what post is — it’s all about being able to hit the right notes and make it better. I’ve always felt that way about post, since I made my very first short film. I still remember seeing it for the first time in assembly and going, “Bloody hell! How are we going to fix this?” So you always look for the faults, the wrong notes, and how you can improve it.
I heard you’ve tested a new way of working with your editor, Mark Day?
Yes. Usually I shoot, he assembles and we’re a well-oiled team by now, but we actually changed the way we work recently. On Tarzan, I would shoot, he would assemble it the next day, then I would watch it, give notes and he would tune it a bit. Then we would look at the scene again a couple of weeks later. So we would be constantly changing scenes during the shoot, and I’d rush over to the edit every time I had a spare 30-minutes on the floor because of a lighting change.
So every shooting day was about shooting and editing, but on Beasts I decided to experiment, and not see Mark every day. I just let him get on with it. So on Beasts, I spent all my time on the floor, or with my storyboard guys or previs team, focusing on conceiving stuff, and then I saw Mark every few weeks — and that proved to be far less schizophrenic than bouncing back and forth from shooting to editing. So that’s how we’re going to do it from now on.
Can you talk about working with VFX supervisor Tim Burke?
He and I go way back, as he did all the Potter films with me. We’re both from the north of England and have a very pragmatic approach. It’s so difficult working with big apes and big cats, and so on, and getting them to do what you want — but now you don’t have to with all the advances in VFX. Tim used a bunch of vendors, including Framestore, Rodeo and MPC, and in the end we had over 1,300 VFX shots. There was everything from the gorillas and lions to zebras, ostriches and hippos. We really raised the bar on the VFX, especially the scenes where Tarzan has to interact directly with an animal.
What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
The fight between Tarzan and his gorilla brother Akut was very tricky, as the choreography was very complex, and we had to use a guy in a suit as a stand-in for Akut so Alex had something to react to, but we didn’t use motion capture — it was more of a guide.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
Pretty much. I really enjoyed making it. It was a very complex production. We shot in a lot of places, from the UK to Gabon and Italy. It has a huge amount of VFX, but I always enjoy a challenge.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.