Lifelong filmmaker and film lover, Wes Ball is no stranger to the industry. After drawing some attention in film school for his animated short Ruin, Ball came onto the major studio stage with The Maze Runner. The adaptation of the young adult novel of the same name soon sprouted a strong following, further cementing Ball’s status as a filmmaker. He later became involved with Fox’s adaptation of Mouse Guard, which lost traction during the Disney-Fox merger. This opening presented him a spot in leading a new Planet of the Apes sequel project under the rebranded 20th Century Studios.
A beloved franchise by many film fans, The Planet of Apes has had a long history in cinema beginning in 1968. Its most popular and revered iteration, however, is the reboot series from the 2010’s. The last two films in the series have grown in popularity, partly due to leadership from director Matt Reeves. In early 2020, Wes Ball confirmed that his new Apes film will not be a reboot, but rather a sort-of continuation set within Reeves’ universe.
We were fortunate enough to have Ball for an exclusive interview. In Part One of our discussion, we talk details of the Disney-Fox merger and what fans can expect from his upcoming contribution to the Apes franchise. The ongoing pandemic, of course, could not have been avoided in conversation for it has affected his pre-production process. Not in the way one might initially think though, according to Ball himself.
Your name has been thrown around a lot lately with the announcement of new The Planet of the Apes films, but sadly the ongoing pandemic has shut down most production work. How has your pre-production on the project been affected during this time?
WB: The truth is, my heart goes out to everyone and the times we’re living in are obviously historical. We’ll be looking at these moments taught in schools in 20, 30, 50 years. So I’m trying to make the best of it and trying to understand the moment we’re living through. As my job, I see it as being an entertainer and storyteller who tries to give people an escape from their everyday lives. That’s still very much on my mind, still very much my motivation and directive.
Now you’re right, production is shut down. But we were kind of unique, me and my company and crew. We were in the development phase. So we’re writing. I was already meeting with my writer Josh Friedman on Zoom for weeks before this all hit. We already had a routine of jumping on Zoom and chatting about the script. In that sense, nothing has really changed. What I found a little bit myself is that I’ve been incredibly bursting with ideas in this time. I guess maybe because of being locked up? I’m pretty fortunate that I have an escape. I have a loft that I share with my screenwriter buddy T.S Nowlin – so it’s kind of a little retreat from home to go and try to be creative, productive, and work on my projects.
I have just had tons of inspiration lately on show ideas and the current stuff we’re working on. All of that can continue basically. In a weird way, the Zoom calls and FaceTime chats have demonstrated that I actually don’t need to drive an hour across town to have these meetings. I’m totally fine to do it here in my pajamas with whoever. So I actually think this moment is going to change our business pretty significantly in the future, once we get on the other side of it all.
Definitely. To discuss your Planet of the Apes film. This is one of the first from the Disney acquisition of 20th Century Fox. What were your thoughts on that acquisition being one of the filmmakers at the forefront of this new merger?
WB: Well, at the time it was great. Disney has an insane marketing department. Their ability to distribute movies and make money off them, with theme parks and such, and just their whole strategy is about great stories, well-told and done to the nines. It was fun to even just imagine being a part of that kind of apparatus. We were already deep in Mouse Guard when that happened essentially. For that year and a half when we were developing Mouse Guard, we were aware of the merger but, legally and contractually, were not allowed to talk about it. The merger hadn’t gone through and there could be all this lawyer stuff basically. So for us it was: head down, keep working forward and make something cool.
Unfortunately when the deal did go through, that’s when both companies were still trying to figure out a little bit about how they meshed and married together. It’s like two gigantic organisms, 20th Century Fox and Disney, that have wildly different cultures. These entities have to find a way to become one family. It’s a marriage, so that doesn’t happen overnight. For the last year or two, that’s been progressing forward. There have been a lot of shake ups, obviously, with a lot of people that I’m personally great friends with. Many have left and that has kind of disbanded the Fox company, which is essentially what I consider my home. That is where I was writing my first three movies. I knew everyone there, from the creative executives all the way up to the marketing and distribution department. I knew everyone there and that’s all shaken up now.
But the good thing is, my buddy Steve Asbell who was the guy who discovered me with my Ruins short is now running Fox. So it’s all kind of the same people and we’re all trying to do the same thing, which is make cool stuff. In our case, make cool stuff that wants to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Now there might be some time before that happens and we’re able to do that again. But we’re still very much in that place of hoping that after this is all over, when we’ve streamed our 100th series over again, we’re ready to go out and be in that communal experience of sitting in a dark theater, watching some incredible and extravagant movie. I’m very hopeful that will still be the case. I’m assuming it will, but it’s been interesting to say the least.
You mentioned that the atmospheres between Disney and Fox were different. Would you say that’s affected your work flow at all or is it just something that’s happened in the background?
WB: That’s all background stuff. I mean, for the most part Disney is really good at deciding what they want to do and then putting the resources behind it. I think for the most part, they believe in them and the filmmakers they choose to lead. That’s the same way Fox was too. Now there might be different kinds of cultures of how you talk and how things go, but that all sorts itself out.
For me, I’m an artist so it doesn’t really affect us too much – except for the moment of when it comes time to deliver these projects and weigh in. Figuring out when do we slate it, when do we start shooting, how are we going to approach this, all that kind of stuff. But right now, it’s still very much fun times. It’s that early time with the screenwriter and different kinds of partners in the process. We’re all not necessarily daydreaming because we have a good direction of where we want to go, but certainly opening up our creative brains to how do we deliver a really kick-ass movie with a franchise that people love and rightfully so. So nothing has really changed, we just need to continue making good stuff.
With Planet of the Apes, what can you say about how your film will continue the story of Matt Reeves’ series?
WB: Matt did the last two movies and obviously I worked with Matt on Mouse Guard, he was my producer. I’m trying to figure out what I can say because frankly, for Maze Runner we had these secret codings so we could avoid fans coming in and taking pictures of the set and all that crazy stuff. That’s times a hundred with Planet of the Apes, it’s just a bigger pool that we’re swimming in here. So I have to be careful. But when Mouse Guard fell apart, it was pretty quickly said, “Look we’re not going to do Mouse Guard, but what would you do with The Planet of the Apes?”
We were using the same material, the same kind of technology, we were using a lot of the same people involved – I had asked Andy Serkis to join Mouse Guard. So it was kind of natural fit. I understand where it came from and my big thing was: what do you do for a Planet of the Apes sequel? One, those last three movies are one of the great trilogies we have in modern movie history. They are just so well done. They honored the original movies they sprang from, the Charlton Heston movies, but they grounded it in a modern sensibility and it just worked. Caesar is one of the great movie characters that we’ll have throughout time. So what do you do to follow that up, right? At the same time, I wasn’t interested in doing a part four either. We want to also do our own thing.
We have a take. We have a way of staying in the universe that was created before us, but we’re also opening ourselves up in being able to do some really cool new stuff. Again, I’m trying to be careful here. I’ll say this, for fans of the original three don’t worry – you’re in good hands. The original writers and producers that came up with Rise and Dawn, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, they’re also on board with this. Josh Friedman is writing this thing, a lot of the same crew is kind of involved. We will feel like we’re part of that original trilogy, but at the same time we’re able to do some really cool new stuff. It will be really exciting to see on the biggest screen possible.
Before we move on, what can you say about the status of Planet of the Apes?
WB: Well, Planet of the Apes is moving forward and we have a giant art team cranking away on some incredible concept art. We’ve got the screenplay continuing to move forward, that will take the time that it takes and so that’s all good. Planet of the Apes is moving forward baby! Not only that, but we could actually be in virtual production relatively soon because it’s largely a CG movie.