David Yates has directed four installments of the Harry Potter film series and he’s returning to the world of wizards with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, based on a screenplay written by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. In between those movies, he’s been busy directing an epic new Tarzan movie titled The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie and Christoph Waltz.
The award-winning director took the time to chat with us by phone from Los Angeles about this exciting new movie, which opens Friday, July 1 in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D. ~Alexandra Heilbron
I really enjoy your movies and I think this one is the most exciting so far.
Ah, that’s lovely to hear, mate. That’s so exciting. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Were you a Tarzan fan as a kid?
When I was growing up in the north of England, they would run old Tarzan movies on the television at Christmastime every morning, the ones starring Johnny Weissmuller, and I was charmed by them, I thought they were really sweet and kind of fun, but I was never blown away by them. When they sent me the script for Tarzan, I thought, well, I don’t know that world… And then I opened the first page and I started reading and I thought, “Oh my goodness, this could be so much more than what I am familiar with when it comes to Tarzan and that world.” I was struck by – not just the big, epic, qualities of it, but I really liked the fact that it felt like it had a big, beating heart. Normally the scripts I was reading would be one tone or color. They would be full of action or straight comedies, but this script seemed to have everything, but most importantly for me, it had this beautiful central story in amongst all the action of these two people who needed to save each other. So I was in.
Alexander Skarsgård was such a good choice as Tarzan. He’s able to convey so much without even saying a word. Had you seen him in something else that made you think he would be right for this role?
I’d seen him in a really interesting mini-series called Generation Kill, which is a really affecting drama about soldiers in Iraq and I thought he was tremendous in that. Of course, I’d seen all his True Blood work, which told me he was comfortable with taking his clothes off [laughs], which is another advantage. And I’d seen him in Melancholia, so I knew he could be quite poignant and delicate. Alex has this grace and power that I think you need if you’re going to bring Tarzan back. He wasn’t a sort of he-man, he was someone who was much more connected and, for want of a better word, beautiful. From a practical point of view, if you’re moving through the jungle with speed, to survive you need to develop a muscle group that’s purely functional, so the length of your arms is important, the length of your legs. It was part of an aesthetic, of finding a terrific actor who also had this beautiful length and shape to portray Tarzan for a modern audience.
The scenes where the actors are swinging from vines are spectacular, how were they done? Did the actors need special training?
Alex had lots of time with a gifted choreographer called Wayne McGregor. But the swinging stuff was very challenging, and we explored how we would deliver that in a number of ways, and ultimately we had to take a digital route with it. So that’s a CG version of Alex Skarsgård swinging through the jungle, because to get that momentum and those arcs, and that sort of shape, we put Alex on the wire, we put stuntmen on wires, we put the most gifted circus performers on wires, and no matter how we shot it or covered it, it was always difficult to get a really beautiful, graceful, theatrical sense of movement. So ultimately even though we shot those other versions with people on wires, and we did extensive testing, ultimately we decided in the end, the most effective way of keeping the sort of romance and poetry of a man who felt at peace within the jungle environment, the best way was to do that digitally.
It was filmed in Africa, correct? In the Congo?
Well, we had a combination of things. We built some of the environments in England and then we had an extensive shoot in Gabon. Gabon is one of the most beautiful and extraordinary landscapes in the world and so the majority of the epic shots are from Gabon and then the foreground sequences we filmed mainly in England. Then we stitched the two worlds together. For example, there was a scene of Jane and Rom on the riverboat that we actually shot in England. Then in Gabon we would travel to find the most beautiful river where we would capture the backgrounds for that foreground stuff that we shot back in England, and we would shoot it in exactly the same light, and the exact time of day and our wonderful director of photography Henry Braham would be coordinating that shoot to make sure that the lighting quality, the ambient light was exactly as we’d shot it in England. Then what we would do in our post-production process is to blend those two elements together. So what you get is a very seamless bringing of the two worlds together so it really feels like we’re on a riverboat travelling in Gabon.
What was the biggest challenge about filming in Gabon?
Gabon is vast, you can only really get around in a helicopter. So we travelled everywhere and the president of Gabon very kindly let us have his helicopter and his very fancy French pilots. So it was the typical, logistical challenges of filming in an environment that hasn’t really featured in many… actually I don’t think it’s featured in any movies prior to this so we were very lucky to get in there and use it extensively for Tarzan. But basically you have to move everything by helicopter and obviously it’s weather dependent so you need to be very patient and take your time. Some of the locations are very remote so if the weather was not right for the scene, we would wait it out.
I’m really looking forward to your next film as well, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
Fantastic Beasts — it’s very exciting and I’m editing it at the moment and it’s coming together really well. We’re going to take a few clips to Comic-Con very shortly and we’re working on the second one as well. We’re setting up Beasts 2 and Jo’s [J.K. Rowling] already delivered a script for that which is terrific and so it’s all going very well. That’s all I can say really, it’s fun.
The Legend of Tarzan opens in theaters on July 1, 2016 in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D.