Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen - POR­TRAITS JAKE WAL­TERS

re­flects Andy Serkis dur­ing an agree­ably sprawl­ing con­ver­sa­tion in the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall on Lon­don’s South Bank. “A door will open and if you’re will­ing to take that jour­ney, it can open up in­cred­i­ble things.”

He’s talk­ing about the lead char­ac­ter of his di­rec­to­rial de­but Breathe — Robin Cavendish, the fa­ther of his friend and pro­duc­ing part­ner Jonathan, who, as a young man in 1958, was paral­ysed from the neck down by po­lio (in the film Cavendish is played by An­drew Garfield). But Serkis could just as eas­ily be re­flect­ing on him­self. When I first met him 15 years ago, he was a hard-work­ing Bri­tish ac­tor who’d just achieved sud­den in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion in a ground­break­ing role: Gol­lum in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Tow­ers. Though hid­den be­neath the wretched crea­ture’s photo-real CG form, Rings mas­ter Peter Jack­son had opened a door for Serkis and sent him on his own un­ex­pected jour­ney.

It took him to Skull Is­land as Jack­son’s King Kong, and from there to San Fran­cisco as brainy chimp rev­o­lu­tion­ary Cae­sar in the Planet Of The Apes re­boot se­ries, be­fore ap­pear­ing in Star

Wars’ far-far-away galaxy as dark side chief Supreme Leader Snoke. Along the way, he founded his own stu­dio, The Imag­i­nar­ium, which spe­cialises in per­for­mance cap­ture, and di­rected sec­ond unit for Jack­son on The Hob­bit tril­ogy.

All that time Serkis nur­tured the de­sire to cre­ate movies of his own. Fi­nally, af­ter a bit of a false start with his still-un­re­leased, mo-cap­driven take on The Jun­gle Book, the small(ish), per­sonal Breathe ar­rives: a film which, but for the du­pli­ca­tion of Tom Hol­lan­der as Robin’s iden­ti­cal-twin broth­ers-in-law, comes raw and un­pro­cessed by the vis­ual-ef­fects ma­chine.

Over the years I’ve got used to see­ing Andy in mo-cap gear, ei­ther go­ing ape as Cae­sar or bear­ing all as Baloo on the set of The Jun­gle Book. But he doesn’t strike me as a con­jurer miss­ing his tricks when we meet to dis­cuss Breathe. De­spite the fact it’s early in the day and he’s re­cently quit cof­fee, he’s an­i­mated and up­beat. No sur­prise: he’s fi­nally in the place he’s al­ways dreamed of reach­ing.

When did you first re­alise you wanted to be a di­rec­tor?

When I went to col­lege, I stud­ied vis­ual arts — the­atre stud­ies was my sub­sidiary course. I started out de­sign­ing posters for shows, work­ing be­hind the scenes. Then I started act­ing, and went into that full-bore. But when I was in my mid-twen­ties I started paint­ing again: fig­ures in ab­stract spa­ces, all fairly po­lit­i­cal, with a sort of nar­ra­tive. Then I thought, “These paint­ings are sto­ry­boards, re­ally.” I re­alised, “I wanna start mak­ing films. How am I gonna do that?” So Lor­raine [Ash­bourne, Serkis’ wife] and I started writ­ing this script — which we’re still de­vel­op­ing — based on the story of her brother, who got fired from his job as a printer be­cause he stood up for a fel­low em­ployee and then got work as a Clark Gable looka­like. I also made a short film.

When was this?

I’d made short films at col­lege, but my first proper one was called Snake, which I made af­ter I did

24 Hour Party Peo­ple [in 2002]. It was based on a Chechen trainee doc­tor I met while film­ing in Rus­sia who paid for his ed­u­ca­tion by work­ing for the Chechen Mafia, fix­ing up guys who got shot.

It’s been brew­ing for a while, then. But the real cru­cible of learn­ing for you was di­rect­ing sec­ond unit on The Hob­bit, wasn’t it?

Fuck, yeah. I thought I was gonna be start­ing my di­rect­ing ca­reer do­ing a small, in­de­pen­dent movie. But Pete wanted some­one on sec­ond unit who could take care of per­for­mance, be­cause of the sheer amount of char­ac­ters. So I took my­self down to New Zealand for a year-and-a-half. It was the most ex­traor­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence. We shot for 200 days, shoot­ing 3D na­tive, 48 frames a sec­ond, out on lo­ca­tion... I was in a he­li­copter for about eight weeks, just shoot­ing aeri­als. It was a nuts job. I learned ev­ery­thing.

And now, oddly, you have made a small, in­de­pen­dent movie. As some­one who is so as­so­ci­ated with VFX, did it feel strange to be do­ing Breathe — stripped of all the things that have come to de­fine you?

Do you know what? It was thrilling. It was about vis­ceral, raw per­for­mance. It was so de­li­cious to come away from a day’s film­ing know­ing that what you had was in the cam­era. It was like, “Oh my God! What is this?!” Di­rect­ing Jun­gle Book for the most part was like, “Well, in a year-and-a-half I’ll be able to see roughly what we’re do­ing here...”

Ah yes, Jun­gle Book. That was sup­posed to be the di­rec­to­rial de­but, wasn’t it?

Yeah, but I’m glad it’s hap­pened this way around. It’s funny, be­cause while we were shoot­ing The Hob­bit I talked to Pete about Jonathan’s story

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