Harry Pot­ter direc­tor David Yates takes on the chal­lenge of bring­ing tarzan back from the wilder­ness


Five years ago, David Yates might jus­ti­fi­ably have taken a very long hol­i­day. The direc­tor had just said good­bye to Harry Pot­ter with the series’ fi­nal in­stal­ment, The Deathly Hal­lows —

Part 2. Af­ter four films, half a decade and north of $4 bil­lion at the box of­fice he’d cer­tainly earned a break, but his thoughts in­stead turned im­me­di­ately to his next project. Un­sur­pris­ingly, stacks of screen­plays had come his way — “Lots of sci-fi, lots of things blow­ing up,” he says. The direc­tor who’d just brought one of cin­ema’s most suc­cess­ful series to a spec­tac­u­lar con­clu­sion had his pick. But one in par­tic­u­lar called out to him. A sur­pris­ing one.

“The Leg­end Of Tarzan felt the most en­joy­able of ev­ery­thing I’d been read­ing,” Yates tells Em­pire. A film based on a char­ac­ter who hasn’t been seen on a cin­ema screen since Dis­ney’s an­i­mated ver­sion in 1999? “I just liked the idea of a re­ally old-fash­ioned and joy­ful, ro­man­tic ac­tion-ad­ven­ture pic­ture,” he says. “Yes, Tarzan had gone out of fash­ion, and wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily ever done that well in its ear­lier incarnations, but they were de­light­ful in their way. I felt that, just as

Bat­man had been through rein­ven­tions, Tarzan was ready for that too.”

It would hardly be his

first. Dur­ing the 20th cen­tury the lost, ape-raised English lord was ubiq­ui­tous. His creator, Edgar Rice Bur­roughs, wrote more than 40 nov­els and short sto­ries about him be­tween 1912 and 1947. Other au­thors (among them Fritz Leiber, Philip José Farmer and Andy Briggs) later wrote even more. There were comics, car­toons, stage plays and ra­dio se­ri­als. And there were movies: 90 be­tween the silent era and to­day. The most pop­u­lar series, which be­gan with Johnny Weiss­muller in the ti­tle role in 1932 and ended with Mike Henry in 1968, ran to 28 films. Af­ter that, the pace be­gan to slow, but there were still live-ac­tion TV shows, school-hol­i­day re-runs of the old films, and oc­ca­sional cin­e­matic ad­ven­tures: the ill-fated erotic take with Bo Derek in 1981 (Tarzan The

Ape Man); Hugh Hud­son’s hand­some but

aus­tere Greystoke: The Leg­end Of Tarzan,

Lord Of The Apes in 1984; and Dis­ney’s ’99 ver­sion. The char­ac­ter’s pop­u­lar­ity en­dured. “I was a Tarzan fan; that’s why I came to this,” says Sa­muel L. Jack­son, who plays US en­voy Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Williams in Yates’ movie. “Gor­don Scott was my Tarzan on the big screen, but I watched Johnny Weiss­muller on TV. We played Tarzan when I was a kid, and jumped from tree to tree and did shit.”

We haven’t yet, how­ever, seen a live­ac­tion Tarzan in cine­mas this mil­len­nium. Not count­ing the swiftly can­celled Warner Bros. TV series of the early 2000s star­ring a pre-vik­ings Travis Fim­mel, the last ac­tor to swing on a vine with Jane was Casper Van Dien in 1998’s Tarzan And The

Lost City… which had its bud­get slashed dur­ing production, limped to a pal­try $2 mil­lion at the box of­fice, and has never even been avail­able on DVD in the UK.

So it’s hardly sur­pris­ing to learn it took pro­ducer Jerry Wein­traub a decade to get

The Leg­end Of Tarzan into production. Di­rec­tors Guillermo del Toro and Stephen Sommers came into and out of the pic­ture

in 2006 and 2008 re­spec­tively, be­fore he fi­nally locked things down with Yates, and an en­tirely new script, in 2012. Even af­ter that, there was a tem­po­rary shut-down in 2013, when it be­came ap­par­ent the bud­get was too small. “It’s been a real strug­gle to match the vi­sion with the money,” says Yates, though he’d achieved that by the time the film fi­nally went into pre-production in Fe­bru­ary 2014. John

Carter — an­other Bur­roughs prop­erty — didn’t help his cause, with Dis­ney’s high-pro­file adap­ta­tion bomb­ing in 2012. While, even in a dor­mant state, Tarzan re­tains wider cul­tural name-recog­ni­tion than Carter, re­viv­ing him re­mains a risk in a world where the mod­ern su­per­hero block­buster is all-con­quer­ing.

“I ac­tu­ally do think of this as a su­per­hero movie,” says David Bar­ron (Yates’ pro­ducer on this and his Harry

Pot­ter films). “Tarzan’s senses are very finely tuned and he has this great phys­i­cal prow­ess as a re­sult of his up­bring­ing. It’s not a su­per­hero movie like we’re used to, though: we are treat­ing it as a proper, grown-up Tarzan story based in re­al­ity.” Yates in­sists this is “a mod­ern, eco-tarzan. His world is amaz­ing, and it de­serves to be rep­re­sented prop­erly, in a way that’s re­ally pos­si­ble now, with that proper wal­lop of ac­tion and entertainment and scale.”

Don’t con­fuse “mod­ern”

with “present day”, how­ever. Part of Tarzan’s charm, for Yates, lies in the rich­ness of his his­tor­i­cal set­ting: the wild an­i­mals, the tribes­men and the ver­dant Con­golese vis­tas. Though at source, those el­e­ments are prob­lem­atic, stem­ming as they do from Bur­roughs’ ig­no­rant fan­tasies: the ‘Scram­ble For Africa’ was far from over at the time Bur­roughs first be­gan writ­ing. By 21st-cen­tury stan­dards, Bur­roughs’ work is naively racist, so key to Tarzan’s rein­ven­tion was root­ing him in an his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate past: “re­defin­ing him by an un­der­stand­ing of the world”, as Yates puts it.

Avoid­ing the much-told ori­gin story (al­though Yates says there are more ear­ly­tarzan flash­backs than were planned, due to test au­di­ences “long­ing for them”), screen­writ­ers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer in­tro­duce a Tarzan al­ready liv­ing in Eng­land as John Clay­ton, Lord Greystoke. Pluck­ing a thread from Bur­roughs’ books which saw Tarzan un­der­tak­ing diplo­matic mis­sions for Euro­pean gov­ern­ments, Leg­end plunges him back into the Congo on a Bri­tishamer­i­can op­er­a­tion to in­ves­ti­gate the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Bel­gian King Leopold II.

A real his­tor­i­cal vil­lian, dur­ing the late 1800s Leopold ruth­lessly ex­ploited the Congo for its rub­ber crop, re­sult­ing in mass en­slave­ment and geno­cide. Mod­ern es­ti­mates put the num­ber of Con­golese deaths at­trib­ut­able to his regime in the mil­lions. With this as a con­text, you can hardly ac­cuse the film of ro­man­ti­cis­ing colo­nial­ism. “It is a big, ex­cit­ing ac­tion film,” ex­plains Alexan­der Skars­gård, who Yates cast as his lord of the jun­gle. “But this is the re­al­ity that Tarzan comes back to in the Congo: an ap­palling sit­u­a­tion that wasn’t there when he was grow­ing up.”

Out­side Africa, Leopold was pre­sent­ing him­self to the world as a phi­lan­thropist, and when bank­ruptcy threat­ened, he ap­pealed in­ter­na­tion­ally for fi­nan­cial sup­port. So Tarzan joins Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Williams (Jack­son) on a fact-find­ing mis­sion that quickly goes wrong. Leopold him­self doesn’t ap­pear on screen, but his das­tardly in­ter­ests are rep­re­sented by the movie’s prin­ci­pal vil­lain, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz). Both Williams and Rom are his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters: Rom is thought to be an in­spi­ra­tion for the bru­tal Colonel Kurtz in Joseph Con­rad’s Heart Of

Dark­ness; Wash­ing­ton a lawyer and Civil War vet­eran whose open let­ter to Leopold in 1890 has­tened the end of his so-called Congo Free State.

“I didn’t know Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Williams’ story un­til I started talk­ing to peo­ple about this job,” says Jack­son, “but af­ter that I read a lot. He was the first African-amer­i­can from the United States to go into the Congo and op­pose the slave trade. He was an in­ter­est­ing guy.” He’s also a counter to the ‘white saviour’ trope, by which white char­ac­ters solve prob­lems

for peo­ple of colour: one more ex­am­ple of The Leg­end Of Tarzan’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to be cul­tur­ally and racially cog­nizant.

“We were very sen­si­tive to the more dated as­pects of the clas­sic sto­ries,” says Yates. “One of the ap­peals and chal­lenges of the script was that it was rooted in this ter­ri­ble, pow­er­ful, dis­turb­ing as­pect of African his­tory while still keep­ing all the iconic as­pects of the Tarzan you know. If even one per­son in that mul­ti­plex au­di­ence goes away and reads a lit­tle bit about Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Williams, we’ve achieved some­thing.”


was im­por­tant to the production, Yates didn’t shoot in Africa it­self. Play­ing the part of the Congo is his old Harry Pot­ter stomp­ing ground, Leaves­den Stu­dios (new Jane Mar­got Rob­bie, when Em­pire meets her on set, is ex­cited to learn that we’re stand­ing on Ha­grid’s hill). Only some plate shots, to “wrap Gabon around the sets”, Yates says, were filmed on lo­ca­tion.

There’s some­thing fit­ting about this. The films of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s were sim­i­larly shot on stu­dio back­lots, with the more ex­otic an­i­mals slot­ted in via stock footage. But they were B pic­tures through and through, lack­ing any­thing close to the bud­get Yates has to fa­cil­i­tate some ex­traor­di­nar­ily de­tailed production de­sign. “The old films were al­ways a bit un­der-re­alised,” says Yates. “This time we’ve got the re­sources, even though we’re only in Wat­ford.”

Em­pire can hear the M25 from the sa­van­nah vil­lage where we watch Skars­gård, Rob­bie and Jack­son ar­rive to a spir­ited tribal wel­come. We can also hear it from the moun­tain val­ley set, with its 50-foot wa­ter­fall and craggy cliffs. But it’s at least quiet within C Stage, which houses the production’s mag­nif­i­cently re­alised Con­golese jun­gle.

There’s a smell of wet peat and bark as we poke around here. Mud squelches un­der­foot and wa­ter gath­ers at the roof, creat­ing a misty mi­cro-cli­mate. Mas­sive canopies of hand-moulded leaves brush against us as we me­an­der along­side a river with a fully ad­justable wa­ter level. You can walk a long way through this jun­gle be­fore en­coun­ter­ing any tech­nol­ogy — as long as you don’t look up to see the light boxes on the ceil­ing.

While the flora may be phys­i­cally present, the fauna — in­clud­ing thou­sands of wilde­beest which stam­pede through the colo­nial town of Boma at the film’s cli­max — are en­tirely dig­i­tal. Which is less of a sur­prise than the fact that Yates and his team have avoided the per­for­mance­cap­ture ap­proach, even for the apes.

“I didn’t want to tie my­self into hu­man per­for­mances,” ex­plains vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Tim Burke. “We don’t need our an­i­mals to do things that are un­nat­u­ral for them, as they did in Life Of

Pi or Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. Our crea­tures are in their nat­u­ral habi­tat.” Again, rather ap­pro­pri­ately, the film is us­ing some­thing close to those old stock­an­i­mal-footage-inser­tion tech­niques, al­beit in a vastly more so­phis­ti­cated man­ner. “We’ve been cap­tur­ing a lot of ref­er­ence at wildlife parks in Gabon and in this coun­try,” Burke says. “We’ve been photo-scan­ning real an­i­mals. It’s all been about creat­ing a li­brary of per­for­mance.”


his other 2016 movie — Harry Pot­ter fran­chise ex­ten­sion Fan­tas­tic Beasts

And Where To Find Them — he’s ready, he says, to re­turn to his new/old hero... As­sum­ing his epic, big-bud­get and tonally mod­ernised ap­proach lands with the 21st-cen­tury au­di­ence. “We’re ex­cited,” he says. “We’ve been think­ing a lot about a sec­ond Tarzan and how it picks up from this one. It all de­pends on how it does in July, but we’ve got a pretty good out­line and we’re ready to go with that straight­away.”

Su­per­man was cre­ated in 1938; Bat­man in 1939; Cap­tain Amer­ica in 1941. One hun­dred-and-four years af­ter his own first ap­pear­ance, it feels right that Tarzan, The Lord Of The Jun­gle, is about to re­turn along­side them. He’s been gone for far too long.

Sa­muel l. jack­son’s Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Williams and Alexan­der Skars­gård’s john Clay­ton rum­ble in the jun­gle.

Above: Dji­mon Houn­sou as Chief Mbonga, who ap­peared in Edgar Rice Bur­roughs’ Tarzan tales. Left: Mar­got Rob­bie of­fers a more mod­ern take on jane.

Tough times for Tarzan in Take 2. An­i­mated but still deadly: David yates es­chewed per­for­mance cap­ture for his apes.

Direc­tor David Yates (cen­tre) briefs Christoph Waltz, who plays the cor­rupt Cap­tain Rom.

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