If audiences know the work of Andy Serkis, it is probably because they know Caesar, the chimpanzee leader in the Planet of the Apes remakes, but the acclaimed motion-capture actor is now making a two-pronged debut as a director. He helms a new version of The Jungle Book, coming out in 2018, and directs Breathe, the story of Robin Cavendish, a British crusader for the disabled who survived a remarkable 36 years on a ventilator after he was paralyzed by polio. Not coincidentally, Cavendish's son, the film director Jonathan Cavendish, is Serkis's partner in The Imaginarium, the performance-capture studio they founded together in 2011. The Globe and Mail spoke with Serkis at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
Tell me at what stage you joined this project.
Jonathan and I are very good friends. We set up the company to examine the notion of next-generation storytelling across film and TV, theatre, augmented reality. I brought some projects and Jonathan brought some projects and this was one of his. It started with [screenwriter] Bill Nicholson, about four years ago. I read the script, cried my eyes out and said I really want to direct this. It would have been my first film, except I had already started working on Jungle Book.
Having Robin Cavendish's son involved gave it a particular angle. How did you feel about that?
It was fantastic. I have worked many times on true-life stories and people who have lived that life are an extraordinary resource. Not only were we close friends, but I knew Jonathan's mother [Diana Cavendish] very well. It just seemed that he trusted me entirely to take this story forward.
And what about any ability to show more negative aspects. Were your hands tied?
Not in the slightest. Once I explained my take on the film, Jonathan was very open to that, to two specific strong directions. One was I wanted a film about these people pioneering a new life outside of hospitals, building technology in a Heath Robinsonian [eccentric inventor] kind of way and taking a huge gamble, always a few minutes away from death – and doing that with grace and vibrancy and wit. It's clearly a love story, and the other thing was I really wanted the essence of Robin and Diana's sense of adventure to be integral to the way we shot the movie, which is why I didn't want to make a documentary-style film. I wanted it to be elevated and cinematic and large in scope, and to be colourful and bright, and reflect the vibrancy of their relationship, and have humour. Once Jonathan was on board with all of that, he left me to my own devices.
Talking about the comedy, that was a tricky balance, a daring move to insert it …
It was kind of there in Bill's writing, but it needed to be brought up visually. After the beginning of the movie, which almost feels like a fairy tale, post-polio, we were very keen to modulate between the jeopardy and the guy's humour. It was reflected in the way we shot it, in the performances and musically. The score was a huge challenge for us. Nitin Sawhney, the composer, has written a beautiful score but it was not without a lot painstaking work: We wanted it to be psychologically underpinned and thematically very strong, but at the same time be able to go through these subtle tonal shifts without leading the audience.
What instruction did you give Andrew Garfield as he took on a role in which he could only act from the neck up?
We did an awful lot of research about what it was like to have a tracheotomy and what it was like to live with a ventilator. The ventilator is very much a character in the movie. Robin had to master phraseology in time with the in and out of the ventilator and Andrew had to do that, too. At times, the ventilator feels like a friend; at times it's like his oppressor or his boss. He learns to play that instrument beautifully.
Do you feel you were at an advantage in helping him because of your work in motion capture?
I don't think it really had anything to do with it. He found his own way of working. Andrew is such an instinctive and physical actor. The sense of humour, the intellect, the wit and the facial expressions were what we were all aware of, but Andrew absolutely instinctively found them. He knew that all the athleticism and energy that Robin had ended up above his chin.
Breathe opens Oct. 20 in Toronto, Oct. 27 in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, and expands across the coutnry Nov. 3.