Why Harry Potter director David Yates decided to bring Tarzan back to life

Advances in special effects, popular male and female leads, and a strong conservation theme prompted Hollywood to take Tarzan out of mothballs

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2016, 7:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2016, 3:54pm

David Yates, the British director behind the final four Harry Potter movies, wasn’t immediately sold when he was pitched the idea of reviving the world’s most famous jungle hero. “When I got the script and it said, ‘Tarzan’, that was my first question: why?” he says.

Undoubtedly, it’s something audiences may also be wondering with the arrival of The Legend of Tarzan, featuring True Blood star Alexander Skarsgard as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous creation.

Having first appeared in the 1912 story Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs’ character has endured for more than a hundred years. Made popular by the black-and-white Tarzan movies of the 1930s and 1940s, when he was played by former swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, the Lord of the Apes has appeared in TV serials, radio plays, comics, video games and stage productions.

But recently? There were only Disney’s 1999 cartoon Tarzan and a 2013 little-seen live-action movie, starring Twilight’s Kellan Lutz. Arguably, the lack of modern-day interpretations is one reason why Tarzan has returned.

“The take on it felt quite fresh to me,” says the Swedish-born Skarsgard, 39. “It’s not the origin story. It’s not the Tarzan you would expect. The journey is quite the opposite [to] the novel or the films, where he is the ape man who ends up in England trying to adjust to that. This is the other way around; he was born and raised in the jungle but when you first meet him, he’s Lord Greystoke and he’s been here for almost a decade.”

Scripted by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, The Legend of Tarzan indeed begins with Tarzan as John Clayton III, married to the beautiful Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). But when he’s asked to return to the Congo as a trade emissary for Britain’s Houses of Parliament, facing off against the evil Belgian Captain Rom (Christoph Waltz), this aristocrat returns to his animal state.

“He rediscovers his inner Tarzan,” says David Barron, the film’s producer, who previously worked with Yates on the Harry Potter franchise.

Skarsgard was taken with the film’s ‘beast within us’ theme. “To me, that’s a very interesting dichotomy that all humans can relate to,” he says, “trying to function in a civilised society but we’re still animals, deep down inside.

“Someone who is so civilised, in Victorian England, so buttoned-up and proper; but on the other hand, he’s also Tarzan… he grew up in a jungle. It was definitely something I was intrigued by – that kind of duality of who we really are.”

Denny Miller, actor who played Tarzan the Ape Man, dies at 80

The role immediately took him back to his childhood when he would watch faded VHS tapes owned by his actor-father Stellan Skarsgard of the old Weissmuller/Tarzan movies. There were further connections too, he realised, when he was wrapping up the final episode of vampire show True Blood before heading to London to play Tarzan.

“I shot my last scene at the Warner Brothers backlot in Burbank, in a part of the woods where they shot the old Tarzan films,” says Skarsgard.

Intriguingly, Yates’ film also has a link to Tarzan’s cinematic past – with Stuart Craig. The triple Oscar winning production designer previously worked on Hugh Hudson’s 1984 film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, starring Christopher Lambert.

“The difference is that on Greystoke, Tarzan’s ape family were all men in suits,” says Craig. “They had to be. It was pre-digital compositing, pre-digital animation, pre-computer.” Back then, Craig had to create a truncated jungle that allowed “these guys in suits” to be able to swing from one branch to another.

“Branches were all very flat and horizontal and the leaps between one and another were not that big.” According to Yates, it’s another reason to bring Tarzan back to the big screen. “It’s never really been done well. Hugh Hudson’s Greystoke was a really handsome, well-made drama, but the jungles and the monkeys were terrible.”

Yates and co. have a considerable advantage over Hudson’s team, using computer trickery to recreate – or rather extend – the African jungle. With the sets built at Warner Brothers Studios, Leavesden, outside London, Craig’s team shipped in hundreds of tropical plants from a clearing house in Holland that imports them from Costa Rica and Florida. Seven different jungle sets were created on Stage C, each to replicate a stage of Tarzan’s trek through the inhospitable terrain.

Did Yates not feel a twinge of desire to follow fellow adventure-seeking directors such as Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola and embark on a jungle shoot? “That appealed for about five minutes,” he laughs.

A brief pre-production trip to Gabon in west Africa, where a helicopter unit later spent six weeks filming landscapes and horizons to be digitally fused with the main footage, was enough to put Yates off. “We trekked for two-and-a-half hours and I thought, ‘No f***ing way are we doing this.’ It was hell.”

It’s not merely the discomfort of shooting in Africa, with the heat and mosquitoes. The lack of infrastructure, not to mention the cost of flying out equipment and setting up base camps, makes shooting such a blockbuster exorbitantly expensive.

“In the past, you had no choice,” says Barron. “But now, with visual effects technology, you can pull it off with such a degree of realism that no one will ever know. I love Africa – it’s a nice place to visit but not to shoot for a long time.”

If there’s one thing that isn’t computer-generated, it’s Skarsgard’s body. Yoga and Pilates helped, but it was the eight-month, calorie-controlled diet (including no alcohol) that helped sculpt the actor into a jungle Adonis. “I’m naturally quite lean, so I had to put on a bit of weight,” he recalls. “For three months, I bulked up – ate a lot of steak and potatoes and lifted weights. Then the trick was to try and maintain some of the volume but get rid of the body fat. So I was put on a very strict diet.”

It left him “miserable”, but Skarsgard more than made up for it on the final day. “The very last shot was a green-screen shot of me turning around … and there was this black canvas next to me. On the other side they had a massive banoffee pie! So when they called ‘wrap’, they dropped the canvas and everyone was cheering; I ran over and ate the entire banoffee pie.”

Images of Skarsgard chowing face-down in a cream-and-pastry dessert, like a demented cartoon character, flood the mind.

Not that this answers the question: why Tarzan now? Well, try this. The film’s release is being orchestrated in conjunction with Stop Ivory – the campaign that aims to stop the senseless slaughter of elephants and removal of their tusks in Central Africa. Yates says Tarzan is a stark reminder of “how precious our planet’s resources can be and how we can annihilate and exploit them”.

And that is as good a reason as any to bring the Lord of the Jungle swinging back into our lives.

The Legend of Tarzan opens on June 30

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