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Serkis: Playing Virtual Parts On The Big Screen

You might not recognize actor Andy Serkis, but you've probably seen his characters on-screen. Searches is Hollywood's go-to actor for computer-generated roles. His movies include Lord of the Rings, King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

30:45

Other segments from the episode on August 4, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 4, 2011: Interview with Andy Serkis; Interview with Rudy Behlmer; Review of Fountains of Wayne's album "Sky Full of Holes."

Transcript

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Serkis: Playing Virtual Parts On The Big Screen

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our guest, actor Andy Serkis, has appeared in more than 30 films, but you
wouldn't recognize him in some of his most celebrated roles. When he played
King Kong in the 2005 remake and the tormented creature Gollum in "The Lord of
the Rings" series, he appeared not as himself but as a computer-generated
image.

Those roles involved a technique known as performance capture, in which an
actor performs in a skin-tight suit with special markers, allowing cameras to
capture his body movements and facial expressions. Computer graphic images are
then imposed on the movements to transform the actor into a 25-foot ape or some
other creature on film.

Serkis stars in a performance capture role in the new film "Rise of the Planet
of the Apes" with James Franco and John Lithgow. Serkis plays a chimp named
Caesar who gets a drug that enhances his intelligence and is raised in a human
home. He's eventually sent to an animal refuge, where he organizes an ape
rebellion.

Andy Serkis spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Well, Andy Serkis, welcome to FRESH AIR. In this film, you take a leading role
with no dialogue, and you play the ape as an infant, right?

Mr. ANDY SERKIS (Actor): I play Caesar all the way from a toddler. There's a
couple of shots right at the beginning of the movie, which shows him literally
just after he's been born, one or two days old. I play him from toddlerhood all
the way through to this, you know, highly developed male who leads the
revolution.

DAVIES: So tell us how you prepared.

Mr. SERKIS: Well, when you take on a role like this, obviously, you know,
Caesar is a chimpanzee, and so there's - the first stage of the process is
really working on the ape primate research and researching as much as you can
and watching a lot of footage and spending time with apes and finding
touchstone characters.

In all of the footage that you watch, there's the ones that kind of pop out.
You know, there's certain ones that you kind of feel are going to inspire you
more than others because of course there are so many different personalities in
all of these apes. They're 97 percent genetically the same as us.

It's saying - it's like observing human beings and saying, well, I'm going to
play Caesar kind of with an amalgamation of that person and that person.

So I actually came across a real chimpanzee called Oliver who in the 1970s
became a bit of a phenomenon, and a documentary series was made about him. He
was known as the humanzee, and Oliver was extraordinary in the sense that he
walked bipedally and was brought up by human beings and treated very much like
a member of the household and looked and behaved and had facial expressions
that really, if one was to project, or you know, one could imagine that it was
close to human behavior.

So he was a touchstone character. Of course, that's the first stage of building
a character like this.

DAVIES: You know, what you see with this character, Caesar, is he grows up as a
human kid and then at some point realizes that he isn't. There's a moment when
he goes outside, they have to take him on a leash, and he suddenly realizes
wait a minute, I'm a kid, but they've got me around with a leash like a dog. Do
you want to talk a little bit about sort of some of the emotions you see Caesar
going through there and how you got to them and portrayed them?

Mr. SERKIS: Yeah, it's a really significant moment in that piece, where Caesar
begins to have this growing self-awareness. And the scene that happens after
the one that you're describing really is the pivotal moment where, you know, he
gets led back, and he has this encounter with a dog, and he then feels around
his neck and realizes he has this choker around his neck.

And when he's taken back to the car, and he's being taken home, and normally he
gets into the trunk of the car, he stops, and he looks at Will, and he freezes.
And this something in him realizes this is no longer right. And he moves over
and gets into the passenger seat of the car.

And it's a really significant silent moment of filmmaking where - which was
completely improvised and in the moment. And that's - you know, that is a prime
example of Caesar and his emotional development. And so I was just living
through that moment as an actor and believing this is what was right and felt
right for that moment.

DAVIES: So you're saying you were filming that scene. You're there covered in a
Lycra suit, I guess, with these markers all over your face and a camera in
front of you to capture this motion which will later be reproduced with the
animation. And you're interacting with the actors, and you say ah, I'm not
going to get in the back of the car.

Mr. SERKIS: Yeah absolutely, I mean, in the same way that I would if I was in a
costume and doing the same thing. The process of performance capture really is
transparent now. You know, we're not having to shoot in special areas where the
performance capture cameras are all around.

Those performance cameras are brought out into the open, outside of the studio
lot, you know, and you can shoot on any location. And while they're rolling,
while the performance capture cameras are rolling, the live cameras are also
rolling, and so everything is filmed in one hit.

And there's - that enables you to completely emotionally connect with your
fellow actors and completely play the scene in entirety, and it will have an
emotional resonance and a reality and a connectiveness that you couldn't
possibly get if two actors were working in separate volumes.

DAVIES: You, of course, you had this role, and you also played King Kong in the
2005 remake there, where you had to, in effect, express this emotional
relationship between a 25-foot ape and Naomi Watts. And what - you're known for
very rigorous preparation for your roles. And I'm wondering kind of what it
does to your head to be in the mentality of an ape for weeks or months at a
time.

Mr. SERKIS: I mean, certainly physically, it takes its toll. After Kong, my
knuckles have never really recovered because I had to wear, you know, every
single day, I had wear very, very heavy weights on my forearms and around my
hips and around my ankles to get the sense of size and scale of the movement of
the character.

You know, Kong as a character is a very, very - obviously a completely
different, you know, a challenge. He's lonely, very desperately lonely, kind of
psychotic hobo, basically, who is past his prime. He's like a boxer who's taken
that many hits. He's - every day is about survival, and the only beings he
comes into contact with are ones that are trying to kill him and take him down.

He knows he's the last of his species, and so when he actually is confronted
with this other warm and non-threatening being, he begins to feel a set of
emotions that he probably hasn't ever felt since childhood.

And from then, this relationship develops, and he begins to - and then really
the key turning point for Kong was a realization that he had a sense of humor
because he begins to enjoy her.

There's a scene where Naomi Watts, which she played brilliantly, performs -
basically, she's performing to so save her life. And Kong finds it amusing. And
it's something that he's never encountered before.

So that was another very challenging, physical and, you know, emotionally
connective role. But it does leave you - you know, there's always a
decompression period after playing any - really any role that I get into
because I take it very seriously, and emotionally, you're tricking your mind
and body into these situations.

You know, you are telling your body that you are this thing and that you're
feeling these thoughts and that you are experiencing these experiences. So it
does always take time to kind of - to come out the other end.

DAVIES: You didn't go home and stand on the dining room table and beat your
chest in front of your wife and children?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: I'm sure she'd say that I did, actually. She - you know, it's funny
because my wife and my children, whenever they watch the roles that I've been
involved with - and, you know, my children have witnessed me shooting all of
these, from Gollum through Kong through, you know, Caesar to Captain Haddock in
"Tintin." They - my children can see a direct correlation.

People ask me, you know, do you recognize yourself on the screen once these -
when the digital makeup, in effect, is overlaid on top of your performance. And
I say yes, of course, I recognize every single twitch, every single, you know,
every single thought process and acting decision and choice. And my wife and
children absolutely do. They look up on screen, and they see me in those roles.
It's - yeah, it's quite extraordinary really.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Andy Serkis. He appears in the new film "Rise of
the Planet of the Apes." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is actor Andy Serkis. He stars
with James Franco in the new film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Well, we
have to talk about Gollum, your portrayal of the creature in "The Lord of the
Rings" films. This is really an amazing effect.

And since not everyone's seen it, and it's been a few years, why don't you just
first of all describe Gollum physically and remind us of sort of how he became
the creature he was in the story.

Mr. SERKIS: Gollum used to be a hobbit called Smeagol, and he was one of a clan
that lived by a river. And he comes across the ring via his cousin, who
discovers it when they're fishing one day. And he falls into the river trying
to catch a big fish, and Deagol, his cousin, comes across this shining object
at the bottom of a lake and brings it up.

And the moment that Smeagol, who is kind of known as a bit of a sneak in his
village, I mean, he's not like a really terrible villain or anything, but he's
a bit sneaky as a human - as a hobbit, rather. And he then - immediately he
lays eyes on it becomes craven and lustful towards it and cannot - cannot -
take his eyes off it and to the point where he fights his cousin and kills him
and throttles him.

He then over a number of years is kind of cast out into the wilderness and
begins to physically and mentally depreciate and become riddled and scarred
mentally and physically and curl and twist and get knotted up, as if this
virile and kind of physical disease was overtaking him. And it's the effect of
the ring and the craven lustfulness of the ring overpowering him.

And he turns into Gollum, and he can't bear to be in view of the sunlight. It's
too - it almost exposes him to the guilt of him killing his cousin. And he
crawls into the Middle Earth, what's an area known as the Misty Mountains and
hides himself underground for nearly 500 years and gradually turns mad.

And he begins to talk to himself, and, you know, the two sides of his
personality are at war with each other, this Smeagol, the innocent sort of side
of himself, and Gollum the more aggressive, and manipulative. And there's a
constant sort of battle between them.

DAVIES: And describe him physically, what his face looks like, what his body
looks like.

Mr. SERKIS: He's very gnarled and very thin. He's emaciated. He has a few
strands of hair. He's got scars all down his back. He's got a handful of teeth
and huge kind of luminous, bulbous eyes.

You know, he's a wreck. You know, he's absolutely - he looks - his skin is
pallid, and his skin is almost scaly and chafed and worn, and, you know, he's
pretty much a pretty ugly little gnomic-like character.

DAVIES: An amazing thing to behold. And now let's listen to the voice. This is
a scene from the second "Lord of the Rings" film, and here Gollum is - the two
sides of his personality are arguing with one another. They're obsessed with
the ring that is of course at the center of the story, which he refers to as
precious. And he's here arguing with his darker self about whether to turn
against Frodo Baggins, who he refers to as his master. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of film, "The Two Towers")

Mr. SERKIS: (As Gollum/Smeagol) Yes, Precious, they will cheat you, hurt you,
lie. Master's my friend. You don't have any friends. Nobody likes you. Not
listening. I'm not listening. You're a liar, and a thief - no, murderer.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SERKIS: (As Gollum/Smeagol) Go away. Go away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: And that's our guest Andy Serkis, playing Gollum in "The Lord of the
Rings." Tell us about getting the voice. Is your voice enhanced in any way, or
is that just you?

Mr. SERKIS: No, no, that's just my voice.

DAVIES: Wow.

Mr. SERKIS: And the voice was created through trying to find - you know, I'm
not like a voice actor, per se. I don't just do voices. It only comes through
character and through acting. And for me, it's linked entirely to physicality
and through, you know, centering an emotion around a voice.

So Gollum, you know, as I described earlier, he feels very guilty about
murdering his cousin, and a lot of his guilt is trapped in his throat.

And he's called Gollum - Tolkien calls him Gollum because of the way he sounds.
So I had to find a voice that sounded like someone golluming.

You know, this - the ring is overpowering him, and I wanted this sense that his
body was controlled by it. So that it was an involuntary action that was making
him sound like this.

And I looked to one of my cats, actually, Diz(ph), who sadly isn't around
anymore, but he came in while I was kind of working on the character one day
and coughed up a fur ball.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: And this became really interesting to me because, you know, you
watch a cat throwing up a fur ball, and it's like the whole body sort of
writhes from the tip of the neck to the tip of the tail and sort of, you know,
convulses. And you see this ripple going down its spine. And then this sound
kind of happens, where it kind of comes into the throat, and you see this fur
about to be chucked up, and then they sort of go...

(Soundbite of choking)

Mr. SERKIS: ...which suddenly became...

(Soundbite of choking)

Mr. SERKIS: And that's how the sound happened.

DAVIES: Oh my heavens. It must have been fun living with you while you were
getting that right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: Absolutely. Yeah, my kids were - I mean, they're over it now, but I
used to - for them to go to bed it was a great way of getting them to bed.

DAVIES: Now, maybe this would be a good moment to talk about, you know,
performance capture technology and how it's changed because I gather when you
did that role, Gollum, it's different than in the current film, "Rise of the
Planet of the Apes." It's more sophisticated. Kind of give us the basics and
tell us how you did Gollum and how that was translated into the screen.

Mr. SERKIS: Well much the same way. I mean, Peter Jackson wanted an actor to
play the role. I mean, traditionally, visual effects - you know, the
alternative was to have an animated character of Gollum appear on the screen.

Now if that was the case, you would have had represented on the set a tennis
ball on a stick, and the other actors, i.e., Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, would
have had to pretend that Gollum was there, and they'd have to pretend that they
knew what he was feeling or thinking or, you know, what he was saying to them,
and someone would read the lines off, and that would be it. And then, you know,
months down the line, you know, animators would key-frame animate, and that
character would be placed into the scene.

Peter Jackson, one of the things he wanted to do, he said when I first met him,
you know, it's insane, that Gollum drives all of these scenes. He's the
protagonist in so many of these scenes. The thought of him not being there
present on set is ridiculous. We need to have an actor who can play the role
and act with the other actors and interact.

So there were two methods, really, that we shot Gollum. You know, I acted on
set with the other actors, much like I did on "Rise of the Planet of the Apes,"
and then my performance was either rotoscoped, which means if there was close
interaction, I was grabbing Frodo's cloak, for instance, they would paint frame
by frame over my hand grabbing the cloak so you had that definite interaction.

But then I also was able to go and shoot on a motion capture stage with all the
cameras and me wearing the motion capture suit with markers on, and I would be
driving the digital image of Gollum, but it was entirely shot separately. So I
had to kind of, having emotionally lived through the scenes with Sean and
Elijah, I then had to re-create those scenes on my own and just remember what
we did on the day filming. So there was a slight disconnect to what we were
doing.

The facial capture of Gollum was created by - the design of the character was
created around my muscle structure and my face so that the animators could then
- my performance was filmed on 35 millimeter, and then the animators copied it
frame by frame. So all of my twitches, my eye movements, my expressions, my
mouth and so on were literally frame-by-frame matched and overlaid with pixels.

Now the development that has taken place over the last decade has enabled, for
one, you know, on "King Kong" for instance, it then moved to facial performance
capture, where I was literally - in the same ways that I'd worn markers on my
suit, I'm now wearing markers on my face, like 132 tiny little markers, which
go around my eyelids and track my eye movements, and each, you know, each
facial expression that Kong pulls is driven directly from my muscles and my
face.

DAVIES: And you're surrounded by cameras, which follow those markers and then
integrate them.

Mr. SERKIS: Absolutely, absolutely. Now with - you know, performance capture
then took a big leap and took center stage in films like obviously "Avatar" and
now "Rise of the Apes" and "Tintin," where you've got virtual production, where
the whole shoot is basically taking place in a motion capture studio, and you
have multiple actors acting with each other using this technique.

With "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," this is the first time we're moving out
of a motion capture studio and into the real world, where both the actor is
being filmed using film camera, and the performance capture actor is being film
using the performance capture camera so that, as I say, they're both
intrinsically linked in the moment.

DAVIES: Now, in Gollum, you do the movements, and he has a very kind of pouncy,
animalistic way of moving. And you scramble up hillsides, romp through marshes,
get whacked around. You're doing all of that, and it's all being captured,
right?

Mr. SERKIS: Absolutely, yeah. It's - on set, on the live-action sets, this is
the difference. When I played Gollum in "Lord of the Rings," if I was climbing
up the side of a mountain, which I physically did, you know, I was on every
single occasion swimming through streams, all of that, that wasn't captured.
That was filmed on 35 millimeter, and for certain of those shots, it was
rotoscoped and painted over. But obviously I did all the movement for it.

Now this is the difference. If I was doing that now, in fact when we've been
shooting on "The Hobbit," which is where I reprise my role of Gollum, we've
just shot all of Gollum's scenes, and I was able to do exactly that, but it was
performance captured on the live-action set.

DAVIES: Now, there was a debate about whether you should have gotten an Oscar
nomination for Gollum. Modesty aside, what do you think about the arguments for
recognizing a performance capture role like this and giving it kind of all of
the recognition that other actors get with the Academy?

Mr. SERKIS: I mean, my take on it is, and having worked in it for some years
now, is that acting is acting, that performance is a performance.

When we shoot these scenes, after they've been shot, the director, Rupert
Wyatt, then cuts the film. He edits the film. And the actor's performance, my
performance as Caesar, for instance, in this film, you know, you can see my
face on film going through all the emotions.

He then cuts the entire story using my performance. And then eight or nine
months down the line, the visual effects shots, the overlaying of the
performance with the skin and the texturing and the coloring and the art, you
know, the painting over my eye movements and so on, that's done later on. But
the director's already edited the movie and told the story and wants to uphold
the performance of that actor.

GROSS: We'll hear more of Andy Serkis's interview with FRESH AIR contributor
Dave Davies in the second half of the show. With the help of computer-generated
images, Serkis plays the leader of the ape rebellion in the new film "Rise of
the Planet of the Apes." He was Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new film "Rise of the Planet of
the Apes" opens this weekend. Let's get back to our interview with Andy Serkis,
the actor who plays the chimp that leads the rebellion. He wasn't wearing an
ape suit. His performance, his movements and facial expressions was the basis
of the computer graphic images of the ape. That same technique, known as
performance capture, was used in Serkis's role as Gollum in "The Lord of the
Rings." Let's get back to the interview Serkis recorded with FRESH AIR
contributor Dave Davies.

DAVIES: I do sometimes wonder if you don't have an agent who's telling you
Andy, you need to get some roles where people see you, dude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: I, you know, it's probably taken about, you know, five minutes to
understand why I do it. But, I mean, nevertheless, I do go back and do live
action roles. I mean last year or it was the year before now actually, I played
a, you know, I played Ian Dury, you know, the punk rocker Ian Dury in "Sex &
Drugs & Rock & Roll" and, you know, was accoladed for that and I had an amazing
time playing that role. I do a lot of, you know, I want to go back and do
theater and, you know, there are other live action roles that I want to play.

But I never really draw a distinction between the two. I don't see a difference
between playing a performance capture role and a live action role, they're just
characters to me at the end of the day and I'm an actor who wants to explore
those characters in fantastically written scripts. The only caveat is a good
story is a good character.

DAVIES: You know, you mentioned "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll," and I thought we
should listen to one scene of this. This is early in the film. You're playing
this punk rocker Ian Dury. This is early in the film after a pretty disastrous
appearance at a club, a woman played by Naomi Harris approaches and he kind of
romances her. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. NAOMI HARRIS (Actor): (as Denise Roudette) I thought you were (bleep)
great.

Mr. SERKIS: (as Ian Dury) Really? Great as in celebrated, illustrious, famous?
Or great as in large, fat, bloated, something you do to a nutmeg, perhaps?

Ms. HARRIS: (as Denise Roudette) Great as in great. (Unintelligible). I'd put
Jimi Hendrix before anyone.

Mr. SERKIS: (as Ian Dury) Really?

Ms. HARRIS: (as Denise Roudette) Mm-hmm.

Mr. SERKIS: (as Ian Dury) (Unintelligible) with Jimi. Nice.

Ms. HARRIS: (as Denise Roudette) Yeah. You’re extremely polite. Did you always
wear those glasses?

Mr. SERKIS: (as Ian Dury) For your protection, my dear. Oh, I am very, very
good with women. I used to live with me mom and her two sisters. I like women
so much I used to think I was a repressed homosexual.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: (as Ian Dury) But I'm not. For what you were to see who I am
gorgeous to look at. God, you (unintelligible)?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARRIS: (as Denise Roudette) Maybe? I have to be extremely polite.

DAVIES: That's our guest Andy Serkis playing Ian Dury in "Sex, Drugs & Rock &
Roll."

Were particularly drawn to this character? He was a punk rocker, suffered from
polio, an interesting character. Were you particularly drawn to him for some
reason?

Mr. SERKIS: Oh, he was a huge hero of mine in the '80s and I will never forget,
you know, seeing him on television. He wrote incredible songs like "Hit Me With
Your Rhythm Stick" and "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll," and I mean just he was an
amazing wordsmith, poet, you know, a kind of cabaret stroke vaudevillian
performer with a very odd gait and an extraordinary personality. And he
combined this with working with a songwriter and, you know, a music creator
called Chaz Jankel who wrote, who came with a kind of jazz funk influence. So
the combination of these two and the band that he formed called the Blockheads,
which I actually got to record with the original band all the songs for the
movie, and, you know, they were the most incredible stage band.

It was a cross between sort of weird cabaret and sort of kind of Brechtian, you
know, out there sort of, you know, theater. And like I say, vaudeville, and his
hero was Max Weil and he was an old British musical artist and he just had such
an eclectic taste in jazz and he was an art student.

And in many ways - and I actually got to know Ian. He wrote, he was writing
music for a play that I was working on back in the '80s. So he was a huge hero
of mine. And in many ways, you know, his kind of eclectic taste reflected mine,
which is I was responsible with the writer for bringing the project together
and, you know, we found a producer and director to work with us. But it was -
it came from a real desire to tell his story.

DAVIES: And there was a physical challenge here. He had polio. Do you want to
talk a little bit about how you got that side of him physically?

Mr. SERKIS: Yeah. I mean he, you know, his left-hand side of his body was very,
you know, it was deformed and shrunken and very thin. And so I spent, I mean I
lost, you know, I lost, you know, 24 pounds, you know, to play the role and
built up the right-hand side of my body. I mean Sophie, his widow, who we got
to know his family very well and, you know, Baxter. So it's a father and son
movie. His Baxter, his son and Sophie and Jemima, his daughter, you know, they
gave us a lot of, lot of kind of personal inside information and they worked on
the script with us.

But Sophie, his widow said, you know, Andy, when you're playing him you got to
remember he's like - he had the energy of a Tyrannosaurus rex, a maimed
Tyrannosaurus rex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SERKIS: So when he was on stage he used to drag the left-hand side of his
body around with the force of his right, so he had this huge throbbing muscle
in the right-hand side of his neck and that - you know, he powered himself with
the right-hand side. So, you know, things like that. And then he wore a caliper
on, you know, and he literally lurched around. And in fact, Johnny Rotten in
the Sex Pistols based his entire act on Ian Dury's gait.

DAVIES: Well, Andy Serkis, I wish we had more time. Thanks for spending some
time with us.

Mr. SERKIS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Andy Serkis stars in the new film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," with
the help of computer graphics. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

Coming up, the special effects that created the most iconic movie ape, the 1933
"King Kong." This is FRESH AIR.
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..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
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The Making Of 'King Kong': Screams, Score And More

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

With the new film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" opening this weekend, we
thought you might want to hear about the most famous ape movie of them all,
"King Kong," which was released in 1933.

(Soundbite of movie, "King Kong")

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) What are you going to do?

Mr. ROBERT ARMSTRONG: (as Carl Denham) I'll build a raft to float him to the
ship. Why, the whole world will pay to see this.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) No chains will ever hold that.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (as Carl Denham) We'll give him more than chains. He's always
been king of his world but we'll teach him fear. We're millionaires, boys. I'll
share it with all of you. Why, in a few months it'll be up in lights on
Broadway: Kong, the eighth wonder of the world.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That was Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, the producer who journeys to
Skull Island in the Indian Ocean to capture the giant ape and bring him to New
York to star in a theater spectacle.

There are many things that make "King Kong" great: the special effects, the
image of the giant ape climbing the Empire State building, Fay Wray's screams
and the score composed by Max Steiner.

In 1999, after the soundtrack of the film dialogue and music was released on
CD, I spoke with film historian Rudy Behlmer who wrote the liner notes. We
talked about how the film's director, Merian C. Cooper, used what was then
state of the art special effects.

Cooper refused to use a man in a gorilla suit for "King Kong," and so they went
with, you know, the puppet and stop time animation. Why didn't he want to use a
man in a gorilla suit? It certainly would have been a lot easier.

Mr. RUDY BEHLMER (Historian, writer): Well, he felt that this had to be
something different. And, of course, there had always been these men running
around in gorilla suits in all kinds of movies that were made in the '20s and
early '30s and, you know, that was fine but he wanted to do something special.

And when he saw over at RKO Willis O'Brien who was the chief technician working
on some stop motion material for a picture called "Creation," which was never
made, and he saw these dinosaurs he thought wait a minute, nobody's going to
finance me during the Depression to go over to Africa and shoot a gorilla and
then bring the gorilla to Komodo and so forth and so forth.

When he saw that process at RKO he thought wait a minute, this is the way to do
"King Kong." So he wanted to do it via the stop motion. But to hedge his bet he
also had a huge full-sized bust of Kong constructed and a hand and arm of Kong
constructed and a foot, so that for some shots, for example when he's holding
Fay Wray in his hands, you've got the hand. When you see an occasional close-up
of the head it's this big oversized Kong. So he - but we did not want to shoot
a man in a gorilla suit. He just drew the line right there.

GROSS: I've always thought that Kong's size and his, you know, relative size to
buildings and people keeps changing throughout the movie.

Mr. BEHLMER: You’re absolutely right on that Terry, it does keep changing. And
this, once again, was people were saying well, wait a minute, we built on a
scale of 18 inches to a foot, meaning that he would be 18 feet high and yet you
want to make him - he said I want to make him - for this scene I want to make
him bigger.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BEHLMER: I want to make him 24 - and they all kind of looked at him like -
I want to make him 24 feet. And then on occasion he said forget the 18 to 24, I
want to make him 45, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEHLMER: So it does keep changing. But he felt that the concept - when he
got to New York he definitely had to be bigger because of the environment. And,
of course, Cooper was right. Cooper had to, you know, do a lot of fighting for
things that he believed in. But inevitably I found through the years he was
right.

GROSS: Now "King Kong" is really filled with a lot of bondage imagery. You
know, Fay Wray in flimsy chiffony dresses and lingerie...

Mr. BEHLMER: Yes.

GROSS: ...tied at the stake on the island or pulled out of her bed by Kong's
giant arm in New York. Do you think that Cooper was intentionally playing to a
kind of low-level bondage S&M kind of thing?

Mr. BEHLMER: I don't think so. I think that he just thought this would be great
material. You know, I don't think he ever gave thought to that sort of thing.
He obviously wanted to use a woman and he had not used a woman really in his
documentaries but he did want to use - and he did like Fay Wray. He had used
her in "Four Feathers," the Cooper-Schoedsack production of '29, and he used
her in "The Most Dangerous Game," which is a wonderful short story by Richard
Connell that he was producing concurrently with "King Kong" at RKO. She was in
that and she was running around in the same jungle that - she'd be shooting in
the jungle during the day for "The Most Dangerous Game" and at night with
Cooper for "King Kong.

And for "King Kong" he wanted her in a blond wig. She was actually a brunette,
which she appears to be in "The Most Dangerous Game." But he thought that the
beauty and the beast meant that the beauty should be a blond, so she wore a
blond wig. And he was great friends with her and admired her and they remained
friends over the years.

GROSS: What would you say the importance of Max Steiner's score is for "King
Kong?" I mean I love the score, but I find something very amusing about it,
which is that although it's set on this island, Skull Island, the music is
really very European and nothing like what would have been heard in the region
at that time. And I'll play this scene in a moment. But, you know, when they
first get to the island, when the American film crew first gets to the
island...

Mr. BEHLMER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and they're watching this, you know, native ritual...

Mr. BEHLMER: Yes.

GROSS: ...the natives are chanting Kong, Kong, Kong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And there is a sudden march behind them as a kind of precursor of Kong's
footsteps that will be marching toward...

Mr. BEHLMER: Yes.

GROSS: ...toward his prey. And the march is a very European forum and the brass
instruments playing are so European and yet this defines a kind of, you know,
South Sea island or African kind of Hollywood sound.

Mr. BEHLMER: That's true. Well, of course, Max and everybody else associated
with this picture knew we were dealing with a fantasy here, it's a total
fantasy. A more - as Cooper said, a more illogical picture could never have
been thought up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEHLMER: And it is illogical if you stop and examine it from that
standpoint. But the music, you know, they weren't saying well, wait a minute,
you have to get something that indigenous to this area. We have to be
authentic. We have to be like a documentary and, you know, it was full reign of
the imagination. And, of course, Max composed in a full Wagnerian manner, you
know, with leitmotifs and with all kinds of percussive effects that could be
used and he just went all out. And the aspect of credibility, you forget about
that because once again, we're dealing in the world of fantasy - the ultimate
world of fantasy.

GROSS: Well, let's hear that scene where the film crew is observing this native
ritual where the natives are chanting Kong.

(Soundbite of movie, "King Kong")

Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) What do you suppose is happening?

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Oh, they're up to some of their tricks. But
don't go rushing out to see.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) All right. But isn't it exciting?

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Sure. I wish we'd left you on the ship.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) Oh, I'm so like you didn't.

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Well, easy now. Wait until I see what goes
on.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Holy mackerel, what a show. Hey Skipper,
come here and get a load of this.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Ever seen anything like that before in your
life?

(Soundbite of music) (Soundbite of chants of Kong)

GROSS: Pure musical delirium.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Got to love that.

Mr. BEHLMER: And frenzy, frenzy and delirium.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BEHLMER: I think that would be a good team.

GROSS: Well, the other memorable sounds in "King Kong" include, of course, Fay
Wray's screams and the roar of Kong himself. Let's start with Fay Wray is
screams. You know, in the movie of Carl Denham, the character who wants to like
wrangle Kong and bring him back for a nightclub act, he says to the Fay Wray
character, he's kind of like teaching her how to screen. He says okay, pretend
you're screaming for your life, which of course, she later has to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you know what kind of advice Fay Wray was given about how she should
scream?

Mr. BEHLMER: Well, the interesting thing is that, of course, if she had done as
much screaming when they were shooting this film as it appears to be, she would
have been hoarse on the fourth day of shooting. Most of her screams were post
recorded. After the picture finished shooting they took her into a sound booth
and she did wild screams. And they used those screams, so fortunately she had
one major screaming session...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEHLMER: ...which, once again, was after the film finished shooting.

GROSS: Of course, King Kong has a very memorable roar. What do you know about
how that was achieved?

Mr. BEHLMER: Well, a remarkable man by the name of Murray Spivak, who was the
head of the sound department at RKO Radio Pictures at the time. He was
confronted with this film, you know, and thought what can I do? It can't sound
like some animal, it has to be a distinctive sound. So he went out and he
recorded the roar of a lion and the roar of a tiger, and he was playing things
at different speeds and playing them backwards and then combining them. And
then even for some of Kong's grunts and things he recorded himself doing...

(Soundbite of grunts)

Mr. BEHLMER: ...in a little megaphone type deal. So the sound is a kind of a
combination of many things. It sounds like a roar but it's not a roar that you
can identify, which, of course, he wanted to do. But by altering the speeds of
the recordings and taking two different animals and overlapping them, of
course, you can do all kinds of things.

GROSS: Film historian Rudy Behlmer recorded in 1999.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by Fountains of Wayne.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)
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Fountains Of Wayne: Pop For Summer's Warm Intensity

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, the duo behind Fountains of Wayne, just
released their first new album since 2007. "Sky Full of Holes" showcases the
detailed storytelling and bright melodies that rock critic Ken Tucker says can
occasionally hide darker thoughts.

(Soundbite of song, "The Summer Place")

Mr. CHRIS COLLINGWOOD (Singer, Fountains of Wayne): (Singing) She's been afraid
of the Cuisinart since 1977. Now when she opens up the house well, she won't
set foot in the kitchen. Her brother's dating an architect. They're coming up
for the weekend. He never gave her the proper respect, but she still meets the
ferry to greet them.

Oh, at the summer place...

KEN TUCKER: There's a dreamy summer breeze wafting through much of "Sky Full of
Holes," as though Fountains of Wayne wanted to make the new album synch up with
the season. And, just as this summer has been hotter than many recent ones,
there's also a warm intensity to some of the songs, such as the album's first
single, "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart."

(Soundbite of song, "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart")

Mr. COLLINGWOOD: (Singing) Staring at the sun with no pants on, high round and
rosy, she thinks she knows me. Fighting off a cold. Murdering a campfire song.

Spitting in the wind, from out a fast train or on a causeway. Trying to catch a
bus. Swear I got to move, suffering the radio crime.

So whistle in the sweet pine trees, the imaginary airport breeze. It flickers
and flows fans fires in the road, and all we want to do is go home. Someone's
going to break your heart one cold gray morning. But she sings, oh-oh-whoa...

TUCKER: The 13 tracks on "Sky Full of Holes" are pretty consistent pleasures in
the manner we've come to expect from Fountains of Wayne: precisely worded,
catchy songs about small moments in life that can be breezy and witty, as well
as breezy, witty and poignant.

Their biggest hit, 2003's "Stacy's Mom" - a winking foray into broad, slightly
broad humor - holds the same place in Fountains of Wayne's career as "Dead
Skunk" does in Loudon Wainwright III's; or as "Short People" did in Randy
Newman's - a fluke for which there's no reason to try and replicate, and thus
the musicians went back to their more clever business. Like this song, "Richie
and Ruben," about a couple of on-the-make entrepreneurs who aren't nearly as
smart as they think they are.

(Soundbite of song, "Richie and Ruben")

Mr. COLLINGWOOD: (Singing) They opened up a bar called Living Hell. Right from
the start it didn't go too well. They didn't have the vibe or quite the right
clientele. They bought a velvet rope and the doorman laughed. They got robbed
blind by half the wait staff. Six short weeks and they were forced to sell.

Richie and Ruben don't know what they're doing. Richie and Ruben are both a
little out of their minds. Don't give them a dime. They'll blow through your
dough just like they blew through mine.

TUCKER: You could say that "Richie and Ruben" is Fountains of Wayne's Steely
Dan song - cynical about subjects that merit cynicism, presenting a narrator
who thinks he's tough-minded but might be one of the suckers that Richie and
Ruben have scammed in the past.

One of the prettiest songs on the album is "A Road Song," about a guy in a rock
band on tour who's missing his loved one so much, he's writing her a song. Its
beauty is enhanced by the precision of its meter and rhyme.

(Soundbite of song, "A Road Song")

Mr. COLLINGWOOD: (Singing) We're still in Wisconsin as far as I know. Today was
Green Bay and tomorrow Chicago. Wish I was lying, but there isn't much to
report. My phone is dying, so I've got to keep it short.

I just wanted to say, hey. I've been writing you a road song. It's a cliche,
but, hey. That doesn't make it so wrong. And in between the stops at the
Cracker Barrel and 40 movies with Will Ferrell, I need some way to occupy my
time. So I'm writing you a road song. I sure hope you don't mind.

TUCKER. At one point in that song, Fountains of Wayne sings, I bought you a
light blue T-shirt last night from some band I couldn't stand but their logo's
all right. That couplet is wry and sweet, and I admire the little internal
rhyme of light and night in the first line. But what clinches its fineness is
the way it captures something that happens in everyday life but is rarely
noted: People do make purchases, such as a souvenir T-shirt, just because it
looks good. It's not exactly an ironic buy, but it's close. More overt is the
wistful sarcasm a bit later, when the narrator describes his road song by
singing, I know it's not what you'd call necessary and I know that I'm no Steve
Perry. For Fountains of Wayne fans, Journey is definitely an irony-inducer.

Fountains of Wayne is loathe to make music cast as grand tragedy or melodrama.
But at least a couple of times here, Collingwood and Schlesinger capture a mood
of quiet despair in the songs "Action Hero," about a hapless suburban dad; and
this song, "Hate to See You Like This," in which the narrator tries to cajole a
young woman out of her listless depression.

(Soundbite of song, "Hate to See You Like This")

Mr. COLLINGWOOD: (Singing) Come on girl you’re not even trying. Your place is a
mess and all your friends are dying. You’re lying around in your sweatpants
staring off into the distance. Come and give a kiss. I hate to see you like
this. I hate to see you like this.

TUCKER: Fountains of Wayne is without doubt the finest contemporary pop-rock
band in America, and that and 99 cents will get you a Lady Gaga download.
Collingwood and Schlesinger occasionally pursue separate projects. Collingwood,
who likes country music, reportedly has a solo album in the works; while
Schlesinger has continued his interest in Broadway by co-writing the opening
song on this past year's Tony Awards, "It's Not Just for Gays Anymore,"
performed by host Neil Patrick Harris. And jolly good for them, as long as it
means the twosome will continue to regroup for more, refreshed Fountains of
Wayne-ness.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Sky
Full of Holes" from Fountains of Wayne.

You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry.

(Soundbite of song, "Acela")

Mr. COLLINGWOOD: (Singing) There's a train on a track painted silver, blue and
black. Heading to Massachusetts and then it's coming back and it's entertaining
by New Haven once you've had yourself a drink or two, ooh ooh. All alone on the
Acela. Tell me baby, where the hell are you? Acela. Ooh ooh.

There's a girl on a train leaning on a window pane, reading People magazine.
Just to help turn off her brain. And I swear I caught her staring at me.
Maybe...

(Soundbite of music)
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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