“We wanted to make a movie that was thrilling while touching on the themes of family and community and preserving the natural world.”
The legendary character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs is back in The Legend of Tarzan, directed by David Yates (the final four Harry Potter films) from a screenplay by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, story by Brewer and Cozad based on the Tarzan stories created by Burroughs.
The gentleman summoned to #10 Downing Street by the Prime Minister of England is John Clayton III, fifth Earl of Greystoke, and a member of the House of Lords. But half a world away, and what seems like a lifetime ago, he had gone by another name…a name that has since become legend. Tarzan. It has been years since the man once known as Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård from Diary of a Teenage Girl and HBO’s True Blood) left the jungles of Africa behind for a gentrified life as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, with his beloved wife, Jane (Margot Robbie from The Wolf Of Wall Street)), at his side. Now, he has been invited back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament, unaware that he is a pawn in a deadly convergence of greed and revenge, masterminded by the King of Belgium’s envoy, (Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained). But those behind the murderous plot have no idea what they are about to unleash.
Yet, despite having lived there for a number of years, “John is still trying to fit into life in Victorian England,” Skarsgård remarks. “There’s a part of him that he’s managed to keep hidden all this time, and understanding that was an important step in finding the character. The dichotomy between man and beast has always been fascinating to me, and when you take a character like John, that dichotomy is so extreme. You start with him as the buttoned-up British lord and then slowly peel off the layers to become Tarzan again. It was wonderful to play that transformation.”
Following his work on the final four “Harry Potter” films, director David Yates says he was hoping to find another project “that was epic and filled with action and spectacle, and then along came this script. It immediately grabbed me; it was a very fresh take on this iconic figure.”
Alexander Skarsgård, who takes on the film’s title role, agrees. “I was really blown away by the script. It has all the thrills you’d want, but it also has three-dimensional characters and relationships that are beautifully drawn. I love movies that are big and fun, but where you’re also invested in the people and care about what happens to them.”
Producer David Barron remarks that the film takes the character beyond what audiences might expect. “Tarzan is one of the original action heroes, but this movie is going to surprise people who think they know the story. He grew up in the jungle, raised by apes, so his powers are his incredible strength and his senses, which are all magnified.”
In this all new adventure, Tarzan is confronted with a formidable enemy who threatens to destroy everything—and everyone—he loves. But after spending years among the British gentry, he also faces grave danger from old adversaries who have been awaiting his return to Africa.
As the film opens, Yates offers, “John is invited by Belgium’s King Leopold to return to the Congo, ostensibly to see all the good and charitable works the King has undertaken, though this seemingly grand gesture is a ruse and, effectively, a trap. He is, in fact, being lured back by the King’s treacherous envoy, Leon Rom, who intends to capture Tarzan and deliver him to an old enemy in exchange for a fortune in diamonds.”
Skarsgård says, “John grew up among the apes, but he has been away from that world for almost a decade, so he is quite hesitant to go back. He has some enemies back in the Congo; there’s definitely a dark history there. And I think, more interestingly, he’s afraid of the man he was, so going back is quite scary for him.”
Raising the stakes, his beloved wife, Jane, insists on accompanying her husband to Africa, the place she still considers home. Against his better judgment, John relents.
Margot Robbie, who stars as Jane, appreciated the film’s more contemporary approach to the couple. “It’s set in the 1800s, but it has a very modern feel to it, with universal themes that are applicable no matter what day and age it is,” she says. “There is a fantastic adventure, but with a wonderful romance at its core. I liked that it’s not the origin story of Tarzan and Jane meeting in the jungle. Their relationship is more complex now.”
The screenplay for “The Legend of Tarzan” was written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer from their own story. Cozad reveals, “One thing that was very important to me, and also spoke to David Yates, was the sweeping romance between John, or Tarzan, and Jane.”
“I was a huge fan of the books,” Brewer recalls, “so I felt it was crucial to include certain characters and settings from Burroughs’ classic tales, and, of course, that begins with Tarzan and Jane. But we wanted to ground the story in historical events surrounding King Leopold’s occupation of the Congo, so it was interesting to involve them with people connected to that time and place.”
Though Tarzan and Jane are fictional, they interact with two main characters loosely based on figures who actually existed: George Washington Williams, a courageous soldier-turned-humanitarian, played by Samuel L. Jackson; and the main antagonist, Leon Rom, played by Christoph Waltz.
Yates observes, “The story plays out within the historical context of what was happening in the Congo at that time, which I found very compelling. And it also had themes that always intrigue me—with a character still figuring out who he is and where he truly belongs. Most importantly, when I first read the script, I felt I’d found something that had a big, beating heart.”
Alan Riche, who with his partner, Tony Ludwig, was a producer on the movie, comments, “The development of this film was quite a journey, but it was David Yates who guided us home. His considerable talents, and those of our cast and crew, combined to bring us a great movie-going experience.”
Barron, who had collaborated with Yates on the “Harry Potter” films, states, “David brought all of his experience on those films to ‘The Legend of Tarzan.’ His ease working on a feature with a big cast, massive sets and a lot of major stunts and his understanding of complicated visual effects is exactly what you need for a movie like this. He’s also the nicest person on the planet—a man of great taste and integrity—and encased in that nice exterior is a core of steel. He has a real point of view and is definitive about what he wants and doesn’t want. He’s a very intelligent listener and is always willing to take advice…when it’s good advice.”
There was another influential presence on the set who left an indelible impression on everyone involved: producer Jerry Weintraub. The cast and filmmakers are thankful they got to work with one of the giants of the industry. Skarsgård attests, “The fact that Jerry Weintraub was producing the film was one of the things that got me excited about the project. He was such a remarkable producer and human being…just a lovely, lovely man.”
Yates reflects, “Jerry was kind yet tough, insightful, funny, a true showman. He had complete faith in the people he chose to work with, and inevitably made them all feel at least ten feet tall. He was a true champion of ‘The Legend of Tarzan,’ which he had been developing for a number of years. It was an honor for all of us to bring to fruition a movie he was so determined to bring into the world. We miss him greatly.”
“Larger than life is an oft-used phrase, but in Jerry Weintraub’s case it was completely accurate,” Barron states. “He was a true one-off: passionate, articulate, thoughtful, knowledgeable and fun. He had a huge enthusiasm for everything but particularly for ‘Tarzan,’ and I know he would have been very proud of the completed film. I enjoyed our too-short collaboration and I regret there won’t be more.”
The film reunited Yates and Barron with several of their “Harry Potter” associates, including production designer Stuart Craig, editor Mark Day, and visual effects supervisor Tim Burke. The creative team also included director of photography Henry Braham, costume designer Ruth Myers and composer Rupert Gregson-Williams. It would take all their skill and experience, as well as a close collaboration between their departments, to complete the film.
Production on “The Legend of Tarzan” involved an extraordinary fusion of brilliant design, groundbreaking aerial photography and state-of-the-art visual effects, all merging to present the spectacular landscapes and wild inhabitants of Africa, while shooting almost entirely on the stages and backlot of Leavesden in England. And though the human characters interact with a variety of African species, no real animals were used in the making of the film. All of the creatures—from gorillas to lions to elephants and more—were entirely brought to life, in stunningly realistic form, through cutting-edge CGI.
During pre-production, Josh Ponte, who spent the last 15 years striving to preserve the wildlife and natural resources of the African nation of Gabon, had arranged for a military helicopter to show David Yates the splendor of the country’s lush forests, cliffs, rivers and waterfalls. The director spent four days marveling at the beauty of the terrain unfolding beneath him and knew he had found his setting. Those remote landscapes—ultimately captured in a six-week location shoot following filming at Leavesden—provided the wealth of geographically diverse backdrops that seamlessly melded with Stuart Craig’s sets.
After guiding that first scouting trip to Gabon, Ponte went on to serve as the project’s African technical advisor, becoming an invaluable consultant for virtually every department. “It was incredible having Josh with us,” confirms Barron. “He has spent a huge amount of time working in Africa, and Gabon in particular, and is extremely knowledgeable about everything from the historical context of our story to the village culture to the animals.”
Not all of the reunions are with humans. “The Legend of Tarzan” features an array of magnificent creatures; however, no live animals were used in the making of the film. David Barron emphasizes, “We would not use real animals because it’s very difficult to get wild animals, like big cats, elephants and great apes, to do what you want them to do in a way that’s humane—treating them the way they should be treated. And with the advancements in modern technology today, it’s not necessary. CG animals do exactly what you want, whenever you want, which is fabulous.”
“‘The Legend of Tarzan’ takes us to a world of adventure in deepest Africa, which is as exotic and awe-inspiring as anywhere on this planet,” says Yates. “We wanted to make a movie that was thrilling while touching on the themes of family and community and preserving the natural world. It celebrates the majesty of those landscapes, the dignity and grace of the people who live there, and the wonder of its animals. The story has so many facets that we think make it a rich and very exciting experience in the cinema.”
The director concludes, “The wonderful thing about making movies is you can take an audience to a mythic place like Africa, which is quite fantastic. They don’t have to travel; they can just step into the cinema and be swept away to another time and another world they might never have imagined. That’s a great privilege for a filmmaker.”