Andy Serkis: I really was very happy to be completely behind the camera for this movie
Andy Serkis pioneered motion capture technology in his performances in the Lord Of The Rings and the Planet Of The Apes films, so it might be surprising that his directorial debut, Breathe, is a touching true love story. Laura Harding reports.
Andy Serkis is an actor who has played a host of famous characters, but chances are you wouldn't recognise him if he passed you walking down the street.
That's because in The Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, you don't actually see his face - instead you see Gollum, Supreme Leader Snoke and Caesar, the characters he so masterfully portrays using performance capture.
Serkis is a pioneer in the field and has taught other actors how to use their bodies so their movements can be captured before digital effects complete the picture. He's also set up a production company that specialises in projects using the technology.
So it might come as a surprise that his directorial feature debut is a film that could not be further from those that made him famous.
Breathe tells the true love story of Robin and Diana Cavendish, played by Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, a couple determined to live as normal a life as possible after Robin is paralysed by polio.
It tracks their meeting and romance, the early days of their marriage, the devastation of the diagnosis and the couple's defiance towards doctors who said he could never leave hospital.
That deviation from what audiences might expect from him is something the 53-year-old is embracing. "I'm really pleased about it," he says. "I am delighted. It would have been fairly safe, really, to start off with a big visual effects movie and something that had performance capture in.
"I think that is what people expected, and some people might be disappointed about that, but I'm pleased because it's all about storytelling at the end of the day, and this happens to be a magnificent story, a beautiful story and obviously very personal.
"I just think the performances in it are extraordinary, so I'm pleased this is the first one to come out."
Personal the story most definitely is. Robin and Diana are the parents of Jonathan Cavendish, Serkis' producing partner and co-founder of their production company, The Imaginarium.
Telling the family story of such a close friend was not without difficulty, and Serkis admits there were moments of nerves.
"I thought, 'If I really muck this up, it could be a bit squeaky'," he jokes. "But we made it together. We made the film so all the way along we were in concert with each other, and it was a really happy experience, the whole thing.
"It was pressured because we had very little time to do it. We raised the money very quickly once we had Andrew and Claire and we shot very quickly.
"We had seven weeks to do it, but the fact that everyone had come on board to make it because they loved the story, because they loved Bill Nicholson's amazing script... it felt like it had a fair wind behind it, and all the actors were there because they had been moved by the power of this story."
Garfield and Foy had never met before they were cast in the film, but Serkis had an innate sense they would have a perfect chemistry.
"I really had a feeling," he reflects. "Andrew is a very sensitive individual, a very generous man and a great collaborator, a fantastic actor, and you can't help but fall in love with Claire for her straight-shooting.
"She's completely what-you-see-is-what-you-get and has this extraordinary emotional eloquence about her. I just knew the way they can both subtly play scenes, seemingly doing nothing but carrying so much emotion... I knew they would get on."
Serkis was so inspired by the story that he was not even tempted to sneak in a cameo for himself. "I really was very happy to be completely behind the camera," he says.
"I think I've discovered through The Jungle Book that I either like burying myself completely in a character and just living the world of the character, or directing. I find it hard to do both. Jungle Book was a test of that."
The Jungle Book he's referring to is his next directorial project, a grand re-telling of the beloved story in which he returns to his motion capture roots to play Baloo opposite a cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch and Christian Bale.
"It was (an indescribable challenge)," he admits. "Also it's a very different version of Baloo that people perhaps won't have seen before because our version (is darker).
"Taking the book as a lead, the tone of our film is much darker and we've got this incredible cast.
"It's a Mowgli-centric story and a very psychologically in-depth story about identity. My Baloo is a bit more of a tough, gnarly old sergeant-major who is helping Mowgli to survive through tough love, basically.
"He's more like the JK Simmons part in Whiplash than a happy-clappy singing bear. There is no singing in ours."
His version also sounds a world away from Jon Favreau's Jungle Book, which was a box office hit in 2016.
"We were neck-and-neck (with release dates)," Serkis says. "We were almost out at the same time and that's partly why there's been a (delay).
"Because we are using performance capture and all our actors are on set playing the characters, we wanted to take time to really refine the animation. But it also worked out that we had this hiatus period to be able to shoot Breathe, which was incredible, so it's worked out well."
So which lane would he rather stay in as a director - the human-driven love stories or the grand motion capture epics?
"It all depends on the script and the character, and at the Imaginarium we have been building a slate of films," he says.
"Animal Farm is one that we have been developing for a while, which is obviously closer to a visual effects movie, but also there are smaller stories and more human stories that don't require any visual effects. I love the fact that we can dance around all of those different types."
Breathe is in cinemas today