When 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, audiences may have been under the impression that the first chapter of a new James Franco trilogy of films was upon us. However, by the time we got to the follow-up movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it was abundantly clear Franco was nowhere to be seen. So what happened to the character?
In Rise, Franco’s character is a chemist named Will Rodman who develops a viral-based Alzheimer’s cure called ALZ-112. This was the clever way the series explained how the apes became super-intelligent since the original 1968 Charleton Heston movie Planet of the Apes seemed to rely on that old somewhat flimsy standard of sci-fi that nuclear radiation from an atomic holocaust mutated the species to the point of becoming more intellectually advanced.
The Alzheimer’s medicine explanation was much more satisfying and we also got a potentially interesting main character for the series in Will. The very heart of the movie centered on the relationship between Will and Andy Serkis’ Ceasar – an ape who was born super intelligent because his now-deceased mother was injected with ALZ-112 while she was pregnant with him. However, as Dawn and the threequel — War for the Planet of the Apes — proved, each movie in the trilogy would have a completely different set of humans every time with the only mainstays for characters being the apes themselves.
There’s no doubt it was a bold move having CGI apes be the central protagonists of an entire movie trilogy, with the human characters largely being supporting roles. However, was that the intention from the beginning? Or did some kind of scheduling conflict happen that prevented Franco from coming back? And did they address Will’s fate in the movies?
The deleted scene from Rise that would have changed everything
On the surface, it seems like Franco’s absence from Dawn onward could be explained by some kind of last-minute recasting that caused the filmmakers to drastically change the direction of the story. However, it turns out that Will’s death was actually planned from the beginning. You see, the original script for Rise, penned by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, actually had the character die in a climactic and tragic sequence immediately after Will heard Ceasar speak for the first time. As ScreenRant explained:
“In the original script, Will was supposed to die in this sequence as Brian Cox’s character – who owned the primate shelter Caesar and the others escaped from – tried to shoot Caeser, only to hit [Will] instead.”
Will’s death was so cemented in the story that the filmmakers actually filmed the scene with Franco. However, the ending was changed so that his character didn’t die by the time the credits rolled. It got to the point that they had to do reshoots for Rise.
“We shot for three hours and (Franco) was back on the plane,” Fox’s president of postproduction Ted Gagliano explained (via The Hollywood Reporter).
Is there an in-story explanation for Will’s absence?
Clearly, Will wasn’t shot by Brian Cox’s John Landon — the San Bruno Primate Shelter manager — in the finished Rise. However, is there any kind of explanation for Will’s absence in the follow-up? All that can be derived from Will’s fate is only subtly implied but here’s what we know from what was hinted in Dawn.
In Dawn, it is established that the proliferation of people infected with ALZ-113 and the subsequent Simian Flu pandemic drastically reduces the population of the globe. Only a few humans who are genetically immune survive in small tribes as the rest of society has collapsed. This setup is the main basis for why we believe Will has died from the Simian Flu, like much of the rest of the world.
You see, there are scenes in Dawn where Ceasar takes refuge in the former home he shared with Will. We see Ceasar examine old photos and nostalgically watch camcorder footage of his human paternal figure teaching him sign language and such. A couple of subtle details point to Will having died in his home: a FEMA sign posted on the home’s exterior and his old car still in the driveway. If he had survived the infection, he likely would have been part of the human tribe led by Gary Oldman’s character in the region formerly known as San Francisco.