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Fall 2001
Monkey Business
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You wouldn't recognize him up on the big screen, but Terry Notary was the man behind The Apes in the summer's must-see flick
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By Marina Dundjerski '94
Photography by Joe Toreno

IT'S ALL ABOUT FINDING YOUR INNER APE. Terry Notary grins broadly as he says this and then, in a blink, his features morph from man to beast -- a transition so sudden and fluid, it's eerie. His lips purse and his hazel eyes lock up in an intense gaze. He juts forward his jaw, hunches his shoulders. His legs bow, bending slightly at the knees, and his arms seem to lengthen and curl as the movements of his chiseled body slow down. He tosses his head, his long bangs falling in his face. A grunt ushers from his throat. In an instant he has transformed himself into something not quite human, not quite animal.

It is a startling performance, one that conveys a sense both of barely contained power and of remarkable calm.

Apes have "this amazing groundedness and stillness that we're missing as humans," says the 33-year-old Notary, the grin returning to his human face.

But why this talk of apes? Because, as anyone who this summer skimmed the entertainment pages, watched TV, drove past a billboard or walked into a multiplex knows, apes were everywhere. And the man behind the apes was Terry Notary -- a former UCLA gymnast (he was a four-time All-American and a nominee for the prestigious Nissan Award), circus performer (after UCLA, he spent five years as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat) and all-around expert in translating movement.

As the headmaster of "Ape School," it was Notary who brought to life the apes on the big screen in the summer blockbuster Planet of the Apes, director Tim Burton's take on the classic 1963 sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle about an upside-down world in which simians rule and humans are enslaved. For six intensive weeks, he trained the actors, teaching them to walk, run, eat, grunt and fight like apes.

Although the film garnered mixed reviews, Notary (who also was movement coach for Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas) has received international attention and been lauded by critics. The Los Angeles Daily News' Bob Strauss called Notary "the real hero" of the movie.

Not only was Notary on the set each day of filming to continue coaching the actors -- principals as well as some 400 extras -- to move like chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas, he stunt-doubled for the malevolent chimpanzee warlord Thade, played by Tim Roth, plus four other ape characters.

"Ape School gave me a behavioral dictionary for Thade, who often goes berserk," says Roth. "Terry watched my performance to make sure no movement was too human, and I watched his stunts and coached his work to make sure it's truly in character. We had a good back-and-forth thing."

The movements and other characteristics of the apes in Burton's film are a far cry from those of the 1968 cult classic of the same name. In that earlier version, and its several sequels, the ape characters were more prone to scream like humans than to grunt like simians. When they ran, they tended to stand upright rather than lope on all fours, and they were less likely to smell things before eating them, as apes naturally do.

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