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“Project Nim” Director James Marsh on Animals as Metaphors, Pre-Interviews and Mocking Your Subject

"Project Nim" Director James Marsh on Animals as Metaphors, Pre-Interviews and Mocking Your Subject

As soon as the first screening at Sundance was over, I tweeted that “Project Nim” will undoubtedly be one of my favorite films of 2011. Everyone thought I had festival fever and was too excited right off the back. But I don’t often display such passion for specific movies, in public or in print, and I knew that halfway through the year I’d still be singing its praises. Well, six months later my mind hasn’t been changed by a second viewing — in fact I might like it more now than when I reviewed it from the festival, if this is possible — or by any of the lesser films, documentaries or fictions, that have come my way since January.

I also wasn’t negatively swayed after chatting with “Nim” and “Man on Wire” director James Marsh, for which I’m so grateful since a lot of non-fiction filmmakers’ words change my mind about their work. It’s one reason I rarely do interviews. But while I didn’t get to all the potentially disagreeable heavy questions I had regarding reenactments, alternating between docs and dramas (Marsh is one of the few filmmakers who’s great at both) and his stance on putting storytelling above truth (his stories are too riveting to not be at least partly manipulated), I think I got some very interesting answers out of him about the ironic appeal of his new film, his necessarily lengthy pre-production process, the issue with scorning and ridiculing characters and those docs he looked at while making “Nim” (including Wiseman) and those he’s seen since (including “Family Instinct,” which I eventually saw, partly on his recommendation).

Check out our conversation after the jump, and I urge you to see “Project Nim” as soon as you can (the doc opens in NYC and Chicago July 8).

People love movies about chimpanzees. So what sport does he play in this one?
It’s the basic appeal of seeing a chimp dress up in human costume and do things that are transgressive and playful. And that’s sort of a given in this story, too, because our chimp does those kinds things. He doesn’t actually play a sport here, but he is throwing people’s books around. He doesn’t lack for physical dexterity. And indeed he attacks people as well.

But what’s interesting about the question is the sign he uses the most is “play.” And it’s a sign that he invents. That wasn’t one he was taught. He wasn’t taught the actual American Sign Language sign for “play.” He made it up, which suggests it’s something that is very important to him. He understands exactly what signs are for and he of course uses it throughout his life, very poignantly in the end of our story when you see him make that sign to his steadfast friend.

You know, he’d make a very good football player, as a wide receiver or something. But you’re right about that basic vulgar appeal in any film about primates, that you want to see them do funny things.

But that appeal goes against what this story is about.
The premise of this story is based on that projection, based on that idea that we’re going to teach a chimpanzee how to speak. We’re not going to try to understand how he communicates, no, we’re going to stick him in a classroom and instill him with signs and words that he can use so we can find out about him. So that’s a presumption of that ilk from the very get go, that projection of mental attributes we’re putting onto chimpanzees because they resemble us and are genetically very close to us. They suffer an enormous amount of indignity for that reason.

The other ironic appeal of the film being about a chimp is that it’s an animal rights story, and it attracts a concern and response from audiences that human rights stories rarely receive.
You wonder why the metaphor is stronger — Nim perhaps being a metaphor for how we are towards each other as well. I wouldn’t say it’s an animal rights story at all. It’s a story that exists that may pose questions about our relation with animals and our control of them and what that means when we control an animal. It’s definitely about that. But you’re right it’s funny. It’s one of those paradoxes that we can respond more to an animal’s suffering than we can to our own suffering. That’s not always the case, but certainly the sort of sobbing animal film — well, like “Black Beauty,” which I’ve been reading to my children, and “Au Hasard Balthazar” is a very sad film; “Kes,” though that’s about the boy as much as the kestral — it’s true, and I’m not sure what the moral of that is. Other than that perhaps we’re more comfortable with a metaphor than we are with something we can do something about.

There’s another film that was at Sundance, “Buck,” which also has a lot of this kind of metaphor with animals and the way humans treat one another.
Exactly. But I think there’s a big, big distinction. I did a panel with the filmmaker and Buck himself. You know, horses have been bred for generations to be a certain way, and they work for us. So that relationship, they’re much closer to us already because we’ve bred them over thousands of years to become what we need them to be. Whereas chimpanzees, even though they are our closest primate neighbors, they’re wild animals and they have their own agenda, which we haven’t ever conditioned and we cannot control. That’s one of the messages or ideas in “Project Nim,” that any kind of civilization of Nim is very superficial, and you can’t inhibit his behavior very effectively. “Buck” is a film about a species that’s much closer to us, and the cruelties done to Buck, the human being, in the film, suggest that he becomes more sensitive to animals and human beings because of that.

So you see the metaphor of Nim and…
The issue is about power and control. Nim is powerless throughout his life. He’s born into a cage and remains… He’s hardly a guest in our world but he’s certainly someone we’ve co-opted into our world, and I think the issues are about what responsibilities we have or don’t have and how they’re discharged towards that animal in the course of this story, for better or worse. Sorry, I preempted your question.

Well, in my review from Sundance I noted that this could have been a story about a human orphan who winds up in prison one day, but that kind of thinking regrettably goes against the film’s point regarding anthropomorphizing animals for entertainment or metaphor or whatever. And so I guess I hate to keep thinking of Nim as a stand in for a human narrative.
What happens is also very real in this story. And the metaphor, if you like, is for us to discover the sort of parable element in the life story. The genre of this film is as much novelistic as it is cinematic in a way. Of course it’s a film biography, but I was very aware of stuff I studied at college, which was that the first novels were always life stories, written by Defoe and Fielding and Richardson. They were the instructive life story. And this film had a connection with that in my way of thinking. But what happens is, the metaphor is not really the first thing you think of because what happened is so real. The focus of the film is very rigorously narrative; it’s not about the ideas or the bigger context of the experiment or the intellectual climate of the time. It’s about what happened. Not what should have happened but what did happen.

There’s a very interesting case, which may relate to your question, about a wild child called Genie who was in California in the ‘70s. She was basically kept separate from other children and other people in a basement until she was 11 years old. And she emerges without language; it’s a terribly sad story because she’s gotten to the point where she’s too old to learn language. I mean she can learn a little bit. So that story — I watched a documentary about that [NOVA’s “Secrets of the Wild Child”? BBC’s “Genie: A Deprived Child”?] when I was preparing this film, for an example of someone of our own species who is cut off from language and isn’t able to communicate, and her inability to socialize with people was disturbing — is not that different from Nim’s, actually, in the way that her life unfolds. And she lacks the ability to really thrive in the world in which she finds herself.

Another film I thought of while watching “Nim” the second time is Jose Padilha’s “Secrets of the Tribe,” if only because it relates to this idea in your documentary about “bad science.”
The mentality of it. Yeah. You see it in the Wiseman film “Primate,” which I watched again in preparation for this film. It’s an extraordinarily good film. You have all these orangutans and chimpanzees and gorillas in this primate center and they’re just there, so that’s all we can do with them. And some of the experiments you see in Wiseman’s film are just utterly pointless, like they’re just there doing it for the sake of doing it. And to be fair to this experiment, it does have a kind of proper question in place. Whatever the answer, it’s going to be interesting. Whatever this experiment reveals, we will learn something from it. Can a higher primate learn language the way that we learn and use language, or can it not? This is a proper experiment. Whether it’s conducted in a proper way is not for me to say.

But doesn’t Herb at one point say something to the effect of, maybe they shouldn’t have fooled with…
Well he doesn’t say that. He doesn’t reproach himself for the conduct of the experiment, and he doesn’t really regret too much that happened in it either, the damage to some of the people around him who worked for him, who were in a position of less power than he is. It’s again about power for its own sake and what you do when you’ve got it for its own sake and fiddle and meddle and mess. This has elements of that as well, but the scientific question is an interesting one, that’s being posed. And the answer that they get has some value. The conclusion, as you know, is that chimpanzees probably can’t be inventive with language in the same way that we are. What’s their motivation anyway? Nim has a very clear agendum in most situations he’s in, and language is a way he can use these signs to manipulate us essentially, and does. So he does use language in a way that’s useful to him. He doesn’t want to hang around and talk with us.

“Nim” and “Man on Wire” both have really great characters and both stories had a lot of fortuitous archival footage available. How much do you know going into a documentary? Do you research everything and know all the characters involved and make sure it’s going to be a great story before you start?
I think you evaluate a subject based on the people within that subject. So one of the reasons you want to make the film is you feel like you’re going to have character-driven narratives, for want of a better phrase for it, that people’s choices and decisions and actions are going to reveal their characters. Usually there’s a sort of self-selection involved. Like with “Man on Wire” only a certain kind of person would sign up to be with Philippe in the first place. There’s a filter in place. That’s true of this story too, that only a certain kind of person is going to want to be a mother to a chimpanzee and smoke pot with a chimpanzee.

But you don’t know if they’re going to be able to tell a story.
You don’t, no. You rely upon those raw materials. You rely upon the kind of energy of the person and their ability to be open and candid and somewhat articulate about what they’ve experienced. Certainly you evaluate, and a film becomes much more viable if you’ve got a sufficient number of people you believe [have that ability].

Do you meet them all before you even know it’s going to be a film?
Yeah, I spend a lot of time with the people, as much as I can, when evaluating. There are certain projects I’ve started and haven’t gone ahead with for one reason or another, and that’s one reason I wouldn’t. If you don’t feel like the people in the story are going to be able to represent it very well. So yeah, there’s a lot of preparation involved in that basic level of knowing. The way I make documentaries is constructed very much from firsthand eyewitness testimony. I’m not interested in experts or someone who heard about this or studied something. I want to talk to people who were there, who did things, actions, events, decisions, choices. That’s what makes my kind of film work, I think. In both “Man on Wire” and then this film, everyone I wanted to talk to, pretty much, I did talk to. In this case it made the film really quite complicated to put together because there were so many characters involved.

Did you talk to any of the other kids besides the one daughter?
Well, no, there were six others, but Jenny was the one child in that household who was most involved with Nim. She was the right age, an 11-year-old girl. By everyone’s evaluation, she was the one who was closest to Nim and spent the most time with him and looked after him and was sort of his second surrogate parent, if you like. So she was the right person to talk to. And in this kind of filmmaking you have to choose people, to be quite efficient about how you tell a story. I could interview 25 other people, but it would have made it even more difficult to tell that story.

Do you think this story has a villain? Herb kind of comes off as the film’s bad guy at times. But there are others who could also be viewed as villains, too. Do you ever intend to frame certain characters as villains or even as laughable, because the film does get plenty of laughs.
Something I did when I was younger was to slightly mock people in the course of making a film, as in “ha, ha, ha, isn’t it funny what they’re doing?” Certainly I had the inclination to hold people up, not to ridicule, but to sort of have this in-joke between me and the audience against the person. I’ve outgrown that, hopefully and properly, because I think it’s snide-y to do that, and it doesn’t feel like you’re going to get to the truth of things that way. So I wouldn’t say there are any villains in this film, although you might well individually pick on one or two people and say what they did was questionable, with the benefit of hindsight.

But certainly I was aware that Professor Herbert Terrace would indeed rub some people the wrong way with what he did and how he treated the women in the project. I don’t think you should set people up that way, but clearly you’re aware that some of their actions will be interpreted, I guess how I interpret them. If you ask him about what happened with Renee, when she got bitten, and he can’t quite remember what happened but he’s worried about the insurance issues, that’s a revealing moment for someone’s character. The lack of compassion for another human being is breathtaking in that statement. Of course I include things like that because it’s revealing of character. I didn’t put those words in his mouth. That’s what came out.

What are some other new documentaries you’d recommend this year?
I saw “Senna,” which I enjoyed very much. Suspenseful and gripping character study. I saw an extraordinary film at True/False called “Family Instinct.” It’s a Latvian incest film, but it’s a comedy. I’ve never seen so many drunk people in a film. People are just sort of drunk all the way through. That was an extraordinary revelation. I’m not sure you’ll like it, but it will stick with you. It’s a freak show but it has some very interesting ideas.

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