Is James Marsh shaping up to be the next Werner Herzog? Of course that remains to be seen, but the two revered documentary filmmakers do share one thing in common: They both direct narrative features as well. Marsh, who won the Best Documentary Academy Award for “Man on Wire,” has two fiction films under his belt (“The King” and the second installment of the “Red Riding” trilogy) and is currently working on his third, “Shadow Dancer” starring Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson, in Ireland. His latest film, the documentary “Project Nim,” world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year to great acclaim and hits select theaters this Friday via HBO and Roadside Attractions.
The feature tells the story of Nim, a chimpanzee who, in the 1970s, became the focus of a landmark experiment that sought to prove an ape could learn and communicate sign language like a human toddler. Combining testimonies from all the key participants, archival footage and deftly handled reenactments, director James Marsh weaves together a heartbreaking tale sure to get animal lovers riled up.
indieWIRE caught up with Marsh to discuss his unique position in the film industry and what surprised him about Nim.
I had no idea you directed the divisive indie “The King.”
It’s one of those film that really worked for some and didn’t click with others. Most people who didn’t like it were in the film business. It was the opposite of a calling card. It made me unemployable for a couple of years, that one.
You hold a pretty unique position in the industry, juggling documentary and narrative film in pretty much equal measure.
I’m not really unique. I think Werner Herzog has an interesting career. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. I like to go from one to the other.
Why do you like straddling the two forms?
Documentaries are pretty exhausting. They’re all about the editing ultimately. You spend all your time in the editing room. There’s just a different kind of energy level to them. With a feature you’re always collaborating with actors which is a really interesting thing to do. Once you get them up and running, they happen in a much shorter space of time which is nice.
So it feels very healthy. And of course you learn from one thing to the other.
What do you learn?
Well, films are all about structure. Having written screenplays and worked in pure fictional storytelling that kind of discipline is very useful in the documentaries I make, which are based on narrative, stories and dramatic arcs if you like. Likewise, in documentaries, I use lots of reconstructions which I hope work in a certain way.
So yeah, it’s a very privileged position if I can keep it going. Each film benefits from the other.
Does your work with actors help you elicit more honest responses from your documentary subjects?
It’s true. I hadn’t really thought about it much on that level. But certainly when you’re making documentaries, you’re casting subjects into your story. You’re evaluating and then you’re trying to create the right circumstances for them to tell you their story. And with an actor you’re trying to do the same thing. You’re trying to create the right circumstances for them to work. I don’t speak for the interviewees nor do I act. It’s really for me about structure and storytelling.
What’s interesting also is the documentaries I make are films you wouldn’t believe if they were fictional stories. Documentaries are the right way to tell stories like these.
You mentioned the importance of structure for documentary film. Did you envision how “Project Nim” would unfold from the outset?
Well, I thought it was going to be easy, linear. What I wanted to do was tell a life story in the time it unfolds, and show the physical growth of a chimp and what that entails. But it turned out to be really difficult to put this film together…The number of people involved…The complexity of the events that took place. Getting that kind of general manageability of the story, so it’s not five hours long, was a challenge.
The film marks a departure from “Man on Wire,” in terms of it being dark and not necessarily crowd pleasing.
That wasn’t the intent. I was just being true to the story and allowed the emotions of that to be what they were. I could have made this film in a very different way. But I felt that if I was true to the animal and its behavior, then this was the story that needed to be told. I didn’t think it would be right to pretend that Nim was a cuddly, friendly animal during his life because he wasn’t. That would only compound the mistake that was made during his lifetime. I wanted to be true to that character and creature, as opposed to it being “March of the Penguins.”
Did you know it would take the dark turn going into it?
I read the book so I knew bad shit happened. The central drama of the story is taking a wild animal and putting him in the most extraordinary situation. He behaves in a natural way given the unnaturalness of his environments.
What development most surprised you during shooting?
I guess I hadn’t fully reckoned with the intensity of the relationships that people had with the chimpanzee. Even though I should have. If you’re asking a mother to be a mother to a chimpanzee what does that mean? So I was quite surprised by how much it marked people’s lives and nudged their lives in certain directions.
Also I hadn’t fully understood Nim’s state of mind. You see glimpses of it in some of the footage. I hadn’t fully understood how much we messed with him.