In November 1974, a baby chimp is born at a primate research center in Oklahoma. A few days later, his mother is knocked out with a tranquilizer dart, her screaming baby torn from her side and placed into the waiting arms of his new, human “mother,” a graduate student of psychology at Columbia University.
James Marsh’s Project Nim—the director’s first documentary since his Academy Award-winning Man on Wire—revolves around what’s inarguably the most radical experiment of its kind, one where an animal language research group tried to close the book on the nature-versus-nurture debate by teaching sign language to a chimp, raising it as if it was a human child since birth. If successful, the consequences would be profound. However, it was when Nim’s behavior became unpredictable and increasingly violent that the project was prematurely put to an end.
Combining the testimony of key participants with newly discovered archival video footage and photographs, Project Nim is a carefully calibrated, unsentimental look at one chimp’s journey through the human experience as beliefs are continually dismantled and expectations realigned for all those involved in the experiment.
Anthem sat down for a chat with the British director in New York to discuss the challenges of making documentaries, the monumental success of Man on Wire and his upcoming thriller, Shadow Dancer, starring Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough.
Project Nim opens this Friday in New York and Chicago with a national rollout to follow.
I unfortunately missed Project Nim at Sundance this year, but saw it a couple days ago here in New York.
Oh good, that will help with the conversation. [Laughs]
Man on Wire was such a huge success story. Did you feel a lot of pressure in trying to match that film’s success with this follow-up documentary?
Well, there might have been expectations, but it wasn’t a burden that I was particularly aware of or felt. After Man on Wire, I made a film called Red Riding, so I immediately went from making a documentary to a fictional film. Once Man on Wire was going around the world having the good life, I wasn’t really caught up in the success of that film, particularly because I was busy doing something else. It felt like a very healthy thing to be doing.
It had a particularly impressive showing at Sundance, as did Project Nim this year.
It was at Sundance that I became aware that there was this sort of expectation and that I had made a film people liked quite a lot. I had been conspicuously successful on certain levels. That’s when I realized, “Oh, actually, there’s some pressure here,” but not that I felt it in some personal way. You kind of have to go and find a story you want to tell, and you can’t be beholden to other people’s expectations. Project Nim is very different from Man on Wire, as you know. The last thing I want to do is make the same kind of film over and over again. When you look for the subjects, you kind of—I do, anyway—want to be curious about many different things, not that I think about the work that I’ve done in any particular, analytical way. When I finish one movie, I want to move on and do something different, both formally and content-wise. There are probably some through lines that I’m interested in, too. I’m giving you a very long answer to the very simple question you asked. [Laughs] No, I don’t feel any particular burden, although, I became aware of it at Sundance.
Are you more passionate about making documentaries or narrative features? I hope that doesn’t come across like, “Which one of your children do you love the most?”
Well, I started out wanting to be John Ford or something—this was as a teenager. At the same time, documentaries are a big part of the culture in England; you see extraordinary documentaries on TV every week. Certainly, as a filmmaker, starting out trying to be a feature filmmaker in England in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was a preposterous idea, really. We didn’t have a particularly active film culture at the time. And yet, documentaries were there. You could, as I did, start working in television and get close to making them very quickly. So I ended up loving making documentaries films and I still do. In America, my ambition was to make a feature film. I made a feature called The King in 2005, which wasn’t entirely successful. It was something that I had co-written. It’s very healthy for a filmmaker, to change gears and do something in a different way. Feature films are very different in their means of production, for a start. That’s what you first feel when you make a feature. It all happens in a more focused period of time and you have many more collaborators on a feature. The actors are a very important part of what you’re doing. So, one informs the other very nicely.
What are some challenges that are specific to making documentaries?
Documentaries tend to take a lot of time. You have to be very patient to make a documentary; it’s a virtue that all documentary filmmakers need to have. Things happen slowly, particularly in the editing room—that can be a very slow process. Ultimately, for me, it’s all about structure; all good films depend on good structures. You are striving, in both documentaries and features, to be as rigorous about structure as possible and be as efficient in your storytelling as well. You can’t hang around. I really like films to be 90 minutes long, like a soccer match. I think it’s a length of time that people are naturally able to concentrate. Of course, many films are longer than that, but not ones that I’ve made.
How long did it take to edit Project Nim?
The editing on this film was much longer than I was used to—it was really difficult. We did it in three or four long chunks. This film was probably the most difficult for me in terms of the level of structure and editing. There were so many people involved and so many different versions of the story that I had to dance around. And, of course, the making of the film and structuring the film took about six or seven months, which, for me, is a really long time. Usually, I expect to make a film in three months of editing. At certain points, I felt close to defeated. I was overwhelmed by the choices that I had to make. The biggest objective was to make a film that had a smooth narrative and feel like a feature film in its storytelling.
How did the story of Nim find you?
I vaguely knew about these language experiments, but didn’t know anything about Nim as an individual chimpanzee. I knew about these social experiments done on primates in the early ‘70s that revolved around language, but that was about it. The producer of Man on Wire found Elizabeth Hess’ book that was published in 2008. He sent that book to me and said, ‘Read this and tell me what you make of it.’ I was surprised at how utterly gripping the story was—quite dramatic shocks and turning points in Nim’s story—or how it was going to end. That’s a very good starting point for a film, a dramatic and unpredictable narrative. I was also intrigued by the challenge of telling the life story of an animal and whether you could actually do that. I hadn’t seen a documentary that focuses on one animal from cradle to the grave and that was an intriguing formal challenge. Of course, with the subject matter, you just bump into these huge and profound ideas—what we are as a species, language, evolution, our relationship to animals, our relationships with each other—that this story has embedded into it already. The focus of Nim is its narrative story and showing what happened; it’s not about ideas, science or debating the film. It’s not about what should have happened, but what did happen. The idea is that the film is left for you to kind of ponder and discover for yourself.
Is it possible for a documentary filmmaker to remain 100% neutral, be it views, opinions or political leanings?
Unlike other documentary filmmakers out there, I don’t want to be part of the process. I’m obviously a big part of the process since I’m making choices as I’m editing the film in a certain kind of way, but I don’t want to be a visible presence in the film, as a voice or with my opinions. My opinions are very different from the opinions that are featured in the film. I want the narrative to be at the forefront of my work, not my own particular moral standpoints or views as a physical or vocal presence in the film. It’s not something that I’d be comfortable with.
How did you go about tracking down all the people who were involved in the experiments, home movies, photographs, etc.?
Since we were working from Elizabeth’s book and she was sort of part of the process, she was able to give us contacts to most of the people that she had interviewed for her book. We were aware of some of Stephanie’s [LeFarge] home movies, for example, before going into the film. The experiment was well photographed and we knew that going in. We found other bits of archives that we had no idea existed and they were wonderful discoveries. There is a sequence in the film when Nim meets another chimpanzee for the first time. It’s an extraordinary moment in his life where, after five years of living with humans, he suddenly sees an example of another species. It’s very unsettling footage because he’s reaction is one of horror. To me, it’s one of the most important moments in the whole film.
The footage that you were able to cull for this film is absolutely staggering.
We found footage of the medical lab where Nim was put at a certain point in his life and that was an amazing epiphany for us. I then knew that I could put you in Nim’s situation, directly and immediately, without any kind of subterfuge on my part. I can just stick you in there like he was stuck. Generally, the film was endlessly fascinating. You can live with a documentary like this for two years and just obsess over it, so you always look for a subject that will keep opening up possibilities for you on an intellectual level.
How do you go about interviewing your subjects, especially if you know what you want them to say and with a kind of cadence that will best serve the film?
I mean, in a tactful way. I wouldn’t bully someone into giving the words that I want to hear. If someone has a point that they made to me in the past or something that I think is important that doesn’t come out right, I’ll usually make a note of it and come back to it later. These sessions are very strategic and they have to be. Your basic raw materials are these interviews. These are people’s firsthand eyewitness accounts of what happened. It’s your script. It’s your story. So, you have to approach that very seriously and prepare very carefully. When I write out questions, it takes me days to do it. I try to create an atmosphere for interviews where people feel comfortable. Some people like to put their interview subjects on edge—if I was talking to George Bush or someone else that I needed to ambush, I’d probably do the same thing. In this case, it was about really listening and asking the right questions, allowing people to sort of give you what they want.
Did securing your interview subjects come with any stipulations?
No, it didn’t. In this case, the people were very open and candid about their experiences. There weren’t any rules that I needed to observe. That can happen on certain projects, especially with documentaries. When I did a film with John Cale about the Velvet Underground, I was interviewing Lou Reed and there were all these kinds of stipulations about the things that I couldn’t talk about. Lou and John were in good standing with each other at the time, and Lou was doing a film about himself and John was doing this film with me, so they both agreed to give an interview to each other’s projects. But there were many, many strings attached; none of which I observed, of course, because it’s ludicrous to be told not to ask this or that question. It would be the same case for us, now, if I said we couldn’t talk about Man on Wire—that would be completely absurd. Of course you’d want to ask me about that. So, to answer your question, I entered the project fully and openly without any strings attached, which was great.
What have been your subjects’ reactions to the film? I’m assuming they’ve all seen it by now.
I mean, I wouldn’t want to speak for them. Most of the subjects came to Sundance. Based on what we spoke about, no one took great offense at the film or has some great issue with it. I think everyone has their own version of the story. That’s why I did the film, I wanted to gather these versions together and make an impressionistic mosaic of these different, sometimes conflicting, viewpoints. We screened the film separately for Professor Terrace in New York and his reaction was quite measured.
Project Nim, as with Man on Wire, are immediately fascinating because the synopses are so outlandish, but based in truth. What other qualities do you look for in your documentary subjects?
The subject has to be something that’s dramatically available. There has to be a story that can be dramatized in some way. And that’s what I’m doing, essentially. I’m not making a slavish rendering of true events, selectively taking events and making a dramatic story out of them. You extract stories that preexist. If you were to dramatize my life—not that you want to do this, but maybe you do—you would selectively take things that are revealing about my life. So, it’s a very selective process. You’re looking for drama and action, just as you would in a fictional film.
I’m definitely interested in things that I think are in some way subversive to the prevailing culture or to orthodoxies. Man on Wire is a very good example. It wasn’t the message of the film, but I found it to be profoundly subversive in a brilliant, beautiful way. I also tend to be drawn to things that have an element of the absurd in them or things you wouldn’t really believe. I think every documentary filmmaker responds to something that feels utterly incredible or an event or something that we have to reckon with.
What can you tell us about your upcoming thriller, Shadow Dancer?
I’m actually not sure if it’s going to hold that title, but it’s a thriller somewhat informed by real events. It’s about an informant, a MI5 in the IRA. By the way of blackmail and coercion, a young female IRA volunteer is basically forced to spy on her own family. It’s an extraordinarily interesting premise. It’s domestic espionage, if you like. So the film has that and there’s this whole game being played with this informant that she doesn’t know about. It’s a surprising, hopefully gripping, thriller. It’s more like Red Riding than anything else that I’ve done. I’ve read quite a lot of scripts over the past few years and this was the one that I felt was the best page-turning story. I’m very intrigued by this idea of exploring what it’s like to be forced to betray your own family, the tension that comes with that, the burdens and how that would cause the person to suffer.
Is Guy [Pearce] still attached to star?
We’ve actually moved on from those choices. I would of course love to have him do it, but the film’s earlier incarnations didn’t come together in time. The actors that we had cast weren’t available. I mean, I’m literally doing it now and it’s coming together. I’m playing hooky as we speak. [Laughs]