James Marsh is a rare breed of director that seems equally at ease doing documentaries as he is doing fiction films. He’s probably best known for his Oscar winning documentary “Man On Wire,” about tightrope walker Philippe Petit who illegally performed his high-wire routine between the Twin Towers in 1974. More recently he was responsible for “1980,” the middle installment of the excellently dark UK miniseries “Red Riding,” which received a limited theatrical release stateside and was a project we called “easily one of the cinematic highlights” of last year.
His latest, the Sundance hit “Project Nim,” sees the filmmaker returning to the world of documentaries (though he’s bouncing right back to fiction with the currently filming Clive Owen IRA drama, “Shadow Dancer”). ‘Nim’ focuses on the story of a chimp who is taken from its mother and raised by a family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the 1970s to see if he could learn to communicate if raised like a human child. But that’s really just the beginning of this incredible story, as Nim does begin to communicate using sign language, while his animal nature still emerged as he was passed from one caregiver to the next during the course of his life. We recently got a chance to speak to Marsh to discuss “Project Nim,” the “Red Riding” trilogy and the fatal flaw which doomed the experiment in the documentary from the start.
How did you become involved with "Project Nim"?
Well actually it starts with a book written by Elizabeth Hess [“Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human”] which was published in 2008 that the producer of “Man On Wire” found, encountered and sent my way. And I just got taken up with this life story. A great virtue of the book is that I found this chimpanzee is so well documented that you can actually tell his life story in prose. And I thought this was an interesting challenge to see if I could do that with a film too. To focus only on one individual animal and tell his story from start to finish. It felt like a very interesting formal challenge given that the story itself had so many surprising twists and turns in it.
How much of the story did you know going in from having read that book and how much did you discover through conducting the interviews?
There were three stages of my awareness of the story. Number one was that before I read the book I had some dim knowledge of these language experiments that took place amongst primates in the 70s so I knew a bit about that. [Secondly,] Elizabeth’s book is a pretty comprehensive account of Nim’s life and a very good blueprint for the film. [Thirdly] we managed to find one or two people and one person in particular that [Elizabeth] wasn’t able to interview, who was Nim’s second sort-of mother, Laura-Ann Petitto who’d taken him from Stephanie [LaFarge, Nim’s first “mother”]. Elizabeth hadn’t talked to her for her book so her testimony became very valuable to us because Laura-Ann was the next person who saw, and spent the better part of 3 years looking after him and being his mother and companion. So that was an important discovery for me and the whole arc of Nim’s life is pretty clear from Elizabeth’s book and the major dramatic turning points of the film are all to be found in the book itself. Which is very encouraging cause you knew you were working with a story that conformed to a dramatic principle that you would look for.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned from the interviews?
Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think it was more so an accumulation of insights you get across the interviews. One of the things that becomes very clear to you is how individual the chimpanzees are and how their personalities are very, very particular. There’s not a sort-of generic chimpanzee, they’re wholly different characters: you can have sweet ones, you can have dumb ones, you can have clever ones. And this whole spectrum of personality was something that became surprising how idiosyncratic Nim was. How he had particular interests in certain things, he had a shoe fetish which you see play out very discreetly in the film. You know, trying people’s shoes on, walking around in them, he was obsessed with people’s feet and shoes. And there was a hand-washing compulsion as well, he obviously got from people. So there’s an accumulation of little details that lead you to more interesting bigger insights into Nim’s life and also the whole mental life of chimpanzees in general. How restless and energetic they are and their whole culture is one in the male sense of dominance. Nim is hard wired to behave in certain ways, so what he does in the story is quite natural to him. It’s the situation he’s in that’s really the unnatural thing about his life. The interplay between his natural instincts and his environment, the tragedy of the film is really played out on that level. So there isn’t one big major revelation I could offer but really an accumulation of very interesting little details and insights that give you a sense of this particular animal and indeed the species he belongs to.
The experiment is fascinating but in watching the film, you get the sense as an audience member it’s doomed to fail from the beginning because of Professor Terrace [the behavioral psychologist who responsible for the experiment]. It's hard to put faith in him, and you get a sense that it’s not going to end well.
Interesting. That’s wasn’t the reaction that I was intending. For me, the thing that dooms it, actually happens before then. The moment you take a baby away from it’s mother, something transgressive and against nature has happened. And for me no good can come from that, irrespective of the personalities involved doing it. And the conduct of the experiment, as we lay out in the story, there may have been things that he could have done in a better way but I’m not really the right person to suggest what they could be. The original sin doesn’t lie in the characters or the people involved, it lies in this first transgressive act. Which, in a sense, no living creature really should be taken from it’s mother and given to someone else, it’s just against nature. And that is what I think is the fatal flaw in all this. That moment, that’s where it starts for me.
Do you think Nim's reaction when he sees Stephanie later in the film was driven by his feelings of being abandoned?
Possibly. It’s an extraordinary moment in the story itself. That’s one of those moments where you couldn’t improve on the story if you were writing it fictionally. You have the very person that went into his cage when he was a baby with his own mother and grabs him, is the person that goes back into his cage when he’s fully grown and things have changed. And I think his reaction to her, clearly he recognizes who she is, that was clear from everyone I spoke to, that he knew exactly who they were. And his reaction is territorial. Firstly, it’s his cage, it’s the only place he’s got. And she comes into that territory without really doing anything that you would do if you were a chimpanzee to negotiate that kind of invasion of space. And secondly, there appears to be some kind of other facts that are at play here, where he does indeed knock her around. That would happen if anyone went into the cage, someone else may have been bitten very badly but she wasn’t. As much as that’s a horrific moment for her, what could have happened is far worse. He could have easily bitten her hand off or bitten her fingers off or bitten her ankles off. Or indeed, thrown her against the wall and killed her. He didn’t do any of those things and Stephanie’s view of that, and she’s very entitled to it, is that he’s teaching her a lesson. That may or may not be true and I wouldn’t know, but that’s what she felt and who am I to argue with it?
Did the film change or reinforce any ideas you had about communication going into the project?
Not especially but definitely certain things that were very interesting for me, if you have children and that kind of relationship. I thought about how my kids first learned to speak and use language and how within a few weeks of them learning words they were able to combine those words in endlessly creative ways. And I began to cherish that notion of our language and how rich it is as a way of communicating. And Nim not being able to do that showed me how precious language is in our species. The fact that he couldn’t learn language, he simply lacked motivation to, he was a highly intelligent creature. But there were a million other incidental epiphanies that you have when you work on this kind of story. About the proximity of the species and the overlap between us and chimpanzees may be more troubling than we’d like to acknowledge. Chimpanzees are aggressive and they can kill each other and we seem to have even more of that murderous aggression within us than they do. But I’ll tell you what happened in our story is that we are as a species because we use violence and we also have these hedonistic tendencies that seem to be hard-wired in a way that they are in chimpanzees. So some of the overlaps between the species are a bit more interesting than just “oh they get happy, they get sad, they cry, they grieve.” The other ones are a bit more interesting, a bit more surprising than that.
Your installment in “The Red Riding” trilogy, “1980,’ is a very different sort of film. What drew you to the material?
I was mad for that project. I read the books and I knew Tony Grisoni, the writer a little bit on a social level. And he slipped me an early draft of the first film “1974” and that script was just wonderful too. And so it took about 2 years for the films to get into production based on those scripts so I had just finished “Man On Wire” and that was getting some attention so I was in a position to go after it. But I loved the books and I read the whole quartet of books and I’d read “The Damned United” [also by author David Peace] and the film [by Oscar winner Tom Hooper] I didn’t much care for at all in fact. But the book I loved, so I was a big fan of David Peace and to be able to work with these wonderful scripts. And to work with the actors I worked with, this great British cast of character actors, all mad to make the film. So it became curiously, a labor of love, even though the material is so dark, so disturbing, so feverish. Actually making the film with the actors was a surprisingly joyous thing on a day-to-day basis. Most of them on that film had a good time doing it, but it was the material itself. They were such great screenplays and they don’t come around very often, work of that quality. And the fact that it was made for TV actually made the production very smooth. The money was there, there were no worries about not having the money that was agreed to do it and the start date was there and the end date was there. It was produced very well too, so the whole thing was a great experience from start to finish.
I shot mine on 35mm and we would always hope that we would maybe have some kind of other [presentation]...but I saw it at the National Film Theatre in London and they showed them all one after the other.
And you mentioned seeing a triple feature, was that the first time that you’d seen the other films in the trilogy?
Yes, it was actually. And the first screenplay I’d loved too and at one point I was going to try to make that first film “1974.” And so seeing it that way, and also seeing my own film in a very different way, which I would have never been able to see before, I hadn’t seen the other two up until that point and really liked the first film very much. And I think the last half an hour is really an extraordinary film. And so I really enjoyed the whole process of seeing what the actors were doing in the other films, I got certain performances out them. But there was very little dialogue between the directors making those films, we didn’t really talk to each other about what was going on. We just got on with it. So it was extraordinary actually to find out what Sean Harris’s character was doing in the first film. It was very interesting on that level.
It was fascinating because any other films would be made sequentially so you’d be able to draw on what had come before but what did you think of seeing yours as part of this piece that had all been made around the same time?
They overlapped a bit, the productions did, and they were made roughly at the same time. And we didn’t know what the others were getting up to with costumes and acting style and cameras and camera style. The interesting thing was how much they had in common given that they had been made by 3 different directors and with 3 different DP’s and the whole productions were very separate. The thematic obsessions were very clear across the whole trilogy and in fact, the acting style was remarkably consistent too. The actors would sometimes be doing extraordinary things like doing one scene for me, one scene for Julian [Jarrold, director of “1974”], one scene for Anand [Tucker, director of “1983”] and whether or not it may be a flashback to another time period and they actually pulled that off in a remarkable way. The acting across the series is impeccable.
"Project Nim" hits theaters July 8th.