The film-making team behind Man On Wire talk about their latest feature doc, Project Nim, which will have its world premiere in the world cinema documentary competition at Sundance tonight.
British director James Marsh’s Project Nim follows the story of a chimpanzee that became the focus of a landmark experiment in the 1970s, which aimed to show that an ape could communicate with language if raised and nurtured as a human child. It is produced by Simon Chinn for his company Red Box Films, which was also behind Marsh’s feature doc Man On Wire, which won the best documentary Oscar in 2009.
Icon Entertainment International is handling international sales and releasing the film in the UK and Australia in 2011 as well as as co-repping the film for North America alongside Josh Braun from Submarine Entertainment. Ahead of its screening, James Marsh and Simon Chinn talk to Screen about documentary techniques, financing and first night nerves.
You are back at Sundance where Man On Wire first wowed audiences..Are you feeling the pressure?
JM: I’m looking forward to seeing how the film works or doesn’t work. To my way of thinking, a film isn’t really finished until it’s seen in a public way and you kind of feel how the film works in that first public screening. In a sense I think Sundance is a good place for that to happen, because the audiences are wanting to enjoy the work there and are quite sympathetic generally. I had a really positive experience with Man On Wire, and while I wouldn’t expect it to be the same experience this time round by any means, definitely as a film-maker you are very curious to see how the film works.
SC: Inevitably, it feels like the bar is high. But I have to say, I feel very good about this film. It’s been a hard one to make, and it’s taken two years, but I think we have found a way to tell it which will engage with audiences. Time will tell, we will see at Sundnace. As much as I feel a little bit of pressure, I also feel confident and optimistic.
It’s great to be going back to the scene of the crime. It’s an American story, and Sundance is the pre-eminent place for docs. It feels like docs get almost equal prominence to the dramatic films..and it feels like a good American story with great American characters in it.
How did the project come about?
SC: After Man On Wire, James and I had various conversations about various stories, all of which seemed like they had promise, but nothing was quite sticking. One morning, I came down for breakfast at home, and my wife was reading a magazine in tears, she was heavily pregnant with our first child together. She urged me to read this story and it was a feature article about the story of Nim, written by the author of a newly published book, Elizabeth Hess, who had written the first proper journalistic account of the story of Nim [Nim Chimsky, The Chimp Who Would be Human]. I was just very struck by my wife’s response, particularly as an imminent mother, because albeit it’s a story about a chimp, it’s also about how we discharge our responsibilities onto those who are more vulnerable than ourselves.
So I optioned the rights to the book, and it turned out Elizabeth was a fan of Man On Wire, and it also turned out she had very good relationships with a number of the key characters in our story, who were also very excited at the prospect of doing something with James. It definitely oiled the wheels. In the midst of all that, I approached James, who was actually shooting The Red RidingTrilogy at the time…
So what attracted you to the project, James?
JM: I just thought it was a very interesting proposition for a film, to try and tell the life story of an animal. I don’t think I’d quite seen it before. That was very interesting to use certain biographical techniques that you would use if you were telling the life story of a person. To apply those, without shame, to the life of an animal and see whether you can truly understand the level of behaviour. The objective of the film is to show you a behavioural biography, so you understand how a baby chimp would behave, an adolescent chimp would behave and a grown chimp would behave.
It’s a historical story now, so one of two of the people we would have liked to have talked to are no longer with us. But every person we wanted to speak to that felt very important to the story, the key witnesses, we did indeed interview.
Did you take a scientific approach or an emotional approach to the film?
JM: The starting point for the story is a scientific experiment, but as I interviewed people I realised that it would be wrong to give the scientists too much weight over the normal people involved in this story. We shouldn’t favour or privilege the scientists. It’s a level playing field, everyone who knew this chimpanzee should be able to speak about him with the same level of credibility.
It’s definitely not a science film, even though the starting film is a scientific experiment. The book revealed that. By taking this life story, this biographical focus on an animal, you would necessarily have these human dramas that were going to unfold. That was the case in an amazing way. There is a mirror being held up by one species to the other, we have to look at what we are doing and how we are behaving as primates as well. The chimpanzee brings out behavioural elements in the humans which is very interesting.
Did you take inspiration from any other films?
JM: It shares with Grizzly Man an approach that is based on a complete lack of sentimentality for the animal world. Not that it means it is cruel and unfeeling. But what Grizzly Man did so brilliantly was to show how these bears are. If you have a hungry bear, it doesn’t matter who you are, you are going to be eaten. The film definitely shares a sensibility to that approach to animals and how we do tend to project onto animals qualities that we have as humans, that they may lack. The films tries not to do that, and tries to lay out Nim’s behaviour, good and bad, as an example of his species as opposed to making him like a human being.
Does the film use similar documentary techniques to Man on Wire?
JM: In Man On Wire, there were very precise dramatic constructions which were much more like scenes from a movie than a traditional documentary. In this particular film, the imagery we have created is much more evocative, stranger generally. The main difference is the kind of story it is. Man On Wire is a very simple premise. Someone wants to do something that looks like it’s absolutely fucking impossible, and they are gonna do it, but how are they going to do it, we just don’t know.
This one feels more like a novel. The density of the story, the number of characters involved. The time frame is 20 odd years, so in that respect, trying to get the structure to be what I want it to be has been challenging, unusually so for me. It’s been a very obdurate film in that respect. I think largely because of the difficulties of trying to make a film narrative out of this dense complex story. Hopefully we have achieved that.
It has been vastly more difficult to make than Man on Wire. Getting access to the people and gathering interviews was all very smooth, but constructing the film, it was a very difficult film to structure and pace and make into a 90-minute film. It may not seem that way when you see it, but it’s been a much more challenging film than man on wire.
Given the acclaim you received for Man On Wire, was Project Nim easier to finance?
SC: After Man On Wire and around the time of the Oscars, it was a very good time for us to be raising the finance for another project, so I approached BBC Films and the UK Film Council and they came onboard very swiftly. It was kind of like the perfect storm. We were fortunate in that we had a very fair wind, so there was a lot of enthusiasm from the Nim community to be part of this. We had to make our pitch and earn their trust, which is always what you have to do with a doc, but obviously, it helped.
You’ve kept this film under the radar…was that deliberate?
JM: We have been trying not to give too much of the story away. The premise of the film, which is fairly widely known, is based on a quite well known experiment which took place in the mid ’70s. But beyond that, not much of Nim’s actual life story is around. Given that it is such a surprising story and there are several big unexpected turns to the story, we decided we don’t want to lay it out ahead of time. As a viewer I much prefer that myself, I don’t like to know much about the film, before I see it. I like to enjoy its narrative surprises. We’ve been quite rigorous about that.
JM: I’ve got two or three projects in development; I wouldn’t want to favour one over the other. There is a doc project that I’ve been working on for a long time, a long term project based on a dream diary that an old man in Toronto made over the course of his life, where he wrote down only the dreams he had about the woman he was in love with. It’s a very personal project.
But after making a doc, I would love to do a dramatic feature, if I get a chance to. There are so many differences in the way the film is made, not least the dedicated production time you have when making a feature, and the working with actors. It’s very nice to go from one to the other, I’m lucky that I’m able to do both kinds of film-making. At the end of a doc, it’s kind of exhausting, and the shorter turn around and challenges of a feature are very welcome on the back of that.
SC: I have a project that John [Battsek] and I are exec producing called The Imposter, which Film 4, More4 and A&E Indie films have financed, which is in production. It’s directed by a very talented director called Bart Leighton and produced by Dimitri Doganis, from a company called Raw Television about a Frenchman, called Frederick Bourdin, who impersonated orphans around Europe. It’s a feature doc, done with a lot of stylish dramatic re-enactment.