Oscar-winning filmmaker James Marsh (Man on Wire) talks to Jason Wood (Curzon Cinemas) about his latest documentary
Jason Wood: How did you first come to the story of Nim and what were the levels of research and reading that you had to undertake for the project?
James Marsh: Simon Chinn, the producer I worked with on Man on Wire, gave me a copy of the recently published biography of Nim, written by Elizabeth Hess. The idea of devoting a film to the life story of an individual animal was immediately appealing – I am not aware of any documentary film that’s done that before. Elizabeth’s book was a great starting point and she lays out the story very clearly. I then read quite a bit more about the other language and social experiments that were conducted on apes throughout the 60s and 70s, as well as reading a lot about primate behaviour in general. I did try to digest the scientific aspects of the story, though ultimately I was much more interested in the narrative of Nim’s life and the human drama that orbited it.
Jason Wood: Did you want to draw attention to the similarities and differences between Nim and his human counterparts?
James Marsh: When I first encountered the story, I was intrigued by this very challenge. I wondered whether it was actually going to be possible to devote a whole film to the life story of an individual animal – and one who is no longer with us. Nim’s life was lived entirely in view of humans and was very well documented in photographs and on film. More significantly, I think the film itself clearly establishes that chimpanzees have very distinct personalities and there is a clear, if often surprising, behavioural overlap between us and them.
Jason Wood: Almost all of those involved in Nim’s life appear in interview. Were there any issues in obtaining their consent?
James Marsh: Everyone who had a close relationship with Nim or witnessed significant episodes in his life agreed to be interviewed for the film. It did take some time to persuade the research vet Jim Mahoney to participate. His role in the lives of the animals he looked after has often been misunderstood and he was very wary. Most of the other contributors were enthusiastic about being in the film. Nim was an important episode in their lives and, in some cases, it shaped some of their destinies. A lot of the testimony in the film is highly emotional and I wasn’t quite expecting the intensity of people’s memories and feelings. The interviews were conducted in long, intense sessions. I think a lot of the people involved in Nim’s life are still very conflicted about what happened and there was a confessional aspect to some of the interviews. I’m sure it was very tough for all of them to subject to this kind of intimate enquiry into some quite upsetting and uncomfortable aspects of their lives. Much harder for them than for me. I just had to listen.
Jason Wood: Language is obviously central to the film. What do you think Professor Herbert Terrace’s research studies on animal language acquisition reveal about our understanding of human language and its place in the evolutionary process?
James Marsh: I’m not a scientist or a linguist, so I can only tell you what I learned in the course of making the film. We attempted to impose language on Nim – that is, a human construct – and Nim basically used it as a tool to get what he wanted. He didn’t have any use for it beyond that. We were hoping that he would want to hang out and chat and reveal through our language how he saw the world. Nim didn’t use language creatively or grammatically. That does seem quite specific to humans – the ability to endlessly combine words to create unique sentences every minute of the day. Chimps have their own unique form of communication – they use hoots and grunts, and they are extraordinarily good at reading body language. I wouldn’t know the exact role of language in our evolution but it does seem a basic and defining fact of our species, and the sharing of complex information seems integral to our success as a species.
Jason Wood: Of the archive footage perhaps the most astonishing is Nim’s first encounter with another chimpanzee. How did this footage come to you and what do you think it reveals?
James Marsh: We weren’t aware of this footage when we started the film so I was absolutely thrilled and amazed when our excellent archive shooting Nim’s return to the place where he was born and we managed to find all the rushes they shot. Even better, it was shot on 16mm film. Nim is six years old when he first meets his own species. Up until that point, he’s been surrounded by humans who are trying to make him more like us. He’s then introduced to a small friendly male chimp called Mac, who’s been chosen because he probably won’t beat Nim up. The encounter is extraordinary – Nim is utterly confused to behold this vision of what he is and he is very upset. He clings to the humans and seems repulsed by the other chimp. I won’t tell you how it then plays out, but he does try to use sign language to reach out to the other chimp.
Jason Wood: Do you enjoy having the versatility of moving between documentary and fiction, and does one discipline impact upon the other?
James Marsh: I don’t particularly make a distinction between the two genres – the objective is always the same, which is to tell a story as well and efficiently as possible. In both, you start out with a blank canvas and it’s your duty to fill it with interesting and revealing images. The process of making a documentary is very different from shooting a feature – it’s a bit more forgiving because you can usually make good on your mistakes. On a feature you shoot for six weeks and if you get anything wrong, you will have to live with that mistake forever. So there’s a bit more pressure when you shoot a feature, though the editing tends to be quicker and easier. I’m very lucky that I’ve had the chance to make features and documentaries, and at the moment I seem to be alternating. I think writing and shooting features has definitely improved my sense of structure and narrative in documentaries. I don’t think I could have made Man on Wire if I hadn’t written and shot The King before it.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas.
Project Nim screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 12 August