SUNDANCE Q&A: 'Project Nim' Director James Marsh on Chimps Getting High, Having Sex and Being Raised by Humans
James Marsh made his Sundance Film Festival debut in 2008, when his latest documentary Man on Wire went home with a grand jury prize and an audience award before going on to win the Oscar for best documentary a year later.
This week, Marsh returns with Project Nim, a world cinema doc competition film about a chimpanzee raised by humans in the 1970s, which will have its world premiere at the Egyptian Theatre as one of the opening night films on Thursday. HBO has already snagged all U.S. rights to the doc, but plans to flip theatrical rights to another distributor after it screens. March talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the meaty issues raised by Nim's story, the docs that inspired him as an emerging filmmaker and the make-or-break importance of the Park City bus schedule.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you land on a chimp for your next project?
James Marsh: The producer I worked with on Man On Wire [Simon Chinn] had bumped into a biography of Nim, an interesting proposition where the life of this chimpanzee was extraordinarily well documented. What we have done essentially is this doc-film approach to the life story of an animal. Within that idea there is this crazy challenge about making a film with an animal as your main character. Along with that challenge is the kind of ideas that you knock into. As you pursue the narrative of the story you hope it offers you some pretty interesting thoughts to ponder. At the same time, it's a pretty gripping story -- the life story itself has quite a few very unexpected twists and turns. For all those reasons it felt like a very interesting challenge, and my main interest in documentary is finding remarkable, amazing stories you feel like they can only happen because they are real. They wouldn't work if you didn't believe them or were fictional.
THR: What can you tell us about the narrative?
Marsh: This is such a surprising narrative. I'm trying not to speak too much on what this story actually is. I want people to see the film and discover the story for themselves. It starts out the baby is taken from his mother pretty much the moment it's born and given to a human mother to bring up exactly like a human infant. The object is to expose the chimp, in this case, to American Sign Language used by the deaf community. The expectation is that the chimp in this context, in which children learn language, will also learn language because he has to, to survive. Generally speaking, you are dealing with the big theme of nature vs. nurture. The chimp has absolutely no contact with other chimpanzees for the first five years of his life, so he is only in a human-host family, in a human culture. The story is really pure, and then, of course, other things begin to happen and the chimp embarks on this unbelievable journey into human society on the back of the collapse of the language experiment.
THR: Did you find any crossover between Nim and Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist in Man on Wire?
Marsh: Not really, no. Other than the chimpanzees having extraordinary athletic abilities, and they can do things that I certainly cannot do.
THR: He probably could have gotten between those towers, too...
Marsh: Definitely could have swung between them. One of the interesting discoveries you make when making a film about a chimp is their behavioral overlaps. It's not what you would expect it to be. They are very intelligent in their own particular way, but one thing they show is strong hedonistic urges. They love thrills and sensations and fairground rides and driving fast in cars and motorbikes, and they like to take drugs. Our chimp gets to do all of these things in the course of his life. You kind of realize or wonder if this desire for diversion, sensation and hedonism is hardwired across higher primates -- us included. Some of the things where you think the chimps are going to be like us, they are not, and other times you are surprised by how much they resemble us.
THR: I wonder if the op-ed pages will run with that.
Marsh: Indeed. Another thing you knock into is the whole business of evolution and what this story might tell us about the evolution process and the role of language in our evolution and our human civilization and our emerging humanity. This is all big heady stuff, but the bottom line is the film is this kind of rollicking yarn, which has these very unexpected narrative turns. I think all the ideas I'm banging about now I just feel are embedded in this story to discove-should you want to discover them.