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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.
THR: Did you have much experience with chimps, apes and monkeys before this?
Marsh: Not at all. I came to it with a general awareness of what they are like. One of the things that I hadn’t really realized is how strong and powerful they become as adults. Our image of chimps is mediated by the commercials, perhaps, and movies. Chimps in those settings are always almost babies or juveniles. They are very playful. Once they go through puberty the males become very big and strong. The calculation is they’re five or six times the strength of a fully-grown man. Think about it: Twice as strong is strong, but five or six times is extraordinarily strong. This obviously becomes part of our story too. The chimp grows up; hedoesn’t stay a baby. He grows up very quickly and people are very surprised by what behaviors begin to emerge, which are entirely instinctive. A lot of this behavior you witness in the film is utterly embedded and hardwired into them.
THR: I’m sure sexuality is one of them.
Marsh: Indeed. That becomes really quite comic in the film in terms of, what opportunity did he have when he is in this language experiment? What options does he have? In some respects he is no better off or worse off than we were. In that respect, he is a very confused chimp, I imagine. He has strong sexual urges, and he doesn’t quite get where they need to go because there are not other chimpanzees around. And one of the women on the project gets sexually assaulted by him. This becomes comic footage of him going through puberty and having these urges. Beyond that, it can really be quite unsettling when you see he has no outlet for them, and that seems funny, but it’s really not that funny ultimately. He can’t help himself and that almost becomes the theme of his life with us, that he just can’t help being the way he is. Being the way he is, is really quite difficult to be around at times. The only way you can successfully be around a chimp is to dominate.
THR: I wonder if Glenn Beck will pick up that argument. That he can’t help being what he is.
Marsh: The really strange thing are the ideas about what we’re like and what they’re like and how I can recognize their behavior in ourselves, and probably vice-versa. It’s all sort of framed in this story that is very, very surprising. Within the story there is this real comedy of misunderstanding, but this deeper nature-nurture idea is played out in a very dramatic way in the story itself.
THR: What’s your feeling about unveiling new work at Sundance?
Marsh: In a sense it is lovely to go back to a festival that was a starting point for what was a very big experience with Man on Wire. So, I’m very glad to be back there. I don’t have the same expectations, although I had no expectations going to the festival with Man on Wire. The film played quite late in the festival and was discovered in a very genuine sort of way by audiences. It wasn’t a big ballyhoo around the festival. This one has a much higher profile, I guess, because of the success of Man on Wire, and because that successfully started at Sundance. It was recognized there first and foremost. I guess I’m really looking forward to it, but a film isn’t really finished until you have shown it publicly. That’s always a discovery that you can’t predict how it’s going to go. So, that first screening, I’m kind of dreading it. You await that final judgment, and you can feel it as the film plays. You just know when an audience is going with and responding to things you responded to in the story. Hopefully, you made those choices correctly and people do go with what you are offering them. We just won’t know until the film actually plays.
THR: What’s your favorite non-James Marsh doc and why-one that has really stood out in your mind and inspired you?
Marsh: I would say there are two definitive films for me, both of which I saw at a pretty impressionable age. One was The Thin Blue Line, the Errol Morris film. Which is a revelation of storytelling that you could make a documentary that is so gripping to watch. Also, ultimately it changed something in that story. The film was good enough to get someone out of jail, from what I understand. I always think about the debate about reconstruction, which I’ve had with my own work too, and then you realize, well, that film was full of really inventive and brilliantly done reconstructions. They were truthful or laid out the truth in a very interesting way. That was a film when I saw it I was very young and I always thought I wish I could make something as good as this in the future. The other film, in a very different kind of way, that was important to me was a not so well-known film is Le sang des bêtes or the The Blood of the Beasts, which was made by a French horror director called Georges Franju. This was a doc that’s an observational account of a Parisian slaughterhouse just after the Second World War. Again, it’s a revelation the way it uses poetic images and sequences, and the film is incredibly beautiful as well as being incredibly disturbing and horrifying. It showed me the power and the strangeness you can find in the real world and real stories. The images in that film, to this day, I can recall them all. In a different kind of way, it was very important to try to aspire toward creating and finding images of that power and of that consequence.
THR: When did that come out?
Marsh: I think it was made in 1949. You can get it on DVD. It’s only a half hour long and is a proper doc. It contextualizes the slaughterhouse and you get to see all the stuff going on around it in Paris. It’s a historical document. Within that are the most amazing images, the most incredible, unforgettable images that you will ever see. It’s an amazing film.
THR: How do you see the role of documentary filmmaking in culture at this point? When you put it in the context of our exposure to facts or non-fiction or news, does doc filmmaking have a different place in society now?
Marsh: This is just my view, and it’s not particularly a well-thought-out one, but there was this interesting coincidence of the mainstream media failing their responsibilities in the Bush era and to properly account what was going on in the world, and what we were a part of. I lived in America at the time and was part of it, too. I think docs fill that vacuum, in many ways, very well. That coincided with a bunch of emerging doc filmmakers that were capable of doing such good work. In that respect, I think we’ve established ourselves as a very important voice, certainly in the American cinema. I would say you can find often the most interesting, exciting work in American cinema is being done in docs. Not all of it is political and reportage. There is a film I recently saw called Marwencol and it’s based on art itself, in this very interesting little world the filmmaker describes for you and immerses you in. All in all, docs have freed themselves from some of the chains of TV docs and have become, in many ways, much more cinematic. Then there are films like Catfish and the Banksy film that I adored, Exit Through the Gift Shop. It doesn’t matter which way you read that film, it is brilliant. It’s provocative and stimulating and I happen to think it’s a very genuine doc. It’s about Frankenstein’s monster, essentially. You now have films like that where you are deconstructing the form and inviting [audiences] to investigate what they are offering. I think it’s a really great time for doc films, and to be fair to Sundance, they caught that zeitgeist really well for the last eight or nine years. I think people are coming to the festival expecting and wanting to see the great doc films and some of the best work in the festival is there. That’s a credit to the festival and a credit to the filmmakers who are making that work. I have seen so many good doc films in the last four or five years and am honored to be a part of this world in my own way.
THR: What’s your favorite Sundance film?
Marsh: Memento was phenomenal. That was one of my favorite films for the last 10 or so years.
THR: What memory of Sundance most stands out to you?
Marsh: I have quite a lot of lovely ones. There are two that stand out. The first one was actually the first screening of the film [Man on Wire], which was this ambivalent experience because people were leaving in the middle of it. We saw people checking their Blackberrys and 15 people walked out. At a point in the film where I thought it was quite exciting. I was like, Where the f— are you going? What are you doing? It’s getting good now. Don’t go now. What had happened was word got out about Heath Ledger’s death. It was that very afternoon or evening. Then they started coming back in again, and I thought, this is rather peculiar. At the end of the screening we got a very warm reception. This very nervous feeling I had — was this working for people? — was quickly transformed. I think I have a better memory, and that was being on the bus after the second screening of the film and hearing people talk about the film without knowing who I was or that I was the director. They were talking about it with such kind words and affection and really clear recollection of some of the imagery of the film. That was a lovely thing to experience, to hear people alive with conversation about your work. That was lovely.
THR: What’s one tip you would give a first-timer?
Marsh: Figure out the bus schedule. That’s one thing that took me two or three days to figure out was just to see how the buses work. That is, if your intention is to see films. If you want to go skiing or you want to go to parties, then don’t bother, but if you want to see films then figure out the bus schedule. This time I’ll be more fully prepared and be able to see more films.
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