With Project Nim, James Marsh has created a documentary that feels more like a biopic—and one that avoids the genre’s usual pitfalls. He follows the life of a chimp named Nim, who was brought up to live with a human family to see whether chimps could communicate as people do. However, Nim soon showed an aggressive side; in one instance, he ripped open a woman’s face. He’s shuffled from family to institution, including a spell at a lab that tests hepatitis vaccines. As in his previous documentaries, Marsh uses fictional recreations to fill in the gaps in the available footage. The results tell a lot about both animal and human nature.
What are the differences between domesticated animals like dogs and Nim? [Note: I asked this question because a dog was roaming around the office where I interviewed Marsh.]
A dog has been bred for thousand years to live with us. Domestic animals are very different from wild animals. That’s a small footnote to Project Nim, but I found that out when I was making the film.
Did you have any other preconceived notions about Nim—or more generally about human and animal nature—that were challenged by making the film?
I came to this the way most people did. I had some ideas about chimps being cheeky, mischievous and playful, but I hadn’t really reckoned with the fact that they’re wild animals and what they’re like in nature. The chimps one sees in films or TV are young ones, under 5. They get to be big and powerful. I was surprised how aggressive they get to be. I hadn’t really given much thought to our relationship with animals. Making the film made me reflect on that. It also made me think about the fact that we’re animals too. We’re higher primates. Some of our behavior is also expressed in chimpanzees. We’re hard-wired for aggression and hedonism. The idea of the experiment with Nim was an attempt to get chimps to use a chimp’s natural ability to use body language, as I’m doing now with you, and get him to tell us what he was thinking.
Your use of recreations is very convincing. Until I saw the end credits, I thought you had found home movies from the first family that takes Nim in. Are there any ethical boundaries you wouldn’t cross in using recreations?
I don’t have any particular rules about anything when it comes to filmmaking. I keep an open mind about storytelling. For example, when I was making Man on Wire, I knew there was no footage of Philippe [Petit] walking between the Twin Towers. I thought there was no way you could fake it. It’s not really a question of moral principles. I use recreations because I feel like I have to. I need to do it because I have to evoke certain images to tell the story. In Man on Wire, I would never presume to have reconstructed Philiipe’s walk. Generally speaking, I don’t have any rules about this issue.
I was also curious if you think about recreations at the beginning of a project or later on.
I try to figure out the nature of the motion picture and photo archive that’s available. I don’t really work on recreations until most of the film is put together. So I would encounter that problem when I’ve created the narrative and gathered together the interviews and raw material. I ask myself, “What do I need now to tell the story?” The reconstructions would emerge from a rough cut of the film, where I know that there are images I still want to see. They’re determined entirely by the structure of the film.
Did any of the people in Nim’s story refuse to speak to you or impose unreasonable conditions?
Well, two of them are dead. That was Wim LaFarge, Stephanie’s husband, and Dr. Lemon, who was the head of the Primate Research Lab in Oklahoma. Everyone else I approached eventually said yes. There was a little bit of resistance from Jim Mahoney, who you see towards the latter half of the story. He’s obviously a figure who would upset someone by virtue of what he does. Elise Moore was hard to track down. Most people involved in the film had a very strong and emotional recollection of their involvement with Nim. They witnessed an extraordinary thing. They felt able to talk on that basis. It was worth sharing. There was a certain sense that the time had now come to tell their story.
Has everyone who was interviewed in the film seen in it now?
Everyone we can find, apart from Jim Mahoney and Elisa Moore. Jim will see it in Boston in a few weeks and we lost track of Elisa again. But all the key players have seen it. I think they’ve accepted it for what it was. There’s been no major problem with their reactions.
Do you agree that Nim never really learned language?
To some extent, I do. I think he never learned to be creative with language the way humans are. He never learned to use grammar and syntax the way we do. Why should he? He’s not human, he’s a chimpanzee. So I would agree with that conclusion, that Nim and most chimpanzees don’t have a desire to learn language, but that they can communicate with us, If you’ve raised children, you can see that within a few weeks of learning their first few words, they can use language creatively. Chimps don’t do that.
It was interesting to see the dog begging for food outside.
It was using body language. Nim is like that too. Nim’s version of that is much more strategic and sophisticated. A dog can’t pretend to need to use the toilet to get out of the room. Nim could do that to fool us. He can use the tools we give him to fool us. I tried to put as many domestic animals in Project Nim as possible to show how we’ve bred them to control them. A chimpanzee is much different. It doesn’t have selective breeding over generations to make it an agreeable presence in our lives. That’s a big distinction.
It was also interesting that Nim learned the sign language for “smoke” and “stoned.”
When he wanted something, he learned how to request it.
Were you surprised that Bob Ingersoll turned out to be Nim’s most loyal human friend?
I think that’s true, across the years. It wasn’t surprising to me at all, knowing Bob. It’s his nature to be this way. Not everyone can do this. He said “Chimps make that selection for you.” If they don’t want to be around you, you’ll know about it very quickly. Bob has this uncanny ability to relate to chimps and be like them. He went more than halfway to meet Nim. He didn’t expect Nim to sit in a classroom and learn language. He actually hung out with him, foraged for food and smoked joints with him. He found a middle ground to communicate with him. In that respect, he’s an exemplary character.
Before making the film, did you look at other documentaries about primates?
One always does. I looked at Barbet Schroeder’s Koko, which is an extraordinary documentary about a talking gorilla, and Frederick Wiseman’s Primate. I also saw Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. Those were the principal reference points.
From what I recall of Koko, it’s a bit more optimistic.
Koko is a snapshot, rather than the story of a whole life. What we see in Koko is a fully grown female gorilla. She’s able to communicate very well with her human companion. That also has a much more conventional documentary context, interviewing scientists. I tried to tell a story rather than getting into the abstractions of the argument.
Is the footage of Nim in the hepatitis vaccine lab a recreation?
No, that was news footage taken at the time Nim was there. That wa quite a public story. CBS did a story on it. We managed to find the rushes. That’s absolutely what Nim experienced. It’s extraordinarily powerful for that reason. It’s all genuine footage. You see Jim Mahoney. I hope you’d know that it’s real because you hear his Irish accent and also see him feeding some baby chimpanzees.
Do you think your work has benefited from going back and forth between fiction and documentary?
It’s a real privilege. It’s enormously beneficial in terms of your mental well-being. Documentaries are a much longer-term commitment, while feature films are quite a concentrated period of time. Storytelling techniques you can find in one are useful in the other, and vice versa. The documentaries I’ve made are stories that are unbelievable. You couldn’t make them up. The fictional films tend to be more realistic. Red Riding: 1980, The King, and the film I’m about to make are heavily influenced by real events. The presentation of my documentaries is far more baroque.
What is the film you’re about to make?
A thriller set in Northern Ireland. It takes place at the time of the peace process, in the early ’90s. It’s not about the troubles, but the way they get resolved. It has many elements of documentary.
Steve Erickson is a writer who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, Fandor’s blog, Film Comment, and other publications and websites.