James Marsh’s Pet “Project Nim”

James Marsh’s Pet “Project Nim” (photo)

Posted by on

James Marsh makes documentaries, like the Academy Award-winning “Man on Wire,” and fiction films, like “The King” and “Red Riding: 1980.” But whatever kind of movie he’s making, Marsh says, he’s looking for the same thing: character-driven stories.

“Those are the kinds of films I make,” Marsh told me during our conversation earlier this spring in Lower Manhattan. “There are many other types of documentary films too, but I like to deal with preexisting stories that you reconstruct and to some extent dramatize by the very act of making a film and making the choices that you make.”

His latest work of character-driven reconstruction is the fascinating and moving “Project Nim,” a documentary that is all the more fascinating and moving for the fact that the character driving said reconstruction is a chimpanzee. Nim Chimpsky was raised from birth by a group of scientists, professors, and researchers from Columbia University as part of an experiment in animal linguistics. To test whether or not chimps could learn language, Professor Herbert Terrace placed Nim with a human family who raised him as one of their own children, changing his diapers, teaching him sign language, even (pause for weird, uncomfortable silence) breast feeding him. Marsh’s film weaves together the testimony and stories of the people who knew Nim, who raised him and taught him and often fought over him, to create this fascinating narrative of love and betrayal and education.

Terrace’s experiment ultimately challenged preconceived notions of what animals are and what they can do. By telling Nim’s story in this incredibly touching biography and by comparing his behavior with the sometimes less-than-laudable behavior of his human companions, Marsh has done the same. Over the course of our interview, Marsh and I discussed the particular challenges of making a film about a protagonist who has so little control over his story, the differences between New York and London dogs, and why someday he’d like to make a James Bond film.

Both of your last two documentaries are about storytelling.

Yeah, first hand accounts of what would be significant events in their subjects’ lives. And therefore the power of the recollection is definitely informed by the importance of the experience to the person. Those are very good building blocks for the kind of films that I make.

In contrast with “Man on Wire” though, “Project Nim” is much more about opposing viewpoints. Even though you’re telling one larger narrative about Nim, you also have people telling their own versions of their part in that story, and arguing about what exactly happened.

Definitely. That’s a little bit true of “Man on Wire” too, but there’s obviously a very focused objective in “Man on Wire.” In “Project Nim,” the objective initially is to teach the chimp sign language, but that’s only the first part of the story. The objectives then become much more muddy: what do they do with this chimpanzee? What are their responsibilities are when they’ve co-opted this intelligent, sentient creature into our world? But as you say, it’s very much about the stories and not so much about the experts’ commentary on language in chimpanzee or their behavior. That film you could make, but it wasn’t the one that I wanted to make.

What do you think when you’re interviewing someone and you start to hear a story that contradicts something that someone else has already told you? Do you get excited?

Oh absolutely. You get excited because it creates conflict. It’s all about subjective memory [and] telling your version of the story through your lens. So those discrepancies, when someone remembers something differently, are very interesting. And it was extraordinary how people did remember things differently. It’s not that you’re making “Rashomon” — although I had an idea to make that Pat Tillman film that way, which was made by someone else in the end.

When you have these discrepancies there becomes a tension in the story. For example, the professor [Herbert Terrace] allegedly has an affair with one of the students. He didn’t want to talk about that and never really acknowledged it. I asked him about in endlessly different ways. Whereas the other person involved in the affair was very hurt by what happened and has a very different recollection of it. And that I guess speaks of the human drama that this story gets caught up in and explores, which is equally important to the film as the chimpanzee’s life story.

People say they see themselves reflected in their pets. That’s certainly true of myself and my dog.

You shape them for sure. You’ve had him since he was a puppy?


What kind of dog is it?

He’s a mutt. But I’ve seen him become me, with all my neuroses and problems.

Well he’s living in the same environment as you. He’s a New York dog. New York dogs are different from London dogs.


They really are. Dogs here have certain Woody Allen neuroses…


It’s true! And they often wear little coats and boots here. For good reason; it’s cold.

There are lots of pets in this film. And that was a very conscious choice, to look how Nim related to a dog and later to a cat. Nim starts off being incredibly tender and sweet with that cat, but as he gets older and has sexual urges the cat represents something different to him; it becomes the object of his sexual desire. The point being that those animals that we’ve domesticated have been bred over generations to become what they need to be to be around us. A chimpanzee has not, even though as a species they’re the closest to us in terms of their genetics and possibly their behavior too. So that theme, on the level of imagery, is very important in the story. And I was thrusting those images into the film as much as I could just to give you that counterpoint in our relationships with animals.

Given this complex network of people around Nim — all these researchers with their infighting and jealousy and romantic entanglements — do you think he could have in some way been reflecting some of their issues, the same way my dog reflects mine?

I guess so. He is the product of a broken home, if you like. I mean there’s no way a chimpanzee in the wild would pass through seven, eight, nine different people the way he does. A chimpanzee in the wild would be with his mother exclusively for the first three or four years of his life, just hanging onto her back. And so Nim does not have a very normal upbringing. And I imagine that would have some impact on his behavior. That’s the point of the experiment, to try to condition a chimpanzee to be like us and to learn language.

Nim is an interesting protagonist for a movie because he has all these things happen to him but he basically has no control over any of them. Was it a challenge to make a movie about a character who has no agency over where his story goes?

It’s a given. And that’s what I think makes some of it quite powerful and sad. He has absolutely no control over his destiny yet he does have a big impact on people around him. So he affects their destinies in big ways. His powerlessness, I think, is a big theme in the story and it’s part of the reason we may have an emotional reaction to him. He doesn’t know what’s happening to him. He’s confused and he’s taken from one place to another without any kind of sense of what he might need. His needs are never really considered.

One of the questions “Nim” raises is the appropriate distance between the person in charge of a science experiment and their subject. We can say that Herb, the professor, treated this animal really cruelly — and he did in many ways. But from his perspective, that’s the objective distance he’s supposed to keep during an experiment. Thinking more about it, I wonder if there is a parallel to be drawn between the documentarian and his subject.


Don’t you also have to keep a certain amount of distance when you’re interviewing these people who can be very charming and interesting? Your first allegiance has to be to the film.

I guess the process by which you make a film means that at certain points you are very very invested. When you’re talking to people, you really want to listen and hear and understand their story, and ask them questions. And yet when it comes to the cutting room, that detachment is very important. You can’t really be beholden to any particular person. In this story you have to kind of create this mosaic that respects the totality of what you’ve learned from these truly subjective accounts. And so the detachment comes in the cutting room and the empathy comes in the way in which you conduct the interviews, that you do want to empathize very clearly with the people you’re talking to. And I do. I do really want to know and understand what they felt and what they experienced and witnessed.

You always hear about how Academy Awards change actors’ careers. Does winning one as a director of a documentary help your career as a filmmaker — both of documentaries and of fiction films — in the same way?

It didn’t have any major impact on my career; no one came and said “Come direct the next James Bond movie!” So that film and winning the Oscar, didn’t have much impact on my career as a feature filmmaker, which I was hoping it would.

Would you want to direct the next James Bond movie?

I’d love to direct a James Bond movie, if you’re listening out there. Of course. That’s the biggest train set in the world.

On the level of documentaries, yeah I think it has made a difference, and that’s a very beneficial thing. It’s very hard to fund a documentary, and certainly having a success with one has made this one easier to put together and probably that’ll last a couple more years. I hope.

Do you have any pets?

No, I’ve never had pets.

Would call yourself an “animal lover?”

No, not really.

That’s so interesting, because the movie does feel, at least to me, like it was made by an animal lover.

I have respect for animals and the way we conduct ourselves with them. My entry point, oddly enough, was being a parent rather than an animal lover or pet owner.

All right. So we see Nim training the humans as much as they train him in the film. And my own dog has absolutely trained me to do things he wants me to do. Do you see your kids training you rather than the other way around?

Of course! Absolutely. They’re always looking to manipulate you and to get their own agenda. And they do it through language. So yes, absolutely… I don’t want to force the comparison. I have human children, not chimpanzees.


But what’s also interesting about human children is how there’s a total focus on playing. And Nim’s great linguistic discovery is that he invents a sign for “play.” And he uses that throughout his life. Hard-hearted as I am, when I saw Nim make that sign toward the end of his life, I really melted and I thought “Oh my God. That’s what he always wanted from us. To play with us. And look at what we’ve done.”

Children, that’s the one thing that they want: “Let’s go play! Play play play!” And play has a very interesting way of working out power dynamics; play has a whole dimension to it which is not just about frivolously wasting your time. It’s about cooperation, collaboration, and playing roles, and Nim’s all about that too. It’s kind of heartbreaking that that’s the one sign he invented, that he used most in his life, and it’s the one thing we ignore.

The only other question I had for you is: are you a vegetarian?

No, no I’m not. I’m sure some of the people in the film would want me to be a vegetarian. But no, I’m not. I have a rule that I don’t eat any animals that are bigger than me. So I don’t eat beef. Somehow there seems something wrong about eating animals that are bigger than you.

“Project Nim” opens in limited release this Friday. Are you looking forward to it? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!

Watch More

Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

Posted by on

She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.


IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

Watch More

Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

Posted by on
Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines


The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

Watch More

Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

Posted by on
Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.


Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.


A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.


Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

Watch More
Powered by ZergNet