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James Marsh’s Pet “Project Nim”

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

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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?

Yeah.

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.

Really?

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

[laughs]

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.

Interesting.

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.

[laughs]

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!

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

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

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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