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.