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Project Nim: An Interview with Director James Marsh

James Marsh first became a household name in the States after winning the 2009 Oscar for Best Documentary for his film Man on Wire, a “heist” picture about the French tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, who traversed a line between the twin towers in 1974. That film’s use of genre, its stylistic flair, and its fusion of fiction and documentary elements can be witnessed as early as Marsh’s 1999 film Wisconsin Death Trip, about the tragedies that befell a small town of Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century.

Marsh stays true to form in his latest documentary Project Nim (coming to theaters in New York on July 8th), winner of Best World Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. This time around, Marsh applies his sensibilities to murkier terrain. At his film’s center lies not an affable, performative protagonist like Man on Wire’s Philippe Petit, but rather a chimpanzee with no autonomy to speak of. Nim was the subject of a high-profile language experiment in the 1970s and ’80s. Taken from his mother at youth, integrated into a well-off American family, and taught sign language, he offered the possibility of a bridge between humans and animals. Project Nim explores the limitations of this enterprise.

Filmmaker sat down with James Marsh to discuss the challenges and inspirations of Project Nim, and his transition between fiction and documentary (he is directing an IRA thriller starring Clive Owen).

FILMMAKER: How do you go about choosing your projects?

Marsh: I look for stories that have a sort of dramatic integrity to them, in the same way that a fictional story would have. In this film and other films I’ve made, you look for the same things you look for in a screenplay. You’re looking to extract from preexisting events this dramatic story, a character-driven story that is based on people’s choices, actions and events, as opposed to an observational film, which is a very different kind of undertaking. So those are the kinds of films I make. They’re very constructed. And I’m trying to make a film that puts you in the present tense of the story, as opposed to one that’s been done with the benefit of hindsight. I want to know what happened, and when it happened, as opposed to what you think about it now.

FILMMAKER: You’ve cited Frederick Wiseman’s Primate as an inspiration for Project Nim. What did you take from that film?

Marsh: It was a film I watched with much interest in the context of making this film. Frederick Wiseman documented a research facility in Texas, the Yerkes Primate Center. And the film is called Primate for a very good reason. It’s not just about the primates in the institution, it’s about the primates that are running it, the human beings. And it’s as much about them as it is about the animals. In fact, it’s more about them than it is about the animals. And I think Nim is of pretty much the same sensibility. It’s as much about the people as it is about the chimpanzees.

FILMMAKER: The main distinction, however, is that Primate doesn’t go to lengths to contextualize the scientists’ experiments. It focuses mainly on their actions. Nim delves more into the revelations at stake in the experiment.

Marsh: Well I think the experiment in itself is understandable, whatever you might make of it now. The objectives are very clear: can a chimpanzee construct a language? And if it can, then what does that mean for our notions of language? And the uniqueness of language to our species? And the higher objective is a fascinating one. If a chimpanzee can articulate its thoughts, what’s it thinking? How does it see the world? What’s going on inside a chimpanzee’s mind? That’s the most ambitious part of this. We never got close to that, I don’t think. But at the same time, I think the experiment in the story of Nim is a really clear one, and probably quite a defensible one at the time it was done.

FILMMAKER: Did you come to any revelations about human behavior through your subjects’ attachments to Nim?

Marsh: That was one of the virtues of the story as I understood it. You were able to discover this human drama. The film’s given focus is the behavior of a chimpanzee in what are really these unusual circumstances, but they’re unusual circumstances for the people as well. And therefore, the behavior that you discover is really quite instructive, and the power structures in particular of the experiment are very interesting. When you have people who are in charge, and you have people who are less powerful, and how that dynamic works out. That’s our behavior, and we see it play out in the story in a very complicated, interesting way.

FILMMAKER: A lot of the films’ subjects tend to anthropomorphize Nim to the point where they’re completely shocked when he behaves like a wild animal. During your editing process, how did you resist your impulse to anthropomorphize Nim?

Marsh: It was one of the understandings I had going in. I really wanted to understand what a chimpanzee was like, what this particular chimpanzee was like. Therefore, one couldn’t shy away from the behavior that isn’t particularly reassuring or comforting to us. And so Nim is able, and does indeed, bully and attack human beings that he seems to quite like. And it’s very important that we show that. If I didn’t show that then I wouldn’t be true to what happened. And not only that. He also is very sweet and tender and can be very affectionate. But his nature is such that he can’t help but be the way he is. And it would’ve been wrong to make a sanitized view of that creature. It wouldn’t be true to him or, indeed, the story itself.

FILMMAKER: Jinx Godfrey, who has edited the majority of your films, edited Project Nim. What’s your working relationship like with her?

Marsh: We have a very established and rich collaboration going back 14 years. And that collaboration is the most consistent one across my work in both features and documentaries. I also like to edit as well, and Jinx understands that. So I will have a little fiddle on my own. When we start work, I tend to go through the first pass myself, and I do the first attempt at structure. And that’s in no way to diminish her role. Her role is extraordinarily important. It’s a very active, intellectual collaboration, as well as a purely filmmaking collaboration. And we’re very different kinds of people. She’s much tougher than I am, and much less sentimental than I am. Which is a very good person to have as you’re doing your work, someone who’s not going to settle for some soft, unfocused idea.

FILMMAKER: Project Nim is not a soft film.

Marsh: No it isn’t. And I think it’s true to the events that it represents. And there’s a definite attempt not be sentimental about Nim or his behavior, or animals in general. And one of the films that I really got influenced by was Grizzly Man, because that has a breathtaking lack of sentimentality about what bears are like. It doesn’t matter how much you like the bear, if you think the bear is a cuddly, agreeable creature. If it’s hungry it’s going to eat you. That’s the bottom line.

FILMMAKER: Your documentaries have a really strong narrative component, especially through their reenactments. How do you like to purpose reenactments?

Marsh: I use them because I need to. It’s not like I set out to do a film that will enable me to do reenactments. I try to fill in the gaps for you with images that feel appropriate to the story. And I have no puritanical view of that. It’s quite the opposite. I think that you should use all the resources you have to tell the story. And if that involves shooting polished reconstructions then so be it. For me, any film is a blank canvas that you need to fill in the best way you can.

FILMMAKER: How has your background in feature filmmaking helped you in making documentaries?

Marsh: I could not have made Man on Wire without having co-written and made a feature film, a film called The King. What I learned from that was really useful applied to Man on Wire, which became my way of thinking of genre films. “It was a heist movie.” It had to be a documentary, but I was going to use the trappings and conventions of that genre, because it felt like exactly the right way of telling the story.

FILMMAKER: Although your reenactments do anchor your films in genre, this doesn’t carry over as predictably to Project Nim. If you could place Nim within a genre, how would you?

Marsh: It’s a biopic. The two biopics I really admire in fictional cinema are Citizen Kane and Lenny, which both have a similar kind of structure, and they both have shifting timelines. And perversely as ever, my first instinct with Nim was to mess up the timelines and try to make this structurally the wrong way around. But it just wasn’t going to work that way. And the linear structure was the correct way of telling the story. It starts with a baby and ends with an old chimpanzee, and you see his physical development, and that’s an important part of the story. The film structure that was most important was the Bresson movie, Au Hasard Balthazar, which is the same kind of idea. You take a donkey and it moves through various owners, and each one has his own particular world and drama around it.

FILMMAKER: In your experience, what are the strengths and limitations of working in fiction vs. documentary?

Marsh: I tend to make documentary films about subjects that you wouldn’t believe if I made them as fictional films. If I was to present this as a fictional film, no one would believe a word of it. But on the level of process, all filmmaking for me is about structure. And when working in documentaries, you’re struggling to find a real structure in the untidiness of real life. You’re distilling a dramatic story out of that untidiness. And the process of that struggle is very useful when you come to write films, and understand fictional structure. And, of course, vice versa. You understand in a fictional film that a character’s choices and actions are the most important thing that define your story. And I’ve applied that very much to documentary filmmaking. It’s not about what people say, or their opinions, or their ideas; it’s about what they did, and what choices they made.

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