James Marsh is a humble low-key guy who often explores over-the-top boisterous characters. He’s also equal parts affable and driven, and a filmmaker whose work I’ve been raving about ever since Man On Wire rocked my world at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008. Since then I’ve chatted with James about that documentary – that would go on to take the Oscar in 2009 – and more recently about his last foray into fiction filmmaking Red Riding: 1980, the second in a stellar three-part trilogy based on David Peace’s novels set during Britain’s seedy “Yorkshire Ripper” days.
So when I saw that the director would be at this year’s Miami International Film Festival to support his Sundance award-winning doc Project Nim, which delves into the infamous experiment in the 70s that set out to teach a human-raised chimpanzee to communicate using sign language, I decided to pick his quick-witted brain once again. Sitting in the glorious sunshine outside the fest’s headquarters at the Royal Palm Hotel in South Beach we chatted about everything from Big Brother to Bresson to Herzog to uncovering Original Sin.
Lauren Wissot: So the first thing that struck me about your film is that even though it’s about an experiment involving a monkey it reminded me of the concept behind the Big Brother reality series –
James Marsh: Oh, my goodness.
LW: (laughs) No, no, let me get to my point – because I actually have never seen Big Brother. But in the way that Big Brother isn’t really about the house, Project Nim isn’t truly about the chimp. It’s actually about a human behavior experiment.
JM: Well, I think you’re right because there’s only so much you can know about the chimp really. It’s an extraordinary context. All I could show you was the chimp and what he did and how he reacted to things. But with the humans I was more certain about how they acted and perhaps about their motivations. Yes, so you’re absolutely right. It is the life of a chimpanzee as told to you through the eyes of a complex set of human beings that have their own orbiting drama.
LW: Yeah, it was sort of like let’s take this bunch of people, almost a hippie commune, and throw a monkey in and see what happens. (laughs)
JM: Well, that wasn’t the intention of the experiment. It was quite the opposite.
LW: Was this human behavior experiment angle at all a surprise to you?
JM: Well, actually it wasn’t because I think that was one of my interests in the original story. It’s based on a book by Elizabeth Hess so I was aware of most of the major events that took place in Nim’s life. It was definitely something I wanted to explore – what an animal’s behavior touches inside of us. We’re also primates, lest we forget. Animals do bring out particular behaviors in people. There’s this film I just saw at Sundance Buck about the man who was the inspiration for The Horse Whisperer. And this is sort of the opposite of that. Horses have been bred over thousands of years to work for us and to be around us. If you want to be unkind that film’s kind of about how we control animals, though in a constructive way. And with Nim he’s absolutely raw in terms of behavior. There is no human conditioning in his genes though they’re trying to attempt to condition him. The bigger issue is this whole nature versus nurture debate that the chimp embodies. What happens when you take an animal that is somewhat like us and you try to influence him to make him even more like us? Well, it doesn’t quite work.
LW: I remember at the Q&A after the screening you also talked about Bresson’s influence, specifically Au Hasard Balthazar, on the film.
JM: Yes, because I hadn’t seen anything like that done as a documentary. (laughs) It’s kind of very far away from the simple purity of Bresson but the narrative structure is pretty much the same. Where you have an animal, in that case a donkey, that’s having this relationship with these people and you begin understanding a lot about those people through the animal itself.
LW: Also, I don’t know if you thought about this, but at least for me, there were strong parallels between Nim and Man On Wire.
JM: Yes, I think there probably are. I’m not very good at analyzing my work. I just find something I want to do, and clearly there are sort of patent interests in what I’ve chosen to do.
LW: But they’re very similar subjects in terms of you’ve got this colorful character at the center, and even with Man On Wire, yes it is about the high-wire artist Philippe but it’s also about the people that come around him and about how that colorful character in the middle not only changes them – they become something other than themselves.
JM: Yes, exactly. And these people’s behavior and what they do changes dramatically in the presence of Philippe. And what he gets them to do, by example, by persuasion, by his charm and all those things he has. I guess Nim is a little like that, too. That’s true. I hadn’t thought of that. And I guess the techniques I use in the film –
LW: The structure is similar as well.
JM: Actually, Man On Wire is much more complicated – but it was much easier to make. This was quite difficult to make because in the construction of it I found it quite difficult to strike the right balance between the various accounts I was given and trying to keep the chimpanzee center stage. That was kind of tricky – whereas Man On Wire employs overlapping timelines and flashbacks and how each was informing the other. This is the first documentary I’ve made that has a linear structure, it’s chronological – which you’d think would be much easier. But it’s actually quite harder.
LW: Then do you think Man On Wire is closer to your fictional work?
JM: Yes, I think it was. But also there is a drama in this story I’m dealing with – a drama with characters. And what they do is more interesting to me than what they think or in the ethical dimensions of their experiment. The actual nature of the experiment and how it was conducted doesn’t really glorify science.
LW: But it’s also very similar in terms of theme to Herzog’s work. Especially Grizzly Man.
JM: Definitely. I love that film. It’s an extraordinary film in so many ways. What I took from it is Herzog’s view of bears is very, very unromantic and unsentimental. You can’t be sentimental about an animal that if it’s hungry it’s going to eat you. And that’s very true of Nim, too. That’s a striking comment when Laura (one of Nim’s teachers) says you can’t give human nurture to an animal that can kill you. I could have definitely massaged the film away from what you’d call Nim’s bad behavior or his animal behavior, sort of glossed over it. But it’s so central to this story. Animal nature is what this film is all about. Nim did attack people and he bit them. And he also bit people he seemed to like. (laughs) It’s the paradox of an abusive relationship.
LW: Well, Treadwell was eaten by a bear!
JM: And he wanted that to happen in a way. He was probably quite happy to be sustenance for a hungry bear.
LW: But the themes go even deeper than this. Like with Philippe in Man On Wire, you see him walk on that wire and you think “bird.” Birds don’t fall off of wires, they don’t even think about falling off of wires.
JM: It’s not Philippe’s second nature. It’s his first nature.
LW: Exactly. And now you’ve got Nim who can sign like a human. And I think Herzog explored this question as well. How close are we to the animals? What separates us? What do we share in common with them?
JM: Well, I think it’s important to recognize your animal nature. That’s another interesting dialogue and something that interested me in pursuing this film. Our behavior as animals – our sexual behavior, our hedonistic behavior and our power structures – are all addressed in this film and are all available to explore. But they’re discreetly available. It was important for me to get at these ideas without falling into an abstract discussion. Actions and events are telling you these things as opposed to it sort of being a debate.
LW: It felt very existential. Just the fact that you’ve got Herb, the project’s founder, at the top, the dominant male in the story –
LW: So you’ve created this hierarchy where there’s a parallel between Herb and the chimp since that’s how chimps set up their social structure with the alpha male on top. And yet there’s also the irony of Nim being taught to use sign language, to communicate like a human, even while you present a human like Herb whose emotional communication is nonexistent.
JM: That’s interesting. Yes, clearly I was aware of the parallels between Herb and the chimp. I didn’t want to push it too far but I just felt they were there. What was so fascinating was that in the transcripts of the experiment sometimes you’d be reading them and see “he” – and I wasn’t sure whether that was referring to the chimpanzee “he” or “he” Herb was doing this or doing that. I was mixing them up. Renee (another of Nim’s teachers) says that as she was leaving the project it felt like she was breaking up with a bad boyfriend. Herb is certainly the alpha male and uses his power in basic ways, almost politically and sexually I guess.
LW: Herb turns into the animal.
JM: Well, that nature was always there. The story is really about how the presence of an animal brings that out, how we become less civilized in an animal’s presence.
LW: That brings up the character of Bob, another of Nim’s teachers.
JM: Bob is a character in his own right. His relationship with chimpanzees is much more –
JM: He’s meeting them halfway. And the experiment is really saying we’re going to impose a human construct on you – i.e., human language – and Bob doesn’t really accept that premise.
LW: He kind of goes in the other direction.
JM: For him it’s about the richness of communication that’s available. He does put that construct in place. Nim ends up teaching Bob signs. Like the sign for “play.” Nim invented that sign himself and taught Bob that. The two signs Nim uses more than anything else are “play” and “hug.” It’s very revealing what he wants from us.
LW: And that’s why Bob serves as such an intriguing contrast to Herb. You’ve got Bob becoming more chimp-like even while Herb tries to make Nim more human-like. Where do we draw the line?
JM: There were overlaps that people weren’t very confident recognizing. Of course one being the hedonistic impulse that chimpanzees have that we clearly have, too. It’s hardwired into them the way it is into us. Nim likes getting stoned, he likes drinking as many people do – and indeed do I. (laughs)
LW: In a sense Nim is just more honest about these things. (laughs)
JM: I think in the beginning people may have reacted in a way I’m not really comfortable with. And I just have to accept that. You can’t really control how a film works or plays or how people respond to various elements in your work. I always really felt that what Stephanie (Nim’s human “mother”) was doing – I mean no one gave her a textbook – she did what she thought was right. Yet she quickly learned that Nim wasn’t like a human infant. At just a few months he was climbing the walls – and yet he had an emotional sophistication that human infants don’t have until quite a bit later. So when she gave him a puff on a joint or a beer I don’t think that’s particularly wrong, to be honest with you. Or no more wrong than anything else that went on, that’s my point. It’s no more wrong than sticking him in a classroom and drilling him like a schoolboy and boring him out of his mind. That’s much more against his nature than giving him a joint.
LW: Which also brought up for me this similarity to the foster care system. How Nim got ripped away and then passed from one “mother” to another.
JM: Chimps stay with their mothers for the first five years. When they become adolescents they disengage like we do. But Nim had around 25 people around him – we don’t show all of them, only the key players. And in the wild chimpanzee mothers discipline their babies, they cuff them around, so you do wonder how our strategies with Nim may well have caused him to rebel in ways he may not have done if he’d had one central person raising him the whole time.
LW: He was raised by a dysfunctional family.
JM: Sure, you can say he came from a broken home. And I’m very wary of all that. In the film that’s the Original Sin that you discover. You take any creature from its mother – that’s a transgressive act, as transgressive as it gets in nature.