Man on monkey: Director tackles 'Project Nim'

By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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NEW YORK - In his new documentary, “Project Nim,’’ about the headline-generating chimpanzee who was raised in a human family in the 1970s as part of a landmark experiment in human-ape communication, James Marsh is again blurring the styles and techniques of the fiction and nonfiction cinematic forms.

His 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, “Man on Wire,’’ about French daredevil Philippe Petit’s death-defying 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center’s twin towers, was smartly structured in the style of a caper or heist film. It fashioned cheeky yet suspenseful reenactments of Petit and his coconspirators secretly plotting and executing their illicit high-wire act. In directing the 1980-set installment of the epic “The Red Riding Trilogy,’’ Marsh used archival news footage of the Yorkshire Ripper killings to tell a fictionalized story of the crimes.

For “Project Nim,’’ which opens Friday, the director has mined the hallmarks of the biopic genre to dramatize the heartbreaking life story of Nim Chimpsky, the famous chimp whom researchers tried to turn near-human by teaching it language. (Nim’s name was a riff on linguist Noam Chomsky, who argued that only humans are hard-wired to develop language.)

While reading Elizabeth Hess’s 2008 book about the life of Nim, Marsh said he thought about 18th- and 19th-century English authors such as Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and William Makepeace Thackeray, whose flawed protagonists in novels like “Vanity Fair’’ and “Moll Flanders’’ served to both entertain and instruct.

“I was surprised at how gripping [Hess’s book] was as a narrative. And I was very intrigued by the idea of doing it as a conventional biopic or an instructive life story [modeled on those English novels] - but it happens to be an animal that’s the subject,’’ Marsh explained over a double-espresso in a SoHo cafe. “Because of the nature of Nim’s story, he goes from one person to the next person, one institution to another. It’s like a picaresque story, in the true literary sense of that word.’’

Indeed, Nim’s tragic life was one of heartbreak and itinerant uncertainty from its earliest days, when he was snatched as an infant from his mother at a primate research facility in Oklahoma. He became the centerpiece of a radical, news-making experiment by Columbia University professor Herb Terrace to teach an ape how to communicate via sign language. The hope was that Nim would learn enough vocabulary and grammar to tell us his thoughts and feelings, and eventually the fears, desires, and dreams swimming inside his head.

At first, Terrace installed Nim in the New York City townhouse of the free-spirited Stephanie LaFarge and her Upper West Side family (including seven children), where Nim was dressed in baby clothes, began to learn sign language, and bonded with his human family (even smoking the occasional joint).

But as Nim’s rebellious behavior became increasingly destructive, Terrace decided that the chimp needed more structure. So Nim was abruptly moved to a sprawling estate in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where he worked with a series of instructors who forged close bonds with him (and each other) and became a sort of surrogate family. Yet as Nim moved into adolescence, his primal instincts began to flourish, his biting grew more ferocious, and he was apt to attack any human he perceived as weak.

When Nim was 5, Terrace pulled the plug on the experiment, concluding that Nim’s 125-word vocabulary was a sophisticated form of begging, not a grasp of language. Nim was returned to the primate research center in Oklahoma. There, he struggled to adjust to his new life among his fellow apes, not seen since birth. Still, he developed connections with the human staff, in particular the Deadhead Bob Ingersoll, a native New Englander who became a lifelong advocate for Nim and other primates in captivity.

Nim’s travails continued throughout his life, as he was shuttled from an upstate New York medical research lab where he was forced to live in a small cage, to an animal sanctuary in Texas. There he wound up as isolated and dejected as ever, before former caretakers like Ingersoll came to his rescue again.

Said Marsh’s collaborator, Simon Chinn, who produced both “Project Nim’’ and “Man on Wire’’: “To a great extent the film is culled, as much as it’s possible to do so, from Nim’s perspective - without trying to project onto him or anthropomorphize. We never set out to make a film about Project Nim, the scientific experiment. Because actually Nim’s life was much richer and kind of transcended that one experiment.’’

The film chronicles Nim’s heartbreaking journey using a mix of archival footage, seamless reenactments, and interviews with those whose lives were profoundly touched by the chimp. It also raises a number of troubling questions - most pointedly, said Marsh, “What kind of responsibility do we have to a kind of intelligent, sentient creature, when you essentially co-opt him into your world?’’

By exploring Nim’s story as an ape interacting and connecting emotionally with humans from birth, the film becomes an exploration of humanity itself, and the mirror that Nim holds up reveals some uncomfortable and unsettling truths about our own nature.

“It inevitably became a story about the people as much as about the chimpanzee,’’ said Marsh, an amiable, blue-eyed Brit with sharp features and shoulder-length hair. “You see the full spectrum of human behavior in the story. You see people behaving in very selfless ways and in very kind and tender ways. And sometimes that can lead to the worst kind of consequences, because the best intentions are not always good enough. There’s also the element of hubris in the story, which is a very human quality - that we overreach. And when we overreach, things often go very wrong.’’

Marsh said he wanted to avoid overtly thrusting ideas or themes into the hands of the audience, which he also smartly eschewed in “Man on Wire’’ when he veered away from any discussion of the 9/11 attacks that brought down the World Trade Center.

Nim’s story forced Marsh to think hard about the human relationship with animals, both wild and domestic. He deliberately sprinkled images of dogs and cats (with which Nim sometimes played) and other domestic creatures throughout the film. “We so often co-opt [animals] to serve our own ends and don’t understand what they’re about,’’ Marsh said. “There was never an attempt to understand what Nim wanted.’’

A creeping sense of dread and mounting tension pervades “Project Nim.’’ Indeed, those qualities are a hallmark of Marsh’s films. “That’s something you always look for - tension, revelation, and surprise - and then you emphasize those turning points,’’ he said. “Those kinds of manipulations are what I most enjoy when I’m making a film. Suspense, fear, dread, the stuff of horror movies, there’s a purity to those emotions.’’

At the moment, Marsh is busy shooting “Shadow Dancer,’’ a dramatic thriller set during the Irish peace process and centering on a young female IRA volunteer who’s coerced into becoming an informant for Britain’s MI5. The film, which stars Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson, “was written by a journalist who spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland in the ’90s,’’ Marsh said. “So some of it is a compound of real stories that happened at that time.’’

Shifting between documentary and fiction filmmaking projects is an ideal scenario, said Marsh, as each genre experience informs the other. “There’s a cross-fertilization that happens with the different kinds of approaches. What you’ve done and learned in one form can very easily help you when you’re working in the other one.’’

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at

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