Project Nim - James Marsh interview
Man on Wire director charts 1970s chimp experiment in extraordinary film
This article is from 2011.
‘I’m here bleary-eyed straight from four weeks of shooting a feature film in Dublin!’ So claims Project Nim director James Marsh when I meet him, but you wouldn’t know it from the espresso-fuelled 30 minutes of rapid discussion that follows, in which every question I ask is cut off by a full-flowing answer from the incredibly articulate Englishman, before I can even draw breath. I’ve encountered many a hung over interview subject who could take a lesson from Marsh’s ‘bleary-eyed’ form.
Three years ago Marsh was here in Edinburgh with Man On Wire, his wonderful Oscar-winning film about the Twin Towers tightrope walker Philippe Petit. He refers to that film as ‘the best story you’re ever going to be given’, but here at The List we think Marsh and his producer Simon Chinn have struck gold again with Project Nim, another documentary, this time telling the story of an ill-conceived scientific experiment during the 70s in which a rag-tag group of scientists and researchers attempted to raise a baby chimp – known as Nim - as part of a human family. If you think it sounds like one of those mad scientist movies where everything goes wrong then you’re on the right lines, with the difference that if this was fiction then someone would stop and say ‘er, maybe this isn’t such a good idea’ considerably earlier than happened in reality.
It’s a fascinating story, unfolding in the style that Marsh strongly established in Man On Wire: present-day interviews and archive footage alongside beautifully shot reconstructions that freely make use of stylistic conventions more commonly seen in narrative cinema. This, Marsh claims, is the only effective way to do justice to the stories he tells: ‘The work of Errol Morris was really important to me when I was younger, when I saw The Thin Blue Line I was bowled over by how cinematic it was. I felt that that was the way to make a documentary, to use the full resources of cinema, with scoring and with reconstructions, and make it available on a bigger canvas, and make it powerful.’
Marsh certainly succeeds on that front with Project Nim, a film that would move even the hardest of hearts as it follows the failure of the experiment at each stage, and the resulting suffering endured by Nim at the centre of it all. But Marsh is also aware of the tension between attempting to make the most powerful film while still honouring individual accounts of what happened. ‘[Reconstructions] should have their own, dare I say it, aesthetic integrity that fits with the subject matter and emerges from that. And in fact, when I do them they’re almost always narrated directly by the person who was there – it’s kind of weird; you’re recreating their [experience, which obviously] didn’t happen that exact way.’ This points up an interesting fact about Marsh’s film-making approach, in that although he is a documentary filmmaker, he is not ultimately pursuing what he would call ‘truth’. He explains: ‘It’s a drama, and you look for a story that has dramatic proportions to it. All documentary film-makers are dramatists; you’re being selective about the story you tell and you’re dramatizing it. You can’t ever say "this is exactly how it was"; it’s a fool’s errand to think that you are getting at some objective truth.’ Rather, with Project Nim, Marsh claims his intentions were, appropriately, more scientific: ‘What I really wanted to do was to try and understand animals’ behaviour, for good and for bad. Nim is an animal with powerful instincts. We see what he’s like when he’s a baby and an adolescent and a fully-grown chimpanzee, and those behaviours are there and you see them emerge, and the film is about that. His behaviours are his tragedy ultimately, because he’s in the wrong context for them, he’s in the human world, where he shouldn’t be. And if there’s a moral to the story then that’s it.’
I mention to Marsh recent documentaries Exit Through The Gift Shop and Catfish, films that have provoked questions about the responsibility feature film documentary-makers have to tell the truth. Marsh has clearly done his homework, and is in no doubts as to his own thoughts: the Banksy film is ‘a genuine documentary that by its very nature deconstructs some of the elements of documentary film-making’, while Catfish is ‘rather more dubious an example… I was irritated by what I thought I wasn’t being told. But having said that the film becomes unusually gripping, and it has an extraordinary idea in it, which is the relationship between subject and filmmaker.’ He has less time for I’m Still Here, Joaquin Phoenix’s foray into faux-documentary: ‘I don’t really have huge amounts of sympathy for celebrity crises. The Morgan Spurlock film [The Greatest Movie Ever Sold] is another example; I don’t really care about product placement in advertising, and if you’re going to do it and then say “guess what suckers, the audience are now going to be complicit in this product placement because you’ve come to see my film”, I can resist that too, actually.’
Project Nim gets a general UK release in August, but for now Marsh is heading straight back to Dublin to continue work on Shadow Dancer, a political thriller about an IRA informer starring Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough and written by ITN political correspondent Tom Bradby. Marsh is clearly itching to return to it, delighted with the results so far: ‘I’ve shot four weeks with Andrea and she’s the most unbelievably brilliant actress, I’m enjoying so much what she’s doing. It’s a thriller, essentially, but very much a character-driven thriller. The characters are very well written and shaped, and even more so by the actors who are now living with them.’