Jane Goodall on Her New Doc and Her Love Story in Africa

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At a time when hurricanes are leveling entire islands and wildfires are ripping through California, it seems important to be reminded of our connection to nature. One person who has never let up in her advocacy for animals and their habitats is Dame Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, who in 1960, at age 26, went to the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania — as a researcher for Kenyan scientist Louis Leakey — to live among primates and study their behavior. She was venturing where no man, or woman, had gone before, and her work not only proved a link between humans and chimps that went far beyond genetics (into social and emotional similarities), but also forever altered our perception of animals as feeling beings with personalities.

Now, at 83, she’s the subject of a beautiful new documentary, Jane, from Oscar-nominated director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture; Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) — complete with an original score from Philip Glass. It’s made up of 140 hours of silent footage from Goodall’s earliest days in Gombe that were found in a National Geographic storage locker in 2014. And in addition to all the cute, and sometimes scary, footage of chimps, also reveals the swoon-worthy love story of how Goodall met her first husband, Baron Hugo van Lawick, in the wilds of Africa. He was a handsome and single Dutch photographer and filmmaker — widely regarded as one of the greatest wildlife cinematographers of all time — whom Nat Geo had sent out to chronicle Goodall’s journey, and it’s his footage that was found in that storage locker. Vulture sat down with Goodall and Morgen to talk about their collaboration, grill her on that romance, and dissect Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, and the dismantling of the EPA.

You just came here from an event in San Francisco?

Jane Goodall: Those fires are awful. Awful. Awful. The hotel was packed with people fleeing, who’d lost their homes. It was like being in Beijing, the smoke was so thick over San Francisco. I looked from my window, you should see the ocean and I couldn’t see it.

Well, glad you made it. What’s it been like for both of you to comb through this lost Gombe footage?  

Brett Morgen: What made it challenging was at some point over the last 55 years, the footage got kind of scrambled up. We basically had 140 hours of random shots with no sound and no logs [explaining] which chimpanzee was which.

JG: Pigglety. Pigglety. Pigglety. Did you know they cut the original [film reel]? We lost very valuable scientific information that way.

BM: It’s amazing that they saved some of that stuff where Hugo’s filming you. Stuff you’d assume Geographic had no need for, but is the bread and butter of our film.

Jane, did you know that there was all this footage just out there in the world somewhere?

JG: I knew it existed, but had totally forgotten about it. And they suddenly found it.

BM: It found us.

JG: It found us, yes. The film needed to be made. It wanted to be made.

Did you have any trepidation about diving back into it?

JG: I was just thinking, This is ridiculous. Another film from that footage? Because there’s already been three or four. I thought it was crazy.

But this is all unseen stuff, right?

JG: Hugo had shot a lot and I thought, Well they must have pulled out all the good stuff. And they didn’t.

BM: There was material that was never used on television because of the technology back then. Like the shot where you’re tickling the chimp — at the time there was an overexposure issue, but we were able to repair it.

JG: [Starts hooting like a chimp and scratching her sides.]

BM: [Laughs.] I love when you do that!

JG: So very stupid. You know, I consulted on Planet of the Apes. I loved the last one.

How closely did you two work together?

JG: We didn’t. The first time I met him was when he came to interview me, which was supposed to be three hours and lasted two days. I probably wouldn’t have agreed to two whole days.

BM: No, you would not. Jane obviously had never seen Montage of Heck.

JG: [Rolls eyes, flashes Morgen a look of horror.]

BM: I love her face when I say Montage of Heck! She’s like, Who is this guy that National Geographic brought into my world? She didn’t know anything about me. But I like that she’s a bit of an unwilling subject, because Jane’s not trying to sell you anything. She’s probably the least pretentious human being I’ve ever met.

Jane, what was it like, emotionally, for you to look back at this footage?

JG: It took me right back to live in that time, which was the best time of my life. I knew those chimps so well. Seeing them again was very special.

My favorite part, of course, is your love story with Hugo. You’d first gone to Gombe with your mother. Was she still there when he arrived?

JG: No, Geographic sent Hugo after mum had left. Then Leakey said, tongue-in-cheek, “You can’t send a young man out to a young woman in the middle of nowhere if she doesn’t have a chaperone.” So Geographic sent mum back, but she arrived two weeks after him so —

It was too late!

BM: It was not too late at least in the first two months, right Jane?

JG: It wasn’t too late to prevent — I mean, nothing had happened by then. It was just that she was too late to be there for the whole time. So the whole chaperone business was blown.

Did you and Hugo spark immediately?

JG: No.

BM: But he must’ve.

JG: Well, maybe he did.

BM: I’m assuming he did. Because Hugo has no idea when he arrives! It’s not like Leakey sent a picture of Jane. Can you imagine Hugo’s reaction as a single, young man when he got off the boat and there you were? It’s like, he hit the lottery! He’s stuck on an abandoned island with this woman! And he was good-looking, too.

JG: Yeah.

But you were very devoted to your work.

JG: I was just so busy with the chimps.

BM: You’ve gotta remember, a woman at Jane’s age at the time, at 26, who hadn’t been married who decides to go live with chimpanzees for a few years probably is figuring she’s not getting married, right Jane?

JG: Well, no. Back then, I never thought about a career versus marriage — you were going to get married one day. That was the perception: That you could do what you wanted and then a white knight would come along in shining armor and look after you for the rest of your life.

BM: Even at 26 you didn’t feel like a spinster?

JG: No. Not at all.

BM: That’s so interesting. But all your friends must have been married off by then.

JG: Probably.

Your story with Hugo reminded me of a movie called Tracks that came out a few years ago. It’s the true story of a young woman who’s crossing the Australian outback on camelback and this National Geographic photographer is sent out to chronicle her and I think he falls in love, but she doesn’t.

JG: Oh right, right, right. I’ve heard of it.

Was National Geographic like a matchmaking service?

JG: It was Leakey who was matchmaking.

He picked Hugo as your photographer?

JG: Yep.

BM: Leakey wrote to Vanne [Jane’s mother] and said, “I’ve found a photographer and also a potential husband for Jane.”

JG: But he never said that to me. Or Hugo.

There’s not a lot of footage of your courtship, and then Hugo proposes. It feels a little sudden in the movie, but you must’ve spent an immense amount of time together.  

JG: My mum left after about two months and Hugo was still there. It’s funny, because most people who see me walking around alone [on screen] don’t think, Oh there must have been a photographer. He was there that whole time. The point of this film is that it isn’t a wildlife film or a scientific documentary. It’s more like a romantic fairy story.

BM: About a woman and her work.

You didn’t have a college degree when Leakey picked you as his researcher. What do you think got you the job?

JG: Well, I’d read every book about animals. And then he let me go on an expedition searching for fossils in Kenya, and I think there he saw that I was really fitted for living in the wild, because we had one cup of water a day for washing, and I never complained. We were only allowed to wash our hair when the water truck came back and that was every two weeks.

Wow.

JG: But I think even more important was there was one day when we came upon a young male lion, fully grown, and very curious. [The other young woman on the expedition] wanted to go into the thick vegetation to hide. And I said, “That’s silly. He’ll know exactly where we are, but we won’t have a clue where he is.” So I said, “No. We have to climb up onto the open plain.” I think that was the evening that Leakey agreed I was the right person.

BM: Because you didn’t get eaten?

JG: No, because I acted in the right way.

You and Hugo had a son, Grub, who you raised in Gombe. What was it like to watch the footage of him?

JG: I loved the stuff about Grub growing up. I adore when he makes the animal sounds. [Note: He imitates all kinds of animals during a TV interview.] Somebody said, “Don’t you feel you’re exploiting your son?” And I said, “What?!” I was proud of him making those sounds.

He had a unique childhood. You were worried the chimps might eat him, right?

JG: Well, that’s why he was always in a cage. [Note: It was a pretty big cage.] He was up in the chimp camp in a cage in a house.

BM: It doesn’t sound good, Jane.

JG: [Laughs.] It was very beautiful and there always somebody with him sitting in the cage, and this was before he could crawl. He was only in the cage when he was a very small baby. Once he could crawl and walk, then he was down on the beach. He was always with somebody. Every second.

I’m wondering how you feel humans’ relationships with animals have changed just in your lifetime.

JG: Definitely. Hugely.

BM: Thanks to her.

JG: Thanks to me and the chimps. It’s true. I was told when I went to Cambridge that chimps didn’t have personalities, minds or emotions. It was only us [humans, that had personalities]. But I had already learned from my dog [that animals have personalities]. And then Hugo captured all the behavioral similarities that forced science to think differently.

Now we think of animals as having human characteristics.

JG: You can now get a Ph.D. in animal emotions, animal personality.

BM: There’s a chimp that passes away, and the reaction of the other chimps is very relatable to us.

JG: Grief. The first scientists to be interested in my footage — I think zoologists didn’t know what to do with it — were child psychologists and psychiatrists [John] Bowlby and [René] Spitz.

Why do you think that as humans get further away from the animal world, we seem to have more empathy for animals?

JG: Because we have more awareness. I mean, I first went to China in the mid-’90s and there was no concern for animals at all. Now many, many, many across China come up to me and say, “Of course I care about animals. I was in your Roots & Shoots program in primary school.”

What do you think about the Trump administration’s dismantling of the EPA?

JG: What do you think I think about it?

[Everyone laughs.]

JG: If I tell you what I think you might print it. It’s absolutely terrifying. To put climate change deniers in the positions they’re in? To have somebody in EPA who’s taken out the P? The P is gone. There’s no protection left.

Is this irreversible?

JG: Well, if a second term, for heaven’s sake, came along it might be irreversible. It won’t be, but we have to just keep fighting all the time as hard as we can.

I also wanted to ask you about all the stories that have been coming out about Harvey Weinstein and the culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault that he perpetuated. He began his first apology by saying, “I was a child of the 60s and 70s,” as a sort of excuse for his behavior. As a female pioneer of the 1960s, what was your experience with sexual harassment?

JG: I was personally never pushed to any extreme. I certainly knew maybe some men would have enjoyed jumping into bed with me, but I didn’t want to jump into bed with them and they didn’t push it.

When a newspaper headline would call you “comely” while discussing your work, what was your reaction to that?  

JG: Well, I brushed it off. “Geographic cover girl,” “she’s only getting attention because of her legs.” I brushed it off, but actually looking back on it, it was very useful, wasn’t it? The Geographic liked it. They might not have enjoyed me if I’d been a really ugly creature.

So as long as it kept the research going, that was what mattered? Sexism could be turned into an advantage?

JG: I think sometimes the most important part of getting research grants is personality and the ability to pitch our project. I’m a pretty good pitcher. If people wanted to call me “comely,” it helped with awareness. Hugely.

BM: It’s like I was telling someone earlier, if Nirvana was fronted by Tad instead of Kurt I don’t think they would be the band they were. And if National Geographic, or if Leakey had said, “Put me in instead of Jane,” I don’t think we’d be talking about this today.

JG: It certainly made a difference. Because it was “Beauty and the Beast” [as a media narrative]. I mean, that was the whole thing at the beginning: this lovely girl goes in to live with these creatures.

BM: Can I ask you something, though? In your other vocations, you must have had situations when you were working at other jobs, like the documentary company, where your employers were coming on to you.

JG: Um … No.

BM: Really?

JG: No. I mean, little flirtations, which I enjoyed. I’ve always liked men.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give women who are trying to work in a male-dominated field?

JG: I think you need to be sure of yourself. You need to feel good about who you are and you’ve got to set your boundaries and try and keep them.

BM: For me, the most important section of the film is the section where Jane talks about how Vanne [her mother] listened and supported her. It went right through me. I didn’t pick it up, but my wife Debra Eisenstadt, who is also a filmmaker and an executive producer, she said, “Stop. Did you hear that?” And I said, “What?” And she said, “That’s not going to mean anything to you because you’re a man, but trust me, as a woman, that was all I ever wanted from my parents. Was to be heard and understood and not to be this princess.” My wife said that around the dinner table, her father would talk to the boys in the family but would never engage her for her intellect, and how frustrating it was.

JG: It wasn’t like that in my family at all. Mum was like Flo [the mother chimp in Gombe]. Supportive. Supportive. Supportive.

BM: One more thing about the Harvey stuff — so we premiered last week at the Hollywood Bowl. And as we were going down the carpet, someone from USA Today asked me about Harvey. It was so strange in that context, and I was talking about what a terrible reflection of our industry that is, and I looked down and I see Jane walking towards us and I was like, “How apropos in this moment of darkness that there’s this beacon of light coming towards us.” And when people ask why this film was discovered in 2014, I can only imagine it was because it needed to come out now.

JG: That’s been the magic all my life. Things have come when they were meant to come.

BM: Because what are the odds the movie opens the week that these very questions are coming to the surface? And that the year that gave us Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman has finally given us a real superhero that we can celebrate, that boys need as much as girls?

JG: [Looking at publicists who keep signaling for me to wrap up.] We should say good-bye. They’re going to stick a knife in your back.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jane Goodall on Her New Doc and Her Love Story in Africa