For his Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, director James Marsh chronicled the magnificent obsession of high-wire walker Phillippe Petit, and the result was enthralling, even exhilarating. For Marsh’s new documentary Project Nim, he again covers a seventies figure attempting the near-impossible, but this time the experiment has darker undertones. Nim follows a project headed by psychologist Herbert Terrace that was intended to teach sign language and human behavior to the titular baby chimpanzee, which his former pupil (and lover) Stephanie LaFarge raised in her house as a human child. Later, though, as Nim grew older and became potentially more dangerous, his animal instincts and newly acquired human nature made him an unstable combination. Marsh chatted with Vulture about Nim’s compelling story, the ethics of using monkeys in movies, and how much damage an angry chimp could do to you. (Hint: A lot.)
Are you a pet owner?
I’m a parent, though that’s not the same thing at all. [Chuckles.] But certainly part of my interest in the story was having had children and watched them acquire language. And indeed the whole idea of a shaper — a little person that’s emerging and trying to understand what they’re all about, and addressing what they are as opposed to what you what them to be — that’s definitely part of my interest in Nim’s story. It’s about nurturing for a particular objective.
Were you working on the film when the headlines broke about Charla Nash, the woman who suffered the chimp attack at her friend’s house?
You know, we started just after that, so it was pretty much of the popular culture. I think it shaped our response to chimpanzees in quite a major way, actually. It’s such a striking story, because of the viral YouTube footage of it. For the first time, chimps became known for what they are, which is extraordinarily dangerous. They’re not pets, they’re wild animals. Their behavior is actually quite predictable if you’re a chimpanzee, but not if you’re a person. And you see clearly in our film Nim behaving very aggressively toward people and that he thinks he can dominate, that he thinks you’re weaker than him. And, indeed, some people get very nasty bites from him. So that story may have repositioned our understanding of what chimps can be like, particularly fully grown, powerful, adult chimpanzees. That wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened, for sure. There isn’t anybody that’s worked with chimpanzees that didn’t have bite marks on them one way or another.
What surprised me about that story and Project Nim was that, apparently, it’s easy to acquire a chimpanzee as a pet? Which is something I didn’t know — I assumed it was illegal. Do you have any idea how that works?
Chimpanzees live a long time. In captivity, they live to be 50 years of age. Nim dies quite young, very young for a chimpanzee, so I think there are chimpanzees around in people’s homes from the seventies and eighties that are still there. You start to realize how foolhardy this is, and I believe it’s illegal now. You can’t do that anymore. You can’t now get a baby chimpanzee and say, “I’m going to bring it up as a child, and it’s going to be a pet,” thank God. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous situation to put yourself in. To give you an idea of their strength: They have leathery hard skin, if they pull on your arm hard enough, it’ll pull your arm off, whereas it wouldn’t do that to another chimpanzee. So even when they don’t mean to be aggressive or dominant, they can really, really damage you.
Help me understand the idea that a chimp is seven times more powerful than a man. What’s a good example of that power?
Just twice as much would be superhuman. When it’s five times or seven times, it’s a geometric progression from our strength. You have to think of what that means. And also, you can’t really hurt them; they’re all muscle and bone. Nim would jump through a window and fall 50 feet to the ground and just walk away from it without any sort of bruising or anything. They’re formidable creatures. If you got in a fight with one, you wouldn’t get very far. They have fangs and huge forearms. You don’t want to fuck with them by any means whatsoever. And a male will display a bit before he goes off and attacks you, whereas a female won’t do that — the females will nurture you and, when you’re not looking, it’ll bite you. So beware even more of the female chimps.
Project Nim is a very seventies story. Nim wasn’t just learning human customs from Stephanie — she was even sharing joints with him and allowing him to suckle her breasts. You came of age during the seventies — what was it like to look back at that period through such a perfect time capsule as this story?
To be fair to Stephanie, there was no textbook on what she could and couldn’t do with a chimpanzee. We’d never done this before, really. So she does the best she can, and people often respond like, ‘How could she give him marijuana when he’s a kid?’ Well, it’s no more strange than sticking him in a classroom or putting clothes on him. So I feel the film does offer you an interesting snapshot of that time and place, New York in the seventies, and the values of that time. They’re not vastly different from our own times, but you certainly couldn’t do that in this day. You couldn’t do this experiment now, that’s for sure.
I know you created some new footage for the flashbacks in Man on Wire. How much of this film is old footage that you were able to obtain, and how much did you actually have to shoot yourself?
It’s a lot less than in Man on Wire. There’s not always an obvious distinction between what’s archived and what’s constructed, though it is in my mind. But not always in everybody else’s mind, it would seem.
One reason I ask is because I’m curious whether you had to shoot reconstructed footage with actual chimpanzees.
It’s a man in a chimp suit, a little English guy who specializes in being a chimpanzee, and is really good at it. We couldn’t afford a Hollywood version of the chimp suits — we had a lower-rent version. But what you see is little glimpses of movements and events and shapes of this chimpanzee. He’s called Peter Elliot, and he’s the go-to man for chimpanzee impersonation. It would be very improper to use any real chimpanzee in our story. It would be compounding some of the mistakes the film was exposing.
Absolutely. It made me question the people who provide chimps to television and movie productions. But honestly, I feel like after the one-two punch of The Cove and this film, people aren’t going to be as high on zoos anymore.
No, that might change too. I was living in Copenhagen, where there’s a quite a big chimposium. I’d go there often while I was making the film to look at chimpanzees and hang out for an hour or two around them. And I couldn’t do that now, knowing what I know now about their personalities and their individuality and the fact that in their social group, a cage is the last place a chimpanzee should be. That’s such an entry-level error. They need to be able to move widely around. They need freedom, and it’s quite difficult to ponder any higher primate in a cage.