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James Marsh and Simon Chinn Interviewby Pattye Grippo    
Project Nim

This is an interview with director James Marsh and producer Simon Chinn of the film Project Nim. From the Oscar-winning team behind Man On Wire comes the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who in the 1970s became the focus of a landmark experiment which aimed to show that an ape could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Following Nim's extraordinary journey through human society, and the enduring impact he makes on the people he meets along the way, the film is an unflinching and unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human. What we learn about his true nature - and indeed our own - is comic, revealing and profoundly unsettling. Project Nim premieres in select cities on July 8, 2011.

Question:
What was the inspiration for the film?

Simon Chinn:
My wife, Lara! In June 2008, she came across a feature article about Nim's story by Elizabeth Hess (the author of the book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human) in a British newspaper and, heavily pregnant with our first child together, it deeply moved her. I was immediately struck by her response - particularly as an imminent mother. It's a story which strikes a deep chord with everyone I've told it to, but I think most of all with parents. James Marsh and I had been talking for some months about which stories had all the elements we were looking for to make our next documentary after MAN ON WIRE - and this one just felt perfect.

James Marsh:
Simon gave me Elizabeth Hess' biography of Nim in late summer of 2008. I was shooting another film at the time but I got very excited when I read it. The story is an irresistible one - what happens if you try and nurture a baby chimpanzee like a human baby? How much will he become like us? Nim never saw or met another chimpanzee for the first five years of his life so, in that respect, it's a very pure experiment though the results are very surprising, to say the least. If you're interested in the debate about the respective influence of nature and nurture on a living intelligent creature, the film will provide some interesting revelations.

Question:
Where was the film shot?

James Marsh:
The film is constructed from in-depth interviews with all the humans involved in the life story of Nim - those interviews were shot in New York. Additionally, we shot some documentary footage of locations in New York where Nim lived. Finally, we created and shot some imagery to illustrate the events in the film once we had done a lot of editing of the story. Those elements were shot in a disused office complex in Nyack, upstate New York, a horse ranch in New Jersey and an old mansion just outside of New York City.

Question:
How long did the film take to make?

James Marsh:
We started the initial research on the project in March 2009 and we'll finish it just before Sundance in January 2011. So, the best part of two years - which is roughly the time you expect a feature documentary to take. The editing process on these projects is long and arduous.

Question:
What was the most compelling scene to shoot or create?

James Marsh:
We have a lot of extraordinary archive film - much of it unknown to us when we started out. Perhaps the most amazing moment in the archive is Nim's first ever encounter with another chimpanzee, which was discreetly filmed by a camera crew. We managed to find all the rushes of that monumental and profound encounter. Nim's reaction to seeing a member of his own species is truly remarkable and actually quite upsetting.

Question:
What surprised you as you were working on this film?

Simon Chinn:
What surprised me most was to discover what extraordinary animals chimpanzees are. Of course they are very distinct from humans in so many ways ??? and that's important to remember, and in many ways the point of our film. But, just like us, chimps are individuals and have unique and very distinctive personalities and a complex range of emotional needs. Nim made a profound and enduring impact on the people in our film - and this was also a surprise. We were struck by how emotional people were in telling their stories about Nim from twenty or thirty years ago ??? and also by the way their lives were subsequently shaped by their relationships with Nim.

Question:
What was the hardest part of working on this film?

Simon Chinn:
It is such a rich and complex story, told over 26 years, so putting it together in the cutting room was a challenge. This is true of any feature documentary, but it was especially true of this one. James and his editor, Jinx Godfrey, bore the burden of this - and in my view did a brilliant job. But obviously I'm biased!

Question:
When did you know you had a good film?

James Marsh:
That remains to be seen! We need to see the film with an audience to really understand whether the film works in the way we hope. It is one of the exciting and scary parts of taking a film to Sundance. As a filmmaker, I believe you have to please yourself in the first instance - you have to make a film that you want to watch. I think I've done that... the rest we'll know soon enough.

Question:
What differentiates this film from others that might be in the same genre?

Simon Chinn:
This may be a documentary but we also hope audiences will simply watch it as they do any narrative film. As with MAN ON WIRE, our hope is that the documentary label will become incidental and that audiences will be able to sit back and enjoy it, as they would any film - drama or documentary - through their immersion in the story.

Question:
What do you want audiences to take away?

Simon Chinn:
I think we want audiences to take from the film whatever it offers them. Our aim has simply been to try to tell the story as we see it, in the best and most vivid way with the materials at our disposal. The film has no agenda and promotes no cause but it does offer big themes and ideas, but they are implicit in the story. It's a story which can't fail to move people, but it will do so in different ways and for different reasons.

James Marsh:
We don't really want to reveal too much of the narrative ahead of people seeing the film. There are some big surprises in the story - in fact shocks - and I'd love people to discover and respond to those when they see the film itself. We tell the whole story of Nim's life and, while it starts out as an interesting interface between chimpanzees and humans based on living together and communicating, it spirals into a whole other realm that I don't think anyone would be able to predict. It's quite a ride for our chimp and, I think, for our audience.

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