Interview: James Marsh

The award-winning Man on Wire director on his new film Project Nim

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Ask the British director James Marsh to describe the star of his new film, and he’ll mention his charm and charisma, admit he could on occasion be aggressive, and wryly refer to his penchant for thrills.

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It takes a moment to remember that the subject of the conversation isn’t a young Hollywood rake – but a chimpanzee. His name was Nim, given to him during an infamous 1970s research study, and his life has now been turned by Marsh into a smart and gripping documentary, Project Nim (in cinemas from Friday 12 August).

Man on Wire…

It’s not the first time that Marsh has stepped back into the 1970s for inspiration. He’s best known for his Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire – an electric account of tightrope artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 crossing of a high wire slung between New York’s Twin Towers. Like Petit, Nim was a grabber of headlines.

The story of Project Nim…

That a chimp could use simple words with sign language was already known – but an ambitious young professor at Columbia University, Herbert Terrace, wanted to prove more. The subject was called Nim Chimpsky, a wink in the direction of linguist Noam Chomsky, whose belief only humans could build sentences was to be re-examined.

For Nim would be taught not just words – but how to order them grammatically. Or that, at least, was the plan, one involving long hours of intense tuition and Nim being raised in a loving home just like a human baby, having been taken from his mother at two weeks old.

But to Marsh – urbane, long-haired, not unlike a funky academic – the science of the story isn’t the point. “Nim allowed me to do something incredibly unusual,” he says, “which was to tell an animal’s life story from start to finish, just as you would a human’s. If you bump into big questions about evolution, I’m pleased – but the film is a biography.”

And a fine one it is, too, occasionally shocking, frequently moving, near-Dickensian in scope – following its subject through a wildly episodic life from the moment he was taken from his mother.

Marsh’s background…

It’s a story that constantly invites us to compare ourselves to Nim, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Marsh wanted to tell it – given his own nomadic background. His accent may be nonspecific English middle class, but his childhood was actually divided between the tiny Cornish village of Sennen and a “miserable council flat” in London’s Woolwich, an area he openly loathes. “I grew up in both urban and rural poverty, but in Cornwall there was tolerance and intense beauty. Woolwich is the arsehole of the world.”

When Marsh was ten, his father became a censorious born-again Christian. The result was a “fierce desire to escape, initially by passing every exam I could”. It was a strategy that got him a scholarship to Oxford, and with it a crash course in “people with good breeding”. Then came the move into film-making, which he directly ascribes to his upbringing.

Back in Woolwich, his father had banned him from watching films – which as an adolescent naturally inspired him to “abscond from school to go to the cinema. I loved it all, particularly anything with nudity and violence. But now and then you’d actually see something good, a Taxi Driver, and wonder ‘How do they do that?’”

Eventually he would start to find out, making documentaries for the BBC. “But I wanted to escape even more. So by the end of my 20s I’d left for America.” He settled in New York, where the next decade was spent making fascinating if unprofitable features and documentaries. The path was bumpy – until 2008, when acclaimed and Oscar-winning Man on Wire came out. Success had arrived.

Marsh’s life today…

Now back in Europe, living with his Danish wife and two daughters in Copenhagen, the idea of the spotlight appals him. Always convivial, he still pauses when discussing his past to ask, “Why am I telling you this? I’d rather hide behind the films.” And yet those films are filled with his personality. He admits his own experience of parenthood drew him to Nim, and – with a wince at what he calls the “awful sentimentality” of the gesture – that he made Man on Wire for his eldest daughter, “as a lesson in the best we can achieve”.

Then there’s his uncanny gift for handling interviewees. While Nim was a very special chimp, he was one surrounded by all-too-human drama. It was the one constant of a life that took him from bohemian uptown Manhattan, being breastfed by his adoptive “mother”, to international stardom as word of the experiment grew. When interest dwindled, this drama took on a harsher, even heartbreaking, edge. Now, when Marsh gathers up all of the revolving cast of Homo sapiens that swept in and out of Nim’s life, the mood is often downright confessional.

“I’m sure some of them took part out of exactly that urge,” Marsh says. “Nim had a pivotal role in their lives, and there’s a lot of guilt involved. It’s to be expected. This is a film about what your responsibilities are to a creature once you make the hugely transgressive step of taking it from its mother.”

You could call that morality – but science and morality are human business, and the movie’s strength is never forgetting that its hero belonged to the wild. “At times, Nim reminds us of ourselves,” Marsh says, “and at times he reminds us he’s an animal – and I’m not sure which makes us more uncomfortable. For instance, he was a hedonist. He loved drugs. Various people gave him pot, which he adored. And I’m a hedonist, too, so that made me self-conscious. Then, as well as being incredibly good company, he could be violent, which again is a mark of his status as an animal. The one thing he wasn’t was endlessly warm and cuddly.”

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But he was, from first to last, independent-minded – a trait that Marsh admires. Despite the contentious issues stirred up by the movie, he won’t “bore” the audience with his own opinions. “Making a film is like cooking someone dinner,” he smiles. “You shouldn’t want to eat it for them.”