James Marsh changed what many people expect from documentaries with 2008's Man on Wire, an energetic recounting of Phillippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, using interviews and re-enactments to tell a kind of heist film. For his next project Marsh found himself dealing with a much more traditional documentary format, the story of an incredible life and all the people who influenced it, but he had two things working in his favor for originality: his inimitable storytelling gift, and the fact that his hero was a chimpanzee.

In Project Nim Marsh recounts the incredible 1970s experiment that led a group of researchers to adopt a chimpanzee from birth, teach him sign language and to consider himself as human, then abandon to him to a system that had no idea how to deal with a human-raised chimp. The villain of the piece is also in some ways the hero, Columbia University professor Herb Terrace who spearheaded Project Nim and then expressed no regrets about the tragic turns Nim's life took. Marsh also interviewed a variety of other people who cared for Nim throughout his life, including one of Terrace's researches who was savagely bitten by Nim, and a Deadhead hippie who cared for Nim at the end of his life. In addition to all these people, though, Marsh was dealing with telling a story about chimpanzee hero, without falling into the trap of anthropomorphizing him the way so many flawed humans had done before.

I talked to Marsh in an excellent 20-minute conversation this afternoon, and I'm bringing you 10 minutes of it-- the least spoilery parts-- now, with the rest to come when Project Nim debuts both in theaters and on HBO later this year. Oh, and that bit in the headline about Kevin Smith? Apparently as caught up in all the Sundance gossip as the rest of us, Marsh took some time-- totally unprompted by me-- to criticize the filmmaker for striking back against critics and audiences after so many years of success. As he puts it, "You can't have the career he's had and start complaining. There are many other, vastly better filmmakers who haven't been able to make as many films as him." That video is first up, about a minute and a half long; after that you can watch nine minutes of our interview about Project Nim, which as you can read in my review, is well worth seeing.

On Kevin Smith and Red State

On Project Nim

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