He has worked on Man on Wire, The Imposter and Searching for Sugarman – and it’s his brilliant feature length film Project Nim that makes its British television premiere, airing on BBC2 this Saturday evening.
Project Nim tells the story of a chimpanzee who is raised like a human by a family in the 1970’s, in what is truly a poignant yet compelling piece of cinema. Chinn discusses what first inspired him to get involved in this project, as well as pondering what makes a documentary work on the big screen.
He also talks about the recent closure of distribution company Revolver, as well as commenting on his recent Oscar success with Searching for Sugarman.
Of course Project Nim is being televised on the BBC this Saturday night, so for those who missed it in the cinema, why should they tune in on Saturday?
Oh it’s one of the most extraordinary stories I’ve ever come across, there are so many reasons. It’s a film for anyone who loves animals but it’s also a film for anyone who has got children. I actually came across this story in a rather strange way. I produced a film called Man on Wire and after that came the rather daunting task of trying to look for another great story, the bar was incredibly high as we had a lot of success on that film, and I particularly wanted a film to work on with James Marsh, the director. But one day I came down to breakfast and my wife who was very, very heavily pregnant – about 8 months – was literally bawling her eyes out reading an article about Nim’s story, and she said “You’ve got to read this, it could be your next film” and I was interested not just by the story but particularly her response, it tapped into something very profound and primal in her in that state.
It was interesting as I was making the film as it was our first child together and I was watching the process of my child’s development at the same time, in a funny way, as I was watching the process of Nim’s development and you know that’s one of the things about the film, that chimps are not like us, ultimately. They’re different and they have to be treated differently, but another, unavoidable truth is that they are also incredibly like us and the film tells this extraordinary story with all these twists and turns, it just generates and poses some very big questions about who we are as a species and what defines us.
The audience grow very attached to Nim as the film progresses, and I was wondering if that was the case with all the crew, when making this did you find yourself feeling protective over Nim as a character?
Yeah incredibly so. One of the most defining moments for me, when we were in New York quite early on in the process, when we introduced all the central protagonists in the film, we brought them all to New York and it was the first time I had met Bob Ingersoll, and he handed over a huge pile of DVD’s to us, all his home movie stuff and what he had shot with Nim and I remember spending an evening in my hotel room just pouring over this stuff and the experience of it for me and the striking thing for me was his personality being revealed, I hadn’t really understood that chimpanzees are individual, they have very distinct personalities like us and they can form very distinct and profound bonds with humans, in a way that other animals can’t.
You know, you can’t with dogs and we project a lot on to animals, we project a lot on to dogs and horses but it’s not the same. Chimps are pretty distinct and absolutely, we all fell in love with Nim, and everyone, as you said, also fell in love with Nim, he was a very charming chimpanzee and Bob, who has spent a lifetime around apes and chimps, has chimps that he really doesn’t like and Nim has a mischievous quality and he can be extremely aggressive as the film shows and we don’t shy away from that, yet everyone who had a relationship with Nim liked him, they felt he was a charismatic chimp – if that’s possible!
There are some documentaries that demand to be seen on the big screen, such as The Imposter which you worked on, but Project Nim is quite an intimate film and should come into its element on television, is that something you’d agree with?
Yeah, I mean, it’s always a tricky one with docs isn’t it, trying to find the scale to make them work on the big screen. I mean think in terms of the epic narrative you should see this in the cinema, it does absolutely work, but you’re right actually, it is an intimate story and incredibly poignant in places and I think a TV audience should lap it up really.
Your documentaries do seem to have a real cinematic quality to them, they always warrant their theatrical release – how do you go about achieving that epic quality?
It starts and ends with the story, you know, it really is about selecting the story. I’m constantly engaged with a rather relentless and ruthless process of filtering, and the stories that you feel will work as a fully fledged theatrical documentary are very few and far between, so I think you really have to be extremely self-critical and in a way demanding of the story that you end up going for. The nice thing about this film is that James Marsh is quite a good barometer for these things, he has a very sophisticated filter himself and often he can be very interrogating, so one way to tell with him is the degree to which he becomes obsessed with something, and when I sent him the article that this film is based on, I got a positive note back and then a couple of weeks later I got another note and then a few weeks later I got another one, and I could tell over the course of the month that it had become an obsession and we couldn’t not do it.
I think he was similarly spurred on by the big ideas, as the ideas in the story are huge and you don’t have to hit people over the head with them, we didn’t want to make a film about science or exclusively about philosophical ideas, we just wanted to tell a story that makes these ideas available and that was the case with Man on Wire and with Project Nim in a different way.
James has of course got into the narrative feature, directing Shadow Dancer last year. Is that something you’d like to do too, or would you like to remain in documentaries?
I suppose I don’t just want to do docs, I respond to material and stories and want to tell them in the best way possible, but I tend to go with factual stories as I feel that more often than not documentaries are the best way to deliver those, on television or theatrically, but I am just looking for stories that work on the big screen and the films that we’ve done, Searching for Sugarman, The Imposter, Man on Wire, have all thankfully worked as they have powerful narratives with emotion and character in the same way that fictional films do. But I do have dramatic projects in development, I actually have a couple of television mini-series that I’m developing, one actually based on a true story that James Marsh is actually attached to.
I can’t say what the project is as there are some sensitivities around it as real people are involved, but I have another project which is adjacent to fact and required lots of research. But I am developing a small number of films, but you know for me it’s simply about finding the best way to tell true stories, and sometimes it’s not possible to do that and you require a documentary, but absolutely you will see a dramatic film from me in due course.
It does seem to be a rather strong time for documentaries at present, it seems there are a lot of quite successful documentaries out there, I was just wondering, from someone inside the industry is that something you’ve noticed? Has the popularity of documentaries been rising recently?
Unquestionably. The films that we have done have done well and when you get films like Senna in this country doing £3million at the box office, in a way it brings a big sigh of relief to know that docs can engage audiences as well if not better than fiction so it’s just a question of demonstrating that to audiences and educating audiences and the hundred thousand who went to see Senna, for example, and had never gone to see a doc in the cinema and probably swore they never would, had one of the best cinematic experiences ever watching a documentary – that’s what we need. You know, there aren’t that many, maybe 5 or 6 or maybe 10 docs that are really scoring at the box office and engaging cinema audiences, but I just think that the trend of audiences going to the cinema to see docs is only going to grow.
Although The Imposter did well theatrically, that was released by Revolver who have closed since, that must be a real shame for to be working closely with a company and then they’re gone?
It’s a tragedy, unquestionably, it’s absolutely tragic. You know, The Imposter is in very good hands and there was a partnership between Revolver and Picture House and Picture House being the owners of some of the best art house cinema in the country but also distributors, so I’m not worried about The Imposter, The Imposter will remain in good hands, but the point is that there aren’t enough great distributors out there who want to release films like ours, we need every one of them. So it’s a shame, a real shame to see another bite the dust, if it were.
My final question – and to end on a somewhat lighter note – but congratulations on the Oscar for Sugarman, the second of your career of course. That must have been a great experience for you? Were you quite nervous, or are you just used to it by now?
Yeah I’m used to it [laughs] No, absolutely not, I never expected to win one yet alone two Oscars, so the funny thing about that experience is that you kind of brick it up until the point where they read out you’ve won and in a funny way, although you would think that accepting an award in front of a billion people they say is fairly daunting, it’s actually a relief! It was a huge pleasure to win.
BBC Films’ Project Nim will be on at 9:30pm on BBC2 on Saturday 23rd March