Sir David Attenborough, Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill talk emotional attachments
If there was one person in the world one could have hoped to interview, it’s Sir David Attenborough. The screen legend that has lightened up so many nature documentaries across the decades, is the epitome of a “national treasure”. In fact, he is really the only real person who deserves to keep such a title.
Well, it was my lucky day, because to mark the release of Disneynature’s documentary Chimpanzee, we sat down with co-directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill, joined by Sir David Attenborough himself, to discuss all what it is like to work for years on end in the jungle.
The trio also talk about their emotional attachment to their subjects and if they have ever been tempted to intervene, while we also had the pleasure of hearing Sir David put on his finest American accent.
Just how arduous a task is it making a feature like this one? Both physically and mentally, to go out in to the jungle for four or five years.
Mark Linfield: Incredibly difficult, though the people bearing the brunt of that were the cameramen, they were out day after day after day, long trips carrying really heavy equipment and Alastair and I would give them a hand periodically, but they really did suffer. They would tend to do three days filming and then they would have to take a day off because their legs could barely move. The reason for that is that you have to start with the chimpanzees before they have got out of bed otherwise you lose them. So if you imagine that you get out of bed at 6am, you might be two hours walk away from where they are nested, so you’ve got to leave the camp at 4am, so getting up at 3.30, then you’re with them all day, travelling 15-20 kilometres, and then they finally go to bed at 6pm by which point – now you know where they have slept – you can start doing your two hour walk back to the camp, so you don’t actually get very long back there before setting out again in the morning. It’s pretty exhausting. Plus it’s dark, and it’s wet – particularly so in the wet season, and chimpanzee’s do a lot of the most interesting things, like hunting monkeys, in the wettest part of the wet season – so there is no avoiding the wet bit.
Alastair Fothergill: I think for us as directors, the challenge was the we were often getting just one or two shots a day. With wildlife filmmaking you may wait three or four weeks and then suddenly you’ll film five minutes of the story in a couple of days and we knew we had to have a very strong story because movies are about a story, a documentary doesn’t necessarily have to have a narrative and so we were constantly going ‘is this story coming together?’ Between every six or seven week shoots the rushes would come back and pre-edit and when we weren’t there we were on a satellite phone to Martin or our field assistants every other day and they were saying “should we stick with Oscar?” “what should we do now?” We never knew whether we had a film, even when we went in to the cutting room I remember thinking ‘have we got this film?’ We weren’t sure and our last big shoot was actually cancelled because of the civil war in the Ivory Coast. and we thought ‘oh gosh, have we got enough?’ and in the end we did, but it was on quite a lot of luck. The adoption was extraordinary, fortunate and fantastic for us as film makers.
Along those lines then, do you run a plan B? Do you follow other chimps and their activities so that there is a contingency story line or is it just all invested?
AF: You’ve only got two camera men to follow, once we’d followed Oscar, all our money was on Oscar and you know that’s why when Isha died and we thought Oscar was going to die, we genuinely thought that was the end because we’d spent all the money and Disney were not prescriptive, they did not tell us what kind of movie they wanted us to make but we knew it had to have a happy ending, particularly in a nature movie people want to have a happy ending. It was a real worry for us at that time.
Were you tempted to intervene at all?
AF: There’s nothing you can do, you know baby chimps are suckling on their mother until they’re five or six and clearly we couldn’t help in that department. Anyway if you take them to a zoo you have to get a very good zoo for chimpanzees to be happy and plus and the good zoos have captive bred chimps anyway so no there’s nothing you can do.
Sir David Attenborough: If you tried to you would really be putting yourself in a huge danger, an angered chimpanzee, if you became a participant, would put you in very, very real danger.
In all your years, have you ever been really tempted to get involved David?
SDA: Yes, you always do, you’d be less than human if you see a little fawn sitting there and you can see a leopard that is about to come and take it. If you don’t feel your heart run then you’re less than human, you think ‘you poor little damn thing’ but you know jolly well that if you did, if you were to get up and said ‘shoo’, whether the leopard would take any notice or not is one question, you’d be putting yourself in danger, but assuming that it did you would also scare the fawn it would run for it and the leopard goes off and has to look for another fawn and so the fawn may well be traumatised, the mother would most certainly be worried too, the leopard would be too and the result would be far worse than if you let the dreadful thing happen.
ML: This film is a particularly good example of that, it’s not hard to imagine that if we had taken Oscar and put him in a zoo which might have made sense considering we thought he was going to die, he’s got no chance so you might think that putting him in a zoo, rescuing him would be a relatively good outcome for him, but then of course you saw what unfolded, if we’d intervened he would have lost his chance of being adopted by Freddy.
Did you come across any incidences of poaching or damage to the rain forest when you were out there?
ML: We did actually hear gun shots go off close by several times when we were filming, and that was a worry. The biggest worry we had along those lines was when the civil war came into play and it became so dangerous for the scientific researchers to stay out there that the camp was effectively evacuated by Europeans, a few of the Ivorian assistants stayed on and tried to protect the material assets of the camp and there were very few of them, and so when the scientists returned after the civil war they were unsure as to what they were going to find because to a very large extent it is the presence of the scientists and the filmmakers which prevents the poachers. If they leave, all the villagers know where the chimpanzees are and luckily none of them were hunted but we did hear gunshots and the fact that the country is so politically unstable is a real worry because during those times you cant get too near to protect them.
I know you have spoken about the physical turmoil of the filmmaking, what about the emotional side? Because I watch a movie like this, and get very attached to the animals and if you’ve spent hundreds of days with them, it must be pretty tough at times?
AF: Particularly with chimps it’s funny, our camp was in the middle of the forest, it was a day down a dirt track and then an hour on foot to get to the camp and we shared this clearing in the forest with our researchers, and we’d have dinner in the evening and they were all following chimps but because the forest is so thick we didn’t actually see each other very often during the day, but in the evening over dinner all we’d bloody talk about were these bloody chimpanzee’s and I remember thinking, we have actually got to stop talking about chimpanzees’s, we’ve got to talk about something else…
ML: But we never did.
AF: We never did. We’ve worked on all sorts of animals and they’re all wonderful, but none of them quite grab you.
ML: It was particularly clear to us when we went on the reconnaissance trip, there were these half dozen students trapped in the forest and we arrived from the outside, the first people they’d seen in months, and all they were doing is talking about the lives of the chimpanzees like it was a soap opera. “Ooh he did that?” “He did not!” You’d think they were talking about people. One of the other interesting psychological things about working in the forest for a long period of time, is that you never see a horizon. It’s hard to explain what effect that has on you, but generally you can’t see more than four or five metres in front of you because the forest is so thick, and it’s also flat so you never get the chance to climb up onto a ridge and look out. So literally for months at a time you wouldn’t see further than you, and it’s very hard to explain what effect that has, but it becomes very oppressive and after a while it closes in on you and you go a bit mad.
How involved were Disney in the production? Did they ever send anyone out to you, to check up on you?
AF: Disneynature was the brainchild of a man called Jean-Francois Camilleri, and he had this idea and sold it to the studio to make a natural history movie a year, and he came to me initially because he’d seen Planet Earth and he just said, “I’d love you to work on it. What do you want to do?” and I said, “Well, Chimps.” That was all we really needed, and they left us alone. Nobody gets fine cut in Hollywood, but we got scientific veto in our contracts and that meant that we could not be forced to create a narrative or a narration that wasn’t scientifically accurate. We had fantastic support in the form of executive producer Don Hahn, who made The Lion King and The Beauty and the Beast, and he was saying “story story story” and we had the writers of Wall-E coming to us and saying “Why don’t you get the chimps to do this?” but actually that was very creative, because for us as documentary filmmakers for us to be told about stories and characters, it was great.
ML: And as Alastair says, they never pushed us into doing something that we didn’t want to do. They gave us lots of good advice and there was no pressure, and people are surprised to hear that sometimes, you assume that Disney would be very much pulling the strings and steering us towards being more kiddie-orientated, pulling the punches on some of the hunting or fights, but not at all. We found the level of child friendliness was decided by Alistair and I.
So do you think a bad ending could have jeopardised the release of this picture at all?
ML: We’ll never know.
AF: I think there is a good reason to have a happy ending, I know it’s a cliché that Disney movies have happy endings, but all movies have to have a good ending, and whether it’s happy or not, it has to be good and we had to have a resolution – and I don’t think Oscar dying would have been a resolution.
SDA: Speaking as an outsider on this, the thing that struck me when I first saw it, was yes, one knows that chimpanzee’s share a lot of human emotions, so that is a great plus – but there is actually a minus, and that is that neither of these guys have actually mentioned, and that is if you’re making a natural history movie, you reckon you’ve got all sorts of characters everywhere. Whereas in this movie you’ve only got Chimpanzee’s. There is nothing hunting them, and to have constructed this movie that absolutely holds you with all these characters without anything else in it, is really a very considerable achievement.
What did you think of Tim Allen’s narration?
SDA: I thought it was great. I was listening to it very much, and he did the sort of things that I know I do, which is to say “HE’S GOING TO GET IT, HE’S GOING TO GET IT!” and raises his voice, but what he did very much better, was he got in the humour, saying, (puts on American accent) “That’s just the way it is”.
AF: It was very interesting, Mark and I had written the narration but he suddenly started riffing and he was saying things that he thought the chimps were thinking. 90% of it was not quite right, but there was 10% that was great.
ML: “Frogs are edible, y’know”.
AF: At the end of the nut cracking when Oscar leaves the stone by mistake and the big guy comes and takes it, he just said off mic “He’s an idiot. I’ve been watching it all day. What an idiot”. You may think it’s a bit twee, but in America those are the lines that got the laughs.
AF: It’s interesting that the movie has now been released in France, the Netherlands and it’s about to be released in Germany, and every country they’ve chosen a comedian to do the narration, and I think it’s because chimps carry comedy and there are very few animals that are comedic, and I think Tim Allen was a good choice.
SDA: So do I. They were very good.
And finally David – you’ve been doing this for such a long time now, is it quite encouraging and comforting for you, to know that people you’ve been working with for many years and nurtured somewhat, are now growing up and making their own movies and doing such a good job of it?
SDA: I avoid using the cliché, but this is the holy grail. Almost everybody I’ve worked with, all the producers over the last 60 years, have seen television as being fine, but only if we could make a movie, and the number of people who have made successful natural history movies until today, is nil.
“Chimpanzee” swings into today!