We recently had a wonderful family movie night with Disneynature‘s Chimpanzee. I found this Q&A Interview with Chimpanzee director/producer, Alastair Fothergill, to be extremely interesting. I can’t imagine how difficult, yet exhilarating it must have been to be able to film these amazing creatures! Make sure you check out our review of Chimpanzee!
Q: “CHIMPANZEE” WAS AN EXTREMELY DIFFICULT MOVIE TO FILM. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO TAKE THE LIFE THREATENING RISKS TO BRING THIS STORY TO THE SCREEN?
AF: I had worked with chimpanzees for television all the way back to the ’80s. I always thought that chimpanzees would make perfect subjects for the big screen. They’re engaging animals. They’re so like us. They do many wonderful things. I was pretty certain that there was a wonderful Disneynature movie to be had from chimpanzees. It wouldn’t have worked as a documentary. It had to have a strong story line and engaging characters as you have in any other movie. And we really felt, Mark Linfield (also a director) and I, from the very beginning, that chimpanzees had that potential.
Q: IT WOULD SEEM THAT MAKING A MOVIE SUCH AS “CHIMPANZEE” WOULD YIELD A LOT OF SURPRISES. WOULD YOU PLEASE COMMENT ON SOME OF THE UNEXPECTED THINGS THAT OCCURRED DURING SHOOTING?
AF: There’s always risk of course, but what was completely amazing and surprising to us obviously, was the adoption (of Oscar). Adoption by males is very, very rare, and adoptions by alpha males like Freddy, are even rarer. So that was quite extraordinary behavior to see and film.
Q: DID YOU PROPOSE THIS PROECT TO DISNEYNATURE, OR DID THEY COME TO YOU?
AF: Jean-Francois Camilleri, who runs Disneynature, came to me in 2006 and said they’d love to do some movies with me. I suggested three ideas and he went with “African Cats” and “Chimpanzee.”
Q: BOTH FILMS APPEAR TO BE INCREDIBLY FORMIDABLE TO MAKE. WHAT DID YOU FIND TO BE THE MOST DIFFICULT ASPECT OF FILMING “CHIMPANZEE”?
AF: I think the most demanding aspect, and I think it’s important to emphasize, it’s demanding principally for the cameramen and their assistants. It’s the fact that you’re working in a very dark rainforest with very dark animals, 100% humidity, enormous rainfall and having to keep up with the chimpanzees that are on all fours, and are far more agile through the rainforest than bipedal humans. Just having to carry the cameras was a massive demand on the cameraman and the assistants who worked with him, carrying the tripod.
I think the biggest physical challenge was for them. I think for Mark and I as directors, there was quite lot of anxiety about the story line and the changing story line all the way along. But we had a fantastic back-up team here in Bristol who were supporting us all the way through.
Q: WOULD YOU PLEASE TELL US ABOUT SOME OF THE STORY-LINE CHANGES THAT OCCURRED?
AF: Well honestly, principally I think the interactions between the rivals and our chimps that we didn’t think would be quite such a big issue, and obviously the main storyline of Oscar’s mother’s death and his adoption by Freddy. We were very worried when Oscar’s mother was killed, we thought it was going to be the end of our movie to be honest. It certainly was a worrying moment.
Q: YOU SPENT THREE YEARS IN THE RAINFOREST UNDER INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT PHYSICAL CIRCUMSTANCES. WHAT KEPT YOU MOVING FORWARD WITH THE PROJECT?
AF: I think for the cameramen particularly, it was just the love of the animals. Martyn Colbeck, who is one of the top wildlife cameramen in the world, and who shot a lot of the material in the Taï Forest in the Ivory Coast, said he’d worked with many, many animals over the years, but he just never found any of them that were as engaging and as fun as chimpanzees. So to him, that was the real drive and that applied to many of the cameramen, Martyn Colbeck and Bill Wallauer, our other cameraman, they just loved chimpanzees, and I think that’s what kept them going.
Q: SO THE CHIMPANZEES ARE ACCUSTOMED TO HUMAN BEINGS?
AF: Exactly, they were because every day the researchers go out and work with them.
Q: DID THE CHIMPANZEES GET TO KNOW YOU WELL ENOUGH TO NOT BE AFRAID?
AF: We got to recognize their faces, just as one recognizes human faces and they certainly got to recognize us. That was very important because initially, when the cameraman and the assistant went out, they were a little bit wary and it took them time to relax and to feel very comfortable with the other guys. But they soon did and it was fantastic from that point of view.
Q: THE RIVAL GROUP OF CHIMPANZEES WERE QUITE MENACING IN YOUR MOVIE. WERE YOU EVER IN PHYSICAL DANGER FROM THAT GROUP?
AF: No, we were never in danger from the chimpanzees. They would never attack us. The only dangers of any significance to us were very poisonous snakes in that rainforest, but they’re very rare and you have to be unbelievably unlucky to run into one. I think probably the most dangerous thing is the African roads actually, driving them from the capitol city to the rainforest.
Q: WE UNDERSTAND THAT IT TOOK YOU TWO HOURS EVERY DAY TO GET TO AND FROM YOUR SHOOTING LOCATION. IS THIS CORRECT?
AF: Typically, what we did is what’s called, “nest to nest.” Every night the chimpanzees build themselves new nests in the trees. We needed to be with them from first thing in the morning. And they could be as much as an hour or even two hours away from our camp. So the guys would come up early and walk often in the semi-darkness through the forest to get to where the chimps had been the previous night, and stay with them the whole day. But we also had Ivorian research assistants, local guys who work with the researchers. They would stay with the chimps after the light disappeared and see where they made their nests for the night. And so the next morning we knew where to start looking for them.
Q: WE’VE WATCHED THE BONUS MATERIAL ON THE BLU-RAY DISC, AND WE’RE INTRIGUED BY WHERE YOU LIVED AND WHAT THE NIGHTS WERE LIKE. WERE YOU AT ALL FEARFUL ABOUT WHAT MIGHT COME CRAWLING INTO YOUR SPACE AT NIGHT?
AF: No, not at night. I mean, there are things one can’t avoid, but if you love natural history, it’s nice. It’s good. I think the flies that laid their eggs on our skin, Mango flies, those were probably the nastiest things. That’s pretty unpleasant.
Q: WE’RE A LITTLE AGITATED THINKING ABOUT BEING COVERED WITH, AS YOU PUT IT, A “TERRIFYING QUANTITY OF BEES.” WERE THE CAMERAMEN STUNG OFTEN?
AF: Occasionally, yes. They had mosquito nets and things like that, but yeah, they were stung.
Q: AUDIENCES AND CRITICS HAVE EMBRACED “CHIMPANZEE.” WHAT, FOR YOU, WAS THE MOST FULFILLING ASPECT OF CREATING THIS FILM?
AF: I think having it all coming together and creating the film that we did because there were a lot of very challenging moments. But in the end, I think it’s a film that people have really, really enjoyed. I think it is a special film. And I think it does justice to chimpanzees. And I think it does justice to the wonderful work that the scientists do in the field. And also, I hope it raises awareness because these are very threatened animals. They live in a rainforest, the rainforest that is continually being cut down and eroded and I think that’s what fulfilled me about making this film.
Blue-Ray DVD Combo pack special features!
- “See ‘Chimpanzee,’ Save Chimpanzees”—This feature details the “See ‘Chimpanzee,’ Save Chimpanzees” conservation program and how for every copy of the film purchased until August 27, 2012, Disneynature will make a donation to JGI to protect chimpanzees today and tomorrow. The feature also includes an interview with Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace.
- Disney’s Friends for Change—This feature highlights Disney’s Friends for Change, a program that showcases steps that kids and families can take to make a positive impact on the world and the people and animals that live there.
- Disney’s Conservation Legacy—This feature provides a look at the conservation efforts that Disney sponsors around the world.
Everything on the DVD, plus …
- ON LOCATION: THE MAKING OF “CHIMPANZEE” is a series of exciting short features that delve further into the incredible lengths the filmmakers went to tell the story of Oscar and his chimpanzee family.
- 30 Years in the Making—The story of the team of researchers who have been observing chimpanzees in the Ivory Coast for 30 years.
- The Heart of the “Chimpanzee”—A behind-the-scenes look at how and why the film was made.
- Piece of the Puzzle—A cameraman’s two-hour daily trek through the forest to get to the chimpanzees.
- Don’t Blame the Tool—An observation of the chimpanzees’ daily lives and how they use rocks as tools to prepare their food.
- Scar’s Army—An inside look at the struggles between the film’s two rival chimpanzee groups who share the same forest home.
- Camp Invaders—A featurette on all the creepy, crawly creatures found at the filmmakers’ forest camp.
- Forest of Bees—A feature detailing how the crew spent two days wading through a sea of bees that inhabited their filming location in order to capture 20 seconds of footage.
- “Rise” Music Video—A music video featuring Hollywood Records recording artists McClain Sisters who wrote and performed the inspirational song that plays during the film’s end credits.
- Behind the Scenes of “Rise”—An inside look at McClain Sisters music video shoot.
- “See ‘Chimpanzee,’ Save Chimpanzees”
- Disney’s Friends for Change
- Disney’s Conservation Legacy
- “Rise” Music Video
- ON LOCATION: THE MAKING OF “CHIMPANZEE”
Feature Run Time: Approx. 78 Minutes
Rating: G (U.S. and Canada)