Interview: Mark Linfield, Director of Disneynature Feature Chimpanzee

An unlikely friendship in Disneynature feature film Chimpanzee. (c) Disney 2012


Rusty Pritchard of Flourish Magazine recently interviewed Mark Linfield, co-director of Chimpanzee, to be released today in theaters across the United States.

FLOURISH MAGAZINE: What inspired you to  make Chimpanzee?

Mark Linfield: Well, you know my codirector Alastair [Fothergill] had filmed chimpanzees in that forest 25 years ago, so he always had a hankering to do something with chimpanzees, and I personally had been filming monkeys and apes for all of my career of 23 years, so it just came together. Disney asked us to pitch a wildlife feature film, and chimpanzees seemed like a great subject. We’d already done a global film for them, which was the Earth movie, that they used to inaugurate the Disneynature brand. We wanted to do a single species, and chimpanzees seemed like a real no-brainer, because they’ve got so many things going for them. They’re obviously very close to us–there’s this real resonance that we have with them. If you and your kids enjoyed it you’ll know what I mean. They’re really magnetic to watch. They’re so interesting, intelligent, they have relationships just like our own, they sort of lend themselves to human-style drama in the cinema. One of the things we really wanted to do was to NOT do a traditional documentary; we wanted to give people  a more cinematic experience where they felt that they were being swept along in a strong story with great visuals, and that they learned about chimpanzees through the back door, almost incidentally so that it was a more entertaining experience.

Of course the thing that really made it an entertaining experience was what the chimpanzees did, the story line that unfolded in front of us was something we couldn’t have written. That was really the piece of luck that came our way.

FM: So you must have been planning on a different sort of animal drama. You wouldn’t have known that your subject, the baby chimpanzee, Oscar, would be orphaned during the filming, or that his surprising adoption would happen.

ML: Exactly. So what happened was when we first pitched the movie to Disney, obviously none of these events had happened yet. We came up with a script which was basically an amalgam of all the different cool things that chimpanzees do, into a kind of order, a kind of storyline. And we said to Disney, look, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, and we don’t know what order it’s going to happen in, but here’s a recipe, a kind of ingredients list, of all the great things that chimpanzees do. Somewhere in here is the kind of film you might get. In the end, about the only part of it that we saved, well two things: first was the battle between the group we followed and the rival group of chimpanzees.

FM: So the conflict between the two chimpanzee troops was going to be part of the film all along?

ML: Yes. Every single chimpanzee troop in nature, pretty much, has rival chimpanzees bordering their territory. Any natural forest that has got a good population of chimpanzees –that group isn’t going to live in isolation; there’s going to be another group on its border in competition with it. So that wasn’t a surprise.

The other thing that was there all along was that we wanted to follow a young chimpanzee through the first few years of its life, because that’s when the most interesting things tend to happen to chimpanzees. They’re adorably cute when they’re born, they’ve got this great bond with their mother, and they play a lot with other chimpanzees, and you know that probably something interesting will happen.

FM: So the young chimp in the film, Oscar, was a single individual, not a montage of footage from several youngsters?

ML: Yes, we followed the same one all the way through, and that was one of the reasons we needed three and a half years of filming. If you’re doing a normal television documentary, it doens’t really matter what animal is doing the behavior, because it is the behavior itself that is interesting. But if you’re doing a character-driven storyline, you don’t just want an animal doing the behavior, it’s got to be your animal–your character–doing the behavior. So we had 700 filming days in the field, which is just way more than we’d usually have, and we have to thank Disney for giving us the resources to do that. That gave us the opportunity to ensure that everything we wanted to film was filmed with the right individual.

Still, the real thing that happened, which we could never have scripted, was the thing that happened to little Oscar–it’s just so rare. Sure, chimpanzee youngsters lose their mums, but one of a couple of things tend to happen. Either they’re adopted, rarely I have to say, by other females, if they don’t have babies of their own. Occasionally they’re looked after by a sibling. But Oscar didn’t have relatives who could look after him. There were no other females in the group who could look after him, because they all had infants. So we were certain he was going to die, and the scientists agreed. So at this point we had a real problem: we’d already had quite a lot of resources invested in Oscar, and we thought, we’re in big trouble here.

And then this amazing thing happened: the alpha male chimpanzee Freddie turned around and took Oscar under his wing. So it went from a potential disaster to being the best thing about the whole film, and we could never have scripted it.

FM: No doubt that was of great interest to your scientific advisor, Christophe Boesch.

ML: Christophe was amazed–he was the one who said to be prepared for little Oscar to die. Adoptions have happened in this forest in the Ivory Coast, but they’re very rare, and they are always with females. The alpha male is the very last animal who you would expect to adopt anyone. The alpha males have a front to keep up–a reputation to maintain, if you like. There are always other males just beneath them who are trying to knock them off their perch. When you’re an alpha male you get mating rights and other perks of the job, so everyone wants your job and you’ve got to appear to be butch and in-control to stay on top of the pile, and if you go and start behaving all soft and mushy, there’s a good chance you’ll get knocked off the top by these other males. So Freddie was taking a real risk by doing this.

It’s interesting, people have asked “So why did he do it?” because we know for sure that Freddie is not Oscar’s father. We know that because Christophe Boesch has got the genetics and we know that Freddie and Oscar are not related, so it is an interesting question “Why did Freddie do it?” My answer to that is, well humans adopt infants, obviously. I don’t have an adopted child myself, but I suspect that if you knew the answer to why humans adopt, then you’d have your answer as to what drove Freddie. We’re so close, many of the things that we do are the same, and getting the answer to one would answer the other.

FM: It’s interesting, isn’t it that you made so many parallels, and of course it’s easy to do with chimpanzees, because socially they’re very similar to us, in their level of cooperation with their groups and their aggression and defense of their resources against intruders. Twenty years ago, when I was in science in graduate school, the great sin was to anthropomorphize your subject.  I’ve since read Franz de Waal, who is here in Atlanta at Emory University’s Yerkes Primate Center, who write about the problem, not of anthropomorphism, but about “anthropodenial.” He says that it is actually more parsimonious to assume that many of the same intentions and emotions that we experience as humans would apply to a near relative like chimpanzees. That’s simpler and more parsimonious that to assume that chimpanzees are thoughtless automatons or robots.

ML: You know, that’s so true. It’s interesting, because we’ve been traveling around this week with Jane Goodall, and she’s been asked in front of us a couple of times “Do you think this documentary is too anthropomorphic?” Jane’s answer is “Not a bit.” When she started out in primatology it was, as you say, a terrible sin to talk about animals as anything more than machines. As a researcher, you gave your subjects numbers–it was not the done thing to even give them a name. She said, once you spend time following chimpanzees, you realize it’s actually the most parsimonious thing in the world to understand that they’re going to have many of the same emotions and motivations as us. They are so close to us genetically, and in their behaviors they are clearly motivated by so many of the same things. Of course we now know that in terms of their ability to understand sign language, their ability to empathize, their ability to do so many things that we once thought were unique to humans [like making and using tools], they are a lot closer to us than we realize.

FM: Could you contrast this feature film with Earth, and especially with Planet Earth. In particular, what’s different in making a feature film from making a series, and how do you navigate that space where you’re trying make something that’s family-friendly, very appealing to a general audience. You’ve got them captive for 90 minutes–what’s different from the perspective of a filmmaker in deciding how to use that time?

ML: Well, you’ve answered some of your question, in a sense. Having an audience captured for 90 minutes is a fantastic luxury. It’s a real privilege to have the creative freedom to unfold a story in exactly the order that you would like with 90 minutes. One of the problems of making television, particular in the States, is that for a commercial channel, you have maybe less than an hour, it’s frequently broken up by commercial breaks; there are practical considerations, like you’re expected to provide a cliff hanger before each commercial break, a reprise after the commercial break, broadcasters get nervous if you don’t have lots of good stuff up the front because they’re worried about people reaching for their remote controls. It’s an un-ideal way to tell a story, plus the fact that you know most people are going to be watching in a living room on a small television that’s been badly set up with a rubbish sound system. It’s just not the best way to transport people to these locations.

I think the fantastic thing about the cinema, one of the great things about wildlife on the big screen, is that it has the potential to be very immersive. You can take people to a remote location where they may never get a chance to go themselves, present them something on a big screen with lovely picture quality, have surround-sound–it is the closest experience one can have to actually going to the place, and I don’t think you can ever really achieve that on television. You can be informative on television, but I think it is hard to make something which is as emotionally enveloping as is the cinema.

Of course it is also a luxury to have the money to spend three and a half years in the field on a single program. You can’t really do that with television–you run out of cash.

So those are the main differences with cinema–the length of time, the ability to structure things as you want, the ability to have great pictures and great sound. In terms of an artistic endeavor, those are all great things.

In terms of the market, you the director want as many people to see it as possible, whether it’s in the cinema or on television. I think the big difference in the cinema is that you have the tools to give people a really good story experience. In this case we set out to make, not a documentary, but almost a human drama. That’s not to say the story isn’t true–we were very faithful to the events we saw in the field–but with a documentary your driving principle might be more to educate, whereas with the feature film we didn’t want to necessarily tell people everything we could possibly tell them about chimpanzees. We didn’t want to be encyclopedic and informative first; we wanted to be entertaining first, and really get people to fall in love with chimpanzees in the way that we had. And of course, we hope that people will learn about chimpanzees as well, but that was secondary. Conservation and education naturally follow on when people engage with and fall in love with chimpanzees.

FM: Mentioning conservation, wasn’t there a contrast between Chimpanzee and your previous Disneynature film Earth, where in the first film you showed throughout the threats posed by humans on the species depicted, and in this film, conservation or threats to wild chimp populations were not even mentioned until the end credits? What are your thoughts on the way audiences react to the mixing of the themes of (1) the wonder of nature and (2) the threats to nature and need to conserve it?

ML: I think that the best way of doing it is as we did in Chimpanzee. Otherwise it becomes a bit of a jumble about whether you’re trying to engage people with the subject or trying to educate them about the danger that the creatures are in. I would actually argue that we didn’t do that much conservation in the body of the Earth movie. There are two approaches to this: you either go out for a full-out polemic of the Inconvenient Truth/Al Gore style–one filled with what we call “pub facts” that people will enjoy dropping into their conversations.

The other approach is to find a really strong narrative and tell it in a streamlined fashion without muddying it. Then when people have become really involved with the subject  then give them the information at the end, the website to click through to, to find out all the great information about the work that Jane Goodall is doing, and they can find out how the money from their ticket will be spent in conservation efforts. Both Alistair and I have always felt that people would not really be interested in conserving something that they don’t already care about, so the first battle to win is to make people care, and then once you’ve won that battle you can give them the  information. So the body of our film is to help people care about chimpanzees, after that the facts, that the number of chimpanzees living in the wild is now only about a fifth of what it was in 1960, for example, those facts become quite hard-hitting, and all the information on the website about what you can do hopefully has more value.

So I think it is quite a good strategy to separate the two things.

FM: Another question, a bit of a throwback to the beginning of our discussion: you’ve got a history of working with quite a variety of different primates, and I wonder if you can share your thoughts on the difference between working with great apes, like chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and working with monkeys like capuchins. What are the difference you experience as a filmmaker working in proximity with these animals?

ML: I’ve worked with all the great apes and a lot of the monkeys. Monkey’s are great: they’re entertaining, resourceful, industrious, and they’re always doing cool stuff. You don’t quite have the same connection with a monkey that you get with a great ape. There’s something about looking into the face of an ape that is just not quite the same as a monkey. You get the strong feeling of a sentient being looking back at you. There’s definitely a difference there.

The other apes are all great. I’ve worked with orangutans, a bit with gorillas–the orangutans are amazing creatures. With chimpanzees–that closeness to us–you do just feel it. It’s hard to put your finger on. There’s just something there, some resonance that you just pick up on. I think particularly in the wild. It’s funny sometimes, some of the zoo animals you meet are just a bit sad, but when you meet them in the wild, it is special, as you’re picking up on that closeness to us.

FM: Were they very conscious of your presence as you’re filming? How do you feel that changed their behavior? Were you able to be inconspicuous with all your recording equipment?

ML: That’s a very good question, and it touches on one of the reasons we filmed where we did. Chimpanzees that have not been followed by scientists–that have not become used to human presence–are impossible to film. There are two ends of the spectrum. Either they just flat-out run away, and you’ll be lucky to see a hairy black bum from the rear, because in parts of Africa, certainly in parts of the Ivory Coast where we were, they are hunted for the bushmeat trade, for human consumption. Culturally, they’re on the menu. So the chimpanzees are cautious.

But even chimpanzees that are quite used to people are still conscious of you; they’re still looking over their shoulder at the camera. What you really need to make a good movie about chimpanzees is a population that is totally oblivious to you because they are so accustomed to humans. That’s what we had in the Ivory Coast, because the scientists working there have been following them for 30 years. If you think about what that means: most of the chimpanzees there were younger than 30, so they would have been born into a world where they are followed by researchers. Researchers would have been just part of the environment.

FM: For these chimps, humans are just another creature in the landscape…

ML: Yes. They’re aware that we’re not chimpanzees, so they don’t have any social interaction with us. We’re basically just a part of the scenery that they’ve always known–like a tree or something. That’s what you need if you want something that is totally unobtrusive.

FM: What’s next?

ML: We are doing something else with Disneynature, and I’m starting just as soon as I return to the UK. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what it is just yet, but we’re really looking forward to it. It will probably come out in 2015.

Mark Linfield previously shared directorial duties with Alastair Fothergill on Disneynature’s hugely successful feature film “Earth.” He recently directed an episode of the BBC/Discovery Channel’s popular “Frozen Planet,” the sequel to “Planet Earth,” as well as serving as one of the series’ producers. Linfield produced and directed the award-winning “Capuchins: The Monkey Puzzle” and two episodes of the multiple Emmy®-winning “Planet Earth,” including the opening episode “Pole to Pole.” Among Linfield’s other credits are the documentaries “The Triumph of Life,” “Gelada Baboons: The Battles of Braveheart,” “Orangutans: The High Society” and “The Temple Troop.” He was also a director on the BAFTA-nominated “The Life of Mammals” with Sir David Attenborough. Linfield had a childhood passion for nature and photography, was educated at the University of Oxford and began his filmmaking career more than 20 years ago on a BBC documentary about gorillas in the Congo, West Africa.


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