The Avengers is
tentpole cinema's paean to superhero glory,
salutes a different sort of heroics through the true primate story
told in Chimpanzee.
Linfield have fashioned this rousing drama out of
three hard years worth of collected footage of our primate cousins
of hours of digitally captured live action they have culled a
powerful chronicle of primate society, including the accidental
adoption of a young orphaned chimp by the alpha male of his pack. An
unheard of situation in the annals of primate research, this
remarkable event forms the backbone of a narrative that both reveals
much about chimpanzee social life and provides a metaphor humanity.
was in capable hands for veteran nature documentarians Fothergill
and Linfield, who previously helmed such films as
and Frozen Planet
— not to mention the BBC juggernaut
How did you work out which task each one of you handled in making
It's an organic process, actually. I'd worked with chimpanzees 25
years ago, so I started it off. Mark's a real primate expert as
well, and it was very much a 50/50 split. Although I have to say,
Mark is quite a lot more technically capable than I, so he took more
of the lead with the camera side of things. But we have worked
together a lot... including on the TV series
Alastair's got far better political skills to deal with tricky
One of the things about chimpanzees is that in the wild most run
from you straight away, so you have to work with what's called
habituated chimpanzees. And these are chimpanzees where scientists
Gombe Stream in
and, in our case,
Boesch in the
have worked with these chimpanzees for literally 30 years.
Originally they'd go out in the forest day after day after day and
wouldn't see anything.
frightened chimpanzees and then gradually the chimpanzees would get
used to the people there. Now you can sit as close as we are to each
other and they're completely relaxed and ignore you. It’s wonderful
and really special.
It seems impossible to script a story like this, yet it’s amazing
how it turned out. How did this story come about?
Of course it's
not entirely true that we didn't have a script, because you'd be
doing really well to get a feature film commissioned by
if you don't have any kind of a script. It’s just that the script
went in the bin. There was a 60- 70-page traditional
script, and it was made the way we make most wildlife film
research and collaboration with scientists, we put together all the
cool things that we know chimpanzees do and put them into an order
that made sense. And we removed things that we thought had no chance
of being filmed.
fiddled around with it. But in reality, you get there and of course
the chimpanzees haven't read the script. Day after day they might
not even turn up. You hope — and this is always the way it is to
some extent — that they'll do some interesting things that you
didn't put in the script.
of the things that you thought were easy you won't ever see. In this
case we were incredibly lucky because the real story that unfolded
in front of us was way better than the script [we did].
We deliberately chose to follow a young baby chimp because we knew
they're very, very cute. But during the first five years of a
chimpanzee's life, 50% of those chimps die. We didn't want
mother to die; that was a real, real problem for us. She was killed
by a leopard about two years into the filming and at that stage we
thought the film was over.
thought that, because Disney movies need a happy ending, so we were
really worried. Then the extraordinary adoption by alpha male
Freddy happened. In 30 years the scientists hadn’t
seen anything quite like that and it's certainly has never been
We were quite
lucky — it was probably just short of three years. Had he been
orphaned when he was two years old, he probably would have died
because they're very reliant on their mother's milk. Freddy was able
to give him normal food that he could collect in the forest, but
were he just two that might not be enough. Whereas at about three or
just short of three, Freddy was able to give Oscar just enough to
keep him going.
many hours were you there and how many hours did you actually shoot
in terms of footage?
We were there for about three and a half years. It was an
unbelievably difficult place to work because the rainforest is very,
very dark and chimpanzees are obviously very dark animals. There’s
100% humidity and the cameras were heavy. Mark and I reckoned it was
the hardest challenge that we ever asked a cameraman to do.
said if he got one shot in a day he was pleased. It was really like
we've been trying to do with DisneyNature is not make documentaries.
We've tried to make movies that really work in the way that movies
are supposed to work. We have stories and engaging characters. The
fact that they're chimpanzees is wonderful, but they've got to work
as characters. And with
Chimpanzee, more than even
we really had to get it to work.
down to the chimpanzees. What's so incredible about the chimpanzees
is that so much of their lives are mirrored in our lives. We
actually joked when we first arrived at the location, obviously
Alastair's been there previously, but when we went there for a
reconnaissance trip four years ago we sat down with researchers and
they'd just come back from a day in the forest and were all talking
about these chimpanzees like they were human characters.
thought they'd been in the forest too long, but within a few weeks
we were doing the same thing. You can't help yourself. Really the
kind of relationships they have with each other, the dramas that go
on between them...
How do you explain this miracle between Oscar and Freddy?
Nobody can really explain it. The scientists actually did a genetic
test and discovered that, as they suspected, they're not at all
related. And I think the only thing you can think is that male
chimpanzees do have a feminine side to them.
The best way
to answer that surely is, Why do humans adopt? — and actually even
humans who have children. Couples will adopt, so why? If you can
answer that question, I think you've answered our question about
chimpanzees, because we are so similar.
In the past scientists have seen female chimpanzees that don't have
their own young adopt other babies, and sometimes an older brother
will adopt a younger brother when the mother is lost. But it's
almost never, I think maybe on one other occasion, for a big adult
particularly the alpha, because he has a real big role in chimpanzee
society. He has to lead the guys against their rivals, and as you've
seen in the movie, chimpanzees don't live on their own; they have
other groups nearby. And our particular group, unfortunately, had a
particularly powerful group nearby called
and his big team of males. They were a real threat to Freddy and
We were really worried all the way through the filming.
worth saying on the adoption is that there's a scientific study
going on — from the genetic analysis of the feces, if you must know
— showing that Freddy and Oscar are not related. Because it could be
that Freddy was actually Oscar's father, being the alpha male of the
group and all the rest of it. But we know for certain that they're
not. So it really is an act of altruism.
Could you tell the difference between each of the chimps?
You can recognize their faces.
Scar was obvious. It takes a bit more time. But their faces are as
distinctly different as human faces. And their character as well,
actually. When we first started we knew we were to follow a mother
and a baby, and the first mother we went with was very relaxed, but
she turned out to be camera shy.
Every time the
cameraman went close, she'd just look away from the camera and we
thought this isn't going to work. So luckily we chose Isha, who
chose to be a really relaxed girl. She was a lovely girl.
Why didn't you say that a leopard killed the mother instead of
implying that it was from the chimp attack?
Why didn't we?
Basically what happened was that – this is the true thing that
happened – Isha was separated from the group, and we think she was
killed by a leopard. We never filmed it. Basically what happened is
there was the battle and then the next day there was Oscar on his
own and Isha had disappeared.
We said to the
scientist, "What's happened?" and he said, "Well, she's almost
certainly been killed by a leopard," which is why we chose to tell
that story in the movie.
You left it ambiguous. With these wonderful stories, they always
have one animal being killed and here as well, though you didn't see
it being torn to bits. Why does an animal have to die? Kids still
talk about their traumatic experience of seeing Bambi's mother being
That's the truth in nature.
Yes, and we
set out to tell the story of Oscar's life. Clearly the thing that
shaped it was the death of his mother; that wasn't our fault. As
much as we wanted a good story, we didn't do her in.
But you make a very good point, and I think the important thing is
these movies are for every age group. We want children to come with
It's not just
a kid's movie, but we do want families to come. So why dwell on it?
Who wants to see a leopard rip up a chimpanzee? There are some
people who really hate it. And of course
Bambi is a terribly
sad story, but my God, it's a good story.
Is that was a Disney rule; you've got to have one.
We need to make a movie about vegetarians.
us Let us know what you