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Project Nim – Bob Ingersoll interview

Project Nim, Bob Ingersoll

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BOB Ingersoll talks about his experiences of making Project Nim and the effect that Nim had on his life.

He also dismissed notions of being a hero and talks about some of the affecting reactions to James (Man on Wire) Marsh’s documentary he has experienced.

Q. What did you think when James Marsh first got in contact with you about making Project Nim?
Bob Ingersoll: Well, I had my apprehensions. I was a little bit apprehensive. But I’d already been involved in the book, so I realised that once the book was out there, there would possibly be some interest in some other medium. So, I was happy that it was James Marsh and Simon Chinn [producer] doing it and not somebody else.

Q. What was it like going into the studio and doing the interviews?
Bob Ingersoll: It was alright. At that point I already knew Simon quite well and James had come out to San Francisco and spent three days with my wife and I, so we felt fairly comfortable with him. I’d also done a little bit of homework and pulled out some of my diaries and notes from that time to refresh my mind. But James puts you at ease in the interview situation and the director of photography, Michael Simmonds, was also really easy to deal with. So, it ended up being a pretty easy thing to do.

Q. But you did get emotional – did it re-awaken certain feelings?
Bob Ingersoll: Oh yeah, at one point, as you can see, I actually felt it and I did get emotional as well. But at that moment, I felt comfortable about letting my guard down a little bit otherwise it wouldn’t have been an honest depiction of what I felt and who I am. It’s not that I want to cry on screen in front of millions of people… but you have to be true to who you are. And I’m happy with the way it turned out. The presented me fairly and accurately.

Q. You emerge as the hero of the film. How do you feel about that label?
Bob Ingersoll: I’m not a hero… I just did what I would have expected myself to do, or what I would hope Nim would have done for me had the roles been reversed. So, no, I really don’t consider myself a hero. But I do consider Jim Mahoney a hero. He had to do something that wasn’t necessarily in the script for him, something that meant he had to work outside of his comfort zone. I think it’s really great for us to have been able to form a bond and do what we did together. So, Jim is more of a hero than I am. I realise people think I’m a hero and it’s not that I don’t appreciate it, I just don’t understand how they come to that. But hey, even my mum thinks I’m a hero. But inside myself, I just did what Nim deserved from a friend. And if Nim hadn’t done that for me in the same situation, I’d have been disappointed.

Q. How do you feel about Nim now after all these years?
Bob Ingersoll: Nim is really the hero. It’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster when it comes to looking back on that time. I miss him horribly. Like I said in the film, it was the best time of my life. I’m going to mourn Nim for the rest of my life. In a strange twist, we’re now all celebrating Nim and that makes me feel really good. His life now has meaning and purpose, so maybe he didn’t live his life in vain and he might be a symbol and everything is going to change for chimpanzees in captivity.

Project Nim

Q. What were some of your fondest memories of spending time with Nim?
Bob Ingersoll: I don’t know. Big hugs from Nim were pretty cool. I guess the whole time we spent together, over five or seven years, seemed to be some of the best times of my life. So, the whole time with him was special more than any one moment. Back then, I could say: “Wasn’t that a great day…” But it was pretty much like hanging out with buddies. When you’re a kid you hang out with your best friend and not one moment necessarily stands out.

Q. What do you think Project Nim teaches us about humanity?
Bob Ingersoll: Well, I’ve come to realise that humans are about the most arrogant animals ever to have lived. It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to see that. I mean, the arrogance of us to yank Nim away from his mother and then to act so matter of fact about it.

Q. And what did the whole experience teach you about yourself?
Bob Ingersoll: Well, that I had the ability to be sympathetic to a being that wasn’t me. I was a young lad then and I was pretty full of myself obviously. But he [Nim] humbled me in a myriad of ways, even to this day. I mean, when you called me a hero earlier, I think back to then and I would have agreed. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case now.

Q. What do you think of Herbert S Terrace, the guy who came up with the study? Or some of the other people involved with the project?
Bob Ingersoll: Well, I don’t particularly like him as a person or what he did. I feel no animosity. I’m just glad I’m me and not him because what happened to Nim is a tragedy that I think he will be have to live with. He realises that had he done certain things it maybe wouldn’t have turned out this way. I mean, he has to realise that because he is a fairly intelligent man. At least I think he is. But I don’t feel animosity towards any of them. I don’t really know Herb.

As for everyone else… Joyce Butler and I were friends and she cared about Nim deeply. She came back to see Nim a couple of times when we reconnected with him. I’ve actually never met a lot of them, so it’s a new experience to now get to know some of these guys. I don’t dislike Stephanie [Lefarge, Nim’s original carer] at all and I hang out with her a lot. She opens herself up in this film and also stands in front of a crowd and lets them cut her up [at post screening Q&As]. She allows them to ask questions that must be quite uncomfortable for her. And good for her for owning her own behaviour and wanting to fix it and tell people “I feel sorry for what I did”. I wish I could fix it.

Q. How was watching the film for the first time at Sundance?
Bob Ingersoll: It was an emotional rollercoaster. I cried pretty much from beginning to end. I’m a primatologist, so I’m not experienced in the film world. So, seeing myself on-screen and appearing on this massive screen, 40ft tall, with all that hair and a deep voice is a little odd. But Sundance was amazing. People would come up to me on the street and ask for my autograph and say all that hero stuff. So, that was cool. I’m kind of representing Nim because they can’t get a big hug from Nim – I’m the next best thing. But at every festival we’ve taken this film to, people have been extraordinarily generous and gracious. People have come right up to me and said some very kind things and I’m very humbled by it all.

Project Nim

Q. What’s been your favourite response to the film?
Bob Ingersoll: My favourite response… well, one of them was when something amazing happened at Sundance. Firstly, I flew my mum and my godmother up there, as well as some aunts and both brothers and sisters. After that [third] screening we were doing a Q&A and obviously they were happy for me. But at the end of the Q&A a woman in the audience stood up and said: “I don’t have a question, but I do have a statement – thank God for Bob.” And she got a round of applause.

So, that moment was very moving, especially with my mum being there because she has repeatedly said things to me like: “Tell me why you’re not an orthopaedic surgeon?” On the same evening, my brother who had read the book prior to coming… he had previously remarked: “The book keeps saying that you’re awesome but you’re really not that cool.” But at Sundance, he put his arm around me before the Q&A and he said: “You are that cool.”

Q. How has the response in the UK while you’ve been over here differed from the response in America?
Bob Ingersoll: Well, so far we’ve had two screenings in Sheffield [prior to taking it to Edinburgh]. The one on Sunday was excellent. I also went to Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre in Dorset and sat with staff at a private screening, including their director, Dr Alison Cronin, who is the coolest person I’ve ever met in my life. They were so incredible… and so generous. After the screening, there were 44 or 45 of us in a room and we all had a big cry for two hours and then a talk and it was so awesome. In fact, it might be the best screening I’ve experienced so far, because it was with my people. When my people get it, it makes me feel like we’ve done the right thing.

It’s very important for me to show it to them and get their reaction. I look at Alison as my hero, so good on you guys for having an Alison in the UK. That whole visit was a very moving experience for me and it reassured me that there are some people out there doing the right thing and at the highest level. I’d be grateful if you can give them a mention because they deserve a lot of credit for the work they’re doing. They have something like 50 chimps there now. I’ve never seen a group of chimps in captivity more happy. It’s very reassuring to know that it is possible to do the right thing. It’s not easy or cheap but it is possible.

Read our review of Project Nim

Project Nim is released in cinemas on Friday, August 12, 2011.