Interview: Chimpanzee Director Mark Linfield on Falling For a Little Guy Named Oscar

Interview: Chimpanzee Director Mark Linfield on Falling For a Little Guy Named Oscar April 19, 2012

Mark Linfield, co-director of DisneyNature’s lush documentary Chimpanzee, was glad to be doing press in the States after filming in Tanzania.

“I’m enjoying New York. It’s a different kind of jungle,” he laughed, “It’s definitely a jungle in which you can get better food. The delicatessens here are far better than in West Africa.”

To make the documentary, which opens nationwide tomorrow, April 20, Lindfield and co-director Alastair Fothergill had to chase a troop of rambunctious chimpanzees through the wilds of Africa.

Filming conditions were not ideal.

“They were absolutely atrocious,” Linfield confided, “We have filmed absolutely all over the world. [Working on] Planet Earth, Frozen Planet. The forest of the Ivory Coast is the hardest place, actually, that we’ve had to work. It’s a rain forest, but even rain forests have a rainy season. Unfortunately, the chimpanzees do a lot of amazing, interesting things in the rainy season, so we had to go there then. It’s just like being in a shower all the time.”

“Also, it’s dark. You have a canopy overhead blocking out the light. A lot of the time it’s so dark you can barely get an exposure on the camera. And it’s really, really thick. Thick. Thick. Thick vines. Chimpanzees move through it really quickly through it. There’s a chance of getting garroted by vines. There’s the usual snakes, scorpions, ants, which we’re used to.

“The other thing is Chimps move 12 miles a day, sometimes more. Just keeping up with them, because they’re brilliant at moving through the forest. that’s what they’re designed to do. Hard to keep up with them at all.”

Added to all this, part way through filming…disaster.

The baby chimp, Oscar, with whom the crew had fallen in love, and which looked to be the star of the documentary, became separated from his family. With no mother to feed him and no troop to care for and protect him, his days were numbered.

The crew was heartbroken, but also, they didn’t have a Disney, family-friendly movie with a happy story anymore. No body takes their kids to see a baby chimp die.

Then something happened which scientists have observed but never documented on film. The alpha male of an interloping tribe adopted Oscar, despite the fact they were not related, and cared for him.

“If we’d written it into a script,” said Linfield, “We would have said what are the chances of this happening? And they would have said zero. The chances of this happening are zero…absolutely unheard of. Absolutely extraordinary.”

The crew hopes families go see the movie and fall in love with chimps as they have.

“We hope they come away feeling warm and respectful toward chimpanzees as we became over the course of production. Because they’re just such amazing animals. They’re so engaging and they’re so special.”

“People are only interested in conserving things they care about. If we can make people care about chimpanzees, conservation will follow.”

Rated G, Chimpanzee opens Friday, April 20. Tim Allen narrates. The first week, Disney will make a contribution from every ticket sold to the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Conservation Fund.

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  • sandy

    Saw the movie with my two children today and we LOVED it. They captured the forest and the chimps beautifully, and little Oscar was a dream to watch. What a beautiful little boy.

  • CJ

    Saw it Saturday w the kids. A riveting film. Beautifully done.

  • regular joe

    Hmmm, sounds like a pre Jane Goodall look at Chimps, the gentle forest men of Planet of the Apes mythology. Risky choice for Disney, because Chimps appear equally fallen to Man, with war making, raiding, betrayal, murder, and cannibalism, esp of the young. Lucky for them Oscar didn’t get eaten by that marauding male, the generally more common scenario. Remember the lady in Conn who got her face and fingers eaten off by a pet male chimp a couple years ago? That’s the true face of this dangerous animal, at least once it reaches adulthood.

  • queen nokomis

    What a wonderful film. I took my 90 year old mom and my two granddaughters, 7 and 6. We all loved it! I fell in love with Ocsar and Fred. Thank you for making the film.