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David Lickley: Directing Jane Goodall

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Lickley (top row, far left) with film cast and crew

Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: January 2002

Director David Lickley talks to BMZ about going to Africa to film Jane Goodall and her famous chimps.

  

Category: Interviews

This May, "Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees" will premiere in Ontario and Toronto, Canada, with a major rollout scheduled for Fall 2002. Combining the story of one of the world’s most famous scientists and an exotic, Big Movie-friendly location in the jungles of Africa, it seems an ideal topic for museum-based Big Movie theaters around the world. Jane Goodall’s star power may give it life in "commercial" venues like multiplexes, as well.

Ryan and Mark from BigMovieZone caught up with veteran Big Movie director David Lickley (bio) by phone to find out more.

BMZ: Tell us a little about your background and how you came to direct this film.

David Lickley: When I was younger I was doing music and film. And then I got interested in birds at one point. Some friends were into birds and I found birds really interesting and I went back to school and did a bunch of stuff on animals and birds. And I got a couple of degrees in biology.

And then I got back into filmmaking, and gravitated towards sort of animal films at first and then science in general, and things snowballed from there.

BMZ:   Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in Africa has made her one of the most famous scientists and conservationists in the world. Can you tell us a little more about her?

DL:  Jane’s been at it since 1960. She did a little bit of work on monkeys actually when she first began. But basically since 1960, she’s only studied chimpanzees. Most of her time now goes into sort of broader conservation issues. She’s become like the, Mother Gaia of the earth in a sense, and she’s probably the most well known environmentalist on the planet today.

And so she gets an awful lot of attention and, and does an awful lot beyond chimpanzee work these days. She’s also working to save the remaining chimpanzees, which is a bit of a difficult battle. But she’s involved in a whole bunch of stuff and she’s pretty much on the road almost 300 days a year now - basically talking to people and raising awareness and raising funds for different conservation issues. So she’s an extremely active woman.

BMZ: It’s amazing how committed she’s been for so long. How did she get started? Did she know from the start this would be a lifelong commitment?

DL: Oh god no. It’s like a lot of us, we end up doing things accidentally and that’s sort of what happened. You know, she had no formal training in biology. She was basically trained as a secretary I guess is the closest she’d call it. She went to Africa and ended up running into Lewis Leakey who ran the Kenyan Museum there, and was an anthropologist.

And he was looking for somebody to start doing some work on chimps because he figured the best way to understand humans was to start studying their closest relatives. And she was an animal lover. She has always loved animals, has always been interested in animals. And when he said would you be interested in trying this, she jumped at it, but under no expectations that it would go more than six months.

And in the sixth month, she not only got these chimps to get used to her but she discovered this tool making… you know, up to that point in history, one of the definitions of human beings was that we were called "man the tool maker". It was thought that we were the only animal that actually manipulated and made our own tools, at that stage. Well she found chimps doing exactly that. So it just turned the whole scientific world on its butt. Basically there was this woman who’d gone out there in the field and seen something that nobody thought could ever possibly happen.

And that’s when National Geographic got involved and they started to film the study. And she was quite beautiful and unusual in the fact that she was out there in this jungle, this forest. So National Geographic were the ones that hooked into this at that point and started to fund the study and made her famous basically in those early documentaries in the 60s.

And she just continued, just kept going on. She went back to school at Cambridge in England, got a PhD, then became a respected scientist as well. So, it’s a great story.

BMZ: Yeah, the story does sound great. So tell us about the film’s location.

DL: Well it’s incredible. It’s called Gombe Stream National Park, in Tanzania, which is the study site that Jane developed and it’s the best chimpanzee viewing and filming area bar none in the world. That’s by a long stretch, too.

The thing about Gombe is it’s like an Eden, in a way. It’s an area that was protected early on, and has been protected for 50 years, since before Jane got there. And it’s this beautiful forest that’s on the edge of Lake Tanganyika, which is one of the largest reservoirs of clean fresh water in the world. It looks like you’re in the Caribbean at times because it has these white sand beaches. And you fly over this green forest and it’s idyllic. And then you get into the forest, and you realize there are all kinds of other animals living there. Baboons, snakes, birds galore and it’s just -- it’s like an Eden. Like a paradise.

On the other hand, it’s also quite incredible to go to this site, and realize how primitive and remote and difficult it is to be there. And to realize that this woman spent 30 years there basically. Not non-stop but almost non-stop. And this is the middle of nowhere. It’s like packing up and going to the middle of Alaska, you know, without roads and all that stuff and, and living there for 30 years. I mean, that alone is an unusual sort of sacrifice. But, you know, it just fit Jane perfectly. It happened to be something that when she started she knew that that’s what she wanted to do.

She was happy to stay there all that time and only recently in the last 10 years has she branched out, realizing that her fame could do a lot more if she was away from there than it does when she’s there. So she’s passed off the research now to younger people who are starting out. But she still gets there two or three times a year. It’s her research study slate and her program that’s ongoing, but other people do the work and she goes out and keeps the funding going.

BMZ: Does the film feature any of these younger researchers, as well?

DL: We brought in a person that’s starting to work at her site. She’s been working for a few years on her PhD and her name is Elizabeth Vinson Lonsdorf. She’s based out of the University of Minnesota. She’s doing a more extensive study of actual tool use and how chimps learn how to use tools. Like what Jane first discovered back in 1960.

BMZ: Other than their use of tools, what are some of the most interesting things about chimps’ behavior that people might not know?

DL: Well it’s hard to say what people know. But what I think is most fascinating is the concept of culture. We’ve realized over the last 10 years or so that chimpanzees in each community have their own distinctive behaviors and things that they do that are unique to that community.

And as you go across Africa and you look at the surviving communities you see some very different behavior that just doesn’t happen anywhere else. And it’s kind of the whole concept of cultural evolution. How does culture begin? And how is it carried on? Why do people eat with chopsticks in China and they eat with forks in France?

For example the way the chimps use tools in Gombe is very different than another community that’s been studied in West Africa. It’s just totally different.

This is kind of a funny story: at one point Jane had these sort of metal cans lying around, that were used for water probably. And one of the chimps got the idea of using these things, and hit them and started to bash them around. And he became sort of the super chimp in the community, just by making so much noise with tin cans. It was kind of an accidental sort of thing where all of a sudden this chimp rose in status from a lower ranking male to the top of the heap, just because he figured out how to use this can. They had to take the cans away because, of course, the purpose of the study wasn’t to manipulate the behavior. But you could see how the chimps could pick up behaviors, and those behaviors could become advantageous and maybe get passed along by teaching and by example.

BMZ:   Right. By nature, are wild chimps aggressive, or shy – or are they similar to humans in terms of being all over the spectrum in personalities?

DL: Well it’s funny, one of the preconceptions that people had before Jane went in - Jane as well - was that these were fairly gentle vegetarian-type creatures. A bit like mountain gorillas. Well what she found out was that they hunt.

In fact they hunt in groups, cooperatively. They go out and hunt monkeys and things like that.

And they actually engage in what you would call warfare, where one community will attack another. When Jane discovered this it was very traumatic because once you start studying these animals, they each have their own personality. I mean, anybody who has a dog knows that most animals do (have personalities), but these chimpanzees definitely have, everyone of them, a very unique personality, and quirks, in terms of how they do things and how they look. They’re very, very individual. For example some are great mothers and some are crappy. Some are bullies and some are really nice to their fellow chimps.

So you get really attached to these animals and then all of a sudden this war began that Jane had no idea was about to happen. But I guess there was a branch community that was establishing territory, and the bigger community decided they were going to basically eliminate them and they went in and they killed them one by one.

It shocked Jane because this wasn’t something that anybody had any idea about. And if she’d only done a two-year study they wouldn’t have seen it because it took six years before this happened.

So you start to see a lot of parallels with humans, in the good and the bad.

BMZ:   Yeah, definitely. That’s very interesting.

DL:  Yeah, they’re not angels. Some individuals are extremely aggressive. And some of those individuals have become sort of successful high-ranking chimps because they’re big and aggressive. And other individuals are just smart and political and they will, instead of using sort of bullying tactics, they’ll create allies within the community that will stand up for them when they want to challenge other chimps. And they rise to the top through politics, and that’s human, too.

BMZ:   Obviously chimps make for interesting stars. How will the film actually be structured?

DL:  Well, it’s a wildlife film, above all. But the story about Jane really adds a lot - I mean, she’s world famous, probably the most famous scientist living today. She’s got a great story to tell. She’s a fantastic narrator. She’s just got a wonderful voice. And she’s the glue I guess in a sense that holds everything together.

So the back story of the film is the story of Jane. And we use very specialized archival stuff to set up the concept of what it might’ve been like going there 40 years ago to start this whole thing. Here’s this young woman going into the middle of the jungle in 1960 when nobody would do that. You know, you’d be crazy to think about doing it, and succeeding well beyond what anybody thought she’d ever do or anybody could ever do. And so it’s kind of a scientific success story. And it’s an unusual large format film in the sense it has great drama - it has a structure that hinges around a very strong character.

But the main focus is really on this one community of chimps, and the individual chimps within the community. It’s really a story of how these chimps interact with each other and what sort of behaviors they do. You get familiar with the chimps individually as you might in any kind of drama. There are four or five of these chimps that we key in on who are unusual individuals. And we have lots of really amazing footage of what they do. Hopefully you end up wondering what’s going to happen to these chimpanzees over the course of the film.

And then the larger context is the whole story of Africa and, and the loss of habitat. At the end we talk about how we’re finding out about some amazing things about the chimps, like this cultural aspect. And we’ve got shots of these chimpanzees that walk around on two legs like you do all over the place. They stand up and walk for like 20 feet, 30 feet, you know, very human-like stuff.

And so we sort of pose a question: we’re only just now figuring out these things about chimps, like the differences in their cultures - how much more time do we have to really understand them, the way it’s going?

BMZ:   So does Jane do most of the narration herself?

DL:  Jane does about half of it. Because it’s a personal story of what she’s been through and how it all happened and what’s happening today. But Liz [Elizabeth Lonsdorf] carries a little bit and there will be another narrator who carries half of the film as well, adjusting for context.

BMZ: This definitely seems like a natural for the IMAX screen. How did you convince Jane Goodall to participate?

DL  :  When I first met Jane, back in 1996, the first thing I did was I showed her an IMAX film and it was the first one she’d ever seen. The film was MOUNTAIN GORILLAS. And the first thing she said at the end of it was, "you know, I can now imagine how Gombe would look if we did it in this format."

Our film is about chimpanzees, but as a third or fourth story it’s really a film about Gombe and the other creatures that are there, and there are a lot of them there. The baboons are fascinating, for example.

And it’s a really good use of this format because the chimps especially are so used to people. We can be 10 feet away from them filming. You don’t have to sit blind and hope they come by. This is something where they’re just used to having cameras around. So we were able to get really close and you’re able to sit with Jane as she’s watching chimps basically.

BMZ:  And do chimps pretty much live in the same place all their lives? Is it the same chimps all the time?

DL:   Yep, it is. As I alluded to earlier, they live in communities like humans – or at least, they set up little tribes we call communities. And there are three different communities in this park. There’s a little bit of transfer between the communities with chimps occasionally. But most of the chimps, especially the males, will grow up and spend their entire lives in a few valleys in Gombe. And so their relationships with each other last 30, 50, 60 years, depending how long the chimps live.

BMZ:  How long do they live?

DL:   They’re not sure how long they can live in the wild exactly, but Jane’s study started in 1960 and there’s still a chimp there that’s alive from when she arrived. So they know they can live at least this long, say up to 42 years, 43 years. In captivity they can live to be over 60 they now know. It seems they have basically the same life span as humans roughly speaking.

BMZ:  How closely related to humans are chimps? Where do chimps fit in with the other primates?

DL:   Well the primate family has a bunch of different branches. Lemurs and monkeys are kind of in one genetic area. And baboons, which are actually a form of monkey. And then you have what we call the upper rungs, which is probably a little bit chauvinistic but we call these branches the Great Apes.

And the Great Apes include the gorillas. They include the orangutans. And they include the chimpanzees and the humans. So there are kind of four main branches of the Great Ape family. And chimpanzees are the closest to humans in terms of their genetics. They are our closest living relatives. Their genetic information differs from us by like one and a half percent. So they have 98 and a half percent of the same genes that you and I carry, which is why they’re used for a lot of medical concerns - because they would get infected with the same diseases that you and I would, and react in much the same way. And that’s why they sent a chimpanzee into outer space, because they wanted to see what would happen to a creature that was genetically very similar before they sent a human up there.

When you film these creatures and start to put a story together, the parallels with our own humanity are amazing. I don't know what it’d be like a million years from now if these chimps were able to survive. What would they be doing? We joked all the time that they’re smart enough to basically take over the camera, and start shooting us. You have to be very careful when you’re there because, you turn your back for a second and they’ll grab something, you know. That’s just the way they are. They’re just looking for opportunities, and they’ll fake you out!

I think on some levels they know what’s going on. And they recognize you from time to time and they know who you are. They certainly know who Jane is ‘cause when she’s around they behave differently with her than they do with anybody else. Way more friendly, in most cases. But these are smart, smart animals who have survived a long time in this area. And we’re not sure how many there’ll be when our grandchildren get to go there, if they ever do.

BMZ:  I understand chimp populations are quite endangered. How endangered are they, and what are the biggest threats?

DL:   The population was estimated to be a couple of million chimps at the turn of the last century. And it’s estimated to be less than 200,000 now. So that’s a drop to 10 percent of what they were. And nobody has any idea how many there really are or how fast they’re going.

They’re faced by the typical litany of problems. You’ve got expanding human populations, forests being cut down for clearings. And you have a huge problem right now of what they call the bush meat trade. Local people especially prefer to eat wild animals versus sort of domesticated animals. So they hunt chimpanzees.

And as the loggers go in they set up logging camps, they need meat so these hunters will go out and where local people used to kill one or two chimps every so often for their own village, now they’re hunting a lot of wild animals to provide these logging companies with food. So it’s a huge problem right now, and Jane has set up three or four sanctuaries across Africa for orphaned chimps whose mothers have been killed.

A lot of times once the mother’s dead, the hunters will capture the baby. Villagers will have them tied up as pets or they’ll try to sell them in a market place, which is of course totally illegal. And it’s just getting worse and worse. It’s not a problem that’s going away.

BMZ:  So there’s not much of any co-existence between chimps and humans going on?

DL:   That’s basically it. As you cut a forest down the chimps can’t live. They need the wide diversity of food you find in a forest. These animals are not going to adapt, as some primates can. Baboons are sort of like ravens or dogs: if people are around they’ll figure out how to steal from the garbage pile. But the chimps just aren’t that adaptable, and they don’t do well around humans.

BMZ: Were there any particularly memorable shots you captured?

DL: Well there are more baboons than there are chimps. And they have troops that live within larger territories occupied by chimps.

And we got this fantastic scene that we shot of the baboons and the chimps playing together. The adults kind of ignore each other mostly but the young chimps are really curious about baboons and vice versa. So we have this whole scene where they start this game of what looks like tag or king of the mountain. One chimp will go up a tree. Then the baboons will chase it up and force it down. This went on and on. And it’s fantastic, you know, it’s very rare in the wild that two animal species will play.

BMZ:   And do the baboons and the chimps ever fight?

DL: It’s a bit competitive. At times it gets a little out of hand. Usually it starts out as a squabble – but the reason the chimps win any sort of confrontation is that they have the ability to use tools. They’ll pick up a rock and they’ll throw it at a baboon. I mean, they can pitch rocks that are pretty good velocity. And that just freaks the baboons out. They can’t do anything like that. They’re very dexterous. But they’ve never picked up and thrown things. And the chimps are very accurate in how they throw things. And some of the bigger chimps will actually kill very young baboons. That’s rare but it has happened. And so the baboons are pretty wary of the bigger ones. But the young ones don’t seem to have any fear of each other.

BMZ: Any big surprises to filming?

When we started this whole project we sat down and said "how are we gonna do this?" And everybody was skeptical about where we could actually get the footage and in the end that didn’t turn out to be a problem at all. You know, everybody said "Well, the camera’s gonna be too loud. They’re gonna run away." Yeah, right. God, you have to keep ‘em off ya, you know.

We got to be close enough to make people feel like they’re there. And these animals are right beside you. There are chimps we shot that were five inches from the camera. It’s amazing to see a chimpanzee that close, looking at you, on a screen that big. This chimpanzee’s gonna be, you know, 50 feet high!

BMZ: We’re looking forward to it. Thanks for talking with us!

DL: Thank you. Keep up the good work.

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