HBO Chimps

Michael Patti and Don Schneider call and explain a script about Jane Goodall and her chimps. Cool. The basic plot is that the chimps are doing scenes from movies and Goodall doesn’t understand how these strange things are going on.

They start:

How do we do it?

I don’t have the slightest idea.


Do you know anything about the place?


Then let’s go there with some cameras and see what’s going on.

Good idea.

First I have to have a conversation with Ms Goodall to assure her that her chimps will be treated with respect.  I assure her.  She believes me.

Michael chooses not to go so it’s just Don and I (and a small crew).  We get there and it’s a dump.  Concrete huts.  I sleep on a concrete floor and use my jacket as a pillow. It is on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Some of the crew goes into the lake to swim. One of Goodall’s staff asks me what they are doing.


Don’t they know there are dangerous parasites in the lake?

Hey guys, there are dangerous parasites in the lake!

Jane is not there. I don’t think Jane is ever there. Jane travels around the world raising money for her foundation. As far as I can see, her foundation consists of a guy that logs the chimps’ behavior and some locals that do whatever locals do. The guy is happy to see us, especially Don. They spend a lot of time together. I think Don invited him to visit when he comes to America. The guy sees our equipment and starts laughing.

That stuff is too heavy. You’ll never be able to shoot anything.

I have to say one thing here. Chimps have been made to look stupid in the media, parodies of humans. In the wild, they are magnificent creatures, capable of kicking your ass — hurting you badly in many ways. Scientific studies have proven that chimpanzees are far stronger and faster than humans in every way. Early studies suggested that they were up to eight times stronger than humans. No wonder Tarzan kept Cheetah around. In captivity, the chimps regress into something unrecognizable, the benign, stupid creatures that we get used to in movies and television, closer to their human cousins. So much for evo(devo)lution. This was told to us so we used a lot of long lenses in filming them.

We start anyway.  The chimps hang around the camp, probably because it’s safe.  We filmed them and they had remarkable human characteristics and one looked and acted exactly like Marlon Brando in THE GODFATHER.  That scene was the setup for the commercial and as soon as we filmed this guy I knew we were home free.  We could fake all the other stuff.  We did, however, chase them to the limits of the preserve, dragging our heavy cameras with us while the local guy laughed.  Frodo, the alpha dog of the chimps, knocked Don over one day.

You’re lucky, Don.

Why is that?

At least he didn’t try to fuck you.

The film got back to New York and Johnny Semerad made the lips move convincingly and the commercial was Bill Clinton’s favorite.  It was also the first commercial to win an Emmy. Michael Patti went on Oprah, even though he wasn’t in Gombe. ILM called to find out how we made such convincing digital chimps. We didn’t tell them. Proprietary secret.  Luck.