“It Takes Me Right Back To Those Early Days; I’m Living It Again.” Chimps, Oscar Snubs & Favorite Films With Dr. Jane Goodall
Arlin Golden got to talk with the legendary Jane Goodall, discussing her amazing experiences with apes and her reaction to the recent documentary about her called Jane.
There are some people in this world who exist in the rarified air of being unparalleled in their fields, so much so that their name alone invokes their profession. Jane Goodall is one of those people, synonymous with primatology and field biology. Then there a people whose name means very little, and to whom the thought of talking to a person like Goodall seems as preposterous as it does laden with anxiety. I’m one of those people.
I was given word that I would have the opportunity to interview Jane Goodall less than 24 hours from the time it was actually supposed to happen. I responded by breaking out into a sweat; what would I have to say to this global icon? When preparing for an interview I try to look at previous interviews to avoid posing questions that have already been asked and answered, and in doing so came upon the following quote:
“There are people who interview you and are so stupid…I mean they don’t know what to ask and then I don’t want to talk to them.”
So that didn’t do much to help my confidence so much as it helped to keep me lying awake in a state of anxiety for the entirety of the night prior to the interview. I am so stupid, and not being versed in primatology was struggling to come up with thoughtful questions. Not only is Goodall an absolute legend and inspiration to untold numbers of scientists (including my sister), she was also the subject of my favorite (and the best) film of 2017, Brett Morgen‘s Jane.
Beautiful and entrancing from start to finish, it is likely to become the definitive entry point into Goodall‘s celebrated career; and despite my ardent love for the film it also represents about the sum total of my knowledge of chimpanzees. What could I possibly have to add to the story of someone who has been in the public eye longer than I’ve had any eyes at all?
I was set to call her in the late afternoon, and by that time I was already crashing from a full day of work with no sleep to go on. Half an hour before the call I brewed myself a cup of coffee in a feeble attempt to re-energize myself, but just ended up jittery, making me even more nervous. One thing the coffee definitely didn’t do was stop or reverse time, and before I knew it I was calling LA hotel at which Jane was staying.
Jane Goodall: Hello?
Arlin Golden for Film Inquiry: Hello? Hi!
Jane Goodall: Hello? Hello.
Hi, Miss Goodall?
Jane Goodall: Yes!
This is Arlin. (so dumb, what does that mean to her?) How are you?
Jane Goodall: I’m fine, thank you.
Good! How do you prefer to be addressed? Jane? Dr. Goodall? Dame Goodall?
Jane Goodall: (laughs) Jane is fine.
Ok, Jane it is. Well thank you for taking the time. I’ve seen you interviewed for years in countless documentaries. Aside from being a much lengthier experience, is it different at all for you to be interviewed about yourself and your life as opposed to just your work and your knowledge on primatology?
Jane Goodall: Well actually it’s always been that way. I’ve always been interviewed about who I am, why I do it, how I did it, what I hope and, you know, what my childhood was like. So I’m actually quite used to it. I think because I did something that other people weren’t doing it made me kind of weird and peculiar, so people wanted to know a little bit more about “who was this strange woman?”
I see! That makes sense. (great, I’m 0/1)
Jane Goodall: (laughs)
As you were interviewed by [Director] Brett [Morgen] over the course of three days, I’m wondering if you felt at all any sort of a recognition at being the subject of intense study. Like if as a researcher, did you notice him employing any of your own methods while he was talking to you?
Jane Goodall: Hmmm…interesting question. Not really. Because he wasn’t so much studying me by observing me, which is what I do with the animals, or used to when I had a good life.
Jane Goodall: He was merely, you know, he read everything and so he was just trying to get questions answered. What he felt would be good material in the film. It wasn’t like he was studying me, he was just asking questions. You can’t ask the animals questions.
(nervously laughs, wonders if I’m bombing already) Of course. Well part of, sort of, the evolving legend of the film is that he was given all these hours of silent footage, but, you know, the film is a sonic wonderland. I wanted to ask your expert opinion about the sounds that they added in for the chimps. Did you feel that that was done well? Is it accurate?
Jane Goodall: The only bit that isn’t accurate is when the chimps get close and make those sort of heavy breathing sounds; I’ve never heard those.
Jane Goodall: And it must have been when a mic was very very near a chimp. If you put a mic next to a human, I suppose you get those breathing sounds. But no, most of the sounds are very good and the birds and insects, that was done by Bernie Krause who spent two months in Gombe. He is probably the best recorder of sounds of nature.
Oh absolutely! (I have a big decision to make here, do I go for it? I’m not the interesting person being interviewed, I should just shut up and ask questions) No, I’m very familiar with Bernie’s work, and his own film Nature’s Orchestra. (dammit, I did it)
Jane Goodall: Yes! Yes.
I actually had the opportunity to be trained by him in soundscape ecology. (oh my god what am I doing, am I really about to explain sciencey things to one of the field’s greatest ambassadors?)
Jane Goodall: Oh really?
Yeah, I did a little presentation and he showed me how to isolate different sounds in the natural habitat to see how it’s changed over time and what the results of climate change and civilization encroachment has been. (I hate myself)
Jane Goodall: How fascinating!
(oh my god she’s interested?? *blushing*) Oh yeah, it was amazing.
Jane Goodall: Did you know he just lost everything in the fire?
(I think we’re developing a rapport here!) Yeah, I do. Right. Yeah, it’s tragic.
Jane Goodall: Isn’t that awful?
It’s really bad. (We’re best friends)
Jane Goodall: Tragic.
Absolutely. I mean, you know he and Kat [Krause] thankfully are still going strong. But yeah, no, that archive was a major loss.
Jane Goodall: Yeah.
Going back to people’s interest in you. In the film you discuss the scientific community’s reticence to accept an untrained young woman. I’m wondering if there was any point or moment where you felt like you were able to get through and make them concede.
Jane Goodall: Well, the thing was I was very fortunate in having a wonderful supervisor, Robert Hinde, he was a number one ecologist, and he was initially my sternest critic. But then he actually came out to visit Gombe for two weeks and he said he learned more about animal behavior in those two weeks than all the rest of his previous life. And it was he who then understood that I was right in the way I was thinking about chimps. But he helped me to think about it in a scientific way and write about it in such a way that I couldn’t be such an object of derision by other scientists. So I was really, really lucky having him for a supervisor.
And how long was that after your initial journey to Gombe?
Jane Goodall: I started Cambridge in 1962, so it was one and a half years after I started observing the chimps.
Very good, very good. (why’d I say that? I never say that.)
Jane Goodall: But it took the whole five years; you were allowed five years and no more. You had to get it in. And I took the entire limit because I had to keep mushing back to Gombe to see what was going on. Then Flint was born. So I stretched to the maximum the amount of time I had to spend in Cambridge.
You’re bringing up Flint which, you know, for me was a completely moving, arresting, and devastating part of the film; I was very much taken with the narrative of Flint. Can you just talk to me a little bit about what he was like and your experience knowing him basically from birth to death?
Jane Goodall: Mmm. His death was absolutely tragic. He was the cutest little infant, but then all infants are pretty cute, my own son included! And then he turned into a spoiled brat because he was the youngest. He had to have this constant attention, not only from his mother, but his elder sister Fifi. But there was also Figan and Faben who weren’t mentioned in the film, so this very strong family. He could get away with murder. He could tackle the infant of the highest-ranking female and know that he would be supported and protected. So he was a spoiled brat, and that, in a way, was his undoing, just, you know, Flo got so old and he was so spoiled and he couldn’t cope.
So I take it that none of Flint’s siblings shared a similar fate after Flo passed?
Jane Goodall: Well Fifi by then had her own baby. She did stay by him for a while, but she had to move on, she had to get food to her own child. And the other chimps weren’t anywhere near they were feeding far away. And you know, he wasn’t abandoned. He actually died in the arms of one of the Tanzanian researchers who sat by him all night. We did actually get antidepressant medication, but he died by the time it arrived. So we didn’t just abandon him to his fate. And something interesting, it’s not mentioned in the film, and it came a bit backwards, because Brett never asked me anything about the film, which is a pity. But anyway, he didn’t. And if you remember when Flint is on the river bank, the first time he goes down to Flo and then he runs back up the bank and you see him looking at his finger from wiping them on the grass. I don’t know if you noticed that.
Yeah I remember.
Jane Goodall: Well the thing is that when an animal dies out there in that hot weather, the flies almost immediately begin laying their eggs. And of course the chimps often come across a dead animal. So they sort of have an…I don’t know whether to call it… an understanding of death, but they must know that it’s not alive, which sounds silly, but I don’t know how they feel or think about death. So when Flint went down the bank and a fly had laid eggs in Flo’s ear, you could see the white eggs, he poked in her ear. And I think that’s the moment when he realized that she was dead. He never went back down again.
Was the change, you know, pronounced immediately, as soon as he seemed to have this realization?
Jane Goodall: Well it was just after that I watched him. He climbed up a tree where he and his mother had slept, he still sleeping with her. He walked along this branch very, very, very slowly. And he came to where they’d slept in this nest, and he stood there, and he just looked at it and looked at it and looked at it. And then he turned around and walked back along the branch very, very slowly, then climbed down, and layed on the ground. It was… you know, some of these things you don’t really understand them.
Mmhmm. Wow…yeah. I just need to, like, breathe for a second. Yea…ok. Just going back to something you mentioned about sort of the collaboration with Brett; you said he didn’t really ask you about the film. Was that sort of the direction of the film? Or while it was being edited together?
Jane Goodall: I saw it when it was edited. I never saw it before. I never met Brett, and he came to interview me in Tanzania. By then the film was made.
Right, right. So are you saying that it’s a shame that you weren’t able to offer input before the film was made?
Jane Goodall: Oh I would’ve offered it if I’d been asked. There were just one or two things where it might have been better if we’d talked, that’s all. But I mean basically I think the film is quite extraordinary, actually, and it takes me right back to those early days; I’m living it again. That hasn’t happened with any of the other documentaries.
And you had not seen this footage in decades, correct?
Jane Goodall: That’s right. I hadn’t seen it.
Wow. Yeah, I mean I can agree with you, I’ve seen the film three times already and I just marvel every time.
Jane Goodall: It’s an extraordinary film, everybody is completely bewildered why it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. Nobody can understand it.
No, I mean I’m sure that you were…that you had your own reaction, but I was livid. I was raging.
Jane Goodall: People are livid. I’ve found that people are livid. I wasn’t livid. I sort of have always…I think my mother taught me when I was very young, how to sort of immunize yourself against being disappointed. Like, never expect, never get your expectations up. She was very good at that. So, I didn’t. But I know that Brett was shattered. You know, people were angry.
Jane Goodall: Well the audience reaction…If you look at audience appreciation, that movie stood out way ahead of all the others.
Yeah, it definitely surpasses them all. I’m still talking about it to people, that it was the biggest snub of the year.
Jane Goodall: It’s won so many, many, many awards and prizes all over. I was at the Berlin Cinema For Peace Awards, a very very lovely occasion actually, for people who make films in dangerous places. Anyway, and it got the Green Film of the year award there.
Deservedly so! But I think, you know, like a lot of films that don’t end up getting nominated for Oscars, this one’s gonna live on and have its own life, you know, for years to come beyond, I’m sure, whoever wins.
Jane Goodall: It will. It will live on and live on and live on. Yeah.
Well speaking of films I’ve read you say before that that animals and nature need the media. Do you feel right now that the media is serving nature and animals as they should?
Jane Goodall: Much, much better, yes, it’s much more realistic. I think David Attenborough’s had a lot to do with that, you know. He used to…he used to irritate me because everything was beautiful, there was nothing wrong. But now he’s moved over to talk about what we’re doing and how we need to change what we do and if we don’t it’s going to just destroy more and more and more biodiversity and habitats, which we’re doing very fast.
So the way you think that it’s gotten better is that it’s a more honest depiction?
Jane Goodall: Yes. More honest but also the commentaries are better; they’re less trite. They’re more…people obviously know much more about animals so that the commentary can be more accurate. More honest. Which is not to say that films need to be boring and deadly. And I think it’s fine to have a bit of humor and it’s fine to occasionally interpret the way an animal might be thinking. Now I’m thinking of Disney Nature at the moment. And you know, I really love some of those films. I particularly love the one about bears.
You don’t have an issue at all with sort of the anthropomorphization?
Jane Goodall: No, not really because I think we know enough about animals now that…you know, and for kids, you feel, you really do feel those things. And scientists mustn’t say them, but then I never was a scientist. I never wanted to be one, I wanted to be a naturalist and write books about animals. So although I don’t put words into animals’ mouths, not usually anyway, I really don’t think it matters. I mean, I just thought Bears was a wonderful film. And Born in China of course didn’t anthropomorphize at all, and that was an incredible film.
I will have to take your recommendation on those, you know better than anyone, so I’ll be watching those soon.
Jane Goodall: Born in China is spectacular. The scenery is just incredible. Only don’t look at it on a tiny screen.
Ok, good to know. I know I’m running out of time here and I’m really appreciative of it. So I’ll just end by asking do you have a favorite movie?
Jane Goodall: Well I hardly ever watch movies, you know?
Jane Goodall: So the ones I remember are sort of old ones that are kind of soppy. When I want to see something to feel in a good mood. I like movies that make me feel happy, or sad, in a nice way. Or films that are funny. So I often, when I’m in UK, often, well these are television, not films, I watch the Poirot films of Agatha Christie. I love the little Miracle on 34th St….Trading Places.
Trading Places?? Yeah!
Jane Goodall: Yeah, with Eddie Murphy, that’s one of my favorite films. It’s so funny and it’s quite poignant and ridiculous.
Yeah, no, absolutely, and definitely still relevant.
Jane Goodall: Yes!
Well, Jane, thank you so much. This has been amazing, I really appreciate your time and congratulations on a beautiful film and an amazing life.
Jane Goodall: Well, you can congratulate Brett on the film. My life, um, I don’t know. I don’t know how my life happened the way it has. It just, you know, it just happened. I think I had an amazing mother.
That has to play a huge role. I’m glad you did and I’m glad that it turned out the way that it has, and that now everyone will know it for forever!
Jane Goodall: Well thank you, it’s been great talking to you.
(swooning) It’s been amazing, thank you so much.
Jane Goodall: Ok, bye for now.
Arlin Golden for Film Inquiry: ☠
Jane has its broadcast premiere Monday, March 12 on National Geographic channel at 8/7c and will be available on VOD the next day.
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