The stars of Chimp Empire proved to be elusive, tempestuous and even downright divas when it came to showing up to set. And the rivalries could get pretty intense.
“Chimps make a lot of noise, so it’s usually fairly straightforward to find them. The difficulty is keeping up with them,” James Reed (co-director of My Octopus Teacher), the director of the four-part docuseries, told Netflix. And that was before the cast started tearing each other limb from limb.
Reed, his crew and a squad of on-the-ground scientists and field trackers spent over a year shooting the Ngogo chimps in Uganda’s Kibale National Park. The Ngogo community is the largest known group of chimpanzees in the world, and at the time of filming, it had splintered into two competing factions. The filmmakers were present on the front lines for the life-or-death fight for supremacy between the Central and Western groups. Chimp Empire is a nature documentary that feels more like a historical conquest epic or a cutthroat boardroom thriller.
Not that science was left behind. Shot in a remote rainforest setting, Chimp Empire exposes facets of chimp life that have never been seen on film before. (No, not even in that other blissfully revelatory nature show you love to binge.) Given its landmark glimpses into primate life and its viscerally brutal drama, viewers may fairly ask: “How the heck did Chimp Empire get made?” Reed filled us in on the ins and outs of production, from the up-close-and-terrifying chimp interactions to that unforgettable dominance rain dance (if you know, you know).
How do you get chimps to sit still long enough to be photographed?
Generally speaking, you don’t. But the Chimp Empire team found itself with a rare opportunity. A veteran in the natural history doc world, Reed had long been familiar with the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project, which began in 1995, after scientists discovered the immense, complex chimpanzee society.
Following his earlier film about the Ngogo chimpanzees, 2017’s Rise of the Warrior Apes, Reed received some breaking all-caps news (at least for chimp enthusiasts). “The scientists who worked there were telling me: ‘You won’t believe it, the Ngogo group has finally split. This is completely unprecedented. We have no idea what will happen now. Will they reunite? Will they go to war?’ So at this point, we’d reached a historic moment. The scientists felt like the next year or two was going to bring about a lot of change. It was going to be new for science, and it also provided a really unique opportunity to film a story about this amazing, dramatic situation in the forest.”
While it would normally be impossible to capture the intimacy of warring chimps in the wild, the filmmakers benefited from an environment long marked by human activity — thanks to a constant swarm of researchers. “It took 25 years to reach the point where we can walk out and be near the chimps. We’re humans, so the chimps just see us as an extension of the presence that’s been in the forest for years,” Reed told Netflix.
This familiarity allowed the camera crew to capture Chimp Empire’s most stunning scenes. But up-close encounters were still just as bizarre as you might expect.
“I remember suddenly being aware that the Ngogo chimps were all around. It’s like being on The Truman Show or something — you feel like you’re on a set because you can’t quite believe they’re real,” Reed said. “They’re so human, you know that they’re assessing you in the same way that you’re assessing them. You can’t quite believe that they accept you into their world. You go where they go, but they make all the decisions. The only thing you can control is where you turn your cameras, or whether you keep up with the action. It’s quite humbling, and I quite like it. The only thing you can do is put yourself in the best position possible to record what they’re doing.”
How did these chimps get such colourful names?
Reed does not take credit (or blame) for the monikers of the chimps, who are known — to humans at least — by names such as Gus, Miles, Garbo, E.O. and Pork Pie.
The names come from the scientists and field guides who’ve gotten to know the chimps over years of fieldwork. Researchers John Mitani (also a scientific consultant on the series) and David Watts would name chimps after jazz musicians before the naming system broadened out to Hollywood figures and beyond.
What were the working conditions like?
Needless to say, when you’re filming warring Ugandan chimpanzees, you can’t expect the same craft services you’d get on a Hollywood set.
“This is a mid-altitude rainforest, we’re almost a mile up, there are a lot of hills, the vegetation is thick, the forest is dark, chimpanzees are black… It’s probably the worst filmmaking environment you could ask for,” one researcher summed up to Netflix.
With only six months to prepare before filming in January 2021, Reed assembled a crew who collectively spent almost the entire year-plus shoot embedded with the chimps in their not-so-friendly environment.
“They all had experience in remote environments, but they weren’t the most experienced natural history camera people,” Reed told Netflix. “What I tried to do was give them autonomy for their own creativity in the field and allow them to bring their own instincts to it. We were trying to get people who had the right personalities and the right instincts.”
Reed brought filmmaking newcomers into the fold, including a field tracker named Diana Kanweri, who proved pivotal to the project. She “shot really critical moments for us, in periods when we were not able to be there. She knew the chimps better than we did, she was fitter than we were and she sometimes got angles and behaviours that we weren’t able to get.”
OK, but did the chimps ever get cute?
Chimps are never more adorable than when they’re huddled up with their playful newborns (again, relatable). But Chimp Empire filmmakers were also left slack-jawed when Abrams, a young would-be alpha, shows off just how cool he is… with a rain dance.
In a rainforest, it rains. It rains a lot. Nevertheless, there’s Abrams, giving a go-for-broke performance.
“Abrams is doing a rain dance and it’s about the longest dance I’ve ever seen,” one researcher observed. “High-ranking male chimps will start dancing during torrential downpours like this for reasons we don’t really understand.”
Meanwhile, the actual alpha, Jackson? Yeah, he looks extremely bummed out by Abrams stunting on him.
How did the crucial combat sequence come together?
The rivalry between the Central and Western factions of chimps climaxed in a confrontation the filmmakers and scientists describe as the “Battle of Ngogo.” Capturing the Ngogo chimps in combat took months of dogged tracking. During moments of heightened aggression, chimps move through the forest at flying speeds. Finally, all the pieces clicked together. The crew managed to embed just as Westerners entered rival Central territory and were met with a fearsome response.
Were the filmmakers tempted to — or did they — intervene in the chimp combat?
The first rule of the Chimp Empire is that humans do not get into chimps’ business.
“I think once you’ve filmed with these chimps for any amount of time, you understand how it’s not a practical option. There’s nothing you could do. And you feel there’s nothing you should do, either,” Reed said, even when that means standing by as a vulnerable primate is killed. “Because as much as we might find it difficult to watch, this is a natural part of chimpanzee life and behaviour. They are territorial animals, and they’ll fight for those territories.”
The death of a chimp feels tragic because it may remind viewers that chaos and violence are a part of human life, too. This is part of what drew Reed to the project. He hopes, he told Netflix, that viewers come away considering the same questions. “ ‘Are we better than chimps in resolving conflicts? When are we actually just as bad? When are they better? As a species, how far have we come?’”
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
What was the scariest non-chimp animal during the shooting?
Chimps may be the mirror Chimp Empire holds up to its viewers, but other species also caught the filmmakers’ eyes in the lush Ugandan rainforest. There was one animal in particular that fascinated Reed, and its identity might surprise even nature doc aficionados: red river hogs.
Let Reed explain. “We never filmed them, because they’re very elusive,” tells Tudum. While human sightings of the hogs are rare, “they exist in the Ngogo forest and everyone talks about them in slightly hushed tones, because they’re quite dangerous if you happen across the creatures. They’re quite aggressive.”
While the wild member of the pig family successfully remained camera-shy, “Every now and again, you’d be walking through what you think is a peaceful area of forest and there’d be — this sounded like elephants, but you can’t see anything because they’re shorter and just charging through the jungle. So that always gave everybody pause, because we were very close to a big stampeding group of red river hogs.”
If the Chimp stars don’t sign on for a sequel, we smell a red river hog spin-off.
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