Saturday, July 14, 2007

Controversy Surrounds "Project X" Chimp...Again

I’ve been on a bit of a research kick lately, looking for big movie anniversaries to celebrate here in the blog. With that on my mind, when I recently flipped past “Project X” on HBO, I did a quick IMDB search. No, it’s not as memorable as “Fast Times” and some of the others that turn 20 this year, but I was curious. Sure enough, April 17 marked two decades since Matthew Broderick hit theaters with his follow up to “Ferris Bueller.”

Right off the bat, this doesn’t seem like the best choice for a where are they now story. After all, we know that Broderick's had no problem finding work, nor has co-star Helen Hunt. What I didn’t know before last week, though, is that Willie (the chimp who starred as Virgil), is still very much alive. In fact, twenty years later, he’s found himself right in the middle of another controversy. (I didn’t even know there was a first controversy. More on that in a minute.)

After “Project X,” Willie and some of his co-stars were sent to live at Primarily Primates, a non-profit animal sanctuary in San Antonio, Texas. This should be a happy ending for an animal that had previously lived at a biomedical research center. But last year, Primarily Primates found itself the target of accusations over mismanaged money and poor living conditions. In the fall, a Texas judge put Primarily Primates under the temporary control of a receiver, at which time several animals were relocated. Then, in April of this year, a settlement was reached. The agreement barred founder Wallace Swett from any involvement with the fascility and named board member Stephen Tello executive director. In addition, Primarily Primates merged with Connecticut animal rights group Friends of Animals. The story continues, though, with a new law suit involving the return of evacuated animals and settlement objections by PETA, which calls Primarily Primates “hell on earth for animals.”

I called Primarily Primates to request a current photo and update on Willie for this blog. While an employee did verify that Willie currently lives there, I was told such a request would need to go to Stephen Tello. As of this posting, multiple phone messages to Mr. Tello have not been returned.

Back up 20 years to another issue I wasn’t aware of...

“Project X,” the movie that's main character took on the military testing of chimpanzees, had an animal rights controversy of its own. According to animal rights group NEAVS, “training methods were harsh and punitive.” No More Monkey Business, a PETA run website opposing the use of animals in show business, says trainers on the film "allegedly physically and mentally abused the chimpanzee actors." While this apparently made headlines at the time of its release, it’s just not something that was on my radar as an eleven year old. All these years later, there’s little information easily found on the internet about the charges and no response from the filmmakers. With few specifics and no defense available, I wanted to get the point of view of a person who was actually there. This time, I was able to get someone to talk. Here's what Mark Harden, Willie's "Project X," animal trainer, told me...

“The movie making experience was actually a great experience, and I trained Virgil, the lead chimp in it and it was the best relationship I ever had with a chimp. I mean, I loved working that chimp and I had a great relationship with him and it was a shame, the controversy, because I thought the movie was good, the message was good and it was sad that it had so much negative controversy.”

On the fairness of the controversy…
"Is it unfair? I mean everybody has their right to an opinion, you know. Is it founded? It wasn’t, but it was a controversy and it shadowed the whole experience. So, that's the shame that I get out of it, that it overshadowed the experience which I thought was a great experience as an animal trainer. I was a kid. I mean I was…that was 20 damn years ago."

On responding to specific accusations…
"We took the tact that there is no response to it. I mean, it was said by people who weren’t there and, you know, we stopped trying to defend ourselves. We do what we do. We put our positive selves forward and there are people who don’t like what we do and they have always been and will always be there. There’s no defense to them. You know? They just don’t like animals in movies, so that’s fine. I am not spending that 20 years defending what I do. All I do is do what I do as positively as I can. And that’s what we do."

On whether there was anything that made "Project X" different or if it was just about general objections to animals in films...
"Exactly. Exactly. It’s been a long time and I’m not going to defend it. I don’t defend our industry. I don’t defend what we do. I don’t defend, you know, there’s no…for the people who don’t want us to exist, there’s no way we can defend it, so what’s the point? That’s what I learned out of it. The experience hardened my heart a little bit and there was a lot of other controversies involved in it. It opened my eyes. I grew up a lot having gone through that experience. But everything happens for a reason, you know. I mean, it was not pleasant but it was a learning experience and it’s 20 years later."

On whether he'd handle things differently 20 years later...
"I would have not handled my chimp any differently. You know? I would not have handled my chimp any differently because of what people think. I would choose not to work a chimp if I couldn’t handle it the way I thought was the way a chimpanzee needed to be handled. That’s the difference. I maybe wouldn’t have done the movie now looking back 20 years later. It’s not like I would have done my work differently because I think I did my work well. It would have been weather I would have done it or not done it. You know what I mean?"

Further clarification...
"Well I don’t believe I did anything wrong with my chimp, that time or today. If society believes today that handling chimps that way is not anything anybody wants to do, then the choice would be whether I do it or I don’t do it, not weather I did something wrong looking back 20 years. I don’t think I handled the chimps wrong, not today, not yesterday, not if it was a hundred years before. Whether society wants us to do it or not, that’s up to society, you know, and if you can’t work a chimp, then don’t work a chimp. That’s the way it pretty much boils down to."

No, my chat didn't uncover all that much in terms of facts from 20 years ago (we’re not exactly known for our investigative journalism here), but I should say that Mr. Harden could not have been more courteous or patient as I attempted to ask him the same question over and over again in different ways. At least he took my call, which is more than Mr. Tello was willing to do. Unfortunately, since Harden didn’t own Willie, he wasn’t able to fill in any of the blanks about his current situation. As he put it, "I was just a kid training a monkey on a movie.”

I don’t claim to be qualified to pass judgment on either story. The fact that Mr. Tello has not returned my calls, certainly does not mean that the accusations are true. It does, unfortunately, stop me from doing what I initially intended to do…simply give an update on Willie, the unlikely star of an 80s movie. So feel free to read up and form your own opinion. Me? I just hope Willie's ok. I’m off to set my DVR for the subject of my next entry…"Scott Baio is 45...and Single." What else do you want from me? I’m just a kid writing a blog about a monkey in a movie.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is an old post - however, I found it after watching Project X for the first time last night. Just like you, I wanted to know what happened to the chimp actors after being used for this film. I find Mark Harden's quotes disturbingly vague and defensive. What's even more disturbing is that he refers to the chimps as "monkeys." Chimps are apes, not monkeys -- and he's the expert trainer they used? He's right, he, and the "industry" should not bother defending anything -- there is no defense. Apes do not belong in Hollywood or "industry" of any kind.

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Full-bodied Red said...

This is an old post so I don't know if you still keep this blog. But I'd like to share with you that I had the good fortune of meeting Willie (Virgil) and Okko (Goofy) about a month ago. Both are alive and healthy and receiving remarkable care from the exec director and care staff at Primarily Primates. I will not comment on Mr. Harden's ridiculous justifications other than to say he still refers to chimpanzees as monkeys, when in fact they are apes-- and they weren't removed from his care without cause. Willie to this day remains reticent to interact with humans...his memory is long.