Film Makers in the Mist : Bringing Dian Fossey Story to Screen Proves to Be a True High Adventure

Times Staff Writer

In another six months, Hollywood studios would be in hot pursuit of Dian Fossey's story. But back in the fall of 1985, New York art dealer Arnold Glimcher was the only one trying to convince the irascible anthropologist--who had lived with mountain gorillas in the wilds of Africa for two decades--that a powerful film could be built around her life.

It didn't take much convincing. Fossey, then 53, needed money for herself and her gorilla protection work (while still receiving support from Cornell University, she had been cut off from National Geographic funds). And she had a bit of a vain streak (she wanted Brooke Shields to play her as a young woman, Elizabeth Taylor as an adult).

So when Glimcher wrote to her, saying he wanted to produce a film about her life for Universal Pictures, Fossey immediately agreed to meet him. In December, 1985, Glimcher packed up his family and set off to Rwanda, Africa, to meet Fossey for the first time. They checked into a hotel in the country's only city, Kigali, and on Dec. 28, set off for Fossey's jungle camp, Karisoke. Just short of Fossey's corrugated iron hut, Glimcher was stopped and told to turn back.

"Dian kufa," the locals said. Dian Fossey was dead--hacked to death during the night as she lay asleep in her bed. Now, three years later, Glimcher has produced "Gorillas in the Mist," with Sigourney Weaver starring as Dian Fossey. But the story behind the making of the film, which opens here next Friday, is nearly as strange and complex as Fossey's life in the African mountains, and her gruesome death that December night.

Glimcher, who owns the Pace Gallery in New York, is new to Hollywood, but he has some powerful friends here, including director Robert Benton and talent agent Michael Ovitz. He earned an associate producer credit for his artistic contributions to the film "Legal Eagles"--packaged by Ovitz's Creative Artists Agency.

But "Gorillas in the Mist" was the art dealer's first stab at producing a film. His interest in gorillas, and later Fossey, grew out of his effort to learn whether primates have any aesthetic sense. (They don't, he learned quickly enough.)

When Fossey was killed, Glimcher assumed--naively, he says now--that his project would also die. In fact, Fossey's mysterious murder only intensified Hollywood's interest in her story, touching off what came to be known as the "gorilla wars."

Days after the murder, Universal Pictures sent screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan off to Rwanda to research Fossey's life. The studio, which already owned the rights to Fossey's book "Gorillas in the Mist," also secured the cooperation of Roz Carr, Fossey's longtime friend in Africa.

Unknown to Universal, two heavyweight producers working less than a mile away in Burbank--Peter Guber and Jon Peters--were just as eager to make the film. They brought their project to Warner Bros., which developed its own script. "I was outraged," says Glimcher, who learned about the Warners project in September, 1986.

That fall the money began to fly. Warners handed over a large sum of money to the African Wildlife Assn. to secure its assistance in filming the gorillas, according to Glimcher.

Universal paid much less money for the help of the smaller Digit Fund, founded by Fossey to protect the mountain gorillas.

But at the same time, Universal poured money into the research and development activities of Rick Baker, the makeup expert who would build radio-controlled "gorillas" for two scenes in which the animals are slaughtered by poachers.

Both studios spent more than $4 million before any cameras even landed on the African continent. "It was like a race to the North Pole," Glimcher said.

An independent company, Heritage Entertainment Co., had its own project in the works, securing contracts with Fossey's parents and Cornell University, which financed much of her research. Heritage developed and bought the rights to the critically acclaimed book about Fossey's life, "Woman in the Mists," by Farley Mowat, and had plans for a CBS miniseries.

Heritage and Universal landed in court, both seeking rights to Fossey's diaries and artifacts. Heritage won the suit about six months ago, but by then the issue was moot. CBS, under new management, had lost interest in the project, says Heritage's Skip Steloff.

In December, 1986, Universal and Warners entered into an an arrangement unusual in the history of Hollywood deal-making: They joined forces to produce and distribute the $24-million film. With Ovitz and Warners President Terry S. Semel acting as brokers, Guber and Glimcher agreed to meet with each other.

Within two hours, they had cut a deal: Guber/Peters would act as executive producers, but Glimcher would maintain the hands-on production role. Michael Apted would direct, and Sigourney Weaver would star; both were Glimcher's choices.

Some difficult choices lay ahead for Apted. The first question was how sympathetic the Fossey character should be. By the time of her death, she had no shortage of enemies. Fossey was less a scientist than a crusader, a woman single-minded in her campaign to save the mountain gorillas, which were in danger of extinction because of slaughter by poachers.

Fossey didn't kill any poachers, biographer Harold Hayes has written. "Short of such direct retribution, however, she had had people beaten, burned their property, killed their cattle and abducted their children," he wrote in Life magazine in 1986.

But poachers weren't her only target. Fossey antagonized the Rwandan government, wildlife groups, fellow researchers, even the young graduate students who poured into her camp in near worship of her. As Hayes put it, she seemed to cultivate enemies.

Fossey was particularly belligerent toward those who wanted to give the Rwandan government an economic incentive to save the gorillas by taking small groups of tourists into the jungles to view them. Fossey even fired guns above the heads of tourists to scare them off.

"I was surprised at how many people in Africa hated her," says Glimcher. At one point, Apted simply stopped interviewing her former associates: All that bile began to overshadow the heroic figure he hoped to bring to the screen. "The high-wire act of the film was to see how tough-minded I could make her without losing the audience's sympathy for her," says Apted. "I was in no danger of exaggerating (her vices), whether it was men, violence to the natives, viciousness to poachers or her drinking. But to me that was secondary to the heroic nature of what she did."

Weaver, who wanted the role in part because of her own interest in primates--she was inspired as a student at Stanford when she heard chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall speak--stresses that heroic side of Fossey, the strength of character that is widely accepted as the reason the mountain gorilla species was saved from extinction.

"She felt the urgency of the gorilla situation the way no one else did," Weaver says. "She felt she had no support, so she resorted to violence."

But, the actress adds, Fossey was not a bitter woman hiding from life in a mountain jungle. There was, for example, the photograph that a Texas couple had taken and shown to Weaver: Fossey hamming it up in her camp, wearing a Groucho Marx nose and glasses, playing the drums. "She had such an appetite for life," says Weaver. "She was turned up very high--for fun, for love, for work."

There is some dispute among Fossey's biographers about a key detail of her life--whether she was beaten and raped by soldiers in the Congo in 1966 when government officials threw her out of the country. (She relocated her activities to Rwanda, where she lived for the following 18 years.)

Biographer Hayes claims that she was raped, and that this "profoundly affected her attitude toward all Africans thereafter." But Mowat and many Fossey friends dispute that claim. Apted, after consulting with rape experts who examined her correspondence during that period, excluded the alleged episode from the script.

"I thought it would be such a traumatizing event on both the character and the audience that you might simply be able to reduce the film--her relationship to Bob Campbell (her lover for three years) falling apart, her hostility to Africans, her retreat into an obsession with the gorillas--to a gang rape," says Apted.

"It's not as if I was turning my back on the truth," notes Apted. "There's a division of opinion on this."

Another key question Apted faced was how to obtain footage of Weaver playing with wild mountain gorillas. "It was clear that this was going to be the heartbeat of the movie," Apted says. "Certainly Rick Baker wasn't going to build me a whole family of gorillas. By his estimation it would cost $100 million to reproduce what he did in ("Lord) Greystoke."

At one point Warners had even invested in a project to dress chimpanzees up as gorillas, an idea that fell by the wayside shortly after it was hatched. (However, a baby "gorilla" that Weaver adopts in the film is primarily a chimp in a gorilla suit. That casting prompted concern from animal rights groups, who were invited to visit the set in Africa to see how the film makers were treating the chimps they used. The groups, says Apted, were satisfied by the treatment.)

For two scenes in which gorillas are attacked by poachers, however, the film makers relied on Baker's ingenuity. He built two gorillas with radio-controlled features, and four gorilla suits to be worn by humans--at a cost of $4 million.

But Apted realized early on that most of Weaver's co-stars would have to be wild mountain gorillas. While Apted acknowledges the risk in this, he adds that "it wasn't a foolhardy enterprise."

"It had been proven that Dian Fossey's great contribution to the science (of primate studies) is that these animals are not violent towards us," Apted says. "People had always been frightened of them. They were regarded as incredibly dangerous. It wasn't until Fossey went to work in the late 1960s--at that time it was unthinkable for her to sit among them--that they were perceived as actually gentle animals that you could communicate with."

Still, the 400-pound males are fierce with each other, pounding their chests and charging their enemies. And they will charge humans--if provoked.

To obtain footage of gorilla charges, Apted sent veteran wildlife photographer Alan Root into Zaire to film gorillas that had had no contact with humans. At one point, he accidently put a tripod down near a baby gorilla, which squealed. A huge silverback male charged, taking a bite out of Root's leg.

Fortunately, says Apted, the gorilla was old and his teeth were rotting. Six weeks after being stitched back up, Root was back in the jungle with his camera.

The group of gorillas that Fossey studied haven't had much contact with humans. But there are three other gorilla groups in Rwanda that sit with tourists two hours a day, seven days a week. The safest approach to making "Gorillas in the Mist" would have been to send Weaver to work with these "tourist gorillas."

Apted dropped that idea after his first exploratory trip to Rwanda. "First of all, it was a nightmare finding them," recalls the director. "It took us five hours to find them in blinding heat on the Equator at 12,000 feet. When we finally found them, they just sat there. They were so blase about human contact. All they do is eat and belch and move on."

He concluded that the tourist gorillas were not interesting enough to carry a film; Weaver would have to hike in to Fossey's more remote--and wild--gorillas.

Moreover, he realized, the nomadic gorilla groups would be difficult to locate each day, and the dense vegetation at times might interfere with filming. All of this injected new uncertainty into the film's schedule and budget.

The studios began to get nervous. Two weeks before Apted and his crew were scheduled to begin filming in Africa, Semel called Glimcher in London to say his studio was pulling out of the deal. The film was already $4 million over budget.

Refusing to let the project die, Apted, Glimcher, Weaver and others involved in the film offered givebacks on their salaries totaling more than $3 million. Glimcher declined to provide details on the givebacks, but says he gave up his own salary in favor of a percentage of its gross profits.

In early summer, 1987, Weaver--accompanied only by Apted, cameraman Simon Trevor and David Watts, Fossey's successor at the Karisoke research camp--met Fossey's gorillas for the first time. And the cameras rolled.

When they located the gorillas, the vegetation was so dense that the film makers could only hear the sounds of animals chewing. "They were all around us," recalls Apted. "You couldn't see them, but you could hear them."

Says Weaver: "I remember hearing a gorilla beating its chest, and foliage shaking. We climbed up the hill, keeping very low. You could hear their munching."

Weaver and Watts sat down as a group of gorillas approached. A female appeared, sat down next to Weaver, and started examining her camera and equipment. "They look at you very strangely, and check you out," says Weaver. "But then they go back to what they were doing. You're not very important to them."

Apted was furiously shooting photos of the encounter, which he immediately shipped off to the two nervous studios financing the project. "There was this real wild animal sitting by Sigourney and looking at her camera," says Apted. "From that moment on, the movie became a possibility."

From that moment on, though, the crew began a grueling schedule. A crew of 30 awoke at 7 a.m. and piled into a four-wheel drive truck to go to where trackers suspected the gorillas had spent the night. "That bloody car was so bumpy I wanted to throw up," says Bryan Brown, who co-stars as Fossey's lover.

At the edge of the jungle, they would park the truck and hike in toward the gorillas, walking for hours. Once they found the gorillas, most of the crew would set up camp, while Weaver and three others followed the gorillas to spend a few hours filming with them. At the end of the day, they would hike back down to the temporary camp, pack up, hike to the truck, and drive back--only to wake up and repeat it all the next day.

While a male gorilla harshly slapped Weaver on the back one day, for the most part the animals were gentle, even playful with her. "You just go up there and trust that on some level we will all recognize each other," Weaver says. "I was so excited to be there, I didn't have time to be afraid."

But Brown was more skeptical. He made the astute observation to his associates that while gorillas as a rule are gentle to humans, "rules" were made to be broken. What if a huge silverback decided to make an exception with Brown or Weaver or any of the others on the film?

"When you get there, you realize you have no guns, no protection," he says. "They insisted that it would be no problem, as long as you are submissive. But I remember thinking, I wouldn't mind not being here."

Weaver's role has prompted her to become active in gorilla protection activities, primarily raising money for Fossey's Digit Fund. But she concedes to a concern that the film could have a harmful fallout by encouraging tourists to view the animals. Already, Rwandan gorillas exposed to tourist groups have been infected by human diseases.

"I worry about that, but I feel the Rwandan government monitors it very carefully," bringing in very small groups of tourists, Weaver says.

As for Weaver, she like Fossey, has been smitten by gorillas. In between acting roles, Weaver plans to sneak back to the mountains of Rwanda, where outrage over Dian Fossey's mysterious death is doing almost as much to save the mountain gorillas as her controversial life.

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