‘To be frank. there are only about six orsei'en women in the world that would have got the studios to finance afilm about Dian Fossey, and Sigourney is one of them. ‘Michael Apted. director.
Sigourney Weaver. they say. is a Star waiting for a role to happen. As Warrant Officer Ripley in the Aliens films. her no-shit manner with unruly extra-terrestrials made a big dent in the public imagination. but with her latest film Gorillas In The Mist. a unique blend of biopic and stirring natural adventure, she might just have found a real-life part to combine that commanding physical presence with a challenging portrayal ofemotional range.
With its title borrowed from her autobiography. Gorillas In The Mist tells the story of Mississippian Dian Fossey. a woman of tenacious dedication. who went to central Africa in 1966 with virtually no experience. and over the next
study and conservation of the
definitive head-count study ofthese gentle. vegetarian primates, found only in a 25 mile long stretch of Rwanda‘s Virungas mountains. before Fossey arrived to spend years working alone in the most difficult conditions. After she founded the Karisoke Research Centre. a series of magazine articles and documentary films brought into the international media spotlight the threat faced by the species from
eighteen years devoted her life to the
mountain gorilla. There had been no
3. ' « r: 3 salt __ murderous poachers. Yet. as her efforts to defend ‘her gorillas‘ became increasingly obsessive (she was not above staging a mock hanging to scare off attackers). she became a public embarassment to the local authorities and the enemies she made could well have resulted in her brutal murder shortly after Christmas 1985. a crime for which there still remains no convincing explanation.
In many ways. what‘s most remarkable about the picture is that it got made at all. When both Universal and Warner Brothers found out that they were each developing different Fossey movies. they decided to put $27 million into a co-production that became (iorillas In The Mist. British director Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter) explains the risk they took: ‘We weren‘t going to make another Greystoke. so the movie became dependent on the wildlife footage. on whether Sigourney could actually go up a mountain in Rwanda and form a relationship with these animals. the wild moumain gorillas. It was a huge act ofcourage for us and for the studio. because nothing at all might have happened.‘
What did happen though. is at times quite magical. Carefully trained by naturalist Dr David Watts in the physical gestures of submission that would put the gorillas at their case. Weaver manages to convey the wonder of communication with these lovely
After years of biding her time, Sigourney Weaver has taken the leading role in a major film, It involves rather a lot of acting with animals. however -- intimate contact
with huge. heavy mountain gorillas. to be precise. Trevor Johnston reports.
creatures that are our closest relatives on earth. At the same time though. there are moments of extreme tension when an agitated adult male (known as a silverback because of the distinctive colouring) decides to charge his 450 pound bulk straight at the star and camera crew. Was this as risky as it looks on screen?
‘Probably not really.‘ Sigourney explains. "The group we used was habituated. That means that although they were wild. they were used to human beings. They could handle people coming up to them and writing in notebooks. which was pretty much all I had to do. It was actually great fun because they‘re like people. Each of them‘ll amble over in the particular way they have. check you out for a while. then get bored and walk off. There were a couple of run-ins with the head of the group. the silverback called Pablo. who I think was just a little resentful ofall the attention I was getting.‘
While Weaver suffered nothing worse than the odd bruise from an over-playful slap. second unit cameraman Alan Root. shooting wild gorillas on another location in Zaire. was severly bitten by an aggressive silverback. The leading lady however. is quick to brush aside such incidents: ‘Alan is a madman. it‘s his job to get wild animals to attack him so he can film it. Anyway. the one that charged him is called Nahjimoto. or “the one who boils over“. and our study group were really much more mellow about humans. I never though I was going to be hurt because actually it‘s an act ofego around these animals to believe that they‘re going to single you out and injure you. In fact. you‘re just not that important to them. unless you‘re doing something that‘s going to threaten them.‘
While Apted. cast and crew hauled themselves up a 45 degree slope every morning for eight weeks and were lucky enough to get the key animal shots that would enable them to construct the sequences they needed for the movie. only a fraction ofthe total footage they captured ever made it into the final result. As the director explains. ‘There‘s one moment where we met up with two gorilla groups at once. That‘s about a fifth of the world‘s total gorilla population in the shot at once. with three silverbacks all charging each other. and our Sigourney right in the middle of it all. But try as we might. we just couldn‘t find a way of integrating it into the rest ofthe narrative.‘
What has remained. on the other hand is a number ofscenes where the ever-trusting infant primates gambol
cheerfully with their friendly neighbourhood screen idol. ‘The babies were just great.‘ the 39 year-old recalls. ‘If you can imagine five pre-schoolers who‘re very strong. and who just don‘t stop for a couple of hours. I did get bitten a few times. but they‘re just like puppies. they just want to see what you‘re made of. Sometimes they‘d be hanging on to me by their teeth the mothers would come over to see just what was going on. and eventually whenever I arrived it was like “Here comes the babysitter!“ What a wonderful feeling though. being a trampoline for all these furry little brats.‘
Coping admirably with all the cutesy ape stuff. Weaver also pulls off the darker second half. as the older Fossey fights dirty to protect the gorillas she has nurtured from the unwanted attentions of zoological bounty hunters. and treats her young research students like abject slaves in the process. With a permanent scowl etched on her face. and an unquenchable nicotine habit that leaves her wheezing. you really believe that the old bird has been up there in the Rwandan mountains for nigh on two decades. and it‘s a tribute to both actress and Apted‘s judgement that the film neither whitewashes its subject nor treats her as an unpleasant psycho.
With a role that allows her to display a range ofemotions. from touching awe at first meeting the gorillas. to girlish romance with Bryan Brown‘s photographer. to the icy zeal ofthe later stages. she‘s at last been allowed to pit her physical power against a complex characterisation. And while she herselfadmits that she‘ll never have the impeccable thespian technique ofa Meryl Streep. the gutsy power and psychological credibility should see her gain a second Oscar Nomaination to match her previous recognition forJames Cameron‘s Aliens. and so inch further towards the highest echelons of Hollywood Megastardom occupied by the Streeps and Streisands of this world.
Soon to return as Bill Murray‘s possessed girlfriend in Ghostbusters
II. even Weaver herselfwould probably prefer not to remember ill-advised choices like the Chevy Chase gambling caper Deal ()f The Century. or French so-called comedy Another Woman (co-starring Gerard Depardieu and Dr Ruth Westheimer for Chrissakesl). she feels that her current offering ranks with her best work: ‘I think I‘ve gone legit now. This current movie and the Peter Weir film The Year OfLiving Dangerously were both projects that were incredible experiences to make. and which hold up well because they‘re about something more than just the people in them. I mean the whole animal issue has a different focus for me now. I really see them as our fellow creatures now whereas I didn‘t before.‘ Gorillas In The Mist opens across central Scotland on January 27. See film section for complete programme details and afull review.
8 The List 27 January — 9 February