Are Chimps People Too? D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus On Their New Film ‘Unlocking The Cage’

For legendary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, adversity has become second nature. From music (Dont Look Back, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Jimi Plays Monterey, Down from the Mountain) to politics (The War Room) to the Internet boom (, their iconic work always comes with sacrifices and challenges that they never see coming. But that’s the only way they can capture the honest truth they are seeking. However, their latest film, Unlocking The Cage, may be their biggest challenge as they have to deal with something that’s slow-moving and always unpredictable: the legal system.

In the movie the filmmakers follow the crusade by animal protection attorney Steven Wise to seek personhood rights for animals, specifically for four chimpanzees in New York State. Working on the film for the last two years, the filmmakers are currently in a holding pattern with the project until Wise presents his case to the Appellate Court this fall.

So what better time to start a Kickstarter campaign!

For the first time in their career the masters of the verite form are turning to crowdfunding to help continue filming, because as they told us in their Upper West Side office last week, they have no clue when this story will end.

Here Pennebaker and Hegedus discuss how they got involved in the film (which is a Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund alum) and why they believe this case is only the beginning of our society better understanding the things living around us. But first, to get started, check out the New York Times Op-Doc the filmmakers made about Wise.



How did you come across Steve and what he was doing?

Pennebaker: He fell into our net. [Laughs]

Hegedus: Like most of our projects someone walks through our door and thinks we would be a good match to make a film about something. So in this case it was Rosadel Varela, who I knew briefly from when I did with Jehane and remained friends. Her brother took a law class from Steve and thought he was interesting and that he would be a good idea to make a film on. So Steve came in and we talked to him about what he was doing. And I have to say, for us, we drop into different worlds that we've never been part of before and the animal rights world and the legal world surrounding animal rights and protections and abuse, none of that we were very aware of. It's not that we don't want to protect animals before, but this has really been an eye-opening experience for us. It seemed controversial, a lot of what Steve was saying to us, because the idea of giving an animal personhood rights seemed strange at first, now it seems so logical. 

How far back did you guys meet?

Pennebaker: Two years.

When you get a pitch like this do you do your own preliminary research to see if you want to make a film, what are the next steps?

Pennebaker: We should do that! I'm not sure we do anything thorough like that. The fact is, we get an idea and [producer] Fraser [Pennebaker] says, "There's no money there," and we happily agree there's no money in it, and go forward. But when something gets you and you think there's nobody going to do this story, it's too crazy, but it should be told and you just have a feeling about it that it's hard to stay off it. The thing with this film is the story hinders on the law, and the courts take a long time, so for us a film that takes over two years is totally a loser, there's no way we're going to get [money] back, but somehow we can't bring ourselves to bail. 

What was it about this story that interested you?

Pennebaker: I believe at some point there's going to be a major effort to try to communicate with co-habitants of the planet. As of now there's been an amount of effort to communicate with apes and elephants and to get through and actually communicate with animals and find out what they know. Just in doing this film Chris has gotten these pictures in Japan of these chimpanzees, where they show them random numbers on a screen—

Hegedus: They taught them how to sequence numbers like from 1-20 on a screen. 

Are these kinds of things you're going to showcase in the film?

Pennebaker: Yes.

Hegedus: And this is what really got me about doing this story, and will interest a lot of people, is that thanks to things like YouTube we as a society are more aware of what animals can do and their capabilities. They feel pain, they are intelligent, they are unique, so that totally influenced me and was an eye-opener. 

Steve's case is based on explaining the equality and the saneness of why humans have rights and why animals who have a lot of those same characteristics should have rights too. So he got affidavits from nine of the leading scientists from around the world who have studied apes in captivity and in the wild in Africa and they wrote about what they can do in different kinds of categories like culture, intelligence, making things, theory of mind. And we have gone to see some of them. Perhaps our largest eye-opener was Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, she brought up a chimpanzee from an infant and taught it how to use lexigram symbols to communicate back in English to understand. To talk to Kanzi, that's his name, he understands English, but to talk back he uses these symbols.

Pennebaker: And you have a lot of apes—who were snatched from their mothers since the space race and used to test everything from shuttles to drugs—who are now 60 and what do you do with them? You can't leave them out of their cages, even though you brought one up and you raised them, as we saw with that lady in Connecticut, that's something you can't be sure about so you keep them in a cage. So there was this incredible situation where you have hundreds of chimps in cages in someone's living room who will never be let out. And this is not a stupid animal, they have an intelligence beyond the size of their brains, the fact is life is guided in ways we barely understand. 

Hegedus: The film is going to be a drama, it's Steve's search for the right way legally to do his case, which meant going through all 50 states in the United States to find the state he felt had the best history of law under common law to mount the case and go into that state, which turned out being New York, and try to find the best animal. He really narrowed it down to Chimpanzees because of the fact that you can't just open the door and let a captive elephant or dolphin or orca whale and put them anywhere. There are more sanctuaries for Chimpanzees and they are also the most studied so that's why he went with them and went on a search for them. And it's a dramatic search, he finds animals and they die before the case begins and he has to start again and then he finds another.

What is the status of the film?

Hegedus: The cases were filed in December for the four Chimpanzees that Steve found in New York State. The judges did oral hearings on the case and all of them made the remarks to send Steve's entire lawsuits with the affidavits from the scientists up to the appellate courts. So that's where it is now. Hopefully that will happen in the fall. Right now we're not shooting, we'll start back up in the summer. I'm going to visit a scientist who took over these very famous chimps that Roger Fouts had. He was one of the very first people to do cognitive studies with Chimps and taught them American Sign Language. These are some of the Chimps from his original workings in the ‘60s and ‘70s and they are very special because one of them was a Chimpanzee that as a baby, and I don't know if it was its mother, but an elder Chimp knew sign language so the humans didn't teach the baby sign language they waited to see if this elder Chimp would teach a human language to the child chimp and it did. So we're going to go see them. 

I would image having a break in shooting like this isn't new for you guys.

Pennebaker: All the time. Our idea of using film for storytelling is the camera doesn't lie and you can follow the story from beginning to end. When you decide to take a story from when it began, which we sort of tried to do, to when it ends, you don't know when it ends and the problem there is we're stuck with the ability of the law. What Steve is trying to do that grabs us all is he goes into court and some dog that's going to be killed because some kid threw rocks at it and it bit the kid, he gets the dog off, that's what he does, animal rights law. Which is crazy because animals don't have any rights. But the fact is if that's all he was doing then nothing would change, what he wants to do is to create the kind of change that happened when they freed slaves. And not a question of being kind to animals, but having certain rights you can't broche. What's interesting is he's trying to change culture, change things in a way that nobody's tried before. So at the end if he even comes close to winning his case, if anything it just brings more exposure to the issue. This is something that should be thought about. 

Why a Kickstarter campaign?

Hegedus: The process of making this film is one of the longest that we've done and similar to most of our films because they are real life stories where people don't know what's going to happen until it happens at the end. We feel so committed to this film that we couldn't just set it aside because we aren’t getting a big TV station or a distributor interested in it just yet, so we decided to mount a Kickstarter. But what I think is great about our Kickstarter is we have a lot of unique perks that are based on our history of making films about all sorts of musicians and interesting people and we're kind of going through our basement and finding fun things to include. Stephen Sondheim, who we've worked with, is signing stuff for us, the band The National, who we've worked with recently, are donating some albums and signing those and we’re even do something with Dont Look Back. And the money from the Kickstarter will go to continuing filming these three different courts that will be taking up the cases and whatever else we need. 

And I would imagine you don't have a picture lock date, it ends when the story ends.

Pennebaker: Right. That's the thing about real life, it often doesn't give you hints. 

Here's Pennebaker and Hegedus' Kickstarter video:

Go To Kickstarter Campaign

[Photos (top to bottom): Steve Wise with chimp, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, Kanzi the chimp, Kickstarter merch]