Interview with Donna McRae, Director and Producer of Cobby

Copy Editing and Posting by Katie Grimes

You are in the process of running a crowdfunding campaign for your documentary Cobby. Can you tell us about the project and what inspired you to work on this film?

The project was born from my interest in cultural memory. I used to watch a TV show when I was a child called Cobby’s Hobbies, which starred a chimpanzee named Cobby who had 4 minutes to master a particular hobby that they threw at him. He never got it right so his “wife” Cobina or his “conscience” (all played by Cobby) would come and get him out of his scrape. It had a fantastic 1960’s theme song, and I never forgot the song or Cobby.

Donna McRae

Donna McRae

Years later after always trawling the internet trying to find episodes of Cobby’s Hobbies, I found an archaic forum, and two of the contributors illuminated the way. One was working at San Francisco Zoo, looking after an elderly chimp called Cobby who was rumored to have had his own TV show. The other was an editor that worked on the show. From there I made contact, and it all just fell into place. The growing awareness and knowledge of chimpanzees that we, as filmmakers, have experienced forms the narrative of the film, which ultimately explores both the positive and negative aspects of chimpanzees in captivity, leaving plenty of food for thought for the viewer.

Our film will show a multi-faceted approach to the subject, hopefully illuminating both the good and the bad elements of Cobby’s story. We will show him as both a “celebrity chimp” and a “senior citizen.” While much of our footage will be heart-warming, some will be deeply disturbing. Our global culture’s conflicted treatment of chimps is a paradox that we have dubbed “the dark side of cute.” If we are representative of most people, then much of the information will indeed be shocking. An example of this would be that what we perceive as a smile is, in fact, an expression of anxiety or fear in a chimp. This is more clearly outlined in our promotional video in the Pozible campaign.

How much of the film have you completed already and how will the funds help you complete the project?

We have shot about three quarters of the film. We are raising money to employ an editor to take it to first cut, and then we can see what else we need.

Your first film, Johnny Ghost, is an award-winning horror film. What made you decide to switch genres when making Cobby?

It wasn’t a conscious decision to switch to making a documentary—it just became too big to ignore. It felt like Searching for Sugarman…with chimps. We had pieced this puzzle together, and when we spoke to people about it, they got really excited about the journey, so it just…happened. My love is ghosts and haunting, and I have other projects like that, but Cobby is one that came out of nowhere and wouldn’t go away.

In which way does your work as a fiction filmmaker influence the way in which you approach telling Cobby’s story?

Whether the film is fiction or nonfiction, most of the requirements for a good film remain the same, in my opinion. It still needs a similar narrative structure and attention to the visual aspects of the film. Cobby’s story has a classic narrative trajectory in that he was captured from the wild, found fleeting fame on television, and then found a relatively happy ending. As mentioned earlier, this is paralleled by our growing awareness as filmmakers as we discover more and more about the various plights of his fellow chimps. We are keen to make the film as visually beautiful as we can and to this end have put lot of thought into framing and lenses.

Michael adjusting the camera

Michael Vale filming in Los Angeles

You are collaborating with your husband Michael Vale, who is an artist and fellow filmmaker, in making Cobby. Can you talk about the ways in which you both negotiate working on a project together while being married?

Obviously we know each other very well and have confidence that we can negotiate our way through any disagreement. We’re also well aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so we’re very good at assigning roles that complement each other. An added bonus is that we share very similar taste in films and music.

You teach at Deakin University in Melbourne. How does being an academic support your work as a filmmaker?

It actually is OK! I teach in the Film & TV department, and I find the students quite inspiring. The university encourages me to pursue my projects, and we have great support (equipment, technical staff), so it works well. Our facilities are like a candy store, which I can use, so it’s a good place to be. Also, students frequently ask if they can work on my projects, so that’s a bonus.

Are there any drawbacks to being a filmmaking academic and have you found any strategies for handling them?

I think the only drawbacks come from people outside of the academy that hold the view that you can’t do both. Hopefully I can lead by example. Kelly Riechhardt comes to mind as someone to aspire to.

If you teach filmmaking, does that experience influence your own film projects?

At the moment I teach screenwriting and have seven honors students. I find that teaching screenwriting classes keeps sharpening my understanding of the mechanics of making a script. Also, I always marvel at students who tend to come up with innovative ideas with no budget. I always take note of the innovations that interest me!

You have chosen to run your crowdfunding campaign with Pozible. What made you select that site over better known sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo?

The campaign is part of an initiative at my university called Research My World, which is trying to fund research projects in an innovative way. They have partnered with Australian crowdfunding platform Pozible. We have successfully used Pozible for another project, so we were pleased with this connection as we like the methods they employ (e.g., use of social media, milestone awards, flawless communication, and ready advice).

What advice do you have for filmmakers seeking to use crowdfunding for their own projects?

Be prepared! You need to start work on it about three months before by building up social platforms. Be aware that after the first week or so the pledges may drop off, so you have to have nerves of steel to carry on and face down your social platforms as if you were getting hundreds of pledges. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for money!

Cobby the chimp

Cobby at the San Francisco Zoo

You mention in your campaign description that Cobby is one of the luckier chimpanzees because he has been taken care of in his adulthood. Can you tell us how your film will showcase the issue’s relevance to viewers?

We see this film as an awareness-raising project and are confident that we can present the same learning curve that has so affected us since we became involved with the subject. A strange paradox is that the engaging power of cuteness will assist us with this critique. We will be using footage from old TV programs and archival photographs that are both endearing and revealing. We have also interviewed people who were involved with Cobby during his early years and quickly learned that his use was well intentioned. I think it was our discovery that the chimps we are familiar with are just babies that set us on the search for more information about their later years. We are confident that an audience will care about our main character (and, by representation, his species) just as we have.

Do you have any advice to women filmmakers trying to get projects off the ground?

Be patient, be passionate, and be practical. It’s a hard industry and we all know the statistics for women filmmakers—only 4% of directors were women last year. Groups like Women in Horror Month are vigilant in promoting awareness of this, and hopefully one day this will change. However, keep going and look at it as a marathon. The more you do, the better you will become and you will emerge, you have just got to believe in yourself and back yourself when the going gets tough.

Click here to support Cobby’s Pozible campaign, here for more information about Donna and Michael’s other film project, Le Chien qui Fume, and here to see Rebecca Zantjer’s review of Donna’s horror film Johnny Ghost.

You can also view Donna’s profile and Alexandra’s profile.