Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Gorilla Goes to Hollywood

It was 1991, on a cold November afternoon in London, when I sat down to watch Gorillas in the Mist for the very first time. My heart was pounding, even before the title sequence began. I could hardly contain myself. 

Nominated for five oscars and well received by the critics, no doubt it was a great movie, but I had other reasons to be excited about the Dian Fossey biopic. I’d just received a phone call inviting me to interview for the position of UK director of the Digit Fund, the organisation she founded.

Not many positions offer a feature-length Hollywood motion picture as a guide for interview. But, in spite of the fact that I had grown up in Africa, I’d never met a wild gorilla nor visited Rwanda, so this film, shot on location, was my introduction.

The silver hairs on my back stood on end as I watched the opening scene, which faded in to the strains of Maurice Jarre’s sumptuous score. A DC 3 carrying Dian Fossey, played by Sigourney Weaver, descends between the majestic Virunga volcanoes, and lands in an airfield next to the mountains.

I could not have known then that I was watching scenes from my future life, a life that would be quite unlike the one I led
 then, and that years later I would arrive at that same airfield, aboard movie mogul Barry Diller’s helicopter.


Hollywood and gorillas : the two could not be farther apart. One showcases the culmination of human imagination, the other, the complete lack of it. Yet there has always been a symbiosis between them.

Since Hollywood’s Golden Age, movie makers have pitted beast against beauty and turned the gorilla into a box office sensation. Ingagi released in 1930, was the first to trade heavily on the suggestion of sex between a woman and a gorilla, and it’s success spawned the mother of all gorilla movies, King Kong, which earned $2 million during its initial release in 1933, putting RKO Radio Pictures in the black for the first time since they started making movies. It ranks among the greatest motion pictures of all time.

Hollywood has been kind to the gorilla. Unlike chimpanzees and orangutans whose screen exploits have attracted scorn from animal rights advocates, gorillas themselves have largely been left out of the picture. Instead, they’re usually played by long-armed actors in an ersatz gorilla getups, known as gorilla men, people like Steve Calvert, Ray Corrigan, and Bob Burns (the most beloved).

In later years as production standards improved, ape actors like Dan Richter and Peter Elliot perfected their craft to match the ever more sophisticated suits they were being asked to climb into.

Some of the best make up and effects artists have made their reputations crafting believable movie gorillas. Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen are among those from the Golden Age, while in recent years Rick Baker and Stan Winston are credited with many of the modern silverbacks on the silver screen.

Nowadays, CGI and motion capture technology gives gorilla men like Andy Serkis, star of the 2005 remake of Kong, the freedom to give more convincing performances. Still, who isn’t moved when Peter Elliot, playing Tarzan’s adopted chimp father, gets shot in Greystoke, ("C'est mon père!") or when Dan Richter throws the bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Other blogs have adequately dealt with the subjects of gorilla movies and gorilla men, which I won’t go into, except to say, thanks Hollywood for turning the gorilla into a screen idol. It made my job saving them a whole lot easier.


My personal association with the movie business began one sunny summer morning, shortly after I started my job as director of the Digit Fund. I received a call from Warner Brothers in London. “I believe you wrote to Sigourney Weaver requesting a meeting,” said a young woman, which I confirmed. “Well, she can see you this afternoon, at the Barkley Hotel.” I quickly jotted down the address then examined my scruffy attire: jeans and a t-shirt. They might have at least been given enough notice to dress for the occasion.

A couple of hours later I was inside the second floor suite I’d been instructed to go to. It was plush, decorated in a classical style, and overrun with assistants catering to the needs of a queue of journalists waiting to see Ms Weaver. I spotted her through the crowd, seated in front of a large Alien 3 poster, answering questions from the British entertainment press about her latest movie.

A pretty, young assistant ushered me into an adjacent room and told me I could use the phone while I waited. “You’ll never guess where I am...” is clearly the call she thought I’d make, but I was cooler than that. The next time the door opened, I expected it to be her again, but it was the movie star herself, unescorted.

“Hello,,” said Sigourney, shaking my hand, “I’m sorry I’m late.” She looked stunning, dressed in a bright orange 1960s top, with large, strategically-cut holes arranged around it. Her hair was quite short - as she hadn’t had much of a chance to grow it since playing a bald Ripley - and it was done in tight brunette curls that accentuated her diamond-cut features.

We talked for twenty five minutes about her role as honorary chair of the charity, and my fundraising and awareness raising activities. I told her we had recently changed the name to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. “I will have to work harder now,” she said, smiling. ”People identify me closely with Dian.” I was startled by her loyalty to the cause. She was determined not to let Gorillas in the Mist become “an unwitting memorial to an extinct species.”

That was the first of many celebrity appointments I kept in my twenty-year career as a conservationist, including many more with Sigourney, but I will always cherish that first face-to-face encounter I had with a genuine Hollywood movie star.


Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick, and with whom I had been friends for years, opened up a world of possibilities for the gorillas. He also gave me my most cherished contact in the movie business.

"I think Roger Caras who was Stanley's VP at the time would be happy to be interviewed, explaining how the ape sequence was arranged in 2001," Clarke wrote in a fax to me. Clarke, who rarely left Sri Lanka, introduced me to Caras by fax. We met for lunch at a posh London restaurant. Caras struck me as one of the last true gentlemen in the movie business. As one time vice president of Hawk Films, Kubrick’s production company, in due course he gave me and introduction to the great filmmaker himself.

Though we never actually met, Stanley Kubrick subsequently made two financial donations to the Fund, both in response to editions of our newsletter, Digit News. Then, on March 6th 1999, I sent him a fax, as I had done to many other high-profile supporters that day, informing him of an impending air strike by the Zimbabwean air force on the town of Goma, and the collateral damage it might cause to the gorilla habitat. Not that my fax had anything to do with it, but the next day, Kubrick died in his sleep of a heart attack.

On a happier note, my association with Clarke also led me to Dan Richter, who played the ape Moonwatcher in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001. He arrived one day at the London office saying Clarke had recommended us to him. A few months later I would take him and his son, Will, to meet the real gorillas in Rwanda. It was to be the start of a lasting friendship.

In a thank-you letter that she wrote to Arthur Clarke, Sigourney said, “You probably don’t recall meeting me at my parents, Pat and Liz Weaver’s when I was eleven. I took a ‘Playboy’ magazine out of your briefcase and read it. I’d never seen a ‘Playboy’ before so your visit is indelibly recorded in my memory!”

Her gratitude was in response to Clarke’s sterling efforts, through his contacts in the Space industry, to acquire imagery of the gorilla habitat from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which had been taken on two Space shuttle missions in 1994. It is a story I’ve reported elsewhere in this blog, but I mention here because it was pivotal to the Fund’s next encounter with Tinsel Town.

One day, another ape actor, Peter Elliot (pictured above), also turned up unannounced. As the foremost ape actor of his day, he was compelled to run rampage through my office, climbing on to my desk, ripping up my cigarettes, and throwing stationery against the walls. He gave a surprisingly convincing performance as a chimpanzee, even without a suit. Lucky for him considering the mess he made.

Peter had come with an urgent message: Paramount Picture was making an ape movie, to be based on Michael Crichton’s adventure novel, Congo, and if we got in early enough, we might be able to secure their support for the cause.

After rushing out and buying the paperback, I quickly discovered something quite serendipitous about Congo. It involved detailed satellite imagery of the gorilla habitat in central Africa, the same as we'd just acquired from NASA/JPL. I called producer Sam Mercer and offered him a bit of verisimilitude for his movie.


My first visit to Hollywood, in the Spring of 1994, followed on the heels of that call. I can remember the feeling of elation that came over me as my co-director Jillian Miller and I drove up Melrose Avenue to the Paramount lot in a convertible, with the sound of big band swing playing on the car radio. Thanks to Peter Elliot’s timely heads-up, the Fund was in at the ground level with Kennedy/Marshal’s production of Congo. And, in the course a few short days, we would be subjected to every manner of Hollywood schmooze.

On one occasion, while we were seated in a restaurant on Rodeo and Wiltshire, having lunch with Congo associate producer Michael Backes, and his publicist Beverly Magid of Guttman Associates, Dick Guttman himself arrived at our table, with a female friend in tow. “I was wondering if you could give a ride to my client,” he said, “
She’s staying close to your hotel. May I introduce you to Patricia Hearst. ” Low and behold it was Patty Hearst, aka Tania, the famous newspaper heiress, who in 1974 was kidnapped by Symbionese Liberation Army. 

Ten minutes later were were driving up Wilshire Boulevard together, with Patty warning the consequences of breathing too much LA air, and insisting we close all the windows and turn on the air conditioning. Never one to miss a fundraising opportunity, I asked her about making an appeal to her family foundation. “Oh, you won’t get any money from them,“ she laughed. “Campaigners are always on their ass. They own half the Californian coast, you know.”

It’s important to be assertive in Hollywood. The industry expects nothing less of it’s solicitors. It wasn’t easy convincing Paramount that we were the cause on which to pin Congo. At one point, while Kennedy/Marshall were prevaricating over a plush gorilla doll, I asked Sigourney to phone Kathleen Kennedy and urge them along. “We'd appreciate not being blindsided like that,” said producer Sam Mercer.

But gorillas are not generally polite, and when their situation gets desperate, yes, I get pushy. The big bohunkases needed a champion. Hence being called an “asshole” by Michael Crichton, and a “hustler” by Dave Gilmour, were to me badges of honour. My intentions are good. What's your excuse?

Paramount Pictures eventually paid for $10,000 for our space images, even though NASA/JPL had given them to us for free. We also ended up with all the box office returns from Congo's London premier at the Odeon Leicester Square, and an on-pack promotion to adopt a gorilla that went out with the video, raising nearly $150,000 for gorilla conservation on the back of the movie.

However, despite it's success at the box office, the critics panned Congo. I’ll never forget Douglas Adams stomping out of the cinema after the film had ended, and bellowing at the top of his voice, “WHAT A LOAD OF SHIT!” Roger Ebert was the only critic to give Congo a thumbs up, citing it as “a splendid example of the jungle adventure story,” a quality that was not lost on me.


Hollywood legend Ray Harryhausen is someone who knows the jungle adventure story better than most. I first met the special effects guru at an event in Paris in 1999, where he was being honoured with a Jules Verne Lifetime Achievement Award. We discovered we shared a passion for hairy apes and immediately hit it off.

On my return to London, he invited me to dinner with his wife Diana at their home in Holland Park. Diana Harryhousen, I learned, was a descendent of David Livingstone, which was evident from the many water colours displayed on the walls of their Georgian house
, painted during the great explorer’s Zambesi Expedition

Ray led me up the stairs to his attic where he kept scores of stop-frame animation characters from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Clash of the Titans, films that made his name in special effects. It was a rare privilege that left me at a loss for words. Ray couldn't say enough about how much he loved the gorillas. He recalled his early days in the business, and how thrilled he was when they hired him to work on Mighty Joe Young, alongside Willis O’Brien, who was responsible for the special effects in the original 1933 King Kong. "Willis wasn't there much. And by doing most of the miniature set wizardry myself, I saved lots of money."

After dinner, I showed off my new Palm Pilot. At that time digital hand-held technology was still largely unknown to the world. While seated around the coffee table, I demonstrated how I could look up Ray’s work on the IMDB database. “I'll tell you who to look up,” he laughed, “Gustav von Seyffertitz.”

Within a few seconds I’d found him, a German actor of the silent era, who’d lived to the ripe old age of 80. “He’s sure been in alot of movies,” I said scrolling down the page. “Over a hundred, going all the way back to 1917.”

“And he didn’t even start until he was middle aged,” said Ray.

“Shall I fax this page to you?”

“Go ahead,” he chuckled. Suddenly his fax machine began spouting yards of paper, and Ray just stood there laughing and shaking his head at my absurd use of the technology. That evening was one the most memorable in my career.

Like many of the Hollywood legends I’ve met over the years, Ray became a regular donor to the cause. Gorillas owe much to the movie business for their survival. Gorillas in the Mist created public enthusiasm that snowballed into a global campaign. Congo galvanized that support. And later appeals allowed me to work with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Daryl Hannah. Suffice to say the big bohunkases have benefited enormously from their iconic screen image.

I’ve also benefited personally, attracting celebrities and movie executives to my safaris. Barry Diller (pictured), Diane von Furstenberg, Bryan Lourd and Christian Louboutine were among those on just one gorilla trek I led on New Years Day 2005. That was the time I flew in Diller’s helicopter. The following year I took Tom Brokaw, who invited me to join him on the Today Show in return, and the year after that, Tony Robbins, who also flew in by helicopter. "Hollywood people are carnies with good teeth," my good friend Michael Backes used to say. I say bright, erudite, talented people are the best to show around places you love.

But, while all these exploits provided a touchstone for show business philanthropy, one thing I’ve learned in my twenty years working there, is that in Tinsel Town, content is king. There’s nothing quite like owning your own content. It was that crucial realisation which would lead me into the next phase of my gorilla career.

800lb GORILLA! 

In a flip to the usual script, six years ago Turner-prize winning director Steve McQueen hired me to lead him and a film crew into the heart of the Congo jungle. He wanted to make a movie about coltan, the valuable ore used to create a plethora of electronic goods. On this occasion it was the filmmaker who took me to the subject matter, as I was to make my first visit to the jungle proper, the primordial cathedral where I would received the flame to a new career.

Toting two 35 mm cameras and bags of gear, we enlisted the services of twenty one porters, a chef and a priest, and set off on the expedition on foot into the forest. During the many hours spent drudging through the mud and the steaming heat, the idea for my debut novel was born. 

It took me another five years to write Gorillaland, but using the knowledge I had gleaned from my exposure to the movie industry, I attempted to evoke the bygone era of the jungle adventure story, and write a bestseller that was destined to be a box office hit. 

“In the best tradition of Wilbur Smith and Clive Cussler, Cummings sets his adventure in the strife-ridden Congolese jungle. Blood diamonds, kidnap, inter-tribal warfare and natural disasters form the background for a cast of adventurers, NGO campaigners, warlords, boy-soldiers, UN Peacekeepers and one of the most wicked villainesses readers will ever encounter. Gorillaland with its story based on fact is set to be a global bestseller.” 

I'm headed back to Hollywood next week, my first visit in over five years. This time I’m going armed with something more powerful than King Kong. This time I’m bringing my own 800lb gorilla. Gorillaland's going to Hollywood!


  1. An engaging story Greg. I look forward to reading the novel.


    1. Thanks Alex. Enjoy the odyssey! It was a beast of a book to write.

  2. Do you subscribe to any other websites about this? I'm struggling to find other reputable sources like yourself

    Gorilla Safari