CATEGORIES Features

GORILLAS IN THE MIST, Sigourney Weaver, 1988, (c) Universal/courtesy Everett CollectionEverett


Few movies can boast a real-world impact, but "Gorillas in the Mist," the biopic of slain primatologist Dian Fossey, is one of them. Released 25 years ago (on September 23, 1988), the film alerted the world to the plight of the endangered Rwandan gorillas that she'd spent 20 years studying, prompting charitable efforts that have helped preserve the primates and conserve their habitat.

But as familiar as Fossey's story is (thanks to the movie), there's still much that remains shrouded in mystery, from the identity of Fossey's killer to how Sigourney Weaver was able to ingratiate herself with Fossey's own gorillas during the filming. Here's the details behind the film, including the hardships involved in making it, which gorillas were fake, and what became of the poacher-threatened primates after the movie crew left.

1. Producer Arne Glimcher and Universal had acquired the movie rights to "Gorillas in the Mist," Fossey's 1983 best-selling memoir. Glimcher traveled to Rwanda in 1985 to meet her and discuss ideas for the movie. Hours before their scheduled meeting, Fossey was murdered by a machete-wielding assailant. She was 53.

2. Warner Bros. planned a rival project about Fossey, based on a Life magazine article about her written by Harold Hayes. After legal wrangling between the two studios, a co-production was arranged and a script was written drawing upon both Fossey's autobiography and Hayes' article.

3. Director Michael Apted is known for shooting movies in remote, mountainous locations. Besides "Gorillas," they include "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Continental Divide," "Thunderheart," "Nell," and "The World Is Not Enough."

4. Much of the shoot took place at the Karisoke Research Center, founded by Fossey, where she worked and observed her gorillas. The crew had to hike to the site -- located 12,000 feet above sea level on an extinct volcano in Rwanda -- every day from a base camp at 8,500 feet, enduring temperatures below 40 degrees, carrying their gear on their backs, and traveling through thick vegetation and mudslides.

5. Weaver once tried to befriend a female gorilla, only to be threatened by a 400-pound male. The actress assumed a submissive position, and the male gorilla passed her by. He turned out to be Pablo, one of the gorillas Fossey had studied, and he earned himself a role on screen.

6. Weaver wore an earpiece so that the filmmakers could tell her what to do as she approached the gorillas. That allowed her to get remarkably close without the film crew disturbing the primates.

7. Having grown accustomed to humans after years spent under Fossey's observation, the gorillas soon became accustomed to Weaver, who learned the gestures and belching grunts Fossey had used to communicate with them. "I've been with them so much that they forgot I was a stranger," she told the New York Times.

8. For all the hours spent hiking each way from the base camp, government restrictions limited the crew to filming the gorillas for only an hour a day.

9. Government restrictions on the number of people who may visit the gorilla area at any given time meant that Weaver was accompanied by a crew of just five.

10. Though only a few could hike to the shoot each day, the base camp housed some 200 crew members and actors in tents.

11. Also at the camp were Rwandan park rangers, armed with rifles to protect against lion attacks.

12. Director Apted edited the film largely in his head, since there were no facilities at the camp to develop the negatives.

13. Producer Terence Clegg had also filmed "Out of Africa" in Kenya and "Cry Freedom" in Zimbabwe, but he found "Gorillas" to be his most difficult African production. The reason: the Rwandan base camp had no telephones or postal service. Clegg hired some 400 Rwandans as porters to bring parcels and messages up and down the mountain.

14. Some of the gorilla footage, involving scenes of animals appearing injured or dying, was done with actors in suits. Monster make-up whiz Rick Baker, known for his work on "An American Werewolf in London" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller," made the suits. Apted was satisfied that the costumes helped the actors blend seamlessly with the real gorillas.

15. According to film critic David Denby, who interviewed Weaver at the time of the film's release, she wore dental templates to exaggerate her jaw in the later scenes where Fossey wreaks horrific vengeance on suspected poachers. "Dian's anger was so cold -- a cold blue flame," Weaver told Denby. "By the end, in the scenes before she's murdered, I felt I was on a roll. Everything had built toward the end, and I felt I could let go."

16. The film shot for two months in Rwanda and another month in additional African locations.

17. The film was budgeted at $12 million. It became a modest box office hit in North America, grossing $24.7 million. It did even better overseas, earning $36.4 million, for a worldwide total of $61.1 million.

18. The movie was nominated for five Oscars: Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Score, and Best Sound. It went 0 for 5 at the 1989 Academy Awards.

19. Weaver was, in a way, competing with herself that year. She was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her very different comic role in "Working Girl." She didn't win that one, either.

20. Weaver did, however, win Golden Globes for both parts.

21. Two years after the film was released, Weaver and husband Jim Simpson became parents to a daughter named Charlotte. She has said that being jumped on and peed on by baby gorillas turned out to be good training for motherhood.

22. Speculation persists as to who murdered Fossey. A Rwandan court tried and convicted in absentia her research assistant, Wayne McGuire, who is the one who reported finding her body. (He returned home to the U.S. shortly afterward, and there is no extradition treaty between the U.S. and Rwanda to compel him to return to serve his sentence.) Certainly, Fossey made plenty of enemies among poachers, government officials, local tribespeople, and other wildlife organizations.

23. Rosamond Carr, the Fossey friend portrayed in the film by Julie Harris, was a fierce protector of Fossey's legacy. For instance, she criticized Hayes's article as inaccurate when Warner Bros. bought the rights to adapt it. In 1994, in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, Carr founded an orphanage. She died in 2006.

24. In 2006, the Kentucky Opera in Louisville staged an opera about Fossey called "Nyiramachabelli." The title is a word that appears on Fossey's tombstone, a Rwandan term of affection for her that means "the woman who lives alone on the mountain."

25. Five years ago, Weaver returned to Karisoke for the first time in 20 years to see how Fossey's gorillas were faring, filming her visit for a BBC documentary called "Gorillas Revisited." Indeed, Pablo was still there, as were some of the other primates she'd met on the set. At the time, the local gorilla population had grown to about 700. The Rwandan people she'd worked with hadn't fared as well. Many had disappeared and were presumed dead as a result of the 1994 genocide.

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