Gorillas in the Mist

The Gorillas in the Mist was filmed mainly at the Karisoke Research Center, founded by Dian Fossey, where she worked and observed her gorillas. The film shot for two months in Rwanda and another month in additional African locations. On 23rd September 1988, it was released and highly did a great job worldwide by alerting the world to the plight of the endangered Rwandan Gorillas. It was written by the primatologist Dian Fossey who spent 20 years studying, prompting charitable efforts that have helped preserve the primates and conserve their habitat.

During the shot, 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 mud slides. During the shooting, the baby gorillas who interacted with humans were not gorillas but chimpanzees who were made up in black-face and given peaked fur hats to more closely resemble gorillas. This is because the use of actual baby gorillas would have put the filmmakers in serious danger from the adult gorillas. It was also noted that for a number of reasons, the crew kept its distance from the gorillas when not filming them.  

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.

Glimcher who had acquired the movie rights to ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ traveled to Rwanda in 1985, to meet Fossey and discuss ideas for the movie. Hours before their scheduled meeting, she was murdered by a machete-wielding assailant. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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. Though only a few could hike to the shoot each day, the base camp housed some 200 crew members and actors in tents. Also at the camp were Rwandan park rangers, armed with rifles to protect against lion attacks. Director Apted edited the film largely in his head, since there were no facilities at the camp to develop the negatives.

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. Reason being 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. 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 with the real gorillas.

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. Weaver told Denby. “By the end, in the scenes before she’s murdered, I felt I was on a roll. Everything had built towards the end and I felt I could let go.”

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, and then 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.”

However, 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 afterwards 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 people, and other wildlife organizations.