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HISTORY

The film opens with the following statement: “To predict the performance of pilots during wartime conditions, the military has developed programs to test the limits of human endurance. The following is inspired by actual experiments by the United States Air Force.”
       Project X got its start when producer Lawrence Lasker chatted with screenwriter Stanley Weiser about doing a film involving research animals. Promotional material in AMPAS library files indicate that Lasker was not sure exactly what he wanted to do with that idea, but eighteen months later when Weiser saw a newspaper article about military research done with animals, the story began to take shape. Lasker’s producing partner Walter F. Parkes also joined them and the three developed the story. While they were not able to gain access to facilities where animal research was occurring, they did recruit people who had been involved in such experiments to help them with the details.
       The story was initially developed at Warner Bros. Pictures for director John Badham, according to the 17 Apr 1987 L.A. Weekly. However, Warner Bros. wanted to use small men in monkey suits rather than chimpanzees. When Lasker insisted they use real chimps, Warner passed on the idea, but Barry Diller, head of 20th Century Fox, was happy to take over the project.
       Producers scoured the country looking for young, untrained chimpanzees to play the parts. Older chimps tend to be more aggressive and have learned bad habits, so the younger ones were purchased from various zoos and medical research laboratories. Additionally, several trainers owned chimps and rented them out for the film shoot. Willie, the three-year-old chimp who played ... More Less

The film opens with the following statement: “To predict the performance of pilots during wartime conditions, the military has developed programs to test the limits of human endurance. The following is inspired by actual experiments by the United States Air Force.”
       Project X got its start when producer Lawrence Lasker chatted with screenwriter Stanley Weiser about doing a film involving research animals. Promotional material in AMPAS library files indicate that Lasker was not sure exactly what he wanted to do with that idea, but eighteen months later when Weiser saw a newspaper article about military research done with animals, the story began to take shape. Lasker’s producing partner Walter F. Parkes also joined them and the three developed the story. While they were not able to gain access to facilities where animal research was occurring, they did recruit people who had been involved in such experiments to help them with the details.
       The story was initially developed at Warner Bros. Pictures for director John Badham, according to the 17 Apr 1987 L.A. Weekly. However, Warner Bros. wanted to use small men in monkey suits rather than chimpanzees. When Lasker insisted they use real chimps, Warner passed on the idea, but Barry Diller, head of 20th Century Fox, was happy to take over the project.
       Producers scoured the country looking for young, untrained chimpanzees to play the parts. Older chimps tend to be more aggressive and have learned bad habits, so the younger ones were purchased from various zoos and medical research laboratories. Additionally, several trainers owned chimps and rented them out for the film shoot. Willie, the three-year-old chimp who played “Virgil,” was found at a medical research facility, where he only interacted with the medical staff, not with other chimpanzees. Although programs teaching chimps American Sign Language do exist, Willie was not taught the language. Instead, over a four-month period, he was taught how to sign on cue without associating any meaning to the signs.
       Top animal trainer Ron Oxley originally worked with the chimps over the six months of pre-production, including a month’s worth of training time on the flight simulators. However, Oxley died just days before principal photography began and trainer Hubert Wells took over. Additionally, chimps had individual trainers who were on set, coaxing them through scenes. The set was built with large pillars for the trainers to hide behind and yell instructions to their individual chimps during filming. A special entrance and holding area was built on the set for the chimps.
       Principal photography began on 20 Jan 1986 on three soundstages on the Fox lot in Los Angeles, CA, according to a 19 Feb 1986 DV production chart. Camarillo Airport in Camarillo, CA, was used for exteriors of the Strategic Weapons Research Center and the Lockridge Air Base. Exteriors were also shot at the Tillman Reclamation Plant and Van Nuys Airport, both in Van Nuys, CA. The film wrapped on 16 May 1986, a week behind schedule and $1 million over its $15 million budget.
       While the film was originally scheduled for release on 12 Dec 1986, that opening was pushed back to spring 1987, the 10 Jun 1986 HR stated.
       Sneak previews were held on 350 screens nationwide the weekend before the film opened, to help create good word of mouth. The print advertising campaign focused on actor Matthew Broderick instead of the chimpanzees. Marketing research showed that most people associated chimpanzees with comedies and monkey hijinks, so the print ads avoided using the chimps.
       Project X opened on 1,022 screens on 17 Apr 1987, earning $3.3 million in its first three days of release, as reported in the 21 Apr 1987 DV.
       Shortly after its opening, Project X was plagued by charges of animal abuse during filming. Animal rights activist Bob Barker, best known as the host of the television game show The Price is Right, placed an advertisement in the 8 May 1987 DV offering a $5,000 reward for witnesses to come forward if they observed any animal abuse. Barker told the 13 May 1987 DV that he had been informed that the chimpanzees were beaten by trainers with rubber clubs known as “blackjacks” during filming in an effort to gain dominance over the animals. Producers Lasker and Parke denied the charges. In Jun 1987, Barker and the Society Against Vivisection (SAV), an animal-rights organization, held a press conference, during which film technician Paul Mueller (who is not listed in onscreen credits) said he witnessed chimps being beaten during filming of a flight simulation sequence, the 19 Jun 1987 DV reported. Barker said at least six other people told him they witnessed abuse, but were afraid to speak publically for fear of losing future work if they were known as whistleblowers. Trainer Hubert Wells refuted the charges, saying the animals were occasionally spanked, but never beaten with a blackjack or mistreated in any way. The American Humane Association (AHA) also denied the charges, saying its representatives were on set all eighty-one days of filming and did not witness any abuse or mistreatment. In Nov 1987, the Los Angeles City Department of Animal Regulation asked the city’s district attorney to open an investigation of the abuse charges, according to the 2 Nov 1987 LAT. However the district attorney declined to file any charges, as the one-year statute of limitations governing animal abuse had run out for filing any misdemeanor charges, and felony charges were not applicable, as stated in the 13 Nov 1987 DV.
       The district attorney’s office did look into filing civil charges for the alleged abuse. An item in the 15 Apr 1988 LAT noted that the district attorney ultimately dropped the matter for lack of sufficient evidence.
       The chimpanzees purchased for the movie were donated to Primarily Primates, an animal refuge in Texas, when the movie wrapped. 20th Century Fox also donated $35,000 to the center for their care, according to the 19 Jun 1987 DV.
       End credits state: “The producers with to thank: Dr. Donald Barnes; Greg and Carol Lille; Joe and Betty Naud; city of Los Angeles; and Primarily Primates, Inc., San Antonio, Texas.” End credits also state: “The animal action in this film was supervised by the American Humane Association.” More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
19 Feb 1986.
---
Daily Variety
10 Apr 1987.
---
Daily Variety
21 Apr 1987.
---
Daily Variety
8 May 1987.
---
Daily Variety
13 May 1987
p. 14.
Daily Variety
19 Jun 1987.
---
Daily Variety
13 Nov 1987
p. 1, 25.
Hollywood Reporter
10 Jun 1986.
---
Hollywood Reporter
10 Apr 1987
p. 3, 12.
LA Weekly
17 Apr 1987.
---
Los Angeles Times
4 May 1986.
---
Los Angeles Times
17 Apr 1987
p. 8.
Los Angeles Times
2 Nov 1987
Section VI, p. 1, 10.
Los Angeles Times
15 Apr 1988
Section IV, p. 2.
New York Times
17 Apr 1987
p. 15.
Variety
15 Apr 1987
p. 17.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Vocalizations:
[and]
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
A Parkes/Lasker Production
Produced in association with Amercent Films and American Entertainment Partners L.P.
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
Addl 2d asst dir
DGA trainee
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
2d asst cam
Company grip
Company grip
Company grip
Dolly grip
Gaffer
Best boy
Lamp op
Lamp op
Lamp op
Still photog
ART DIRECTORS
Asst art dir
FILM EDITORS
Asst film ed
Asst film ed
Apprentice film ed
Apprentice film ed
Negative cutter
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
Asst prop master
Set des
Leadman
Const coord
Set dresser
Set dresser
Const foreman
Const foreman
Paint foreman
Standby painter
Mechanical des
COSTUMES
Cost des
Cost supv
Set costumer
MUSIC
Mus comp
Mus ed
SOUND
Sd mixer
Boom op
Sd ed
Vocal eff supv
ADR ed
Vocal eff ed
Vocal eff ed
Vocal eff ed
ADR mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Scoring mixer
Foley rec by
Chimp vocalization coord
VISUAL EFFECTS
Visual eff supv
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Flight simulation computer graphics
Flight simulation computer graphics
Flight simulation computer graphics
Flight simulation computer graphics
Title opticals
MAKEUP
Spec makeup and appliances
Makeup artist
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Scr supv
Animal coord
Animal trainer
Animal trainer
Animal trainer
Animal trainer
Animal trainer
Animal trainer
Animal trainer
Military adv
Loc mgr
Transportation coord
Transportation capt
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Asst prod coord
Casting asst
Extra casting
Unit pub
Asst to Mr. Kaplan
Asst to Mr. Kaplan
Asst to the producers
Prod accountant
Asst accountant
Fairlight programmer
Process coord
Process projectionist
Process projectionist
Process projectionist
Aircraft coord
STAND INS
Stunt double
Stunt coord
SOURCES
SONGS
“Shock The Monkey,” written and performed by Peter Gabriel, courtesy of Geffen Records and Virgin Records, by arrangement with Warner Special Products
“You Baby You,” performed by Billy Burnette, written by Chris McCarty and Gary Mallaber, courtesy of Screen Gems-EMI, Inc.
DETAILS
Release Date:
17 April 1987
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 17 April 1987
Production Date:
20 January--16 May 1986
Copyright Claimant:
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Copyright Date:
13 May 1987
Copyright Number:
PA336930
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo ® in Selected Theatres
Color
Color by DeLuxe®
Lenses
Lenses and Panaflex® camera by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
108
MPAA Rating:
PG
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin, doctoral student Teri MacDonald studies a chimpanzee she names “Virgil,” and teaches him to communicate using American Sign Language. However, a year later, the National Health Foundation (NHF) opts not to renew Teri’s grant. Her advisor, Dr. Criswell, tells her Virgil is being sent to a zoo in Houston, Texas. Desperately attached to Virgil, Teri offers to purchase him from the NHF, but Criswell says it would cost $15,000 to buy him and another $10,000 a year for food and veterinary expenses. Criswell pleaded Teri’s case to no avail and advises her to be happy that she has enough material to complete her dissertation. However, instead of the Houston zoo, Virgil is shipped to the Strategic Weapons Research Center at Lockridge Air Base in Lockridge, Florida, where Airman Jimmy Garrett is assigned to work with him. Jimmy joined the Air Force because his father was a fighter pilot, but is not sure it is where he belongs. Jimmy is in trouble for kissing a girl in a fighter plane and is reassigned to the “Experimental Pilot Performance Project,” commonly known as “Project X,” where about fifteen chimpanzees are caged and being taught to fly airplanes using a simulator. Virgil tries to communicate with Jimmy via sign language, but the airman is oblivious until he notices a television program using a sign interpreter. Jimmy gets a book, teaches himself sign language, and starts communicating with Virgil. Jimmy tells his boss, Dr. Lynard Carroll, about his discovery, but Dr. Carroll is unimpressed. Over the following weeks, Virgil learns to fly the simulator plane. Carroll says he is promoting Jimmy to “graduate ... +


In the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin, doctoral student Teri MacDonald studies a chimpanzee she names “Virgil,” and teaches him to communicate using American Sign Language. However, a year later, the National Health Foundation (NHF) opts not to renew Teri’s grant. Her advisor, Dr. Criswell, tells her Virgil is being sent to a zoo in Houston, Texas. Desperately attached to Virgil, Teri offers to purchase him from the NHF, but Criswell says it would cost $15,000 to buy him and another $10,000 a year for food and veterinary expenses. Criswell pleaded Teri’s case to no avail and advises her to be happy that she has enough material to complete her dissertation. However, instead of the Houston zoo, Virgil is shipped to the Strategic Weapons Research Center at Lockridge Air Base in Lockridge, Florida, where Airman Jimmy Garrett is assigned to work with him. Jimmy joined the Air Force because his father was a fighter pilot, but is not sure it is where he belongs. Jimmy is in trouble for kissing a girl in a fighter plane and is reassigned to the “Experimental Pilot Performance Project,” commonly known as “Project X,” where about fifteen chimpanzees are caged and being taught to fly airplanes using a simulator. Virgil tries to communicate with Jimmy via sign language, but the airman is oblivious until he notices a television program using a sign interpreter. Jimmy gets a book, teaches himself sign language, and starts communicating with Virgil. Jimmy tells his boss, Dr. Lynard Carroll, about his discovery, but Dr. Carroll is unimpressed. Over the following weeks, Virgil learns to fly the simulator plane. Carroll says he is promoting Jimmy to “graduate program trainer,” giving him full security clearance. The next day Jimmy works with a chimp named “Bluebeard” in the flight chamber. However, Jimmy is distressed to learn that Bluebeard, and all the other chimps that graduate to the flight chamber, are exposed to doses of radiation, as part of an experiment to see how much exposure they can endure. That information will be useful should World War III ever break out and human pilots have to bomb Russia with nuclear weapons in a “second-strike scenario.” Jimmy’s co-worker, Isaac Robertson, advises him not to get too attached to the animals. Robertson suggests that Jimmy is doing such a good job that he will soon be transferred out. The next day when Jimmy reports for duty, Bluebeard is dead and a janitor is mopping out his cage. Virgil escapes the “vivarium,” where all the chimps are caged, and goes into the lab where he sees Bluebeard’s dead body. Upset, Virgil runs to Jimmy’s arms. Back in the vivarium, Virgil lets out a loud yell, signaling to the chimps what has happened. The other chimps are agitated by the news and start yelling and jumping in their cages. Jimmy gets Teri MacDonald’s telephone number from Virgil’s file and telephones her in the middle of the night, explaining that Virgil is at Lockridge Air Base. However, Jimmy panics, saying he could get in trouble if anyone finds out he made the call and hangs up. Jimmy requests a transfer, adding that there is a better use for Virgil since he knows sign language. Dr. Carroll says it is perfectly normal to get attached to the chimps, but the pain will go away in time, and denies the transfer. That night at the Non-Commissioned Officers Club, Teri MacDonald shows up looking for Jimmy. She recognizes his voice and introduces herself, saying she has been wandering around the base all day, but no one knows anything about a program involving chimpanzees. Jimmy tells her it is top secret and he could be charged with treason if anyone knew he was talking to her. He asks her to leave. The next day, top military officials and congressmen come to watch a demonstration of Project X. However, Jimmy refuses to take Virgil into the flight chamber for the radiation demonstration. Instead, Carroll takes Virgil to the chamber. However, before they turn on the radiation, Jimmy rushes in asking why the chimps must be irradiated. An irradiated chimp will keep flying because that is what he has been trained to do, but a human pilot will know he is dying and fly differently. That question stops the demonstration, but after the officials depart, Carroll tells Jimmy to leave the base immediately. If he ever shows up again, he will be imprisoned. Jimmy finds Teri, who plans to go to the National Health Foundation in Washington, D.C. to protest. Jimmy says there is not time because they need to break Virgil out that night. He drives Teri to the perimeter of the base, telling her to wait. In the meantime, the chimps in the vivarium are agitated and one of them gets the key to unlock the cages. When Jimmy sneaks past security, he finds many chimps loose and running around, while Virgil tries to break the skylight glass. Carroll comes in and tries to subdue a chimp with an electric shock wand, but the chimp fights back and attacks him. Meanwhile, a guard finds Teri and brings her to the vivarium, just as Carroll runs out for safety. Teri is reunited with Virgil, but other chimps follow Carroll out and start breaking items throughout the lab. They also get into the flight chamber and start tearing it apart. As they attack the control panel, one of the chimps hits the button that controls the radiation reactor. Jimmy gets the chimps out before they are exposed to radiation, and he escapes just seconds before the container door shuts. However, the chimp “Goliath” is trapped inside. Officials try to shut down the reactor, but a fire extinguisher shoved under the reactor prevents it from closing. Jimmy coaxes Goliath to pull the fire extinguisher out of the way, which he does, but not before being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. Carroll orders Jimmy to get the chimps back to their cages, but Jimmy pleads to return Virgil to Teri. Colonel Niles tells him to do as ordered. However, Jimmy and Teri help the monkeys escape. They take Virgil and rush to her car, but the keys are not inside. They spot a small military plane and make a dash for it, taking Virgil along with four other chimps. They start the plane and head down the runway, but military police with machine guns stop them before they can take off. Military police take Teri and Jimmy out of the plane at gunpoint, leaving the chimps inside. Virgil starts the plane, taxis down the runway, and takes off. However, the plane loses power and crashes in the Everglades. Military search the Everglades for the chimps but cannot find them. Officials decide not to court martial Jimmy as they do not want a written record about Project X. Instead, they confine him to quarters. However, before military police take Jimmy and Teri away, the two spot Virgil and other chimps in the trees. Teri signs to Virgil that he is “free” and for him to flee. The chimps disappear into the Everglades. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.