James Marsh on the set of Shadow Dancer.
December 21, 2012
James Marsh won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2008 for his literally-buoyant Man on Wire, and followed it up with the doco Project Nim, a startling tale of animal cruelty towards an adorable chimp that may in fact justify any future Rise of the Planet of the Apes style rebellions. But he's no stranger to the world of fiction, having helmed a number of narrative features, most recently the IRA thriller Shadow Dancer. More Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than Skyfall, it tells of captured Irish terrorist Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough), recruited by a bitter MI5 agent (Clive Owen) to spy on her own family. Morally ambiguous and dread-inducing, its proof Marsh knows what he's doing with the camera no matter what kind of film he's making.
We spoke to Marsh ahead of the film's debut at the Perth International Arts Festival, where he told us about moving back and forth between docos and narrative features, not fearing any backlash, and the type of films he's "not good enough to do."
Clive Owen as Mac and Andrea Riseborough as Colette. Hit the 'Play' button above to hear the interview.
SM: You’ve made a name for yourself in documentaries, but you have also worked on a number of narrative features, Shadow Dancer being your latest. What is the first thing that piques your interest when you’re selecting a new project?
JM: Well, that’s a very good question. I have a very open mind, and I’ve not made any films that are like the other ones I’ve made, if that makes any sense. So, both in documentaries and in features, you’re just looking for the idea that you are stimulated by and you can do something with. I tend not to want to try and, not repeat myself, but do subjects in the same kind of area. So, with documentaries, I made Man on Wire, which is a very specific story of someone with this impossible ambition and objective, and Project Nim is about the nature of communication and an animal movie. With Shadow Dancer, it wasn’t some long standing interest in the politics of Northern Ireland; it was just the dilemma and the premise of the main character, which was: “What would it be like if you had to actively betray your own family, and how would that be, and how would that sit with you on a daily basis?” That was my way into it; with the psychology of the story, not the political circumstance and historical circumstance, which is way too complicated to get into in a film, I think. My response is very much based on this rather cruel psychological dilemma that the character faces from the get go.
SM: Interesting. You say that you don’t want to repeat yourself, but when you look back on your filmography, do you notice or do you try to find that connective tissue? Or are you happy to have a number of vastly different projects in the past?
JM: I guess the only way I can answer that is to cite the evidence, which is I’m not sure that any film is quite like the other. Though that said, the three feature films I’ve made – the first was a film called The King, and I made a film in England called Red Riding, and Shadow Dancer – they all tend to operate with a sort of sense of dread and anxiety. You might call them thrillers. They’re set in very different kinds of words. One is set in America, in the Deep South; the Bible belt. One is set in a historical period in England, in the 1980s. The other is set in Northern Ireland. There’s definitely a big difference in their circumstances, but actually, the filmmaking is quite similar in a way. I hope better as my career has gone on. You’re dealing with suspense and anxiety and dread, and I guess those are emotions I must be pretty comfortable with.
SM: Well, someone should be, and I’m glad you’re one of them. That’s a relief. I’m curious, before we do get into Shadow Dancer, since winning the Oscar for Best Documentary with Man on Wire, have you found it more or less difficult to set up narrative features? Do you feel like you’re being pushed to make more docos?
JM: No. That’s actually the great virtue of Man on Wire; it sort of salvaged my career, and gave me opportunities both as a documentary filmmaker and also a feature filmmaker. I’d been living in America when I made Man on Wire; I’d been living there fourteen years, and had struggled to make work in America, particularly features. I made one film and it never led to anything. Going back to Europe with Man on Wire, which was really quite a successful film, it had a life I really wasn’t expecting for it, and thank God it did. It won some awards, as you know; it won the Oscar. It also made some money [laughs] which is almost a more important thing in the world I move in. On the back of that, I moved back to Britain and I’d been given quite a few things to read and to work on, but the first film I made was Project Nim, a documentary. I think I’m in a position now that I’m able, and I think most filmmakers have to, choose the work they want to do that’s good and motivates them. I do have options that I definitely didn’t have before Man on Wire, in feature films. I’d always had a career in documentaries; I’d always managed to pull together the financing to make the films I wanted to make. But this is a nice situation to be in; to have opportunities to extend your work in feature films, and be more ambitious in scale and working with actors who are very interesting too. I’m in quite a happy position at the moment.
SM: Absolutely. I’m very glad to hear it.
JM: Not as glad as I am.
SM: [Laughs] Of course. The first time I saw Shadow Dancer, I guess because it felt so grounded and didn't delve into histrionics; I just naturally assumed it was based on real people. I think when it comes to tales of Northern Ireland and the IRA, we’re used to seeing these real stories on the screen. Can you tell me about your first experience coming across this story, whether it was the book [by Tom Bradby] or whether it was the script first?
JM: It was the script first, and the book was adapted by the writer of the novel. The novelist was in fact a reporter in Northern Ireland at the time period that the film is set. Actually, the story is based on a kind of amalgam of true stories, and these things really did happen, and it felt like that when I read it. “This feels real; this feels authentic; this feels convincing.” It wasn’t surprising that it was written by a journalist who’d spent a lot of time on the ground in Northern Ireland, and actually had various contacts within the British secret service that he cultivated within years of being there. These stories came largely from them. It’s not a true story in any kind of specific personal… it’s not based on one person. We do know now more than we did back in the 90s that these kind of things were going on in Northern Ireland, and in fact one of the reasons the peace process stopped going was that the British intelligence knew the IRA were looking for a different way to move the conflict forward. In other words, they were more receptive to a reasonable solution and dialogue. The film shows you that, in a very cynical fashion, but there is a ring of truth around it. What’s interesting, when we screened the film in Belfast, we had a bunch of people in the audience who clearly had [laughs] quite strong associations with the Republican movement, and two of them were actually surprisingly receptive, complimentary, and understanding of what we’d done with the film, and said, “That’s what it felt to us, too.” That’s probably the biggest compliment you could have.
SM: That’s great to hear. As you mentioned, the film isn’t just about Ireland. It’s about England and MI5. Despite that connection, and as you said, the reception you received at that screening, where you ever concerned that yourself - or Andrea Riseborough who plays Colette - would receive some backlash on account of your British heritage and the subject matter of the film?
JM: No, thankfully I don’t think we live in that world anymore. Things may have been different, perhaps, twenty years ago, but Northern Ireland is a very different place than it used to be. I was there in the troubles, and I’d been there recently for this film – both in researching and showing it – and I didn’t have a sense of personal fear or danger quite whatsoever, and it wasn’t really an issue for either of us. I’m sure Andrea would say the same thing. It didn’t really cross our minds; nothing that happened while we were there changed that. So, no, I didn’t feel as if I was playing with fire or indeed doing something that had been inappropriate somehow or been disrespectful to anybody or anything. We’re dramatists, we’re storytellers; we’re not politicians or people involved in the conflict, which is a very different kind of thing. Though, in certain parts of the world, you could be in trouble for making the wrong kind of film from the wrong kind of book, but that’s not the situation we felt.
SM: The film is definitely far from disrespectful. A viewing would quickly dispel any fears of that. Andrea does give one of the best performances of the year. Can you tell me a little bit about selecting her for the role?
JM: She’s just a great young actress, and I’d seen her on a couple of TV dramas in Britain. One in particular where she played the young Mrs. Thatcher, and made the young Mrs. Thatcher kind of sexy and being sympathetic, which was an extraordinary thing to do. She’s just a really great young actress, and when we met, she had a great emotional sympathy for the character. When we worked together, it was just a really great collaboration and a wonderful person to work with. She gives you so much, but so little; it’s a very understated performance. It’s happening within the surface of her face. She does that so well. The hardest thing to do is show complexity and turmoil by doing very little. There’s no screaming and yelling and gnashing of teeth and hysterics. It’s all done in very nice, subtle shades. Her face is so open; it’s so beautiful to photograph as well. All in all, it was a great choice, and a really nice collaboration between the two of us when we were shooting.
SM: Another thing I really enjoyed about Shadow Dancer was how drab and banal MI5 seemed, and obviously Dublin isn’t the most cheerful place either. Your film and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy recently depicted the spy world this way. It feels like a new type of spy movie; a bit more grounded in reality. Were you specifically trying to move away from the more glamorous spy movies? The ‘James Bond’s’ of the 60s and 70s?
JM: Oh, definitely. One of the appeals of this, to me, was that it felt real, and as a British filmmaker, here is some recent history that is amenable to the kind of suspense that is traditional, but it’s all grounded in a certain kind of reality. That was one of the basis of appeal to me, of this film, of this story. It could be very suspenseful – I hope; I think we did that – you can make it very gripping, you can make it about the characters’ dilemmas and their investment in the world as opposed to based on gadgets and people fighting every five minutes with loud bangers going off around them. That felt to me very interesting potential; to do something that would grip an audience and provide suspense and anxiety and a cathartic payoff without resorting to preposterous fanciful stuff that you see in bigger budget movies.
SM: There is a very gripping scene - well, there are many - but one in particular where the camera does follow Colette as she and a co-conspirator are about to embark on an assassination. It's a fairly breathless moment, and we're right there in the mess with her. That kind of immersive style is a little different to your documentaries, where you do use talking heads and re-enactments, and that obviously works great for Man on Wire and Project Nim, and so forth. Do you ever consider a more embedded role in a future documentary?
JM: I've done one of those and it was the hardest thing I ever did, and I wasn't very good at it either. I'm too impatient. I tend, in documentaries, to look at stories that already pre-exist; I'm looking for the dramatic version of them in your storytelling. I did an observational film [The Team] about a homeless soccer team in New York, who had ambitions to go to Austria to compete in the first homeless World Cup. It was very labour intensive. I shot it myself, with my co-director [Basia Winograd], and it was just the hardest thing I ever did. Editing was really hard. In a sense, I'm not good enough to do those kinds of films [laughs], though I really admire and love them when they come off and they work well. But it's not something I think I'm particularly good at. I prefer to construct the story, even in a documentary; you have more control that way, and I like that.
SM: Before we wrap up -- can you tell me what you're working on next?
JM: I'm actually in Los Angeles, and working on a production here that's going to shoot early next year. It's a great dark comedy thriller, which stars Carey Mulligan and Robert Pattinson, and that's just coming together now. We just cast our leads and there's a wonderful screenplay, and it's a very different movie for me. It's basically a comedy of a particularly uncomfortable and cruel nature; it's a comedy with teeth. It's based on a true story, so what we show in the film actually happened. It's about a beauty queen who gets her boyfriend to kidnap a very rich man and bury him alive for a ransom, and then everything goes wrong, of course. It's just a very funny, dark thriller, and this character, played by Carey Mulligan, is just the most brilliant, diabolical, femme fatale.
Shadow Dancer plays the Perth International Arts Festival from December 24, 2012, to January 6, 2013.