Academy Award-winnning British film director, James Marsh, best known for his documentary film, Man On Wire, is out with a new movie, Shadow Dancer, that premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and was screened out of competition at the Berlin Film Festival, and will premiere in India at the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival this week.
Set in 1990s Belfast, the movie is about an active member of the Irish Republican Army, who becomes an informant for MI5 in order to protect her son. Marsh, who is a fan of Satyajit Ray and is “very aware of the whole Bollywood phenomenon” talks about his movie, the art of documentary filmmaking and Hollywood movies that cater to 12-year-olds:
Congratulations on your film winning the Golden Hitchock at the Dinard Film Festival. It must be really reassuring for you that your film, which is about a very specific region and a very specific time in Northern Ireland, is getting acceptance amongst the worldwide audience. Was that something you ever worried about?
James Marsh (JM): To be honest with you, films about Northern Ireland are not perceived very positively even in the UK. The conflict has played out over decades and blighted so many lives and to be really brutal about it, it’s an episode in our recent history that we’d like to put behind us. That said, the events of the story in Shadow Dancer take place during quite an unusual time, actually – the beginning of a process of dialogue and peace that would end up paying quite a lot of dividends later on.
When I read the screenplay, I saw a universal dilemma that the main character faces as a mother and the member of a family. And I felt that the dilemma she’s put into transcended the politics. The history of the conflict goes back hundreds of years and you can’t expect to take that all on in one film, so my hope was to try and focus on the characters and their psychology.
Has there been any marked difference between the reactions of the regular movie buffs and the politically aware audiences or critics?
JM: We’ve been quite fortunate, actually. We’ve had some very positive reactions from critics and audiences both in the UK and in other festivals like Sundance and Berlin. We screened the film in Belfast at the Belfast Film Festival a few months ago and it was a rather nerve-wracking experience for me. I wasn’t sure how people would respond to it there but in fact, it had a very interesting reception, going from the questions that were asked after the screening and the conversations we had.
People were very receptive to the film, and I think they were impressed with it, as a piece of filmmaking – that we had made a film that wasn’t a shabby, ugly look at The Troubles, but was a thriller with a story and (chuckles) a movie star in it. In fact, we have had a fairly positive reception amongst the Irish media and critics, so I’m really glad about that.
Your last two movies, Man on Wire and Red Riding: In the Year of our Lord 1980, were thrillers. Was there any learning that you brought into Shadow Dancer from those? And would you say you are more comfortable with thrillers as a genre?
JM: That’s an interesting observation. I guess it would seem so, I think that perhaps the thriller, a bit like the horror film, is a director’s medium. In a thriller, you are trying to control precisely the information that the audience is exposed to during the course of the film, and you are trying to precisely control the mood too. It’s a genre where you have to be very prepared and thorough about how you go about making the film.
And yes, to think of it, Shadow Dancer is a similar kind of film in terms of genre to both Man on Wire and Red Riding; in fact, even my first feature film, The King, had some suspense and a rather uncomfortable atmosphere in it, so by the time I got to making Shadow Dancer, I got better at that process of making a film that relies on mood and atmosphere. (Chuckles) I guess I specialise somewhat in that now, and I do believe I’ve enjoyed making all those films.
I’ve noticed that you shoot your films in unique ways. There’s a lot of innovation in the way you frame the shots.
JM: Oh yes, cinematography is extraordinarily important to me. It’s something that you have a big influence on and can use in unique ways, and I believe, you should use, as a director. So, before I shoot any film, I spend a lot of time talking to the cinematographer, and discussing all kinds of different reference points – not just of other films but of photographs and paintings and locations. A big part of the job is, of course, to visualise the film, and I tend to go in the shoot with a thoroughly prepared document that lays out each scene in terms of show it’s going to be blocked, and work out shot sequences and camera moves before I actually shoot. I don’t always use those ideas since you sometimes get better ideas when you are shooting or you get inspired by the actors or the location but I prefer going in with a plan. I can always improve upon it as the film is being made.
Do you keep actors in mind during the process of writing or cast separately?
JM: Yes, I do, actually. (laughs) Obviously, usually you don’t end up getting the people you have in mind. For this particular film though, the first instinct I had when I read Tom’s (Bradby) screenplay and then began working on it with him, was to cast the actor Clive Owen. I’ve always liked him and felt that this was a chance for him to do something at a slightly different pace of film and a slightly different budget level than he’s generally used to. When we first put the film together, he wasn’t available to work on it and then we went back, when the film was actually ready to shoot, and he was happy to do it, having had seen Man on Wire, which he quite liked.
Andrea Riseborough was an actress I had seen on television in England and felt that she was kind of extraordinary. She had done a few films but those films hadn’t worked out terribly well, and I thought, here’s a great chance and a wonderful role for her. I needed someone really, really great to do this, if not, the film wouldn’t work if the acting of that character wasn’t really special and really layered in all kinds of subtle ways. And Andrea, I think, just carried the whole film in her face. We used a lot of fairly withering close-ups on her, but she carried them so beautifully that you could always sense that there are many different things playing out in her mind. That’s an extraordinary gift for an actress.
So, to answer your question, I guess, in a long-winded way, I really want to work with actors whose work I really like and half the job of direction is to cast people who you think are great and to let them bring what they want to bring to the project.
Your movies tend to be about a central character, and generally about how people around them influence their choices.
JM: I guess, where you are coming from is a sense that in many films, not the least of which is mine, you tend to invest in the central character, and try to find connections in the central character from your own life and your own experience. Where I’m concerned, what I’m actually interested in, actually, is the dynamics of a small group, be it a family that you see in Shadow Dancer or in Project Nim or in The King, or any other sort of group, like the group of conspirators in Man on Wire. I’m drawn to this dynamic and I believe that all drama comes from some conflict between a group of people.