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Mumbai Film Festival: In conversation with Oscar winner James Marsh

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.

James Marsh in this file photo. Image credit: Jonathan Hession

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.

This is your second feature film as a director, though you’ve done many documentaries. I’m curious to know that most kids, growing up, want to be feature filmmakers, as opposed to documentary filmmakers. Were you always interested in the art of making documentaries or did you see making them as a step towards making features?

JM: I always had the fantasy of being a feature film director and making movies, (laughs) in Hollywood. But in the UK, we have a big culture and tradition of documentary filmmaking, particularly on television. And television documentaries in Britain are very, very good and well-made, with lots of money put it. So yes, growing up, as I was trying to figure how to get my foot in the door of filmmaking, documentaries and television were a more realistic place to start.

I didn’t go to film school, I got a job as a journalist working on a TV show in London. And that was definitely a calculated plan, that somehow, in 20 years, I’ll become a feature film director, though I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do that!

And then, when I got into making documentary films, as a filmmaker, I found them very satisfying and rewarding. You can be really quite experimental in documentary filmmaking too, and you can come up with different ways of conveying the truth of the situation you are trying to get at. So, Man on Wire, for example, is full of elaborate black-and-white style movie-type reconstruction. I believe these elements of drama in documentaries allowed me to actually feel confident enough to go ahead and write a screenplay and make The King, which is the first feature film I made.

Your documentaries are like genre films, like features and that’s what you bring into them from your feature filmmaking experience. But what do you bring into your feature films from your documentary experiences? Is there anything that crosses over?

JM: I think the main thing is a sense of the story structure. In a documentary, we are dealing with real events and real lives. So what you look for there is a dramatic shape to the story, and all great documentaries have that. The dramatic shape doesn’t mean you are fictionalising anything, but that you are trying to find the semblance of a structure to the real events that happened. And I think that sense of structure and story construction is very hard to come up with in documentary, and often happens in the editing room, when you are putting it together. That really helps you both understand a good screenplay and also to write them, because you have a sense of how the story works.

The other big learning is the collaboration with actors on a feature film. In a documentary, you tend to make the people you are interviewing as comfortable as possible, to get them to trust you, and I use the same kind of approach with actors too. On the other hand, the fundamental difference between the two forms, for me, is that the means of production are very different. A documentary tends to unfold over a longer period of time, whereas a feature film is shot in a very intense period of six or seven weeks where you either do it or (laughs) you can’t do it. If you make a mistake or something goes wrong there, you’ll just have to live with that.

How do you keep the two mediums separate? How difficult is it for you to decide what to do next?

JM: I try and keep an open mind. In a feature film, what you are looking for is a story that you want to need to tell. And in a documentary, they are harder to find, those kinds of stories. I mean they are easier in fiction because you can always (laughs) write them. So with documentaries, my criteria to evaluating them is: “Is the story truly and awfully unbelievable and preposterous?” (laughs) In other words, if it was fiction, would you not believe this story? Man on Wire, for example, is a story people would struggle to believe was real.

As for me, I like doing both. Both have different kinds of creative rewards and I think one really helps the other. When you are doing a feature, you get a little overwhelmed by the scale of it and making a documentary is a much more intimate kind of form of filmmaking, which I really enjoy too.

You’ve probably learnt so much about human psychology through your documentaries. How do you apply those learnings to your real life?

JM: You know, I would say, in fact, that I’ve made those documentaries, be it Man on Wire or Project Nim, in particular because you find out so much about how people behave in unusual circumstances. I’m actually a very pessimistic person by nature but after spending two years with Philippe (Petit) for Man on Wire, I was inspired and reminded that you shouldn’t ever think that anything you want to do is impossible. I applied it to my filmmaking – I mean, in filmmaking too, you face all sorts of hurdles like not getting funding or things not taking off.

As for Project Nim, it is a great story about child rearing and although we were doing this with a chimpanzee, I realised that you can’t try and bend your children into something they are not, the same way you can’t bend Nim into a human being. Each one of us is born with certain personalities and as a parent it’s up to you to understand your childrens’ potential and how you can best nudge them to achieve that potential as opposed to imposing things upon them. So yes, I’m actually blessed and lucky to be doing work that I find personally enlightening.

Do we see you doing a mainstream American, big-budget movie at some point in time? To put it in other words, if you had all the money to make a film, what sort of a film would it be?

JM: What a great question! I’m not sure, actually. Of course, if someone were to come to you with the right idea and if it had a certain scale and money and ambition, I’d love to, but I would say this, I don’t think very many of those films are made in Hollywood, any more. Most films now made in Hollywood are made keeping 12-year-olds in mind. They don’t really appeal to me when I watch them, but that said, there are also two-three great films that emerge from the studio system and I’d love to do those. But, in a sense, I’m pretty happy with where I am as a filmmaker. It’s fantastic to have the freedom and independence to do the work you want to do and find the money to do that, even if it’s not a huge amount. I’d rather be doing that than working in a system, because (laughs) I have my own strong ideas about things and don’t really like being told what to do.

So, no superhero movies for you?
JM: (Laughs) Well, I would do one if it were truly subversive, but I think those kind of films are made for the lowest common denominator and denigrate entertainment. As a filmmaker, I’m not sure I’ll be very good at doing that sort of a thing. I wouldn’t want to spend two years of my life working against a green screen with people in strange costumes walking in front of it. (laughs) That would be kind of boring.

What are you upto next?

JM: My next movie is an independent American film, and it’s a comedy, (laughs) but a very cruel and nasty one. It’s inspired by one of those great American true crime stories that can only happen in America, I guess. It’s about a beauty queen who is getting older and gets her dumb boyfriend to kidnap the richest man of that small town for ransom, failing to receive which, they plan to bury him alive. I’ve been working on the screenplay with a writer at the moment. The actress in the story is British though — Carrey Mulligan. I think she’s a great actress and does a very good American accent. I’ve wanted to work with her for quite some time, and she liked the script. I’m glad to moving away from thrillers and documentaries on this one!

Nikhil Taneja will be doing a series of interviews with directors whose work will feature at the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival. Coming up next a conversation with James Ponsoldt, director of Sundance-award winning film, Smashed.

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