The Man on Wire director dissects his blistering new political thriller, Shadow Dancer.
James Marsh is a director best known for his work in documentaries, scoring critical and commercial hits with films like Man on Wire and Project Nim. Yet, like Werner Herzog, he is not exclusively a documentary director, and Shadow Dancer – which played at both the Sundance and Berlin film festivals – is his thrilling take on Tom Bradby 1998 political spy novel.
Set in Northern Ireland during the 'troubles' of the early '90s, it stars Andrea Riseborough as a conflicted terrorist and Clive Owen as a Scotland Yard detective trying to tear her away from her ideals.
LWLies: When Shadow Dancer played at the Berlin Film Festival, a lot of people saw it as light relief.
Marsh: Exactly. It's a genre film. It's a thriller. It plays out in a very realistic environment. But it has that element to it. It has this serpentine story that you have to follow. The audience's understanding is the same level as Cline Owen's more or less. That makes you uncover and discover what's really going on in the story at the same time as the characters do. It's a real life story. These kind of things did happen in Northern Ireland. The screenwriter, Tom Bradby, was there at the time, reporting from the conflict in the early nineties.
When did you first come into contact with Bradby's novel?
About a year and a half before I shot the film. When I saw a script, and I didn't know who Tom was as I hadn't lived in the UK for some time. I knew he was an ITN correspondent. My initial response was, do we really need another film about Northern Ireland? Am I the right person to do this? But I got very, very gripped by this universal idiom in the story which is what would it be like to betray your own family on a daily basis? It wasn't an ongoing, obsessive interest in the history of Northern Irish politics.
Were you actively looking for this type of material?
I enjoy thrillers, both to watch and to make. I loved making Red Riding a lot, which was this delirious thriller. I actually got sent the script on the basis of the producer seeing that film. It's a very different world, but it's a British period film which flirts – is that the right word? – with the real life case of the Yorkshire Ripper.
You get the impression that the minds behind it are very aware of the conventions of the spy genre.
It's one of those situations where art imitates life and vice versa. You couldn't set a film in Northern Ireland at the time because these things were actually going on. That would be my answer to it. There's the spy genre, but there's a real, more messy and less glamourous version of that. Genre films by their nature often heighten mundane reality, and we wanted to get at the real people and the real situations.
Do you read a lot of spy fiction?
No I don't. I met John le Carré a few years ago in connection with something I was doing for the BBC and I got on with him very well. Since then, one or two projects of his came my way
There are some great suspense scenes in the film. You might almost call it Hitchcockian.
I watched the film Marnie just by chance before making this film, and it struck me how brilliant the costumes were. The look of the film was very important to me, so I asked my costume designer to watch Marnie to get some ideas. To not so much copy it, as to attempt to capture its boldness. That's the reason why Colette (Andrea Riseborough's character) wears a little red raincoat.
One of the things I looked at, of all people, was Robert Bresson. I wouldn't flatter myself with a comparison, of course, but he's got some extraordinarily tense set pieces in his movies, particularly in Pickpocket and A Man Escaped, and he's seldom given the credit for being a great thriller director. Not to denigrate the ideas in his films, but there are some sensational, low-key suspense scenes in those films. I wasn't setting out to make The Bourne Identity here. The suspense had to feel realistic, based around character more than situation.
Commercially speaking, was it tough to get a film set during this political era off the ground?
Not as complicated as I would've thought. There's a sufficient time elapsed between now and the worst of that conflict. You're able to see more of these stories based on the people involved in these extraordinary events. That was my way into it. We didn't have a huge difficulty getting if funded. It wasn't made for a huge amount of money, which obviously helps. We had great support from the BBC, BFI and Wild Bunch. Clive Owen helped to give it a profile in the marketplace. There wasn't really a struggle on this film
As a director, is it easy for you to switch between documentary and fiction?
We worked on Man on Wire and used the same DoP for Red Riding. When you're bringing a documentary cinematographer to a fiction feature, that's part of the whole artistic cross-fertilisation between these two forms. There are some big overlaps between the styles of filmmaking, but there's also some big differences too. For me, I've been fortunate to hop from one to the other. Man on Wire was a very important film for me as it simultaneously had elements of fiction, genre and documentary filmmaking in it. Each element enriches the others.
Are you a features director who makes documentaries, or vice versa?
I'm just a filmmaker. I look for subject matter. There's not a huge distinction in the way I approach films.
Are you working on another documentary?
I've been working on an idea for three years now. It's based on a dream diary that I found. A man wrote down his dreams and they were all about a woman he was obsessed with throughout his life. This was across thirty years of knowing her. So we get this obsessive account of his love for this woman. I'm trying to sequence the dreams in a certain way so they tell a story of this affair. Whether it's ever going to be done and, more importantly, if it's going to be watchable, I just don't know. One is always looking for subject matter and trying to make that decision about which would be the best way to present it.