Interview: James Marsh on the High-Wire Act of Making “Shadow Dancer”

If James Marsh’s celebrated work as a documentarian has concentrated on the feats of extraordinary individuals such as the French tightrope walker Philippe Petit or the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky that was raised by humans to speak sign language in “Project Nim,” his films as dramatist have gone in the other direction, often showing the fallout that occurs from the actions of one individual, whether it was in his 2005 domestic drama “The King” where a disturbed vet (Gael Garcia Bernal) goes inserts himself into the lives of the family of his father (William Hurt) who abandoned him, his “1980” entry into the “Red Riding” trilogy in which a journalist (Andrew Garfield) insinuation into his own story complicates the chase for a serial killer, and now with “Shadow Dancer” where Collette, a single mother is tortured with the burden of becoming an informant on her brothers after she’s found out by M:I5 to be working with the Irish Republican Army during the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Yet even as Marsh alternates between fiction and nonfiction, his nonjudgmental eye has remained intact, even if his keen sense of the emotional and political concerns of his characters in either area are what bring out the inherent suspense in his films. “Shadow Dancer” is perhaps his toughest balancing act to date, as gray morally as the overcast skies in Ireland where Marsh filmed. Armed with a truly riveting turn from Riseborough, who struggles to determine her own fate after it’s all but placed in the hands of an M:I5 agent (Clive Owen) who increasingly discovers he might not be able to protect her either, the film unfolds at the start of the peace process to reunify Northern Ireland at the start of the 1990s when there were daily reminders of the deep division that still existed. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival last year, the thriller is finally rolling into theaters and for the occasion, Marsh recently took the time to talk about how the film came about, how his documentary and narrative work informs one another and why he’ll occasionally read a review of one of his films.

I understand you were slightly reluctant to go into this because there had been so many other texts and films, but I’m wondering if you came around to why it was important to keep telling stories about this era?

It felt like this was the beginning of what became the peace process where this conflict found some kind of reconciliation, so if you’re a British filmmaker, it’s a big and dramatic part of our recent history that was a conflict that went on for decades both in the British mainland and in Ireland, so it felt like a rich territory now for rediscovery. It was also interesting that “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” came out last year, which had a similar kind of objective to revisit the Cold War and understand there are very interesting stories rooted in quite real situations that you can find that don’t rely on some of the contrivances of bigger budget movies, but ask you to pay attention and work in a realistic way to create suspense.

Even though you’ve gravitated towards grittier material in your narrative work such as this and “Red Riding,” you’ve never joined the trend of filmmakers who have dirtied up the image to suggest something is more authentic. Since films about the Troubles seem to lend themselves particularly to that kind of treatment, was it ever a temptation?

It felt to me that in this film and also in “Red Riding” that you need the story to speak to you and to let the story tell you stylistically what it should be rather than you come in and impose a style upon it. In both this film and “Red Riding,” I wanted to have very distinctive kind of visual textures and they’re given to you by the environment you were shooting in often, then you would enhance those other environments that you choose. But with “Shadow Dancer,” it’s not a handheld film, though it might appear to be. The camerawork is very choreographed and controlled throughout the film and that felt like a way of trapping the characters — the main character is indeed trapped almost throughout the film in her situation — so the main stylistic impulse was to try and represent the world of the main character Collete and the anxiety that she encounters almost everywhere she goes, almost even within her own house and within her own family and try and shoot things that were going to enhance that and not make it just kind of sloppy handheld camerawork that didn’t have a motivation or an intention behind it.

I’ve heard you were a little surprised when the film premiered at Sundance that the film played so quietly, which I felt made it eerily effective as a thriller. Was that by happy accident?

Interestingly, I’d made a film before that called “Project Nim” and one of the takeaways I had from that film as a filmmaker was I’d used too much score. I allowed the score to direct people a bit too much, so as a reaction to that, just on a personal filmmaking level, I wanted to not use score to drive this along in quite the same way, to allow more natural sounds and sound design itself and the blend of those natural sounds to carry the story as opposed to driving it with music. That may have been a mistake, maybe a bit of overcompensation. Certainly, the film is quiet, but it has some quite long bangs in it along the way, as you know. [laughs]

I realize it’s all storytelling, but since you’ve been able to oscillate in recent years between documentaries and dramas, does one inform the other?

They absolutely do and something it’s done for working with actors comes from a documentary sensibility, where I want to witness things happening as a director through the camera and not overly choreograph what the actors are going to do. I want them to just create create something real for me and I do that by giving them a lot of responsibility for the characterization. I don’t micromanage the performances or the movements of the actors. I want them to feel it for themselves. If you cast the right actors, they really enjoy that freedom that you’re giving them to move in the space and to do what they feel is right for the character and the situation. I’m just there to observe it.

Because you have a little bit of distance since you’ve made this one, has your perspective changed on it at all?

When I finish them, I want to dig a big hole and put them in the hole and walk away and get on to the next one. But it’s actually quite good to evaluate what you’ve done right and what you can do better in the future, so I tend to have a sort of postmortem when I’ve made a film. I watch it with an audience maybe for once or twice and I’ll probably never see it again, but you take away from that things you can learn. Sometimes reviewers can actually be helpful, even though I don’t read very many reviews. If you wanted to, you could spend your whole life reading them, but once or twice you come across an intelligent review that understands what you’ve tried to do and also can point out when you’ve failed and that can be really interesting. So even though part of you wants to be going on and getting back to work, it can be useful and necessary, I think, to develop as a filmmaker to make sure you’ve understood your mistakes as well as what you’ve achieved.

“Shadow Dancer” is now open in limited release and available on VOD. A full list of theaters is here.

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