‘Shadow Dancer’, a tense thriller shot in Dublin against the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland has seen Oscar-winning documentary maker James Marsh tackle a fictional feature for only the second time in his career. He talks to IFTN about moving between filming documentaries and features; how his early career as an editor helped him develop his filmmaking style; and the decision to change the movie’s ending mid-shoot.
Ask actors, producers and other collaborators about Oscar-winning director James Marsh, and ‘nice’ is the word that gets bandied about most. And it’s true. James Marsh is ‘nice’. Sat by the fireplace in a rather opulent first floor room in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel, the floppy-haired 49-year-old is warm and friendly, even when he has the right not to be. Decked out in a grey shirt, blue jeans and navy Adidas Gazelles, the ‘Man on Wire’ director has been on the treadmill of media interviews since 6.45am. “I’m not a morning person,” he says dryly of his early start on a day that will culminate in a late-evening Dublin premiere for his excellent second feature film, ‘Shadow Dancer’.
Set during the latter part of the Troubles, and based on journalist Tom Bradby’s novel, the tense thriller stars Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, Aiden Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, Bríd Brennan and David Wilmot. It’s a notable work in the raft of Northern Irish-set movies in that its focus lies away from the Troubles rather than on it. Instead, Marsh has crafted a character driven thriller dotted with stunning performances, not least of all that from English actress Riseborough in the central role of Collette McVeigh, a young Belfast mother forced to spy on her IRA brothers in order to protect her son.
“The central idea was the thing that intrigued me the most about it, which was what would it be like to be forced to spy on your own flesh and blood, your own family? It’s an appalling and very dramatic idea,” Marsh says of Bradby’s script. “The original screenplay was adapted from the book and there was much more going on basically. There was much more of the sectarianism and the politics. They were much more a part of the story, and I felt that that was the least interesting part of the story, that part of it. I felt that I couldn’t really… I wasn’t very qualified to make judgements about, so my duty when I get the screenplay was to make it much more efficient.”
Shot on a tight budget in Dublin last summer, Marsh used the capital to double for Belfast after the Irish Film Board got behind the project. “My memories are pretty good,” he says of the six week shoot. “I had a really great time here. The weather was shit, but that goes without saying really. Generally speaking we had a really good crew; we had a really good cast to work with and it’s a very nice place to work. The crew were really good. I mean, really good. The whole film was done in a very good atmosphere. Most people that I’d spoken to about it had a really good time making the film. I say a good time but the work was focussed and intense but it wasn’t done in a sort of hateful fashion by any means, and it can be done that way.”
Born in Truro, Cornwall, in the south west of England, Marsh is best known as a documentary filmmaker. His most prominent work to date is 2008’s Oscar-winning ‘Man on Wire’, which looked at tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Centre twin towers in 1974. In terms of major features, ‘Shadow Dancer’ is only Marsh’s second foray into fiction in 22 years, not counting some TV work. However, he’s quick to point out that his style of documentary making has stood him in good stead for the traditional feature.
“I do films that are quite constructed,” he says. “There are various forms of documentary filmmaking. There’s advocacy, there’s observational film and the kind of films I’ve made are kind of constructed stories. They traditionally take events that have already happened and I try and fashion them into a version of what really happened. So I don’t do much observational filmmaking in documentaries. I tend to get stories out of people, which is a slightly different thing, when you know that someone has a story in them, or part of a story. They’ve witnessed things that you want to hear about. So that becomes almost like historical filmmaking if you like.”
That skill at getting stories out of people seems to work with actors too. Throughout ‘Shadow Dancer’ Marsh draws out a raft of fine performances, each actor making a feast out of even the smallest of roles.
“Well I think what you try and do with both is to make people very comfortable with what you are doing and give them good circumstances,” he says of working within the two forms. “In making a documentary you’re making them comfortable so that they can feel… they can trust you to tell the story in a very open way. I think with actors, I endeavour to make them feel secure and that when they come to the set we’re ready for them and they can do their work. I don’t need to direct them very much, because I don’t know anything about acting so I just let them get on with it. I say I ‘don’t direct’ but obviously I’ve talked a bit with them beforehand. I think if you’ve cast people that you think are really good, the reason you’ve cast them is because they’re going to offer you something and your job, at first, is to see what that is... and almost always it’s something very interesting that you can kind of nudge here and nudge there.”
Andrea Riseborough certainly delivers that very interesting performance. Pivotal to the success of the film, Marsh knew from the first day of shooting that he had found his leading lady.
“The first scene we shot with her,” Marsh says with a smile and a glint in his eye, “I just tossed her on to the London Underground and said ‘well we don’t control the carriage; we don’t control the train; we don’t control the platforms. We’re going to shoot this for real and put a few extras around you and hope for the best’. We’d actually done a serious kind of motion study, myself and the DoP, about how that was going to work in terms of train times, train journeys, how long they took in between stations and what we could expect when we got off the train. So we had it all worked out as best we could, but we didn’t control anything in that environment. We had myself and the DoP. It was actually a steadicam we were working with. We didn’t even have a sound recordist. We had one other person who helped wrangle our way in. So there was four of us on the train as well as some extras dressed in early-1990s costume.
“So I said to Andrea ‘it’s all for real. We’re going to follow you. We’re going to get on the train and follow you for seven minutes’. It’s an unbroken take that first shot in the underground where it goes on for five or six minutes without an edit. So when she performed that so exquisitely well, on the first day of the shoot, you kind of felt ‘okay, this is very promising’ and she’s absolutely brilliant. She’s carried this whole scene in a way that is both extraordinary as an actress, but given all the distractions that are going on around her, just to be able to screen that stuff out and do what she did is incredible really.”
Again, Marsh drew from his documentary experience in shooting in a public environment. “Yeah, of course I’ve shot that way on documentaries, but its different doing it on a big movie, on 35mm knowing that if you don’t get it right, that’s it,” he says. “You’re not going to get it again. On a feature you’re given this amount of time to get it done and if you don’t get it done, so be it. That’s the thing about features that’s so unforgiving. You get to shoot a scene once and if you fuck it up, then that’s it.”
The tension and apprehension of that early underground scene is heightened by Marsh’s moving camera style. Rarely - if ever – is the camera static in ‘Shadow Dancer’. “That’s true,” Marsh agrees. “It tends to be edging around, fishing for information in the image, which is quite a conscious thing. The film is a suspenseful film, I hope. I think the style of it is slightly nervous and anxious as well.
“Sometimes I’d make a shot list, whereby I’ve gone through with the DoP each shot that I want to do, and that’s a safety net for you when you come to shoot. You can kind of figure out what you want to do and usually you can improve it. With this film we didn’t do that. We actually sat down and talked about principles of the story and story-telling, and got some more general ideas in place. Then when we came to shooting the film we sort of made it up as we went along with these principles always understood between us – that’s myself and the DoP. In that respect it was very conscious overall, but not in the sort of microscopic detail of a shot-list.
“I think that the thing about most successful films,” he continues, “is that they have a rhythm to them that works. By rhythm I mean this sort of layer of ebb and flow, both visual and story that you’re kind of controlling. The obvious example is how you start and end a scene, that creates the rhythm for the film and that’s something I’m very conscious of how you get into a scene. It’s very important to me, where the camera is for the first shot of a scene. It determines how the scene is going to play out so that first shot and that last shot are about how they connect to the next scene.
“So that idea of rhythm, which I think all good films have, is something that you try and understand before hand and work at so that you can have a style of shooting that creates rhythm while you’re shooting as opposed to trying to impose it in the cutting room against the shots that aren’t supposed to be going that way.
That vision ahead of the edit is no doubt aided by Marsh’s early career as an editor himself. He was the first assistant editor on Christopher Hampton’s 1995 feature ‘Carrington’ and an associate editor on James Ivory’s acclaimed ‘Howards End’.
“It didn’t really happen by design,” he says of his period working in the editorial department. “When I went to the BBC I was working on a TV show that had these short film inserts, and we would have to cut them up ourselves. It was something I quite liked doing and people liked me doing it too, so people would come to me and say ‘could you edit this and edit that’.
“So I got approached by other directors to cut their stuff for them. What you then did was inherit all these problems that people, when they were shooting, hadn’t covered themselves correctly for. So as an editor you’re always dealing with mistakes and therefore, when you come to direct you begin to try and avoid those mistakes as a director yourself.
“So editing is a really great role for understanding the filmmaking process. It’s where a film is actually made. I think apart from ‘Russian Ark’ and one or two other films, editing is a part of every film I’ve ever seen and therefore it’s the way in which a film is actually made. So the edit is all about the construction of a film and therefore to understand that part of filmmaking first, it give you a very good way into understanding both story structure and this whole film structure, rhythmic structure of a film.”
That understanding of the editing process and of structure perhaps gave Marsh the confidence to take perhaps the most significant – and some might say bravest step – during the middle of production. “We rewrote the ending in the middle of the shoot,” he says casually. “When I got the screenplay and as we were shooting the film I began to think that the ending could be improved.
“So the last 10 minutes of the film bear no relation to what was in the script that we went in with. That’s one of the things that you need to be alive too when you’re shooting a film. Things change when you start filming with actors, and things can get better. The story can get better too and I think that that was a very interesting discovery that as we were shooting we felt the ending could improve, and I think we did improve it.”
Did the producers panic when he told them of his decision mid-shoot? Marsh laughs. “Yeah,” he says, “you don’t do that kind of thing lightly. I mean it has huge impact on everything - actors schedules, the shooting schedule. In our case I invented an act of violence that didn’t exist in the screenplay, which was an expensive act of violence.
“So all in all that was quite a battle in a way, but I had very good producers who trusted me and, so even if they weren’t quite sure about it, and given what we do at the end, it’s quite unconventional in terms of who lives and who dies. But to the credit of the producer, Chris Coen, he backed me all the way. There was a little bit of back and forth with some of the people involved who financed the film about what it meant and what the story then became. Ultimately though, they let me do it.
“I think because it was a good idea actually. It [the new ending] felt inevitable to me and it was interesting that it took us that long to find out what was surprising and inevitable about the situation we’d created.”
‘Shadow Dancer’ is released in cinemas from tomorrow (August 24)
It is being distributed by Paramount Pictures and was produced by Unanimous Entertainment’s Chris Coen (Funny Games) and Element Pictures Ed Guiney (This Must be the Place) and Andrew Lowe (The Guard) with BBC Films’ Joe Oppenheimer executive producing.