James Marsh/Shadow Dancer


Director James Marsh takes the unusual step of looking at the inner workings of the IRA from a woman’s point of view, setting a mother’s need to protect her child against a nation’s need to demand its rights.  Andrea Riseborough (Collette) plays an informant to Clive Owen’s MI5 officer (Mac) as the peace process is just beginning to get underway.  •Availability:  Opens theatrically nationwide May 31; Video on Demand Thanks to Emilie Spiegel, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.


DT:  Shadow Dancer is set in the 1990s, right at the end of the Troubles and the beginning of the peace process in Northern Ireland. What specific challenges did you face in telling a story from a transitional time in history?


JM:  That’s a very interesting question and not one I’ve been asked before, but that’s precisely what it is.  There’s a kind of conventional imagery of the Troubles, which really dates from the ’70s and ’80s, when they were raging. As far as your question, there are two different questions in a way.  One is a purely production question:  How do you render a period which is quite close to you, the early ’90s, when it’s not that different from where we are now; it’s not like the ’60s or ’70s, where you’ve got very specific design elements you know you have to respect.  But I think that sort of challenge was different from your question, which is how do you dramatically respect these things? It’s why I liked the script so much.  It was about something I didn’t know well—the means by which this dialogue started to happen.  And clearly it did happen that way: British intelligence had infiltrated the IRA and had very high-placed moles; we know this now, fifteen years later.  The story’s about how this groping toward dialogue actually occurred and the collateral damage of that process, which you see played out in one family.


DT:  I love the fact that you focused on the effect of the conflict on the women.


JM:  Indeed.  That was another appeal of the script for me.  Your way in was mothers, both Collette, who’s a mother—that’s one of the reasons why she does what she does—and her mother, and seeing their point of view on this conflict, knowing they’re born into it. It’s a conflict they’re born into, and you don’t really choose what side you’re on.  That was very intriguing for me, to see how that would play out, how those very universal feelings of motherhood play out in this kind of horrible, hateful context.


DT:  I read that you built the casting around Bríd Brennan, who played Collette’s mother.


JM:  She was the first person I cast.  She grew up in a Catholic family in Belfast and saw and witnessed the Troubles firsthand.  It was important that she felt comfortable with what we were doing, and she did.  She’s a wonderful actress, and there’s a nice physical resemblance between her and Andrea that you don’t always find in movies.  You have Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and you have to make them look alike in postproduction, but there was a kind of kinship between Bríd and Andrea.


DT:  And that young girl at the beginning as well.


JM:   She was great, that girl at the beginning.  She was someone we just found in Northern Ireland.  She has a nice physical resemblance to Andrea as well, and she’s a wonderful little actress. It’s interesting, the female perspective you’re seeing.  Men come and go and do their thing, but in the film you’re always in this domestic space, which is a very uncomfortable space if you’re Collette: you’ve become a traitor in your own household. What would that be like?  To wake up every day with that weight on your chest?  Appalling.  So the film is claustrophobic.  Everything unfolds in this small, poky little house, but that was one of the aspects of the script that I really liked—the female perspective.


DT:  The script was based on a book Tom Bradby wrote during his time as a TV correspondent in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.   How dedicated were you to making the story “authentic”?


JM:  I think it had to be in a way, but it didn’t need to be only about period details. The psychology of the story was my way into it.  The universal dimension of it, because every conflict has informants and traitors and people who change sides, and making Collette do it for her reasons was authentic to me.  And then you have the job of just making sure it feels right and looks right, hopefully without having it be too designed so you’re pushing it in people’s faces.  There needed to be a believable texture behind the universal story we had on our hands.


DT:  Given the fact that Bríd knew the conflict firsthand, was she able to help with that?


JM:   I think we all did.  Firstly, there was a whole accent issue for some of the actors.  Northern Irish accent is very particular, and very difficult to get at.


DT:  Quite difficult to understand, too.


JM:  Yes, as you picked up.  Andrea is a very good technical actress, and she pulled that off very well. When you do these kinds of films that are set in a certain time and place, you do lots of research; you look at photographs and footage and you then create the version that feels right to you.  Jon Henson, our designer, did most of that work.  But it has to feel believable, particularly given that these things did happen in that time and place.


DT:  Your DP said something really interesting.  He said, “We weren’t particularly talking in terms of the way the film was going to look—what we were interested in was how it felt for Collette.”  How did that translate into what we see on screen?


JM:  Often we show her point of view, and we favor her point of view, which is a Hitchcock technique, really.  You see the world through her eyes and you see how people are reacting to her, and then you see how she cannot reveal any of her private thoughts.  Everywhere she goes, she has a mask on.

Oddly enough, the intimacy she has with her controller, Clive Owen, increasingly becomes the only place she can actually be herself, and that’s a strange state of mind to be in.  So I talked a lot with Rob Hardy, the DP, about the psychology of the space and how we were going to render that, and how uncomfortable it should feel for Collette in her own house. We talked about how we were going to render that more than we talked about lenses or other elements that you often talk about with a DP.  It was really about the feel of it.


DT:  There’s a series of shots, separated in time, at the approach to the place where Collette and her handler meet clandestinely.  There was a bunker and a road leading up to it.  The first time all you see is the bunker and the road, and each subsequent shot revealed more of the—


JM:  Environment.  Yes.  That’s all stuff you don’t talk about but you hope people get without having to analyze it.  I’m glad you picked up on that.


DT:  It was very effective.  Tom Bradby’s story started out much more political, but you really wanted to take it in a different direction.


JM:  I felt that was the least interesting part of it in a way, and that maybe a film isn’t the best way to work out those kinds of ideas.  Often in these types of films you have to take sides, and I didn’t want to do that.  I wanted to say this is actually a very kind of cynical world we’re in here, and it’s a conflict that’s at a point of almost exhaustion.  People are doing what they’re doing out of habit, almost, as opposed to conviction anymore.  So it felt the politics of it were firstly too complicated and secondly too familiar, if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction. The emotional and psychological impulses in the story were more interesting to focus on; what it would have been like to be in this situation if you were Collette felt like a slightly more unusual take on this conflict than one where you had to take sides.  There have been some great films that have done that—Bloody Sunday is a fantastic film that shows the outrage—the father takes a side and shows you the injustice and outrage of that, but Shadow Dancer is much less concerned with taking sides than with trying to show you individuals and how they act within these circumstances that are so unusual in a way but also very familiar to any kind of human conflict.


DT:  You’re best known for your documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim.  How did your documentary experience affect your work on a feature?


JM:  It’s about shaping the structure of the film and the narrative.  That’s where it really feels that you’ve been conditioned by making documentaries—the struggle to find dramatic shape in the amorphous mass of a real story. In both those films you mentioned, there are twenty-five other versions of those stories that would be available, so as a documentary filmmaker, your main preoccupation is dramatic structure and shaping the untidy events of real life into something that has a dramatic shape.  That sort of conditions how you approach a feature; you’re trying to look for something that feels very logical in a way and that has a definite dramatic shape to it.  Doing the script was very much about that kind of work, trying to boil it down and make it tighter, more efficient.  The other thing that making documentaries gives you is a real window on the spectrum of human behavior.  They’re remarkable in that way.  The documentaries I’ve chosen to make recently have been stories that feel so impossible, but they really happened.  You have to reckon with that.


DT:  You look at the blurbs for your films and say, “What?!”


JM:  Exactly, and conversely in features you don’t always look for that.  You look for something that actually feels a bit more realistic than Man on Wire.  If I made that story up, you would say that could never happen that way.  But it did.


DT:  That’s very ironic.  As I was reading the press notes, I was struck by the fact that everyone kept talking about the freedom they felt to explore and the creativity on the set.  Can you talk about your working method?


JM:   I don’t know anything about acting or actors, really, so I just make the best casting choices I can.  You choose to work with actors you think are really, really good and who are going to surprise you and who are going to take hold of the role and take it somewhere.  So then it becomes your job to support that and to create good circumstances for the actors and the crew to do their work.  I’m not Stanley Kubrick. I’m much more of a collaborative filmmaker who feels my job is to be a conduit for other people’s creativity, and a filter for it too, sometimes, so it’s my great objective to create a kind of harmonious, collaborative workspace where actors can come and express themselves and try things out and fail.  Some things you try won’t always work, but I always want to try.  But it comes really from not knowing anything about acting and not knowing how actors think or work.  If you say you’re ignorant, they’re kind to you.  I basically hand over the character and say, “Here it is,” and I think the actors I’ve chosen to work with have really embraced that and surprised me and taken the role somewhere I wouldn’t have necessarily thought it could have gone.  I’m speaking of Andrea in this film, Clive too, to some extent.  Good actors give you a great gift if you give them what they need to work with.


DT: The problem is you’re now in a very dangerous position because you know a little bit more about acting, and they always say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.


JM:  That was my mistake on my first film.  I had very little knowledge and therefore was hyperactively micromanaging the performances.  That was actually a big mistake in my film The King.


DT:  With Gael García Bernal—


JM:  —and William Hurt.


DT:  Big actors.


JM:  That was a mistake.  As I was making the film, I learned that in fact the more you gave those actors freedom, the better they were.  I own up to my ignorance, and that’s what I do now.  I tell my actors, “I know nothing about acting.  If that’s what you want to do, I’ll help.”


DT:  In order to help the members of the cast who were less familiar with the politics of Northern Ireland in the ’90s, you read the history of Ireland from William the Conqueror to the present day.  Did you end up using that expertise?


JM:  Not especially, but you feel like it’s your duty to understand what you’re doing, largely because, as in all areas of that kind of sectarian conflict, history is the biggest weight that’s brought to bear on people, and if you don’t know the history of Ireland, then you don’t really know what’s going on.  And the history of Ireland is very complicated.  Essentially it’s the story of colonialism, that’s what it boils down to.  It felt good to know that so I could talk about it. Andrea had a lot of questions.  She’s a very diligent actress in terms of her research and what she prepares, so knowing it felt good.  I learned some of it in school, but you get increasingly ashamed of the behavior of your own nation in these situations.  You really do.  It’s very sobering to read that history.


DT:  You can imagine how I feel as an American.


JM:   Exactly.  These things are very complicated, but it felt like a good thing to know. I do that on most films.  Working on Project Nim, I did a lot of research on chimpanzees and chimpanzee behavior, most of which I ended up using.  But actually part of the joy of what I do is getting to discover, understand, if I can, all those big, interesting subjects I encounter.  It’s almost a scholarly duty to do this, and one I really enjoy.


DT:  You shot in Dublin rather than Belfast.


JM:  That was purely for reasons of money and coproductions.  It wasn’t a creative choice.  It became a creative choice, one that you embrace, but it’s just the way a film like this, a very small-budget film, gets put together.  And Dublin is not that far away from Belfast.  Architecturally you can exploit things that are familiar to both cities.  And also it kind of gave us a chance to do something that wasn’t just the Forth Road in Belfast, it was a different kind of world that we could create, a cinematic world, perhaps.  It was a very nice place to work, too. We had some actors from the north who came down with the Irish crew.  It was an all-Irish production; it was just me and Andrea and Clive who weren’t Irish.


DT:  Are you working on anything new?


JM:  Yes, but I never talk about it anymore because every time I talk about it, it never happens.


DT:  Most people don’t like to talk about their next project.


JM:  I don’t, because it’s like a hostage to fortune.  But I have a film I’m hoping to make in the autumn that I really can’t talk about and another project called Hold on to Me that I’m hoping to make next year with Carey Mulligan and Adam Driver and Robert Pattinson. It’s a great cast.  A comedy, too, a kind of dark one.




Copyright © Director Talk 2013