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“Shadow Dancer”: An Interview with Director James Marsh

“Fiercely intelligent” is the phrase used by a recent acquaintance, whose husband worked on “Shadow Dancer,” to describe the film’s director James Marsh. It’s a spot-on assessment that I couldn’t agree with more. The Oscar-winning filmmaker behind “Man On Wire” – who I last interviewed for Global Comment in 2011 about his follow-up doc “Project Nim” – is an artist drawn to exploring the complexities and puzzles in life, rather than to providing grand conclusions or even any solutions. Such is the case with Marsh’s latest narrative feature, a nail-biting, Belfast-set thriller (starring the dynamite duo of Andrea Riseborough and Clive Owen) about a single mom forced to choose between going to jail for her involvement in an IRA bomb plot, or turning government informant and spying on her hardliner family. I spoke with the British-born, Denmark-based director prior to the flick’s NYC theatrical release on May 31st. (“Shadow Dancer” will also be available on iTunes and On Demand everywhere else.)

Lauren Wissot: Could you talk a bit about how this project came together? It seems like the stars aligned when it came to matching a high profile, stellar cast – including Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson – with Tom Brady’s under the skin script (containing an ending that in some ways is as bleak and unsettling as anything in the “Red Riding” trilogy, for which you directed the second part based on David Peace’s novel “1980”).

James Marsh: I was sent a script by the producer, and I have to admit, I picked it up with a heavy heart. It was about the IRA and The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and I think a lot of people in the British Isles, including me, are just glad that we seemed to have left them behind (at least for the time being). But the script intrigued me. It’s not really about the sectarian conflict in Ireland but the Peace Process, and it had a great central premise that I could relate to: what would it be like to be a spy on your own family in your own household? Clive Owen was really my first choice for the role of the MI5 agent in the story – and whilst we danced around a few other actors, his schedule became clear and he really wanted to do it. That really helped the film come together financially. Andrea had intrigued me for a while, and once I met her, it was an easy choice to cast her. She’s so smart, and has a lot of technique plus a genuine empathy for all the characters she plays. Physically, she just disappears into every part she takes on. We did a lot of work on the script before we actually shot the film – mainly cutting it right down and finding different ways to create suspenseful scenes – and not relying on expensive action sequences, which the original script had recourse to. The ending of the film was actually changed, and rewritten in the final weekend of the shoot. The original ending was a bit frenetic and predictable – with chases and shootouts – and I wanted something simpler and more chilling. I wanted to give Collette the same choice all over again – at the end, she can choose to be with her family or seek the protection of MI5. Whatever choice she makes, someone is going to get destroyed.

LW: Speaking of “Red Riding,” you seem to gravitate towards stories based on novels or on real-life characters and events (or on novels based on real life). You don’t really work in the abstract way that many directors do, finding inspiration from a mere idea. Do you think this is a result of your research beginnings at the BBC?

JM: My background, as you know, is in documentaries so I guess I do look for dramatic ideas that seemed rooted in reality and believable characters. But I also look for themes and bigger ideas in all the work I do. They are what support you and keep you interested across the years that you work on a film. In “Shadow Dancer,” I was very intrigued by the duality of Collette’s life and the idea of being a traitor in your own family. And I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that a lot of very bad things happen when people have good intentions – you see that in “Project Nim,” with Paddy Considine’s character in “Red Riding,” and again with Mac, Clive Owen’s character in “Shadow Dancer.” In both cases, the more they try and do the right thing, the more exposed and vulnerable they are.

LW: I found it a bit strange that after such a highly successful run on the festival circuit it took so long for “Shadow Dancer” to be released theatrically in the States. Was there some sort of distribution holdup?

JM: Indeed. The film was picked up by a distributor at Sundance 2012 who then got out of the business of distribution. Thankfully, Magnolia had also been after the film, and they were happy to take it on. (Working with the company) is a comfortable fit for me – as we worked together on “Man On Wire,” and had a very good relationship on that film. I think the VOD/limited art-house release model is a good one for a film like this.

LW: You’re in a pretty elite club, one of only a handful of directors possessing the skill to move seamlessly between narrative and documentary production. (Herzog, Winterbottom – and now, excitingly, Sarah Polley – are the only other filmmakers working today that immediately spring to mind.) Do you even mentally distinguish between the two forms? Does alternating fact and fiction keep the craft of filmmaking fresh for you?

JM: Interesting that you mention Sarah Polley – who seems indecently talented. She’s a fine actress, too. I loved her documentary “Stories We Tell.” It was one of the best examples of a personal story boldly challenging both the form of the documentary and our expectations about narrative, and indeed family itself. There’s a big difference in how a feature and a documentary are made – but actually, the objective for me is always the same. Organizing the story visually and thematically, understanding its rhythms. I am obsessed with the structure of my films, and the same principles apply to both genres of filmmaking – tell the story as clearly and efficiently as possible.

LW: You live in Denmark, but as far as I know, don’t work there. Any plans to do so? (I’m actually surprised you haven’t made a movie in Scandinavian territory, especially considering the Danish film scene is so vibrant right now.)

JM: Well, I don’t really speak the language and I’ve still got so much to explore in my own territory – which I guess is the UK and the US where I also lived for many years. I have gotten involved in some documentary projects here – as a consultant and advisor. The documentary form is in very vigorous health in Denmark. There are some great directors who are consistently making challenging work that’s having an impact on the international festival circuit.

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