Director's Cut: James Marsh ('Shadow Dancer')

andrea riseborough shadow dancer

When I met James Marsh in the lavish basement of Manhattan's unfailingly hip Crosby Hotel, the energetic 50-year-old filmmaker was crouched over his iPad with the wide-eyed fervor of a child consumed by his Game Boy in the backseat of the family car.  Marsh, it turns out, wasn't in the throes of a spirited Pokémon duel, but rather negotiating the finer points of his next project. Of course, this just made things that much more terrible when I promptly spilled my coffee all over him and his device before I could even say "hello." Awesome. What made this naturally awkward situation even worse is that the world could really use another James Marsh film, and the last thing I want to do is get in the way of that happening as soon as possible.

"Shadow Dancer," the latest "narrative" film from a director who alternates between fiction and documentary modes in such a way as to reveal the uselessness of that strict dichotomy, premiered at Sundance all the way back in January of 2012, and is only now reaching American audiences in theaters and on VOD. Set amidst the dwindling Troubles of Northern Ireland circa 1993, "Shadow Dancer" is a wrenchingly tense drama about a mother (the suddenly ubiquitous Andrea Riseborough) who, after botching an IRA plot to detonate a bomb in the London Tube, is caught by the British authorities (as embodied by Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson) and given an impossible choice: She can either be imprisoned for life, or return to her close-knit terrorist family as a government informant. A far cry from the inspired fantasticality of Marsh's Oscar-winning "Man on Wire," "Shadow Dancer" is a spare and severe piece of work about betrayal, inherited violence and the politics of trust (read our full review here).

When Marsh returned to the table after cleaning himself off (his iPad was unharmed, and he couldn't possibly have been nicer about my little mishap), we chatted about the divide between the personal side of politics, the influence of Robert Bresson on his work and whether or not heavily accented English-language films should be subtitled for American audiences.

FILM.COM: “Shadow Dancer.” There’s a scene in the film where Collette is told that a volunteer is never off-duty, and she responds that a mom is never off-duty, either. And it reminded me of this Julia Hallam quote, where she writes: “It is now less clear what does and does not constitute the category of ‘politics’: if the personal, the cultural and the social are all included within the political, then all texts are political in some sense and none are specifically so.” And I was curious if you think that “Shadow Dancer” is a political film, or if you think that such designations are ultimately useless. 

JAMES MARSH: In the sense of that quote, “Shadow Dancer” is a political film. But of course, the given is politics in that situation. What I wanted to do was to take overt politics out of the script that I was given, and make it much more about the psychology of a family and the psychology of betrayal – how spying on your own family would feel on a day-to-day basis. The situation in Northern Ireland was by its very nature political, and now thank god is more political than anything else. But certainly what I didn’t want to do was take any sides in this film, neither side is “right” and both have their grievances, and during the time the film is set everyone has been tainted by what’s been going on for 30 years.

Her life is like a weed that grows around this conflict.

Indeed. You’re born into this conflict, you don’t get to choose what side you’re on. If you’re born in a certain part of Belfast, you will be on one side.

And of course how the film opens reflects that, in media res into this divide. I can only speak for myself, but I feel like many Americans understand the violence of the Troubles, but not its root cause. 

Not many people do, quite frankly. Not even many of the people involved.

And in the film, the violence is just a part of Collette’s DNA, a part of who she is. She doesn’t have an opportunity to live any other way. 

What’s remarkable about so many conflicts is that, without them, these same people would probably be reasonable and decent people, and yet it’s the circumstances that brings out the beast in us.

And, to go back to something you said that I found illuminating, the hope is that it becomes even more political so that it can become less... human. 

Politics is about negotiation and dialogue, insults and blackmail and everything that goes along with it. But it’s not about bloodshed.

I thought it was really interesting that this story, which is based on the fiction of a novel, is about a woman. I’m wondering how integral that was to the story, and how gender plays into ideas of trust. 

Well, that’s a very interesting set of questions and speculations. The script I got was much longer and more complicated and had much more politics in it, and it was my instinct to go and make Collette the protagonist of the story, and therefore to enter the conflict through a female point-of-view, and also a mother’s point-of-view. The generational aspect is significant so far as the story plays out. That was one of the appeals to me, that you could do this, that women were involved in this very actively in many ways. How it plays out... Collette and the women have much less power than the men, part of gender identity I guess, and the fact that she has the least power makes her have the most appalling choices. But those choices eventually empower her in some perverse way.

Well, I was going to say, I understand what you mean when you say that she ostensibly has less power than the men – 

– Less given power.

Sure, but she and her mother are uniquely endowed with a power that the men in the story can fathom and suspect, but not wield. 

A power available to them in part because they’re mothers. Collette can only do what she’s doing based on the defining principle of her motherhood. That’s the bargain she’s offered: Your freedom relies on you snooping on your family to save another part of your family.

Also Check Out: An Exclusive Clip from "Shadow Dancer"

And then we return to the notion of how dangerous it is when the domestic and the political become inextricable from one another.

And that’s exactly what plays out in Northern Ireland. And you see it in neighbors. Your neighbor over there is your enemy because of certain circumstances, and not because there’s any good reason for them to be your enemy. And that’s scary stuff.

Absolutely. And I wonder... so far as the end of the film is concerned, and I hate to question an ambiguous ending, I feel like that’s a terrible thing to do because it’s left ambiguous for a reason, but I’ll try to make this as abstract as possible... do you think that Collette is left with the potential for happiness or a way to find some sort of catharsis in the future?

How interesting. Well, I think she’s a woman who’ll be haunted by what she’s done for the rest of her life, and as an emblem for Northern Ireland itself, time does heal... superficially. It’s happened in that part of the country, and in the UK, and now there’s a generation coming of age, 18 or 19 years old, that don’t know that conflict on a daily basis. If you live through that conflict it will always mark you, somehow, if you see Martin McGuiness who is a known IRA terrorist, making jokes with Ian Paisley who is a Protesstant minister and politician, then there’s hope for all of us if those two can get along.

It does feel like a hopeful ending... 

If you know the history of what then happens, this dialogue, this political informant exploitation leads somewhere, and that’s significant. What we later found out generally is that the British secret service had put a lot of high-level informants into the IRA by this time, and they got very good at doing that. And the IRA had become a very good terrorist organization, both forces were battle-hardened. So you could say, cynically, that one of the reasons that the British government were able to make those first tentative steps towards a dialogue is that they knew that certain factions of the IRA were gong to be receptive to them. There was a very famous note that was passed to the British government from the IRA saying that the conflict was over. So this was going on behind the scenes, much of which we’ll never know about, and there was collateral damage to people, but it all lead to somewhere that was better.

You didn’t actually film in Belfast, correct? You filmed in Dublin?

Right, but that was entirely financial.

But ideally you would have filmed in Belfast?

Oh, definitely, we tried desperately to do that, but we couldn’t make the money work. Ultimately you have to go where you can make the film, and Dublin has many similarities to Belfast.

Sure, it’s not like I could tell the difference. 

It’s only an hour’s drive from Belfast, and they both have a very strong Victorian flavor to them. But you can find housing estates that are very similar in both cities, and the weather is the same. It’s not like shooting in Monte Carlo.

Would you have felt as if you were tapping into something vibrant, a living history, if you shot in Belfast? 

Definitely, that’s why we wanted to do it. We thought it would be a very good idea. Andrea Riseborough did a lot of that work herself, she spent a lot of time in Belfast during pre-production to get in touch with that history and perfect the accent. People absorb things, so she brought all of that back to Dublin which was great for the rest of us.

james marsh shadow dancer

I hesitate to get into the subject that I imagine dominates so many of your interviews, this dichotomy between your narrative features and your documentary films, I’m of the mind that both terms are dirty words. But watching your films, I feel like you upend the obvious approach, with your documentary films being more likely to be shot on sticks with a locked-off camera, while your narrative films tend to feel a bit looser and feature a more handheld aesthetic.  

That’s true, and the first film I shot was all hand-held, just for financial reasons because we had to shoot as quickly as possible, without much finessing. But that showed me what hand-held could do. There’s actually not much hand-held in “Shadow Dancer,” though people think... well, there’s been observations made in quite a number of the reviews I’ve seen that there’s a lot of hand-held but there really isn’t much at work whatsoever. It’s much more, dare I say it, controlled, even more than “Red Riding” was. But it’s true, you’re trying to get at a level of realism in a feature film that documentary films implicitly provide you, and I tend to get away from that. In “Man on Wire” the reconstructions are very fantastical, they’re not supposed to be realistic, they’re cartoonish. They’re deliberately like a heist movie, very genre, because reality is a given.

So when you’re approaching a film, you don’t first consider the mode of filmmaking and then build your aesthetic around that, it sort of happens more organically? 

Definitely. Stylistically, you work out from material rather than impose things upon it. In “Man on Wire,” we filmed the reconstructions like a heist or a silent film because that’s the way that Philip Petit saw it, so I thought why not make that real, somehow? Whereas this film was very much about creating a level of anxiety and dread for the main character from the get-go.

To speak for the critical community, I think there’s one scene that really cements a false impression that hand-held is used much more than it is, the scene where Collette puts her hood on and her partner gets shot... it registers ecstatically in a way that might not be representative of how you filmed it. 

Well, that was steadicam! You know, whatever people make of my films is fine by me, but there is that sort of impression because it is a realistic backdrop, a Ken Loach kind of look. Our approach was very methodical in terms of our shot sequences and rhythms we worked out ahead of time with the DP.

What about cinematographer Rob Hardy’s previous work made him feel like the right choice to you for this?

We were companions on “Red Riding,” Rob shot the first “Red Riding” film. And I read that screenplay, of the first film, and I almost did that film and had ideas on how to do it, and Rob seemed to get those ideas and he put them all on screen. And I’ve worked with a DP named Igor Martinovich who’s based in New York, and I was very curious for Igor to come shoot a film in Leeds as a Croatian living in New York, but when it came to “Shadow Dancer” I felt like I got on well with Rob, we liked the same movies.

You could speak to each other in references. 

You know that you value the same things, and therefore it was a very pleasing and open collaboration. And I tend to become friends with DPs, all of my best friends are DPs, that’s one of the great things about making films because if you have those relationships they’re based on trust and loyalty.

I read that you watched Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar” when you were making “Project Nim,” which makes eminent sense, and I was wondering if there were any films you watched as touchstones for “Shadow Dancer?” 

Bresson, again! I mena it sounds awful to make Bresson your reference point when you’re not fit to clean his shoes as a filmmaker, but the opening scene of the film as written was a big long elaborate bike chase through the streets of London, and I thought there was no way we could afford to do it. And I remembered that scene in “Pickpocket” where they go to the underground in Paris and it’s just the most brilliantly tense scene done with the most simple, economic means. Bresson is a great director of thrillers, “A Man Escaped” is so tense and exciting, yet he’s known for his spiritual quests and his Catholic worldview and his work with actors and how he emptied them out. And yet he’s a great director of thrillers, so Bresson again loomed large. He’s just an amazingly good filmmaker, and he shoots things so simply. It’s so unfussy, and done very simply and it’s all very very clear what he wants you to take away from the film and the performances. So he’s a great study.

Well, I look forward to seeing your “L’Argent.” 

I look forward to making it!

One last question, a purely semantic one, but there’s an ongoing debate as to what to do when you have thickly accented English-language films playing in America, should they be subtitled?

Subtitled, for sure. Absolutely. People are struggling to understand, and there’s so much whispering in the film, I’m all in favor of making the language as available as possible, and if subtitles are possible then by all means include them. In the British isles you get in tune with the various accents, you hear people from Scotland and you hear people from Newcastle and it’s part of your linguistic repertoire, whereas Americans don’t get the same kind of exposure to the endless variety of English that are spoken in the British Isles. “Red Riding” was released with subtitles and I was very happy about that.