Earlier this week, I strolled through the summer heat that’s recently cracked over New York to meet Academy Award-winning director James Marsh in SoHo's posh Crosby Street Hotel. Marsh, who had flown in the previous night to promote his new feature film, Shadow Dancer, is best known for his documentaries, which include Man on Wire, the story of tightrope walker Philippe Petit, and Project Nim, a fascinating account of a chimpanzee (Nim Chimpsky, to be exact) raised as a human child by an Upper Westside family in the 1970s. Shadow Dancer is by no means Marsh’s first narrative feature—see 2009’s crime drama Red Riding, or the contentious The King (“Surely among the darkest-themed movies ever made,” wrote one critic)—but it may be his most accomplished.
Shadow Dancer picks up at the tail end of the North Irish conflict that embroiled the UK for the second half of the 20th century. Let me offer a tweet-length recap of the conflict:
Northern Ireland is harshly ruled by the British, and the Irish want it back. Irish form Irish Republican Army (IRA). Bombings. Brits crack down. Rinse & repeat 50 yrs. Shit is crazy. #smh.
True to the tradition of British understatement, the conflict was known simply as the Troubles. By the mid-90s, which is when the majority of Shadow Dancer takes place, both parties of the conflict were exhausted, and looking to settle. Enter Collette McVeigh (played by the very talented and hauntingly beautiful Andrea Risborough), a single mother living in Belfast with her mother and her hardliner IRA brothers. Whether she likes it or not, Collette is in deep, which unfortunately makes her prime informant material. After a botched bomb plot in London, Collette is picked up by M15 officer Mac (played by the ever-rugged Clive Owen) and offered an ultimatum: turn spy, or go to jail and be separated from your son. It’s not giving away too much to say she picks the former—“Nobody dies, nobody gets hurt”—Owen tells her. But when that promise is broken, a series of events unfold that leave no one innocent, and no one safe.
Shadow Dancer is based on a 1998 book by TV journalist Tom Bradby by the same name. Bradby’s motivation in telling the story was largely journalistic. “In a way, writing this book was an opportunity for me to inform people about some aspects of the conflict, like the world of running informers which you couldn’t put on the TV news at night.” Marsh’s adaptation, however, feels far more personal. At its core, Shadow Dancer is an intimate family drama set against the din of a war in its spastic death throes—as if we’re looking at the Troubles through the wrong side of a pair of binoculars. This may not be how conflicts of such scale are typically portrayed, but in a sense it feels more honest to the experience.
Risborough’s Collette is a complex heroine—at once sultry, vulnerable, and as hard as day-old soda bread. The 31-year-old is undoubtedly the star of the production, but Owen, Bríd Brennan (playing Collette’s mother), and Aiden Gillen and Domhnall Gleeson (Collette’s brothers) are equally good and inhabit their nuanced characters with ease. Marsh’s patient documentarian eye is a boon here—without forcing the narrative or leaning on explosions and extraneous gunfights, he manages to craft an exemplary thriller rife with suspense, anxiety, and surprise.
Though he’s 50 years old, during our conversation Marsh had the energy of a teenager. He talked quickly, and sat with his knees propped up against the table. After a day of full day of interviews, he seemed genuinely happy to discuss working in both narrative and documentary film, his favorite thriller director, and how music helps him get his creative juices flowing. When I told him I was from FADER, a grin spread over his face. “I’m a big music fan!” he said.
How did this project get to your desk? I got sent the script knowing that it had been based on a book written by somebody who was qualified to write it—a very well-known TV journalist in the UK named Tom Bradby. He now focuses on politics in London. He’d spent a couple years reporting on the ground in Belfast as a young reporter and the story felt authentic—it was authentic.
I got the script and had some conflict about whether I was the right person to do an IRA- Northern Ireland conflict story and indeed whether the world was ready to see one—particularly in the UK where it was such an exhausting, long-winded, drawn out, ugly series of horrible things happening on a daily basis.
But I was very intrigued by the premise of the story—the psychology of the premise: the idea of being forced to betray your own family and what that would feel like on a daily basis. I liked the female point of view that you get from mothers—both Collette and her mother—and that felt interesting. I was also intrigued by the time period, which is not the conventional Troubles at their height. It’s the beginning of the end, and how that’s going to come about is part of our story—this dialogue that’s cynically and tentatively being groped towards. So those things made me feel like this was something I hadn’t quite seen before, and an interesting challenge. Also, in the British Isles, this is part of our recent history—you can find the thriller genre in real events, which is also interesting to me too.
Your resume is really varied—how do you know when a project’s right for you? You’ve got to think when you embark on something that it’s got to hold your interest for a good deal of time. The way it will do that is if there are layers of interests both within it, and areas you’re going to go and discover things.
The great thing about what I do is I get to step into these little worlds. Project Nim involved the Theory of Evolution, and the evolution of our species, and the overlap between our species and other species. Still to this day I’m intrigued by some of the ideas that we danced around in that film. And Man on Wire is an endlessly fascinating story. Shadow Dancer leads you to the history of Ireland, and the history of that particular conflict in the 20th century, and the historical roots of that going back going back to Oliver Cromwell and before then. That’s something you always look for—something that has a narrative promise to it, but also ideas that you can explore over a long period of time.
And yet your story is much more intimate—the film inhabits a relatively small world, with just a few key characters. Well, indeed. That felt like a virtue and one that I began to increasingly distill into the script—let’s boil this down more and more and more to make it like a domestic espionage film. The idea became much more about the individuals and their behavior than it did about the politics or the complex issues of Northern Ireland.
So at it’s core it is a universal story? That’s why I wanted to do it—because I felt there were universal aspects to it. In every conflict there’s the possibility of betrayal, and changing sides, and being an informant, of every day being one thing to one person, and another thing to another person. A great dramatic principle for any film is when you have to impersonate someone you’re not. In Collette’s case, it’s being normal—being herself when in fact she’s betraying all the people around her that she loves and cares for.
As a director that does both narrative and documentary films, which one comes easier to you? Documentary, just from experience. Documentaries are much more difficult to wrangle into a film because of the time period, but I’ve been making those kinds of films for 20 years. With experience, the shortcuts come to you much more quickly. You don’t tend to bark up too many trees that are the wrong trees to bark up, if I can extend the barking metaphor.
Whereas in feature work I still have a lot to learn. With each film you learn more and more. The discovery of feature films is working with actors and getting better at that—better with communicating with them. And also with feature films you can be much more intricate with the camera. In documentaries I’ve done lots of reconstructions and one of my films, Wisconsin Death Trip—which I guess is a documentary—is all drama, with some fairly baroque camera work. But with a feature film you’re controlling mood with those camera choices as part of your job and I like that challenge a lot.
Thrillers are truly a director’s medium because it’s controlling information, controlling atmosphere. That’s probably true of every genre, but I have a kind of affinity for thrillers personally. I like anxiety, I like paranoia.
Who’s your favorite thriller director?
I’m very fond of a director named Alan J. Pakula, who made All the President’s Men and The Parallax View. He’s one of those directors that isn’t really given his due as a great American director of thrillers. But thriller also needs to be defined: it’s the genre of discovery, betrayal and suspicion.
Check out the vintage trailer for All the President's Men:
Is there something about your personality that attracts you to thrillers? I guess there must be! But it’s not something you particularly analyze. These are emotions you feel comfortable representing—that you understand somehow in your own, personal experience. I’m definitely a slightly paranoid person. Paranoia begets suspicions, which begets tension and anxiety. Either you go to a therapist, or you go make films about it. Making films is a much more productive way to address any issues you may have in that respect.
Do you plan on continuing to alternate between narrative and documentary? I really hope so. It’s such a privilege to make two distinct genres of film. I love making documentaries, although it’s very frustrating too—it’s not quite what you want. But when you find an irresistible story, you say, I’ve got to go do this. There’s not that many of them around, so every day I look for them. Once every three years I guess I find them.
You told me you were a big music fan—what are you listening to? Well, I’ll have three months with this or that band, and then I’ll move on. That’s been the case since I was 12. I listen to music all the time. You go back and rediscover things that you’ve missed, because you’re getting older and you’re not quite sure if you missed out on things.
I just went back and rediscovered Neutral Milk Hotel—which I’d heard in the 90s. And then I was like, Weren’t they good? Weren’t they interesting? And Electrelane. So I discover things all out of whack from the rest of the fashionable world. Last night I was listening to Wagner for a project I’m working on.
You’re making a film about Wagner?
The film’s not about Wagner, but Wagner is a way for me to unlock something very difficult about this script I’m reading. I can’t tell you anything about it because it’s very under wraps, but I use music to free associate. Certain pieces of music can really get you somewhere in your free association.
I’m trying to go from a really naturalistic setting to something fantastical in this movie—the character has this fantastical reverie. How do I do that? Wagner, curiously, allows you in your mind to quickly jump from realism to fantasy.
But music can do that in so many different way. Every film you make has this whole massive playlist that helps you do that. I’m sure it’s true for many directors—that music is this key way of contemplating and thinking and having ideas and letting your mind wander around the world you’re in visually through music. And all that music, you never use any of it in the film. That’s sort of the rule.
What was your playlist for Shadow Dancer? Well I’m not a morning person, so I would put on the same four pieces of music every morning to get my brain to wake up, to open up a bit. One was a track by Big Audio Dynamite called “E=MC2.” Then, the cliché is that I would listen to the Beatles, “I’m Only Sleeping.” And then that would alight into—I’m not sure I can tell you this—Dire Straits, which I’m ashamed of. And the last track was by Arcade Fire.
Shadow Dancer opens this weekend nationwide.