James Marsh Turns His Talents to Dramatic Filmmaking

Actress Andrea Riseborough and director James Marsh at the premiere of Shadow Dancer. Photo by Stephen Speckman.

Eric Hynes

Few filmmakers have the kind of range that James Marsh has, alternating between crowd-pleasing, Oscar-winning documentaries (Man on Wire) and pitch-black neo-noir policiers (Red Riding Trilogy: 1980).

One year after his Oscar shortlisted doc Project Nim premiered on opening night of the Festival, Marsh was back in Park City on Tuesday night for the world premiere of his latest dramatic film, Shadow Dancer. A gripping, masterfully spare tale of betrayal set in sectarian, Troubles-era Belfast, Shadow Dancer is about a young IRA operative faced with an impossible choice—to accept incarceration and abandon her son, or betray her family, and her cause, by turning informant.

It’s not a film about good guys or bad guys. Everyone, in his or her own way, is both. Rather, Shadow Dancer concerns itself with a maligned society in which such morality has been twisted beyond hope. After the screening, Marsh and actress Andrea Riseborough answered questions from the Eccles Theater audience.

Andrea, how did you approach your performance in the film?

Andrea Riseborough: It’s very strange when you start to have an objective relationship with a project, because suddenly you’re forced to have all sorts of opinions that remove you from how you’re feeling inside the character—because it needs to be close to your heart if you want to explore a subject like this. [The characters] were so angry.

There was so much anger and pain. And unemployment. It’s almost too much for words in a way. But doing this with James, we never had to dissect exactly what we needed to do. It was a feeling, and [screenwriter] Tom Bradby was the enabler of that, having created the story. There was something we needed to capture that had seeped into us. We researched it, but researching sounds like not a very emotional connection—truly, it was impossible to not have an emotional connection to the situation.

Truly, it was just to feel it. Any preparation you do really has to be completely abandoned in order to live out what might have been. It’s almost like being in a constant state of anxiety when you watch. Great selling point. (Laughter) “Go see it.” And I think that’s exactly how it was. So many people have to have a drink or a pill to calm their nerves—can you imagine living in a constant state of anxiety? I mean, that’s all the preparation there is.

What was the most difficult part of adapting Tom Bradby’s novel?

James Marsh: Tom did that for me. That was quite easy—I just read the screenplay and we shaped it a bit together. When we were preparing and shooting the film, we evolved with a few things that came to us from being on location and being with the actors. It was a brilliant screenplay, with a really great premise. It became about the people and the situation—it wasn’t about the politics. That’s background to the story. It’s really this terrible predicament that I think is very universal. What’s it like to betray everything you love and believe in? That became my way into it, the psychology.

How long did it take to get the musical score right?

James Marsh: I think the music should support the drama. The score was quite a lengthy process. We put no score on it at first. I always think of a Noel Coward expression: “beware the potency of cheap music.” That’s particularly true in film. Dickon Hinchliffe and I had a lot of dialogue about it. The score evolved over the course of the post-production. In fact we started talking before the film was shot—Dickon and I had worked on two other films together, so we exploited him while he was still on the payroll.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but I got a little lost at the end. Did the book explain how it all happened?

James Marsh: That description was pretty good, actually. So what didn’t you understand? (Laughter) I want people to make their own minds up. The circumstances are quite suggestive, shall we say. I think it’s one of those films, where there’s interesting speculation about what happened in the end. I think it’s all there, and you’re pretty close to it. So I’d like to let people have a different view, if they want it. I like films to be that way myself.

I was curious if you talked to people who either lived through a similar situation or lived in that time, and what you discovered from that.

Andrea Riseborough: We were most ourselves as we possibly could be in those roles. We actually filmed in Dublin, which was extraordinarily unhelpful. Very helpful in the way that the people were totally wonderful—we had an incredibly crew. But unhelpful in that we may as well have been in the North Pole in terms of the social and political climate. It was a process of forgetting we were there, and imagining that were in Belfast. We had a set-up that was suggestive of that, and brilliant locations that James found that set the scene. Any moment we could, we were in that world.

James Marsh: Conversations were definitely had, discretely, with people who were close to those situations. I won’t go too far into that. But Andrea in particular did have certain conversations. Am I saying too much?

Andrea Riseborough: It’s happened. (Laughs)

James Marsh: And Tom is a very well known journalist who spent many years in Northern Ireland, and I think the story came from the truthfulness of his experience there. But ultimately I think it’s a universal human predicament that transcends some of the politics around it.

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