Shadow Dancer – Interview with director James Marsh

After the Oscar glory of Man On Wire and Project Nim, James Marsh talks to about his cauti

“To be perfectly honest with you, I’m petrified. I still haven’t gotten over how hard critics were on The King, and this is my first time stepping out with a fiction film since then. All the awards for Man On Wire meant nothing to me here, as I knew this was an arena I had been badly beaten in before…”

James Marsh sits back in his chair at Belfast’s Europa Hotel, with a look that, it has to be said, seems far from petrified. Then again, the dapper James Marsh is a little too cool to show too much emotion. Besides, as he happily admits, his life isn’t all about his work being loved (which his movies Man On Wire and last year’s Project Nim have certainly felt plenty of) – it is, he says, “about my being happy with the work that I do, bottom line”.

Marsh’s fears about his latest film, Shadow Dancer, would seem to be unfounded though, having received a glowing reception at Sundance. The Hollywood Reporter chirped that this ‘gripping thriller set in Northern Ireland demands patience and concentration of its audience, but the impeccably crafted film is well worth the effort’. And plenty of other critics have seconded that emotion.

The problem will be the box-office, gripping thrillers set in Northern Ireland rarely causing queues at multiplexes around the globe.

Based on the eponymous 1998 novel by former ITN political correspondent – and dashing friend to the royals – Tom Bradby, Shadow Dancer charts the tale of a 1970s poster girl for the IRA who finds herself between jail (away from her young son) and becoming an informer on her own family to a steely MI5 officer. Unsurprisingly, amidst all this hate and horror, love blossoms, as Collette (an impressive Andrea Riseborough) and Mac (a typically solid and unremarkable Clive Owen) find themselves standing by the wall. As the guns shot above their heads.

So, what drew James Marsh into this other great divide set in 1970s Belfast?

“The same thing that always attracts me; just a story that keeps surprising me,” answers the 49-year old English filmmaker. “I could never commit to anything that I wasn’t truly excited about, and that’s proving more and more difficult when it comes to fiction. Real life is always surprising, always full of unexpected twists and turns, but fiction so very often falls into patterns that you can have you guessing the last two thirds pretty easily. I didn’t feel that here. I felt as though anything could happen with Shadow Dancer, and that’s rare.”

Adding another layer of tension to the piece is the casting of Aidan Gillen (the Irish actor who has cornered the market when it comes to snakes in the grass) and Domhnall Gleeson, playing Collette’s brothers, and the main target of Clive Owen’s MI5 officer.

“It makes a huge difference to a film when the casting is right,” nods Marsh. “I felt that with The King – Gael Garcia Bernal is that character, in my eyes. With Shadow Dancer, Andrea couldn’t have been better in what is essentially the lead role, and when you have characters that have to project an entire life, an entire philosophy, in just these fleeting snippets of time, you need actors like Aidan, who can project an entire universe in a glance.

“We were very lucky with the casting here – Gillian Anderson is wonderful too, as Mac’s boss.”

Having started out as a producer on the TV arts series Arena, Marsh made his directorial debut with 1990’s The Animator Of Prague, a documentary on Czech animator Jan Svakmajer. That was followed six years later by The Burger & The King: The Life & Cuisine Of Elvis Presley before 1999’s Winsconsin Death Trip finally put Marsh on the map. In 2005, there was The Team, a cinema verite documentary about a homeless soccer team from New York who travelled to Austria in 2003 for the 1st Annual Homeless Soccer World Cup, and then Marsh attempted to step into the big time with The King, Bernal playing a mysterious young stranger who takes revenge when William Hurt’s angry preacher lets him know that he’s not interested in acknowledging his illegitimate son.

It proved to be a tough experience for Marsh.

“That film just got a major kicking by some of the major critics,” he sighs. “And it kinda killed it stone dead, in regard to its box-office. Which I still think was somewhat out of kilter, because it’s a pretty good film. And I’m not just saying that.

“It thought me a valuable lesson – it’s not always about how good or bad a film is. There are so many other factors at play – the timing of the release, those early reviews, your marketing, your stars. So, I guess I was just unlucky…”

Marsh’s luck changed with his next offering though, 2008’s Man On Wire – charting tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s high-wire routine between the World Trade Centre towers in 1974 – picking up rave reviews, huge box-office and an Oscar. After a brief stop-off for Channel 4’s Red Riding trilogy in 2009, Marsh was back in documentary mode for last year’s Project Nim, his account of a chimp being raised like a human child by a New York family in the 1970s, another critical fave. This time, bizarrely, there wasn’t an Oscar nomination.

“I guess it must have felt a little too close to home for some of the voters,” smiles Marsh. “People think I must have been upset, or annoyed, when Project Nim didn’t get a nomination, but, I would never assume any film should. It’s not entirely down to the best films that are out there, after all…

“You always hope that the good will win out, that, over time, audiences will finally decide what films are actually worth seeing. It’s not exactly a great business model, but, as an artist, it’s what you hope for most. That the work just takes on a life of its own…”

Words – P. Byrne 

Shadow Dancer hits Irish cinemas August 24th