James Marsh returned to Edinburgh International Film Festival with his latest drama, Shadow Dancer. The film is released in UK cinemas on Friday 24 August. Read on for my EIFF interview with the Oscar-winning director.
“I’ve been here three of the last five years,” James Marsh told us ahead of the UK Premiere of his Michael Powell Award-nominated film Shadow Dancer. “It’s nice to be back.”
Marsh’s last two features, both documentaries, each took EIFF by storm: Man on Wire in 2008 (which won Academy Award for Best Documentary) and Project Nim (interview here) in 2011.
This year he returns with his first feature film since 2005’s The King.
“The film is a psychological thriller set in Northern Ireland in the early 90s,” says Marsh. “It’s around the time of the peace process which is a different part of the conflict than one traditionally sees in films. The story involves a young female IRA volunteer who is caught in London on a mission and she is processed by MI5 and given this impossible bargain: either she goes back to Belfast and begins to spy for them on her own family or she is put through a judicial process and ends up in jail in the UK.
“So she is confronted with this terrible choice and she goes back to Belfast and begins to spy on her own flesh-and-blood and betray everything she holds dear. And that’s just the beginning of the story because there are many other layers of deception and betrayal that meet these characters.”
The script was adapted by Tom Bradley, based on his own novel of the same title – which, in turn, was developed from his own experience during the conflict Northern Ireland. “Tom was a reporter in Northern Ireland in the early 90s so the story came from his reporting on the ground there,” says Marsh. “The book is quite a long epic action-based story and the script, when I got it, had some of those qualities as well. I had wanted to boil it down to something that was quite a lot tighter and leaner, and focus a lot more on Colette’s story. The script definitely evolved, but it retained what I thought was this great psychological idea in it, which is every day you are in this terrible situation of being something that you’re not, and that’s always a good idea for any kind of drama. There is a great, immediate tension in that.”
Marsh’s filmmaking process continues to be coloured by his experiences making both documentaries and dramas. “I guess the approach is similar in the way that you are a storyteller in both of those undertakings, so what you look for in a documentary subject is a dramatic story that you can isolate and tell. That’s very true of a feature too, that you focus on the rhythms of the story and the turning points. There are big differences of course in the means of production – working with actors on a bigger scale for a feature film.”
As someone who does not describe himself as an “actor’s director”, Marsh has excelled in working with actors Andrea Riseborough and Clive Owen to bring out some fantastic, nuanced performances.
“Andrea was this exciting young actress that I had seen some stuff she’d done on television. I thought she was very interesting and exciting, and we met and got on so well. She had such a strong emotional connection with the character. We talked a lot about what it would be like to be that character in that situation. She really got all that. She did a lot of research into the time and the place and the world that she would be moving in as a character. So that was a very fruitful collaboration.
“Clive was my first choice for Mac. He’s kind of a good man in a bad world, and as he becomes more morally awakened, so his fate becomes more troubling and worrisome for him. Clive brings to that a very solid physical presence, but more importantly, he exposes a vulnerability in that character that I didn’t quite see when I first read it. Obviously he’s a very decent and interesting character to work with.
“Everyone had a really good time making the film and it was a real collaboration on set everyday.”