The culmination of James Marsh's slow-burn thriller “Shadow Dancer” is a change of color and a rather sudden spoiler engulfed in a fireball. But it's also another change in direction for the Oscar-winning director of “Man On Wire” and last year’s “Project Nim” that again displays the helmer’s versatility, as he moves between feature films and documentaries. And with his latest starring Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough, Marsh once again gives viewers a rich world worth exploring, this time in Ireland during The Troubles.
The Playlist caught up with Marsh in Park City the day after the Academy Award nominations, and we talked about the film, how he circled an early incarnation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” what he’s potentially doing next as well as his thoughts on “Senna” and “The Interrupters” not making the Oscar shortlist.
"Shadow Dancer" premiered last night and it was an amazing reception.
Good, I'm glad you saw it. It's very hard for me to gauge, because we literally finished the film last Wednesday night. I'm still getting used to it myself. I'm still trying to gauge if there are technical issues myself with the audience. I'm generally flapping about in the screening, so I don't know how it played. Of course, I was in the cocoon of a party where everyone's saying, “Oh what a great film,” but you don't quite know, or trust that either. I'm still trying to make sense how the film's been received, so I'll know in a day or so.
Well, the audience at Eccles Theater was blown away by the twists and final shot. But you had said elements from the book had changed during production, what shifted along the way?
We went into the production and [the script] definitely evolved. Sometimes you do it for financial reasons—the first script had quite a few big set pieces. The opening was very different; it was much more of a chase through the streets of London; motorbikes, all kinds of big stuff going on and we couldn't afford to do it.
Likewise, there was the exclusion of Colette's husband from Tom Bradby's novel. Was he in the original draft of the script?
I haven't read the book [laughter]. You're better off than me! No, it wasn't. The original script had quite a few comments on the transposed book and slimmed it down already. We kept that when I got attached to direct the film. I hadn't read the book and thought it wouldn't be helpful to me, so I focused only on the script rather than the book that Tom had left behind already as a screenplay.
Originally Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall were set to play Mac and Colette, how did Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough eventually get cast?
That was in the summer of 2010, that incarnation of the film. I was involved quite a bit before then. Oddly enough, my first casting choice was Clive Owen and he wasn't available. I had met Rebecca through working on the “Red Riding” trilogy and I had met her on my film. She was interested in doing the film at that time, but it didn't end up that way. The film we now have with Andrea and Clive is the film that was made, I'm very happy with those actors and thrilled what they did with those characters.
Do you know they're remaking “Red Riding?”
I do! I went after a script that Ridley Scott's company [Scott Free] had and we sent them "Red Riding" as a way of showing I can do dramatic work and documentaries. I didn't get the job of course, but not because I sent the film but because Ridley Scott then optioned the film a week later. Obviously they're going to set it in America and do whatever they want to do with it. He never bothered to watch what I sent him. They set up a meeting–I went to a script meeting and no one bothered to show up for it. I had just won the Oscar for “Man on Wire” as well, so you understand your place in the pecking order of Hollywood when that happens to you [laughs]. It's all totally true, by the way. Good luck to them if they want to remake David Peace's books, which I adored. A quartet of books I read before I did the screenplay.
Any interest in working on it?
Not on the American production, no.
You handle both documentary and fictional narrative so well. Do you have a preference?
No, I don't. I'm sort of in a really great position where documentaries, in particular, are quite easy for me to get going because of “Man on Wire” and “Project Nim.” But I'm very fortunate in that I can balance one to the other. They are very different in their rhythms — like the rhythms of your life are different — to making documentaries and features. I feel enormously privileged to do both. One enhances and improves the other, which is definitely what happens and you get better when doing both. After doing ‘Nim,’ I wanted to work with actors on a bigger set with a feature film, where you can be elaborate with camera work and be more precise with it, [creating] a bigger canvas and sense of scale.
You have this elaborate use of red throughout the film, was that another addition to an earlier script or a change?
No, those are things that a director may have to do with a script and then It's your job to visualize it. I asked my costume designer Lorna [Marie Mugan] to watch the Hitchcock film “Marnie,” which has very powerful color coded costumes. I said, let's not do “Marnie” but let's have a little bit and see how striking the costume is for that character. So we came up for the idea to put her into a muted red raincoat. I knew the background of the film as going to be gray with clouds, green with grass and gray with slate. I thought wouldn't it be great to have a strong primary color on our vulnerable protagonist, so she stands out. “Marnie” was the influence behind that one.
I thought that “Shadow Dancer” shared some some similarities with “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” I hear you're a big fan and tried to make it at one point.
Oh interesting, it's a film I liked actually and thought was very well made. Not of that particular production, but there was an early script I read, that I wasn't sure about, that came from Working Title and I wasn't sure if [it] was one I could do. That was the end of it. I had met John Le Carré—I did a few branding films for the BBC and [he] wrote one of them and we met. He said, “Go for it, I'd love for you to direct 'Tinker, Tailor.' ” That's how that started. He just happened to live very close to where my family comes from in Cornwall. We had lots of common ground that way, literally up to where my mom and aunt lived in a very remote part of Western England. I thought the finished film was great with beautifully crafted and wonderful performances. I'm really glad I didn't do it, because it was wonderfully directed by [Tomas Alfredson].
It definitely could act as a gateway film to getting into a thriller like “Shadow Dancer.”
I like the idea of that because it's a very good film and found an audience. And Gary [Oldman] won a nomination yesterday, which is very deserving for a brilliant, strong performance. He's taking on our collective memories of the British who have a strong memory of Alec Guinness, who played that character on television, he's an amazing actor and Gary did something really bold by taking it where [he did]. I hope the audience intrigued by that film will be intrigued by ours. It's a serpentine plot that you're being asked to follow and it does add up and make sense.
Speaking of “Project Nim,” sorry you didn’t get the nomination
Oh! That was yesterday morning's little drama. It was a little disappointing because I started to believe I'd get it. It's a curious business and makes you grateful that “Man On Wire” was able to flourish in that category.
What do you think of the Academy retooling how they view submissions to the documentary category?
I don't think they could do it any worse than [they're] doing it now, let's put it that way. I'm an Academy member and they're trying to improve it. I was shocked by the shortlist and especially what two films in particular that should've been on there and were not — “Senna” and “The Interrupters.” Already there's something there not working well and I'm a documentary filmmaker, so I know what should've been on that list.
"Shadow Dancer" plays next at the Berlin Film Festival and is seeking U.S. distribution.