Jason Wood talks to Oscar-winning director James Marsh about Shadow Dancer and Ireland’s recent past
Jason Wood: Films dealing with the Troubles are not altogether uncommon but Shadow Dancer offers a refreshing and honest depiction of the emotional dramas that the conflict incurs. What attracted you to it?
James Marsh: Given the length of the conflict, there are not actually that many films about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I think we were all exhausted by the reality and apparent intractability of it, even on the British mainland. When I received Tom Bradby’s script, I began reading with a heavy heart for that reason. But Tom found an interesting psychological premise that drives his story – what would it be like to betray your own family and spy on them every day? That’s what got me hooked on it, along with all the cynicism and treachery within the story. The film is also set around the Peace Process, which is not an aspect of the Troubles that has been dealt with in many dramas. It’s particularly fertile territory because the stakes are suddenly different, and old, entrenched certainties are being challenged. You can see that on both sides the possibility of dialogue, however laudable the objective, is being advanced by the most cynical means imaginable. As ever in Northern Ireland, there is a real human cost and some will pay with their lives.
Jason Wood: How intensive was your research and how widely did you read on the subject?
James Marsh: I read a great deal about the conflict – both its distant history and the more recent troubles – to the point where I was truly and deeply ashamed of my own country’s bullying, meddling and oppressing of its smaller neighbour throughout our shared history. I was particularly interested in personal memoirs of the Troubles, of which there aren’t that many. But it felt important to also have a grip on the bigger context so that I could answers questions from my cast and crew. But like most preparation of this sort, it doesn’t really manifest itself in the actual making of the film and, after a certain point, I began to focus quite narrowly on the characters and their choices – in these unusual, often hateful circumstances that most of them were just born into.
Jason Wood: Colette is a fascinating character and the choice she faces between a dedication to a political cause and her dedication to her son is the heart of this film. What was it that convinced you to cast Andrea Riseborough and how did she come to inhabit the part?
James Marsh: I’d seen Andrea turn Margaret Thatcher into a sympathetic character in a TV series (Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley) – which kind of speaks for itself – and I also admired her film work. She has that uncanny ability that great actors have to enact some kind of physical transformation for each role, so she’s barely recognisable from one film to the next. And like all good actors, she’s highly intelligent and obsessive about what she does. For me, the major part of directing actors happens through my casting choices. When I cast an actor, it’s because I love their work and want to see what they will offer. I don’t want to tell them what to do. Andrea did a lot of dedicated, discreet preparation – she spent time in Belfast and spoke to some very interesting and well-informed people there. Tom Bradby has commented that he imagined Mac, the M15 agent, to be an aggressive, surly character. Clive Owen makes him more caring and gentle. Before we started filming, Tom and I shaped the script to make the character a bit less sure of himself and with something of a conscience. He’s certainly not a conventional action hero or cynical spy. But it was really Clive who brought out the complexity and the conscience of the character. He was the first person I thought of when I read the script and I was thrilled when he wanted to do it. His performance makes the character truly tragic – a flawed, decent man, undone by his own moral awakening.
Jason Wood: In what ways were you guided for a need for authenticity and truth?
James Marsh: I didn’t want to make a sort of British social realist film – I wanted to make an elegant thriller that just happened to be set in Belfast. In fact, we shot most of the film in Dublin, so we created our own version of the city and the time, obviously taking some inspiration from archive photography. But really, we wanted to make a film that was more expressionistic than grimly real. I had a series of meetings with the Director of Photography Rob Hardy and Production Designer Jon Henson in my apartment in Copenhagen. We agreed on the principles we would bring to the shoot. We didn’t want to make the film a typical dreary lookingtroubles film but something more timeless. The shots are often quite geometric and Jon’s design is clean and uncluttered. Rob and I also talked a lot about the subjective paranoid point of view of Colette and we also tried to create frames that would imprison her or create a sense of claustrophobia. Our discussions became known as the Copenhagen Talks and we fell back on those principles whenever we got lost. During the shoot, we were also really hoping the sun would shine – but we pretty much got rained on every day.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas.
Shadow Dancer screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 24 August. Book tickets here