Oscar-winning MAN ON WIRE director James Marsh rips Best Doc Oscar noms, talks brilliant new film SHADOW DANCER
The opening salvo was fired on Nov. 18. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released their short list of 15 films for the Best Documentary Oscar, and many in the industry were up in arms. Where was THE INTERRUPTERS? No SENNA? Then, the actual nominees for the Academy Award for Best Documentary were announced on Jan. 24, and people were appropriately outraged.
One of the biggest snubs was PROJECT NIM, the poignant doc by Oscar-winning MAN ON WIRE filmmaker James Marsh about Nim, a chimpanzee who in the became the focus of a groundbreaking experiment in the 1970s attempting to teach apes to communicate. For a time, Nim was even raised in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Following MAN ON WIRE and PROJECT NIM, James Marsh is back at the Sundance Film Festival with SHADOW DANCER—a brilliant IRA drama set in 1990s Belfast about a young mother, played by Andrea Riseborough (in a spellbinding performance), who is forced to collaborate with an MI5 officer (Clive Owen) and act as an informant spying on her own brothers. The slow-burning thriller is already garnering comparisons to TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, and is one of the best films to screen at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance Channel caught up with James Marsh to chat about his excellent film, why the Best Documentary Oscar nominees this year are “a disgrace,” how THE IRON LADY royally pisses him off, Brad Pitt’s Irish accent in THE DEVIL’S OWN, and more.
Why did you decide to return to narrative features?
I made a film called THE KING that was at Cannes in 2005, and I thought at that point my career had been made, and it turned out not be very loved by people—particularly here in America. It was a pretty cruel movie. That film lead to being unemployable for a couple of years, then MAN ON WIRE came along and it was a total gift of a story, and I was able to dramatize parts of it, using some of the skill set from making a feature film—using the structure of a heist movie. I don’t make a huge distinction between the two. You’re trying to tell a story using imagery as best you can. So MAN ON WIRE was my answer to being unemployed as a feature filmmaker.
That’s a pretty big “fuck you”—winning the Best Documentary Oscar.
I guess it was! Also, I’d given up on America at that point. I was tired of being broke all the time here. I’d only had one paying job as a filmmaker here, and that was a documentary about the making of the GREY GARDENS musical. I don’t like musicals at all, and I was so desperate when it came along. They basically wanted an infomercial so after three weeks, I was fired and started working on MAN ON WIRE.
Let’s talk about PROJECT NIM. I actually went on a Eugene Hernandez’s radio show earlier this week, and—apologies for this—said it would win the Best Documentary Oscar, since it was the best one I’d seen all year. However, you were snubbed of even a nomination. And this category is so unbelievably fucked this year.
Putting NIM to one side, if you created a short list of five films that would reflect the best documentary filmmaking of the year, none of those films were nominated. I’m a member of the documentary branch so I’m criticizing my own branch here, and it’s really about trying to recognize the best work out there. The system that we have, which I think we’re improving next year, doesn’t seem to do that on a regular basis. Instead, it creates a “we look stupid,” clearly overlooking great ones every year.
Like PROJECT NIM.
Well, it’s not about NIM. I won an Academy Award, lucky me, but I do think many people would create a list of five films—mine too—and none of them would be on the list of one’s nominated. I was shocked that film of THE INTERRUPTERS’ ambition, quality, and heart didn’t get in.
It didn’t even make the TOP 15 cut!
That is a disgrace. That is a disgrace to our branch, and I don’t mind saying that publicly. And it’s not about taste. I think we can all agree that that is a great piece of documentary filmmaking. Likewise, SENNA was a gripping character portrayal of a very interesting man, but also an exciting cinematic experience. Both those films found audiences as well. I was also surprised that BILL CUNNINGHAM didn’t make the last, which is a charming and lovely film. Something is not working here and it’s an annual controversy. I think the system that’s being mooted now is a slight improvement, but [the Best Documentary] category does have a responsibility to getting these films exposure, and we’re also eliminating a lot of foreign documentaries that really should be part of this discussion as well. There was a Danish film called ARMADILLO two years ago; brilliant film that didn’t get anywhere in that category. We need to try and rectify this.
Let’s talk about SHADOW DANCER. There is a pretty rich history of IRA dramas, like THE CRYING GAME.
I’m not sure how many of them have really worked that well. BLOODY SUNDAY is a really amazing piece of filmmaking. THE CRYING GAME has a very different kind of angle on it. That has a big secret, and we have one too—not quite as perverse. I grew up in London and almost didn’t read the screenplay because it’s almost like, “Get over it!” But this script brought up an interesting premise: what it’s like to spy on your own brothers in your home. It has a similar appeal to THE LIVES OF OTHERS, in a way. The great thing about being a director is you can manipulate people’s feelings, and I was at a screening here and there’s a moment in the film where there’s a surprise, and I turned and saw everyone in profile, and they just [jaws dropped]. It was one of my best moments as a filmmaker—to see five hundred people jump up at my command.
A lot of IRA films, it seems, go the way of caricature like PATRIOT GAMES, which outrageous Irish accents and people running around with machine guns.
THE DEVIL’S OWN is another one.
Brad Pitt’s accent!
I have no comment. [Laughs] I think Brad Pitt is actually a really great actor. I just saw two movies this year—TREE OF LIFE and MONEYBALL—that he was fantastic in, but there is this broad, caricatured view of [in bad Irish accent] “the Irish conflict.”
Have you ever done a bit of spying? I interviewed Gary Oldman [TINKER, TAILOR] for Newsweek recently and he said he’s been driven to occasionally drive by the ex-girlfriend’s flat in his day.
We’ve all been driven to that! Voyeurism seems second nature to most directors. When I lived in New York, there was this great voyeuristic moment. I lived in the East Village and there was a thunderstorm, and in this building across the way this beautiful Japanese girl was getting ready to go out. The storm is going and this beautiful, voluptuous Japanese girl is trying on all these outfits, taking off her clothes and putting them on. It was this great… [Laughs] Great voyeuristic moment in my life!
Andrea Riseborough is so brilliant in this film. Her face says so much.
The burden is on her in every scene, and Andrea has a beautiful face to photograph. There’s so much going on that’s available, but it’s not done in a big, hysterical way. Her inner turmoil is just available all the way through.
Have you seen THE IRON LADY? That film’s also set during this time period a bit.
I can’t say anything nice about it. I just hated that film. I just think it’s lazy. It’s lazy and incurious about an absolutely fascinating human being. Meryl Streep’s performance is brilliant, and I wish that the film could have taken that performance and put it into a proper, inquisitive drama about Mrs. Thatcher and her life and times. It’s a hugely missed opportunity. It feels like a Christmas pantomime of her career with every cliché writ large, and it made me angry in a way that films don’t often these days.
So lastly, what do you like about Sundance?
The documentary section is often the best part of the festival as a consumer, and it’s become a very important place for documentary filmmakers to showcase their work, since they give equal billing to documentaries. With narrative films, they’re more beholden to the product, since some years there are good films and some years there are bad films. But I’ve come to really appreciate what they do as a platform for filmmaking.
Presented by Sundance Channel and The Daily Beast. Check out all of The Daily Beast's dispatches from the Sundance Film Festival.