The British filmmaker James Marsh won an Oscar for the documentary “Man on Wire,” and had further success with “Project Nim,” a portrait of a chimpanzee raised like a human. But he’s just as comfortable with fiction, albeit the kind based at least partly in realty. Marsh helmed the “1980” segment of the “Red Riding” trilogy, about a rash of murders in Northern England. He’s now made “Shadow Dancer,” which concerns a woman, Colette (Andrea Riseborough), whose connections with the IRA in 1993 force her into becoming a snitch for MI5.
Did you have any experience with the Irish Troubles?
Not actively, but I think for anyone who grew up in the British Isles, that pressed on you on almost a daily basis. It was a very exhausting, depressing conflict that had an impact on the main land in addition to Northern Ireland. Within that conflict were these fascinating stories that hadn’t always been explored. It felt rich dramatic territory, if I can be detached about it. And at the same time these things really happened. There’s a responsibility of something that’s rooted in people’s suffering, if you want to call it that.
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People in this film seem disturbingly used to just surviving amidst unimaginable horror.
People adjust to these really f—ed up situations. Survival is the biggest instinct in the story for Colette — survival predicated on the idea that she’s a mother. One reason I liked the script was this female perspective was very powerful — even Gillian Anderson’s character, who’s on the other side of the conflict. It also didn’t shy away from the quotidian nature of that — the picking kids up from school, those normal things you do in this very, very unusual and hateful situation.
Colette rarely speaks, and Riseborough’s performance is largely silent. How did you work with her to make sure her character still comes through?
That was one of the things we worked on together. You may not know what she’s thinking but you know her circumstances. That’s a given, that she is every day having to be something that she’s not. Imagine what that would be like, that you’re in your own house with your own family, and you’re betraying them, actively, just by breathing. That inner agony is very available in Andrea’s work.
You make documentaries and fiction films. Are your approaches that different to each type of film?
One big distinction is the collaboration with actors. The actual approach isn’t that different. When people are telling you their story, you want to make them feel safe and comfortable. I don’t micromanage performances particularly. The big overlap is the idea of narrative and structure. In a documentary you’re trying to find structure throughout the whole process. In a feature when you look at the script, you want to make sure the work you’re doing is boiling it down and tying it together. The structure of the narrative storytelling can be quite similar in the documentaries fiction features I make.