Director’s Notebook: 'Shadow Dancer' Director James Marsh on the Scene That Went from Disaster to Triumph

Director’s Notebook: 'Shadow Dancer' Director James Marsh on the Scene That Went from Disaster to Triumph

Aug 21, 2013

In this monthly column we spotlight new Blu-ray/DVD releases by interviewing directors about the scenes that stood out most for them while making their movies. This month, we talk to James Marsh (Man on Wire) about his espionage thriller Shadow Dancer (out August 20).

Known best for his powerful documentaries like Project Nim and the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, James Marsh switches gears for his latest, the narrative feature Shadow Dancer. Set in 1990s Belfast at the height of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion) plays Collette, who along with her family are active members of the IRA. After a botched bombing attempt, she’s caught by the MI5 and told by her contact (Clive Owen) she can either go to prison or become a spy for them. Collette chooses the latter, leading to a tense film of family loyalty and double crosses.

The scene that stands out most for Marsh is the one he says was the most challenging to complete: the funeral scene. Following a dramatic failed assassination attempt by the IRA in which the man with Collette is killed, we follow Collette as she copes with her guilt and her brothers (Domhnall Gleeson and Aidan Gillen) who plan a dramatic send-off for their fallen comrade in front of a crowd of IRA mourners and the antagonistic eye of the Northern Irish police.

Below, Marsh explains the creation of the scene and how he almost single-handedly screwed it up.


This scene isn’t about anything at all!”

“The funeral scene was most interesting because that was a very reactive piece of directing and also it was the one closest to disaster. I sort of overlooked that scene. You talk about the scale of it and having all the extras coming in and that was all organized for a morning shoot in Dublin. So we had the extras and the military people involved and all the costuming we needed. It was all done. But I had forgotten what the scene was about. I was too caught up in the scale of it and the production resources we were putting into that scene. So the night before [shooting] I sat and looking at the scene and I said to myself, this scene isn’t about anything at all!

“The original scene as written was a shot of the man in the coffin with mourners passing by; there was no mention in the script of our characters being a part of that scene. Then literally it was a description of a gun salute over a coffin and the British army and the Northern Irish police force, the IUC as it was called at the time, wading into the crowd and that’s where our main characters were. There was no specific direction of any of the characters within that scene. And that wasn’t the writer’s fault, it was my fault for not understanding it and then working with the writer to make it more focused on the characters that we cared about in the story.

“I’m sitting there at 12 o’clock at night and we’re shooting the next morning at eight. I started getting very scared because I didn’t know what I was doing here. There’s no point of view, there’s no fixed position, it’s almost like we were going to cover it like a football match. There wasn’t anything psychological or dramatic, so we had all of these things in place but I hadn’t really understood what I should be doing.”


Actually, it’s really good.”

“So I started thinking about what the scene could be about. I began by adding a big piece to it in the beginning of the sequence. So I needed to get Collette—who is responsible for the death of the man that the funeral is for—involved in the scene. The first idea I had was she has to go in and pay her respects to the dead body. Knowing that that would be a dramatic sequence for Andrea Riseborough to play and it wasn’t written, it wasn’t supposed to happen, I called Andrea five minutes after I had the idea and asked if she’s be up for it. She liked the idea very much. Then the two brothers, who are active IRA members, and her mother are important to the story and for this scene they are just floating as extras, so I decided we had to root the whole scene from their point of view. We’d follow Collette into the wake, let her ponder that dilemma of being an undercover agent at this point and have her confront with herself what she has done. So that brought in something emotional and specific to the main characters. Then there were to be shots fired over the coffin from random people in the crowd, I thought that should be Collette’s brother, played by Domhnall Gleeson. So I phoned him up and said, 'I know it’s 12:30 but would you be able to get the gun and fire the shots over the body?' And he said yes.

“Also in the scene, there was a brief bit of dialogue with Aidan Gillen’s character, Gerry, and an IUC commander. That was written. But I added another character to that scene, a member of the IRA’s political wing who would be someone to restrain Gerry’s character. I actually added that on the day when I noticed that the actor Michael McElhatton was there. That whole part was improvised. Literally when we were about to shoot is when that idea came.

“On the morning of the shoot I had to sell this to the production. And they were particularly vexed by the idea of Domhnall firing a gun because he hadn’t had any weapons training. So they said, ‘No, he can’t do this.’ So I started making enquiries and felt if we gave him two hours as we shot the scene of Collette going into the room and looking at the body that we could get his training in place. So that got worked out and things were going nicely and then it started to rain. We had 150 extras that we recruited from a local housing estate that we were filming on, they were all happy to be there, and I think they already had experience in rioting so they were great. But then we had to figure out what the hell to do with them while it was raining. So the day became filled with grabbing two or three shots here or there, which wasn’t really working.

"Then we decided we’d do the sequence pretty much in one shot. So it stopped raining for a half an hour and we would get the shot and then it would rain again. It’s all going horribly wrong. We may have had two shots by lunchtime. We got the stuff with Collette inside the room but we didn’t have any of the crowd stuff. So we broke the scene down into three shots that you see in the film because that’s all we had time to do around the rain and the crowds. Eventually we got one take of Domhnall shooting the gun, we see the gun being passed to Collette who then passes it to someone else who then passes it to Domhnall. Of course that take had a camera fault in it, or at least we thought. So we walked away from the scene at the end of the day feeling we had totally screwed it up. It doesn’t work we don’t have the major shot we needed, why did I make the adjustments the night before? That night after shooting was terrible. I thought I had messed up the scene, I hadn’t pulled it off.

“I call my editor the next day and I’m like, ‘This is a disaster,’ and he’s like, ‘No, it’s not. Actually, it’s really good.’ I guess we were so focused on the problems that we didn’t realize we got three really convincing crowd shots and it ends with a shot of the mother, which we find later plays a much larger role in the story than we’re led to believe. So it worked out very well emotionally. And we learned that the camera fault was very fixable, it was a hair in the gate, which was fixed in post. It turned out to be a scene that we most liked and when it was reviewed after its release it was the scene that was most commented as being an exciting, well-staged scene. By the time we got to post it was easy to cut, we had so few options because we had little coverage, we really used what we had. But it is a good scene and I’m pleased with how it works in the film.”


Your best-laid plans get rained on and drown…”

“The lesson I took from that scene is when you have an action sequence you have to root it in character and characters that you’re emotionally invested in. If it’s just a series of loud bangs and crowd action nothing really matters because you need to be investing in the characters. So that was a very basic lesson to learn and one that I definitely took to heart at that time. But I look back and review that whole shoot and think about what I did wrong, a postmortem, that’s a scene that on the day we finished and I traveled back with the DP in the car I was saying ‘We really screwed that one up.’ He wasn’t any more happy with it than I was.

"It was a combination of not being prepared properly of what the heart of the scene was and then being overwhelmed by the resources and how to display them properly without realizing that it should be about the characters. Then there’s the variable that we always have in the British Isles: the weather. Your best-laid plans get rained on and drown, and that was close to happening in that sequence. Dealing with 10 minutes of shooting time before the rains came and dealing with wet people and wet streets and trying to find continuity. If you look at it carefully, the sky is a bit of a giveaway that we’re jumping around the weather, but I think the power of the scene is such that you are hardly noticing that. That’s a scene that when I walked away from shooting I was very despondent and yet it turned out to be one of the strongest scenes in the film.

“So mostly the scene was invented the night before and the day of the shoot, which I’ll never do again.”

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