Catching Up With... Red Riding Director James Marsh
Last year, he won an Oscar for best documentary, though most viewers only remember its gymnastically adept star—death-defying French wirewalker Phillipe Petit—and not James Marsh, the English director who made Man on Wire. Marsh, 46, can live with the anonymity. The success of the film, which chronicled one man’s impossible dream to walk between the towers of the World Trade Center on a highwire, redeemed his career.
Marsh’s next move wasn’t another documentary, though. It’s In the Year of Lord 1980, the middle segment of the Red Riding Trilogy, a grim and fatalistic anatomy of Northern England during and after the sensational murder spree of the Yorkshire Ripper a serial killer whose acts became a linchpin for novelist David Peace (also author of The Damned United, whose quartet of novels set in the 1970s and ‘80s was trimmed for the three-part series, previously broadcast on British television). Paste caught up with Marsh in the midst of his new project (it’s about a chimpanzee) for a brief chat about not-so-merry Olde England, why its filmmakers move so fluidly between fiction and fact, and the forbidding message inherent in the film’s key phrase, “This is the north, where we do what we want.”
Paste: People who only know about you because of Man on Wire might be surprised that you also make features. How did you take on Red Riding?
James Marsh: Oddly enough, I started tracking this project even before I’d started work on Man on Wire. I’d made a film called The King, made in America, which hadn’t been a spectacular success by any means. But it was something I wanted to try again, and make good on some of the mistakes I’d made as a director. But also to try and establish myself more in feature films as well as documentaries. My connection to that material goes back two or three years. I met the screenwriter Tony Grisoni at a film festival and we sort of got on, and he slipped me a first draft of 1974 about two years before production got going. That script was really good and that prompted me to read all the books in sequence. By the time we got to make the films, I completely got obsessed with the script of 1980. It spoke to me in a certain way.
Paste: In the UK, at least, it seems more natural for filmmakers to go between documentary and feature work. I’m thinking about folks like Michael Apted (49 Up) or Michael Winterbottom (The Road to Guantanamo). Same for you?
Marsh: In some respects, Man on Wire is the aberration in my career. Because it’s successful, I guess! And it’s a very sweet story, even though a man’s life is at stake. I really enjoyed making it on that basis. But in fact before then I had been wallowing in darkness and misery. Quite successfully in creative terms if not commercial terms. Red Riding felt like an extension of the career I had before Man on Wire. Most people who worked in TV, which is the majority of British filmmakers, would start with documentaries. For very obvious reasons, documentary has a very rich culture in the UK—has been since the beginning of television. It’s an easy way to start making films. It informs what I did in Red Riding. There are pure documentary elements in the opening sequence which are then subverted into fictional elements. In a sense, this is what David Peace did with the novels. They’re anchored in real events and real personalities and terrible crimes. He creates this rich, dense fabric of narrative across these four unwieldy crazy demented and brilliant books. The screenplay I did has the most obvious connections with this notorious real-life killer who lived in the north of England.
Paste: Do you have a lot of personal memories of the killings?
Marsh: His crimes spanned six years, which, when you are growing up, is quite a big chunk of time. My first encounter with this is as a child and when you’re a teenager these crimes are still going on. It’s like in David’s book, tied into a lot of grim and horrible things going on in England at that time. It’s a really miserable time to be growing up. England was a shabby, defeated place at the time, and it still is in some respects. Despite all the efforts of New Labor to rebrand the country, it’s still a pretty grim place to be. The crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper meld into the labor disputes and power shortages and strikes and civil strife. They were an extreme manifestation of a very dysfunctional country I grew up in. There are certain aspects of that case that are really quite chilling. It started off the women thst were being killed were prostitutes and nobody gave a shit about that. Then a young schoolgirl, she was about 17, became a very public victim. He became less discriminatory. I remember seeing her face on the front cover of a tabloid newspaper and she was a very sweet-looking girl. There’s this tape we use in the film that was played all over the place England at the time. It was apparently the killer talking and we all thought that it was, but it was a hoax. At the time, you thought you were hearing the words of this cold-blooded murderer. Anyone growing up in England at the time would remember that tape, because it was played relentlessly. The hope was people would know who it was and phone up and the case could be solved. Of course, it was a huge mistake.
Paste: Why did you sign on for the second segment? It seems like the most procedural of the three.
Marsh: Indeed it does. My read of it: Each film is defined stylistically by the protagonist. In the first one, you have this cocky young journalist who wants to find the truth, and he steps into this feverish conspiracy which becomes a personal nightmare for him. [Director] Julian [Jarrold] shoots it that way, too. Mine, as you say, is more of a procedural film. It’s taking its stylistic language from its central character [a senior police investigator named Peter Hunter, played by Paddy Considine] who is quite detached and quite a sober individual. I felt the film should be like that, quite classical and clinical. The procedural is what it was, yet at the same time it becomes almost a kind of Kafka nightmare for him. Everywhere he goes, there’s an ambush for him. And the more he finds out, the worse his life becomes. Some of the things that happen to him are inexplicably horrible, but they’re imaginatively horrible. His whole life is destroyed before his eyes. He is slowly marching before his doom. His fate is cast from the moment he accepts the job. I schemed with my DP to create a visual scheme that would gradually imprison that character in various ways.
Paste: The effect is very much like an English parallel to James Ellroy’s books.
Marsh: Tony was very respectful of that, and that David would acknowledge Ellroy’s paradigm: To take real events, particularly real criminal events, and image a whole world beyond them and beneath them and around them. Each book has a certain connection, sometimes well disguised, to certain cases. In fact, 1980, has a wholly different connection to a case in Northern Ireland. A man called John Stalker—that was his name—was sent to Northern Ireland to investigate a shoot-to-kill policy (the British government had discretely allowed the security forces to take out known terrorists). He was there to investigate what was basically a state-sanctioned assassination. And he was absolutely fucking sandbagged once he got there. There was a counter-investigation against him, accusations he was a homosexual, on and on and on. I think Stalker and Hunter, there’s a definite connection between those characters and the names suggest there is as well.
Paste: American audiences may have no concept about Northern England. Can you tease out some of its cultural significance?
Marsh: Britain, even as a small country compared to America, it’s a country with very pronounced regional differences you see expressed, first and foremost, linguistically. David Peace grew up in the biggest county in England, and it’s called Yorkshire, and it’s a big chunk of the northeast of England. It’s a big county and therefore has a big identity and has a recognizable accent. It presents itself as working-class culture, an industrial coal-mining area as the books are being written. It’s not a very comforting landscape. It’s not a British heritage film. It’s not about butlers and country houses. Nor is it a Billy Elliot kind of gloss. It’s an interesting comparison, because Billy Elliot takes an industrial dispute and makes it into this fairy tale, to be kind about it. It’s like setting a film in the Midwest, like Fargo is set in Minnesota, so there’s so many things the film trades off of. I guess the novels of the guy who writes in Florida Elmore Leonard. And Ellroy in LA. When a writer grows up someplace, he knows it very well and reports on it. I imagine David Peace did not grow up feeling particularly happy in Yorkshire. He fled to Japan. I fled to America. I know how he feels. But I didn’t grow up there. I come from another very different part of England, which is the far southwest.
Paste: I never realized it until I was scanning your IMDb page, but you made Wisconsin Death Trip. Very impressive. That’s a real cult number.
Marsh: That was adapted from a very notorious cult book from the ‘70s. I just loved that book. I had it for years before I could figure out whether it could be done and then how it could be done. That was a labor of love. It took three or four years. It sounds a little like Red Riding. It’s about a time and a place where things have gone to hell. Wisconsin Death Trip is a catalog of aberrant behavior and criminal activity and insane activity in this town in Black Water Falls, in the mid-to-northern part of the state. I sensed a connection between that, and its specific time and place, and what we were doing in Red Riding.
Paste: So I have to know. After spending all that time with Phillipe Petit shooting Man on Wire, did you ever attempt any wirewalking yourself?
Marsh: No, I did not. That was the last thing I was going to do. I’m terrified of heights. That’s one of the reasons I found the story amazing. Because of the nature of my own fear. He had a practice wire in the back garden that was only six feet off the ground. And I had absolutely no desire to go there. I think I wouldn’t be good at it and it wouldn’t be a good idea.
Paste: What’s up with Phillipe?
Marsh: He’s always planning walks but it’s hard to pull together. He’s very much a professional wirewalker and he’s always looking for places to put his wire. He’s open to offers, I know that.
Paste: And what’s up with you, once you get done with all this press for Red Riding?
Marsh: I’m doing a feature documentary film. It’s about a project in the late ‘70s in Colombia. A chimpanzee was taken from its mother pretty much the moment its born and socialized as a human being. The ostensible objective was to teach the chimpanzee language, in this case sign language. But the whole experiment was to see what would happen if you socialized an alien species inside a human family. And of course it doesn’t go very…it doesn’t go to plan. By definition, it can’t go to plan. You’re trying to make an alien species human. But the reasons it doesn’t go to plan and the manifestations of that are extraordinary. The journey this chimp takes in human society are mind-boggling. He takes this picaresque journey with us in our human world and has misadventures and tragedies that unfold around him. It’s a bit like, and don’t quote me on comparisons, that Bresson film Au Hasard Balthazar. You have this mute witness to human folly and human cruelty. And vice-versa. In his case, the mirror is being held up both ways. It’s a very interesting vehicle to talk about the overlap between us and chimpanzees. What the chimp flushes out in us is very interesting.