As 2008 comes to a close and we try to catch up on some titles that we missed earlier (all the better to formulate our list of favorite films of the year), we're connecting via email with some of the filmmakers behind the year's most noted nonfiction releases.
First up is James Marsh, the director of perhaps the year's most acclaimed film, MAN ON WIRE. Shortlisted for the Oscars, nominated for the Indie Spirit Awards and in the midst of a nearly clean sweep of the year end critics awards, MAN ON WIRE stormed out of Sundance, was picked up by Magnolia and stands just shy of 3 million dollars at the box office. It has been, no exaggeration, quite a year for Marsh.
I saw James in Copenhagen last month and he told me that he'd recently moved to Europe from New York, where he'd been based for over a decade. In our email exchange this weekend, we talk, among other topics, about his move, his film's deft handling of 9/11 and the joys of having Sean Connery invite you and your subject for drinks.
ATWT: One of my favorite things about this time of year is looking over the Sundance line-up, because it's this blank slate/vision of the future. These are films that will become a big part of the conversation in our community over the next year, but right now they are just these titles. Going into Sundance last year, what were you feeling?
James Marsh: Relief. Three previous films had been rejected by Sundance and I was pretty sure MAN ON WIRE would suffer the same fate. Also I was dying to see the film with an audience. It's really the only way you know whether a film actually works. This was the first film I made that I actually liked when I finished it - I guess because I was, and still am, thrilled by what Petit did. As you know, going into the festival the film was completely off the radar and it stayed that way during the festival. That was fine with me - I didn't want the burden of hype and I knew going in that most distributors would be too shortsighted to seek out a film that they weren't being told to see by each other and so it proved. I'm always amazed (aren't we all?) by the kind of films that distributors go after at Sundance and the money they spend. They never seem to learn from their mistakes. You watch, they'll do the same this year.
Heath Ledger died during our first screening so quite a few people left to find out more about that but those that stayed seemed really tuned into the film. At festivals, films are subject to quite withering word of mouth commentary and we did get this growing sense that audiences were enjoying the film and talking about it. I heard people talking about it on the bus - almost apologizing for the fact that it was a doc but that it was definitely worth seeing. That was a pretty nice experience. This year, who knows? I do like the sound of two titles in the World Doc section: BIG RIVER MAN and Kim Longinotto's ROUGH AUNTIES. I really admire her work and I wish her films were better known in the US.
Sundance, the film played nearly every festival, it seems. What was
your year on the fest circuit like and did you have any favorite
Well, you're probably right. MAN ON WIRE was promiscuous at film festivals but for me, going to a festival should be a little treat that you allow yourself whilst getting on with the new work. I've been working on a new documentary project and getting ready to shoot a feature so I did allow myself to go to quite a few festivals and I have lots of great memories. Getting a bit drunk and talking into the early hours with Ellen Kuras at Full Frame, the closing night at True/False and the humbling response from the huge audience there. At Edinburgh, Sean Connery was in the audience and got up and asked a question. He then invited us all out for a drink and I have this great image in my head of Philippe Petit showing James Bond magic tricks at the bar.
If there was one festival that I would recommend to anyone involved or interested in documentary filmmaking, it would be True/False. The whole town is alive with passionate debate about documentaries, the films they show are really well chosen and David (Wilson) and Paul (Sturtz) were brilliant hosts.
Here's what I learnt on my travels: documentaries are the most vibrant and subversive genre in American film culture and that has probably been true for the last 5 years.
thing about MAN ON WIRE that I keep coming back to was this
fearlessness about dealing or not dealing with 9/11. I've said that
somehow you knew that you could simultaneously ignore the destruction
of the towers and also use it to create this sense of danger that hangs
over all of Petit's activities. You must have had discussions about
this during the making of the film - how far can we go?
There was only one discussion about this. And it wasn't even a discussion. It was a defining choice. There was no way we were going to get into 9/11 and that was that. Can you imagine the film with that as the epilogue? How crass that would have been? I assumed that most of the audience would feel the same way as I did as I made the film - we are constantly aware of the tragic future of those buildings but able to inhabit the innocent and sometimes joyous present that Petit's adventure creates in the film. I trust the audience to complete the film on that level for themselves to whatever degree they want. I don't believe the memory of those buildings should be exclusively owned by the people who destroyed them or the politicians who then exploited their actions. Why shouldn't they also belong to dreamers and artists, at least for the duration of the film?
While this year has been pretty good all around for nonfiction film, there still have been casualties, including one of the entities that made MAN ON WIRE, Discovery Films. I saw Andrea Meditch at the IDA Awards and we talked about how strange and melancholy it is for them, now that your film and ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD are getting all this attention at the end of the year. What was your experience with Discovery and were you surprised to hear that they were closing the theatrical unit?
It's completely baffling on one level. Discovery's film unit have produced some of the finest theatrical documentaries over the past few years and also some of the most commercially successful. They will profit more from MAN ON WIRE's success than anyone else involved in the film. Who knows what they are thinking?
I think Andrea was treated very shabbily. She was dispatched immediately after Man On Wire's prizes at Sundance and the higher echelons of Discovery had already started issuing press releases naming people at Discovery who had supposedly overseen the film but aside from Andrea and Matt Katziv (press person), I've never actually heard from or spoken to anyone at the company at all.
On a personal level, I like Andrea a lot. Unlike a lot of executives, she doesn't assume her audience are ignorant and stupid and in fact, she made a few vital editorial suggestions which in her nice way were posed as questions not prescriptions or criticisms. I hope she can find another niche in the world of documentaries. We all need people like her around.
What was one of your favorite nonfiction films this year and why did it resonate with you?
My favourite film in any genre this year was WALTZ WITH BASHIR. I think it is a truly great war film and comparable to movies like Apocalypse Now and Paths Of Glory. It's also an important breakthrough in the documentary genre. It dealt with issues many docs engage with - history, politics, memory - but in ways that were surprising, inventive and subversive. Above all it was a trippy, witty cinematic experience and it's great that it has been doing so well. I liked a lot of other films this year - ANVIL! was hilarious and heartbreaking and true. THE ORDER OF MYTHS was such a surprising and subtle film. It challenged so many assumptions and cliches and yet it didn't editorialize or make cheap political points. THE BETRAYAL (NERAKHOON) was weighty and sad and a labour of love in all the right ways. UP THE YANGTZE was another film that opened (and ravished) my eyes.
So you've moved from New York,
you're working on a new film, can you talk about what's happening now
in your life, besides what appears will be a full slate of award shows
in the next few months?
I left New York because I thought I could be more productive as a filmmaker in Europe. I've only ever had one paying job from a US company as a filmmaker, even though I lived in the US for 14 years. It was supposed to be a documentary about the making of a Broadway musical - I hate musicals but I was desperate and broke and I had to do it. But they wanted an informercial not a documentary and I was fired after a few weeks. I did get one offer at Sundance to make a Fox studio film about the evangelist Rick Warren that Rupert Murdoch himself had initiated. They wanted a straight up heroic film about Rick and his work in the Third World and they already had lots of footage of Rick holding hands with little African children who had AIDS. They saw MAN ON WIRE and they thought I was the man for the job. I laughed until I cried.
Anyway, it felt perverse to struggle on in New York when I had offers and opportunities to work in the UK. But it was really tough to leave and part of me is heartbroken about it. I left the same week that MAN ON WIRE opened in New York and I hope it doesn't sound maudlin to say that it's become my personal love letter to the city.
I just finished a narrative feature here in the UK working again with the DP and editor of MAN ON WIRE. I'm very lucky that I've been able to move between documentaries and fiction but I try to use the same collaborators on all my films so we all learn together and cross fertilize the work we do. The film is a paranoid thriller with a big cast of actors and a strong factual background - it's based around a notorious serial killer called the Yorkshire ripper who was at large in the north of England in the late '70's. Now I want to make another feature documentary and I'm working on absolutely crazy idea based on a dream diary. Basically, an old jewish guy in Toronto wrote down all the dreams he ever had about a woman he was in love with who died tragically and young. The film is a kind of doomed love story based on his dream narratives. It could be an absolutely unwatchable disaster and I have no idea how I am going to make it. Hence it has to be done.