James Marsh is best known to American audiences as the director of the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, but his participation in one of the more ambitious fiction film projects to come down the pike may change that profile significantly. By any standard, The Red Riding Trilogy is a unique proposition, comprised of three feature films, aired consecutively on TV in the U.K. but being released simultaneously here, with an overarching story line that follows the occurrences around the search for a serial killer (based loosely on the real-life Yorkshire Ripper investigation in the seventies), with each film taking place at a different point in time: 1974, 1980, and 1983. (Marsh directed the middle episode, set in 1980.) And while the series has all the surface trappings of a mystery thriller, it’s as much a Dickensian drama about police corruption and social blight in Northern England as it is a genre piece. Marsh sat down with Vulture to talk about the distinct production of The Red Riding Trilogy, working in a fiction medium after a successful career as a documentarian, and the strange limbo between TV and film.
The three Red Riding films exist in a kind of interesting netherworld. They were made for TV and shown on TV, but they’re being released theatrically here.
The way you watch them can really affect what you take away from them. In Britain, they were shown on TV one week apart. I saw them all together, one after the other, at the National Film Theater, with a short ten-minute break in between. The idea of that would ordinarily fill me with horror, particularly if my film were in the middle of it — but there was something about seeing them that way that was very interesting. Seeing them in this big, dense process of viewing I found surprisingly rewarding. They might actually work better that way, if you can bear it. But the cliché about British films is of course that they’re just TV on a big screen, which is not true and has never been true. You’ve got a tradition in the U.K. of directors working in TV drama and doing things that are very bold and experimental. Alan Clarke, for example, worked in television, but his films should have been released in cinemas. And I think in the U.S. over the last decade or so, TV has surpassed cinema: Works made for TV — or at least HBO and Showtime — will be seen more as the great monuments of visual culture than most films made in the Bush era, with one or two exceptions. But we’ve always had that in England, where TV has been a powerful medium. That’s the tradition — a very vibrant one — that Red Riding emerges from.
Interesting that you mentioned HBO, because these films reminded me of The Wire. In fact, they’re sort of like a mixture of Zodiac and The Wire.
Well, that’s not a terrible hybrid to be compared with. [Laughs.] I was conscious of working within an American genre, but the scripts and what we did to them made them very organic to that time and place. But I would also hope that they’ll work for an American audience, because people are familiar with The Wire and with the noir dimensions of these movies. At the same time, they are very unusual, I would think, because of the landscape and the accents. The author of the novels, David Peace, had lived through these very interesting times, and he uniquely had found a way of creatively dramatizing them. The Yorkshire Ripper was a real case, and my film is structured around that real case. Some very truthful parts of the investigation are in the film. That gives it a level of verisimilitude, given that you’re working in the genre of the noir procedural.
A lot of your previous films have used reenactments, but this is a full-on scripted feature. Is it hard for a documentarian to give up unerring fidelity to the truth?
It’s actually completely liberating to not be beholden to the heavy anchor of truth. In my documentaries, I tried to approach them as movies first and then as documentaries. Man on Wire was a conscious attempt to just make a film — it just happens to be true, and it happens to be told by the people who were there. That said, the means of production in the two genres are very different. That’s the real difference for me: I’ve used dramatic reconstructions before in my films, but on a feature film, it’s quite a different approach. You have to fill this empty white canvas. You have to put something on there that makes sense and flows forward and is exciting and interesting to watch.
Red Riding has three very strong but very different directors, making three distinct films. And yet there’s a certain uniformity of style here as well.
It shows the real strengths of the way in which they were produced. You have the same writer, Tony Grisoni. He got his head around the world of David Peace, and translated and embellished beautifully. You’ve got some of the same actors, who are going to build performances across all three films. But the brief was very much that if you hire a director like me or Julian Jarrold or Anand Tucker, you’re pretty much going to get the films that we ourselves want to make, for better or worse. But that’s what they wanted. They wanted each director to impose himself on the script. And I do think each film works on its own. Mine maybe more so — only because the story in mine is a bit more self-contained and stand-alone, whereas parts one and three reference each other a lot more.
How did the three of you work together? Did you?
We weren’t encouraged or discouraged to talk to each other. Over the course of making the films there were certain things I’d speak to Julian or Anand about — basic things about making the films credible, like costuming or location or things like that. But aside from that, we just got on with it. There was very little dialogue between us. So the films are tied together by the writing and the performances, but they’re very different in other ways. We each shot on a different format, for example: 1974 was shot on Super 16mm, I shot on 35mm, and the last one was shot on the Red camera. We each had our own reasons for doing that. I wanted to make mine as clear as possible, given the serpentine nature of the story. I wanted to create a wide-screen frame while I could gradually imprison the lead character in the frame. As the story unfolds about and the more he finds out, the worse his fate becomes. I thought the wide-screen frame was more effective for signifying and organizing power relations between characters, which are choreographed very carefully in the frame. The film becomes gradually claustrophobic, but in order to do that, you need to start by giving the characters space: If you start claustrophobic, then you’ve got nowhere to go.
But the actors are definitely going beyond their comfort zones in some cases. Paddy Considine’s role here is different from a lot of his previous parts.
That’s true. Paddy is so not that character. When he came to the production, he had spiky hair and all that. And I said to him, “I’m going to make you look like Hitler. I’m going to give you a Hitler haircut.” And I did. And for days he was furious, “You fucker, what have you done to my hair? My wife is going to hate it when she sees it!” But I think it really helped him understand that he was a really straight guy, and he was going to vote for Mrs. Thatcher. He was that kind of guy. British actors, I think, like to work from the outside in: They put on the costume and they become the character.