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James Marsh’s High Wire Act

James Marsh’s High Wire Act (photo)

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Leaping from fiction to nonfiction and back again may be an astonishing directorial feat, but those who have followed British filmmaker James Marsh (“Wisconsin Death Trip,” “The King”) before he won his best documentary Oscar for “Man on Wire” last year know he’s long led such a high-wire career.

For “The Red Riding Trilogy,” screenwriter Tony Grisoni’s thrilling three-film adaptation of David Peace’s crime novels, Marsh directs the middle feature (“In the Year of Our Lord 1980,” colloquially called “Red Riding: 1980”), as flanked by Julian Jarrold’s “1974” and Anand Tucker’s “1983.” All set in provincial Northern England against a backdrop of serial killings, the films follow a thorny throughline of high-level corruption and the impunity that grossly keeps the wicked in power.

Marsh’s mercilessly grim segment stars Paddy Considine as an unpopular by-the-book detective who, while investigating the real-life Yorkshire Ripper case, stumbles upon a cover-up conspiracy that could cost him everything to pursue — a theme that echoes throughout the trilogy. While in New York to work on a new documentary, Marsh discussed with me his own remembrances of growing up in England during the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror, how not to make a period film, and why you shouldn’t shake hands with Czech animator Jan Švankmajer.

I know it’s boring to ask how you got involved in a project, but specifically, how did you end up with the second leg of this trilogy?

[Producer] Andrew Eaton and I were trying to get the rights for “The Damned United,” another novel by David Peace. We failed in that, but Andrew was already developing a TV drama series based on the “Red Riding” books. He asked me to read the first draft of “1974,” which I thought was fantastic. Then I got to read the draft of “1980” and [liked] it even better. So from a very early point in the proceedings, I had my eye on that particular film, and tracked it for two years whilst the TV company was getting nervous about making it and kept backing away. Once it finally got going, I felt I could do the best job with the middle one.

There were two things I really liked about the screenplay. I didn’t see the ending coming — I truly felt ambushed. And as a filmmaker, I responded to when the central character’s life takes this downward spiral: a good man in a bad world, if you like. It’s a classic film noir in some respects. The more that character finds out, the worse his life gets. That was appealing to me, bizarrely. [laughs]

02032010_RedRiding80-1.jpgWere there any ground rules set as far as aesthetics, or how to approach your segment?

One of the real gambles of this trilogy is that each director was literally given total creative freedom. Obviously, the coherence of the trilogy is based on the screenplays. They’re all written by the same writer, but the directors were free to cast, design and shoot the way that they chose. There was very little contact between the directors as we actually made the films. We had to agree on certain casting choices, but we did it in a very simple, democratic way. The director who had the most lines with that character got the deciding vote, essentially. You could do an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise because we each had the same amount of money, pretty much the same actors, and yet the films have their own personalities.

How much of “Red Riding” is based on fact?

The best comparison for an American audience would be the work of James Ellroy, where there’s a lot of research that’s been done. Real events are being used as a starting point [for] a complicated crime narrative. My film in particular has the most overt historical reference points. The Yorkshire Ripper was at large in England when I was growing up. For eight years, episodically, women were being murdered at regular intervals. The one thing I remember vividly was a bit of a tape recording that the police thought was the killer taunting them. That tape was played all over the place: on radio, television, in bus shelters and pubs. It became part of one’s own mythology of evil, this weird teasing voice.

I had a strong personal recollection of the Yorkshire Ripper case because of the compass of time under which it unfolded, and this genuine climate of fear in the North. I grew up in the West of England, actually, but it was palpable across the country. We uncovered some of the tales on location. Women told us they would wear crash helmets when they were walking around at night to stop from being banged on the head with a hammer.

02032010_RedRiding80-2.jpgYou were just a teenager. What were you up to in the Year of Our Lord 1980?

I was at school and had a silly haircut like The Human League. I tried not to make a period film like those British heritage films where so much attention to detail is given that it’s suffocating. I wanted to make more of a classical procedural that happened to be set in that time and place. I resisted period music. It wasn’t very good, and it felt like a cheap shot to evoke period through pop songs. It’s a very tired idea for me, anyway. The first film enjoyed its period much more than I felt to do, for reasons that Julian [Jarrold] was right to. 1974 was a more exotic period in terms of haircuts and underpants.

“1974” was filmed on Super 16mm, and “1983” was in HD. Why did you shoot “1980” in 35mm?

The influence was “Klute,” an Alan J. Pakula film that has lots of interesting widescreen compositions. On 35mm, we could really shoot dialogue in a way that was efficient for coverage. We’ve got dialogue scenes between four, five, six people. Also, we could use that to [visually] trap the central character, outflank and stifle him. We felt the compositions could be really useful to the underlying themes of the story.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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