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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.