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]
Were 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.
You 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.