By Ali Moosavi.

If you’re a documentary filmmaker, you’re perceived to be good at something, which is the truth. So almost certainly my interest in dramatic films is nearly always based on true stories.”

The British director James Marsh came into prominence with his 2008 documentary Man on Wire about the tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 1974. After the thought-provoking documentary Project Nim (2011), he focused on fiction, but on stories about real people. His films have included The Theory of Everything (2014) which brought a Best Actor Oscar for Eddie Redmayne in his role as Stephen Hawking. His latest film is Dance First, which revolves around the life of the Irish playwright and Nobel Prize laureate, Samuel Beckett.

Dance First looks at Beckett’s life both as a teenager and an adult. The teenaged Beckett is played by Fion O’Shea, while Gabriel Byrne has a dual role as the older Beckett and his inner conscience. The film also looks at Beckett’s relationship with James Joyce (Aidan Gillen) and the infatuation of Joyce’s mentally disturbed daughter Lucia (Grainne Good) with the young Beckett. Though Beckett remained married to his wife Suzzane (Sandrine Bonnaire) till her death, a few months before his own passing, he had a long-term relationship with Barbara (Maxine Peake), an editor at the BBC.

The early and young years of Beckett are shot in B&W while the scenes featuring the older Beckett and his inner conscience are in colour. Beckett is portrayed as a tormented, guilt-ridden artist, dependent on encouragement from his inner conscience to spur him in.

I spoke to James Marsh at the San Sebastian International Film Festival where Dance First was the closing film.

You started in documentaries and a lot of your movies are about real people.

Almost all, more or less.

Does that come from your documentary background?

I think it does. I think for obvious reasons, if you’re a documentary filmmaker, you’re perceived to be good at something, which is the truth. So almost certainly my interest in dramatic films is nearly always based on true stories. I’ve just done that from a documentary career that went into a more dramatic film career with underlying true stories as the kind of touchstone for the work I’ve done in drama.

What drew you to the Beckett story?

The screenplay came to me during the pandemic. And I thought this timing is somehow interesting for that idea. I’m quite wary of biopics generally, I’ve made one, as you probably know. But this one was sufficiently subversive early on to get me interested. It starts in a very conventional way, but very quickly undermines the conventions of the biopic by going somewhere else. I wasn’t a student of Beckett as a younger person, but found that as an older, more mature person, the work spoke a lot more strongly and loudly to me. So I was actually really pleased to go back and see some of the plays and read some of the books and reconnect with a writer who was kind of overlooked as a younger student of literature and I liked the playful aspects of the screenplay as well. It wasn’t an earnest, adulatory sort of worship at the altar of Beckett. It was about his mistakes, his regrets, his guilt.

When did you decide to shoot it partly in black and white?

Quite early on. I guess for obvious reasons the received imagery of Beckett feels black and white. He lived in a black and white world to some extent in terms of photography and cinema. And when I started looking at images of Paris, where he lived in the 30s and 40s, I looked at the photos taken by Brassai, a Hungarian photographer who lived and worked in Paris. I found this to be incredibly inspiring. And I thought I can’t free myself from this sensibility that I’m finding in Brassai’s work. So I channeled it and said, well, this film needs to be in black and white. And the other more practical reason is that you’re shooting a period film on a very small budget in Budapest, pretending it’s Paris. So what’s the best way of allowing the audience to buy into this world? And I felt that black and white, on top of my aesthetic reasons, would help the audience get into the past, get to Paris, because black and white just simplifies your production design and simplifies your period evocation in a way that I think it’s helpful to the integrity of the world we’re building. The colour transition was based on the content of the story. You felt the story goes in a circle around his regrets, then places him in contemporary present as an older man with an older wife and they’re facing the indignities and reality of old age. So it felt to me that colour was going to be more withering and allow me to scrutinize that in a more complete way, and as a nice contrast to the past tense of black and white in the film.

At what stage did you decide to cast Gabriel Byrne as Beckett?

I guess while I was reading the script, I just started thinking of him. You first think about what Irish actors of the right age and the right sort of experience would be good and I immediately thought of Gabriel and I start reading it with him in mind; knowing that having two versions of the same character require a certain technical ability, but also a really complex sense of two different characters and how to make them different from each other. One is a more generous, more forgiving version of the other and is like a voice that’s kinder to you than your inner voice, if you have an inner voice, which most of us do. So Gabriel really came into me almost on the first read. And I thought, well let’s see if he wants to do it, and I began to think that if he didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t want to do it either. It became so clear to me that he was the one I wanted and the one I was seeing in the film. Thankfully we had a few very long conversations over Zoom and agreed on what we want to do with the film and he came on board, and I was on board too at that point.

What about casting Fionn O’Shea as the teenage Beckett?

He was in a quite successful TV show called Normal People, based on an Irish novel. Fionn played a very interesting character, a very unpleasant character in that and Fionn is not an unpleasant character. He’s a lovely collaborative young actor. So again, you’re looking for who’s out there that has a physicality that could work with Beckett, who has the talent to do it, and who can build a performance that can lead to another performance you can build on to the older Beckett. I went to Dublin and met Fionn, and we spent a day at Beckett ‘s world in Foxrock, where he grew up and I just thought he was going to be great. It was also very helpful that he looks just like the young Samuel Beckett. If you see a photograph of him, you can’t really tell them apart and that’s helpful to the credibility of the film.

The crucial changes of life for Beckett take place in the early part.

You are right in as much as the crucial life shaping choices are made in that part of the story and then the consequences of those choices that play out in Gabriel’s older version of the character. But Gabriel inherits the world that Fionn has created for him.

How do you work with these two actors on the transition from young Becket to old Beckett?

What Fionn did very carefully, was that he built a kind of image gallery of Beckett as a young man and certain postures and ways he’d sit, and he’d smoke and showed it to Gabriel and they talked about it. So Gabriel had a good idea of what Fionn was doing in terms of gestures and simple things like how to hold a cigarette, because he’s always smoking, how he sat, and they shared those and talked about them and they worked in tandem, but also separately. I didn’t want them to be too aware of each other. I think they had very good open dialogue and I think it worked because there’s certain things that Gabriel does that Fionn does for those that pay attention. Little details that we sketched in that are similar to both characters.

They go about their work in a in a very practical way and there’s a sense that you’re doing this seriously and properly, but you have to do it with this earnest reverence as playfulness that I found both times of working in Ireland with the Irish actors.”

This is your second movie with an Irish theme.

My next one will be an Irish film too!

Do you have a special affinity with Ireland and Irish people?

I do.  I’m kind of British rather than English. I come from Cornwall which is a Celtic area of England. I made a film called Shadow Dancer, which was about the Irish Troubles, or the end of them and really enjoyed working with Irish actors. Aidan Gillen was in that film and he is in this film too and was happy to come back and work on the project with me and I really relished working with the Irish actors. That was the thing that drew me back into Ireland. I think Ireland is such a fascinating country. I do have a strong affinity with Irish culture and Irish writing.

What is it about Irish actors that you enjoy so much working with them?

I think they go about their work in a in a very practical way and there’s a sense that you’re doing this seriously and properly, but you have to do it with this earnest reverence as playfulness that I found both times of working in Ireland with the Irish actors. Also, they are pretty good! You’ve got some great actors, Michael Gambon, who passed away recently, was a great Irish actor. I worked with him and loved working with him too. I guess I was drawn to Irish subject matter and indeed to the Irish acting talent pool as well.

Can you talk a bit about the surrealist scenes with Beckett and his inner conscience appearing together?

It was the first thing we had to do. On a production schedule, you have a shooting order that’s totally random. The location that I was determined to use for focusing on that was a sort of somewhere in a nowhere place. It’s somewhere, but you are not quite sure what its function is. It’s an abandoned quarry, half of them are natural, half man made, and you can’t quite tell the difference. And it had this right feeling; it was like a wasteland which is obviously evoking Waiting for Godot and Beckett’s stage work. We had to be on that location the first three days of shooting. So we had to start with the double act. It was not done by special effects or in post production. Fixes we can do is already done in camera. That involves shooting one side with Gabriel and then him going away, changing his costume, getting himself back into the other character and going to the other side. Initially he did it with a broom and that was kind of weird. Sometimes it would be done with the assistant director as well. She would sit in and be the other side of the story and it wasn’t easy. The costume change was a good thing because it made it going from one character to the other character in a kind of formal way. And I would say the first couple of goes at it were hit and miss. We weren’t sure whether it was working or not. By the afternoon we got a rhythm going and Gabriel had figured out how he wanted to do it, and then it was quite rewarding. You could put both sides on a split screen on your monitor and see that this is interesting and it works. Technically it was simple in the modern version, whereas I think the part in the 1950s gave Gabriel more challenges. It is a tough thing to do. Because you’re acting to yourself, or broom or someone else who’s not yourself.  But he got into it, we all did. The rhythm came quite quickly.

There was a distinct difference between the two.

Aidan Gillen as James Joyce

Deliberately and consciously the style was different. You can interpret this in many ways. I saw the other Beckett as a kind of inner voice that tells you to do something and not to do something. In this case the inner voice is more generous. It’s saying you’re always going to the bleakest possible interpretation, just back off a bit from that. That’s a sort of a foil, a conscience. I saw it that way. You can see it anyway you want, but I think it’s that version of inside yourself that you often talk to, embodied into another character, and that character in our version of the story is a more forgiving character. The real Beckett is very hard on himself. He’s very self-critical and has a low self-worth as a writer and as a person. The other Beckett is saying, you did your best. So that’s how it works in a psychological way. Hopefully it works in cinema as well.

The inner voice comes across as more confident and extrovert than the real Beckett.

Yes, exactly. He is a different iteration of the same person. A more positive, less critical version.

The women in the story are strong characters.

One reason that I wanted to do the film was because it wasn’t just the submissive wife worshipping the great artist. You start with the mother who’s a very strong and controlling character. That’s what we gather from his biography. It was a very difficult relationship and a very complex one and one that was based upon the mother’s part on essentially controlling him. So that starts off his engagement with women. When I read the script, I was very pleased to see the women had a strong role to play. In his later life there are two very strong women, Suzanne and Barbara. Both have their own accomplishments who seem to be, one less so and one more so happy with this sort of triangle that they could find themselves in. But the women shape his destiny. It’s not the other way round and he admits that and regrets his dealings with Lucia and his dealings with Suzanne in particular. He feels like he didn’t treat them the way he wanted to and has bitter regrets over that part of his life.

Did the details of his relationship with Joyce’s daughter come from the biography?

More or less. It’s a well-known part of his biography. She was bipolar and we’ve styled her in the manic phase of where somebody who suffers from that kind of condition which does get worse as you get older, is very hyperactive and full of manic energy and it’s not like she’s depressed. That follows on from that and you fall hard from that manic phase. We’ve got her in that phase and that’s all true. She wanted more from him. He did use that relationship to keep close to Joyce and when that relationship was over and she got very ill, it complicated relations with Joyce on both sides. Joyce did cut him off for a while. All the things in the story are sourced from his biography. We just interpret them the way that we do.

How do you view the relationship with his mother? 

We don’t speculate too much on that because one doesn’t really know. But if you’re doing a selective biography of Beckett, this relationship is the key. It’s so formative. His father was much more of a happy go lucky, very unintellectual. His mother was smart and intellectual and well-read and that probably is why they clashed so much. He had his own point of view very early on and we’ve taken little vignettes to show that sort of clash. But it does seem to shape his relations with women to some extent as well from that point onwards.

I think the film gives you a certain sense of that, specially with the Suzanne character who’s a more maternal character than Barbara, his mistress, was both in life and in the story in our film.

In real life, there were quite a lot of other women, weren’t they?

They certainly were! Famously there was Peggy Guggenheim in the Thirties with whom he had an affair and they were in a hotel room for four days straight and didn’t get out of bed! I think women liked him. Women responded to him. Obviously, he was quite a handsome fellow as a young man. And a very interesting man. So, he had female admirers.

Did you ever consider consulting the family?

We knew that by doing that we would open up a whole other set of problems that wouldn’t be worth doing. So we’ve confined ourselves to what’s in the public domain and quoting from the one play which is called Play, that seems so obviously autobiographical which he more or less owned up to. You see a little bit of that in the film.

What is your third film about Ireland be going to be?

I’m hoping to make a film called Night Boat to Tangier, which is based on a novel by Kevin Barry. It’s a great book and I knew the book. Kevin Barry wrote the scripts and it’s a great script to read. I have Michael Fassbender and Ruth Negga and Domhnall Gleeson to be in the film. So that’s the Irish movie that I’m going to make with the Irish actors and Irish characters.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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