My Influential Director: James Marsh

The requirement for this post was an interesting challenge.  It seems most of my peer group within the Raindance Postgraduate Program were easily able to identify which director had influenced them; I was not.  This is not to say that I was oblivious to the choices that a director might make in how to put together a film, directing the use of cinematography, music and the unfolding story arch; but rather that I had never watched films on the basis of who had directed them.  I was determined for this piece of writing to be legitimate and a learning opportunity for me but I finding a director that I could say had genuinely say had influenced me in a short period of time was quite tricky.

So, first I made a mental list of all the films (predominantly non-fiction but a few fiction) that I felt have in some way influenced me.  I then went through IMDB finding out who the director was for each of the films and seeing if I had watched other films they had directed.  This was a fruitless task; many films that I searched for, it turns out it were directorial debuts for feature length films: Searching for the Sugar Man (2012) – Malik Bendjelloul, Bill Cunningham, New York (2012) – Richard Press, Finding Vivian Maier (2013) – John Maloof & Charlie Siskel, the list could go on and on.   It turns out I have seen a fair number of Speilberg films but the fact I have seen more than one of his films doesn’t exactly qualify him as influential.

So back to the drawing board…  The Thin Blue Line (1988) directed by Errol Morris is mentioned in various books that I am reading at the moment.  I will give that a try, I thought.  The film is superbly well done and I have written a blog post on the elements that stood out to me.  I feel there is a lot that could be learnt from this film and no doubt Errol’s other films.  However, as I read up on him and his films, I felt that his specialism of documentaries on deep and dark topics (death row, murder, war, and abuse) was not a direction I wanted to go in or dedicate lots of time to watching.

I went down a couple of dead-ends watching enjoyable films: Life Itself (2014) directed by Steve James for which I have not seen any of his other films but have read lots about Hoop Dreams (1994), and Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang (2016) directed by Kevin McDonald who also made Touching The Void (2003).  Whilst I certainly enjoyed Sky Ladder I felt that the artist was doing a lot of the work in creating a visually engaging story and in my work going forwards I will not have anything anywhere near as visually appealing as the firework displays of a world renowned artist.  All these directors probably warrant further exploration of their films in the future but on my time-limited quest to find my influential director I felt I had to continue exploring other options.

James Marsh’s Man on Wire (2008) is discussed in some detail in Bernard’s (2014) Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen, indeed he in interviewed on the subject. At the time of reading the book I had not seen that nor any of his other films but subsequently found Man on Wire on Netflix.  I watched it twice within a few days; it was captivating.  The use of re-enactment, music and playfulness of Philippe Petit during interviews where he acts out scenes within a theatre made it enchanting and magical.  It brought the topic so much more to life than it would have done focused on interviews alone.  The style of the re-enactment was sufficiently different to allow the viewer to separate old footage from re-enactment but ultimately in sharing in Philippe’s joy, I didn’t care which was which.  I am interested in the use of re-enactments to create a story and to add an extra dimension to a film so I thought this could be a good match.  Trbic (2009) highlights the number of opportunities for film students to learn from this film stating that:

“students could look closely into the portrayal of documentary subjects, and the use of interviewing techniques, archival material, visual composition, and framing, editing, sound and music in structuring the narrative as ‘creative treatment of actuality’ ”

So, armed with a first film that I really enjoyed, and safe in the knowledge that James is not a new director, I went off to explore other films he had made.  Since watching Man on Wire, a documentary interspersed with re-enactment; I then watched The Theory of Everything (2014), an adaption of Jane Hawking’s book Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen; and The Team (2005), and a cinema verite documentary about a football team made up of homeless people living on the streets of New York.  Even from those few word descriptions, it is striking how different in format each of those films are going across the spectrum from fly-on-wall real life in The Team, to documentary employing techniques used by dramatic films in Man on Wire, to a lot of artistic license and a somewhat fictional (Dockterman, 2014) portrayal of Steven Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014).  The wide array of styles that Marsh is able to employ impressed me.  Whilst having elements of signature style is good, I don’t want to fall back on the same formula for each of my films, I want there to be multiple strings to my bow for which I can play a different tune.  It seems from the films I have watched so far, maybe Marsh’s signature style (rather than employing a specific technique) is choosing to work on projects which tell the story of the extraordinary hidden within the ordinary world.   In an interview (Kelsey, 2013) on this subject Marsh said:

“With documentaries, actually, my instinct is always to find stories that feel totally incredible—real life throws up stories and events, that, if you shape them in a certain kind of way, are almost unbelievable. It’s almost the opposite instinct with documentary, you look for something that you have to tell as factual, because if you did it as a fictional story, no one would really believe it.”

This really appeals to me; one of the reasons I love documentary is that the truth can be stranger than fiction, and I want to celebrate individuals and successes rather than make bleak documentaries focusing on all the negatives in the world. Marsh manages to celebrate the successes of the main characters in each of the three films without sugarcoating the negative aspects in their lives (Hawking’s motor neuron disease, the dire situation of the homeless men playing soccer in The Team, and the subtler loss of love and breakdown of friendships in Man on Wire).  The inclusion of these negative aspects of life makes the people portrayed more ‘real’ and their successes all the sweeter.

Geffen (2015) report that Marsh’s background in directing documentaries gave him ideas of how to direct The Theory of Everything stating:

“What you want to do, like with a documentary, is to witness and observe things with the camera that are happening in a fairly spontaneous way. Both Felicity and Eddie loved that approach to the work, where there was a lot of freedom to move around on the set and to improvise if they wanted to.” 

In a documentary, research is everything in ensuring that a story based in truth is told.  Marsh has employed this mindset in researching details for The Theory of Everything to accurately recreate Stephen and Jane’s wedding day, house, car etc. Contrastingly, his experience in creating feature films has provided him valuable insights into creating engaging documentaries which include a strong narrative and dramatic arc (Smith, 2011).  To me, it is use of techniques often used in dramatic films that keeps the documentaries fresh and visually appealing.

Going into this blog knowing little about James Marsh it is tricky to determine what to write.  I have read numerous interviews which focus on whichever film is being released at the time of the interview.  I want to try and find out more about him and what influences him as a director.  I found this response to an interview question about Stephen Hawking and his willingness to change where James makes an interesting comparison between science and film making:

“That’s because you’re basing things on evidence. The facts need to influence your conclusions, and in the realm of theoretical physics those facts are still being groped for. That’s an interesting part of science, that you have to be open to changing your mind. Many a great scientist does. It’s a hallmark of that thinking, that you’re open to the evidence changing your ideas. Which is true of a filmmaker, too. If things aren’t working you have to change how you’re doing it. If the results you’re getting don’t equate with what you want, you have to change your mind about how you’re doing something. There’s an analogy there I’m stumbling on just as we speak.”

As a former researcher, this analogy is appealing to me.  I will try to take this advice with me as I move into film making and try to remain flexible in approach, reformulating based on changing requirements.  I look forward to the challenge.



Bernard, S.C (2016, 4th edition), Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen, New York, Focal Press
Dockterman, E (2014) The True Story Behind The Theory of Everything, Time Magazine accessed on December 18, 2016 here:
Geffen, S (2015) The Theory of Everything: An Interview with James Marsh, Consequence of Sound, accessed on December 21, 2016 here:
Kelsey, C (2013) James Marsh’s Magical Realism, Interview Magazine accessed on December 23, 2016 here:
Life Itself (2014), James S [film], CNN Films, Film Rites, Kartemquin Films
 Man on Wire (2008), Marsh J [film], Discovery Films, BBC Storyville, UK Film Council, Wall to Wall, Red Box Films
Powell, S (2014), The Hand and Eye Behind “The Theory of Everything”, Discover Magazine, accessed on December 23, 2016 here:
Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang (2016), MacDonald K [film], Explosion Art, Insurgent Docs, Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment
Smith, N (2011) INTERVIEW | Is “Project Nim” Director James Marsh Shaping Up to Be the Next Werner Herzog?, Indie Wire, accessed on December 21, 2016 here:
The Team (2005), Marsh J [film], Hands on Productions
The Theory of Everything (2015), Marsh J [film], Working Title Films, Dentsu Motion Pictures, Fuji Television Network
The Thin Blue Line (1988), Morris E [film], American Playhouse, Channel 4 Television Corporation,  Third Floor Productions
Trbic, B (2009) A Heist Film 110 Storeys above Manhattan: Man on Wire, Screen Education: 52: 40-43



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