An Oscar winner for his documentary Man on Wire and the filmmaker behind 2014’s awards juggernaut The Theory of Everything, James Marsh has been away from the big screen for a few years (his last project was the 2018 heist film King of Thieves). But he comes to Cannes with two buzzy projects in the market. In Night Boat to Tangier, he takes on Kevin Barry’s New York Times bestseller with a cast including Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson and Ruth Negga.
That film hasn’t shot yet, but Marsh has already completed a rather different feature, Dance First. A sweeping account of the life of literary icon Samuel Beckett (the title is taken from his ethos, “Dance first, think later”), the film sees Gabriel Byrne as the Nobel Prize winner in a story that covers the many aspects of his younger years: from Parisian bon vivant to WWII resistance fighter and philandering husband. The film, which Film Constellation is selling in Cannes, was written by BAFTA-winner Neil Forsyth with a cast that also includes Sandrine Bonnaire, Maxine Peake, Aidan Gillan and Finn O’Shea (playing a young Beckett).
Speaking exclusively to in Cannes, Marsh discusses bringing Beckett to the screen in a somewhat unexpected way.
I have to admit, I thought I knew about Beckett, but when I read about Dance First I realized there was so much I didn’t know.
That’s why I wanted to do the film. Beckett is such an interesting proposition, because of how he wrote what he wrote, and how he stands in the literature of the 20th century. And the script was actually kind of playful — it ambushes you early on. You don’t normally think of Beckett as laugh-out-loud or funny, but the script riffs on his work and his way of seeing the world. Essentially, it’s a review of his life through his mistakes, and he’s dwelling on the things that he most regrets. Which sounds like downer, but in fact it’s mainly love affairs.
How did the project come your way?
It was written by an interesting writer called Neil Forsyth. It came out of a TV project that he’d done where Samuel Beckett met a famous wrestler called Andre the Giant. Sky liked it and they encouraged Neil to write a TV drama about Beckett, which then grew into a film. I had mixed feelings about doing anything about Samuel Beckett — I knew a little bit about his time in the French Resistance and his time in Paris. I was daunted by the proposition of the script, but then you read it and within three pages something really funny has happened. And that was really surprising. And that happens when you watch the film — it’s not what you expect. It’s witty and light and moves fast, so it’s almost the opposite of Beckett. So that’s how I came into it.
How did you cast Gabriel Byrne as Beckett?
When you get the script, you think who’s going to do it? Because it’s going to stand and fall on that choice. It’s like The Theory of Everything and Stephen Hawking. If you get it wrong it doesn’t work. Nothing works. I only really thought of Gabriel, to be honest. He was the first thought I had, and quite quickly he responded to it. In Ireland, Beckett is one of the patron saints of literature, so for an Irish actor it’s a real responsibility. And quite scary, because you’re going to be judged by Irish culture. But he was up for it. And I think it’s a really great performance. And then a young Irish actor Fionn O’Shea plays the younger Beckett, and he looks just like Samuel Beckett. It’s uncanny.
This is your first film in a few years. Did you take a step back?
I actually had quite a big documentary project that ended up not happening. It just sort of collapsed because we couldn’t get people to talk, so that was quite a distraction. I also exec produced documentary projects quite a lot as well. And then lockdown took out two projects, as well as many other casualties. But Dance First was the first one I could actually make after lockdown.