In light of its impending release on home entertainment, we had the pleasure of interviewing the man behind the Donald Crowhurst biopic, The Mercy: James Marsh. An esteemed director responsible for the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire and the equally applauded Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, Marsh elaborates on what interested him in the project, why Colin Firth was the perfect choice to bring the complex character that was Crowhurst to the screen, as well as some of the specifics of the film itself, such as the late Jóhan Jóhansson’s beautiful score.
*Spoiler alert* sensitive details about the plot ahead.
Usually with British Heritage Dramas, you get a very feel-good drama, but The Mercy was a very refreshing experience. It was very emotional, very powerful.
I think it’s about the expectation. I hope the film finds its audience, I think it will fight that obstacle, but I find it really quite subversive as an idea, to set up those expectations. It’s a true story, the film is quite accurate about the details of the story, what we know of Crowhurst’s journey from his logbook, from his communications. The thing is, is that once you’re confronted with the truth, that’s the way that you have to do it, you can’t change it, it’s a totally different story if he doesn’t do the things he does, and because it’s a true story, you respect that and it’s this truth that offers this reversal from the normal, conventional film narrative. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it actually, it’s one of the main attractions of the story and the project.
The paradigm for this kind of film is that you expect the heroic underdog to endure and triumph, or at least endure and survive. And this story, as given to you by history, sets it up almost exquisitely. But it doesn’t deliver what you think it’s going to deliver, it delivers the opposite, the heroic underdog who starts to fray at the edges, starts to cheat, starts to unravel, goes mad and kills himself.
What was it about the story and the project that attracted you to it, that you’d like to tell this story in your own way?
There are other versions of this story. Deep Water was a very good documentary. There was also a really informative BBC documentary being made before Crowhurst left Teignmouth and carried on after the true story came out, and that had a really strong archive in it.
I think it’s a mythical story essentially, certainly in the United Kingdom. It’s a seafaring nation that wallows in its nostalgia so much and at the time, Crowhurst is part of this nostalgia for empire in a way. The Americans are going to the Moon and the British are doing their plucky, seafaring, solo navigation. At the time, there’s an awareness of something that’s very simple about the courage of a man going out on his own in a boat, and that speaks to a national mythology as well. Interestingly, as we were making the film and finishing the film, the referendum in the United Kingdom had taken place which has rejected the European Union, rejected the modern world if you like, now that we’re going to cut it off from the continent. So for each generation, this story seems to resonate in a slightly different way.
You can consider the Press and how they egged Crowhurst on, only to then condemn him. But in this present, British crisis, this story is a very interesting analogy, if you want to see it that way, with the story of a man who gives up all his certainties for a folly which he is unprepared to see through in a psychological and basic, material sense. I would offer the idea that maybe this is where we are going as a nation by doing something so foolhardy as Brexit, for reasons I don’t particularly understand or that no one is able to define for us. That appears to me to be a very interesting parallel to the Crowhurst story, perhaps by coincidence, but I personally see a comparison between the national journey that we appear to be on and Crowhurst’s [laughs] very unsuccessful, deluded journey ending in self-destruction.
What was your thinking behind casting Colin Firth? Was he your first choice?
Colin was actually attached to the project before I was, he attached himself to it very early on. I think he had a connection to this character and saw a bit of himself in the character, as did I. So when I read the script and learned that he was already involved, I was delighted, I thought he was the best choice. As you say, he has this star persona, he’s this slightly repressed middle-class or upper-class Englishman, and that sort of baggage that actors acquire over their careers, that was really helpful for us. It helps with the subversive quality of the story. Colin has this warm, forgiving English persona, much like Crowhurst himself. So Colin was the perfect actor for this and he threw himself into it and he was really quite obsessed with it, as was I.
We shared that obsession. I mean, you can talk and talk and talk, and we did. So what he had to do was something rather difficult. To start off a journey where he’s a normal, slightly deluded, optimistic, cheerful, rather ingenious man as Crowhurst was.
To take that character and the pressures he found himself under, turning into a cheat, deceiving people, even his own family. He ends with the burden of that and the burden of isolation, losing his mind and presumably committing some act of self-destruction at the end of it. We don’t show that in the film in any definitive way but that’s clearly what you’re meant to believe by the evidence he leaves behind on the boat. His last words are ‘the mercy’, which suggests some kind of release is available to him finally. But Colin was a fantastic choice for this, he chose himself for the role and I was delighted to hear of it.
There was an intriguing presence of clocks within the film. What was your thought on the use of clocks in general? It seemed like a motif running throughout the film.
Well here’s the thing, one of the things you realise when you get into the nitty gritty details of the story, is that on the boat, the clock was missing. Everything else on the ship was discovered as it was, except that the clock was gone. You can of course speculate on what that means and I did, and it means one of two things as far as I could tell.
Firstly, the clock had a significance to him as a symbolic timepiece and there’s evidence in the diary and the logbook to suggest that he’d become obsessed with time and the universe, in an interesting and particularly bonkers kind of way. So there’s a poetic version of this, where the clock goes with him on whatever journey he’s on, even as he jumps into the sea at the end of the film.
Secondly, perhaps closer to the truth of it, is that he uses it as a weight in order to take himself under the water i.e. it’s an accessory to his suicide. Or perhaps he tossed it over the side for reasons we’ll never know. But once you realise that that clock is missing, you can’t help but invest it with some significance so we did. You see it very early in the film, he highlights its installation into the cabin, he also bangs his head on it at one point. It’s always there, hiding in plain sight, and at the end it takes on a whole new significance. But we wanted to leave that metaphor or symbol open for your interpretation. My feeling, if I were making a documentary, would be that he was using it as a weight to keep him under the water, as a sort of prosaic, rather ghoulish interpretation of what the clock’s function was at the end of his time on the boat.
Jóhan Jóhansson produced some wonderful scores throughout his career, particularly with your films. What was your experience working with him? How much input did he have in the creative process?
Well we worked together on The Theory of Everything, in fact we worked together before that on a documentary I was involved with, in the editing. We met quite a long time ago, we’ve been friends and collaborators for five years now.
Firstly, with The Theory of Everything, which was a score that needed to be quite radical than you’d find in a traditional Hollywood biopic. Jóhan’s not primarily a film scorer, he’s a breathlessly creative musician and composer who just happened to do film scores.
The Mercy was a more interesting proposition for us both in a way. It was a story that appealed to him in the same way that it appealed to me, and we started to discuss that collaboration quite early on. When we started the film, he’d already written three pieces. So it was a rich collaboration, and my brief with Jóhan was always to interpret the film, to own the film yourself, that’s why you work with a composer of that brilliance. You want them to express themselves, explore the film and read it in their own way. Our collaborations were built on the principle of freedom. Of course there were guidelines as with any film, but our collaboration was a very open one. He was a dear friend of mine and the news of ten days ago was horrible and shocking. But he’s left behind an amazing body of work. Our work together was always a pleasure. While there can be friction when two creative people work together, with Jóhan, he was a very kind human being so it was always an enormous pleasure to work with him.
Finally, what can we look forward to from you in the future?
Well I’m just finishing up a film I made in London, last summer. It’s based on a true story of a heist that took place on a security vault in London, a few years ago. It’s a notorious story because the initial suspects were a team of crass, Eastern European jewel thieves who were going around the world robbing stores in Dubai and Milan. But it turned out that the actual perpetrators were a group of geriatric London villains who were in their sixties, seventies and eighties. They did this last great vault robbery. It presents itself as a comedy, a ridiculous story really. But it enabled me to assemble a cast of Britain’s great actors, Michael Gambon, Ray Winstone, Jim Broadbent and Tom Courtenay, all legendary British actors. It was enormous privilege to work with them, and I’m excited for it come out.
The Mercy is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the 4th June.