James Marsh Embraces a Documentary Aesthetic and Classic Gangsters with 'King of Thieves'

We chat with the director of ‘King of Thieves’ about shedding Hollywood glamor to honor ravenous real-life criminal behavior.

King Of Thieves
Saban Films

Everyone loves a good caper. The heist film is one of cinema’s grandest traditions, and every creator wants their crack at one eventually. However, following in the footsteps of films like The Killing, Rififi, and The Sting could cause some to doubt their effort in the first place. To penetrate through that hesitation, James Marsh chased one of the most bizarre robberies in England’s history.

Whether through his documentaries, including Oscar-winner Man on Wire, or his Best Picture-nominated biopic The Theory of Everything, the director has always found a richer canvas in reality over the typical theatrical contrivances. King of Thieves may have an all-star British cast that Matthew Vaughan or Paul McGuigan would kill to acquire, but Marsh has a Joe Penhall screenplay that subverts expectation that only a “Based on True Story” could achieve. Michael Caine is your ultimate gentleman criminal, but the man he inhabits is ultimately stripped to his painfully, pitiful human self.

I spoke to Marsh over the phone a week before the film’s release. We discussed the delights that a true account lends to a narrative. He obviously feels at home with real-life stories, and mixing such movie royalty into the narrative allows him to subvert genre expectations.

Marsh has worked with numerous talents, including Charlie Cox, who returns to his side here, but the director still can’t play it cool when it comes to championing the brilliance of Caine, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, and Ray Winstone. He knows how lucky he is to throw in with these artists, and he lets the movie play with their personas before locking into the factual absurdity.

Here is our conversation in full:

What was it about King of Thieves that appealed to you?

It was a true story that happened actually a few years back, which felt like it had the classic brilliance of a heist film. It’s based on a real robbery that took place in a security vault over a long holiday weekend in London. I thought there was a great movie in this story. Of course, the other dimension to it was that all the characters were sort of old, and curmudgeonly, and past it. They get together for one last sort of hurrah as robbers.

So, given my background of documentaries and factual films, and often times, features that are based on true stories, this felt like a very interesting proposition. Working Title approached me early on and said, “Is this interesting to you?” I said, “It is.” The next thing I said was, “It looked like a comedy to me.” They agreed. Then before we got the script, I sat down with Michael Caine, who sort of made it known that this was quite a good story for him at his age. Michael had always expressed this indirect interest in the story. We had lunches, and he agreed to do the film, was happy to read the script. So that all got it going pretty quickly.

The film is set up as this tribute to gangster movies, but then as it progresses, the film takes a dark turn. The reality — the true story — goes where a screenwriter might not have taken the story.

It has what is essentially an awkward tone shift. It’s a shift based on real life. The genre is propagated on a simple principle, a simple structure. It’s planning, execution, the aftermath. Almost always in the aftermath, it explores the falling out amongst the crooks. This true story had exactly that. Joe Penhall, the writer, and I had access to transcripts of the secret recordings the police made of the real characters after the heist. It wasn’t much detective work in the film, it was pretty clear that they had no idea about security cameras, they weren’t living in the 21st century in the way that you and I do. So the police were onto them pretty quickly and were able to bug their cars.

What you heard were these curmudgeonly, backstabbing conversations. There is one classic episode in a car, it’s the truth, we have a transcript where three of them are in the car, and they’re bitching about the fourth one who isn’t there. One gets out of the car, and there are two left. They start bitching about him. So we just followed the true story. The true story took that darker turn. Of course, that’s also part of the genre. Gangster films turn into stories of double-crossing.

There is a ton at stake. Much of what I like about the genre is that it requires a group of men, usually — hopefully, more women will do this as it increases. They get together, and they have to be a team together. They have to cooperate and trust each other going into something. Then they have to execute something together, which is really quite difficult. Then that’s about cooperation and trust.

Afterward, they’ve got all this loot, you know? That doesn’t bring out the best in anybody, especially if you’re a criminal. That’s what you’re after. So it’s a very natural thing to do. But it is a tonal shift, and perhaps for some people, it’s friendly. I think with a true story, and within the tonal shift, there is, I think, quite a lot of humor in the backstabbing. It’s very human and very petty, and no one comes out of it terribly well.

But then you incorporate all this old footage of the actors from their earlier work.

Well, that actually came quite late on. It was just because you realize each of these actors has enormous amounts of screen mythology. They all were young once, and vigorous, and were spectacularly handsome. So there is something about that that is quite poignant to kind of highlight. These old actors who probably won’t have that many more films after this. This is a sort of late work for each one of them, because of their age.

So, it felt like an opportunity to remind people of the passing of time, and indeed, their sort of screen mythology. So just a postmodern, I guess, twist on what is a true story, heist film. Some people like that. It just felt poignant. There is Tom Courtney as a handsome, beautiful young man. You see Michael Caine looking so strong and vigorous. There is something bittersweet about it, as they’re all a bit creaky and old now.

How do you even go about directing those guys?

You’ve just got these character actors with enormous experience, enormous talent. Of course, as a younger director — I’m not that young, but I’m younger than them — the first scene I was shooting was a moment that happens at the very end, where they’re in the changing room, taking off their prison jumpsuits and putting on suits. They all had to strip down to their underwear and their Long Johns and expose themselves, expose their sort of damaged flesh. I did that one for a reason, I wanted to get that right. If we can make that work, that first all-together, and everyone is in their underwear, that will be a good sort of bonding experience. We rehearsed a bit before we shot the film.

There I am dragging these actors to this cold, miserable, sort of place. They all take their clothes off, and they have to be funny about it. We embraced the challenge of that. That went extremely well, actually. They responded to it, and the actors sparked off of each other very nicely. They weren’t daunting.

That removes a lot of stress.

I’m not that experienced making films with actors. I’ve done a few, of course. But not that many, and not just all men, of course. They’re all male. You haven’t got any kind of feminine presence there to offset the masculinity at all. So it was pretty daunting.

Obviously, they’re all experienced and they were all very kind to me, and I think I was very kind to them in return. I knew that they needed a bit more time. Not always working relentlessly for 12 hours a day. So it was a dutiable experience, in the end, as a filmmaker, as a person. I got to spend 10 weeks working with actors that I had grown up with, all of whom who got on very well with each other. That part of it was lovely. They already knew each other already. It was a lovely, harmonious, collaborative set. I think everyone enjoyed doing it. It doesn’t mean the film is going to be good, but it was an enjoyable experience for all. We all said at the end, that was a good one. We enjoyed that one.

Then you have Charlie Cox’s younger influence. His Basil is such a fascinating character, a ghost in the story, or a mystery man.

It’s interesting, his character is one we know nothing about in the true story. All we know is that he had obviously done it, and is quite a bit younger from the rest. You can see, even then, moving quite a bit nimbly. We put this preposterous wig on Charlie, too. But Charlie knew that he could hold his own. I knew he could handle being tossed in with these older actors, and playing a character they torment and he torments back. I knew he could handle that. I knew he would give as good as he would get, you know. He’s a really good actor, Charlie. He’s done it all since we’ve worked together and owned that character.

So the idea with that character was to make him a different class, a different age, the better to have conflict that was deeper than just arguing about money. It was about him being essentially gay, he’s a younger man, he’s got a wig on. We actually embraced that. We had to go with what we found out from the transcripts. They saw Basil as being a “puff,” you know, it’s a not-a-nice word for gay men in England. So we took that as we could and tossed Charlie into this sort of situation. Again, he really enjoyed it.

He is great with Michael. That was an interesting relationship that was kind of paternalistic, or kind of like an apprentice relationship. That’s the emotional heart of the film, if there is one, in a cynical world. It was also always helpful for me to have an ally all ready to work, and that we liked each other as director and actor.

Aesthetically, what were you chasing for King of Thieves?

Well, it was a very simple one. I’ve made features with quite an expressive aesthetic pallet, if I can use such a pompous phrase. For this one, it wouldn’t benefit from being made into something that’s gorgeous and beautiful. It’s not that kind of world. Security vaults of this vintage, it’s not a particularly enduring environment. I set it like a documentary, and we shot with two cameras a lot. That was also driven by the actors and their resources. I tried to capture as much as I could staging it like a documentary, and just kind of shoot it fairly roughly, and very raw. Danny Cohen [director of photography] took that shabby and not very glamorous look. We didn’t glamorize it and make it into something that it wasn’t. But the DNA is not a glamorous world. It’s not a glamorous 21st century London. It’s sort of miserable, fairly patchy world. So that’s what we did.

As a filmmaker, you want to try and do things that are beautiful and seductive. But that would have been wrong, I think, in this case. So that was my approach, let’s shoot it like a documentary and try and catch it in real time, these actors interacting with each other. Not do endless breakdowns, and coverage, and a master shot. All that stuff you do on a more composed film. This is much rougher. It suited the actors. They liked this, they enjoyed it. That freedom, that we’re just going to block it, and shoot it, and just do what you need to do.

But you also embrace cinematic history with that classic film footage. You weren’t worried that would negate the documentary feel?

No, ’cause I think we kept it honest by using the transcripts. We actually observed a true story. The heist that you see in the film, that’s kind of how it happened. That’s how we know it happened.

King of Thieves opens in select theaters and on Digital HD and VOD on January 25th.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.