Shane Meadows has made 4 features. He has directed over 70 short films. On the 21st August 2004 Joe Field was lucky enough to attend the Shane Meadows Short Film Event at the 58th Edinburgh Film Festival. Best of all, Joe managed to get a half-hour slot face-to-face with the self-taught British maverick:
The Short Film Event at the UGC Cinema included screenings of 4 shorts and a “cosy chat” with general advice for filmmakers, explanations of the creative process and audience questions. Also included here is the full, uncut transcription (word-for-word) of my interview with Shane, who was in Edinburgh to premier his hard-hitting, low-budget revenge-thriller, Dead Man’s Shoes (2004). The film generated a buzz at the Film Festival, and it’s a powerful return to Meadows’ do-it-yourself, guerrilla approach to filmmaking. I have also thrown in a review of the film, not to mention a short article on A Room For Romeo Brass (1999).
Both pieces, as well as a truncated version of the interview, appeared in various issues of Sheffield-based magazine Exposed, who I must thank for their assistance in blagging the whole gig. Obviously a big thank you goes to Shane Meadows for taking time out from his hectic schedule to speak to me, being so generous with his answers and, of course, for making thought-provoking, unique films - his enthusiasm and determination to show the truth is an inspiration.
Shane Meadows Short Film Event - Edinburgh UGC 21/08/04:
The announcement that lead actor Paddy Considine would not be present (he was mountain-biking with Russell Crowe) was met with general disappointment from the audience (except for the Spanish couple next to me, who chattered in Spanish all the way throughout the event anyway, the philistines - why were they even there?!).
After recovering from the shock of this news we were swiftly treated to
uninterrupted screenings of 4 short films, all shot by Shane and starring Paddy.
We were told that the films played a large part in the development of Meadows’
fourth feature, Dead Man’s Shoes, and that short films were like
a sketch book for him. The growth of themes and characters from the shorts
was apparently an evolutionary process beginning with Shane and Paddy going
to a location with
a bag of wigs, a bag of tracksuits, and an army bag full
of all sorts and an idea, and improvising.
The first one to be shown was Gary Wilkinson, a light-hearted portrayal of a pathetic 26-year-old paperboy - inspired by a kid who had pestered them while they were shooting another short. Paddy improvises the comedy and makes the character believable and real, maintaining a downbeat and tragic portrayal of an outsider. The short has a documentary feel and some stylistic touches which seem to have influenced the direction in which Meadows eventually took Dead Man’s Shoes.
The next film to be screened was Willy Gumbo, in which Considine plays the title role with insane relish - sporting a ridiculous mullet wig, bad teeth and Elvis shades. He speaks with a Deep South hick drawl, and tells of how he returned home one day to find his sister in a “3-on-1 situation”, and that he responded by fetching his father’s axe… Another comic performance by Paddy, but this time the comedy is side-by-side with much darker subject matter - Willy describes (enthusiastically and in vivid detail) murdering the 3 men he found with his sister, and tells of his ordeal in the State Penitentiary.
He also describes his relationship with a pig, who, one day,
got up out
of her seat, stood on her back feet and walked over to me… and I swear
she was gonna speak to me - but the pig suddenly drops dead of a heart
Events take a more sinister and bizarre turn when Willy kidnaps a young hitchhiker and dresses him up as Vincent Van Gogh, keeping him captive in a room. The “pig-at-the-window” sequence is the films most surreal and powerful moment, where Willy, wearing a plastic pig snout, masturbates while peering through the window at his Van Gogh-costumed hostage. It’s possible that Shane and Paddy were making a comment about film as art and how the audience “use” it, or perhaps they were ridiculing the whole concept of film analysis.
Meadows is a big fan of Scorcese, who coincidentally played Vincent Van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Akira Kurosawa 1990) - it’s only a vague possibility that this is what Paddy and Shane were referring to but it surely leaves the bored film buff plenty of cud to chew! Apparently we were shown the “clean” version of Willy Gumbo: there is an uncut Willy Gumbo with an extended “pig-at-the-window” sequence. According to Shane, Paddy also came up with a sequence where Willy forces “Van Gogh” to hold a succession of over 60 phallic objects over his groin, but this scene was also cut for the Film Festival audience. This playful, open approach to developing ideas seems to be the basis of Shane and Paddy’s creative process, and it’s easy to see how Dead Man’s Shoes ended up being such a dark and twisted journey of a film.
Third up was The Man With No Name, about a loner (played by Paddy, while Shane speaks from behind the camera as a documentary maker) who has supposedly lived in the woods for 3 years, after breaking up with his girlfriend. Themes of isolation and returning to nature are played off against the ridiculousness of the main character, who is ultimately revealed as a fake.
This short is beautifully improvised - Paddy even involves elderly members of the general public who are out walking. It is possible to imagine this short being something like Shane and Paddy’s original concept for Dead Man’s Shoes, and the way the woodland is shot is certainly reminiscent of some of the films Meadows cites as inspiring his latest feature (First Blood, Deliverance, etc.).
The last film to be screened was a serious portrayal of a down-on-his-luck boxer,
and was titled Three Tears For Jimmy Prophet. Paddy plays the role
of the disgraced boxer determined to prove himself as a father with real feeling,
and the tragic story has a powerful message. This was originally to be the basis
of Once Upon A Time In The Midlands, but intervention by Film Four
changed the film into something entirely different. Paddy pulled out of production
as soon as he realised it wouldn’t be his and Shane’s original concept, and says
spent 18 months making a pile of shit.
Shane says he doesn’t hate the film, but he has learnt a lot from the project (he explains further in the interview). This short had a much more serious tone and style than the previous three, and seemed to have the most developed idea for story. Jimmy tells his tale to camera: he has accidentally killed a man with one punch during a street fight, and has lost his wife and children as a result. Improvisation was obviously integral to the creation of this short, but I got the impression that Meadows and Considine had a clear vision of Jimmy Prophet - and that the story of the tragic boxer had the most “legs” out of all the shorts.
As soon as the shorts had been screened, Shane said a few words of advice for directors who are starting out. He mentioned the film club he set up to screen his first shorts - it went from a capacity of 30 people to, eventually, 300. The help-yourself approach has defined Shane’s career, and it is this attitude that drives him to make such unique and challenging films.
On funding, his advice is
forget about it - he argues that if an idea
is strong enough, get the film made on “no-budget”. Companies are often reluctant
to gamble on independent films, but, as was the case with Meadows’
Smalltime (1996), will pretend they were involved if success comes.
The essence of Shane’s message was based on the ethic of “just do it”, and he
advises young filmmakers to use his “cottage industry” approach of using friends
in any way possible (e.g. his prolific use of his mates band Sunhouse
to supply music for his films).
Unfortunately, many of the open-floor questions from film students, etc. revolved
how do I get funding for my film? and as such required Shane
to regurgitate what he had previously said. He revealed a few interesting facts
before leaving, including the tale of how he and Paddy met on a drama class at
college. Paddy, apparently a natural performer, would have everyone enthralled—
including the dinner ladies—by his impromptu performances in the dining room,
but dropped out of the class when
they dressed him up in a black leotard
and told him to run around the room being an engine.
It wasn’t until some years later that Shane approached Paddy to play the part
of Morrel in A Room For Romeo Brass (1999) - a character played
to such effect that, according to Shane
everyone thought it was just some
bloke we found in a field, they didn’t think he was really acting. Meadows
finished by revealing his next project, Mary - based on a true account of his
uncle saving a prostitute from a beating. He also told us of his life-long
project, King of the Gypsies (about a bare-knuckle boxer), which
he cannot make until he has box-office success, and consequently, some real
Meadows displayed incredible patience, bravery and generosity by allowing so many audience questions, and it is a real credit to the man that he is willing to offer in-depth, practical advice to aspiring filmmakers. Not being aspiring filmmakers, myself (un-objective journalist and cynical film snob) and my friend (blagging the role of photographer as an excuse to meet Shane) decided to keep quiet during the open floor, especially as we had half an hour alone with Shane booked later that afternoon.
The shorts gave a fascinating insight into the development of key ideas and themes not just present in Dead Man’s Shoes, but also running through all of Shane Meadows’ serious work. Atonement for sins, becoming a warrior, social inadequacy, isolation, and succumbing to the dark, violent spark lurking deep within us all - these are apparent in all of Meadows best work, and are most vivid and literal in Dead Man’s Shoes. From Bob Hoskins laying into Bruce Jones at the end of TwentyFourSeven (1997) to Paddy Considine with a hammer at the end of A Room For Romeo Brass, Meadows has looked at the reality of human potential for violence, portraying such acts as desperate and misguided, never “cool”. Now, with Dead Man’s Shoes, Meadows has refined these themes and made his most accomplished work so far. In my opinion, contemporary British cinema has got something to shout about.
A Room For Romeo Brass (Shane Meadows 1999)
This article appeared in the Sepember 2004 issue of Exposed.
With self-taught British director Meadows’ fourth—and darkest yet—feature Dead Man’s Shoes just around the corner, now is the perfect time to take a look at Meadows’ second “proper” film A Room For Romeo Brass. This is much grittier than TwentyFourSeven, funnier than Once Upon A Time In The Midlands and is a hotbed of memorable one-liners. The film looks at dysfunctional family life and the fickle nature of friendship, but is also an intense character study of an obsessive personality.
When pikey nutcase Morrel (Paddy Considine) befriends a pair of schoolboys in order to get close to Romeo’s sister, his inability to handle rejection results in sporadic eruptions of violence. Forget the low budget; Meadows squeezes heart-felt performances from a load of unknowns—first-timer Paddy Considine should have got a BAFTA for his “butter-on-me-shoes” dance routine alone—and allows the story to cleverly unfold to an explosive conclusion. If, like us, you laugh at people in shellsuits and visors, and also enjoy a blinding bit of storytelling, you will surely appreciate this slice of small-town life. The characters and the world they inhabit are so close to reality it’s scary, and the transformation of Morrel from clownish loser to seething monster is carried out perfectly (reminiscent even of Taxi Driver).
Featuring tongue-in-cheek cameos from Bob Hoskins and Mr. Meadows himself, the film is peppered with light-hearted touches and genuinely funny moments. A Room For Romeo Brass is not a comedy, however; it feels like a small-town fairytale: a story of friendship, betrayal, lust and tragic loneliness. If you like the idea of British cinema, but can’t stand Hugh (fucking) Grant, then trust us on this: you need to see this film.
Dead Man’s Shoes (Shane Meadows 2004)
This review appeared in the October 2004 issue of Exposed.
Meadows returns to his low-budget roots with this sometimes comic, occasionally brutal, but consistently thought-provoking revenge thriller. Beautifully shot on location in Matlock, the films strengths are the documentary-style photography, believable acting and hard-hitting storyline. Without interference from production companies, Meadows has created a brutally honest film dealing with the harsh realities of small-town life.
Paddy Considine is on truly fine form as Richard, an ex-soldier returning to town to punish the small-time hoodlums who wronged his vulnerable brother. Attention to composition and natural lighting, along with the natural beauty of the British countryside, gives the film a real depth and style.
Dead Man’s Shoes is full of smart little film references, has a very original approach and is at times dramatic, tense, even harrowing. The light-hearted clowning of the thugs in the first half of the film is very funny, but this is no comedy: Richard has waited 10 years to get his revenge, a dish best served cold - you don’t get much colder than this. The sporadic violence and torture won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and this is no mainstream effort, like Meadows last film, but it is an instant “underground” British classic and deserves repeat viewing. A bitter pill to swallow, but one whose effects can be felt for days after.
Shane Meadows interviewed by Joe Field, Edinburgh, 21st August 2004
Dead Man’s Shoes is a very dark film and, apart from some comic episodes, has serious subject matter. After the mainstream production of Once Upon a Time in the Midlands does this signify Shane Meadows taking control of his art?
Just a bit, yeah. We made a conscious decision to go for a much lower budget, so we could piss off for 4 weeks and make what we wanted to make. The experience of working with famous actors is alright, but I think when you haven’t got complete creative control over what you’re doing… in my work, it was leading to problems. We’ve definitely taken a completely different step. Basically I want to make films for myself, not for other people who want it to be commercially successful, so the idea for Dead Man’s Shoes was to really go for the jugular, like.
You’ve said before that you don’t want to make the same film over and over again. Dead Man’s Shoes is a real change of atmosphere and style.
Yeah stylistically there’s much more of a genre, of a revenge thriller in there, or like an old Western where a guy returns to town. This is what we initially set out to do with Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and it never ended up happening. With Dead Man’s Shoes we made a complete reversal.
You co-wrote the film with Paddy Considine, how was that different to writing with Paul Fraser?
The big difference was that me and Paul sat and typed out all the lines and, when I worked with Paddy we’d like improvise the scenes. We’d sort of be in a room together and act the scenes out, record them on tape and then write them down from the improvisation, so it was actually pretty different in terms of the whole writing process.
The short films you screened this afternoon played a big part in the conception of Dead Man’s Shoes?
That’s right; we used the short films as a starting point - you know, you might do four or five different characters and one jumps out at you and that’s the one you take forward and let it blossom into something bigger.
The film’s style has a slightly dreamlike quality, is this tied in with the story structure - especially the film’s ultimate twist?
Yeah, as well as the story moving through the present day, you’ve also got this pivotal incident from the past - and the nature of the black and white, handheld technique gives these sequences a documentary feel. We wanted this footage to look low budget, so it feels a bit more like that sort of Texas Chainsaw Massacre thing; a bit more rough and ready.
And similarly to that film most—but not all—of the violence happens off-screen.
Yeah, there’s very little you see - a lot of it’s unseen, but the real big one is the acid sequence where you get three killings, that’s the only really brutal part of the film but that was enough to get an 18 certificate. I’ve had much more violence in other films but I think it’s because of the nature of the drugs that they wouldn’t give it any lower than that. It is a pretty twisted scene - the bits you see.
The characterisation of the hoodlums is quite layered, ranging from comic to sadistic, but Paddy’s character is almost faceless.
We wanted him to feel at the beginning a bit robotic, like a sort of Terminator with a mission - and you really get very little about him. Because the impact of him returning to town is all about their reactions to it, and they’re running around like fuckin’ headless chickens and he just literally sits at the farm.
When they see him in the street it’s only because he wants to be seen - and he’s got that mythical quality, so in a lot of instances we left some of his scenes out like him ransacking the flat, because it makes them think of him as this fucking ninja figure.
Didn’t the script start out as a comedy based on a social-worker ninja?
Yeah! It was based on a true event - in Winsall, where I come from in Burton and there was this guy when Paddy was about 11 or 12. One night this bloke went down the park, where there was a load of kids sniffing glue, and he went down with a fuckin’ cricket bat or something and just set about ’em… knocked the shit out of these kids and he was wearing a ninja outfit.
Then three weeks later someone was burgling a house and this ninja turned up again and started like, scrapping with him and then it started to get into the local papers a lot. So me and Paddy thought it might be quite funny to look into that but it was too much of a slapstick, we wanted to really go down that dark path. But that’s how it started out, it was based on this character that Paddy had read about in the newspapers when he was a kid.
You’ve been quoted as saying that story is more important than camera movement and technique, but in this film there’s a lot of attention to composition, colour and overall style.
The big thing with this film was that because of the budget we didn’t have equipment: the only piece of camera equipment we had was a tripod and normally you’d have a track, a big dolly to fuckin’ send on it, maybe a little mini-crane and all these things you’d have in the truck. Because on this one all we had was a tripod, all you had was either hand-held or static, and so we knew that the photography in the film was gonna be the thing that allowed it to look beautiful - it wasn’t gonna be tricks of camera movements and stuff. So we spent a fair bit of time on composition and so on, and I think it’s helped the film by having those restrictions - the film’s worked out better for it, I think.
You’re a big Scorcese fan and it shines through in this film, is it a bit of an homage?
There’s a definite influence; the films we probably took most inspiration from for this one were Taxi Driver, Straw Dogs, Deliverance, Halloween - you know, that sort of fuckin’ masked man, Death Wish and First Blood.
We sort of looked at those, but obviously story and content-wise it’s nothing like Taxi Driver but in terms of that Travis Bickle mentality of someone that’s fuckin’ isolated in their own head almost. We probably did take some inspiration from that; I wouldn’t call it a homage as such, but I did doff my hat to Scorcese.
Vengeance and atonement are key themes in your films, very much so in Dead Man’s Shoes. Is this something you feel strongly about?
Yeah I lost a friend when I was 19; a kid I’d grown up with and he’d committed
suicide as a result of being a schizophrenic. It wasn’t so much just the illness
that fucking drove him to his death - it was the crowd of people that we were a
round at the time preying on him, fuckin’ giving him more acid. You know, they
think it’s hilarious to give somebody that’s got a mental illness hallucinogenic
ha ha, let’s pretend we’re gonna murder him and all that kind of
And then a few years after that his box was so badly done in that he hung himself.
I was one of the lucky kids in that me old man was quite a hard man so I didn’t
get the same level of brutality inflicted on meself. There was other kids in our
younger group, you’d have five or six guys and they’d fuck about with them and every
now again it’d get a bit serious - like fuckin’ blokes all taking their trousers
Come on, fuckin’ suck me dick. They would never let ’em do
it, but they’d push ’em to a point when they were going to and then pretend that
it was all a joke.
But you were in there thinking
Man, there’s something just a bit gay going
on there, but because there was five or six of ’em they all pretend that
it ain’t gay and it’s all macho - and it’s shit like that that’s actually damaged
people. You think to yourself
these cunts are wanderin’ about now, we’re
all gettin’ in our thirties and got little kids and they’ve not paid for any of it.
It can happen - it’s the idea that there’s this lad who they think of as this
handicapped kid, and his brother’s gone in the army, so out of sight, out of
mind. He leaves it nearly ten years and then he comes back and it’s like:
You’ve forgotten about this thing haven’t you, but I fuckin’ haven’t.
We wanted this guy that’s almost like an avenging angel, if you like, to come
back, and although he’s doing it for his brother, from me and Paddy’s point of
view it’s almost like the people we knew from our lives - it’s us whacking them,
So it’s partly based on experience but it’s also got an element of fantasy - dark, brooding, violent fantasy.
Yeah, the ones that we all have that you hold in the back of your mind. It’s one thing saying that you’d go and smash someone’s head in if they took your kids bike, that’s a bit fuckin’ ridiculous, but if they took your child or your wife or your brother… I mean imagine losing your brother or sister and the people who did it going free - I’d be the first one there with a hatchet, you know, you couldn’t live with it. And I think it’s that place in our minds that we’ve all got but very few people admit it’s there.
Did you ever feel that you were indulging in this dark part of yourself?
Yeah, it’s quite cathartic really because you’ve got all these pent-up feelings that every now and again you examine or you look at - me and Paddy were talking about it and we still feel rage for things that went on ten years ago. It’s nice to find a way, an avenue where you can express it, get it out.
Like I say, it’s these unpaid crimes that I can’t cope with - it’s one thing someone getting done for burglary and going through the justice system but how do you get people done for someone that’s hung themselves? How can you quantify what their involvement was? So they’re all just walking around and they don’t feel guilty because they think he’s just got a weak mind, so it’s his fuckin’ fault - whereas in the film someone actually comes up and says “No, it was you.”
Your films usually have strong female characters, Dead Man’s Shoes is an almost exclusively male world.
Yeah and the girl who is in it is just abused by this crowd. As bad as it is, there was always a girl like that when you were hanging around with lads: she seemed to go out with everyone in the gang - and one of them’s going out with her but he doesn’t mind if she goes upstairs and has sex with someone else. That’s the sadness with them people, there was never any respect for women - I was brought up in a very male-dominated environment where it was all about masculinity and girls were just brought in to have sex… there was no fuckin’ respect there.
What drives you to be a filmmaker?
Well one thing, especially with this film, was that I didn’t want that sort of stuff floating ’round in me head anymore. I remember Paul Schrader talking about Taxi Driver, when he wrote that - if he hadn’t have done it, he doesn’t know if he wouldn’t have just blown his brains out. That idea of sitting there with the script and the gun by the side!
I didn’t want to get into that sort of thing, and it wasn’t like it was eating me up consistently, but the thing is when you find a way of expressing yourself - that’s the best way of letting people realise that’s the way you’re feeling or thinking, then once you find that you’re never gonna turn away from it. Being a kid from a little working-class town, did very badly at school, being told I was as thick as pigshit - all of a sudden you find something that you can do and that intelligently puts your point across. That drives you within itself.
You draw inspiration for your films from the world directly around you; do you still find characters and stories where you live in the Midlands?
Uttoxeter, where I’m from, I’m probably about one percent through that lot. It’s quite incredible, for such a little place it breeds all sorts - there’s still 100 people that I’ve not even touched on. One of the films I’m writing next is a film called Mary, which is a true story based on my uncle who’s an ex-heroin addict. It’s about this girl who he saved from a good hiding in the street, because she was a prostitute and her pimp was beatin’ fuck out of her and me uncle basically stepped in, knocked this guy out.
But with him doing that and stepping in, she’d suddenly got nowhere to live, so he’d involved himself and he got stuck with her. So I’m writing that, and that’s based on my Dad’s brother so I’m still looking very close to home.
Sam Peckinpah believed a film was created in three stages: scripting, shooting and editing. How do they balance out for you?
They all have to be there, but at the end of the day it’s all about the shoot - for me it’s the one thing, if you get things wrong there… you know, it’s a limited amount of time. The sort of films I make are on location, so if it fuckin’ rains, you’re there in it - it’s not like you’ve got a big studio in Ealing. For me, all of the script development and short films in the world… if you get on set and things aren’t right then you’re in the shit.
The way I get there is I put a lot more preference on the actual workshop with actors, and make them feel comfortable before we get to the location. Obviously you can’t make a film without them bits and pieces but I think that the shoot’s always the one where the magic takes place - then you can throw it around as much as you want.
Paul Schrader says that studios are always looking for the new Pulp Fiction, but they probably turned it down in the first place, so are unlikely to recognise the next big thing. This leaves the writers stuck in a rut. Is the situation similar in Britain?
Abso-fuckin’-lutely, because the new big thing isn’t gonna be Pulp Fiction.
It could be, who knows, a kung-fu movie or even Dead Man’s Shoes -
something the kids pick. With Pulp Fiction, the kids chose it -
we were at college and we went:
We’re fuckin’ going to watch this baby at
ten past twelve every Saturday, we’re gonna watch it five times. And they
can’t account for that - I suffered at the hands of that, in the beginning,
but basically people are just like:
If you don’t do a script and you don’t
do this, that and the other, we’re not gonna give you the money to make anything.
And then you make your film, and they suddenly pretend that they were gonna
support you anyway, so it’s pretty similar I think.
After your unhappy experience with the executives on Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, how’s your current relationship with the powers that be?
The executives that I worked with on this film were incredible because they actually did some work, whereas a lot of executives only come out of the woodwork when things aren’t going so well. On this film, one of the executives is the guy that runs Warp Records; no-one now gets a credit on my films unless they’ve done a job, so it’s not just “the money people”.
Although it was a bit like that on Once Upon a Time in the Midlands: I was told, two days before I started shooting it, that if I didn’t take ten pages out of the script that I wasn’t gonna be able to make it - because of an insurance company. How fuckin’ ridiculous? And you had no choice, it was either all them people you’ve hired, all the actors are gonna get no wages or you take ten pages out of the script. It was a mistake really, but we put up with it.
Critical success doesn’t seem to guarantee success at the box-office, are British audiences too Americanised, in that they need a big name star and a glossy finish?
It seems to be that way a bit - I can’t think of any British films of the sort of ilk of the stuff I’m making that’s actually made any money yet. Your Billy Elliotts sometimes break out but they seem to be catering for the American styles.
You’re an advocate of guerrilla-style filmmaking and the do-it-yourself ethic. Do you think this is how British cinema needs to evolve to survive?
It’s a good way for people to get started, definitely, but not all projects need to be shot in that fashion. The sort of films that I’m gonna start making now, some of these harder-hitting stories, if you can do it with a small crew, with minimal lighting it means you’re getting a lot more on screen - you’re not wasting money on shit equipment that’s sat in a van somewhere.
How do you get such great performances from non-actors, notably ex-boxer Gary Stretch in Dead Man’s Shoes?
I have rehearsals and stuff before I actually choose people for parts and it
tends to be a chemistry thing that when you put people in a room together,
choosing the right combinations of people - people that learn to trust each
other. I work quite hard on set with them, and I give them a lot of freedom -
I don’t say to them:
You’ve got to say this, this and this and you’ve gotta
land there when you say it. I say:
This is the room, this is the scene.
Go do it. So they don’t have to stick to scripts and I think it gives them
a chance to give a better performance.
Would you work with Hugh Grant if he agreed to wear a shellsuit?
Oh yeah man, definitely! Just so I could set fire to him.