Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Shane Meadows Interview
Transcript of an interview with Shane Meadows, director of Dead Man’s Shoes,
Edinburgh Film Festival, August 2004
Neil Young : How has it gone down so far in Edinburgh?
Shane Meadows : You don’t want to sound cheesy, but I don’t think it could actually have gone any better since we got here. There was a press screening before there was a public screening, so you land and you get off the plane, and you come in, and you’re starting to get stopped and you’re thinking, oh bollocks – the screening isn’t till tomorrow – but then you realise, the press have seen it. The normal routine when the press have seen something is you get those “averting” eyes and you think, Oh no, they’ve seen it and they don’t like it. They’ll do anything they can – talking to a curtain: “So, then…” But here you’ve had people walking up with their hand out saying “We’ve seen your new piece of work, really like it.” That’s always a good sign.
So it was a good omen when we landed… All the cast came up – to be honest with you, even if had been “only OK”, because there was a red carpet, cameras, etc, I would have been really happy just for the cast to have had that experience. We went down… I don’t believe in going to a World Premiere, going down in a £300,000 suit at the front and then leaving. I’d rather turn up in a pair of chinos and a Marks & Spencer shirt and sit down with everyone and watch it. You spend 18 months making something and that first screening is the first real chance you get to realise if you’ve dropped any massive bollocks. When everyone who’s involved with it has seen it about ten times, and you’re making decisions about turns and twists in the story, it’s not until you actually sit down with an audience that you get any kind of feeling… It’s like a comedian – it’s the strangest thing for a director, you can actually “die” without anyone saying anything, you can die sat down in your chair, there, when you know it’s not working. At the same time you can be higher than you’ve ever been in your life. It was one of those screenings. Obviously it was only one screening. It’s not a guaranteed box office success, it doesn’t guarantee anything. But you do have to take these things a little bit “one day at a time”. That was one of those films where, at the party afterwards, people coming up to you… After three or four films you learn that you have enjoy these when they come. With my last film [Once upon a Time in the Midlands] I didn’t really have that. There was a lot more disappointment coming from people rather than any adulation or understanding of the film.
How would you introduce this one to somebody who’s seen the previous films?
I’d say it’s a big departure in so much as the films I’ve made before have always been about celebrating the working class. I’m not looking down on these people, I’ve lived in that community, I want to celebrate the characters I grew up knowing.
You’re from Uttoxeter, then moved to Nottingham… Sneinton?
Sneinton in Nottingham, yeah, and I live in Burton-on-Trent, now, which is between the two places. And this is probably the first film I’ve made which is about the darker side of that upbringing. That working-class life. This does not glamourise drugs in any shape, size or form. You look at your Trainspottings – no matter what you say about that film or Pulp Fiction, it does somehow look glamorous to be whacking heroin up your arm. It isn’t a total departure – it isn’t like I’ve made a sci-fi. You’ve still got some of that colloquial, working-class vintage humour of a Shane Meadows films. But this time you’ve got a director and the central actor, who also co-wrote the film, looking back and saying, Some of the things in that past weren’t very pretty… There’s certain things in our lives that we wish we could rectify, certain people have gotten away with certain things that we wish we could bring to justice. So you’ve got that feeling that we set out to make something quite different.
And we made it under the radar – all my other films have been made with half-decent budgets. We said on this one, We want less money than we need – we want to have our backs against our wall, driving around in a minibus. People shouldn’t be put off by the low-budget angle because it actually looks as beautiful as anything else I’ve done. What it meant was we had complete autonomy… There are some quite brutal scenes in the film – we wanted to make sure there wasn’t going to be some Executive Producer saying “When we sell this in Japan…” or “When we sell it in Romania… – you’re going to have to change that a bit.” This is the first Shane Meadows film that’s been made under the radar, at a budget level where I go off and completely make a film that isn’t compromised.
What was the budget?
£750,000. And the lowest budget I’d had before was £1.5m for Twentyfourseven. So this is my lowest budget by quite some way.
Next time you’ll maybe go to an even lower budget?
It’s possible – it is possible. Reverting backwards…
Eventually you’ll start paying them and make a masterpiece.
Yeah – I’ll go in with a penny…
… and come out with Citizen Kane. I noticed there’s an odd thing about the poster, the first credit after the actors is Location Manager, Richard Knight. You never see Location Manager on a poster at all, and for him to be the first guy up there, that must be a deliberate thing from you…
You’ve seen the film… it looks like nothing else I’ve ever shot. The moors up on top of the Derbyshire Peaks almost look like American plains. He’s found this little small town within this incredibly beautiful surroundings with a castle with a zoo on top of a hill.
How long did he spend finding the locations? Is he from that area?
He’s actually my brother-in-law, believe it or not. Someone that had been a location manager’s assistant and had shown an incredible flair and a natural genius for the job. Because we didn’t have the money to pay a “pro”, we said to Richard, “Look, you’ve shown such an incredible knack for this – this job is probably much harder than most Location Manager’s jobs, because you’re not just trying to find the right sized houses that we can then dress, you’re trying to find the actual sets within this community. He only had about three or four weeks to do it, so he was out from 4am to 1am in his car, finding these places, striking deals with people. No assistants, he did it all himself.
What’s the radius of the whole shoot?
About five miles around Matlock, end to end. We never went any further than that into the Peaks. It was like a big self-contained “lot”. Matlock and Darley Dale, basically.
Did the film have to be set in this particular part of the world? Is there something about that area?
People are starting to pick up on this as being visibly different from what anything I’ve made before. It was a case of, I’d made my last film in Nottingham, it had all got a bit safe. I said to Richard, “Look, I want you to find somewhere that doesn’t look or feel the same.” Obviously working-class is working-class, and a council estate’s a council estate. But I didn’t want to be in some sprawling metropolis. I want somewhere that reminds me of Uttoxeter which is this self-contained village, almost – people drive through and go “What a beautiful place” and then by night it becomes like House of the Living Dead – all zombies wandering round. Matlock is set in the valley part, then all around it on the tops you see little stately bits with beautiful rock walls and all of that.
There’s that last shot when the camera pulls back into the sky.
Lets you see it.
That shot seems to sum up the film, in some way.
Completely. It’s meant to be, in the most arty form, that’s [the character], that’s his “spirit” – that classic thing where people say “I looked down on myself from the corner of the room.” That’s the basic idea, it does sum up the film…
What about the ‘western’ overtones?
If it’s close to anything it’s that sort of High Plains Drifter thing, ‘the man with no name’ – this guy comes in, nobody really knows who he is. Like Mickey Rourke in Rumble Fish – the Motorcycle Boy. You’ve got this guy who went away and was obviously, like, everyone’s hero, but then when he comes back… he looks the same, but…
You don’t know whether part of this guy who’s returned has been affected by war, or what it is… Why now, why after all these years? And these are questions I don’t want to answer. I love the fact that I don’t know everything about Richard. Paddy created a character that was so real and so complex, I said to him “I don’t want answers for everything.” It like when he kills [another character], and he offers him his life, if he’d not seen that knife would he have walked out and left him… Because you believe him when he’s telling him, but then he sees the knife and fuckin’ stabs him. I love that – there’s an ambiguity, like “whoa”… Is he just telling him this because he wants the information, or does he genuinely want to save this kid, until he sees that he was going to stab him anyway, and I love those ambiguities.
What’s the improvisation process in the scriptwriting?
The script is a blueprint – you’d have a 40-page document, with all the scenes in, a rough breakdown of the story, some bits of dialogue and stuff. You go in on the day, I might say to Toby and Paddy “Today I want to get yours and Richard’s relationship down”. It’s always harking back, their relationship – “Do you remember such-and-such; I went back into town today, it hasn’t changed much has it; Do you remember when you used to come and play football…” Always looking to the past, quite a beautiful relationship, but by the end of the film you see it a little differently…
Paddy Considine – he’s probably the nicest person I’ve ever interviewed. Then in this film, five minutes in, it’s scary Paddy again. Where does that come from?
Not that his dad was a scary person, but Paddy’s father was almost Paddy born 40 years too young. You’ve got a guy that was born in a very rough part of Limerick in Ireland, and had a proper tough upbringing, came to England. And ultimate the nature of that upbringing… Paddy’s dad was an incredible film critic – but he was basically a working-class Irish bricklayer.
You knew the family?
Very well, yeah. So you’ve got this guy that’s probably got a lot of the same potentials as Paddy. Obviously with Paddy you think “Well, where’s that come from?” You just look back to his father – but his dad had had too hard an upbringing to ever think he could have been anything like that. So I think Paddy would be the first to say that there hasn’t been a character he’s played – or played well – that hasn’t had a piece of his dad in there. He takes a lot of inspiration from his father – his dad was larger than life…
The dedication in the film is to Paddy’s dad…
Yeh – Paddy’s dad passed away a few years ago… The story’s very personal from Paddy’s perspective.
It’s a very painful film in a lot of ways. Then on the poster it says “slasher movie” – some critic has called it that. Presumably you wouldn’t call it that.
Of course, what you’re trying to do at the end of the day with a poster is to ensure that it doesn’t badly sell a film – if you said “slasher movie” there’s enough murders and Exterminator type executions to warrant a quote on it. When you put something like that on the poster you’re trying to get as broad a range of people as you can to see it. I don’t think kids who wanted to see a slasher movie would be disappointed – but it obviously isn’t a Freddie Krueger or a Halloween, of course it’s not. The bottom line is that it’s a revenge story at the end of the day – it could be a western, it could be a Deliverance, there’s this “hick” element… I certainly wouldn’t say it was a “slasher” movie, though.
You can’t really categorise it in those terms. What “category” is it?!
Part kitchen-sink drama, part… Terminator, Rambo… a guy that comes back and he’s on a mission, he’s almost got orders in his head. It’s like a soldier, like Apocalypse Now – you go with your orders, but you make the journey – if you were dropped in with a helicopter you’d probably go in and stab him, mission over… But there’s that boat-trip that changes everything, it becomes a difficult mission to carry out. For Richard, he sets off on this mission that he’s been brooding over for so long, he wants to see their faces suffering… but then when actually look back at him, he sees their eyes as they’re being ‘taken’, it isn’t what he thought it would be, and maybe he won’t be able to complete it.
Paddy, after In America, said he wouldn’t go to Hollywood so long as he could make interesting movies… I think this film will be shown around the world, it’s a movement away from where you made movies before, would you go to other places and make films?
Definitely – everything I make now I’m going to keep moving. It’s like the England team going on a roadshow – working in a new landscape for the first time was a big revelation for me… Actually having a fresh landscape charges the ‘photographic eye’ – new input, in’t it, basically. I did three in Nottingham, and by the third one you’ve got nothing new to say about the place. So that is gonna happen – we’re gonna constantly keep moving and reinventing. The next film we might go and find a little port town, something that’s got a new impetus. It’s got to be right for the film – you’re not just going to go and pick somewhere for the sake of it.
We’ve never seen the sea in a Shane Meadows film…
We ‘ave! Romeo Brass! They go to the seaside. I would love to make a coastal film…
You’ve always had three or four projects on the go…
At the moment I’ve got four in development: one called King of the Gypsies about a bare-knuckle fighter.
I spoke to Paddy about that last year – he said it was your Gangs of New York.
(laughs) It certainly is! Raging Bull I’d say, actually. Then there’s a project with a female lead about a young prostitute who’s been used and abused her whole life, this man comes in, steps into her life and tries to save her. It sounds a bit Taxi Driver-ish but obviously the end product won’t appear like that. Then there’s a new film that me and Paddy are looking to do next year which we don’t know what it is yet, the same as with Dead Man’s Shoes, but we know we’re gonna work together again. Then there’s a story set in the 1800s in Eastern Europe which is about a kind of travelling circus, that’s got a lot of magic and fantasy in it. Again Paddy wants to be involved with it – somewhere between Harry Potter and The Elephant Man.
How do you keep them all straight in your mind? Most directors struggle to keep one film on the go…
It’s the nature of the beast nowadays. I’ve got a half-million-pound project, a £2m project, a £8m and a £10m project – if we come here and everything goes abysmally bad you know you’re going to make the half-million picture, if things go amazingly well you might be able to get King of the Gypsies going. So, it’s a simple case of “needs must” and I’ve also got quite a sparky creative approach…
You said the bigger the budget, the more control you’ve got. Isn’t it better then, in a way, to have a film that does alright without becoming Harry Potter successes.
Ultimately it’ll be nice to have some success at some point… it’s not about how much the budget it, it’s about what point can you keep final cut till. So if I made a film now, I could make a film for £10m tomorrow, I could get the money, but I wouldn’t have final cut. Say Dead Man’s Shoes comes out, turns over a lot of money, and a wait, bide my time, it means I’ve got £10m with final cut – which means I’ve got the same amount of control that I’ve got now. It’s all finance, bankability.
Have people interfered with any of your previous films?
With Midlands I had a “joint final cut”, that was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made, I’d never ever do that again.
How can two people have final cut?
It means neither one can do something without the other person’s approval, so you end up at loggerheads. It wasn’t abused, massively, but psychologically ruined it for me. It was like “What are you doin, mate? You might as well make one for a quid, so long as you’ve got final cut.” Everything that I do from this film onwards, it’s always gonna be mine.
Let’s hope so.
Yeh, it will!
transcript by Neil Young,
22nd September 2004