Shane Meadows tells us how, by rejecting some of the more diabolical temptations of the industry, he manages to make so many good British films – something that is very rare.
Born in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, he’s been responsible for a slew of intense, gritty and modern classics including A Room For Romeo Brass, Dead Man’s Shoes and This is England. His new film, Le Donk & Scor-Zay-Zee, stars his regular collaborator Paddy Considine as a washed-up, deluded roadie, alongside real-life long-time Nottingham rapper (and former Out Da Ville member) Scor-Zay-Zee, as the pair try to get a spot supporting the Arctic Monkeys at Old Trafford. Shot in five days, the film was completely improvised with a tiny crew after the band granted Meadows access to the gig, and although it’s a very small-scale comedy, it has moments as engrossing and as heartfelt as his best work.
Vice: I’ve read varying reports on how much this film cost – somewhere between £30,000 and £50,000.
Shane Meadows: Yeah, the initial figure was about £30,000, and then when we did all the post-production work, the sound mix, the grade, the Edinburgh Festival party, altogether it cost about £48,000, but even so, normally people’s toilet roll bills on films are more expensive than what we did this for. There are people saying they do things for £50,000, but then there’s £200,000 worth of hidden extras, and that isn’t the case on this one.
I was going to say, it must be one of the cheapest theatrical releases ever, no?
Quite possibly, yeah, you’re probably right, if it’s not the cheapest I bet it’s right up there.
From what I’ve read, it just started off as a loose idea,
initially as an idea for your website; do you think if you’d planned it
as a proper film with a fully formed production treatment, it would
have been a different ball game? Would it even have happened?
Well, we’ve had two or three stabs at doing something bigger with Le Donk; the character’s been around since me and Paddy were at college together. We did a drama course for six months, realized we probably weren’t ever going to be actors but started a band together, and we went around the local circuit touring. We started to get a little bit of interest, a few fans, and thought we were going to conquer the world. We started coming across these Svengali types – Simon Cowell from Burton-on-Trent type characters. At first you thought, This guy’s got contacts at EMI, he reckons he’s just got back from being a roadie for the Black Crowes. And it turns out he was a roadie for the Wurzels.
So these guys kind of filled us with all this false hope, told us they were going to be able to get a recording studio, when in actual fact they had a Tascam cassette four-track that they set up in the kitchen. So Paddy started mimicking these kind of people and created Donk a long long time ago. And the whole idea with the film is… the thing with Paddy is he’s so generic at improvisation we wanted to shoot it like a documentary. It’s not like Borat where you’ve got a team of writers writing the funnies for you, this is for real – everything that comes out of Paddy’s mouth came out that second, he didn’t have someone telling him what to say, a la Steve Coogan, a la Sacha Baron Cohen.
Viewers are pretty savvy, they assume in films like this
actors have some sort of framework to improvise in. It’s surprising how
much of this one is actually real.
There really was no script, practically no idea. I only even wanted Donk to have a wife who was pregnant because the girl I wanted to play the part was actually pregnant. Even the stuff with Scorz was like that; it was initially just supposed to be Le Donk, but Scorz turned up for an audition and started rapping and I just thought we had to use him. And somehow this mental thing unfolded, it went from something that was supposed to be some mad short on my website – when you’ve got 50,000 people cheering for him we thought we should give it a small cinema release.
Was that crowd briefed at all?
No, that would be impossible. I’ve got a feeling, honestly, if you briefed that kind of crowd they’d have all booed. It’s too big a risk. I got piss-bombed about six times – while the Arctic Monkeys were playing. I got covered in people’s piss. You can imagine, that crowd was so rough, it was a Manchester/Liverpool crossover. If we’d have told them what to do I’m sure they would have done the very opposite. Their reaction was 100 per cent genuine – with those two just bowling out at 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon, this really cool rapper and this mental bloke with a beanie hat on doing the wankest rapping you’ve ever heard in your life, they just went along for the ride.
It’s funny that you came up with the pregnancy plot just
because the actress was pregnant, as that actually provides the
emotional anchor for the film.
Yeah, and this is what I’m trying to pass on to young filmmakers, having ideas set in your head is one thing, but when you get sent a curveball, you’ve got to go for it. I met a young filmmaker in Scotland who’s a heroin addict, and in the most extreme circumstances with no money he was making incredible films, and I think this is what I’m trying to say to people – this looks like a film that was set out and planned logically, and none of it was. When we got Olivia Colman but she was eight months pregnant, we thought we’d go with the baby thing because it’s even better for the film.
How confident are you that such on-the-fly ideas will always give you something good?
I trust in mine and Paddy’s relationship implicitly; I’ve gone out with Paddy more times than I care to remember with a wig and a set of false teeth and gone for a drive and found something. You never know when you’re gonna get gold. Sometimes you go out and you strike shit, so there’s always a certain risk, but when you’re only putting £30,000 in it’s a risk well worth taking. These sort of films can only come about by not being too clever or too planned. I’m not naming names but people in the past have got an ensemble together to try to improvise and it feels very much like an in-joke; you think it’s funny when you’re sat in the Groucho Club, but suddenly it’s not so funny on screen. We literally said the Arctic Monkeys are letting us go backstage, we knew Amy Winehouse was gonna be there, we thought we might try to get Donk to get off with her, maybe it would be Donk trying to hang around with the security team, we didn’t know what we’d get.
Do you think having a small budget like this inspires more resourceful creativity?
Without question, yeah. On bigger features with a couple of million pounds, you’ve got 30 or 40 people around you, you’ve got the police on your side, you’ve got the council on your side, it’s all pre-planned. Whereas on this kind of job you’ve got no money to throw around, the crew was what you see on the film, the line-producer, the costume lady, the editor, they’re all in it, every single person on the film had about eight jobs.
I take it you have complete creative freedom working with Warp Films?
Yes I do, complete. And the great thing about that is you end up getting involved with people a lot more, because you know ultimately you can make the final decision. I actually don’t care where the best idea comes from. I’m not one of those people who thinks it has to be my intrinsic vision; if someone comes up with something funnier or better, I always go with it. The great thing about having autonomy is, if you’re a responsible director you can listen to people’s ideas because you can still make the final call. Some directors have abused that over the years – which is why it isn’t given out very often, but I obviously won’t work without it any more.
You did a bigger, more mainstream film with Once Upon A Time In The Midlands,
and from what I’ve read, the experience you had made you determined to
go back to your roots. Did that have a big impact on how you still work
Yeah, that for me was like going to film school, everything that could go wrong on a shoot went wrong. I didn’t have complete creative control, I didn’t have final cut. That was the flag in the ground that made me say I’d rather make a film for a fiver and own it than make a film for £4 million and have it feel like not one of my own films, because it doesn’t. I made Dead Man’s Shoes after that almost out of anger, like: I’ll show you what I can do for three quarters of a million quid, I’m gonna scare the pants off everyone. Because I had £4 million and wasted it, through not having creative control, not having the right mentality, I learnt so much from making that mistake. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, because a lot of people in my position make that mistake in Hollywood. At least I made it on home turf and I learnt from it and it taught me the way forward.
Would you go the Hollywood route if it was the right project?
No I wouldn’t, no. Not Hollywood mate, no.
Would you direct other people’s scripts?
Yes I would, of course. Somers Town was someone else’s script. I’d make a film in America, I just wouldn’t make a Hollywood film. I’ve got nothing against the country.
OK. Most of your work is in some way autobiographical or at
least inspired by your childhood experiences – is the process of making
your films cathartic for you, does it put you at peace with parts of
Yeah, I said when I made This is England that it would be the last one for some time that would be directly about my experiences because it was so emotionally draining. It’s great to get those experiences from the past dealt with, but at the same time it’s hard work. Now I’ve done that I’m looking to do things that move and touch me, but are perhaps not so draining.
Yeah, I heard you were making a horror film next.
I wouldn’t call it a horror film, it’s more like a psychological horror than a slasher one. Like Dead Man’s Shoes meets The Exorcist. It’ll be quite frightening I think.
Shane Meadows' film Dead Man's Shoes is playing at the Hello Darkness Film Festival between Oct 26th-29th. Lock that in now people.