Sign up for our weekly newsletter
TRCH The Da Vinci Code

Shane Meadows: The Early Years

25 December 12 interview: Jared Wilson
illustrations: Bill Edwards

Forty-nine issues ago, we interviewed Shane Meadows for the first ever LeftLion Magazine. Since then he’s gone from being an underground Midlands filmmaker to a BAFTA-winning tour de force of both British cinema and television. We’re now on issue fifty and Shane took a break from working on his current project (a documentary about The Stone Roses) to give us a rare interview, reflecting on his early years learning his trade in Nottingham…

Forty-nine issues ago, we interviewed Shane Meadows for the first ever LeftLion Magazine. Since then he’s gone from being an underground Midlands filmmaker to a BAFTA-winning tour de force of both British cinema and television. We’re now on issue fifty and Shane took a break from working on his current project (a documentary about The Stone Roses) to give us a rare interview, reflecting on his early years learning his trade in Nottingham…

You started out by making loads of short films around the city - take us back to the Shane Meadows of then…
I wasn’t even destined to make films; it came about by accident after being thrown off a photography course. I always had a love of film, but it always seemed like a very exclusive,
condescending medium that I was never going to be part of. The film clubs in the early nineties weren’t like they are now, it was all reserved for a very elite group of people who could afford projectors and 16mm film.

Small Time and Where’s The Money, Ronnie came out off the back of me running a short film festival in Nottingham called Six of the Best which was an angry response to the fact that I couldn’t find anywhere to show people my short films. I went down the DIY route and decided to try and get six films together and get them advertised. Unfortunately, I didn’t get many applications from other people. For the first event, I made five of the six films and for the second I made four. I also made all of the adverts and stuff in-between.

Were you always confident in your own ability?
My confidence grew off the back of people’s responses to my films; and my views on working class life and humour. So while Small Time and Where’s The Money, Ronnie? are the first things people really know me for, there was a year or two before where I was making dozens of other shorts and honing my skills. I made a few mistakes, and to be honest made some pretty awful films, but even in the worst ones, people saw a charm.

The cast and crew of those films were basically your mates from Nottingham…
I lived on Jubilee Street in Sneinton and it was one of those times when a load of people that lived on the street were of a similar age and a similar ilk. I basically turned Sneinton into my own film studio: I was twenty, I’d been thrown out of college and there were single parents and students on every corner. It was a lovely little community that we turned into our bizarre version of Hollywood and for a year or two and we had the time of our lives.

A lot of that stuff is not releasable, because it was made in such friendship and humour. I didn’t know anything about clearance or about people signing contracts, and release forms. We were just making films for the fun of showing them in our own community to our friends. Those neighbours included people from the Central Workshop like Dena Smiles and Gena Kawecka, who ended up as the female protagonists in Small Time.

Is this when you developed your method of using relatively inexperienced actors?
I didn’t really need actors; I needed human beings. It wasn’t like I was some kind of magician, I just believed that everyone could act, because on a daily basis most of us do already. I’d done lots of acting with Paddy Considine at college and I remember thinking he was one of the funniest, greatest actors I knew, despite the fact he hadn’t really done anything on film at that point.

It’s not about training at RADA; it’s about giving people confidence and making them feel comfortable in their own skin on camera. I was the lead actor in Small Time and I was able to give performances because no one was watching me and I didn’t feel nervous. That was the bedrock, and still is, of how I work. If you spend a bit of time working with people without an obvious acting background, you can get them to play an exaggerated version of themselves, which works well for what I do. 

In your early days you were heavily involved with Intermedia - a now defunct media development agency for the East Midlands. How did that shape your career?
Graham Forde from Intermedia was the person that literally taught me about short films. I would class him as one of the most important people for making my career happen, and they loaned me loads of kit to get started.

There were times when my house got burgled and cameras were stolen because people around the Sneinton area had seen what I was doing.  Some of the people at Intermedia probably thought I was part of it and was selling the cameras. But Graham stood by me and was like a father figure to me. He wouldn’t let me off and just made me work extra hours to make up what had been taken.

You got your big break there by entering Where’s The Money, Ronnie? into a short film competition...
Yes, and doing that single-handedly put me in a position to make things on a bigger budget. I saw the competition advertised on a corridor wall in Intermedia and Graham said: “Look, there’s £5,000 on offer for the winner, you should enter.” I didn’t think I’d stand a chance; I’d been making these films with my mates and the rules said that budgets should not be over £150k – whereas mine hadn’t even cost fifteen quid.

I entered and, before the winner had been announced, I got a phone call which went to the office answer machine. It was Stephen Woolley’s assistant saying that Stephen loved my short film and, although he was only one of the judges, he really thought it was the best short film he’d seen in years and wanted to talk to me about projects. 

Did you believe it was real?
No. I thought it was one of my mates winding me up because she spoke in this really posh voice. The return number was for New York and I was expecting it to be a gay escort line or something. But I phoned it back and it turned out to be the same woman who answered and it was genuine. They weren’t sure if Where’s The Money, Ronnie? was just a flash in the pan and they wanted to get me to work with this woman, Imogen, who was a first time producer to make a thirty-minute short together.

I told them I really wanted to make something longer and as I’d just finished making Small Time around then too, I sent them a ninety-minute cut of it. They watched it straight away and rang me back saying, “It’s a bit rough around the edges, but it proves that you can handle drama so we’ll back you. What do you want to make?”

So, how did it go at the actual awards ceremony? 
It took me back to being a kid when they were doing a school raffle and there was a ventriloquist’s dummy as the main prize. I remember sitting there, saying to God, “I’ll do anything if I can have that ventriloquists dummy, if I never win anything else, can I win this?” I never won that dummy, but a decade later I was sat there at the age twenty one thinking: “Please God, I’ll do anything to win this competition. I want to get a kiss from Emily Lloyd, who was hosting, and go home with a five grand cheque.” 

Then my name came out as the winner. It was an amazing night. £5,000 doesn’t seem like a huge amount of money now, but at the time it seemed like everything to me. I went out for a meal with Stephen and Imogen after and tried wine that was more expensive by the glass than any three course meal I’d ever paid for. It was there that I was introduced into the world of film making and the other side of it all.

So next came Twenty Four Seven…
Yeah, I was going from working with about four people to having thirty or forty staff there to help me. I had a crew of actors, trucks and people building sets. It was one of the biggest leaps I ever made in my life and was probably the most scary thing I’ve done. I wasn’t ‘safe’ anymore. We made Small Time out of a minibus, but Twenty Four Seven had a genuine feature film budget and it wasn’t okay to fail anymore because one and a half million quid is a lot of money.  If you make a mistake with twenty quid no one knows, but if I messed this up I would have serious egg on my face.

Twenty Four Seven was the first of many features you wrote with Paul Fraser. How did the two of you first start working together?
Stephen and Imogen wanted me to get a script together. They asked if I knew any writers and I said I had a mate who had won an award, was on a writer’s course and had just finished university.  Thank God they didn’t ask me what the award was, because it was the East Staffordshire under-twelve writing competition. I wasn’t recommending him to be cheeky, I’d always been really proud of him because I remember going round to visit him and reading his story and thinking, “wow, where’s that come from?”

They were a bit worried, because obviously you’ve got a first time producer, first time director and a first time writing partnership. But they gave us some money to buy an Apple laptop, go away for two weeks and see what happened.  We drank a lot of gin, Fraser got off with the babysitter from round the corner, I played the fruit machines a lot and we somehow churned out a feature film script.

He really is exceptionally intelligent and I really don’t believe either of us would have left Uttoxeter without the other. We gave each other the strength to go to college and to do those things and so he was a natural choice. From this point it was very natural that for the next few projects we would continue to work together because we had become a team. It’s a bit like with Considine, once I get tight with someone and we trust each other, it tends to be a relationship for life.

At what point did Bob Hoskins get on board with the project?
Stephen had worked with Bob on Mona Lisa and knew if we got a script together he could get him to read it. Bob read it, he fell in love with it and I went to meet him. When you get an actor meeting a first time director they can sometimes eat you alive, but Bob was telling me that I was really talented and stood by me throughout. While we were filming, if someone would challenge me on a certain problem Bob would say: “No, Shane’s the director.” Bob not only acted for next to nothing, he also gave me a lot of support in the process.

He was also happy to promote it with us across the world. We went to film festivals and he was always getting flown everywhere first class. Because I was a nobody, the festivals and the film companies tried to book me into economy. But he wouldn’t go anywhere unless I was upgraded to first class – so they had to pay extra or else he wouldn’t go. It was incredible and that’s kind of an ethos that stuck with me. The one time you start to treat people differently, like in Once Upon A Time In The Midlands when everyone was on different wages, was when it went wrong.

Is that a lesson that you took with you to future projects then?
The thing about This Is England is that everyone gets paid the same basic wage and because of that it ends up that a community gets born out of that. When everyone’s on different wages you start to value people differently and a culture of jealousy kicks off.

Twenty Four Seven was also the screen debut of James Corden?
It certainly was, yeah. I was doing auditions for the part of Tonka and he leapt out at me. You could see it right from the get go that he was the sweetest kid in the world and he was able, at sixteen, to rough it with a bunch of lads from Nottingham. They were a serious bunch too, they had history together as they’d all been through the Television Workshop in Nottingham. He got the craic straight away and totally penetrated them and became accepted. You could see really early on he had a rare and beautiful talent, a bit like Paddy.

There are several references to Notts County FC in Twenty Four Seven. Are they your team?
That all began on that film, I wasn’t into football but the father that does all the dialogue goes on about Notts County. That dialogue really came out of the actor’s mouth in the bar one night. I remember hearing him going on about how if a match was only eighty minutes, Notts County would be in the Premier League. I was laughing my head off just because he truly believed in this and was so passionate about it. It was brilliant dialogue and I had to stick it in. 

Then I thought: “I need to go see this downtrodden team, the oldest, most historic team in the world who somehow have the worst luck ever.” I fell in love with the fact that it wasn’t about executive boxes and it was a load of really anxious, really angry people that were having a really bad time. There were all of these really stressed out old men and the stuff that was coming out of their mouths was brilliant. They were shouting at the linesmen and the ref, and I fell in love with it. 

This interview is an extract from the book Shane Meadows: Critical Essays, which will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2013.

Shane Meadows website

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now

You might like this too...

Lost City

You might like this too...