Working for Office Angels, the temporary employment agency specialising in secretarial jobs, would not appear to be the ideal environment for composing a realistic depiction of the minutiae of drug dealing in 21st-century Britain.
Not when we know that David Simon, the brilliant American writer behind the cult series The Wire, spent a dozen years as a crime reporter on The Baltimore Sun before leaving his job to hang out for 12 months with the city's homicide department, and another year observing a street corner notorious for drug dealing.
Nonetheless, Eran Creevy, the young director of Shifty, has created a low-budget film that authentically and unsympathetically breaks down the nature of the low-level crack cocaine trade in a fictional suburban British housing estate, and also explores the subjects of friendship, fraternal loyalty and social mobility.
And Creevy wrote it while he was an Office Angel. Stuck in an east London office with no windows, he would ensure that he had finished his regular workload by noon so that he could spend the afternoon secretly polishing his film script. Shifty is partly based on a real-life drug dealer in Creevy's hometown of Harlow, Essex, a high-achieving school friend from a Muslim family who decided that selling crack cocaine offered him a viable future. Creevy has described this drugs peddler, who has corresponded with him from jail, as "a lovely guy". It's a film that contains plenty of humour, some crackling, credible dialogue and an intricate finale.
But what's most remarkable about Shifty is that it is a movie made on a budget of only £100,000, one of the first two productions from the Microwave project, which aims to create for British independent film-making the sort of platform which helped directors such as Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and London-born Christopher Nolan to rise to fame in America.
The first Microwave film, Mum&Dad, due out on Boxing Day, will be shown in selected cinemas and available on DVD, as a download and as a movie-on-demand from Sky Box Office, an unprecedented synchronised multi-platform release. The movie is described by Microwave's creative executive Mia Bays as a "quite extreme horror film", dealing as it does with the sensitive subject of kidnappings at Heathrow airport. The kidnappers in this instance are not terrorists but a "screwed-up family" who live near the flight path, with a mum who specialises in torture and a dad who enjoys practising rudimentary surgery with his collection of household tools. "The underlying point," says Bays, "is that it's saying something about British families and our view of immigration."
Mum&Dad's director Steven Sheil, who is fanatical about the genre and runs an annual horror film festival in the Midlands, had to win through Microwave's competitive selection process to get his hands on the funding. He was one of 73 directors to send in their ideas and reels, winning through to the final 10 who were then asked to pitch to Microwave's experienced film industry panel who assessed the viability of the ideas.
The bulk of the money for the Microwave films (up to £70,000) is provided by Film London and the BBC. The rest the directors and their teams must find themselves, through entrepreneurial initiative. It's anticipated that the resulting films will be out of the ordinary. "At £100,000 you can take risks that you can't at £100m plus," says Bays, a film producer who worked on the Oscar-winning short Six Shooter, directed by Martin McDonagh. All the Microwave films are guaranteed an outing on the BBC, though it's hoped they will make it to cinema release.
Microwave wants to break the mindset that feature films can only be made with six-figure budgets. Bays says that many British directors aspire to making movies but get stuck "for years and years" doing short-form film work, making television dramas or adverts. But it is these experienced directors who typically win through at Microwave. "Most of our film-makers are not newbies, they are in their forties and ready to make movies. As Malcolm Gladwell says 'They have put in their 10,000 hours'," says Bays.
The low-budget production approach also ensures equality in pay between the star actors and the production staff, something that Creevy commented on when making a thank-you speech after Shifty had its premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square in October, as part of the BFI London Film Festival.
Bays says: "We don't allow anyone to work for free but the money doesn't go very far because you have to pay for equipment and catering, which is probably the largest percentage of the budget. It does create an egalitarian atmosphere on set."
Despite the low pay, smart directors and a good script can still be a lure for top acting talent, particularly when the Microwave films demand a fast turnaround shoot of only around 18 days. "Most shoots are 35 days or longer," says Bays. "If actors have got a window they will often work for £360 a week if it's only a three-week shoot. So you can still get really good people."
In Creevy's case he managed to secure the live wire Riz Ahmed (familiar for his role in Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo and Peter Kosminsky's Channel 4 drama Britz) in the lead role as Shifty. Ahmed and co-star Daniel Mays were both nominated for British Independent Film Awards for their performances. Creevy himself was previously best-known for the superb "Running Man" video he made for the Utah Saints track "Something Good 08".
Microwave's intention is to have produced 10 British films by 2011. In addition to the two so far made, three others have already been given the green light. Freestyle is a teen drama based on urban basketball and featuring an all-black cast. Analogue is a dark thriller featuring a practically deaf character who devotes his life to collecting analogue sounds. Both of these films start shooting in spring.
"We want to make sure we have a cross-section of subject matter and a range of directors," says Bays. "I would like to have a slate that's balanced, with something in every genre, so that we can stand up at the end of the process and say we had an eclectic range and really took risks."
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