Shane Meadows: Shane's world

...is a tough, uncompromising, rather unattractive environment, close to Uttoxeter. On his home turf, our most intriguing film director talks about his grubby habits
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The Independent Culture

While some film-makers eagerly seize on the whole planet as their empire, others make a universe from a few squares on the map. British director Shane Meadows is gradually extending his cinematic patch: it now covers a swathe of the Midlands, from Uttoxeter to Matlock.

While some film-makers eagerly seize on the whole planet as their empire, others make a universe from a few squares on the map. British director Shane Meadows is gradually extending his cinematic patch: it now covers a swathe of the Midlands, from Uttoxeter to Matlock. But at the start, Shane's domain - sketched out in one mini-feature and scores of shorts - ran to one street corner in Sneinton, a district of Nottingham.

Not much has changed on that corner, says Meadows, revisiting it eight years after shooting his hour-long, career-making Small Time in Jubilee Street. "There's number 17," he says, surveying his old front door, "and the house next door, we shot the front room scenes there. The woman who played my wife lived here, and the guy who played Malc and his missus, they lived in that end house. There's the gate where we were nicking the food out of, and there's the pet food shop." If you've seen Small Time, you'll know that shop as the scene of the most ludicrous heist in the annals of screen crime, based, like much in Meadows' films, on a true incident. He and an accomplice ended up, he says, with a shopping trolley full of pilfered "Crappy Chappie". "It was the summer I honed my thieving skills," Meadows remembers fondly.

As the saying goes, there are eight million stories in the naked city; and four million of them seem to belong to this ebullient raconteur. Some are brutal, some farcical, many are given a self-deprecating spin: there was the time he was charged with stealing a breast pump, a raspberry smoothie and a chicken tikka sandwich. Meadows's 1999 feature A Room for Romeo Brass was inspired by a rift between him and his neighbour Paul Fraser at the age of 11; having just watched Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales, Meadows took a pop at Fraser with an airgun. The friends eventually made up and, years later, wrote the film together.

As well as his four features and one mini-feature, Meadows estimates he has made some 70 shorts to date, plus several he never got round to editing: "It won't be long before I hit my century." He started out by turning a borrowed camera on himself, playing all the roles. Then he roped in friends and family. Eventually, he made a full-length feature starring Bob Hoskins, TwentyFourSeven, which won the critics' prize at Venice in 1997. You could say Meadows has never looked back - but that's not strictly true, since he constantly delves into his background to make boisterous, jovial, sometimes poignant films that only tenuously resemble anything else in the cinema of British working-class realism.

Shaven-scalped, barrel-shaped and cheerfully garrulous, Meadows prefers to make films the way he talks, off the top of his head. He had an unhappy encounter with mainstream practice when he made his third feature, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002), and faced a bigger budget than he was used to, pressure to please the audience, and a famous-faces cast (Robert Carlyle, Kathy Burke, Ricky Tomlinson et al) who collectively failed to exude the charisma Meadows habitually squeezes out of non-professionals.

Now Meadows has gone back to basics for Dead Man's Shoes, a gritty, even grubby, vendetta thriller made for under £1m, and off-the-cuff from the start. "What we delivered as a shooting script was about 40 pages, and the last line was, 'We haven't written an ending 'cause we can't think of one, and it'll probably change anyway.' " Dead Man's Shoes is about Richard, an ex-soldier exacting revenge on the gang who terrorised his young brother. It's a brutal, chilling film with elements of Deliverance and Halloween, which Meadows and his star and co-writer Paddy Considine watched when preparing the film; there are even echoes of Michael Winner's enduringly disreputable Death Wish, which Meadows admires for "that principle of lo-fi weaponry, like when he puts a roll of coins in a sock - that's very believable".

Black as it is, Dead Man's Shoes displays Meadows's distinctive touch for farce, and his unfailing radar for British shoddiness: its hoodlums cruise around squeezed into a decrepit 2CV and relax with Pot Noodles (affording a unique product placement opportunity). But the humour doesn't detract from the grimness, which draws on Meadows's own teenage years in Uttoxeter. "Because it was such a small place, I didn't hang around with just 15-year-old kids. I'd be round a flat and there'd be a guy in his late forties, early fifties, you'd have right from 50 down to 11 sitting around smoking drugs. What a mental mix. You've got some twisted guys whacking on filthy pornos. The things you're exposed to."

Meadows is particularly proud of the sequence where an acid trip goes horribly wrong. "The last time I saw an acid scene that worked was in Easy Rider. One of my first experiences with acid was when someone squirted washing-up liquid into my eyes so I was blind for two hours with people kicking me and tipping stuff on me. It was like The Krypton Factor." The only reason he didn't get worse treatment, he says, was because his father Arty, a long-distance lorry driver and former boxer, was known as a hard man. Meadows wryly named his film company after him: Big Arty Productions.

"The sad thing about going back to Uttoxeter now," Meadows says, "is that a lot of my own relatives and people I know have died on drugs. Dead Man's Shoes came out of going back and seeing people who were so full of life, they were sparky people, and to see them sat on a park bench is tragic."

The film's macabre energy is fuelled by his anger at certain predatory individuals from back home. "These people are walking round now, they got away with some things that are too heinous to talk about," says Meadows, visibly suppressing his upset. "I sometimes think, if I got a terminal illness, there's a few people I'd go back and wipe out before I went." Meadows has a heft you wouldn't want to mess with but, he says, whenever he has got into a fight and landed someone on the floor, "I've felt like crying. I've got rid of that out of my life."

Meadows left home to enrol on courses in acting, photography and drama, but got thrown off them all. Also on his drama course was Paddy Considine, who, Meadows says, didn't take to "I'm-a-tree" acting any more than he did, and went to study photography instead. Years later, Meadows roped him in for a small role in A Room for Romeo Brass, but his character, a disturbed loner named Morell, proved so memorable that he effectively took over the film. Romeo Brass launched Considine: he's since acted for Pawel Pawlikowski, Michael Winterbottom and Jim Sheridan, and will soon be seen opposite Russell Crowe. Meadows is proud of setting him on that path, though not without regrets. When they went to Toronto recently, Meadows flew economy while Considine was in first. "I thought, this ain't right, I'm trying to get to sleep leant forward, and he had someone massaging his back. I wanted to kill him."

Meadows's own turning point came when he happened to walk past Nottingham's Intermedia film and video centre and saw some filming going on. Hanging around, he talked himself into a volunteer post and started borrowing equipment; with encouragement from the centre's Graham Forde ("Get his name in, he was really my mentor"). Meadows's early experiments truly were one-man. "I'd set the camera up at the bottom of the road and I'd be chasing myself - four characters, all me, it was technically quite challenging. People thought I was nuts - you'd see this guy coming past in a curly black wig and a red vest and then I'd be running up the road changing my clothes and chasing him as this other character."

Meadows is at his best, and most comfortable, when he works in that same breakneck spirit. Dead Man's Shoes, written improvisationally with Considine, was pitched to potential financiers as a see-what-you-get job. "They said, 'What's the story?', and I said, 'I don't know, it's me and Paddy, we're going to make a film. If Shane Meadows and Paddy Considine are making a film below a million pounds, I believe there's no risk in that. You can trust in Paddy, even if I've just dropped a bollock."

The Meadows-Considine partnership has been compared by some to the Scorsese-De Niro dream team, which is fine by Meadows. But the duo's creations are not restricted to homegrown Travis Bickles like Morell and the avenging Richard. They have also made some 15 comic shorts, many shot in an afternoon and featuring the ill-fitting bargain-bin wigs that are a Meadows trademark. Considine's characters include overgrown paperboy Gary Wilkinson; forest-dwelling eco-warrior "The Man With No Name", in reality a delusional insurance broker; and Tony Moroni, a New York mobster with a sideline collecting student debts around Nottingham. If Considine isn't swallowed up by Tinseltown, he could thrive as the next Paul Whitehouse, or Dick Emery.

Although he doesn't relish sitcom comparisons, Meadows's work has as much in common with the British TV tradition as it does with film realists such as Alan Clarke, whom he counts as his biggest influence alongside Scorsese. Meadows mines the same seam of character humour that runs through television writers such as Clement and La Frenais and Peter Tinniswood and comics like Peter Kay: the same Bus Shelter Britain observational strain exemplified by Mike Skinner aka The Streets.

"Where I grew up in Uttoxeter," Meadows says, "I wanted to set up a show down that road, 'cause it was a sitcom, it was Jerry Springer. It's like a continual fight that started 600 years ago, and that's the street where that fight is still rumbling on." Together with Paul Fraser, Meadows is developing a TV series for Johnny Vegas, about a man whose life goes spectacularly off the rails. "He ends up in an art workshop for serious criminals. It's almost like a joke version of what happened to myself."

Not surprisingly, Meadows is a big draw at festivals, an approachable role model for hopefuls. His 2002 TV portmanteau Shanes World [sic] was partly a way of giving advice without having to turn up in person: its shorts are linked by "Top Tips" from Shane's blustering, bewigged alter ego Tank Bullock: "Anybody can do it - old, young, ridiculous, anybody!"

There have been approaches from Hollywood, but Meadows hasn't taken them too seriously. "I used to take meetings in Toronto so I could have a free breakfast." As a joke, he pitched a ludicrous idea for a Love Bug sequel to Disney and got into "quite deep water" when he realised he'd been taken at his word.

Meadows has stayed on home territory, or thereabouts: he now lives in Burton-upon-Trent with his wife Louise, whom he's known since his school days. They married five years ago, after she started working as his assistant. Now she's his co-producer and general wrangler; no doubt her experience as a boarding school matron comes in handy on a film set. They work at home as much as possible, with editors happily turning up to work on an Apple in their bedroom. "Everyone seems very grateful to get out of London," Louise says.

After the blackness of Dead Man's Shoes, Meadows and Considine plan to return to comedy with a mockumentary about Le'Donk, a failed rock drummer turned builder who tangles with the supernatural. Goofy as the project sounds, Meadows believes the combination of him and Considine will always work: "I know when he's putting something great down on screen, and he knows I know, and I can just push it." You could imagine Scorsese saying much the same of his relationship with De Niro. But you couldn't imagine Marty and Bobby going into Central Park for an afternoon with a bunch of cheap wigs and a camcorder. And that's where Meadows and Considine may yet have the edge.

'Dead Man's Shoes' (18) is out now

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