Shane Meadows has been a fixture of British film and TV for over 25 years. From early work such as TwentyFourSeven and A Room for Romeo Brass, he went on to achieve cult status in the mid-2000s with Dead Man’s Shoes and This is England. Since 2009 Meadows has worked principally in TV with the stories of the characters in This is England expanded over three acclaimed series. More recently he’s made The Virtues and The Gallows Pole. Ahead of a screening of Dead Man’s Shoes at Edinburgh International Film Festival and a new cinema rerelease in September, Shane spoke to us about the film’s legacy, getting the best from actors, and the filmmakers that inspired him.
Why do you think the popularity of Dead Man’s Shoes has endured and how do you feel about it getting a rerelease?
It’s amazing for someone to deem it worthy of coming out again. And it’s lovely because I would say 99% of the people that have seen it have never got to see it in the cinema. And it was one of those films that didn’t sell a load of DVDs, but I think each one got seen by about 40 different people because people used to lend it. I remember meeting Ian Brown, who’s one of my heroes, at this Banksy exhibition in Bristol, and him saying someone had put it on the tour bus. He didn’t like ever having films on but they ended up watching it. And people love a secret. You know, I remember someone giving me Withnail and I when I was young, and This is Spinal Tap; these kinds of films that developed this underground following. Some people will talk to me about [A Room for] Romeo Brass and plenty people talk to me about This is England, but honestly nine out of 10 people who I ever talk to, Dead Man’s Shoes is almost annoyingly at the top of everyone’s list! Because it’s 20 years ago you think it’s like that one hit wonder! But it’s lovely, it makes me dead proud. And what’s really nice about it is the fact that it was such a low budget. We did it really low budget, so it wasn’t just like a classic revenge story. It’s got humour in there and a lot humanity and I think that’s maybe what resonated with people. It’s a bit different in that it’s small town crooks, rather than big gangsters in London.
What do you remember of the production of the film? Was it a fun film to make?
Yeah, probably the most fun I’ve ever had. We had so little equipment. We didn’t have any dollies or tracks. We had very few lights, a very small crew. We didn’t really have any catering, and nowhere to sit at lunchtime. All the things that you would think would be a nightmare. And someone showed me a picture of me and Paddy one lunchtime when we’re having a kip in his car, with the seats wound back and both look as happy as pigs in muck. And you realise that by taking things away everyone pulls together to make it. So what I can remember is it being the happiest shoot I’ve ever had. And weirdly, by having less… there wasn’t someone turning up in a limo. When you get that hierarchy it can be upsetting for people, but there was no hierarchy and it just felt like the best team ever.
What are your methods as a director? As you co-wrote Dead Man’s Shoes with Paddy Considine you’re clearly a natural collaborator, but to what extent is there room for improvisation on your sets?
There’s gotten to be more and more as I go on. I used to always write a script and Paddy wrote a pretty solid script for Dead Man’s Shoes. And I loved it, I mean, Paddy and I, we did Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee together and we’ve written a couple of scripts that we never got off the ground together. It’s a lovely experience. We did loads and loads of improv on Dead Man’s Shoes and as the years have rolled by I feel like I’m writing the script as I go along all the way through; but writing with actors, rather than with a keyboard. People think improvisations as kind of crazy. You know, go in there and try and match stuff, put a hat on, and dance in it. But you do have to put the effort in. But I think you get the best performances from actors when they’re not having to say the same thing in exactly the same spot over and over again. And I think Dead Man’s Shoes was probably the first one where we really let every scene flow like that, and it felt a bit more natural for everything.
I think people forget that it is such a funny film. For example, was the Citroen 2CV in the script, or was it a happy accident?
I can remember we went to a car rental place looking for cars, and they’ve got a low loader and I remember seeing that [car]. My mate’s grandma had one of them and she used to lend it him to go and get her shopping. And he honestly drove it around like a fucking Capri. I remember being in the back of it once while she was in the front, and I thought I was going to die in this car. She’s in the front talking to him about the cattle market so she’s not logging the fact that he’s driving it like a rally car! So weirdly when I saw it, I thought, they’ve got to have that car because it’ll be like Tuff’s Nana’s car. So that was in my head even though I don’t think they ever said that in the story. So again, it was like writing as you go along. You would probably going to pick something a bit more, like tinted windows. And then I saw that and thought, ‘How much better would it be?’ And I think on the front of it the lights have been painted on the front?
There’s a guy peeking over the top.
Yeah. And so my first car was this really bad yellow Skoda and I painted flowers all over it. We were going to really shit raves. And so it rang true to me.
And it’s a real symbol for who they are. They’re threatening enough to Anthony, but really they’re very much big fish in a in a little pond.
Exactly. Yeah. Kings of a shitty castle. And somehow it’s like a joke, but it kind of isn’t.
Several actors you’ve worked with have gone on to great success Paddy is the obvious one, and also Vicky McClure, Stephen Graham, and Toby Kebbel. Do you pride yourself on being a good nurturer of talent, or being able to spot who’s really got that quality?
I suppose it’s because I was given a couple of opportunities early doors for me. There’s a guy called Graham Ford who pretty much took me off the street and was helping me to make short films, lending me equipment at this film centre. And Stephen Woolley gave me my first break to make a feature film, and to do it in my own way. At the very beginning of my career, I’ve got these people that just kind of went, ‘We know you haven’t been to film school. You haven’t got any of the things you normally need. But we believe in you’. So when I was casting, it just seemed natural to do the same, the other way around.
I love working with actors of all abilities and all experience and I wouldn’t rule anyone out. But whoever’s right for the part for me gets the part. Now, whether you’re Tom Hardy, Tom Cruise or Tom from No. 10, it’s whoever’s best for the part. And you know, too many things I think are cast where they go, ‘There’s a leading man and a leading lady. They’ve done this, they sell the seats’. It probably means I’m never going to have one of those big breakout things in the cinema because I haven’t got that vehicle to sell it. But it’s lovely when you go forward 10-20 years and in the same way that the people that gave me the opportunity probably look and say, ‘Well, look, I gave Shane that opportunity and he’s gone off and proven that opportunity right’, all the actors I’ve worked with have gone off and done great things. So paying it forward is really important.
It’s lovely. In a way you’ve worked with so many amazing people for the first time, you kind of want all of them back because we have such a lovely time on these shoots, they’re like Summer holidays. But The Gallows Pole was was a good one, because in COVID we did these open auditions and found a whole new wave of brilliant talent. There’s probably not many opportunities for actors to get a foot in the door, but I hope that people follow the lead of things like Gallows Pole and start letting people in.
Going back to Dead Man’s Shoes, it revolves around Toby Kebbell’s Anthony being the object of abuse from Gary Stretch‘s gang. How was the depiction of someone with learning difficulties received at the time, and do you think it’s it holds up given how much more attention is now paid to representation of these kinds of disabilities?
Growing up in the 80s I had a friend called Alan that was a bit older than me, who had learning difficulties. There was the bullying, and the jokes, and the things that were said, and the words that were used were just being bandied around. I really hope that as as a planet everyone’s moved on from that. I don’t know whether that would happen still. But at the time, it reminded me very much of my youth. I grew up in a place where if you had a weakness of any kind, you were preyed upon. Whether that was physical; weird hair, or glasses, or whatever it was, literally that was your new nickname. And it was a really brutal sort of thing. So it was something that me and Paddy when we were talking about writing it had both seen. And if you hadn’t got someone there to protect you or to look after you, you were dropped into a flat or a house like that with these kind of fucking serpents that were going around doing drugs at the time.
I’ve not seen the film for 10 years, so I’m not sure how it would reflect nowadays. Sometimes you look back at work with a lens and sort of cringe, or things you thought were funny aren’t funny. I hope it still stands up, but like I say it it came from personal experience of being bullied and seeing other people being bullied. Bullying of any kind’s horrific, but when you take advantage of somebody on an intellectual level and invite them in, it’s the most disgusting thing and I think that’s maybe why it’s stayed with people, because I think there’s a piece of you that wants revenge for it yourself as you’re watching.
You’ve clearly been influential when you see films like Paddy’s Tyrannosaur. You can see the writing process from Dead Man’s Shoes has been applied there. But who have been your influences as a filmmaker and a writer?
There are three. I would say on a British front Alan Clarke really stands head and shoulders, because when you look at a film as funny as Rita, Sue and Bob Too, and go back to Scum and Made in Britain, these are really iconic films, but they tended to be about people I was growing up with. Really hard hitting, but there was humour and warmth there too. [Martin] Scorsese. Seeing Mean Streets as a young man and actually realising you don’t have to make gangster films about huge gangsters. It can be about people putting a bomb in a bin and having a really wank fight in a pool hall. That was really inspiring. And then Werner Herzog, I would say European wise. Elem Klimov made a film called Come and See, which is one of the films that had the biggest effect on me. But as a director with a body of work Werner Herzog is a massive inspiration because he’s like 80 and still trying to make a project a year. And still making incredible work.
Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee was your last feature film. Are you ever going to go back to directing films, or do you plan on staying in TV?
Weirdly, that’s what I’m hoping to do next. I’ve realised how long it’s been. I’ve not got anything I can officially announce, but I’ve got an idea I’m talking to people about at the moment. And the dream is to go back and make one, and come back to festivals because I really miss it. And weirdly I like the idea of having a short three or four week shoot and shorter edit, you know. A film that’s lean, small budgets, small crew, I’d love to go back to that.
Are there any actors that you’d love to work with that you that you haven’t managed to as yet?
From the American side, I always wanted to work with Paul Newman, who sadly passed away. He was kind of my hero when I was a kid. But obviously I never got that opportunity. He came from that golden generation. He was like the link between the golden Hollywood of the 40s to the De Niros. It’s that transition from the big sort of epic, and obviously The Hustler is one of my all time favourite films. So I would love to have worked with Paul Newman. But to be honest with you, the thing that excites me the most is trying to find new talent. So like I said, there’s a million people I’d love to work with, as there’s some incredible actors in this country.
Dead Man’s Shoes screened as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival and will screen in cinemas Nationwide from Fri 15 Sep 2023