Strange to say but until this Wednesday Shane Meadows had never actually crossed my consciousness, but I was lucky enough to see the world premiere of This is England at the Toronto International Film Festival. My mind was utterly blown to see perhaps one of the best British films in years, and that it didn’t win the people’s choice award in Toronto is gutting. Todd has given it a superb review (yet again, my review is available elsewhere) and this is a film that after seeing I felt so strongly for that I instantly arranged to interview Shane Meadows. Late in the week as it was this was a short interview with a strict time limit, and Shane is such a wonderful subject who talks at such length and depth on each topic that it was almost heartbreaking to have to end the interview. However, this is a nice short discussion about the film and its meaning to him.
Mathew Kumar: I was lucky enough to see the film at the world premiere and I was genuinely moved by it. I thought it was fantastic.
Shane Meadows: Thanks. That was a tough night that, actually. It really broke me down when I watched it, with so much personally tied into it with Tommo [the young star of the film], that it was difficult to be on stage after it. It meant so much to screen it for the first time and get that sort of reception, it was wonderful.
When you screen a film for the first time it’s like giving birth, and to have people around you sat watching it that were moved to tears it’s such a compliment. Moving people to tears with something so violent is not an easy route, it’s not like someone dying of cancer.
That was always the test for me. This is really difficult material to handle, and if it’s exploitative, then people are going to be really frigging angry, and the fact that they came were touched and moved as it jogged things from their own past, and they thought I handled it well, was really a massively important thing to me.
It was also because I danced around the National Front when I was a youth. I never signed up, but I went to meetings, and I shouldn’t feel any shame from that, because I was eleven, and I was lied to about the whole nature of what it was. It was almost like I was being convinced to join the Foreign Legion. There was a fear from my own point of view about being honest, but the truth of it is if you’re honest you can’t actually fail, I think. I couldn’t have skirted around the issue and tried to make my kid character look really good. The truth of it was at the time I really did believe in it, because I didn’t know any black people, and when people tell you a group of people are evil and you don’t know any it’s really easy to be convinced. Obviously even at eleven I quickly realised it was utter bullshit and there’s nasty people in every culture.
MK: It’s funny but I felt like it spoke to me personally; I was a child of the 80’s, I’m mixed race, I was a lonely child…
SM: Well Stephen Graham is actually mixed-race, the guy who plays Combo. I think he’s half Swedish, a quarter English and a quarter Jamaican. But then all of his brothers look black, and he has this Swedish strain, so he’s got blue eyes and really fair hair.
He told me that when I was going to hire him, because he thought I might want some kind of crazy white supremacist method acting; and I said, well, just use it for your character, then. And he wrote this whole sort of back story for his character, about a kid that basically looked white but knew he was mixed race, yet never felt comfortable with that side of his family.
There was a guy in the press in Britain last year that was mixed race and had become a white supremacist, a complete racist thug, but they showed a picture of him when he was at school and there he was, with a little afro. I mean, you’d just never know. That was one of those things that I didn’t lace into the film, but that’s where the jealousy in Combo’s character comes from.
MK: The performances are incredible, including obviously Thomas. I was wondering if maybe you could talk a little about him.
SM: It was one of those things where we went all over the country, almost like an X-factor kind of road show. It wasn’t quite like that but it we ended up being kind of a bit of a tour of Britain looking for kids. And we just couldn’t find the right blend. It seemed so simple at first, but when you realised that there was only one person out there who exists who was right, and finding him was another matter.
We came across him in an amusement arcade, he’d been thrown out of school, he was only going in a couple of hours a week, and he just wasn’t at all prepared to come on a film set and be in virtually every scene in film, but was the right person to play the part. It was difficult, his home life, because his mum was very poorly and couldn’t really look after him very well, and as it transpired she passed away a couple of months after we finished filming.
It seemed at one stage that he was on the steps of certain doom, but through the support of not only me but of Jo Heartly, Stephen Graham, Andrew Shim, we kind of all made a pact together to look after him, but his dad came back into his life, and maybe the experience of working on the film, showed him that maybe what the teachers had been saying to him, that he was a deadbeat, hopeless, useless, wasn’t true.
I think he knew it was his chance out. The whole nature of what seemed to be a kid coming out of an impossible situation, beginning with very little and going on to lose his mother, only for his father to come back into his life and be such an incredible man, it’s almost like a Hollywood ending.
It was an incredible time, and to find a kid that could not only play what I was, but was also such a strong person and a strong character himself that I moved the story around him and what he was best at. It was a massive compliment to his abilities.
MK: So, when you film, is it quite regimented, or do you give your actors a lot of leeway?
SM: It’s not regimented at all. What I tend to do is write a story that works, which is maybe a 20-30 page document, with some lines and bits and pieces, but basically description. Then I’ll go in and work the lines out on the day. I’ll go in with the actors, say “this is the scenario, have a little go,” and then maybe it was a little too much, so I’ll work on the pacing or the lines. I’ll work it up on the day, so I’ll have a lot more rehearsal time than a lot of other directors, as I create the scenes with the actors, but the story’s written, so it’s a strange kind of combination. It’s not purely improvisation, but we improvise in rehearsal, then we get it tight and shoot it.
The biggest compliment I can get is when people say it almost feels like a documentary; or a combination of the two. Realistic dialogue that feels like a documentary, but the actual montages, the landscapes all feel like cinema. That’s what I’m trying to achieve.
MK: It feels like a very layered film; the scenes about the Falklands, for example. Is this film really about the situation now?
SM: Yeah, completely. The principle idea is that when we went to the Falklands and when we went to Iraq the first time, they were the same kind of scenario, you know, us versus the evil dictator, but when you actually see what’s happening it’s like watching a school bully, someone three times the size pummeling the shit out of the new kid in the first year in the playground. There is no competition.
The whole nature of someone going into something for political reasons; Margaret Thatcher went into the Falklands and got re-elected and it stung. But none of the footage I use of the Argentinean soldiers was ever shown, of the body bags, and it was inhumane. The war was used as a sort of an exercise to pull the country together in a very difficult time of high unemployment. It was like the world cup, you know “come on England!” Yet there was kids parents being fucking shot through the brain, shot through the kidneys, just being splattered. And some kids’ dads just didn’t come back. And that’s what’s killing me now about Iraq, is every day, soldiers from both sides are dying because they thought it would be somewhere really easy to break down because they’re so much more advanced, but you can’t finish these people off because they’re so strong and so resilient, and now we’re trapped in this whole mess that no one wants to be there in the first place and we went there under this pretence of looking for bombs, and we’re all well aware of the facts now. When you go into war for these kinds of reasons it’s shameful.
But I wanted to tell a story that was like a microcosm of something like this, that if I make people care about this one child whose father didn’t come back, and we’re seeing five or six or those every week in the UK right now and that’s five or six different stories; it could be a middle class child or an upper class one, but there are kids like Shaun whose lost their dad.
It’s also about showing the other side. It’s alright sitting at home watching a war zone, but imagine trying to go into town and your fucking bridge is missing. You have to apply it to your own environment to have any concept of it, and the problem with the newspapers and the politicians is the “collateral damage” term, and that scares me to death.
And so there are these parallels, and also the Falklands. The awful thing was that it was a joke war, against these cartoon characters with Mario Brothers moustaches that we were going in to knock about, and you see them, with all this humility, and grace, walking away from it… It makes me want to puke up. When I see that footage, every time I want to burst out crying because I’m actually seeing the other side. And those images were never shown.
It’s like the only way to allow people to go into war is to dehumanize the other side because otherwise no one will ever go.