Shane Meadows has been walking around Georgetown, and he’s come back to the Four Seasons Hotel with the perfect prop: an ice cream cone. Sitting in the courtyard licking his scoop of rum-raisin, the heavyset, casually dressed 28-year-old British director looks much like a grown-up version of the 12-year-old protagonist of his second feature, A Room for Romeo Brass, who’s introduced wolfing down several portions of french fries.
Meadows found his alter ago, Andrew Shim, at the Nottingham branch of the Central Junior Television Workshop, where the director has been casting since the days when he made no-budget shorts. Shim is a few shades darker than Meadows, but what mattered to the director was that “when Andrew showed up, he had like a massive piece of cake and a burger. He was the only one who sat there with, like, a three-course dinner in this rehearsal. And that was me when I was a kid. It didn’t come down to color of skin. I just responded to him. I was told he was a bit of a troublesome kid and not to look at him, and that made me even more desperate to try to get the best from him.”
A self-taught filmmaker who’s dedicated to capturing his hometown and its environs on film, Meadows works largely on instinct. He likes to use the Nottingham acting workshop because it takes kids who, like him, come from a working-class background. Also, “they do a lot of improvisation there, and I improvise a lot on my films. That’s quite rare in England.”
In addition to the ice cream cone, Meadows has purchased The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit for Writers, as a gift for his writing partner, Paul Fraser. “For when he gets writer’s block,” the director explains. “Rather than waking me and dragging me downstairs to start writing with him.”
A Room for Romeo Brass is as much Fraser’s story as it is Meadows’. The director’s longtime collaborator is the model for “Knocks,” Romeo’s best friend, “and the period that the film examines was a very big turning point in our lives. Had that six-, seven-week period that the film covers not happened, we may not have ended up where we are today.”
Meadows says there was no pattern to how he and Fraser wrote the film. “The only thing that was set in that relationship was that I worked the morning shift6 a.m. to dinner timeand then Paul would work through the afternoon and through the night. I probably wrote more for the kid who was based on me, and he probably wrote a little bit more for the kid who was based on him, but in general it was split down the center.”
Meadows wouldn’t start a film without a script, but he admits that he hates writing. “I really don’t like it at all. I can get more done in an afternoon of improvisation than in three months of writing.” That’s why, after a few days of rehearsing, “we put the script down and start putting stuff onto video from the rehearsals. Then we take those tapes and start writing the script again using those ideas.”
A Room for Romeo Brass was originally conceived as the third film in a trilogy about life in the English Midlands, after the hourlong Small Time and the feature-length TwentyFourSeven, but now the director thinks he has one more to make. “When I looked back at the three of them together,” he says, “Small Time was really a sketch for this work. So I’m going to make the final piece next year, and when I’ve completed that, I’ll move on.”
The next film is based on a true story about a boxer who served eight years for manslaughter after killing in self-defense someone who attacked him in a bar, Meadows explains. “It’s about when he comes back to try to rebuild his life with his wife and child. A lot of people in the community don’t want him back.” Robert Carlyle, who appeared in Trainspotting and two Ken Loach films, Riff-Raff and Carla’s Song, will probably play the boxer.
After TwentyFourSeven was compared to the work of Loach and Mike Leigh, Meadows says, he tried to put some distance between himself and those venerable social-realist directors. “We went to try to write a Western, but taking characters from Wales. To be honest, we only were doing it because people were saying we were like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. It didn’t really work out. So that’s when we started working on what was to become Romeo Brass.”
The director doesn’t plan to make all his films in Nottingham and the surrounding area, but he concedes that “I tend to look at my own life as a starting point. And the beginnings of my life were in this kind of area in the Midlands. Because it is the middle of the country, people come from Scotland, from Newcastle, from London, from Ireland, from Wales to come and work in some of the industry towns. When you get that mix of characters in one area, it tends to be full of color. As a kid, every time I went out of the house there was something going on, whether it be humorous or violent. It’s important to me to make the films that come from there, there. It has quite a specific feel.”
A Room for Romeo Brass, he says, combines fact and fiction in equal measure. “The kids and Morell were based on real people, but the families we developed in workshops. They weren’t really based on our own parents. The friendship was very true to real life.”
Morell is the man who befriends Romeo, tries to court his older sister, and is gradually revealed to be a psychopath. Meadows says he’s based on a “a real lunatic” who was his first girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend: “One day, I walked this girl home and this guy jumped out of the car and put a knife to my throat and dragged me back to his house. He just kept me there for about a day. He said if I tried to leave he’d cut my throat and bury me in the back yard.” Meadows was 13 at the time.
Although the film’s essence is autobiographical, Meadows tried to keep its other aspects vague. “It isn’t set in any period,” he says. “You’re not meant to really know. Because when you do a specific year, the art department inevitably chooses wallpaper from the month that you tell them. It becomes obsessive. The cars have all been chosen to be anonymous as well. It could be 20 years ago. It could be yesterday.”
The director can talk knowingly about art directors these days, but he remembers that when he began working on TwentyFourSeven, he was “still trying to do everything. Picking up equipment and carrying it to the vans. Coming from a working-class background, you’re used to being the employeeyou’re not used to being the boss. But I learned to use my time for whatever job was best for the film.”
Meadows now lives about 10 miles from where he grew up, but he says he’s prepared to move on, at least artistically. He’d even consider someday directing a film in the United States, although he notes that “I went to L.A. They make me laugh, those guys. You don’t think they could possibly be as stereotypical in real life. Then they come out with a huge cigar.
“I’ve been offered films,” he adds, but “they would never let me make a film the way I make it.”
Hollywood would look appealing, he says, “if someone dropped Taxi Driver on my table. But nobody’s going to send me that. I get sent Crocodile Mick: The Return, with Patrick Stewart in it. It’s so not me.” Mark Jenkins