A Room for Romeo Brass
Interview with Shane Meadows
feature by
Elias Savada, 3 November 2000

Itís early fall in Georgetown and the tourists are out wandering the streets, stopping to window shop or a munch at one of the many posh eateries along M Street. I pass them all by as I head for the Four Seasons on the edge of this upper-crust District of Columbia enclave, a stoneís throw from the Potomac and meeting point for todayís visitor, Shane Meadows, to our nationís capital. He loves the city and its cosmopolitan flavor, noting how part of it is very much like Stratford-on-Avon. After our short chat he would have an hour or so to prance along the sidewalks, browse the antique shops, and buy a souvenir or two for his new bride, but for the next half hour Shane is mine. Or vice versa. His debut feature, twentyfourseven, is a British homage to Raging Bull. And itís fitting that his favorite director is Scorsese. Shane is beating the press junket trail for A Room for Romeo Brass, a subtle, small film, close to his heart and loosely based on events surrounding his childhood back in England. Heís a few years shy of thirty and his head reflects the warm morning sun thatís beaming into the back of the dining room. Coffee arrives shortly after Shane has plopped down on a love seat, stretching his frame over the length of the couch. Heís as casual as his last film; blue jeans and a gray sweatshirt. The simple gold wedding ring matches the two cushions heís propped under his right arm, bent so his head rests on his open palm. Mr. Cool.


Elias Savada: Your first time here (in D.C.), yes?

Shane Meadows: (hiding a wry grin) Yes, but I came down here for a secret meeting with the President once.


ES:  (playing along) Ah, which President would that be?

SM: (rubbing his eyes, perhaps a secret signal) It was Reagan. I was playing him in an American play [with a British accent, no doubt] and I needed to talk to him about stuff. I didnít get to see anything. They had put a bag over my head. They took my fingerprints off and threw me into the streets.


ES:  [Good grief, what kind of guy is this?] Oh, they did that to a lot of people back then, especially Democrats.  For the record, your birthplace and birth date?

SM: Uttoxeter, Davis Drive Flats, 26th of December 1972. Nearly Jesus.


ES: The mother roles for Tim (in twentyfourseven) and Romeo are painted as characters bordering on sainthood, the dads as abusive, mean-spirited sons of bitches. Was that your family growing up?

SM: No. Not at all. Romeoís mom isnít certainly not on a saintly level, as the boy has eaten her chips and sheís threatened to make him leave. My dad had to be on the road a lot; he was a long distance lorry driver. At the time we didnít realize how much the moms were forced to hold things together. I went into making the film wanting to make the women were really positive -- to give them credit for what they did as we were growing up.


ES: Gill and Arthur, your mom and dad, get grouped among those receiving "special thanks" in twentyfourseven. How much support did they give you growing up? Did they "produce" any of your early works?

SM: No, no. They always let me be myself. I was never oppressed in any way. They embraced whatever performance angle came from me. Whether it was ridiculous impersonations of TV celebrities or having sixty people mull about the house. My mom liked having me and my friends around; at least she could keep an eye on me. Our house was the neighborhood hangout. My momís pretty levelheaded. And she was pretty young, too. When I was eleven, sheís my age now [twenty-seven].


ES: Do you have brothers and sisters?

SM: A sister. Slightly older. I had a good family life as a kid. The ups and downs came more from the community than from my home. And thatís what ends up in my films.


ES: Most of your short films dealt with crime. I assume those ups and downs relate more to the criminal element in your town?

SM: Absolutely.


ES: Your last two films both deal with unsentimental personal struggles within and without the market-town working class family unit. Self esteem plays an considerable role. Does your earlier work, and I regret not seeing them except for twentyfourseven, involve similar themes?

SM: Our town was one of those supported by a single industry. In our case it was a biscuit factory. Much of my early work looks at small time crime, not the lock, stock, high end diamond heists. My films concentrated on the people robbing Snickers, biscuits, dog food, breast pumps, and sandwiches.


ES: Breast pumps?

SM: It was an honest crime. There was a girl up the road, a single parent, who couldnít get a babysitter because her baby could only feed on natural milk. She couldnít afford the sixty dollars [playfully, a New York Goodfellas accent surrounds the dollar amount]. In a Robin Hood way, I agreed to pinch it, but I took her boyfriend along with me. And heís the worst thief in the world. A horribly obvious lookout. I was hungry, too, like Romeo Brass. Iíve always had a problem with food [His baggy sweatshirt covers an only slightly overweight frame]. I know now Iím hyperglycemic, but as a kid I was always just hungry. So I figure if Iím stealing a pump, I might as well pinch a sandwich. If Iím caught, the penaltyís going to be no worse. As luck has it, they only saw me pinch a chicken sandwich. If I had left with just the breast pump, I would have been just fine. As for the boyfriend, the cops thought he was disabled. He literally couldnít talk. Just indecipherable grunts. He had pinched a christening gown, which I didnít know about then, for his son. The police come in the room and growl at us "Whereís the christening gown?" I hadnít a clue and my friend couldnít communicate. The patted him down but couldnít find the thin cotton item. Later, in his holding cell, they noticed him chewing on the gownís label. He had wanted to swallow it so if they found the gown on him the evidence couldnít prove it was the stolen gown. He ended up singing "Love Me Tender" the rest of the day. Iím as calm as ever, having been in prison on and off for petty crimes -- a pinched item here, a street fight there. My friend continues to flip out, as in court he asks for a solicitor, while I just want to admit to the crime and move on. He booms out that he wants representation and gets fined seven times more than me for being a pain in the ass. Thatís the kind of crime that inspired me.  When I robbed dog food, I pushed it through town in a shopping cart with a coat over the top. It tipped over on a curb and the tins started rolling down the street. Thatís in one of my films, Small Time.


ES: Have you put together a reel of all your shorts?

SM: Iíve got seventy shorts.


ES: How closely does art imitate life in your new film, the quasi-autobiographical Room for Romeo Brass?

SM: Itís difficult to quantify how much is mine. A lot came out of rehearsals. The friendship, the relationship, the kid with the bad back, the guy that came between them. Thatís all real. I hung out with a group of older guys, while my friend next door was stuck in bed for nearly two years. In the film, itís not Dances with Wolves, and we compress that to months for the nature of dramatization. We felt audiences would pick up the turning point, without the need to elaborate. Of course, having someone else (Paul Fraser) help you remember the "truth."


ES: Paulís also credited as choreographer?

SM: Yes, thatís his training. He took the same type of characters I have in my films into his dance. Because of all his experiences [while waylaid] in bed, he some lonely characters there. But it was never "I am art. Art is me." It would be a blind fisherman on a river bank, not classical at all. Great pieces. Heís a really talented choreographer and a great writer. What we put together to do is outside both of our realms. Although he has now written two or three features in the last eighteen months, including one called Darts, a road movie about a guy on a darts team whose wife leaves him.


ES: Do you ever plan on making a film outside Nottingham?

SM: Yes. While the next film will hopefully be the final chapter of the trilogy that encompasses twentyfourseven and A Room for Romeo Brass. Some critics think Small Time should be grouped with my two features, but it really just inspired them. Thereís an energy in Small Time that I absolutely adore. But I consider my first film twentyfourseven. Small Time was merely a sixty-minute featurette, although it would be great to have all three on a single DVD. It would be three stories from a place no one ever makes films about. And characters that people never talk to. Itís either London or Scotland or Ireland. People never go into the center of the country -- to Darby or Coventry or Leicester -- it just never happens. Manchester and Liverpool maybe.


ES: In twentyfourseven I was particularly impressed by the rough look of the film. (Director of Photography) Ashley Roweís contrasty feel to that film -- especially the waltz segment with Auntie Iris -- adds a wonderful dimension to the work. How did you manage to latch onto one of Englandís most respected DPís?

SM: Well he had never made a black-and-white film. And that was an attraction for others as well. Producer Stephen Woolley and his company, as well as Bob Hoskins, had never done a black-and-white feature. Honestly, it made a bit of an impact. I donít think Ashley was quite as happy on my second film. Itís color and didnít need a hook. Itís all based on simplicity.


ES: Which brings up my next question. How differently did you approach the directorial and visual style of Romeo Brass?

SM: I was more confident with Romeo to go my own way and keep it incredibly simple. I donít think I have a tracking shot in the entire film. The whole idea of trying to tell a story honestly about childhood is left to the kidsí performances. After the first weekís rushes I realized the look needed to change, so we stopped using any tracks; I donít think any of that early footage ended up in the film.


ES: Music is almost like an added character in your two features.

SM: Yes, Iíd go along with that.


ES: In twentyfourseven it nearly envelopes the entire soundtrack. There are numerous montage sequences (camping in Wales, Darcy nursing Fagash) were the songs completely overwhelm the dialogue. The dynamite selection of Van Morrison, Tim Buckley, Sun House, The Charlatans is overpowering and intoxicating. In Romeo you have an even wider selection, including two of my favorites Fairport Convention and Donovan Leitch. How do you incorporate the music into your final product, and how early in the filmmaking process do you consciously pick some of the songs you use?

SM: More so, now I control the soundtrack. When I made Small Time one band did all the music for that, yet a style was developing where I donít underpin dialogue very often with music. In my films you can strip away to the bare rushes, pick any scene, and see the cast is acting. Itís believable. When people saw the rushes from Romeo, as opposed to what they normally get, they didnít have to bear up with comments that "the sound needs something put on here." After working for years with video camcorders, where the sound needs to be right on the take, my training (and budget) didnít allow for post-production enhancements. So music always became a sixth sense -- a different character in the film -- which I use as a way of gathering and passing through emotion. Sometimes I play music with the rushes, sometimes I donít. Thereís no pattern, as it is with my rehearsals. Sometimes Iíll sit in rehearsals with my people on a Monday morning, and weíd go over a scene for a bit or all day, whether it was scripted or improvised. On the next day, theyíd come in and Iíd just play them CDís and listen to music. Itís how I feel on any day. When I started rehearsals for twentyfourseven I had just split up with a girl. I was gutted. Iím not professional, so I didnít cover anything up. I told everyone exactly how I felt -- that I had been crying all morning listening to Simon & Garfunkel. So I played some CDís for the cast as my stomach was ripping itself out. While Iíve never been affected by songs that say what Iím feeling, for some reason Bleeker Street, which talks about a fog "rolliní in off the East River bank like a shroud it covers Bleeker Street," took me to a time and a place and thatís how the cast found me those first days. They take me as they find me. In the same respect, I understand that people and actors arenít robots. Theyíll have days where they canít stop pissing at themselves laughing. Itís frustrating, but it happens to everybody. Making a film doesnít stop life from happening around you. I try to embrace that as much as I can. And use it to my advantage.


ES: Youíve use the same casting director, Abi Cohen, on your last two films, so letís segue into your relationship with your actors. Veteran Bob Hoskins provides the central spark for twentyfourseven, yet you decided to go with three unseasoned actors in Romeo Brass. Paddy Considineís Morell is an impressively memorable bully. What makes you decide how to cast a film? How do you extract so much energy people who might have limited experience before the camera?

SM: There are two camps, really. What I try to create is a melting pot. I donít purposefully look at the different levels where people are at say I need someone with no experience. What tends to happen is that I always choose someone who I think is right for the part. (A directorís instinct, no doubt.) Take Paddy Considine, who was chosen first. I believed in that guy since from when we were in college. He had never acted, although we had taken a course together, but what he thought acting was, wasnít. The one play he did in school he walked onto the stage with an axe and chopped down a tree. (Hmm, was he playing George Washington?) He got into photography and just as heís earned accolades in that profession, I ring him up and mention Iím casting a new film. He had seen my earlier work, so he realized the missed opportunity had he been in Small Time or twentyfourseven. He read for the part and I gave it to him on the spot. I then took him to the casting sessions when I was looking for the kids. What I found that some amazing youngsters look great on their own, but when put together with another kid, Paddy (in his Morell character), and one of the dads, it didnít always work. I found often the opposite to work to my advantage. A boy that didnít work well on his own would click when surrounded by others. You have to cast people on how they work together. Why have actors sit in a room reading from a cold script? Itís beyond me.


ES: How much room do you allow your actors to improvise above the scripted constraints of your screenplay. Iím thinking of the first boxing match in twentyfourseven, where the loser for the 101 Warriors begins to cry, which wasnít scripted.

SM: I let actors speak in their own rhythms. Yes, itís difficult. Generally I know what I want in a scene, and I canít break down what is scripted and what might erupt at the moment. People donít read from a script, but the actors donít leave that scene until Iíve got what I want. I might sit the cast down at a table and have a discussion about soccer and within a minute or two be at a certain point, one of them may end up flubbing because England couldnít beat Finland. Also, on the set Iím always flipping between people, and I might go up to one and change everything at the last minute. Like in real life, the other actor comes in expecting something else. It makes them angry sometimes. When Romeo walks into Morellís flat and the nutter jumps out from behind a cupboard with a stocking on his head, we had actually rehearsed that as just a passing through shot. The kid reacted quite differently than in practice. Paddy took it to further extreme than I intended, insulting the youngster as if a soldier talking down to a cadet.


ES: Well it comes across as one of the most powerful scenes in the film.

SM: Yes. When it works. Itís a chemical mix. Sometimes I wonít change a thing, but the cast isnít quite sure what to expect.


ES: Are there any actors youíd like to work with? Youíre favorite director?

SM: James Earl Jones. Martin Scorsese. And in my own country, Gilles McKinnon (Hideous Kinky, Regeneration, Trojan Eddie) is terribly underestimated. I really love his work.


Click here to read Elias Savada's review.

 

 


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