There's still a lot of kid in Shane Meadows. At 28 years of age, he may be a compulsive writer-director of slice-of-life films about the English working class (he won much praise for 1998's "TwentyFourSeven"), but the hyperactive 10-year-old he once was is still very much evident in his ebullient manner.
A barrel-torsoed Midlander with a razor-stubble hairstyle that matches his razor-stubble beard, he's a bright-eyed chap with far too much energy to just sit still for an interview about his new film, "A Room for Romeo Brass." So he switches seats in his hotel room from time to time, eventually landing on a deep-cushioned couch, where he yanks the pillows from both ends, propping them under his arms to squeeze absentmindedly while he talks about the semi-autobiographical story in his latest cinematic endeavor.
"Romeo Brass" is about a pair of inseparable 12-year-old neighbor boys who bond over dysfunctional families and an affinity for pranksterism. In the film, newcomer Andrew Shim (Meadows prefers to use unknowns) plays the title character -- Meadow's alter-ego -- whose relationship with his sickly best buddy is set on the rocks because Romeo takes up with a 20-something slacker (Paddy Considine). Romeo thinks it's cool a grown-up wants to be his friend, but he soon discovers his new pal is 1) a borderline psychotic, and 2) stalking his pretty older sister.
Meadows says plenty of creative license was taken in the film's plot, but he admits there was a period when he didn't see his own best friend -- Brian Fraser, who co-wrote the "Romeo Brass" screenplay -- because of something stupid he did when they were impish youngsters. The details of this event was where our interview began:
|Q: The kids in this movie are mischievous, but the way I hear it, you and Fraser were worse. Did you really shoot Fraser with an air rifle at some point and you didn't see him for a few years after that?|
A: [Half-sheepishly, half-devilish grin] Oh, definitely.
|Q: I take it his mom pulled the plug on your friendship for a while.|
A: She'd caught me going out of the house with my Wellington boots full of his soldiers about two or three months before this shooting incident, so I was on pretty shaky ground. So when he went 'round home with a giant red mark and bruise on his stomach, that was the end of that for quite a while. She took him up the whole street, knocked on every door, "Shane Meadows, up the road, blah, blah, blah, look what he's done. Pull your top up Paul" -- pulled his top up, showed them the bruise -- "Put your top down Paul." Next house.
A: I swear! She went the whole street. The whole street turned on me. She reported me to the police. It was only an air rifle, but shooting someone, well, it's not great is it? If I'd hit him in the eye, I could have blinded him. So the police took me to a young offender's center and showed me around and told me if I ever did anything like that again, this is where I'd be coming. It was deadly serious.
|Q: So here's my question: What does his mom think of you now?|
A: Well, it's taken two feature films jobs and the fact that his career is sort of blossoming for her to forgive me. She didn't really forgive me until two or three years ago, and that was 12 or 13 years after the incident. But if someone shot my kid, I'd be no different.
|Q: Of course.|
A: I mean, I know what I'm like now, and I know what I was like then, and I was a bit of a nut case in them days. I was a bit of a raving loony. I had a humongous energy source I couldn't do anything with at the time.
|Q: But you found a creative outlet for all that energy, so you're here now instead of...|
A: Instead of being formally charged with something? Yeah. I couldn't keep still. If I were watching TV, I'd run my feet up and down the wall and drove everyone crazy. I couldn't keep still. I never stopped talking, I never stopped moving, I never stopped wheeling and dealing. I used to buy second hand pushbikes, repair them, sell them. I had a motor bike. I was totally, always having to do something. When I started making films, well, you find me somebody who can make a film and still have energy left over! It's the ultimate acquisition of your time. I'm so much more mellow.
|Q: So at what point did you discover filmmaking?|
A: It's a really strange sort of tale, really, because I never set out to be a filmmaker. Even when I was making my own short films, I didn't think of myself as a director. Most people want to be a director -- they look at people like Scorsese or Spielberg or Jim Jarmusch. I was making films to have a laugh and get people together. It just turned out that I was the guy behind the camera making them, because I had the drive. I never really thought of myself as a director until I made "Small Time," which was a 60-minute short. When I made that and succeeded in making a 60-minute film, I sat back and thought: This has consumed my life for 18 months. Realistically, I've done nothing but this and I could probably build a career out of this. I'd probably made 15 short films before I really contemplated that I could make a career for myself out of it.
|Q: That's good! That means you're doing it from your heart. It's not some desire to be an artiste.|
A: No, no. My favorite filmmaker is Martin Scorsese. Loads of kids at film college love and adore Martin Scorsese. But the seem to follow his camera moves and his techniques, whereas from my point of view what I love about his work is that he's told stories that mean something to him and he's looked to his own life and his own community and made films about them. People weren't making Italian-American films when he made "Mean Streets." The were making gangster films, but they weren't making films about people who weren't associated or were only slightly associated.
In "Mean Streets" only one of them was really associated with the mafia. We can all look back now and see there are so many Scorsese-style, New York-y films that have come out. But at the time, his work was very brave. And he continues to be brave with, like, "Kundun." He continues to follow his heart. That's what I appreciate in that man, and the inspiration for making films about my own community has come a lot from seeing the bravery he showed in his early films.
|Q: What's the hardest thing about directing someone who is playing a version of you?|
A: The important thing to remember when you're making a film that starts out autobiographical is that you have to make it work for the actor. But I supposed I naturally picked someone who reminded me of myself. When I went to get this guy Andrew (Shim), he was obsessed about food. All he's bothered about is eating, and that's me from the age of 5 until -- well, still! If I don't eat, I'm the worst person on earth! Blood sugar goes out the window, I could cry my eyes out. People bring me cakes and chocolate bars on a regular basis because if people see me going down...
Anyway, this guy's the same. The first time I met him, he's got an ice cream bar in his pocket. He brings it out, squeezes it, and puts it back in his pocket. I said, "What are you doing?" He says, "Oh, it's an Oreo ice cream sandwich. I always leave them for about half an hour because they taste much better." I mean, that obsession to the delicacy of the worst kind of junk food reminded me so much of myself that I was really drawn to him. So once I'd found the right guy, directing him was never a problem. It was just a case of choosing that person that felt like you.
|Q: Since the kid that plays your alter ego is black, I assume you were casting "colorblind."|
A: It was never written any one way. Logistically if people want to argue the point, you know, you can have two mostly white parents and a black granddad, and the kid can end up black. But at the same time, I could (just as well) pick a Russian mum, a Chinese dad, a sister from Katmandu and then Andrew. It's like, if people feel right together, you can assemble these characters, can't you?
|Q: I appreciated that in the film. For a moment it takes you by surprise that Romeo's family is so racially mixed, but it doesn't take long to shrug it off because the characters are more important. Shakespeare is cast colorblind all the time. Why not "A Room for Romeo Brass"?|
A: Absolutely. Besides, gone are the days of simple that's a white family, that's a black family. There are plenty of families who adopt kids, there are plenty of families where there's a black kid from a previous relationship and now there's two white parents. I mean, that's the beauty of it. And like you said, people seem to look at it, maybe think about it for a minute, then put it to one side and get on with the movie.
|Q: When I saw the various skin tones across that family, I expected it to be part of the story. But when it wasn't I was actually relieved.|
A: Yeah! "You're not my real dad. My real dad died," and all that. I don't like going down that kind of path.
|Q: So casting Andrew was all about the Oreo sandwich then?|
A: [Laughs] I'd been going to this workshop (he was in) for a couple of weeks, and this guy said, "Look, I know you like this kid, but he's got some rough edges." And that did it for me. That just stamped his job application. Because I was that kid. I had loads of energy and a really great sense of humor, but there was a rough edge to me that people didn't want to cope with. They didn't want to give a chance to that. So when I was told this kid had an edge, I was like, "Right. You're on then. Let's get you in there."