In the Somers Town

Shane Meadows discusses his latest, low-budget independent British feature.

by Amber Wilkinson

Shane Meadows at Tribeca

Shane Meadows at Tribeca

Shane Meadows latest film, Somers Town is a sweet and gentle drama about the growing friendship between two kids from very different worlds - 16-year-old Tomo (Thomas Turgoose) who heads up to London from Nottingham to start a new life and Marek (Piotr Jagiello) a 15-year-old Polish migrant living in the Somers Town area of London with his dad. Shot for the most part in black and white, with the exception of a segment in super-8, Shane Meadows and producer Barnaby Spurrier took part in press roundtables about the film. Here's what they said.

Q: Why did you choose to shoot the film in black and white?

SM: I went to London - I'd not really shot outside of the Midlands before. I was very excited but when I actually started taking photographs of the various locations, because there was a massive range of buildings from a massive range of times we ended up with a huge variation in colour. So I started to worry that it wasn't going to look great. I had some of the photographs converted into black and white and suddenly it started to look like the same place rather than this mish-mash. Around St Pancras there's so much development going on, there was any colour of plastic sheeting - it was like any image was going to be a patchwork quilt of colours - so black and white film was able to temper that design and to get the best out of the area.

Q: This Is England was about somebody who resents immigrants and this is about someone who embraces immigrants, are you going thematically in the same direction?

SM: It's funny. In Nottingham where I live and a lot of places in the UK, immigration is still a topic. And a lot of the Polish immigrants that have come over with the change in the European laws are actually the hardest working people that I've ever come across. A lot of people who resent them are probably a lot lazier than them. They're setting up their own businesses, integrating into the community and they're actually a really positive influence, I think. So I liked the idea of almost showing the flipside of what the characters were worried about in This Is England - what the National Front were saying, all the scare tactics. How the opposite can happen and I thought there could be a big positive there. The thing I liked about this family was that they weren't there because they were poor. Because everyone has this typified idea of why a person moves from one country to another and it's always assumed, oh, they're desperate, they've got no money. But the reason they are there is to make a new start for themselves. It was all these little flipsides of what This Is England was saying.

Q: Why did you choose Somers Town?

It's an area right next to the St Pancras Station and Euston Station. Because that's such a transient area you can almost walk past it. If you name areas, even to people half a mile away, some people haven't even heard of it. So you've got this area between two stations - one of which has just become an international station. And the population of Somers Town and the area around King's Cross has changed dramatically. It used to be some of the oldest housing, with old gas lamps still up and gas towers there.

Ever since I've started making films I've driven into this area on the train and seen the old gas towers and flats and never realised that that existed as a town; was a place in itself. We all realised that if you've got all those flats and a station next to it with a Paris to London link, the people who stay there won't be able to afford to stay there. In pockets of Britain you have places where people never move and families are there for generations and Somers Town has been one of those and is probably going to change quite soon. Like many places in the world shopping malls and all these things come and change those places. Somers Town had managed to protect itself because it was between these two stations but now the stations are probably going to be the downfall of what was there. So it was obviously the idea of documenting that area and also, the story, they do have a lot of Polish workers so that was why it was picked.

Q: The strength of the film lies in the onscreen relationship and chemistry between the two boys, can you talk a little bit about the chemistry and how you found them and maybe a little bit about the rehearsal process?

SM: I'd already worked with Thomas Turgoose in This Is England, he plays the lead and that had been his first performance. And when I read the script for this and read the character of Tomo in there I just knew, instantly, that he was the boy for the part. I'd worked with him before - I do like to work with people as much as possible, I've got like a family of people who I work with. Other people come in and go but we tend to have this nucleus working together. Then we started looking and Barnaby [Spurrier, the producer] started setting up casting sessions in London for Polish kids. But we found that a lot of the kids we were meeting were a bit too far down the line - a bit too far advanced. They'd been here so long that their command of English was perfect.

So we decided in the end that we had to go to Poland and get the father and son from there. And they turned up in a casting session together. And I never ever would have put them together, because the son is a bit bigger than the dad, but there's something about the chemistry that made them believable to me. They're both really different, you've got this really sensitive, quietly spoken little boy and this big muscular father - I really liked the idea of that because you get the feeling that the mother was probably much more like the son. We pulled them a week or two weeks before we started shooting.

Piotr [Jagiello, who plays the Polish teen who befriends Tomo] only had basic English in his skillset, but in that week of rehearsing, which we improvised and got him together with Tomo and got the French girl in and hung out together for about a week - his level of English, it was incredible how he transformed in that first week. So as the fim progresses - we shot it pretty chronologically - his English improves. It actually happened in real time. It's incredible to see how a person's English can improve in that time. They were speaking Polish and I was trying to learn it and I learnt about three words in that time and they picked up the entire language in two weeks, with subtleties, it was incredible.

Q: At times they seemed like an old married couple he [Tomo] had issues with his stomach and then he had to deal with the laundry and then you have to remember they're only 15-years-old.

SM: I knew Tomo and I knew his skills. We all know kids who are like an old bloke. We all know kids who are eight or nine years old but who wants to work on an old car engine. You get some kids who always seem to be old men before their time and Tomo's always seemed to be that way inclined. It's probably down to the sort of life that he's had. He's had a very rocky life up until he started acting, he lost his mum, so you've got this kid who's been through a lot of emotional stuff and has this ability to almost be like a disgruntled old bloke. What I loved about putting them together is like any great comedy act you can't have two of the same type. You always have a straight guy and so Marek is this very innocent European boy who's into photography and Tomo has obviously got off with girls, he's been stealing, robbing cars - the complete opposite of each other really. And that's kind of what makes it work, because Tomo isn't really a bad kid, he needs a good kid to rough up a little bit and the good kid makes him a bit better.

I wanted with this film almost to leave my directing hat at the doorstep. I realised quite early on that it was going to be quite an observant film. It almost feels like a documentary at times, which I really like, because there were a few scenes which took a long time to shoot but the majority of things went down in one or two takes. So as a director I was in the same position as you, watching it. My hardest job was not laughing. So in many ways, although it was a great script in places I don't think the humour was as intelligent as it turned out to be and that came from their relationship. Sometimes being a good director is realising what two people are great at and letting them do it.

I like the fact that Marek gets a bit stroppy through the course of the film, especially when he starts drinking, this whole new character comes out when he starts to be a bit braver than before. They were a really good influence on each other. It was a joy to watch and the main thing for me was harnessing that and allowing it to happen. Because sometimes you put two people in a room and there's no chemistry and sometimes there is. Because they're so far apart - Poland and Grimsby [Turgoose's home town] I had to rely on my instincts. I thought that would happen but I just wasn't sure.

Q: When did you decide to shoot a shorter film. Was that a conscious decision from the start?

SM: It actually started of at the other end.

Producer Barnaby Spurrier: It started off as a nine or ten-minute concept and then Fraser did a script that was 20 or 30 pages, which was what we set out to shoot. And some time around the end of the first day, when Shane had worked his way through about ten rolls of stock and we had a fantastic eight-minute scene. It literally did grow, it was a really organic process. There was never a definite length.

SM: The great thing for me was it kind of found it's own length. I decided whatever it was going to be - whether it was 100 or 30 - I just wanted that relationship and all the arcs for all the characters to sort of feel right. And when it goes for distribution in some places we'll probably put it together with a short film that complements it. But I don't feel that with it being a little bit shorter that it's anay less of a film for it. Its weird, When you watch it it obviously doesn't feel long but at the same time you feel that you've watched a feature film. Normally, if you've got a large budget, people want it to be a minimum of 90 minutes but we had the freedom to make it whatever size it wanted to be.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the party scene [in which the kids get drunk]?

I realised pretty quickly that what I wanted to do. The lady Natasha, who was lighting and shooting the film, she started to light and said: "Look, you can shoot here but you can't let them go past the door because there's going to be a light." and I started looking at it and thought they need to be able to go where they want because I'm big fan of being able to shoot a scene in entirely one take, without having to take pieces away.

So I said to her in the end: "Where can I put lights in here so that I can shoot in 360 [degrees]. So we used practical lights and put one up in the ceiling and then gave them both [Pioto and Turgoose] some 'legal alcohol' in the form of Red Bull or Lucozade or something like that. And, literally, Tomo is really sensitive to whatever it is, taurine or caffeine and I knew that it would just be a case of wind him up with a few fizzy drinks and let him go. Within the first 30 seconds Marek had hit him in the head with a vodka bottle and split his head. If you look at that scene, when they come out on to the roof, Tomo's got a cut across his eyes. So it was quite a raucous affair. There was no alcohol on the set. They were sugared up and caffeined up and we did it in two takes. We just let them completely go. There was down town in the takes and some places where it got completely flat, but then they just started stripping their clothes off, they were turning the music up, throwing crisps around. They wrecked the place. I mean, as a kid it's like the best possible job description - do whatever you want, you can wreck it. And they never knew when the father was going to come back, so I had him waiting outside - that's why it's very real when he walks in the room. They got so drunk in their heads that Tommo seemed to me, all through the scene, absolutely pissed. I think Marek's acting in that scene is phenomenal.

Q: Is there any of you in Tomo?

SM: Yes, that's probably why I picked him. He reminded me very much of myself when I met him for This Is England. He has my sense of humour. Tomo is exactly that I was at that age. I was kind of a rogue but people could see something in me. And in the same way they did in me and I saw something in him, hopefully he will, when he's older, with somebody else. I was surrounded by crazy people growing up. My dad's a real party guy and we used to have really crazy people round the house. I was never one of those kids who was shoved out the way when everyone was having a good time. Obviously they weren't feeding me with booze - I had to live within certain rules - but you'd come down in the morning and there would be someone on the sofa in his underpants with beer spilt down him and you'd make a cup of tea and speak to these people, so I had a chance to meet a lot of eccentric characters.

I always try to continue to find new talent. I always find it exciting giving someone a chance who hasn't done it before.

Q: Message of the movie?

SM: The two stories that really stand out for me are the father and the son and the son and his friend. The son is the quietest among them but he has the greatest journey.

Q: What films inspired you when you were growing up?

SM: One of the things that had a big impact on me was Alan Clarke's Made In Britain, which was incredible. You see, in England, in the Eighties a lot of filmmakers didn't get funding and had to go into TV. And Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Alan Clarke, Stephen Frears, all in the Eighties seemed to be making films especially for Channel 4. So as a kid my cinema, I was getting it through the TV. They weren't TV movies, they were great pieces of cinema, yet I was getting access to them, so things you wouldn't be able to get into a cinema to see because it was an 18, you could watch on TV at nine o'clock at night. When Channel 4 first kicked off in Britain, they had a film every week, so you'd have Made In Britain or Walter or a Ken Loach film.

So I was really inspired by that kind of movement in Britain at that time, which was a kind of social realism but it spoke about what I was walking around in when I was a young skinhead. Made In Britain was incredibly powerful - in some ways kind of glamourised anarchy and being told that there was no future, people like Trevor, the lead hero in Made In Britain, was kind of like a hero to me because he said: "Well, if I've got nothing I'm going to give you fucking hell" - he was an incredible anti-hero. So you got things like that when you were 11 and 12. Then I got little bit older and was watching films like Mean Streets by Scorsese and realise that he was making films about his community, in a way. I know some of his films are big, but the Italian/American community, he's stayed quite true to that. Mean Streets was one of the biggest influences on me because I had grown up with a similar group of small-time hoods, but they were in the Midlands and I wanted to make a film about them. I took a lot of inspiration from watching that. Alongside this British realism in my films but then a lot of influence of how Scorsese used music and visuals. So it goes a little bit beyond the kitchen sink drama hopefully and in Somers Town the way I use music throughout it hopefully adds a beauty and a lyricism.

Q: What's next?

SM: I'm doing a film called King Of The Gypsies, it's about a man who lived in Uttoxeter when I was a boy and he was a gypsy prize fighter. He was basically the champion of the gypsies for about 20 years and when he retired he went into the Catholic Church and tried to get out of the game of fighting. And it's all about this man struggling with religion and one of the most brutal sports in the world - bare-knuckle fighting. So I think it's going to be quite an epic adventure. This Is England won a BAFTA earlier in the year so now I can take on more ambitious projects. I want Daniel Day Lewis to play a part in it. But he doesn't do a lot of films. I've got a part in it I'd love him to have a look at. And Paddy Considine, who's writing it with me, I've got a major part in it for him. The idea of putting those two on screen together would be amazing. But apart from that it will be as many genuine gypsies as possible.

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