"There was a definite point when that happened," says English filmmaker Shane Meadows, recalling the moment several years ago that persuaded him to abandon a life of crime and direct his energies toward making movies. "I got caught pinching a breast pump for a single mum," he says, humiliation rising into his thick features. When he went before the court, remembers Meadows, "All I could hear was sniggering; the judge couldn't keep a straight face. That was when I started focusing on writing about it rather than taking part in it."
The 25-year-old Meadows says he hasn't committed any crimes since - "I was quite a pathetic criminal, really." He has, however, become a cause celebre in the British press ever since his 60-minute featurette Small Time and his short Where's the Money, Ronnie? started making the festival rounds two years ago. On the basis of these films, producer Stephen Wooley (The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy) gave Meadows his shot at making a full-length feature. The result was TwentyFourSeven, a black-and-white *1.5 million production and a strikingly beautiful, moving debut.
Meadows' breast-pump fiasco, with its desperation and sad-sack humor, sounds like it comes straight out of a Ken Loach film, and it is to Loach, along with Mike Leigh and even early Scorsese, that the actor-writer-director has been compared. For some, the hype has a familiar ring. "Shane came along at a moment when there was need for a British Tarantino," says Nick James, editor of the British Film Institute magazine, Sight and Sound. With last month's London release of TwentyFourSeven, even Sight and Sound was ready to declare Meadows "The Great Brit Hope" on its cover.
In Britain, awash as it is in Hollywood product while its own homegrown alternatives are hampered by continual financial crises, poor distribution and tepid audiences, great hopes are regular phenomena, from Stephen Frears in the '80s to Danny Boyle in the '90s. In Los Angeles for a day to promote TwentyFourSeven's stateside release - he's staying at the Bel Age Hotel, a far cry from his Nottingham council flat - the sharp, colorfully spoken Meadows views the praise and its attendant burdens with a practical eye. "No one wants that on their shoulders," he says. "But at the end of the day it's better than being called the great Brit piece of shit."
Through some 20 shorts, all shot on a borrowed camcorder, on up to the 35mm black-and-white TwentyFourSeven, Meadows has explored with humor, grit and an often surprising grace the everyday indecencies and powerful bonds of living young and poor in a small, working-class Midlands town. Although the subject is not particularly groundbreaking for British cinema, Meadows brings a few fresh qualities to the table.
He is, to begin with, part of the community he makes his films about. The son of a truck driver and a barmaid, Meadows was born and raised in Uttoxeter, just outside Nottingham, and his characters are the people he's grown up with, his mates, guys with monikers like Jocko the Spoono and Mat the Fence. Meadows counts Loach's Kes - "one of the best British films of all time" - and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves as favorites, but a main source of inspiration was Mean Streets. "When I was on the dole, I used to watch it every day," he says. "I just couldn't believe this guy had made a film about the people that he knew. It gives you a real confidence."
Meadows' own first forays into telling stories about his neighborhood were anything but ego-boosting. His impersonations of its more eccentric characters, which kept his friends in stitches, didn't go down well in the community-college drama class he took. "No one was interested," says Meadows. The reception was the same when he took a stab at photography. "People would see pictures of a guy called Jocko the Spoono and just go, 'That's a bit slapstick, isn't it?' And I'd be saying, 'Yeah, but this is the fucking guy that robbed like 200 cream cakes out of the back of a fucking wagon.'"
Eventually, Meadows found Intermedia, a community arts center where he volunteered so he could access its video equipment. Using his friends as his cast, and with budgets hovering around *10, Meadows turned out improvised short comedies at the rate of one a month. "They were really shit, the lowest, worst stories ever," he says. But they proved a hit. In no time, young, enthusiastic Nottingham crowds were turning up for Meadows' word-of-mouth screenings. "It was really bizarre. It was the first taste of success I'd had in my whole life."
For Nick James, the amateurish exuberance, the sense of place and the visual inventiveness of Meadows' work are what make the director unique to the point where comparisons with Loach are irrelevant. "He seems to be coming from a self-made tradition," he says. "Brassed Off and The Full Monty show Loach's influence. But Shane has played around with the form much more than these other directors. He's built an aesthetic around a bunch of friends getting together to make a film.
"What's interesting and exciting about Shane," continues James, "is that given the opportunity of making a bigger-budget movie he didn't do something conventional. It's a story that doesn't have a clear trajectory, it's more impressionistic."
TwentyFourSeven is structured as a series of intimate vignettes with Bob Hoskins as Darcy, a down-and-out loner who reopens the boxing club of his youth to give a crew of unemployed teenage misfits "something to believe in." It's a shopworn concept, but Meadows avoids cliches, or rather invigorates them, through his personal connections to the characters and his ability to translate that into vital cinema.
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Set in the late '80s, the film hits many of the dour points we've come to expect from films about the British working class during Thatcher's reign. In interviews as well as in a first-person piece for The London Guardian, Meadows has railed against conservative economic policies, but he claims, unlike Loach, no political agenda. "Darcy isn't a communist," says Meadows. "He just says this is where you're at, let's try and do something about it. It's about the British spirit."
Since the release of TwentyFourSeven, which has done slow business in London, but better business up north, not everyone has embraced Meadows as a savior of the national cinema: The Financial Times called his debut "mush." Regardless, Meadows has already made his mark. His sudden rise to cinema wunderkind may be old hat here, thanks to Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, et al., but in Great Britain, it's something new. His aggressively DIY approach to production and exhibition is a shot in the arm for a film community sorely lacking in investment and infrastructure. James sees the director as part of a growing "camcorder culture" throughout Europe, where a weak industry is forcing fledgling filmmakers to find alternative means of production.
For Meadows, there's simply no excuse not to try. "If you're a snob and you don't think camcorders are good enough, then fuck off," he growls. "It's like don't be a lazy bastard. Times have been much worse than they are now. If everyone decides that I'm useless and my films don't make any money, that's not going to stop me from making films on video." Since he wrapped TwentyFourSeven last June, Meadows has shot 10 more shorts on video. (He has his own camcorder now.) "If all you do is make a feature and then you make another feature, what have you developed, how have you moved on? I want to do 300 or 400 of 'em," he says. "I want to make the most short films in the world, unless God decides to remove me for being too cheeky.
"I'll make films for 50 pence if I have to. The only problem would be distribution, but then I started my own film festival [now called the Flip Side International Video Festival] when I couldn't get mine shown. I always find a way," says Meadows. "I'm very sneaky."