Write what you know, the old chestnut echoes, and that’s precisely what celebrated British filmmaker Shane Meadows has been doing since his 1997 feature debut “TwentyFourSeven.” Meadows’ naturalistic, working class dramas all seem to be at least partly based on real-life experiences, from the drug-addled friend who was bullied into suicide — the inspiration behind his revenge thriller “Dead Man’s Shoes” — to the violence-prone skinhead pals from his youth that turn up in “This is England.” One of the films is even entitled “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands,” which is precisely where the BAFTA Award-winner was born, raised, and still lives today.
The rare exception to Meadows’ typical small-town locales, then, is his latest, “Somers Town,” which still features what film buffs might call kitchen-sink realism, but is transplanted to the titular neighborhood in central London. In a second collaboration with young Thomas Turgoose (who stole the show in “This is England” as an impressionable hooligan), the wonderfully warm “Somers Town” stars the brash, baby-faced teen as Tomo, a runaway who’s made his way to the capital city in search of something other than the dead-end life he foresees for himself in his home town. Alone and broke, Tomo finds an unlikely friend in Marek (Piotr Jagiello), the introverted son of a Polish immigrant, and together the two become partners in crime. Stealing and selling laundry, falling in love with the same Parisian waitress, and getting drunk together makes living in a rundown ‘hood all the more palatable. (The film has an unusual financial backstory: Eurostar initially funded the project as an abstract promotional tool, but had nothing to do with the script or production.)
Having already finished his next feature, “Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee,” Meadows was hard at work on yet another film, but was generous enough to take time out to answer some questions about “Somers Town,” already one of the year’s must-sees.
Thinking about Marek and his father, when was the last time you felt like an outsider?
I’ve always been a bit of an outsider. I came to filmmaking via a very unconventional route and have never had formal training. I started helping out a local film co-operative (mainly because there seemed to be a lot of girls working there) and I used to “borrow” their equipment on the weekends and make short films that I wrote, directed and acted in. I learned so much about filmmaking and storytelling, but always on my own terms. I think my best work comes when I stay true to my own way of working — in fact, that’s the only I will work now.
So from the film industry I am a bit of an outsider (although it was brilliant to be recognized and win the BAFTA for “This is England”), and I’ve always lived close to where I was born and brought up, which again is a long way — in every sense — from the media hubs of the UK. I think most of my work is about people who somehow find themselves on the outside of what we think of as normality, and how they manage to form important relationships which see them safely through their lives.
How early on in the brainstorming of this project did you know you wanted to work with Thomas Turgoose again, and do you foresee a lengthy career collaboration with him, à la François Truffaut and young Jean-Pierre Léaud?
Funny you should mention Truffaut, because I rewatched “The 400 Blows” a few months before I made “Somers Town” and it influenced the way I shot the film. As soon as I read the outline for “Somers Town,” I had Tomo in mind for the part — although we did audition a number of other kids as well. I know what Tomo is capable of and did like the idea of working with him again — he’d grown up a lot since “This is England” and he brought a whole new quality to the part.
I can imagine the challenges inherently presented by both working with child actors and working in a language other than your own, so instead: are there any advantages to either or both?
It was weird, because when we went to cast the Polish leads in Warsaw, we obviously had a translator working with us, but within a few minutes, I’d stopped listening to the translator and was just watching the performances. It’s about so much more than just words. It really didn’t seem to matter that I couldn’t understand what was being said.
From either a logistical standpoint or merely with a cinematic eye, did you have any personal revelations shooting in London for the first time?
It was really hard. The constant background noise of traffic, sirens and aircraft were a horror for the sound department. I also found that people are generally much more film savvy than in other cities like Nottingham, so it seems as if everyone wants to be paid not to clean their windows on a Wednesday morning or not to park their car in a particular space. I really liked the architecture of “Somers Town” and the people who have lived there for a long time were great and it’s surprising what a sense of community there is still there. From the outside, big cities always seem like big sprawling anonymous things, but once you get in there you realize how it is just made up of a lot of quite distinct separate smaller communities.