||Following up his critical hit This Is England was never going to be easy. But then throughout his career, Shane Meadows has always managed the element of surprise. In the case of Somers Town, it’s directing a black-and-white film about boyhood friendship that’s a third in Polish. Despite ultimately winning the Michael Powell Award at the 2008 Edinburgh Film Festival, like the characters of the film, it had humble beginnings. Originally meant as a short film in collaboration with Eurostar, after Meadows’ regular screenwriter Paul Fraser came on board, it evolved into something quite different. Set in the little-known London neighbourhood, situated between the three railway termini of Euston, St. Pancras and King’s Cross, it follows the exploits of Midlands runaway Tommo (This Is England’s Thomas Turgoose) and Marek (Piotr Jagiello), the son of a Polish labourer. A poignant story about finding first love, as the boys run into a twenty-something French café waitress named Maria (Elisa Lasowski) and both try to win her affections, it’s crafted with the sort of trademark humour that Meadows has become known for since making his 1998 debut Twenty Four Seven. That it’s also his first project set outside of his native Midlands and the first time he’s worked on a script that he hasn’t been involved in writing suggests that Meadows has entered into uncharted territory with Somers Town. But as the end result shows, it’s territory he takes to with aplomb.
Q: Can you explain how Somers Town began?
A: Yeah. It started out as a feature idea, when it was first put to me in the spring or summer of 2007. I was told that Eurostar wanted to make a film about kids, possibly in Paris or possibly in London – places that the Eurostar went to. When I heard it was a feature film with commercial backing, I didn’t really see myself doing it. I thought it’s not really my cup of tea. The idea of getting into bed with someone I’d never worked with, and it being commercial backing – my worry was that it was going to be shots of blokes in trains smiling, patting kids on the head and saying, ‘Have a nice day on the Eurostar!’ I wrongly thought it was going to be not my territory, and I couldn’t quite understand why they’d asked me, so I pulled off the project. Then I said they should speak to Paul Fraser, the guy I’d co-written with, because he’s worked on a couple of kids’ feature film scripts that are currently in development. And I said, if they wanted to develop that, then maybe I’d look at it further down the line.
Q: So what happened then?
A: A couple of months later, I heard from Fraser that they were going to make a short film and once he’d got the script, would I mind looking at it? It was only going to be a week to ten days shoot. Obviously a lot less risk, as it’s not quite the same as putting your name to a feature film project. So I was really happy, read the script and it was fantastic. I was quite baffled that they were going to give me carte blanche to make it as if it was my own film. They’d done a lot of glossy campaigns for Eurostar, but this guy, Greg Nugent, was a film fan, and loved my stuff, and literally just wanted me to direct it.
Q: What agreements were given to you to ensure that the film was independent from the Eurostar brand?
A: Barnaby [Spurrier, producer] did a great job in being very clear from the start with Eurostar that we had to treat this project in the same way as my other films. That meant he got me total control over script, cast, the final cut and the music. We had a first draft script that Paul wrote and obviously that was always going to stay as the blueprint for the film. But the way me and Paul work is one of constant development and improvisation, so Eurostar just left us to it.
Q: What convinced you about the script?
A: I fell in love with it, when I saw the relationship between the two boys. This idea of this rough, renegade kid from the Midlands and this sweet, artistic lad from Poland, whose quite lonely. And they get forced together and fall in love with this French waitress…it reminded me of a lot of New Wave French cinema, and I thought, ‘I’d like to have a go at it.’
Q: But how did the short expand to a feature?
A: We laid out this 10-day shoot, and a couple of days rehearsal, and when we started to rehearse, things started to expand. The father and son, which were Piotr [Jagiello] Ireneusz [Czop], were from Poland, and they gelled really quickly. That was working fantastically in the rehearsals. Perry Benson is one of those characters, you get him in any room with any amount of actors and gold just seems to come out. And of course I’d had that relationship with Tommo [Turgoose] previously, so we had that shorthand relationship. So what was meant to be a couple of days of everyone getting to know each other, within half a day they’d got that out the way and were coming up with new material. So at the end of that first day, it had swelled from a 25-page script to a 40-page script, as I had all these brand new ideas. By the end of the second day, I thought, ‘If we can get all this stuff shot in 10 days, there’s probably something more feature length there.’
Q: How did it influence your direction, having the film financed by a brand?
A: It didn’t make any difference. I made the film exactly as I would have made any other film. The only additional freedom that I had was that it didn’t matter how long or short it was so when I cut it I was able to simply make it work at the perfect length for the story in its own right.
Q: What role did Eurostar play in the production of the film?
A: I don’t remember meeting them at all on set, although I know they were busy helping Barnaby with locations and permissions and all that ‘producery’ stuff. Since we have made the film they have been brilliant at supporting it without ever trying to make into something that it isn’t.
Q: How did you find working in London?
A: Working in London’s harrowing, really, at times. If someone isn’t reversing up the road in a digger, they’re coming out with a ladder and sticking it in your scene, and saying, ‘Right, I want £500 or I’m not moving my ladder because that’s my windows and I want to clean them now’. I’ve never known anything like it. How anything gets made in London, I’ll never know!
Q: Rather like the character of Tommo in the film, you were the out-of-towner struggling to survive?
A: Yeah. It was really hard at first. It’s like swimming upstream. You just have to go with it. For the first week, I was pulling my hair out. To put it in perspective, the night before we started shooting, I was coming back from the shops with a couple of bags of shopping, to try and save some cash – they’d put me in this really nice flat, but in all the restaurants, pasta was like £385! So I went to this local supermarket, come back with these two bags of shopping, then fell down a pothole outside this pub in front of loads of people! I broke a bone in my foot, so the next day, I came into work with this great big massive Wayne Rooney air-boot thing on, and then I caught the flu…I was having a nightmare! In my head, I was thinking all the signs were telling me I shouldn’t be doing this project. Everything seems to be going wrong. Sometimes that can happen and the film turns out to be rubbish, and sometimes it doesn’t – and luckily it went that way.
Q: When did you know it was working out?
A: As we got a week in, everything the two boys were doing was working. As you can see from the finished film, a lot of the time, I just let the camera run as much as possible in one take. When you start to think, ‘Well, there may be something longer here’, there was never going to be the coverage. So it was a bit of a trade off. Do I try and go for a longer thing and go for a simpler shooting style? Or do I cover what we’ve got and make this short film?
Q: How did you find directing in another language?
A: That became one of the highlights for me. You don’t know how it’s going to be, having a translator next to you when people are talking. But I probably learnt more on that film than in five years about directing. You think so much of it is about the words people are saying, but in actual fact, I can tell a good or bad actor in a Polish audition when I didn’t even know what they were saying. It was really apparent. And those two stood out immediately in that audition, so that’s quite eye-opening as a director. You don’t realise how much is about body language and chemistry. It’s not just what people say, so that was an experience in itself.
Q: How would you describe the area of Somers Town to anyone who doesn’t know it?
A: Coming from Nottingham, I always come into St. Pancras, and Somers Town nestles between Euston and St. Pancras, just a few metres back from the Euston Road. So when you look at the architecture, with all these different influences on the flats, some of it almost looks Moroccan or Parisian. I was completely baffled. That right behind the British library is one of the most static London populations that exists. A lot of people who live there, their families – fathers and grandfathers – have lived their for generations. It’s almost like a fish bowl. Everyone has moved their way around. It isn’t a natural cut-through to anywhere, so a lot of people don’t know it’s there, but when you look around the area, you do see the signs. I went in there knowing nothing about it. When I heard about Somers Town, I thought it was going to be in the East End, and then I saw it every time I came into London, but just never knew.
Q: Do you think many people expected you to capitalise on the success of This Is England and make a film bigger than Somers Town?
A: Somers Town was this fantastic accident, in that respect. I decided to take a year off, to take stock and look at doing a bigger project. And in my year off, which was meant to be my quietest year, I made Somers Town . Then I made another film with Paddy Considine, called Le Donk, which was meant to be a short but turned into a feature (and hasn’t been released yet). I made a film about my granddad in Thailand – which was meant to be a holiday. And I also made a film about a musician called Gavin Clark, so it turned out to be my busiest year ever when I was meant to be taking it easy. So all of those things weren’t on the agenda.
Q: Still, you probably weren’t expecting to get a feature when you began Somers Town?
A: Somers Town out of all of them was the biggest surprise to me. I love it in some ways more than my other films. Because there was no pressure on it, you can tell from the film…it’s a lot more light-hearted. It’s not like my last two films, where the end of the film leaves people reeling. I think sometimes when you’ve been given a lot of money – millions and millions – you feel under pressure that you’ve got to hit all of these big major notes all the time. Somers Town was made on a micro budget So although it was accidental that it came out, it was actually a fantastic step for me. I thought I was naturally going to go on and make King of the Gypsies, which was my biggest film to date. And although I started developing it, I started making these smaller pieces in between. It happened quite fortuitously but it showed me I’m going to enjoy working more with undulation – a big one, a tiny one. It’s just about making work, great work.
Q: Did you think you were going to get criticised then for Somers Town?
A: I didn’t really know what to expect, and to be honest what other people think has stopped bothering me these days. When I saw it was going to be a certain length, I could’ve stripped it back and made it smaller, but I was so proud of it, and the acting in it I think is flawless. The actors are just fantastic. It’s so natural and straightforward. And I thought, ‘It’s got to be this length’ and I don’t care that people might say, ‘Off the back of This is England, you could’ve done this’. To make a little black-and-white film, a third in Polish, in a town I’d never shot in, in a lot of ways, it’s the bravest thing I’ve done. Even though it appears to be this little sideways step. A lot of the directors I respect tend to work like that and I think it’s a great thing to do.
Q: Where did the idea of this friendship between two boys come from?
A: This all really came from Paul Fraser. We were both really rough little working class kids. Our parents still live in the same semi-detached houses either side of each other that we grew up in as kids. But something happened to him when he was 11 years old. He had an accident playing football and broke his back and ended up in a bed for two or three years. So whereas I went on to become more of a Shaun Fields in This Is England, he went on to become more of a Marek, an oddball. When he first came back to school, he felt like an alien. He was putting on a cockney accent. He’d grown up in bed and had become much more artistic. He’d become a writer. And that’s what I love about Marek. Tommo and Marek shouldn’t really hang around together. But they need each other for different reasons. Marek is lonely because his Dad isn’t really there for him. And Tommo has had everything taken off him on the first night he gets to London. By the end of the film, you feel like they’re going to be friends for the rest of their lives. Although I didn’t have a specific relationship like that, I think Fraser’s got this beautiful knack…it’s not a relationship I would’ve naturally written about. The people that came through his door when he was poorly…he had this ambulance driver who would do magic tricks and then cry because his wife had left him. So he had all these really mad experiences as a kid. So him writing by himself creates this whole new dynamic. And this is the first film I’ve ever made, that I haven’t had some part in writing. So it’s opened my eyes to working on other people’s scripts.
Q: Do you think Tommo and Marek are like little versions of you and Paul?
A: In a really backwards way they are. I don’t think they are, but Tommo really reminds me of me, and Marek really reminds me of Fraser, and in some ways they are like us. I was always the little dominant one, but Fraser would always stand up for himself in a quiet way in the same way Marek does. They’ve got a Terry and June like relationship. They’re almost like a married couple by the end of the film. But at the heart of it, they’re great kids. Tommo is a bit of an Oliver Twist – he’s got a bark louder than his bite but he’s still a good kid. And Marek needs Thommo to get in those situations where he can talk to girls. He uses Tommo’s confidence.
Somers Town is released on 22nd August by Optimum Releasing. For more information please visit the website - http://www.somers-town.com/