Interview with Shane Meadows, writer-director of Dead Man's Shoes

Twenty years after its initial release, cult British classic Dead Man's Shoes is back in cinemas and the film's writer-director Shane Meadows was on hand at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to discuss the film's impact over the decades.

Twenty years on from its original release, Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes has become a British cult classic. Focussing on an ex-soldier (Paddy Considine) avenging his younger brother (Toby Kebbell) against a gang of low level drug dealers, it’s a violent tale of bullying and revenge. It’s a human story shot through with both humour and brutality, which broadly describes the bulk of Meadows’ work, particularly his sprawling This Is England project.

After two decades in the public consciousness, Dead Man’s Shoes was back at the Edinburgh International Film Festival for a retrospective screening, with Meadows in attendance. The filmmaker was on hand before the screening to discuss the occasion and reckon with the legacy of one of his most beloved films.

20 years on from its release, it’s fitting that Dead Man’s Shoes is showing again in Edinburgh!

Yeah, we filmed it in May 2003 so  maybe it would have been 2004 when we came to Edinburgh, but yes. Mark would have been with me back then too, because obviously Mark produced the film. That was the first time we worked together, so yeah, it’s amazing to be back!

What are your memories of making the film?

Well, it came off the back of doing a sort of bigger budget thing, called Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, and although the actors and everyone were amazing on it, it didn’t quite work out how I wanted it to. It also didn’t do any business, my career was always going in the same way where I was getting good reviews, but never really getting any money in the box office.

So I was running out of options for funding, and what was really mad was deciding with Mark to actually go for the lowest budget possible, or the highest budget possible in terms of having complete creative control because I didn’t have final cut on the film before it, and it didn’t really feel like my work somehow because I didn’t have that authorship.

It appeared like this was going to be a real challenge. Shooting three weeks, we’ve got no lights, very little time, no catering, people turning up in their own car. And then it ended up being the best experience ever! It was such an amazing learning experience that when you take away a lot of expensive choices like big lights, dollies, tracks…when you strip it all away and you’re just telling the story, it’s amazing how much you can shoot in a day.

So my memory of it was almost like going to university. I never did a film course, but that was like doing one. You think it was all about this and that, all about caravans and driving me back from set and all that, but it actually turned out the opposite was true. And that formed the basis of the next 10 years, for how things are made. We were all inspired by that.

So you took that that same kind of ethos into things like This is England?

Yeah, just knowing that because I turned away a little bit from my own process (on Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) just to be able to get something made, we had three or £4 million but it was the first film I didn’t have proper final cut on. So after that, I kind of went, even if I only make films for £100, as long as I’m making them, at least I can make those decisions. Making things by committee, I’d learnt, was not for me, and everything I’ve done since then, we’ve followed that. The thing I did last, The Gallows Pole, had a decent budget, but we still made it with that same sort of mentality.

Do you feel that, after the success of films like Dead Man’s Shoes and This is England that you get a bigger budget and creative control because your reputation grows?

Yeah, it definitely helps. I mean, obviously I’m talking about British budget levels, which by American standards always pale, but yeah, it definitely helps. But then there’s also a reality that goes with it, it’s like a marketplace. The lovely thing with TV I suppose, as opposed to film, is that people don’t have to pay to see it. You’re not at the mercy of a big cinema chain putting their faith in your film, because it’s very, very difficult. Independent cinemas are struggling, it’s very difficult to get your work seen in a cinema.

But the lovely thing about TV is that people choose with their feet, they don’t have to pay you. They maybe got a subscription, so it’s much, much easier to actually sort of get people to see your work. I would love to go back to films, as long as you’re working within a budget level that people feel comfortable, but if you had three flops in a row, you’d probably be in trouble, you know?

How has it been revisiting the film for this anniversary?

The last time I saw it was 2013, when there was a 10 year anniversary. Maybe it was 2012, but about 10 years ago, and they did a show in in Sheffield in this big sort of open space and a live score, so I’ve not seen it for 10 years. I don’t tend to go back and watch my stuff. If something turns up on TV or something, I might watch 10 minutes of it.

What’s been really lovely is people have been sending some of the photographs they took at the time. We had no trailers, no cars driving anyone around, no drivers, so there’s a picture of me and Paddy on lunch time, and we’re just both asleep in his car with the seats folded back. I don’t mean to sound like it’s like a hard luck story. The fact is, when there’s money sometimes, and there’s luxury and all of that, people start comparing their luxury to a person with a slightly more luxurious thing. Whereas if no one’s got anything, it creates this lovely camaraderie. That picture reminded me that we made it for the right reason.

That kind of thing can bond people, like you’re in the trenches together.

Yeah, it’s like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, when they split the camps and some have got the posh bit and all that. It’s funny, if everyone’s in the poor, there’s no problem but once some people are called King and they start ordering people around, it’s mutiny.

Are you a big reality TV fan?

I do love my yearly I’m A Celebrity, I like that. I sort of love it up until about the last few days, where all the lunatics have gone because they’re too extreme, because you end up with three really nice people at the end. I’m not one of those that watches those ones where it’s like you get married to someone you’ve met through a wall and all of that stuff. I know it exists, but I couldn’t go there.

Shane Meadows stands against a black background

Shane Meadows at the 2023 Edinburgh International Film Festival

It must be an interesting feeling to look back in hindsight and compare the initial reactions to the film, to its continued legacy, often landing on lists of the best British films of all time. What do you think it is about the film that connects with so many people?

I think it’s probably a couple of things. It was a big surprise to us because obviously it didn’t do very well in the cinema. It did OK, but it wasn’t in the cinemas for long. So that used to be where things ended, but with the advent of DVDs and them becoming lots more affordable. In HMV and those places, they had the most amazing world cinema sections, and back in those days you could walk around and look at films you maybe wouldn’t have found normally. It seemed to be one of those that people were just passing on, and passing on to each other. So as the years have gone by, people maybe talk to you about if you get recognised, if someone wants to ask you a question, generally dead man shoes is at the top of so many people’s list of anything I’ve made.

I think the fact that it’s a revenge film, but it’s actually got humour and the characters that are pretty despicable, you still end up laughing in moments like when they’re reading the porno mags. I think that maybe sets it slightly aside from a classic exploitation revenge film. And I think the fact that it’s not set in a big city, like gangsters running around in cars – it’s these small-time, shitty crooks that people can probably relate to. I think it also raises a questions in people. As a viewer, if you were shown the violence that is reaped, the revenge that’s reaped on people without seeing what they did to his brother, it’s one thing. But because of those sections of the past, I think it brings about something in people where they think, if that was someone I cared about and that had happened to them, I might actually feel about as angry as he does.

Obviously, people aren’t justifying revenge, but it makes you think about it and question it in a way that I think it maybe reaches inside people. I think people project onto because we’ve all been bullied or we’ve all seen bullying going on, so I wonder whether that’s maybe got something to do with it.

You touched on the film releasing in cinemas and on DVD. The film industry has changed in a lot of ways since Dead Man’s Shoes and your other earlier films, in terms of how people watch films and where they go to do it. Do you feel like it has become more challenging to get projects made?

Probably because I’ve been out of making features for quite a while now, I think, TV-wise, we’ve been through a boom period, but it feels like it’s on slightly shaky legs at the moment. Just because the subscription numbers just kept going up and up and up, and then I think it reached the top. Now all of a sudden, there’s no one left to sign up to Netflix. You start to see with documentaries that, whereas you were getting a Tiger King or a Staircase turn up every couple of weeks, now you’re getting something that was made 13 years ago, and you can tell they’re running out of stuff. So it’s this weird thing where there’s so many people who want content and need content that there’s obviously massive opportunities to do it, but I think people are now going well, we haven’t got enough subscribers to just be throwing enormous amounts of money around like they have been doing.

So I think the net result isn’t felt yet, it’s a slightly weird time and it’s going to have to settle down. It used to be that you’d have Sky Sports to watch the football and Netflix and that was it. Now you need about nine football things, Netflix, Disney, Paramount, Sky, Amazon. It’s kind of like the ‘90s where there was a boom and all the American studios set up offices in London, then the bottom dropped out of it and they all went home again. It feels like it needs to settle back down. You can’t put £10 million into these things if only 70,000 people are going to watch them, so I don’t know how it’s going to progress, but it’s just a bit of a mad time isn’t it?

What are you working on next?

Well, I want to do a feature. It’ll probably end up in one cinema the way things are going with releases, but I want to go back and make a feature. That’s where my head’s at. I’ve not got anything signed off yet, but I’ve got a few ideas that I want to make, lower budget, really hard-hitting stuff. I’ve been making TV for 10 years and I’ve been missing that gigantic screen and the film festival life and all of that. So I’d love to make a feature next and bring it back here!

Dead Man’s Shoes screened as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festval and returns to UK cinemas from September 15th.