Warp Films 10 Report

Dance at my party! Kiran Acharya reports from Warp Films' 10th birthday celebrations in Sheffield, headed by a special Dead Man's Shoes event

More than twenty years after Warp Records’ first release, ‘Track With No Name’ by Sheffield trio Forgemasters, the company’s ever-growing film division celebrates a decade of similarly stylish and entrancing movies with live soundtrack screenings of This is England (2006) at London’s BFI Southbank, and their first full feature Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) in Rotherham’s Magna Science Centre. A former steelworks now reconditioned as an educational attraction, the venue symbolises Warp’s position in Sheffield’s post-industrial creative economy. Walking to the entrance in 1989 you might have heard the industrial clang and burr of metal rolling from the foundry. On the darkened approach in 2012 you hear excited chatter, while maniacal laughter and razor-sharp beats pound out from inside.

The party continues until 4am with DJ sets from Pablo Clements and Tom Ravenscroft, rounded off by whomping techno from Andrew Weatherall in the main hall. Specially commissioned prints by Pete McKee hung along the walkways, offering affectionate, cartoony takes on Warp titles including Tyrannosaur and Kill List (both released to much acclaim in 2011). Movie-inspired designers Last Exit to Nowhere sold one-off T-shirts with famous faces including Michael Smiley and Thomas Turgoose. The central event, however, was the live re-scoring of Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, with UNKLE musicians Gavin Clark, James Griffith and Joel Cadbury leading a five-strong band to create a new score.

The film begins with returning soldier Richard, played by Paddy Considine, wandering the edges of the Peak District. His younger, mentally impaired brother Anthony trails dutifully behind. Mixed with nostalgic and authentic Super 8 footage sourced from Warp Films co-founder Mark Herbert’s grandfather, tonight the opening is completed by the band’s faithful and full-bodied take on Bill ‘Smog’ Callahan’s ‘Vessel in Vain’, Clark powerfully and mournfully intoning, "I can’t be held responsible / For the things I see…"

As Warp’s feature debut, Dead Man’s Shoes was crucial in allowing the company to develop every subsequent film, be it Four Lions – which opened in only 115 UK cinemas in 2010 but eventually made more than $4 million worldwide – or this year’s acclaimed meta-horror Berberian Sound Studio. The bleak, artful aggression of Dead Man’s Shoes established a natural home for director Meadows, who introduces the screening and describes how a decade ago he was languishing after the frustrating and compromised experience of making his 2002 feature Once Upon a Time in The Midlands. Considine had bowed out of the production when executive interference meant it would no longer be based on their earlier short Three Tears for Jimmy Prophet.

"I was living out on a farm, sitting around in a pair of Marks & Spencer underpants," recalls Meadows from the stage. With nothing but a series of homespun movies "filmed in hours, in days," the director was directionless until Mark Herbert arrived to ask why he wasn’t working on a feature. "Nobody’ll fund it," he said. "Well," responded Herbert, "I’ll fucking do it."

Filmed in just 22 days in the small Derbyshire town of Matlock, Dead Man’s Shoes was the movie that let Warp capitalise on the momentum they had gathered with their first small production, Chris Morris’ 12-minute BAFTA-winning short My Wrongs 8245-8249 & 117. With Herbert facilitating the production, Meadows and Considine could work at their own pace, develop ideas on the fly, settle on the best way to shoot a scene. Similarly fatigued with the inefficiency of big budget productions, Herbert could lead a responsive and flexible crew and work efficiently.

"I found there was a lot of waste on films," says Herbert, who had completed work on Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights before moving to Warp. "A hell of a lot of waste. So a lot of it was about thinking that we could approach it in a better way. I met Shane at the end of February 2003, and by May of the same year we were on set filming."

Although it’s a violent tale, with Considine’s Richard returning from service to terrorise the small-town drug pushers who abused his vulnerable brother during his absence, Herbert found it wasn’t a hard sell to financiers. Enterprises like Film4 and The Midlands Fund had pledged their support, helping to raise the £720,000 budget and to open the film in 27 screens. Optimum Releasing, which became StudioCanal UK in 2006, provided the network that got the DVD out to a wider audience. Watching along with the new music at Magna was to see a work rich with tension, foreboding and perfectly-observed gestures in the performances. Anthony, sensitively and emotively portrayed by Toby Kebbell, looks up to his older brother to the extent that he tries to mimic even the way he casually places two hands on a rail.

Kebbell’s performance is remembered with particular affection because he accepted the role at only a week’s notice, after another more hesitant actor abandoned the idea of playing a challenged young man who is bullied and force-fed LSD. Again, Herbert enthuses about the team’s freedom to respond to changing circumstances. "Like Shane does, with genius instincts of cast, he got Toby along to the house in Matlock where we were staying and said, ‘Look, I want you to do this. Can you do it – we’ve got a week to crack this character and this role.’ And Toby, along with Shane’s guidance, just cracked it."

But even with such a confident actor, the crew didn’t know whether Kebbell’s role in the chronology would work. They filmed a number of scenes with and without him, with a plan B to rely on flashbacks to show the torture from years before. As they progressed they saw that the film worked, though Herbert explains that even the climactic final scenes were subject to change right up until the last minute. The plan was to shoot in a quarry, but when they arrived on location Meadows and Considine realised it was wrong – that it was too big and too open a space. At a moment’s notice they packed the crew into the one van used during the shoot and drove to Riber Castle, where the young Anthony had been abandoned years before.

"We just jumped in the van and shot at that new location," says Herbert. "It was never written for there. We did it literally on the spur of the moment. And that, then, just felt right." From there the film ends with a helicopter shot – "the most extravagant shot, by a long way" – of the crumbling castle and the town below, accompanied in the original cut by Estonian classical composer Arvo Pärt’s ‘De Profundis’. At the Sheffield screening the musicians reinterpret the tone, offering an equally profound but more energised track that draws standing applause.

In terms of explaining the film’s resonance and appeal, producer Mary Burke points to the fact that like This Is England or even Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut Submarine (which Warp Films produced in 2010), Dead Man’s Shoes is actually a kind of relocated genre piece, allowing audiences to relate to the narrative structure even if they’ve never seen a feature filmed in little-known places like Matlock. "Dead Man’s Shoes is a Western set in the Midlands so it’s not like the form itself is disengaging or alien," she says. "You know what’s going to happen – you know somebody’s going to get it in the end. If you look at all our films they’re pretty much like that: This Is England is a coming of age story, but set in the skinhead world. Submarine is like a coming of age but in Nowhere, Wales – and with a really sadistic weird kid at the core of it."

Burke has worked only with Warp, hidden for years in the soundproof mastering booth at the back of the record label’s London offices while Herbert and third founder Barry Ryan worked from Herbert’s Sheffield garden shed. "It was one of those things where we were just trying to get by and calling ourselves a company," she says. "For about five years that’s how we worked, with backpacks, running in and out of Soho with our laptops, trying to plug in where we could."

Burke agrees with Herbert that Warp’s two main turning points were the initial success of My Wrongs…, and the subsequent work with Meadows which, from a business perspective, brought approval from the rest of the industry. "That relationship with Shane was so pivotal," she says. "Dead Man’s Shoes was such a successful independent film and to have people come out of relatively nowhere – from a techno music label – to do that, got a lot of attention real quickly."

In 2005 they set up Warp X, employing Robin Gutch to facilitate six low-budget films in three years. The likes of Donkey Punch and A Complete History of My Sexual Failures (both 2008) plus the music festival doc All Tomorrow’s Parties (2009) followed, with Warp X generally regarded as a shot in the arm for the way such productions could be approached in the UK.

"At that time there really weren’t that many single companies making lots of films,’ says Burke. "And then, we just churned them out. I mean we were really doing them fast. The idea was again an elevated genre, using Dead Man’s Shoes as an example. All the films had to be a million pounds and below, with the idea being to see how many people you can fit in a van, making it in four weeks and that’s it. Not ‘We’re gonna spend two million quid to make a film over ten months,’ but ‘We’re gonna do them as fast as possible so that you have the highest quality production values.’ And it worked. I mean it really did work."

Warp Films’ latest short A Gun for George appears as part of the nationwide Joy of Six showcase until January 7; a full list of screenings can be found here.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today