The script was written by director Shane Meadows and Considine, with additional material by Paul Fraser. After the bigger budgeted ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS, Meadows returned to his guerrilla filmmaking roots with DEAD MAN’S SHOES, which was made independently on a fairly low budget.
Writer-director Shane Meadows has forged his own path over several decades in the independent film industry. He’s best known for his 2006 film THIS IS ENGLAND, although that was his sixth feature, and subsequent mini-series follow-ups for Channel 4 (named after the years they’re set in: ’86, ’88 and ’90).
**Warning: this article contains spoilers**
Screenwriting and filmmaking lessons from indie thriller DEAD MAN’S SHOES
1. A simple story
Whether you subscribe to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or the idea that there are only seven basic plots, sometimes it seems like there are no new stories under the sun.
At its core, DEAD MAN’S SHOES has a very simple, archetypal story. A man returns to town, seeking revenge against those who wronged him and his family. This could describe (roughly) OLDBOY, KILL BILL, or JOHN WICK.
But it’s in the execution, the embellishments around this simple premise, that DEAD MAN’S SHOES comes alive and into its own. A familiar story can still work if told in an interesting way.
2. Lived-in settings
One such embellishment is the small town setting of Matlock, Derbyshire. Shane Meadows grew up and sets many of his films in the Midlands, and his work has a very strong sense of place as a result.
There are two benefits of this. One is that Matlock is an unusual and original setting which hasn’t been seen before in many films.
The basic bones of it are it’s a revenge movie, but the difference is that we set it in the Midlands… What if this happened in our town?
– Paddy Considine
The second is that Meadows brings his own personal perspective to the setting. The town is seen from the characters’ point of view. It’s run down, but there’s also a fair amount of natural and man-made beauty.
When Meadows has set films in other places with which he’s less familiar, for example SOMERS TOWN which takes place in London, he takes care to research and get to know the area first.
3. Mixing tones and genres
The bleak milieu of DEAD MAN’S SHOES would be perfect for a serious, social realist film. Meadows, however, injects plenty of comedy.
Then, when Richard begins his campaign of revenge, DEAD MAN’S SHOES shifts into horror, even slasher film territory. (Richard paints “one down” on the wall in the blood of his first victim.) The story has also been compared to revenge Westerns.
Even here, however, there’s humour. Herbie (Stuart Wolfenden), high with his friends, mistakes Richard in his gas mask for an elephant.
Similarly, when they visit Sonny (Gary Stretch), their gang’s leader, his face is covered in clown make-up. This is a character who, on some level, the audience needs to fear. He’s certainly the most sadistic and violent of them, and he was the ring-leader of the group’s abuse against Anthony. In his first real appearance, however, he looks ridiculous.
It’s a potentially risky balancing act, but somehow Meadows makes it work. What’s key is that he’s careful to separate out the dramatic story from the comic relief, even when they occupy the same scene.
The others laugh at Sonny’s clown make-up, but he doesn’t find it funny. They ridicule Herbie’s insistence that he saw an elephant, but they always take Richard himself as a serious threat, even in the beginning when he’s only pranking rather than attacking them.
Tone is very carefully calibrated, and can easily be thrown off balance. If you experiment with it, be careful the comedy doesn’t cannibalize the drama.
4. Making the most of a low budget
Shane Meadows conceived and executed DEAD MAN’S SHOES at a specific budget level. It became Warp Films’ first feature, the production company that went on to do THIS IS ENGLAND, FOUR LIONS and SUBMARINE among others.
The story doesn’t rely on specific locations. At the same time, it’s enhanced by the locations that were available, from the dilapidated farm-house Richard stays in to Riber Castle. (Again, local knowledge comes into play.)
A few gunshots and some blood are the closest the film gets to special effects.
We knew from day one what our budget limits were, so we weren’t trying to put a square peg in a round hole[…]
We knew what our constraints were, but that was a liberating experience. In production terms, everybody has to work harder because there are fewer people, but sometimes it can make you more inventive.
– Mark Herbert, one the producers of DEAD MAN’S SHOES
The result is that story and characters (and performances) become key.
Still, even with these limitations, DEAD MAN’S SHOES has a clear identity and marketing hook. Despite the multiple tones and low budget, it is a story of crime and revenge.
As cynical as it might sound, it becomes easier to sell a film when you can put a gun on the poster.
5. Characters who live off-screen
Crafting characters in three dimensions is difficult and something few screenplays and films achieve.
In DEAD MAN’S SHOES, even when characters just sit around at home, they’re still doing things. They’re still living. They share jokes about dirty magazines, bicker about feeding the fish and take drugs.
The result is that the characters feel like real people, rather than just pawns for the writer to move into place. Think about what your characters do in their spare time:
- What do they do before the story takes place?
- What do they do in between the beats of the story?
- When they’re off-screen, what do they get up to?
How much of this makes it into the script and film will vary. It depends on the plotting, genre and style. Sometimes it leads to great scenes, and other times it leads to indulgent navel-gazing.
Nevertheless, it’s always useful as a sort of backstory. The characters in DEAD MAN’S SHOES aren’t blank. They’re not waiting for the story to begin. Even if Richard doesn’t return for his revenge and this is just a “hang-out” movie, it would still be enjoyable and worth watching.
That’s the mark of great characters.
6. When and how to use flashbacks
Meadows uses flashbacks in DEAD MAN’S SHOES very carefully. Initially they’re brief, subjective and above all emotional rather than expository. They’re also intercut with archive footage of home movies.
Later, longer flashback sequences give more context. Still, the dialogue in them fades in and out.
It’s not important for the audience to hear what the characters are saying specifically. What’s important is that this was the dynamic of the abuse towards Anthony, with Sonny acting as the ring-leader.
The flashbacks are then used to create a mystery. Just what happened to Anthony in the past that makes Richard so hellbent on revenge in the present? As difficult as they are to watch, the audience want to see the flashbacks continue for an answer to this question.
DEAD MAN’S SHOES is partly about the past coming back to haunt the present. Anthony haunts Richard. Memories of what they’ve done haunt the gang as Richard, a man from their past, stalks them.
As a result, every flashback is purposeful and motivated. They’re never used for quick or easy exposition.
7. Moral grey areas
Every character in DEAD MAN’S SHOES occupies a moral grey area. What the group did to Anthony is truly horrifying. At the same time, so is the way Richard takes revenge.
As Richard crosses the line from revenge into sadism, the audience are unsure of who or what they should root for. He’s goes beyond a simple antihero.
The ending drives this home. Richard complains that his final victim, Mark, is supposed to be the monster. Instead, Richard has become the monster, and believes he himself deserves to die.
The audience’s allegiances in this film actually sway quite dramatically.
– Shane Meadows
Richard sees Mark’s family, including his two sons. He listens to Mark’s story. Mark’s crime was in not stopping the abuse, and he’s felt regret about it ever since. He’s since left the gang, and he’s certainly less guilty than Sonny was.
This kind of moral complexity sets DEAD MAN’S SHOES out from a standard revenge film. Meadows tells the story from both the perspective of Richard getting revenge and his victims. The film is empathetic to both sets of characters.
This challenges the audience, giving them something to think and talk about once the film’s over.
DEAD MAN’S SHOES is a film that makes great use of escalation.
Using title cards with the day and time (“Day One,” etc.) to build tension, Richard’s campaign of revenge begins small. He stares at Herbie and shouts at him in what could be a chance aggressive encounter.
That night, he vandalises their flat. He makes the personal connection clear.
Day two, he makes a direct threat. At the end of day two, he claims his first victim.
The situation steadily gets worse and worse for the gang, and the script is not afraid to add problem on top of problem. For example, when the gang find where he’s been staying, not only does Sonny accidentally shoot one of their own but their car breaks down and they have to walk home.
Each time, the audience wonder how things could possibly get worse. Each time, the script has a satisfying answer.
9. Theme underpins plot
In one pivotal scene in DEAD MAN’S SHOES, Richard spikes the gang’s kettle with drugs. He takes advantage of the resulting bad trip to kill them one by one.
Here, Meadows cleverly avoids all the clichés of drug-taking sequences in films. The way he films this scene makes it original and disturbing but above all it gets the audience into the character’s heads.
As with the flashbacks, Meadows uses the drug overdoses to show the past and present intermingling. The drug use isn’t gratuitous. It serves strong thematic as well as plot purposes.
10. The twist that’s not a twist
Perhaps it was the ’90s, with films like THE SIXTH SENSE and THE USUAL SUSPECTS, that trained film-goers to look for twists. Or maybe it’s the internet, with its endless fan theories about characters who are actually dead and dream the rest of the film.
Whatever the reason, in the current media-saturated landscape, if you try too hard to hide something from the audience there’s a good chance they’ll guess it.
Given the story of DEAD MAN’S SHOES – Richard’s violent revenge in the present and the escalation of the gang’s abuse of Anthony in the past – not to mention the title, the twist that Anthony is dead might not surprise some.
Shane Meadows doesn’t bend over backwards to fool or cheat the audience. Nor does he treat the reveal of Anthony’s death as a shocking twist. It doesn’t hugely matter at what point in the story the audience realise that Anthony is dead, the emotional impact of Mark describing how he died is the same. As a result, DEAD MAN’S SHOES is highly re-watchable.
If the audience is surprised by a twist, that’s a bonus. If they’re not surprised, then this shouldn’t completely ruin the story.
The legacy of DEAD MAN’S SHOES
DEAD MAN’S SHOES is so distinctively a Shane Meadows film that copying any aspect of it would be a mistake. His films draw on his own personal history, growing up around petty crime in the Midlands. Without a similar background (or a ton of research), a simple imitation would be inauthentic.
However, it is worth considering how cannily Meadows uses setting, tone, character and plotting while working with a low budget. Meadows has sustained such a long career by skilfully telling deeply personal stories that will also appeal to a wider audience.
He’s also proved that there is a strong appetite for British films that are made as well as set outside London, as the continued success of Sheffield-based Warp Films demonstrates.
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