LILLE, France — It takes just the first five minutes of Shane Meadows’ “The Virtues” – written with Jack Thorne, produced by Warp Films, airing shortly on the U.K.’s Channel 4, part of ITV Studios Global Ent.’s spring drama slate – for viewers to feel a large compassion for Joseph, played by Stephen Graham (“This is England,” “Boardwalk Empire”).
That’s despite – or because of, in part – his not saying a word.
He’s just dropped off from work, some painting job, at his drab council flat, runs a bath, puts on the kettle, and is suddenly lost on reverie, then looks out of the window at some kids playing football across the way in a playground and fingers his temple, as if his head has an old wound, while tears well in his eyes.
Something is clearly not right with Joseph, who is losing everything he holds dear. His ex-wife, and 10-year-old son are emigrating to Australia while he’ll stay in England’s Midlands. On a drinking jag with strangers at a pub, he’s terrorized by images of priests ranting that Jesus loves him. Waking up he gets a coach to Liverpool and then a ferry to Belfast. There, the series synopsis says, he’ll “confront the demons from a childhood spent in the care-system that continues to haunt him with savage and brutal consequences.” But in Belfast, he meets the feisty Dinah, who has her own secrets.
Described as “at once a love story between two people cast adrift in life and an exploration of the conflict between sin and virtue,” “The Virtues” is a pilgrimage of personal redemption.
It boasts the hallmarks that have made Meadows one of the U.K.’s most notable auteurs: Kitchen-sink realism, extraordinary performances, emotion, large shards of humor. But it also “creates a landscape like nothing else I’ve ever worked on,” Meadows has written. It underscores in particular the benefits of stepping up in sophistication of camera set up, which allows him at one and the same time to capture what Meadows calls “one magical moment” and yet chose the best camera shot – a long shot of Joseph, feeling utterly alone on Liverpool park bench – to synch with characters emotions.
“The Virtues” world premiered at Series Mania, in main competition, on Sunday, March 24. Variety chatted to Meadows.
You have written that “The Virtues” “creates a landscape like nothing else I’ve ever worked on.” I wonder if you could go into slightly more detail…
Apart from taking place across multiple cities and towns across the UK and Ireland, which I’d never really attempted before, The Virtues is unlike anything I’ve worked on because I could finally capture drama in the way I’d always dreamt of, in as few takes as humanly possible.
Unlike my previous work, where on the odd scene we would use 5-10 cameras on very rare occasions, on “The Virtues” we shot pretty much every scene on 5-10 cameras. This means you can capture that one magical moment in time and know you have a full scene in the bag.
“The Virtues” is notable from its very first minutes for the actors’ performances. How do you achieve this? I believe you talk to them for a long time…
The actors are always on set with me first thing, and before we even think about rehearsing we have a good chinwag about the scene.
Over the years we have built up a very trusting relationship with our production team, so there’s never any pressure to speed through a rehearsal and get the crew and cameras in.
Being given that space to make the scene work is a massive part of how the actors achieve their performances. The other part, of course, is how it’s then captured by the production team and I had an incredible team on The Virtues. It’s absolutely a two-way street.
How much improvisation is there in scenes? In the family dinner with his ex-wife, son and her husband, the dialog seems completely natural but, at the same time, touches key issues, such as when his ex-wife asks Joseph pointedly how’s work and how’s money. Only a few scenes later, you realize why.
Jack Thorne (my co-writer on this) and I will create a fully-formed script months before production, so we are never wandering around aimlessly. But on top of that, a lot of work goes into the characters histories so everyone has a very good idea of what’s happened in the years leading up to to the moment we’re about to shoot.
The scene you mentioned benefitted massively from these workshops, as so much of that scene is about what isn’t said – the silent pauses – the agonizing looks across the table. The raw emotion that sometimes only an actor lost in the moment and a camera can capture.
“The Virtues” is co-written with Jack Thorne. You write with co-writers. What’s the attraction of that for you?
When I’m directing, I’m constantly bouncing ideas around. Whether it be with the actors, our team, Channel 4, my wife – anyone who’ll listen, sometimes! The thought of sitting in a room with a laptop on my own scares me to death.
Being lucky enough to have worked with long-time collaborators like Paul Fraser and Jack Thorne over the years has meant I’ve been able to write in a similar way to how I would direct, through collaboration.
Bouncing ideas around until you get to the point where your fingers start tapping those ideas out of their own accord, rather than for the sake of it.
What were your main guidelines when directing?
I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘guidelines’ exactly but if you mean an ethos that I work to, that’s probably something that’s developed over time into something fairly simple. Don’t shoot shit and no matter what anyone tells you, don’t put it on telly until it’s ready.
The score at the beginning of “The Virtues,” when Joseph walks across the lovely fields to his ex-wife’s place – seems highly ambiguous, while pointing up larger dramatic structures. It’s thrumming – there’s still life left in Joseph, despite everything – but ominous: Joseph is walking to be sentenced to solitude, with his family confirming that it’s moving to the other side of the earth. Do you use the score like this throughout the series?
Yes, the music continues to work more as a brooding sympathiser to the characters throughout, rather than a fake emotion music pump layering big dollops of emotion across everything because the scene is lacking.
The day PJ Harvey agreed to create the score for the series I felt like I’d won the lottery, to be honest. We use songs by some other fantastic artists in the series, but the heart of it comes from her.
”This is England ’86” turned out to be the first installment of a three-part series. Could “The Virtues” see some kind of extension?
The time we spent casting in the UK & Ireland, and the months of rehearsals we did before the shoot mean that, much like ‘This Is England’, all the characters have the potential to develop further.
That being said, the end feels fairly conclusive and I’ve no plans to do another as yet. Never say never though, baby!