Go behind the scenes of the new UK thriller with the director Eran Creevy

Shifty is the debut movie from Eran Creevy, who learned his craft from the ground up. Starting as a runner on UK gangster flick ‘Layer Cake’ and moving onto the big bad world of directing TV commercials for Nike. The impressive film was made on a shoestring budget and was written by Eran while working as an office temp.

Tell us about your new movie Shifty?

The basic premise is 24 hours in the life of a crack cocaine dealer. The slightly bigger story is that it’s about a guy called Chris, played by Danny Mays. He returns, after being away for four years, to his home town. You find out that he left for quite dark reasons; maybe there was the death of a girl. He returns after four hears to see his best friend Shifty, who has now escalated to being one of the most prolific crack cocaine dealers in the town. It’s about their day together, facing demons and things that happened in the past.

What inspired you to write the film?

I was looking for a film to write. I was kind of into my heroes like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen and I looked at them and thought ‘What did they do?’ and they wrote films about New York, where they grew up, the streets they grew up on and what they knew and I thought maybe for my first film I should stay in my comfort zone. So I decided to write a film about growing up in Harlow in Essex which is an obscure town on the outskirts of London. So I decided to write this film and I was looking for a story and I found inspiration from stories and things that had happened in my home town and real characters. I drew on that and condensed it into one 24 hour story. It’s about saving Shifty’s soul. It’s about redemption. It’s about Chris coming back and facing the demons he left behind and redeeming himself and it’s also about Chris saving Shifty and saving his soul and extracting him out of that town.

The film is based on your own experiences to a degree. How much of your self is in there?

I guess the Danny Mays character is semi-autobiographical of myself, in that after I left the town, and I went up to university, it was upon coming back to my home town and looking at people that I had grown up with… Not my circle of friends, because a lot of my friends went on to go to university and move out of the town… I grew up on a council estate and friends I had known or people who had lived on that estate, some of them had got mixed in with a life of crime. One of my friends who I used to play on my BMX with when we were kids had been stabbed and killed, and another guy that I had worked in Victoria Wines Off-Licence with when I had been doing my A Levels, Kevin, the flat beneath him had been fire bombed through some drug related, gang warfare and the flats burned down, his girlfriend was killed and he has been in a vegetative state ever since and will be for the rest of his life. Tragic things happened in this town and it gave me food for thought, these stories and people I had met. That’s where the Danny Mays character… You see the film through his eyes when he returns to the town so I suppose that Danny Mays is reflective of me.

What is the basis of the relationship between the two lead characters Chris and Shifty?

Guess the film is fundamentally about friendship. If you had to sum the film up in one word, its ‘friendship’. I think that came from… Even thought I look English, I have got Asian background – my granddad was Sri Lankan – so lots of my friends were Indian or Pakistani and being an only child I placed a lot of importance on my friends when I was growing up because I did not have any brothers or sisters. So that’s very much a theme of the film, they were important to me, they backed me up, so it was a sub-conscious thing that came into the script. The script, originally, was very much about the town and the characters and then eventually I realised that what the film was fundamentally about was friendship.

Shifty has the potential for a great family life but he keeps turning away from it, why?

Shifty is inspired by a real person and he was always a bit of an enigma, he came from quite a respectable family, he was very intelligent, very smart, very well read but went on to become a prolific crack cocaine dealer. It was almost like it was something that was innate in him, he couldn’t resist it. He was a kleptomaniac when we were at college, he was constantly stealing things, then he kind of just progressed. I guess the character is stuck within this small town mentality and he’s a big fish in a little pond. 

Shifty is your first film as a writer and as a director. What did you bring to the role fro working as an AD (assistant director) and on ads?

I guess what I tried to bring from those is that when I was a runner or an AD obviously I was not in control, I was not in charge. I still found that difficult, even when I started directing music videos and commercials I still kept saying “Does anyone want a cup of tea?” because I was so used to it [laughs]. People would say “Eran, you’re the boss; you have to be in charge”. But when I was a runner and an AD, what I did do was I tried to learn as much as I could when I was in those roles. I learned who was doing their job properly, who was working properly and how to deal with different departments. If the costume department were pissing off the makeup department because they were putting the clothes on over the hair and messing it up… You need to know about things like that, because that can cause major rifts on a film set. You learn to manage different departments. I guess that’s the best thing I took when I went to be a director. I took my life experiences and what I had learned on those sets and tried to apply it and give it my own spin.

What was the biggest challenge in making the movie?

The biggest challenge was the insecurity. I had done music videos and commercials, but I had never worked with actors before so I was deeply nervous, very worried and insecure and I would have panic attacks. I went through a period of waking up in the middle of the night having panic attacks. The way I did it was I just worked on preparation. The whole film was totally shot listed, story boarded and the actors had been shown photographs of locations beforehand. I had rehearsed and taped out the markings of how big the room was going to be… I prepared beyond, probably what I needed to do. I went over and beyond the call of duty in preparation.

You shot the film in 18 days. Was that a conscious decision?

No it wasn’t. It was totally down to the budget. To go any longer would have been too expensive. If they had given me six months I would have shot it in six months, but Ben (Pugh) phoned me up and said ‘Look, I’m your producer you going to have to shoot this film in three weeks’. I said I was going to need four weeks and he said ‘No, it has to be three weeks’. 

Do you think the short shoot worked in your favour?

I think it’s a good thing for any first time, low budget film makers out there because if you are only going to shoot your film in 18 days, you can get very good heads of department like cinematographers, assistant directors and production designers. They will give you 18 days of their time, they won’t give you six or seven weeks because they need to go off and earn money. So we got good heads of department to come in because we only shot in 18 days and I think that helped.

How helpful was Film London Microwave?

It was good because they nurtured you. Once they had selected us… We had to go through a selection process and pitch the film and they selected Shifty. What they did was they nurtured our film. They nurtured us through the script development stage and we got to work with a script editor. Once the script was read and we got into pre-production I got to work with a director called Asif Kapadia, who made The Warrior and Far North. He was my directing mentor so he gave me lots of advice, he came along to rehearsals, he read through the script with me, he gave me advice on how to shoot and how to conduct myself on set. Not notes, but how he does it. I think that was a great thing, I think it helped that we had someone that nurtured us and gave us a helping hand. Hopefully I’ll be able to go back in the future and I’d always be willing to give the time. That’s the amazing thing about the film industry though; people are willing to help you out. People love to see people succeed; no one wants to see someone fail. I think in the film industry, more often than not, people will come out and help you.

Shifty was shown at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival this year, how important do you think the film festival circuit is to a film like this?

Obviously I spend a lot of my time in London and it premiered at the London Film Festival and it got raving reviews and it got lots of buzz afterwards and it got a good audience response. That helps, it really helps. It backed the film and then Metrodome were convinced they had made the right decision with the movie. Now it is getting released in England, its going out to 50 screens, for such a small film the buzz is massive! I’m doing interviews and people are asking for their photographs with me and I am like ‘What? You want to have your photo with me? Do you know who I think I am?!!?’ [laughs]. I think that festivals help, they get the awareness up. Anything that raises the awareness of a movie is a great help in the long run. The major thing about festivals is that they bring films to a wider audience, films that they wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to see. I think that is what film festivals are about, it’s that element of getting to network and meet people and get your film out to a wider audience who would not necessarily have discovered your film.

Jason Flemyng, at the moment, is arguably best known for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. How did he get involved with Shifty?

I know Jason through one of my best mates – his sister started to date Jason Flemyng. Jason actually got me my first running job. I was a runner in Soho and I phoned him up and said ‘Mate, I would like to start running on film sets’. He said he was just about to do this gangster film called Layer Cake and he got me an interview. So I built up a relationship with Jason and I just asked him. He read the script as a friend and then said that he wanted to be involved. He went from being on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, straight on to Shifty. He stepped on to the set of this £100,000 movie, after being on a $150 million dollar movie with David Fincher and Brad Pitt and it was really funny because he was running around picking up light boxes! [laughs]

There are quite a lot of films coming out of the UK recently, like Shifty, Layer Cake and Awaydays that seem to be trying to contradict the image of peaceful England that has grown up through the likes of the Merchant Ivory films. Why do you think these films are coming out now?

People grow up on council estates so there will always be movies about those experiences. I think that film making is not such a middle class, upper class medium any more. Someone like me who did grow up on a council estate can work their way up through the film sets as a runner, an assistant director and eventually become a director. Maybe those avenues weren’t available 10 or 20 years ago, maybe you couldn’t make that leap. I think you can now and what you are going to get is film makers coming in from that background and that way of life and reflecting on their path. Maybe is just that those paths are more open to oiks like us! [laughs]. There are no gents in suits and ties anymore! We are all in trainers and head butting the first assistant directors if they don’t get it right!! [laughs]

What’s next?
I have written an epic crime thriller in the vein of Heat or Infernal Affairs which was remade into The Departed. It is a big, epic British crime thriller which is not trying to be parochial. It deals with epic themes; it’s got government conspiracy… I want it to have the visual look of 2046, with the social realism of something like Shifty and the epic scope of something like Heat.

Words : Brogen Hayes

SHIFTY is at Irish cinemas from Friday April 24th