April 27 - May 3 2009
Taking starring roles in a low-budget flick about drugs is a brave move for actors on the cusp of the big time. Leigh Singer hears why the stars of the acclaimed Shifty couldn’t turn it down.
You’re an up-and-coming British actor. Most of your onscreen work, film and TV, has reaped widespread acclaim, even winning international awards. What you probably need to take your career to the next level is a high-profile gig, preferably a big budget affair, surrounded by established talent.
So what on earth brings you to a film made on a micro-budget of £100,000, made by first-time filmmakers, that pays minimum wage?
Forget the usual gags about low-budget films not covering a Hollywood set’s catering; you’d be hard pressed to get change from Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks’s brunch for that. Yet it’s a risk that Riz Ahmed (best known from Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo and TV hits such as radicalized Muslim drama Britz and zombie satire Dead Set) and Daniel Mays (Vera Drake, Atonement, the lead in Channel 4’s current comedy Plus One) both took for new British drama Shifty, which charts twenty-four turbulent hours in the life of a young drug dealer and his best mate.
“My agent said to me, ‘Good news, you’ve been offered co-lead in a British film,’” recalls Mays, 30. “’The bad news is, it’s three weeks and you’re not going to get paid.’” Not strictly true, although Mays and Ahmed did get exactly the same basement rates as every other member of cast and crew.
“No one was there for the money, everyone was there because they believed in the project,” asserts the lively, 26-year old Ahmed. “From the focus puller to the lead role and everyone’s got equal shares, so it creates this special kind of camaraderie. There was none of that thing on film sets where it’s like, ‘Oh my zip’s out of place, can someone fix it?’ No, you do it yourself. We’d move to change set-ups and [actor] Jason Flemyng’s asking for the broom to sweep up. It was that kind of vibe, which was beautiful.”
What it also demonstrates is an unwavering belief in debut writer-director Eran Creevy’s script and vision. Shifty came up through Film London’s ultra-low budget Microwave scheme but all concerned are adamant that cheap doesn’t mean simplistic. The film’s one-line synopsis belies its rich, detailed portrait of Shifty (Ahmed), the charismatic but guarded dealer and his estranged pal Chris (Mays), who returns to their Essex stomping ground to find his mate getting in deep with harder drugs including crack cocaine, desperate clientele and a ruthless rival dealer (Flemyng).
Creevy’s story is highly personal, basing the characters of Shifty and Chris on his own real-life experiences, but for Ahmed, “the pull of the film wasn’t that it was based on a true story, but that these were such compelling and complex individuals.” Another fascinating aspect for the actor, whose own heritage was so key to his roles in The Road to Guantanamo and Britz, was the non-issue Shifty’s Muslim background. “It’s quite groundbreaking that this character’s ethnicity is completely secondary,” he emphasises. “We’re past that. Obama’s president now, you know what I mean?”
For all Microwave’s good intentions to encourage nascent talent, there’s also a very real concern about the viability of such a stripped-down approach. Sure, you can’t lose too much money, but do you also hazard losing technical quality? It’s rare that a Mike Leigh film is the rich relation in filmmaking but Mays was shocked at just how basic things were.
“I remember on the first day turning up, doing my first scene and it was this skeleton crew and thinking, ‘Fuck, are we really going to do this?’” he says incredulously. “The real challenge was purely time, you couldn’t do five takes, it was one or two takes and if you’ve got it, move on.”
Yet both he and Ahmed argue that the hectic, heads-down schedule actually added onscreen energy, and was particularly beneficial to the long-term relationship Shifty and Chris have to convey. “The fact that we were so up against it and the frenetic energy we had to get through those days, it’s non-stop banter and jokes so you naturally became close straightaway,” notes Ahmed. “If it had been a big budget film, I don’t think that relationship would have been there as strongly.”
Adds Mays, “I worked on a big-budget film straight after Shifty and it felt like it was complete chaos. The more cooks in the kitchen, communication breaks down, you get a bit mystified about what the goal is.”
So far, everyone’s gamble on Shifty appears to have paid off. It was accepted into last autumn’s London Film Festival and, months before its actual release, nominated for several British Independent Film Awards, including acting nods for Ahmed and Mays, up against the likes of Steve McQueen’s Hunger and the all-conquering Slumdog Millionaire.
Whether all involved would repeat such the experience is another matter. There’s belt-tightening, then there’s forcing you to dance in a corset. Mays is unusually frank in admitting that initially, “people were saying you shouldn’t touch it.” Indeed, he originally turned it down for purely financial reasons. “I’d just had a baby and I had another ITV drama and had to take that, no question about it,” he says flatly. “For whatever reason it got delayed and this came back around.”
Both men are evidently very proud of and enthused about their work on Shifty and rightly so. But it’s also telling that both have moved quickly on to bigger things. Ahmed, who’s also gaining attention as rapper Riz MC, supporting the likes of Massive Attack, is currently filming a Gladiator-style action epic Centurion with Bond girl Olga Kurylenko and Mays has just flown in from L.A, where he’s been shooting a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s Tintin.
“This film was a massive leap of faith and the way people are responding to it is a massive vindication,” maintains Mays. “We’ve got to be really proud of the stuff we do here, because when it works, the Atonements and Vera Drakes, they really stand up. Now we just want this film to get an audience.”
Shifty is out April 23rd.