IN the 1950s, Hammer Films were churning out cheap, cheerful and lurid shockers that had censors and critics alike reaching for the sick bag. Now, six decades later, Sheffield-based Warp Films has seemingly adopted the Hammer mantle with a cheerfully vigorous approach to movie-making that has seen it become a magnet for rising talent.
The Hammer comparison is not a lazy one; nor is it without relevance.
When young producers Anthony Hinds and Michael Carreras were steering Hammer’s production slate in the mid-to-late-50s with provocative titles such as The Quatermass Experiment, The Curse of Frankenstein, and Dracula, such films were rattled out in a month or five weeks, often on budgets of less than £100,000.
Flash forward 50-odd years, and Warp’s output is similarly contentious and shot rapidly over six weeks. Budgets for bigger productions such as Chris Morris’s terrorism satire Four Lions total between £2m and £3m but such figures still represent filmmaking on a low budget. Just like Hammer.
However unlike Hammer, Warp hasn’t acquired a reputation for penny-pinching. In retrospect, much of Hammer’s appeal is due to its bargain basement approach, and what its designers, make-up men and cinematographers could do when the chips were down.
“Ultimately, the kind of books I read, the kind of TV and film I watch are things that push the boundaries a little bit. I like all art that does that,” says Mark Herbert, the 40-year-old former location manager who has steered the company to its current level of influence and acclaim.
“When I’m working this hard I have to love what I’m doing. That’s not to say that I’ll never make a rom-com; I’ve got big ambitions to do a kids’ film next. But I’m always wanting to try and find an innovative or different angle of looking at something.
“That’s what makes me want to get up in the morning. Ultimately, we’ve gone for stuff that’s not safe because that’s what excites me.”
Since crashing in to the market with Shane Meadows’ revenge thriller Dead Man’s Shoes in 2004, Warp has become a byword for unusual and uncompromising material. It’s also made the company a corporate bête noire for some critics who’ve been appalled at the gallery of grotesques – among them psychotic skinheads, vengeful ex-Paras, and freelance killers – that inhabit its sometimes ultra-violent movies.
Herbert agrees that Dead Man’s Shoes was a significant launch pad, simultaneously putting Warp on the map and resurrecting the career of Shane Meadows. In the years since, Herbert has overseen an array of highly individual – even eccentric – pictures, creating in the process an impressive “rep”’ company of fresh Brit talent that has included Meadows, Chris Morris, Richard (Submarine) Ayoade, Stephen Graham and Paddy Considine, the actor-turned-director of current hit Tyrannosaur.
Herbert takes my call during pick-ups for This is England ’88, the TV series spin-off from Meadows’s 2007 movie, a story of warped hero worship in the aftermath of the Falklands War. He’s in the Warp offices in Sheffield, his home since leaving Sheffield Hallam University with a BA in Film in 1994.
Herbert’s career began as a location manager “for great directors like Mark Herman”, the Bridlington-born writer/director of Brassed Off and Little Voice. Looking back, he sees those days as a steep learning curve on how to be a producer.
“Being in a car driving around locations is like being a taxi driver – [directors] would be making phone calls to funders and other producers.
“It was really interesting. I saw some things that were really well-managed [but] I’d work on a lot of productions where it was almost filmmaking by a committee of execs.
“Those films didn’t turn out like others, where the director was given more creative freedom. So being a location manager gave me an insight into how to produce badly and then I could avoid doing that. So [I thought] ‘You know what? I’ll give this a go’.”
Mark Herman looks back and concurs. “Mark was exceptional at building bridges between the production and the public. That takes a lot of work, a lot of ‘gab’. Most producers have got the gift of the latter, but Mark’s got the right ethic on the former, too, which made him stand out, and still does now. It’s completely understandable why he’s been such a massive success.”
Warp Films emerged out of Warp Records, a ground-breaking label that had aspirations to segue into movies until founding partner Rob Mitchell died.
Herbert asked remaining partner Steve Beckett for a chance to make the film arm work and made My Wrongs 8245-8249 and 117, a surrealist short that won a Bafta for Herbert and director Chris Morris. Preceding it was the first series of Phoenix Nights, which was an enormous hit.
One of the stars of My Wrongs was Paddy Considine, who suggested that Herbert should meet with Shane Meadows, the Staffordshire-born indie filmmaker whose career had flatlined after Once Upon a Time in the Midlands in 2002.
Herbert recalls: “It was Paddy who said that Shane should meet up with me. He felt that we were like-minded. We met in 2003, in February, and by May we were shooting Dead Man’s Shoes. They’d made these short films – just him, Paddy, a camcorder and a wig – that were much better than some shorts that cost a hundred and fifty grand. Some were funny, some were touching, but they were all really well done.
“So I said ‘Why don’t we make a feature film the way you make your shorts, by stripping it all back?’ That was something Shane felt liberated by. That was the whole spirit of Warp. We don’t have a ‘house style’. We’ll give anything a go. I’ve vowed to continue that.”
Herbert describes himself as a hands-on producer, yet his partners seemingly have no complaints. Olly Blackburn, director of Donkey Punch (a battle of the sexes becomes a mad fight for sanity and survival aboard a yacht), shot his film in 24 frenzied days.
“When we first gave them the treatment Mark Herbert said ‘I love this film. We’re gonna shoot it in nine months’ time.’ Every producer says that to you; none of them ever actually do it. He meant it. It was short and sharp. It was nuts.”
Ben Wheatley, director of Kill List (two contract killers are handed an assignment that takes them on to the road, their “kill list” in hand), said Warp were “very open and creatively pretty hands-off. When they do make notes they make absolute sense”.
Chris Morris’s Four Lions, with its bumbling Jihadi anti-heroes, provided Warp with an elevation to the big time. Premiered to full houses at 2010’s Bradford International Film Festival, it moved Warp up a notch and gave Herbert and Co added critical and commercial va-va-voom in the face of crumbling government cash subsidies.
Tyrannosaur, the latest Warp project, was released last week and represents Paddy Considine’s jump from actor to feature film director.
“I think what helps is that it’s a very small industry,” says Herbert. “Dead Man’s Shoes is a massive inspiration for a lot of people. That helps because any good talent has got at least three or four production companies after them.
“We don’t advertise. It’s kind of word of mouth amongst the talent. We make sure that we’re fair with everyone. Some things turn out better than others but we try and make it as enjoyable as possible. That just filters through, really.”