Breaking New Ground

A look back at one of Britain’s most successful production companies, as it celebrates its 10th anniversary. Mark Herbert tells us more about what it takes to move ahead in the industry.

Defying the increasing commercialisation of the international film industry, the Sheffield-based production company, Warp Films, has nurtured an astonishing variety of domestic works from the likes of Shane Meadows, Paddy Considine and Richard Ayoade. This year, the company celebrates its 10 year anniversary with cross-cultural events and commemorative releases, while continuing to look ahead to further growth and pioneering filmmaking. Warp’s CEO, Mark Herbert, attributes the company’s success to a dogged commitment to independent film and a determination not to be put off by the idea of niche projects: “In my mind if something is niche, it doesn’t necessarily mean that something is small. If you aggregate niche markets they can actually become quite big.” It is in this exploration of the niche, and in not succumbing constantly to market trends, that Warp has created such a name for itself in so many disparate genres of film.

Alongside its sister record label, Warp brought together film and music in its central anniversary celebrations at Magna Science Adventure Centre on 17 November. The Centre is an old steel mill that was transformed into a 1,000-seat cinema. Organised by Gavin Clark, a long-term Warp collaborator who created the soundtracks for features from This is England to Dead Man’s Shoes, musicians including Jah Wobble recreated live versions of Warp soundtracks to accompany the screenings. Prior to the event Herbert said: “It’s going to be completely fresh, new, once in a lifetime, once only live music … I’m really excited about it.” The concept encapsulates Warp’s identity across all of its work and is “something that we tried out when we kicked off the 10th anniversary at the London Film Festival” with a live piano score from Ludovico Einaudi to accompany a screening. An additional cinema showcased a marathon of Warp Films’ oeuvre, and Herbert commented: “There’s going to be over 10 hours of film and over 10 hours of live music and DJs … You’ll need your stamina.”

For him, Warp 10 is a recognition, not just within the industry, but also for the many members of the Warp family. Renowned for its close-knit relationships and collaborations, a key aspect of celebrating Warp’s 10 years has to involve the people who have participated in projects along the way: “We want a celebration with the cast, all the people, all the actors we’ve ever worked with.” This collaboration extended to the evening’s events, with Herbert adding effusively: “We even persuaded some of them to DJ.” Shane Meadows, Vicky McClure and Herbert himself participated in Seven by Seven (a showcase of favourite seven-inch singles), and there was also music from Andy Weatherall and Radio 6’s Tom Ravenscroft. In addition Peter McKee reimagined and redesigned 10 seminal Warp posters, and next year will see the release of a commemorative DVD and coffee-table book charting the history of Warp Films with rare photography on each work.

While these celebrations showcased the close working relationship between Warp Films and Warp Records, Herbert is still keen to differentiate the former from the latter: “Steve Beckett is the founder, he’s my partner at Warp Films … and we’re always aware of the Warp brand that has been fantastically developed and set up by the record company, but we don’t have to put music in at all. However, there is a shared ethos and I think that just stems from the people at the top.” Herbert’s involvement began when Rob Mitchell (Warp’s co-founder who tragically died in 2001 after raising start-up capital with Beckett) asked him for advice from his career producing films: “I decided to give Rob and Steve’s vision a go. It was great vision but they had nobody to run it.” With production experience, Herbert provided the guidance necessary for the infant brand and released Warp’s debut short, Chris Morris’ My Wrongs, in 2002.

My Wrongs set a Surrealist tone for the new enterprise, with the protagonist, a dishevelled, marijuana-smoking dog-sitter taunted by his friend’s pet and dragged into increasingly exaggerated and hallucinogenic situations and scrapes. Released on DVD, its packaging was a manifestation of the protagonist’s emphatic list-making tendencies with a fake director’s commentary attached to the recording. Rather than using his lists of mistakes to take stock and contemplate his actions, however, the protagonist continually takes the talking dog’s absurd advice, with escalating consequences. It was a brave launchpad for such a new venture, but encapsulates Herbert’s passion for short film, which is seen all too often as an inferior option, only carried out because of budget restraints and dismissed as appearing early in an artist’s career: “I think short films are fantastic [and] it’s a great way to test the working relationship and to try out things, like characters. They are overlooked, sadly.” It’s an issue that Cinema 16, a collection of exceptional shorts (with British, European, World and American editions) from the understatedly bleak About a Girl to the hilarious Godard parody Je t’aime John Wayne, seeks to rectify.

Warp takes an eclectic route through cinematic genres. The company is perhaps best known for social realism, through its beloved and critically acclaimed This is England, which, alongside TV spin-offs This is England ’86 and This is England ’88, explored issues of racism, unemployment, skinhead culture, sexual abuse and the perils of growing up in a down-and-out town. Directed by Shane Meadows, This is England has cemented Warp’s position as a highly successful, independent producer not afraid of gritty subject matter, mixing comedy with tragedy or withholding judgment on its characters. Some of the characters in This is England commit tremendous wrongs, from racist and physical abuse to infidelity and manslaughter, but what lies at the heart of Meadows’ film is a genuine affection for his characters, and an acceptance that the people on screen are flawed and deeply real. In looking back on social and political issues of the 1980s in this manner, Meadows personalises the political and contextualises the newspaper reports and archive footage to enable us to understand this world and identify with the characters.

The social realism of This is England is echoed in Paddy Considine’s directorial debut Tyrannosaur, which sees an unlikely relationship blossom between Joseph, an isolated widower with anger management issues, and Hannah, a homely Christian charity shop volunteer played by Olivia Colman in a departure from her usual comedic form. As the two find themselves growing closer, Hannah’s apparent domestic idyll crumbles to reveal secrets of despair and abuse, and the protagonists inadvertently swap roles, with Joseph offering solace. Tyrannosaur is a dark, and at times disturbing, interrogation of human behaviour and coping mechanisms but, while it provides no happy ending, there is an element of hope for this unlikely couple. Powered by emotive and exceptional performances from Colman and Peter Mullan, it shows British film at its best.

Beyond social realism, Warp’s output includes dark, brooding but violent thrillers such as Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, but where the company really excels is in its stable of bleak comedy through releases including A Complete History of My Sexual Failures, Submarine and Four Lions. Understated, uncomfortable and intrusive, A Complete History of My Sexual Failures sees hapless director Chris Waitt attempt to rectify the disaster that is his love life by tracing every relationship he’s ever had, interviewing his girlfriends, seeking professional and not-so-professional help and experimenting with Viagra. What follows is a simultaneously hilarious and painful story of love, loss, indifference and humiliation. That Waitt’s ex-girlfriends and lovers allowed him to interview them and broadcast their intimate conversations is a testament to both the lovable rogue that the director plays and the experimental spirit of his filmmaking. A Complete History is part of a world in which people increasingly broadcast their every move and curate an online profile to present the character they want the world to see, however Waitt’s actions, and the response he elicits from girls, can be so embarrassing that it seems unlikely that this is a created and contrived identity. A surprising consequence of this blunt honesty is a romance that flowers for Waitt when he finds someone as open and raw as himself, and it’s this that lifts the film from a bleak, uncomfortably funny insight into a dysfunctional mind to a hopeful recognition of everyone’s idiosyncrasies.

Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut Submarine follows a fictional, but equally idiosyncratic protagonist as he attempts to lose his virginity and repair his parents’ marriage. It’s a slow-moving meditation on the indulgences of adolescence but it is so expertly observed that it shows just how emotive film can be without the bells and whistles of Hollywood. Receiving critical and commercial success, it continues Warp’s reputation for innovative filmmaking that delicately treads the line between comedy and realism. Four Lions encapsulates this balance perfectly, in its story of would-be terrorists finding a way to commit Jihad in their sleepy Yorkshire town. The combination of the endlessly controversial Chris Morris with the delicate subject of training Islamic extremists on British soil had potential to generate more publicity for its shock value than its artistic merits, but Four Lions is elevated by exceptional casting and its portrait of the mundane alongside the sensational, as well as a refusal to pigeonhole the young Muslims. The manner in which the young men open up to their families about their intentions, pick and choose elements from the Koran and bicker incessantly creates more comedy than tragedy, though Morris’ film is far from tasteless. It’s a witty observation on the failings of religion, the vagaries of human morality and the limitless potential of human relationships, but overall it’s a hilarious riposte to political correctness.

In allowing its directors the freedom to transcend genres, Warp has established itself as a subtle brand where the name of the director takes centre stage. In producing such a broad range of film, there is a danger of diluting Warp’s identity as a company, but Herbert sees this variety as key to artistic creativity and a testament to the company’s employees’ enthusiasm for all the films: “I’m a big believer in supporting artists and creativity and so we have very different artists. We’ve got an eclectic taste – I’m a cinema lover, as is everybody in this company. So, for us, it’s a case of, if something is exceptional or has something different to say – we’ll back it.”

Central to Warp’s working process is the individuality of the crew, and a perusal of the company’s back catalogue will show the same names – such as Meadows, Morris and Considine – recurring through the list. There’s a danger in using the same directors repeatedly and creating a staid output, but Herbert attributes an ability to keep each project fresh and unique to the passion of his employees and the flexibility of the company in creating their roles. “We’ve been big believers in investing in people,” he says, and he cites the example of various producers starting their Warp careers as runners and script supervisors before their producing skills were recognised and they were then given the opportunity to take on their own projects. “Once that trust is there … I like to give notes and opinions on casting. But at the same time we do let them get on with it. And we help guide them and support them. I think that’s what helps with the freshness.” The ethos of Warp is a shared recognition of the talents of everyone involved, and the reason the company comes back to the same directors is because of this earned badge of trust: “For instance, Shane and Chris – ultimately whatever project they’re doing next, we’ll help them make it … we have a relationship where it’s a constant dialogue.” And while Warp is “proactive in going out there and finding the next new writers,” at the core of the work are established creative relationships, and an emphasis on developing them with each project rather than on new submissions. Beyond the director, the development process is tailored to each project, but the general aim is to get the crew on board at an early stage to get the collaboration started, and for Warp to provide the support: “We raise the money, we crew it up. We’re big believers in directors having the final cut, so we support directors to enable them to get their vision on screen.”

Ruby Beesley