“We had to handle this one delicately” – Warp Films producer Mark Herbert on The Virtues

Reprising a working relationship that has borne award-winning fruit such as Dead Man’s Shoes [2004], The Stone Roses: Made of Stone [2013] and the cult classic This Is England franchise, Sheffield’s Warp Films are back on production duty for The Virtues, the latest project from writer-director Shane Meadows.

The four-part series airing on Channel 4 stars Stephen Graham as Joseph, a man with a troubled past who returns to Ireland in the hope of finding the truth behind hazy recollections of a brutal childhood spent in the care system. What follows is an unlikely love story between two lost souls and an exploration into the nature of trauma, revenge and virtue.

With the first episode arriving on Wednesday 15th May at 9pm, we spoke to Warp Films producer Mark Herbert about the origins of the story and the role Sheffield played in the series’ creation.

Warp has a longstanding association with Shane Meadows going back to Dead Man’s Shoes in the early noughties. How did that relationship begin?
I’d worked with Paddy Considine on Warp’s first short film directed by Chris Morris. Shane was looking for a producer around the same time we’d finished the short, so Paddy, being mates with Shane, recommended me. We would have first met around the end of February 2002 I believe. We were originally going to do a load of short films together, but I saw what he and Paddy had created in short film terms and suggested doing it for a feature film. Three months later we were shooting Dead Man’s Shoes.

Did you hit it off on a personal and creative level instantly?
Yes, after one beer. That’s all it took!

And now we’re a few days away from the airdate of The Virtues, the latest collaboration between Shane Meadows and Warp Films. Can you remember when Shane first brought the idea forwards?
It’s always been the case that Shane has lots of ideas brewing at the same time, so even during the filming of This Is England he had the idea of a twisted nativity story featuring a ‘Joseph’ character. As ever with Shane, it evolves from a character, but we were also keen not to do another period piece, we wanted to do something a bit more contemporary. Another trait with Shane is that there’s often something there from his own past that he wants to tell, so a load of ideas basically amalgamated before he sat down with actors and started to work on the story.

Is that quite a common way for directors to work, creating a character and building the storyline around that?
No, it’s not really. But something I’d also like to stress is that before the workshops start he sits with co-writer Jack Thorne and they craft a beautiful script together, then they take that script and develop more and more things with the actors. There’ll be a constant to and fro between Jack and Shane; you have one who is brilliant at writing scripture and the other who works organically. Fusing those two together is a match made in heaven.

Stephen Graham and Shea Michael Shaw © Channel 4

With Shane coming out and speaking candidly about his reasons for making The Virtues, did you get the impression beforehand that this was a deeply personal project?
There’s always a personal angle, but I feel like we had to handle this one delicately. It’s all about trust with Shane, he creates that sense of immediate trust, and in Virtues there are some fairly major themes that are explored, so we wanted to make sure that our set was an honest and safe place for everybody to speak.

Without giving too much away, what would you say are the main themes and messages explored in the series?
I think a lot of it is about memory and trauma. For me, it’s also a little bit of a detective story: a man trying to piece together things that have happened to him, things that he’s clearly buried. What I love about this story is how the audience finds these things out alongside Stephen Graham’s character, Joseph.

A lot of the filming was done on location in Sheffield. Other than being the base of Warp Films, in what ways did the city suit this project as a backdrop?
I think there a few key things that Sheffield’s got which makes it perfect. It has urban spaces, both gritty urban and beautiful urban, there’s beautiful countryside close by, the seven hills means there are always vistas and something to look at in the background.

So when Stephen Graham’s character returned to rural Ireland, did the Peak District double up as the Irish countryside?
Yes, it did. We work very organically, so it was important to us that we could go back to the rehearsal room or to the edit easily. Another reason for filming in Sheffield, and please quote me on this, is it’s one of the friendliest cities to film in. People here welcome you, we can get local crew involved, and the cast that we bring over love being here. If you’ve got a happy cast and crew, my job is made easier.

For me, it’s also a little bit of a detective story – a man trying to piece together things that have happened to him, things that he’s clearly buried.

On that note, were there any particular challenges in filming this series?
Normally, you have a really fixed schedule, but we wanted a bit more time to rehearse and go back to film. In order to have a more fluid structure like that – a longer filming period with breaks to look at the edits and rehearsing – you need a very flexible crew and planning it can be harder, as normally your schedule is so tight everybody knows exactly what they’re doing. Communication is key. We used a lot of the same people who we used on This is England, so they already know the process and buy into the process. We were based at an old school in Norfolk Park, so everybody had to embrace the fact that our Skywalker Ranch isn’t in California, it’s an old school in Norfolk Park that has a kettle, a microwave and a toaster. There are no frills.

Does that lend itself to the feel of the production, as Shane Meadows’ projects are notoriously down to earth and no frills?
Well, I don’t like wasting money! With some films you need to spend a lot on certain things, but with Shane it’s all about performance and honesty. At Warp we work in a bespoke way, so with another director or project, such as the Everybody’s Talking About Jamie film we’re working on, we’ll produce it in a completely different way to The Virtues. There’s no one size fits all in filmmaking.

The Virtues starts on Wednesday 15th May at 9pm on Channel 4

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