Warp Films: the essential releases

The output of Warp Films has breathed fresh air through British independent cinema over the last decade. As the company celebrates its 10th anniversary, Chris Fennell picks out the defining Warp releases.

Chris Fennell
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Before Warp Films there was Warp Records, a Sheffield-born music label that made an immediate impact on British culture with their experimental electronic music. The name Warp was synonymous with low budgets, working quickly and spontaneously, and a fierce commitment to talented and innovative artists. Founding partners Rob Mitchell (who sadly died in 2001) and Steve Beckett, enlisting the help of producer Mark Herbert, founded Warp Films with the same pioneering principles.

Since then, Warp has played an essential part in energising and invigorating the resurgence of an increasingly vibrant and successful British cinema. With their films, like their music, they have brought what once was considered underground into the mainstream.

Warp Films quickly expanded in 2006 and set up Warp X, a sister company dedicated to digital, low-budget filmmaking driven by creativity and independence, established with the backing of a consortium of industry bodies. Employing Robin Gutch to produce six low-budget films in three years, Warp X redefined the industry rulebook for the way in which such productions could be approached in the UK.

In honour of Warp’s 10th anniversary, here are some highlights of this year’s Made In Britain season that established them as a major filmmaking force.

Dead Man’s Shoes

After winning a BAFTA for his debut short My Wrongs 8245-8249 and 117, directed by Chris Morris and starring Paddy Considine, producer Mark Herbert – working out of his garden shed – encouraged Considine and director Shane Meadows to develop a feature film. The result was Dead Man’s Shoes, a brutal and unnerving fable that transposes the revenge sagas of westerns like Bad Day at Black Rock (1954), Hang ’em High (1968) and High Plains Drifter (1972) to the pastoral outskirts of the East Midlands.

Considine, who co-wrote the script, plays ex-squaddie Richard, returning to his hometown to punish a local gang for abusing and humiliating his younger brother, Anthony (Toby Kebbell). As they move through the village, Richard hunts down each member individually, while a series of flashback in grainy sepia reveals what happened to Anthony some years before.

Made on a shoestring budget, Meadows combines superbly gripping genre moviemaking with the social realist aesthetics of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Alan Clarke. The commercial and critical success of Dead Man’s Shoes was crucial in allowing Warp to develop their next project, This Is England (2006).

This Is England

Much like the England that we saw in Alan Clarke’s pugilistic social realist drama Made in Britain (1983), Meadows’s and Warp’s next collaboration centres around a pack of skinheads in 1980s England. Set in the Nottinghamshire boondocks – where Meadows grew up – in his seventh film, and Warp’s second, both were demonstrating an attachment to the locality of small-town, working-class life.

This Is England begins on the last day of school, as 12-year-old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), teased by bullies about his father’s death in the Falklands, discovers a sense of belonging that is missing at home by joining a skinhead gang. However, when National Front hard-case Combo (Stephen Graham) emerges from jail, the group become about more than dungarees, Ben Sherman shirts and Doc Martins.

The eventual and inevitable outbreaks of violence are earth-shattering. Unlike Dead Man’s Shoes, the violence has no direct or reasonable explanation beyond how youth had become susceptible to the extremist right in the years of Thatcher. The powerfully ambiguous final image, which captures Shaun on a beach, expressionlessly looking into the camera – an homage to the indelible freeze-frame that ends Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) – emphasises the haunted disenchantment of the era.

Although this is a violent film, and these are violent people, there are touching and occasionally funny moments, especially between Shaun and his girlfriend, Smell (Rosamund Hanson). Meadows remembers being young, and the humour and innocence of growing up, and calls upon it to power This Is England’s emotional impact. Such was the homegrown success of this new, invigorated brand of social realism, it spawned This Is England ’86 and ’88 (2010 and 2011 respectively), two three-hour TV series, also directed by Meadows and produced by Warp.

Four Lions

Chris Morris has gained a reputation as one of the most uncompromising satirists working in the British entertainment industry, and with Four Lions, he took on a typically controversial subject: a group of self-styled mujahideen bombers, hilariously plotting martyrdom from their terrace houses in Doncaster.

Teaming up with Peep Show scribes Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, Morris’s first feature film has little to do with ideology and everything to do with comedy. As he did in his satirical news programmes The Day Today and Brass Eye, Morris uses biting satire to expose the stupidity and petty disdain for authority endemic in terrorism.

While other production companies might have distanced themselves from the incendiary wit of Morris, Warp showed faith in his Dad’s Army vision of terrorism. They were rewarded with commercial and critical success, while Morris won the 2011 BAFTA award for outstanding debut film.

Submarine

Submarine, another directorial debut, this time from Chris Morris’s The IT Crowd co-star, Richard Ayoade, again shows Warp’s dedication to fostering new filmmaking talent. Based on the 2008 novel by Joe Dunthorne, this rudely updated Catcher in the Rye relocated to Swansea, is about fantastical, solipsistic 15-year-old schoolboy Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), whose chief concerns are trying to lose his virginity to his brusque girlfriend (Yasmin Paige) and keeping his parents from splitting up.

Ayoade absorbs the style of the French New Wave, Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry with distinctive visuals and deadpan humour, displaying the same maturity and confidence of his influences. Referencing Les Quatre Cents Coups explicitly, like This Is England, it captures the delicate moments of adolescence when idealism and truth collide. Stories of youth have played an important role in Warp’s own coming-of-age tale, and represent their commitment to independence, risk-taking and cultivating their own voice.

Tyrannosaur

A startlingly assured and emotionally devastating first feature film, written and directed by Dead Man’s Shoes star Paddy Considine – who, with appearances in Submarine and Le Donk and Scor-zay-zee (2009), is one of the stalwarts of Warp Films – Tyrannosaur revisits the interlocking themes of flawed friendship and male rage from Shane Meadows’s films.

As in Dog Altogether, Considine’s 2007 award-winning short, Peter Mullan plays lonely, rage-filled widower Joseph, who seeks refuge from his inner pain in a charity thrift store managed by committed Christian Hannah (Olivia Colman). Drawn together in a symbiosis of misery, they develop a mutually damaged relationship that offers the possibility of far-off redemption.

The first film on this list from Warp’s sister company Warp X, Tyrannosaur is an impassioned and unrelentingly bleak examination of abuse and rage – without the conciliatory poetic dimension Meadows, Lynne Ramsay or Andrea Arnold might offer – but is too viscerally affecting to subscribe to any obscure concept of British miserabilism.

Kill List

After his feature debut, Down Terrace (2009), Ben Wheatley was predictably compared to Mike Leigh for his uncannily precise suburban observations. His second film, Kill List, features the same semi-improvised dialogue, naturalistic performances and documentary style photography, but is more reminiscent of The Wicker Man (1973) or The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Eight months after a disastrous – and unexplained – job in Kiev left him physically and mentally scarred, ex-soldier turned contract killer Jay (Neil Maskell) is pressured by his former partner, Gal (Michael Smiley), into taking a new assignment. What starts as a harrowing portrait of male inner torture and domestic distress turns into an occult, ultra-violent nightmare, and one of the most genuinely disturbing British thrillers in years.

Wheatley is not content to wallow in cheap shock tactics. Instead, his film pulverises the senses with a haunting score and claustrophobic visuals that exceed the capacity of most big-budget productions.

Berberian Sound Studio

Totally original and all but unclassifiable, Berberian Sound Studio is a metafictional and metaphysical horror based almost entirely within a 1970s Italian sound studio. Toby Jones plays mousey sound engineer Gilderoy, who has taken a job away from home in Dorking to post-synch an unidentified giallo film.

Although director Peter Strickland riffs on the lurid, semi-erotic fantasies of Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci, this is more of a persuasive study of breakdown – personal, professional and technological – from someone who is privy to the artifice and manipulation of horror movies yet incapable to resist their affective power: an intriguing metaphor for the filmmaker/viewer relationship.

Set almost entirely within the secretive indoor space of the sound studio – which draws comparison to Mark Lewis’s deathly screening room in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) – it’s more interior than most of Warp’s output, but creates the familiar feelings of claustrophobia and alienation that are present in the small towns of nearly all of Warp’s productions.

Like Warp Films itself, Berberian Sound Studio wants to recalibrate how we think about the movies, and create a world rich with the suggestive possibilities of the medium, taking inspiration from cinema history, exploring new ideas and altering the landscape of fiction.

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