“It was an absolute eye-opener,” says filmmaker Simon Pearce. We’re chatting about his experience shooting gay drama ‘Shank’, for which the 22-year-old first-time feature director has been scooping awards left, right and center (to date he’s bagged the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival’s Emerging Talent trophy, as well as the prestigious Audience Award in Barcelona).
A tortured love story set in the streets of Bristol, ‘Shank’ follows young drug pusher Cal (Wayne Virgo). Confused about his sexuality, Cal belongs to a rag-tag gang, and is closest to Jonno (Tom Bott), with whom he shares a handful of homoerotic encounters (“in the film there’s the blow back scene, which I kept calling ‘Blow Back Mountain’,” jokes Bott). But when Cal attempts to extricate himself from the gang, and falls for natty-dressing French exchange student Olivier (Marc Laurent), he discovers that getting out is going to be even harder than coming out.
“My friends often joke that we need to do a comedy,” laughs Pearce, “’cos I tend to veer towards darker stuff.” And dark ‘Shank’ is; a rough, fearless examination of today’s youth culture, where issues of sexuality, masculinity and violence inform and enforce our chaotic world. “I’d not seen anything like it before,” affirms 19-year-old Virgo, whose friendly, rapid-fire vernacular is the polar opposite of Cal’s muted uncertainty.
For Pearce, Virgo and Bott, ‘Shank’ represents the plucking of their feature film cherries. All of them 21 or under at the time of shooting (and all, sorry about this, straight), they’d each had varying filmic experiences, but never the heavy responsibilities that ‘Shank’ demanded them. It all began when gay producing partners Christian Martin and Darren Flaxstone, having seen a short by Pearce, offered the young director a bag of cash (an estimated £120,000, peanuts in the film business) to help bring their script to the screen.
Pearce was as stunned as anybody. “It was quite a bold decision for them to make,” he nods. “I immediately loved the story and wanted to do it, but I was worried about being able to deliver on their expectations, it’s obviously a story that is very close to them. Christian and Darren have been happy slapped and queer bashed. A lot of the themes in the film were derived directly from experiences they have had.”
Key to the film was casting. In a neat twist on traditional casting calls, Pearce and his producers sent out an announcement for actors to submit their auditions by mobile phone (“we thought that was very fitting for the film,” says Pearce). They also visited a local film college to scout for talent, and weren’t sure they’d have much luck, until… “Wayne walks in halfway through the session,” Pearce recalls, “Myself, Christian and Darren all clocked each other across the room and were like, ‘That’s him! He looks the part, God I hope he can act!’”
Virgo, who signed up for the film even before reading the script, found that the role of Cal struck a particularly personal chord. “I can relate to a few things that Cal’s been through; hanging around with people out in the park drinking and stuff,” the actor says. The part also required Virgo to bare all on camera, something that he had no problem with. “The nudity scenes I had never done before,” he says. “Like, I’d get naked for a joke or if I was pissed. But it was basically just telling the story, getting the story across.” Pearce laughs at the mention of Virgo’s nude scenes. “Wayne couldn’t wait to get his kit off! He really had no problem with it at all.”
As ‘Shank’ careers towards a gut-wrenching finale, its final scenes demanded a lot of 21-year-old Bott. “I was actually looking forward to that day,” the actor cheerily reveals. “‘Shank’ is very gritty and a lot more violent than most gay films. The end was the most challenging scene for me out of all of it.” No spoilers here, but suffice to say that ‘Shank’ wields a powerful emotional climax that will shock many audience members.
So what next for the trio? Pearce and Virgo have just completed another gay-themed film, ‘Release’, while Bott stars as a mentally disturbed young man in ‘Tender Age’. But for Pearce, ‘Shank’ will always be that special first film, overflowing with ambition and promise. “Yes, it’s a gay drama,” he reasons. “But we were keen to cross over. Christian and Darren built in themes that would enable ‘Shank’ to go beyond the gay market. Part of the film is that there is still a lot of intolerance and hostility out there. We wanted to address that. It should be seen by everyone.”