How growing up in Sheffield taught this film director many lessons in life

When film director Shaun James Grant was growing up in Hillsborough, the silver screen never played a part in his life.

By Rob Hollingworth
Saturday, 1st May 2021, 7:00 am

His family were not interested in film and he had no movie references to connect with.

But the man who had his first professional short film screened last month at a festival is not reflecting on a childhood of regret. It’s a childhood Shaun, now 34, places enormous value on.

He went to Sacred Heart School and says he learnt lessons for life.

Film director Shaun James Grant

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    “Sacred Heart is one of the places I value most,” he says. “The friends I had were those I've kept for the rest of my life. I learnt a lot in those formative years, elementary lessons got ingrained and I realised later how much of that had stuck.

    "I was a black kid growing up in white environment but seldom was I made to feel it. I knew I was one the few but the people I was surrounded by gave me bonds of kinship. It was children at their purest moment. I carry those memories with me, they are good memories. I was influenced by those school days, they inspired me."

    His dad was a painter and decorator, his mum worked in social care. No hint of film there, nor at secondary school, where he admits, "I wasn't the best student."

    It didn’t help that he was dyslexic and Shaun suspects he also had elements of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

    The film features grainy shots, a hallmark of Shaun's style

    He muddled through Myers Grove School and decided to study Sport at Norton College, mainly because he enjoyed basketball. "I thought Sport was my only avenue, but by Year Two I couldn't stand it.”

    He was getting into what he described as ‘bother’ but luckily stumbled across a Blockbuster Video shop. He joined, intrigued by what was inside, and watched films, wondering how the directors worked.

    One of the films he watched was Fight Club, the cult classic where insomniac Edward Norton gets tangled up with soap salesman Brad Pitt. It gives a clue to the type of bother Shaun was having.

    He knew he needed something else and found meaning in films such as Requiem For A Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s psychological drama on loneliness and avoiding reality.

    Film director Shaun James Grant

    This led to a summer where Shaun did nothing but watch film, locking himself away in his Hillsborough bedroom.

    "I didn't leave my room for months. I felt like I had a new lease of life, it was something I found truly fascinating. I found film as a troubled teenager and I never stopped finding it."

    He transferred to a film course at Norton and then studied the subject at Staffordshire University.

    He also kept in touch with his Sacred Heart schoolmate David House and made a film called Lies with him which featured narration from John McClure of Reverend and the Makers.

    Film director Shaun James Grant

    "When I did that with John I thought this is it. I'm on my way. Of its time, it was good. Technically it's all over the place, but it had spirit."

    McClure wrote the monologues, says Shaun, and the rest “was kids ranting about lies!”

    He moved to London and worked in Tv doing shows with the likes of Heston Blumenthal, but his passion was film and a chance meeting with a production company called Lemonade Money proved fruitful.

    The company mentored Shaun and got him working on music videos. “They let me know I was making something that meant something, that had integrity.”

    He has since worked with R&B stars Jorja Smith and Maverick Sabre. He's also done commercial work with Nike and Superdry.

    It has led to Hope, a haunting 15-minute production which is his professional debut short. The film features a couple on the road and slowly reveals their heartbreaking motivation in a powerful and intense piece of cinema.

    Deep in discussion on the set of Hope

    It is co-written by Luke Shenton-Shaw who Shaun met while working on Lies with John McClure.

    And it comes after what Shaun describes as "my biggest growth period as a human being" in the last 24 months. "My formative years were the start of it, but it has all really happened recently," he adds.

    He's referring to the moment he became a father when his partner Lisa had their daughter Alma, now aged two.

    "The pivotal moment was becoming a father. That makes me do more, it was an awakening because I understood life is more than just about yourself. It connected everything from before, gave me the will, the drive and motivation to put myself out there.”

    He sounds proud of Hope, as if it is a significant moment.

    "Hope is the first project where I can turn to someone and say this represents me as a film-maker. There's a lot more to come from me, I want to achieve."

    It was shown at the Manchester Film Festival last month, but Shaun struggled to gauge what the virtual audience made of it.

    “The environment to see it in is the cinema. A lot will pass over you if you get distracted at home, say if your phone goes. It’s a tense film.” he says.

    It’s obvious he lives to tell immersive character-driven stories, narratives that feel personal to the protagonists which also relate to the audience. Shaun says he wants to create worlds in which people understand and connect to the emotional struggle of the central characters.

    So the language of film is clearly important to him but Shaun adds he doesn’t get bogged down by film ego, believing the story is what keeps an audience invested in a film.

    His distinct style is infused with grainy shots and yellow undertones, which Shaun uses to capture the emotion of his subjects and Hope has emotion by the lorry load.

    So what next? Shaun is casting for a new short film based around domestic abuse - he doesn’t do easy subjects.

    “I’m working with a charity I’ve got a long-standing relationship with because my mum used to work with them. It was the first job I knew her to have and feels like serendipity.”

    He can’t name the charity for commercial reasons, but got connected with them when working on a music video and hopes the finished product will come out in the summer.

    Shaun spent lockdown working with Luke Shenton-Shaw on a script for a Tv series based on Hope. They now have what he calls a series bible, which they are putting to people.

    So he’s busy and he’s also ambitious. “I want to make something that lives in the mind of people, that’s my hope and aspiration. I want to make long-form film and Tv that people say was worth watching.”

    It’s quite a journey for a man with no film background. “There is always going to be a perception from some of what does he think he’s doing, but I know what I’m talking about. Where I came from shouldn’t have a bearing on what I’m doing now. I want to change perception.

    “If you don’t reach for the stars, you won’t get there. I’m aiming high, it’s nothing but being prepared to do the hard work.

    “I don’t believe it’s going to be an easy future, but if it’s what I want, I won’t sell myself short.”

    And he knows he has his supporters. “My parents are proud of me. They know how hard I’m trying and that’s enough for them. Maybe their knowledge of the industry is not at the level of mine, but I think they understand I’m committed and are proud of that.

    “They will come and see Hope when it screens in London, they enjoy seeing me trying.”

    Happily, he still finds time to come back to his home city.

    "I've got a load of affection for Sheffield It was the centre of my universe for a long time,” he says.

    “It is a massive part of my identity, who I am. I try to get back there and see friends and family, it's important."

    But is there also a danger he will get stereo-typed alongside other filmmakers who have focussed on Sheffield and South Yorkshire?

    “That’s about perception,” he says. “People might say you’re only capable of one thing, we can only align you with Ken Loach or Shane Meadows because you grew up in Sheffield.

    “My film Hope is something you can’t pinpoint and although I do worry about the perception barrier, I want to convince people I can create a piece of work.

    “I think we can get too caught up with perception, trying to box everyone in, but that’s wrong, we need to keep things open.”

    It has led him to stop trying to please all of the people, all of the time. “Make the decisions that are right for you,” he says. “You can’t get caught up in what others think, it consumes you and can make you unable to make decisions.”

    This attitude is certainly paying off for Shaun, a filmmaker well worth watching, so watch his space.

    A tense moment in Hope
    The crew take a break during filming
    On the set of Hope
    Sheffield film diretor Shaun James Grant
    The camera is set as the action continues
    Studying the action from behind the camera
    Setting the scene as the crew prepare for action