“I mean, God… No… I mean it’s… Yeah…” says Mike Skinner as he forks chicken and rice into his mouth, traces of his native Birmingham stubborn in his accent, even after half a lifetime down south. Parked in a corner of a pub beer-garden, he’s just been asked if he has any regrets about spending 10 years and a fat chunk of his savings making a feature film. And by making a film we mean: writing, casting, directing, shooting, editing, lighting, scoring, VFXing and starring in a film. And populating it with 15 new songs. Did we mention that he paid for it all, too?
“It’s been absolutely savage,” he says eventually of making The Darker The Shadow, The Brighter The Light, coming to a cinema near you this September. “Absolutely savage. But I just feel so much stronger. It’s been a lot. I’m really proud that I’m still alive.”
By any metric, The Darker The Shadow, The Brighter The Light represents the blockbuster return of The Streets, the project Skinner has solely embodied since the release of groundbreaking 2002 debut Original Pirate Material. As Channel 4 news billed him ahead of an interview that ran last night (13th July): “The rap artist best known for the Streets made his name in the early 2000s, taking on the garage scene and making it relatable to swathes of Britain’s disaffected young people.” Then – mic drop – a decade in, he told fans he was jacking it all in after fifth album Computers and Blues (2011). But then, travelling, as ever, to his own beat – mic retrieval – he released a mixtape, None of Us Are Getting Out of This Alive, in summer 2020.
Talking to us at that time, early in the first lockdown, he revealed the existence of the then-embryonic film. “It’s a musical, it’s a story with songs in it. I’ve been working on that for years, and I don’t know what the hell’s happening with that now because we haven’t shot it yet.” But he did know already that “making a film is a long way from just making some songs at home.”
He continued: “Since I stopped The Streets, I’ve been DJing. There were a couple of summers where I really went a bit hard. And with Tonga [his night with Murkage Dave], we did club nights in Newcastle, one in Berlin for about a year. We did one in Copenhagen which didn’t go so well. And so you’re constantly in green rooms, which is what they call dressing rooms in DJing. That’s kind of what the film’s about.”
Three years on, the film is finished. Well, actually, he’s not quite completed it – there’s a closing scene to be shot, on a night bus, Skinner mentioning the influence of both Marvel mid-credits sequences and the end of Only Fools and Horses, a combination that’s surely a first. But judging by the album, which we’ve heard (Streets stalwarts will consider it worth the wait), he’s stuck to his career-long guns and followed through on his aspirations for this passion project. Let’s call it SkinnerVision.
Now the logline is less “DJ pranging out in green room” and more “tripped out noir murder mystery based in London’s clubland”. His inspirations: the hard-boiled detective dramas of Raymond Chandler and big nights at The Warehouse Project in Manchester. The plot features Skinner playing, er, Mike, a version of himself, a “middling” DJ, who gets tangled up in a drug deal gone wrong, a dancefloor murder and the complicated life of a “glamorous” young club owner, played by newcomer Bella May.
All the obvious boxes ticked, then.
Skinner will take that. He didn’t set out to reinvent movies. He set out to write a film that he could star in and that wouldn’t be beyond his filmmaking capabilities, self-taught skills learned on the job making a “million Streets videos” and directing promos for other artists, branded content and shorts for Vice.
Meeting for lunch in The Red Lion and Sun, his local pub in Highgate, North London, Skinner – 44, a married father of two – talks for the first time about the project that’s occupied almost a quarter of his life.
Why did you want to make a film?
I think it’s obvious, really. A Grand Don’t Come For Free, my second album, was written as a film, then I made the music after that. So if you’ve heard my music, if you’ve listened to my albums, it’s fairly obvious to think that I’m gonna want to make a film at some point.
What was the jumping off point for the narrative, the plot?
I’d always wanted to do a really simple caper. I’m a huge fan of Raymond Chandler. [1946 thriller] The Big Sleep is the first Philip Marlowe book and the story is a bit, you know, slight. “We’ll go over there, do that, then a guy comes in with a gun and whacks you over the head.” The plots are not the thing that’s important about Raymond Chandler books. It’s just the incredible descriptions.
So that’s the starting point: there’s something a bit hard-boiled. In the film I’m almost like a sort of private detective but… really a DJ! I love all that stuff. It’s also quite funny. They’re almost comedies, really, some of these [scenes]. It’s the humour that stands out.
How does your character differ from you as a musician?
In the same way that it always does. We all write about what we want to be, right? I probably want to be a bit more relaxed. So I write characters where things happen to them a bit more. In real life, I’m a bit less of a “happened to” guy.
You’ll know better than anyone how shonky club and gig scenes can look on film – and how difficult they are to get right. How did you address that?
We did get it right, because they are real events. All of them. Warehouse Project. The bassline raves. We did a night at Visions [in Dalston, East London] – we literally reopened Visions for one night, so that we could recreate the stuff I’ve written about Visions. This is the real thing.
Bella’s character: what’s her story?
Ava represents something that all musicians are obsessed with: it’s paycheck to paycheck. She represents a way out of that. [Her character’s story embodies] that moment in your life where you have to decide to grow up and get a proper job. Or do you carry on doing the thing you love, and not have anything to show for it? All of us have to cross that line at some point.
If there’s a controlling idea to the film, it’s that musicians generally – and I don’t mean myself – are very free and quite broke. I’ve learned this very slowly. Actors get all the money. And musicians get all the freedom. Almost to the exclusion of all else.
Why did you want to take on these multiple filmmaking roles?
I knew at some point we were going to be asking someone to give us three million quid. And I was going to be the director. And you can’t get someone to give you three million quid unless you know how to direct.
But I’ve made a million music videos, for me and other artists that I’ve worked with. So actually, the shooting, the lighting, all of the technical roles, I’m fairly comfortable with. I’m not particularly good. But that’s something that you just have to be able to do if you’re going to make a million music videos.
How readily did the acting come to you?
To be honest, I just say the words. And make it seem like they just came to me. [Grins] There really wasn’t time to do any more than that.
Did you consider at any point casting a proper actor for your role?
No, no, no. Because the whole idea is that the songs are [my character’s] voiceover. Also: with anything like this, none of us want to be little Napoleons. We want people to like us. Nobody likes [a tyrant]. But at a point, you have to say: this is my vision. And so unfortunately, it’s really not about what’s right or wrong. It’s about what I’ve got in my head.
Where did you get your three million quid?
We didn’t get three million quid. That’s the point. The reason why I did it all myself was because we didn’t get the three million quid.
What did you get?
Nothing. No budget. The money I spent is my money. It couldn’t have been done any cheaper. We probably spent… I dunno, probably 100 grand. Maybe a bit more.
There’s a lot riding on this, then. Not only are you personally on the hook financially, you haven’t had the time to do the things that earn you money.
The money never crossed my mind. I’ll eventually get that back, it’s fine. How? Well, tour for two years. Eventually. Life is too short [to worry]. I liken it to those people who build their own houses. You have to learn how to do stuff constantly. How are we going to record sound? That takes weeks, months. How do we record dialogue in a rave, where no one can hear what anyone’s saying?
It’s not even learning how to make films – it’s learning how to make this film. I just did an interview for Channel 4 news and [presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy] was like: ‘I think the music’s pretty good.’ But I really don’t care. The only thing I’m thinking right now is that I have almost made a film.
So you don’t care what the quality of the album is? The film is the thing.
I don’t care about the quality of any of it. I’ve been listening to it for so long. It’s exactly the way it should be, absolutely. It wouldn’t be possible to be making an album for 10 years, to have it coming in and out of your life, without having perfected everything that needed to be perfected.
If you want to know what the vision is, that is it: it’s exactly the way it needs to be. But at the same time, it could be a complete load of shit. When you’re struggling for that long, you actually stop caring about that. If you walked around the world and made it back to your house, and someone said: ‘Well, I thought the route you took could have been better…’ You’d think: I just walked around the world! I couldn’t give a fuck what you think my route looked like.
The time, effort, risk, money: has this decade-spanning project been worth it?
I’m so happy that it’s nearly done. But I am 100 per cent taking six months off – at least! If I was 25 I would be retiring, forever. I’m experienced enough to know I’m not retiring. But I’m definitely going to play Call of Duty for half a year!
The Darker The Shadow, The Brighter The Light is released in September, the album on 20th October. Mike Skinner is touring Everyman cinemas with a Q+A from 14th September, then touring the UK with The Streets from 26th October. Locked on