WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. IT'S A simple piece of advice that first-time film-makers have followed for decades, so why mess with it? That was Essex-born writer-director Eran Creevy's reasoning when he sat down to pen his debut movie. "I really didn't know what to write a film about," admits the 32-year-old, "so I thought: what do I know? Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen know New York and Manhattan. I know Harlow in Essex. Ha-ha!"The result is Shifty, a raw but optimistic low-budget thriller about a drug dealer called Shifty (played by Riz Ahmed) whose sorted-on-the-outside lifestyle begins to unravel over a 24-hour period during which his gone-respectable best friend Chris (Vera Drake's Daniel Mays) returns, having abruptly left town four years earlier. Set in Harlow (well, a fictionalised London suburb called Dudlow), and seen through Chris's eyes, it's a film very much inspired by some of the things Creevy witnessed while growing up there.
Not that he wants to give the impression that Shifty is a woe-is-me story about his youth. As he puts it: "I grew up in a single parent family on a council estate and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah … but I had a very happy childhood." Nevertheless, the anger, frustration and sadness he felt upon returning to Harlow as an adult is very real. "Lots of people I grew up with have since passed away due to stabbings, or have gone to prison. Some of my own friends have got themselves into trouble, and one of my family members got addicted to heroin, so it does have a very personal feel to it."
Indeed, one horrific incident in particular became the seed for the whole film. "I was back home, talking to the real Shifty, when a crack deal went down in front of me," recalls Creevy. "I saw this poor girl who I used to go to school with in the front of the car. She was scarred all down her face, so I said to the real Shifty, 'God, I remember her, I used to fancy her massively when I was at school,' and he told me she got smacked out on heroin, passed out next to a radiator and actually melted. The paramedics had to peel her off. I was so devastated by that story that it ended up being the first thing I wrote."
The film, then, has a grim veracity, but it's leavened by moments of black humour and a fairly hopeful outlook - a result, Creevy says, of his own tendency to try and make light of bad situations, as well as a desire to reflect the importance he places on the friendships he formed growing up a quarter Sri Lankan (on his mother's side) in a casually racist town. "I think a lot of what we went through is the reason I had such a strong link to my friends." He laughs. "Ultimately this is a love story between two best mates."
The film itself is something of a labour of love. Made as part of Film London's innovative Microwave scheme, it was shot for £100,000 in just 18 days, which created a special kind of energy on screen that was reflected on set in the way everyone pitched in, including actors such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button's Jason Flemyng.
"Jason was great. He'd just come off this massive $150 million David Fincher film and he walks onto our set and he's helping wipe things down and sweep things up."
Turns out Flemyng's an old mate who helped get him his first film credit, on Layer Cake, which the actor was making with Daniel Craig at the time. "I completely lied my way onto Layer Cake," chuckles Creevy, "and became a runner-slash-Daniel Craig's stand-in".
Production credits on Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Wimbledon and Woody Allen's Scoop followed, along with music videos and commercials work for the likes of Nike.
And now there's Shifty, which sees him nipping at the heels of the new wave of brilliant Brit directors such as London to Brighton's Paul Andrew Williams and trailblazer Shane Meadows. Were these two an inspiration to him?
"To be honest, my inspirations were things like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future," smiles Creevy. "When I was 13 my mum remarried and my step-dad had a video shop and I used to go and soak up crap like The Goonies and Gremlins, so I've got quite commercial tastes. I guess what I learned from watching those films was to always try and keep the audience entertained. So with Shifty, I wanted to keep it short and I wanted it to have a thriller element to it. That has nothing to do with selling out, it's just what I wanted to bring to the movie."
Next up - hopefully - is a Heat-style crime drama called Welcome to the Punch, which he has just finished writing. "Michael Mann is a hero of mine and I really want to do what they're doing in countries like South Korea and Hong Kong at the moment, with movies like OldBoy and Infernal Affairs: make a big, epic crime thriller, set in Britain, but making it look like those films and getting rid of the parochial feel we have here."
Sounds as if it will cost a lot more than £100,000. "Yeah, a lot more. But I kind of thought, 'Well, if I'm going to get a chance at making another film out of Shifty, I want to make one like the ones I grew up loving.' And I loved films like Heat. I also loved action films like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Predator and The Last Boy Scout, so it's going to be a sort of mesh of all that. It's Shifty meets Michael Mann meets The Last Boy Scout. Ha-ha!"
• Shifty is at the Glasgow Film Festival tomorrow and Monday, and will be released in cinemas on 24 April.