'Gangs of London' director Gareth Evans breaks down the making of brutal fight scenes and talks extreme violence on screen
The biggest new drama of the year has just landed on Sky Atlantic and while its drama is sweeping and operatic, it might just also be the most violent one of the decade.
Gangs of London is a thrilling big budget, cinematic saga of gang politics, brutal action and family tension. When London’s biggest gangster (Colm Meaney) is assassinated, it falls to his privately-educated son Sean Wallace (Joe Cole) to try to keep control of London’s organised crime syndicate. The prestige cast includes Sope Dirisu as Elliot Finch, a mysterious new highly skilled ex-military fighter, and Game of Thrones’ Michelle Fairley, as the assassinated mob boss’s wife.
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Combining gritty, present day London-based drama with martial arts-influenced fights, the show’s highly-choreographed, cinematic brawls are like nothing you’ve seen on TV before. We’d expect nothing less from creator Gareth Evans, best known for being the director behind the hugely influential Indonesian action films, The Raid, The Raid 2 and Merantau.
We sat down with Gareth Evans to break down the artistry that goes into filming his signature fight scenes, how he turned classically trained thespians into skilled martial artists, the responsibility involved with showing extreme violence on TV, and his upcoming film that will change Christmas movies forever.
Read the full interview with Gareth Evans where he discusses getting creative with violence and the influence of Robocop...
Yahoo Movies UK: This is set in London, but the fights are martial arts-inspired. How is the action different to what we’re used to seeing in this type of show?
Gareth Evans: Both myself and Jude Poyer, the stunt coordinator, have the same interest in East Asian action cinema, so all of our influences come from there. We both watched the same Jackie Chan films and Sammo Hung films, and could wax endlessly about the nerdy aspects of Hong Kong cinema. As a result, we just can't help it: There's a flavour to those fights which permeates into our work. What we've always wanted to do is to take something that felt quintessentially British, but put a spin on it. When we were designing the pub fight in the first episode, we knew we wanted it to be relentless and full on, but for it to have a rollercoaster vibe. There's that mix of the rough and tumble of a barroom brawl, with moments where it feels messy and chaotic, but then these little pockets of choreography where suddenly Sope Dirisu is moving with grace and balleticism.
Yahoo Movies UK: That pub fight scene in the first episode is so intricate. What is the process of making that - not just on the day of filming, but from the very beginning? Where do you start?
GE: It all starts with a concept of what the scene is. I'll say to Jude and his team, ‘The setup is a fight going on in the pub, and our guy needs to get to the guy who's at the end of the bar, by working his way through all of his goons.’ That's literally it. And then I'll say - and I'm a nice person, honestly - that I really want to use one of those thick glass ashtrays, and, ‘Oh! there's a dartboard, so I really want to use darts!’ For the darts in that fight, I remember saying to Jude, let’s make it like in Robocop, where he has that spike in his glove - if you put the dart in between the fingers, that becomes a weapon. Then I'll be like, for the rest of it, go and play! Then they'll go and figure it out.
Yahoo Movies UK: What happens next in the fight production process?
GE: Then, having a scene like that early on for a character like Elliot, helps inform us in writing it as well. So, we do a deep dive. It’s never just a case of mapping out ‘Now he does this punch, and then this kick’, it's also the philosophy in his fighting style. What is his background? Where is he from? What will he have learned? And so we started to play with the idea of, ‘What if he's got a background that mixes Judo and boxing?’ Then, there's a shape to movements, and we can incorporate that in the character. Then we look at the people he's fighting, what's their fight discipline? Then, we try to put those against each other. For each move, what would be the way he would get out of that?
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We'd spend about a week designing a scene like the pub fight: A few days designing just the meat and potatoes of what's happening, and then another few days where we literally shoot it forensically shot by shot; look at it, analyse it, ask, ‘Do we need another angle? Are we selling this piece of choreography right? Do we need to swing the camera around here?’ We go through it with a fine tooth comb to get a full blueprint for how the action scene will play out. That is our safety net when we're on production. We know exactly what we're shooting for every single shot, and with that we can inform everyone, in every department of production, what's required for that scene, shot by shot.
Yahoo Movies UK: Speaking of weapon props, like the dart and ashtray in the pub fight, and the meat cleaver at the end of the first episode: this is very creative violence. Where do you get those ideas from?
GE: The ashtray and the dart were very much an intentional riff on us bringing our action style to the UK. Me and Matt Flannery, who is the co-creator, we would talk about the first fight: It should be answering everybody's expectations of a TV show coming out called “Gangs of London”. They're going to expect London boozer brawls. Instead of just not doing that, let's attack it head on - let's make our first action set piece a London boozer. But then, let's take the things which are quintessentially British like an ashtray and a dart, and let's use them in a way that feels unique - so that you're seeing something you're familiar with, but now it's got a different spin on it. When we design those sequences, those bits where you wince, but then because you're in a room full of people who are all collectively making the same reaction, there’s a humour to that - we call them “punch lines”. It’s a terrible pun play-on-words, but every good fight should have three or four good little punch line moments in there, which break the tension and allows you to breathe a sigh of relief, and then carry on and keep riding the rollercoaster.
Yahoo Movies UK: There are a lot of those tense moments where I wanted to cover my face, but then I thought, ‘Covid-19! Don’t touch your face!’
GE: We've not released this at a good time for that, have we? Just roll the face mask up a little higher to cover the eyes, that's what you've got to do.
Yahoo Movies UK: The actors had to be trained in a fight school and have ‘fight tests’ to be cast. What does that involve?
GE: When Sope came in for Elliot, we knew he could do drama and he nailed his audition. But then he had to go off with Chris Webb, who's one of the main members of Jude Poyer’s stunt team, who would put him through his paces and try him with punch combinations, to see how he moves. Chris watches his feet, his hips, his arms, his shoulders, to see how he carries himself because you can see straight away in the posture, if it's wrong. Straight away, Chris was enthused by Sope's ability. We’d already designed a lot of the choreography by then, and felt very confident that Sope could handle it, and there was nothing that we would have to go back and simplify. It was nuts: We were shooting sequences with a guy that I was treating like a stunt performer - I'd be treating him like a fighter and then suddenly, I'm shooting a drama sequence with him, and he's nailing the drama in a beautiful way. This kid's got everything.
Yahoo Movies UK: For your previous films, The Raid and Merantau, you taught fighters to act. For this, you had to teach an actor to fight. How different was that experience?
GE: Weirdly, it takes a lot of the edge off. We were spoilt with Sope because he had such a natural ebb and flow. In terms of the physicality, he picked it up really quickly. With a fighter that you're trying to kind of get a performance out of, you have to find different ways to get that performance. When Iko Uwais (The Raid, Merantau) first started, it was very much like show and tell, to walk him through what would be a terrible performance, so he could look at it as a piece of choreography, and then replicate that and find a truth to it. As we started doing more films together, I was able to tap into him on a psychological level, to talk to him about where the character’s headspace is at.
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But with Sope, I didn't need to give him too much of a steer, we kind of just found this really good rhythm between the two of us. He knew what I wanted. And I always allow the actors to be able to play with the material a little bit; I'm quite happy for them to bring something of their own to it. In the first episode, he was a line of dialogue, 'But I had a dart, so.' We probably did ten different versions of that line, where Sope would just pull these different lines out of nowhere, and I loved the dart one. There were loads of different versions of that - one where he mentioned Superman, one about Mario Brothers. I remember when we were filming it, on one of them. I was like, ‘What the hell did you just say? We're not using that one!’ When the dart line came I was like, stick with that. In lesser hands, that could be a comedy line, but he's so flat with the tone. It’s so good.
Yahoo Movies UK: This is an ultra violent series. What are your sort of thoughts on showing violence on TV, in terms of responsibility?
GE: I don't think that our treatment of violence is irresponsible. We don't glorify and we don't exploit, and I think that when it comes to the action, our thing has been that, we hit you hard with something to get you to react, but then we cut away a frame or two later. The final fight in the first episode, has a pretty gruesome end. But in terms of what you're actually seeing in-camera, you see him land. As soon as he lands, we cut away over his shoulder. You’re left picturing all the rest of it; we haven't shown you all that injury detail. That's always been part of the design of what I've done - to give you enough of a glimpse of something to let it register, and then swing the camera away or cut to another angle so that we're not dwelling on pain and suffering and torture. I think that's a fine line.
But in terms of like responsibility, I've never really bought into the notion of screen violence creating real violence. I think that what goes on in the world is far more terrifying and awful than anything I've seen in a film or a television show. The amount of subjective barbaric acts committed on a daily basis - that I'm not keen to learn about - isn't because someone made a TV show. I've never felt there was a correlation between the two. But, we make things for adults to watch, we don't make it for kids to watch. That’s why there are guidelines and watersheds. Also the show is so heightened. It's not meant to be a social statement or a reflection of our society. It's an operatic tale. That buys us a chance to do things in a more heightened, stylised way.
Yahoo Movies UK: Could you tell us about the next project that you’re working on?
GE: I's a film called Havoc, and it's an action thriller set during Christmas time. That's all I've really got right now that I'm allowed to share, because it's very early days. But I've been developing the script for the last few months now. And I think we're hoping within the next month or so, to start pushing further forward with it [Ed’s note: this interview took place pre-lockdown]. We've already done a lot of the action design for it, and it's pretty crazy and relentless. But it's got a lot of heart in there, which I'm really excited about. It's more of a sort of mainstream take on what I've done before, but still has all the edge and and the fun that comes along with it.
Yahoo Movies UK: Speaking of huge British gangs dramas on TV at the moment - would you be up for directing Peaky Blinders in the future?
GE: I'll be honest, it’s a weird thing stepping into somebody else's world that's already been created and fully fleshed out. That was part of the reason why I was always a bit reluctant to jump into a sequel of a film franchise. It's hard because the rules are already made. I like building the world, and being able to have the flexibility of saying, ‘No, this is the style of it, and this is the way we're going to shoot this.’ If I'm having to plug into something else that’s already been fully realised, you can't really stretch it too much. And to be honest, for a show like that, I love being able to be an audience of it. I love being able to keep being surprised by the twists and turns of the story. If I got involved in everything I love, I wouldn't end up being able to enjoy it, because then it would be the thing that I remember all the days of production on. For some things, I prefer to just be a fanboy and sit back and watch.
All nine episodes of ‘Gangs of London’ are available to watch now on Sky Atlantic.