Tag Archives: Guerrilla

Casting Guerrilla

Casting director Shaheen Baig and executive producer Katie Swinden tell DQ about tapping a host of British stars to appear in Guerrilla, John Ridley’s six-part study of race relations in 1970s London.

It was before 12 Years a Slave, the film that earned him a screenwriting Oscar, that John Ridley began to sow the seeds of a story that would become Guerrilla – an examination of race relations in 1970s London.

Ridley had met Patrick Spence, MD of producer Fifty Fathoms, while he was in the UK capital editing Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side (2013) and as they talked, Ridley’s story about the black movement was transplanted from the US to the UK.

Researchers uncovered information about the Black Power Desk inside the Metropolitan Police in the 70s and suddenly Ridley had something to build a story around. Then the project took a backseat, as Ridley won his Academy Award and partnered with ABC Studios to produce the acclaimed American Crime for ABC.

Katie Swinden

Such was Ridley’s limited availability that it was five years after those first discussions that Guerrilla finally came to air on Sky Atlantic and Showtime this April. The show was produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature, and is distributed by Endemol Shine International.

“First and foremost, it was the story we fell for – a love story set during a time of revolution and in a time in the 1970s when you had hope. As a young person, you felt like you could effect change,” says Katie Swinden, executive producer and co-MD of Fifty Fathoms. “That was very seductive to us, just in terms of storytelling. But Patrick and I are both Londoners born and bred and I didn’t know anything about this. So it was slightly shaming, and it’s a part of history we should talk about.”

Guerrilla is described as a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history. The plot sees Jas (played by Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay) finding their relationship and values put to the test after they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London. Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counterintelligence unit within the Met’s Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.

The cast also includes Rory Kinnear and Daniel Mays as the police officers assigned to the desk, plus Nathaniel Martello-White, Denise Gough, Brandon Scott, Zawe Ashton and Nicholas Pinnock.

With Ridley attached to write and direct most episodes, it was unsurprising that the series was able to attract a starry array of British talent.

But how did casting director Shaheen Baig, who had worked with Swinden previously on Marvellous and Peaky Blinders, begin to piece together the cast that would lead this emotion-packed drama?

John Ridley (centre) poses with Guerrilla stars Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto

“It’s always about script, the people involved, the director and the producers,” she explains. “It has to be. You start with the script first and see the people who are already involved. Early on, we all had a strong sense of what the show wanted to be, and everyone was on the same page about that. The scripts were really vivid, and the more vivid the script, the more detailed the characters and the easier my job is. If each character is really well drawn, it points me in the right direction.”

Baig began with the main ensemble of characters and worked from there, breaking down the characters, discussing ideas and auditioning several actors for those central roles.

“We saw a lot of actors for Marcus and Jas,” she recalls. “There were lots of different ways you could have played the couple. Then we just started to pick the strongest reads and what felt natural. There was something really exciting about Babou and Freida. Babou is such a quiet, detailed actor and there’s something about watching an actor like that. Maybe he’s a new face for many people who will develop and grow over the series, and I thought that was really exciting.”

Ridley’s dislike of scenes with large numbers of extras and his desire to have ‘actors’ in every role meant Baig was casting right to the end, picking out people to play supporting parts throughout filming.

Ceesay portrays Marcus, who is in a relationship with Pinto’s character Jas

“Pretty much across the board, John wanted actors, even if they were supporting roles – so we were asked to cast ‘Man in stairwell,’” she continues. “It’s about casting interesting characters because when you watch it, you can see these moments where it lands because the actor was really vivid. There were a lot of really tiny moments where he wanted actors.”

One actor already heavily involved behind the scenes was Luther star Idris Elba, who was an executive producer on Guerrilla through his company Green Door Pictures. It wasn’t until much later, however, that he took his involvement in front of the camera as well.

“As John was an American writing a British story, we all felt we needed a producer who could make sure it felt authentic and truthful, and Idris was absolutely the right fit,” Swinden says. “We sat down and talked it through, he met with John, so he came on as an exec producer. But then, of course, it’s hard not to go, ‘Is there a role for him?’

“He and John found a role that inspired both of them. That’s how the casting came about, but we had a really tiny window between a couple of movies where [Elba] could come back over [to the UK], and we worked him into the ground for seven days! Nobody ever wanted to cast him as the lead. It always felt like the story was about two young people concentrating on their relationship and what they stand for in the world. As much as we love Idris, casting from the beginning wasn’t towards him and we would have had to twist the show quite substantially to make it one he could have been a lead in.”

The show had to work around the busy schedules of actors such as Rory Kinnear

Once the majority of the casting was in place, Ridley led mini read-throughs from six weeks before filming began so whoever had been cast would come together to read the script, allowing him to edit it as he felt necessary.

“That was an incredibly helpful process for the cast but also for John in that he was constantly rewriting as he went,” Swinden says. “That was the real joy of having a director, writer and creator in one person – he was constantly listening to feedback and absorbing, tweaking and polishing it the whole time.”

The desire to secure such a talented cast, however, led to a challenging shooting schedule as the production team attempted to align actors’ schedules.

“Rory Kinnear was amazing because he was shooting during the day and then at night he was on stage at the National Opera,” Swinden adds. “It was extraordinary. There was lots of that going on. But the biggest challenge was how to find down-and-dirty 1970s London in gentrified London. There’s not many pockets left. We mostly filmed on the outer edges of Hackney [in east London] and a little in south London, but we moved a lot.”

For Baig, who is also casting Channel 4/Amazon anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams and Elba-led feature film Yardie, the process stays the same across both films and TV series, though the number of small-screen dramas currently in production means the demand for actors is increasingly fierce.

“The television industry at the moment is so healthy, it’s sort of overflowing because you’ve got so many different outlets and there’s a huge amount being made,” she notes. “Film is still tough. It’s a hard climate unless you’ve got one of the five actors who greenlight films.

“Television is very competitive. I’ve never known quite so many scripts around. It’s bonkers – good but very busy.”

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Being Paula

An award-winning stage turn changed the fortunes of actor Denise Gough, who tells DQ about starring in BBC2 three-parter Paula.

Denise Gough is really enjoying becoming, at the tender age of 38, the television industry’s hottest young find.

The Irish actor, who fronts new BBC2 drama Paula, has been the theatre world’s secret star for nearly two decades – and even that world had, at times, ignored her. But her Olivier Award-winning turn as a drug addict going through rehab in scorching drama People, Places & Things in 2015 changed everything.

It means she doesn’t take anything for granted, and now that she’s reached where she always wanted to get to in her career, she’s not just going to grab at any role. Known for her political activism, she’s also going to say exactly what she thinks.

“I don’t even really mention the name of People, Places & Things anymore, I just call it this huge thing that I did,” she grins, her big blue eyes lighting up. “If it wasn’t for that, I would never have been allowed to even look at a TV show of this calibre.”

Paula stars Denise Gough alongside Victoria’s Tom Hughes

Gough, who was also recently seen in BBC1’s Apple Tree Yard and Sky Atlantic’s Guerrilla, is in almost every scene of Paula, a tense thriller filmed in Belfast about a chemistry teacher who has a one stand that goes terribly wrong.

The three-part drama, which launches tomorrow, is produced by BBC NI Drama with Cuba Pictures and is written by Olivier- and Tony-Award winning playwright Conor McPherson in his first original work for television. The distributor is BBC Worldwide.

It also stars Victoria actor Tom Hughes as a psychopathic baddie who becomes obsessed with Paula after working as an odd-job man in her house.

Frustrated with her married lover, her emotionally incontinent parents and her alcoholic brother, Paula seduces him one evening. But he is far from the easy-going handyman he seems; he lives with two girlfriends, who each have his children, and is plagued by dark nightmares that leave him sobbing at night. His obsession leads to a trail of murder and destruction.

“What I liked about the script was no woman was tied up, raped and left as a corpse,” says Gough. “You read so much of that stuff you become immune to it. She’s also a very human woman; this isn’t just a story about a woman who is connected to all the men in the story. I love men but it’s nice to play a character who is complex. Some people say she’s not very likeable but I think that is just a funny thing we say about women. We don’t say that about Jamie Dornan in The Fall; he’s just hot.

The actor says she was drawn to her ‘complex’ character

“I like women who aren’t apologetic about the things they do in their lives. Why does she have to be likeable? I like her. I love the scene where she gets together with Tom’s character. There is a build up to why she decides to do it; she thinks, ‘I’m going to have him because I’ve had a shitty time. I am going to have this.’ Who hasn’t done that? She kind of seduces him in quite a bold way that we don’t see very often. She’s thinking that she wants to feel something other than what she is feeling. I am tired of only ever seeing women being seduced. There is something very truthful about that scene. She takes what she wants. Unfortunately for her it turns out he is a bit of a wrong’un.”

Gough admits she hopes her electrician father won’t watch her sex scene with Hughes, even though it is far from the first time his actor daughter (she is seventh out of 12 children) has stripped off for a role.

“I’m afraid he’s going to have to get used to it; now that I am 38 I can’t keep going, ‘I don’t want my dad to see that.’ I’ll never forget my first ever TV job. I was in a show with Andrew Lincoln, playing a prostitute – which for the first 10 years of my career was all I got offered – and I had two scenes. There was a lead-up scene and then the next one saw [my character] pleasuring her pimp and then blowing her head off. The whole time I did it I thought, ‘At least there is that first scene,’ so it’s not just about the sex and the blowing of the brains. But the night before it aired, the director rang to tell me the first scene had been cut.

“The next night everyone was at my house to see my big TV debut; the family, the neighbours, the bishop. They saw me doing this thing. I’ve had to do some pretty dodgy stuff on TV.”

Gough recently appeared in John Ridley’s Guerrilla

Now the actor has a choice of roles, it’s something she appreciates all the more because it has been so hard-fought. “I know I have been painted as a Cinderella story and that’s OK,” she says. “I am an old-school story; this is a story of old-fashioned graft. I have been working since the age of 22 when I left drama school. It hasn’t been easy. There were a huge amount of times when I phoned my agent and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’

“It’s hard to keep up your self-esteem when you are being constantly rejected and have no money. But I kept working and this is my pay-off. I am enjoying that. There is a raft of very young people coming out of drama school or who have millions of followers on Twitter and suddenly become movie stars. There has to be somebody who is flying the flag for hard graft and I’m fine if that’s me. There were hard times, there were terrible times but I won’t have those terrible times in the same way now I’ve got loads of money,” she laughs.

Now that she is in a position to be listened to, the actor, who is currently working at the National Theatre in Angels in America, wants to do her bit to make things better for women in the drama industry.

“It feels like a good time, there are a lot of scripts that are being written now that are female-driven and written by women, but we still need to do more,” she says. “With the whole pay gap thing, I am pleased that women are getting bolder. It’s a conversation that we need to keep having. I remember reading Jennifer Lawrence talking about how she blamed herself for not getting paid the same as a man because she didn’t even question it. Well, now we are questioning it. I make sure I am on top whack.”

Her financial security means we should be seeing plenty more of Gough in work she is passionate about. “It’s so nice I don’t have to do something just to pay the rent,” she adds. “I have everything I have ever wanted.”

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Protest behaviour

From Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley, Guerrilla is a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history. It tells the story of a couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London.

Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counter-intelligence unit within Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.

Leading couple Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto, who play Marcus and Jas, discuss their characters and their roles in the ensuing struggle, why they both wanted to work with Ridley, diversity in television and why this story is more than relevant in the present day.

Guerrilla is produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature for Sky Atlantic and Showtime, and is distributed by Endemol Shine International.

For more about Guerrilla, read DQ’s interview with series creator John Ridley here.

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Power to the people

Oscar-winning screenwriter and American Crime creator John Ridley realises a long-held ambition to tell a story about race relations in the UK with Guerrilla, a six-part series for Sky Atlantic and Showtime.

From Oscar-winning feature film 12 Years a Slave to critically acclaimed drama American Crime, race relations in the US are a common theme in the works of screenwriter and director John Ridley.

His latest project, Guerrilla, transports that topic across the Atlantic to 1970s London, one of the most politically explosive periods in British history.

The series tells the story of a couple whose relationship is tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell. Their ultimate target becomes the Black Power Desk, a true-life, secretive counter-intelligence unit within Special Branch dedicated to crushing all forms of black activism.

The six-part series is produced by Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature, and distributed by Endemol Shine Distribution. It debuts on Sky Atlantic in the UK on April 13 and Showtime in the US on April 16.

“This is a story and types of characters I’ve been fascinated in since I was a young child,” Ridley (pictured above between stars Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay) tells DQ. “I was a child of the 1970s and a lot of the iconography of black activism was just so very potent, as well as people like [black activists] Angela Davis and Huey Newton and what they represented both visually and emotionally.

“Then, as you get older, you start to realise consequences of actions and what it means to stand up for a group of people, to stand up against others, and that those individuals themselves were complicated. They were human beings. So over the years growing up, I found those stories very interesting.”

Ridley (right) in discussion with Idris Elba on the Guerrilla set

With race and immigration issues front of mind around the world in this age of Trump, Brexit and the refugee crisis, Ridley adds: “It’s unfortunate that a lot of the stories out there for any of us to tell [about race] are both timely and timeless, in that the issues folks were dealing with 10, 15 or, in our case, 40 years ago, people are still dealing with now.”

The story that would ultimately become Guerrilla was first conceived in 2007. But it wasn’t until a trip to London in 2013, when Ridley was in post-production on Jimi Hendrix drama All Is By My Side, that the American filmmaker began to get a sense of the similarities in and differences between racial dynamics in the US and the UK. And after carrying out research and speaking to Brits about their experiences during the 1970s, he found he could tell a story that was firmly rooted in reality.

The accounts offered by the people Ridley spoke to, many of whom joined the show as advisors, were central to shaping the narrative of Guerrilla’s characters. “They lived through this era and their experiences – sometimes in opposition to each other – were instrumental,” Ridley explains. “We wanted to make a show with a certain velocity that makes the audience want to return week in, week out.

“But at the core we wanted to tell a very human story, a story of people who are struggling – against the system, against their own choices, against each other. We could have done a purely dry disposition of London in the 1970s, but I can’t say enough about the individuals who shared their stories and perspectives that ended up being the foundation of everything else we ended up doing.”

The show is centred on race relations in the UK in the 1970s

As the show’s creator and lead writer, as well as its director for three of the six episodes, Ridley certainly assumes showrunner status on Guerrilla, a role still relatively uncommon in the UK. He says he aspired to bring together elements of the US and UK production systems, including setting up a writers room with British co-writer Misan Sagay (Belle). “We’d sit around talking about ideas and she’d give me a sense of things that really happened in the UK. And sometimes it would just be small language things – like the difference between ‘flat’ and ‘apartment,’” Ridley says of working with Sagay. “She also wrote the fifth episode of our series – I wrote one, two, three, four and six. So it was much smaller than a traditional US writers room, but it definitely worked having someone who’s very talented and knows the UK, as well as someone who knows their history.

“In production, little things are different [between the UK and the US] – hours of the day, how many hours you have to shoot. Some things in the infrastructure are different, like permitting, where you can shoot and how you can shoot. A lot of that was left to our line producer to help figure out. Ultimately, what made Guerrilla work was hopefully taking the best of these two systems and making sure we supported each other in the stories we wanted to tell.”

In terms of scriptwriting, Ridley says he likes to make it clear on the page exactly what’s happening in every scene, meaning the script serves as a blueprint for every department, from hair and makeup to wardrobe and set design. “I want anybody who picks up that script to be able to read it and really understand what is going in a scene,” he says. “You cannot talk enough about every script, every page, every scene, everything that’s happening.”

That also goes for any extras on set: “I really don’t like having a lot of extras. When somebody’s in a scene, I want to know what they are doing and what’s happening with that person. It makes much more sense to have one or two people engaged in a very specific way than having people wandering around in the background.”

Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton is among the supporting cast

As such, Ridley faced a daunting task when it came to filming a protest scene for Guerrilla’s premiere episode involving hundreds of cast members and extras, along with several police horses. However, by working initially with just a handful of actors to plan the action, he was able to piece it together once the cameras were rolling.

“We mapped it out very carefully,” he says of the scene, in which the peaceful demonstration quickly turns violent. “You have 300-and-something people out there, plus horses and crew, so just from a safety standpoint you don’t want to simply turn up and tell people to re-enact a riot – you don’t want anybody to get hurt.

“There are always issues there but you realise that every problem you solve ahead of time, you’re leaving space for issues that come up, no matter what they are. We were able to shoot a fantastic scene full of scale, but also a really emotional scene. On a personal level, you can’t do it without preparation and you can’t do it without a crew that’s fully informed and part of the creative process.”

The protest scene is also notable for featuring one of several instances of police brutality highlighted in the opening episode. On another occasion, a female character is sexually assaulted by an officer. Ridley says that while the production team didn’t want to shy away from such “realities,” they opted to use camera angles and editing techniques to show them in a way that feels more graphic than they actually are.

“Sometimes suggesting things to an audience has more impact than lingering on them,” he notes. “They fill in the gaps of that brutality in a way that depicting them as graphically as possible may not do as well. But that’s part of the joy of putting a show together – when you get into the edit, you can really think about it. I deeply appreciate having the opportunity to do a show that isn’t straightforward. It has allowed for different storytelling than traditional television has allowed for.”

On screen, Ridley has assembled a stunning array of acting talent, from leading stars Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay (who play central couple Jas and Marcus respectively) to supporting cast members Rory Kinnear, Daniel Mays, Nathaniel Martello-White, Denise Gough, Brandon Scott, Zawe Ashton and Nicholas Pinnock.

Ridley reserves special praise for Pinto and Ceesay, who he says put in a lot of work to develop their on-screen partnership. “If there is no sense of chemistry between your lead actors, the show’s not going to work,” he says. “That chemistry comes through trust, camaraderie and a sense of leadership through two people who are sharing the screen.

“Freida and Babou put in that work. It goes beyond the writing, the lighting, the wardrobe; it’s about the actors putting in the time so when they arrive on set, they’re good friends, they’re there for each other and they put in a great day’s work for the rest of the crew. Freida and Babou just really had it. It’s great to watch.”

The cast also includes Luther star Idris Elba, who is also an exec producer on Guerrilla through his Green Door Pictures label. “He gives an outstanding performance, one that is very different from the Idris people have seen over the last few years,” Ridley says. “It was a special opportunity to work with him as a partner on the show.”

With season three of American Crime having launched in March this year, Ridley is now developing a Marvel series, though he declines to reveal anything about the top-secret project. But while cinema is currently buoyant on a wave of blockbuster superhero films, Ridley believes there’s still room on the big screen for storytelling-focused dramas such as Lion and Academy Award Best Picture winner Moonlight.

He continues: “When people are making a US$200m bet, you can’t blame them for wanting to take a short bet. But I hope there is still space for filmmaking that’s a little challenging, not traditional and represents people in different ways, and that such films can co-exist [alongside blockbusters].

“I’m just happy, thankful and appreciative television does exist because I don’t know that someone would have made a bet on a film like Guerrilla,” Ridley adds. “I certainly can’t fault the film studios for the choices they make, but I’m thankful there’s another space where we as writers, as storytellers, can tell the stories that are most meaningful to us.”

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