Tag Archives: Gangs of London

Intimate relations

Having worked on series including Sex Education, Gentleman Jack and Normal People, intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien explains why television’s approach to sex scenes has to change.

It’s impossible to imagine a sword fight or a battle scene being filmed without actors spending many hours choreographing and rehearsing the action in detail beforehand. Similarly, a dance routine would also be the subject of meticulous planning before being recorded.

Ita O’Brien

So, why is the way sex scenes are filmed only now coming under greater scrutiny? For the past few years, intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien (pictured top on set) has spearheaded a shift in the industry and led a new approach to intimacy on screen, one that invites greater communication and transparency during filming, puts in place a structure that allows for agreement and consent between actors and directors and that allows time for intimate scenes to be choreographed clearly.

“In the past, there wasn’t a sense of bringing a professional structure to the intimate work,” she explains, speaking during a keynote session at the Berlinale Series Market in February. “If you had a fight, you certainly wouldn’t just say, ‘Okay, we’ll hand you the swords and then just go for it.’ That wouldn’t be reasonable as you’re in severe danger of an injury happening. So you make sure a stunt coordinator or a fight director is there; they teach techniques and they choreograph the fight content. They will have spoken to the director and made sure they’re serving the director’s vision. If there’s a dance, of course, you’re not going to just talk about it and then throw the people on and say, ‘Right, just do the tango.’ You’re going to have a choreographer, who’s going to listen to the director, hear their vision, choreograph clearly and then make sure you create a scene that serves the storytelling.”

It’s that approach that O’Brien is now bringing to intimate content, having worked on series such as Sex Education, Normal People, Gangs of London, Bulletproof, Pennyworth, Gentleman Jack and Watchmen.

From the moment producers identify an intimate scene, as they might for a fight or a dance, she will speak to the director to hear what they want from that particular moment. The director will speak to the actors about degree of nudity or sexual content, and once that’s happened, she will then speak with the actors to discover if they have any concerns.

O’Brien’s work on Sex Education saw her tackle a particularly tricky scene

“I’m making sure I’m listening to those concerns, sharing that with the production and making sure everything’s put in place to make that actor feel autonomous and powered, and really happy to be serving that director’s vision,” she explains. “I’ll then go and connect with the wardrobe department, speaking to them about what genitalia coverings, modesty garments or other coverings need to be put in place. Then, if I haven’t already worked on set, I’ll speak to the first AD [assistant director], making sure that we’re collaborating and running a closed set with the best practice possible.

“When we come to the day on set, we rehearse the scene really clearly. I’ll have spoken to the second AD, making sure there’s time and space for that rehearsal. And that’s a shift in the industry as well. When I started, my first two programmes were Sex Education and Gentleman Jack. People said to me, ‘Oh, you’ll never have time for rehearsal.’ But of course, you’d never say that about a fight or a dance. So it’s the same now for intimate content; you make time to rehearse.”

Providing time for rehearsals means greater efficiency on set as the scenes then become repeatable and the actors are more comfortable with what they’re doing, which means “they can make a way better sex scene because they’re really happy with what the content is going to be, so they can act their socks off,” O’Brien says, adding that she also ensures actors are happy after filming has taken place, offering several points through the process where they can see their work before the rest of the world does.

The BBC’s adaptation of the novel Normal People

“It’s about creating a scene that honours the director’s vision, honours the writing and allows the actors to be empowered and happy with the work that they have done.”

O’Brien’s work, through her company Intimacy on Set, is now spreading across Europe, having shared her guidelines in Germany, Sweden, Norway and France. And across the board, it’s change that is desperately needed.

Asked whether she has worked with an intimacy coordinator before, Swedish star Sofia Helin (The Bridge, Atlantic Crossing) responds: “Never. I can’t think about it. I can’t deal with it. It’s tense every time you have to cross your own borders in order to satisfy the director’s needs. So I haven’t dealt with it. It has been a part of my job that I don’t like, and with Ita’s technique, it could be a part of my job that I like. But the interesting thing is that when I’ve done scenes with a character who is in charge of her sexuality, then it’s never been horrible. But the other way around, it’s always horrible, and that’s more usual.”

Helin says on shows she has worked on, there has always been a very “concrete and direct” vision about how intimate scenes would be portrayed, leading to the moment where the actors are on set, the clock is ticking and the actor’s voice has been taken away. “What we as actors want to do is to tell the story, and we can almost do anything to tell the story,” she says, “especially when the team is there and the camera is on. You say ‘yes’ to almost anything just to serve the story. So that ‘no’ has to be listened to by someone [like O’Brien] who can step in and say, ‘No, no. We don’t do that.’”

Gentleman Jack was among the first dramas O’Brien was involved in

Likewise, director Soleen Yusef (Skylines, Deutschland 89) has never worked with intimacy guidelines in Germany, having planned her own guidelines up to this point. “I would feel more safe if I could handle it in a way that’s much more professional, because for me, I just improvise,” she says.

“We’re not just talking about intimacy that is very sweet. We’re talking about love and sexuality. I had to do a sexual assault, for example. They weren’t naked. But still, it was very difficult for me to do that. I always meet with the actors before and I ask different questions. How far do you want to go? What do you want to wear? Do you want to be completely naked? You need to be prepared. We also had a completely closed set. You have to just create an atmosphere for everybody who’s doing the scene to feel comfortable. For me as the director, I don’t want to go too far. I don’t want to hurt people.”

O’Brien says her work introduces a process of agreement and consent between actors, directors and others involved in the scene. A key principle is ensuring the actors are present in their mind and body so they can lay down boundaries they feel comfortable with and confident any concerns will be listened to.

“Very often you hear actors go, ‘In order to get through the sex scene I downed a bottle the vodka.’ When I was in Australia and New Zealand, I had several people from different places telling me that another practice is that the production will offer the actors valium in order to get through the sex scene, which is doing the absolute opposite of what we want,” she reveals. “We want them to be ultra present, so they can really be saying yes to what they’re happy with, to be autonomous, to not feel they’re being pushed past their own boundaries.

“That’s a shift in the industry. Before now, an actor who said no might have felt they were going to be considered a troublemaker, a pain in the ass, a diva and possibly wouldn’t get employed again.”

Sky1 action thriller Bulletproof

Often in sex scenes, actors are judged to have no chemistry with each other if the audience can sense a feeling of tension or awkwardness on screen. O’Brien believes audiences are left squirming in their seats when they can feel the actors are uncomfortable with what they are being asked to do. Her work now aims to ensure the actors are happy and in control, meaning audiences will remain engaged with the scene and the storytelling. She refers to an example in season one of Netflix drama Sex Education, where a fight between two male characters ends with them having oral sex and both actors had concerns about being asked to spit on the other person, whether for real or using a substitute substance.

“We’re creative people so it was about, ‘Where are we going to put the camera?’ Very quickly, we had one actor there, a camera there and a substance made up by the make-up department was spat on to a piece of paper by one actor. The other actor was filmed responding to receiving the spit and then you’re away,” she explains. “The director of the first block didn’t even know they hadn’t spat on to each other. So it’s trusting that to know that we can use body parts and we can be creative with where the camera is in order to tell the story while keeping the actors safe.”

Through her company, O’Brien is training up new intimacy coordinators through a series of programmes to ensure preparation for sex scenes is taken as seriously as a fight or a dance sequence. She is also keen to ensure training can be provided by people of all genders, sex and ethnicities.

“My intention is that whoever is acting feels like they’re represented,” she concludes. “If they have a request, I can help to honour that, so the person performing feels as safe and careful as possible.”

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Gangland shooting

The creative team behind Sky and Cinemax’s explosive original drama Gangs of London discuss how they brought The Raid director Gareth Evan’s action-packed storytelling to television.

Through his film franchise The Raid, Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans has become synonymous with a balletic brand of action and cinematic fight sequences.

For his first television series, Gangs of London, Evans is aiming to bring those same techniques to the small screen by taking viewers on an immersive journey into the hidden heart of the English capital.

The show depicts a city being torn apart by the turbulent power struggles of the international gangs that control it, with a power vacuum being created when the head of London’s most powerful crime family is assassinated.

For two decades, Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney, Hell on Wheels) was the most powerful criminal in London. Billions of pounds flowed through his organisation each year. But now he’s dead – and nobody knows who ordered the hit. With rivals everywhere, it’s up to the impulsive Sean Wallace (Joe Cole, Peaky Blinders), with the help of the Dumani family, headed by Ed (Lucian Msamati, His Dark Materials), to take his father’s place.

Gangs of London centres on the power struggle sparked by the death of Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney)

Sean’s assumption of power causes ripples in the world of international crime, leading lowlife chancer Elliot Finch (Sope Dirsu, Humans) to find himself transported to the inner workings of the largest criminal organisation in London.

Co-created by Evans with creative partner Matt Flannery, the nine-part series also stars Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones), Paapa Essiedu (Press) and Pippa Bennett-Warner (MatherFatherSon).

Gangs of London also marks the first television drama from Pulse Films (Mogul Mowgli, Lost Transmissions), which produces the series in association with Sister (Chernobyl). It is directed by Evans, Corin Hardy and Xavier Gens.

Speaking at Content London late last year, the creative team behind the series offered a glimpse into how it was brought to the screen and the rigorous training process behind its spectacular action scenes.

Pulse had a long-held ambition to work with Evans after meeting him at the Sundance Film Festival where they both had films being screened…

Lucas Ochoa, Pulse Films’ chief creative officer of scripted film and television: What he’d done with The Raid 1 and 2, if you were interested in action cinema, changed the game. It was very eye-catching. We just started a conversation and what Gareth came back with, after talking about the title, was a wall of family trees. He wrote on the wall the names of these families, the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, and then the relationships between them and how they’re going to conflict over time.
Because it was such a vast matrix of these different characters with different agendas, television felt like the perfect medium to tell that story. The next step became how that could sit inside a city essentially going to war with itself.

Joe Cole stars as Finn’s son Sean, who must attempt to take his father’s place

Thomas Benski, Pulse Film’s CEO and co-founder: We all really wanted to do a sophisticated piece of storytelling. The visual style and the action are signature pieces. But Gareth and all of us gravitated to the idea of telling really compelling stories, with fascinating, unusual, diverse characters. He’s not a one-tone filmmaker; he has ambitions to do that, and that’s what we all got behind.

Sky snapped up the project after it was first pitched, with Sister coming on board to back the production…

Jane Featherstone, co-founder and head of Sister London: I’d seen Gareth’s work and he’s an extraordinary talent with an incredible authorial voice. I love television. I love watching movies, but I love making TV. So the idea of him bringing to television that incredible vision he has for thrills and violence, but also the moral complexity that he brings to all of his stories, was really interesting to me.
This is my city. I love London. I really loved getting under the skin of what you don’t see in London. It’s an extraordinarily complicated city but we don’t see it all. This show opened the door to that and I thought that was really interesting. Plus, it’s just really fucking exciting. It’s quite ‘blokey’ – I don’t mean women won’t like it, but I probably don’t gravitate to develop material like that, so I thought it would be a really interesting thing to explore.

Sky commissioned the series because it stood out as a “completely unique” proposition from anything already at the broadcaster or elsewhere on television…

Gabriel Silver, Sky commissioning editor: In a sense, it’s typical of what we aspire to do, which is something completely unique. We’re not only competing against all the other platforms and broadcasters, we also want to make sure every one of our shows is a stand-out against other Sky originals. This one absolutely is; it doesn’t take anyone seeing much more than the trailer to know we’re not making anything else like this.
You can talk about being quite niche in terms of the signature action that Gareth and Corin [Hardy, director] bring to it, even in terms of it possibly being quite a male-skewed show, and therefore it fits into a certain action-thriller genre. But it also has deep and broad themes and very strong storytelling. It’s actually quite a universal story.
We worked with [US cable channel] Cinemax on it and I felt like we had very similar ambitions for the show, so there wasn’t much in the way of translation needed. It’s set in London with a mostly British cast, but the themes are universal. It’s also a slightly heightened London – there’s a kind of ‘Gothamisation,’ which American viewers will totally understand.

Humans’ Sope Dirsu (right) plays Elliot Finch

Although this might be deemed a ‘male world,’ there is no shortage of female characters planning their own power grab…

Claire Wilson, writer: It is a male world and that means the female characters can’t be wallflowers, which was an exciting thing to write. Marian Wallace, played by Michelle Fairley, is the wife of the leader who gets killed in the first episode. We imagine she has taken a back step in her life over the last few years and become more of a silent partner. Then when he dies, she has to reinvent herself and we see this very badass, quite cruel woman appear.
It’s about all the characters finding their identity. One of the brilliant characters is Lale, who’s Kurdish and she runs gangs in London. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character like her – a female who is driven by revenge and by her wanting to defend her homeland, so she’s very complex and she just won’t give up on anything.
Then we have Shannon Dumani [Pippa Bennett-Warner]. She’s a single mother and you feel there’s something going on behind her. She’s sweet and she’s presented as a nice woman and but, as the story goes on, we start to work out you can’t be the daughter of someone like Ed Dumani without having something behind you. There are really interesting women in this definitely male world, but they’re pushing themselves forward and finding their feet in it.

Like Evans, Corin Hardy is making his first foray into TV with Gangs of London. He dived into the project, which he says is full of emotion, large scale action sequences, surprises and excitement…

Corin Hardy, who directs four episodes: It was a real joy to have such an incredible cast come together with the likes of Joe Cole [Pure]. The biggest discovery to me was Sope Dirisu, who is not only an incredible actor who’s come from a theatre background, but he also had to train rigorously under Gareth’s regime with his stunt team to pull off the action in this, which a lot of the cast did but particularly Sope.
It’s all in camera and it’s done for real, which is really something to behold. Then with Michelle Fairley, Lucien Msamati and Nargis Rashidi, it was important to balance the tone and know could make a show that was grounded and based in a real version of London, but heightened in such a way to bring an epic cinema to it.

The project comes from Gareth Evans, the filmmaker behind The Raid

Ochoa: Because the show is so vast, directors could bring their own sensibilities to bear on different aspects of the series. We wanted it to be a very free environment for people to be able to do that. They all brought something individual to it.

For Evans, action is character. But the set pieces in Gangs of London also had to be unlike anything ever seen on British television…

Gareth Evans, co-creator, writer and director: Having come from a film background, particularly the action genre, one of the biggest challenges was to seamlessly translate things I’ve learned in action filmmaking and then fit them into what is ostensibly a much tighter, leaner British television schedule.
From the moment myself and co-creator Matt Flannery first met with the guys at Pulse Films and then later with Sky and HBO, we were encouraged to take bold decisions and not restrict ourselves in terms of scale and ambition. When it came to designing the action sequences alongside stunt coordinator Jude Poyer, the remit was clear: it had to be unlike anything else seen or attempted before in British television.
We spent months designing and shooting the large-scale action set pieces that make up this inaugural season of the show. Not only was I fortunate enough to have the benefit of a remarkably gifted action team, but we landed on our feet with the casting of Sope and Joe. Sope is not just a remarkably gifted actor, he also happens to be an incredibly gifted screen fighter. We had absolutely no right to give him the complex choreography that we did.

Featherstone: In terms of those action sequences, that process is something I had never ever seen or experienced or heard of before. They were planned for months, every single movement. Everything was filmed shot by shot, exactly what you see, and it was replicated on the day with the actors.
That process, in television, has never been allowed to happen before in my experience, and we’re very good in TV at saying, ‘We don’t do it like that.’ This show really opened up a different way of looking at how you can create these things. And given TV is so big now and we are competing with films, and succeeding a lot of the time, we need to be able to embrace new methods and approaches.
It’s a really groundbreaking approach in the show. It will be undersold, because you’ll watch it and not really understand quite how much extraordinarily new thinking has gone into making it.

The show’s creators are confident Gangs of London is like nothing seen on TV before

The production was underpinned by a sense of rebelliousness and experimentation, with the creatives confident this has resulted in a series that will keep viewers engaged both with the action and the characters…

Hardy: There was a rebellious feeling that we’re three genre film directors doing a TV show with very respectable companies, but there was also a really nice sense of experimentation and freedom. It’s my first TV show and I’ve had an insanely focused, hardworking time, but everyone’s been supportive to try to achieve this level of scale. It’s also important to me that the story and emotions are there.

Ochoa: Gareth said really early on, ‘I want to make a TV show where no one in the audience feels safe at any moment in time.’ In a great way, we managed to deliver that, whether it’s a drama scene or an action sequence, because of the way it’s built.
You never know what might happen or who might die or why, how or when, or who’s going to betray whom or fall in love with someone. There’s a really good love story, by the way. If you get to the end of it all, there’s quite a romantic denouement.

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