The London look
Known for its balletic action sequences, Gangs of London is back for a second season. Director Corin Hardy tells DQ about helming the series and breaks down a key scene from the first episode.
As Gangs of London returns for a second season, fans may question whether the series can sustain the complex blend of gangland drama, elegant London cityscapes and astonishing action sequences that so enthralled them the first time around.
But from the opening moment of its new run, lead director Corin Hardy wants viewers to feel right at home. How he does this is nothing less than extraordinary, with a minute-long continuous tracking shot that has numerous gangsters – suffering myriad bloody, fatal injuries – falling over each other inside a steam-filled Turkish launderette as we follow the path of a mysterious assassin.
The camera then pans up to reveal actor Sopé Dìrísù, in character as Elliot Finch, in the midst of a brutal fist fight with legendary Lithuanian strongman Žydrūnas Savickas. As openings go, it certainly packs a punch.
The idea behind the sequence was to reintroduce the show’s hero one year after the events of S1, which explored the power vacuum created in London’s criminal underworld by the death of Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney), leaving his son Sean (Joe Cole) and the rival Dumani family, headed by Ed Dumani (Lucian Msamati), fighting for control.
In the second season, which begins on Sky Atlantic in the UK this Thursday, the surviving Wallaces are scattered, the Dumanis broken and estranged, and ex-undercover cop Elliot is now being forced to work for the shady business group known as The Investors. To restore order, The Investors have aligned behind heroin baron Asif Afridi (Asif Raza Mir) and together they have installed a new ruling force in London in the form of brutal gang leader Koba (Waleed Zuiater) – but their monopoly over the city’s drug trade can’t last forever.
Hardy, who directed episodes of S1 alongside series creator Gareth Evans (The Raid) and Xavier Gens, is now lead director on S2, working with Marcela Said and Nima Nourizadeh. And as soon as the first run hit screens in April 2020, close to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, he joined a virtual writers room with S2 lead writer Tom Butterworth to work on a new story.
“The first idea was really to give it a little bit of time, so we set it a year later,” he tells DQ. “There has been a settling in the wake of this Dumani-Wallace fallout. It’s opened up a lot of cracks throughout London and the underworld, and The Investors have appointed Asif in charge in the position that once belonged to Finn Wallace.
“He has in turn been challenged with keeping control or putting control back, so he’s brought in Koba, this paramilitary leader, who has his own way of dealing with things and keeping everyone under his thumb. The genesis of it was to make sure we had a very volatile start point with the world and also the characters.”
Hardy jokes that he is never worried about going too far, with S2 pitched as “bigger, bolder, madder” while also continuing the story from S1 and not heading off on a tangent. In the first season, they built the playground, so Hardy wanted to play in it this time out.
“We wanted to retain what was successful about season one and the creation of this mix of a grounded criminal family drama with this insane explosive action,” he says. “And then also trying to imagine set pieces and not repeat what we’ve done before, but build off it and go ‘hell or high water’ with it.”
Building the series is a bit like completing a jigsaw puzzle, he says, with a narrative that drives both the story and where the action set pieces can be placed. Those scenes then emerge from brainstorming sessions where Hardy tries to imagine the most exciting arenas or predicaments in which he could place the characters.
“I had a number of Zooms with the writers where I talked about staging and creating action just to make sure their minds were as open as possible to the complex and outrageous action we could find places for in the show and then really bake it into the narrative,” he says.
“It’s not just a case of going, ‘Let’s have some cool action scenes.’ You want everything to be informed by the characters, their decisions and their emotions. It’s a mixture of real character, drama, tension and meticulous, choreographed action. That is what I think people reacted to in season one.”
Produced by Pulse Films in association with Sister for Sky Studios and US cable channel AMC, Gangs of London is also notable for its use of locations, blending visually dramatic shots of the city at street level and from the air. Hardy, who directed music videos before making horror films The Nun and The Hallow, says he was initially nervous about joining a contemporary crime drama with modern cars and technology, rather than the period projects he is usually drawn to.
But while Gangs of London is grounded in the city from which it takes its name, “the sleight of hand is in heightening it cinematically. It’s a slightly ‘Gothamised’ version of London, but not so much that it doesn’t feel real,” he says with a nod to Batman’s hometown.
Coming back for S2, Hardy enjoyed building on the relationships he had already made with cast and crew, which meant the production moved at a quicker pace this time. In particular, he again worked with “key collaborators” DOP Martijn van Broekhuizen and production designer Matt Gant to ensure S2 maintained the same tone and style as the show’s first run, while a band of new actors – Zuaiter, Jasmine Armando, Fady El-Sayed, Salem Kali and Aymen Hamdouchi among them – brought fresh energy to the returning cast.
Dìrísù, Paapa Essiedu, Lucian Msamati, Michelle Fairley, Orli Shuka, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Brian Vernel, Narges Rashidi, Asif Raza and Valene Kane all reprise their roles from S1.
Many of the cast also get a chance to flex their muscles in S2, with the new season’s fight scenes involving more characters. Hardy worked with choreographer Tim Connolly to design these scenes as the writers were writing them, as it was important to know as early as possible whether a particular scene would involve hand-to-hand combat, vehicles or something more explosive.
“I always hope [the actors doing the fight scenes] feel excited, but I don’t know whether they also feel scared or daunted,” Hardy says. “But they do get trained up. They go through a fitness regime and training. Orli [Shuka], who plays Luan, for instance, had a fair share of action and he really went for it. He’s done an incredible job. He was black and blue at one point. Nerges [Rashidi], who plays Lale, also had some pretty phenomenal stuff. She did amazingly well.”
Then there’s that stunning opening sequence, which pits Dìrísù against four-time World’s Strongest Man champion Savickas. Picking up the story from S1, Elliot is now working at the whim of The Investors, who have sent him to Istanbul to take care of some business. Viewers meet him again in the thick of an assassination attempt but, in a reflection of his state of mind, things get pretty messy.
“I didn’t want him to just be some crack commando dressed in a black ski mask, easily picking off his targets in clean fashion,” Hardy explains. “Character-wise, what it’s doing to him is destroying him. He hates these people he’s working for and he needs to find a way out.
“[This scene] was about conceiving a set piece, and I wanted to have a great lead-in shot where we did a single tracking shot. My idea was to track in the wake of the mayhem that he’s just been causing. So we begin in a launderette on a washing machine going round and round. Then as you pull the camera back, you’re hearing just off camera, behind you, what’s going on, and he’s obviously not executed a slick mission. It’s been quite messy.”
With rehearsal time with the actors at a premium, Hardy prepared for the long take with storyboards and previsualisations. He also made floor plans that showed where the cameras would be positioned, such was the importance of planning where the bodies would be falling and what special effects were needed.
The scene was shot over two-and-a-half days in a studio that could be split in half. On one side of the separating wall, Hardy was overseeing the long tracking shot, with the camera moving backwards to reveal the chaotic mess Elliot has left in his wake. Then on the other side of the wall, a second unit was filming Dìrísù and Savickas going head to head.
“So we had a choreographed fight happening, which I’d be watching on monitors and feeding in notes, while on the other side of the wall I was doing this one long shot,” the director says. “Then when we got into our ‘airlock’ in the middle, which was full of smoke from a dry cleaning machine, the camera goes in through the smoke and at that point you get your cut point. Then in post, we joined up the footage through the smoke to reveal Elliot, who is at that point just about to be slammed by this huge Turkish gangster.”
It’s a mesmerising start to a series already known for its standout action scenes, and Hardy promises there will be more to come during the rest of the season. “That’s a mere scratch, a tiny tease,” he says.