Colm McCarthy interview: Peaky Blinders, Sherlock, Dr Who

We chat to director Colm McCarthy about the new series of Peaky Blinders, drunk Sherlock, and Doctor Who’s mysteries…

Warning: contains a spoiler for Spooks series 7.

As period-gangster drama Peaky Blinders returns to BBC 2 for a second series, we caught up with director Colm McCarthy (Sherlock – The Sign Of ThreeDoctor Who – The Bells Of St. JohnSpooks) for a chat about the mythology of the new series, working with Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, Matt Smith riding a motorbike up the Shard, drunken Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and er, manual sex in 1920s night clubs…

You’ve come in to direct the second series of Peaky Blinders after its look and performances have already been established. Do you take your cues from what’s gone before or do you approach it thinking, ‘right, what am I going to change?’

Both of those things. I’ve been very respectful of what both Otto [Bathurst, director] and Tom [Harper, director] did on the first series. Otto started creating this world, but I think that Steve [Steven Knight, series creator] has written something  a bit different for this second series. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t like what they’d already done, but at the same time, I thought there were thematic and tonal differences this year. I don’t think a director’s job is just to shoot things in a stylish way, I think you try and tell the story with a voice, so we tried to shift that voice to tell a different story this year.

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Steve and I talked early on about the idea that the first series was opium and was a bit opiated, and the second series was cocaine. Part of what I took that to mean was that the first series was about somebody trying to escape, it was about Tommy’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and trying to self-medicate through opium, but also the relationship with Grace, there was something opiated about that and the passion they had for each other. Whereas this series being about cocaine is not about it being ‘up’ in the way that people think about cocaine, it’s more about ambition, desire, hunger, yearning… a kind of unfulfillable hunger. That is part of what I wanted to saturate it in. That’s reflected in the different things we’ve done this series. There’s less still motion this year, for instance, there’s more skinny shutter stuff that gives things a slightly agitated edge. The violence, I think, is more real-feeling, this year. If you know what your emotional themes are, then everything comes out of that.

Thinking about the mythology you’ve created with this series, there’s almost a King Midas thing to Tommy this year – there’s a lot of gold around, and as you say, this sort of insatiate ambition. Did you have that sort of Greek mythical tragedy in mind?

That’s a really interesting way of thinking about it. The Midas thing is exactly that theme I’m talking about. I haven’t thought about Midas, but it is a really good reference. I think definitely the feeling of gold, and its colour and tone and what it represents to Tommy is definitely something that Grant [Montgomery, production designer] and I talked about.

You’ve kept the kind of infernal, hellish feel to Small Heath from the first series with industry belching out fire around Tommy all the time. In episode one, Tommy’s even referred to as a devil. Was that symbolism deliberate?

Yeah, definitely. The use of flames in the first episode is very deliberate. The first time that we see The Garrison, we have this huge fireball. The next time we go there, Tommy is there and he’s got a flame whooshing behind him. We open that shot on fire, and then we end the episode with Tommy in that deep angle with that flame going in the background and he’s in a pit. Absolutely, there’s definitely a sense of hell. That’s very deliberate. We didn’t think anyone would notice that!

It’s stuff like that I love about the show, that heightened sense, and the way that it isn’t an historical document but more a mythology.

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Absolutely. The starting place was Steve creating these stories about his own personal myth, which is really inspired by the films of his youth, John Ford and Sergio Leone films, Westerns and gangster movies, and I totally get that. Although I’m a bit younger so my references might be slightly different, I love those films too, and I understand that. It’s what’s so exciting and different about it, because myth is always what excites me about a story.

And this series you’ve moved on from the Westerns of John Ford and Sergio Leone to more seventies Americana and gangster pictures haven’t you? The Godfather, for instance.

I guess there’s a sense that the first series is a Western and this series is more of a gangster movie, more Once Upon A Time In America and less Once Upon A Time In The West, maybe?

Tommy doesn’t get on a horse this year, and that’s commented on in the series. One of Cillian [Murphy’s] favourite lines in the series is when Charlie says to him “If you were a horse, they’d put you down” and he says ‘I am a horse’. I like the idea that he still carries that in his heart, that feeling of the West, but he knows the world’s changed.

When I spoke to Steven last year about it, he said he doesn’t watch contemporary drama because he finds it too much hard work, which might explain why Peaky Blinders’ filmic references tend to come from decades past. I take it you watch contemporary stuff?

I watch all sorts of stuff, but I definitely love those films that are an influence on him. I think a lot of my favourite contemporary stuff, like the P.T Anderson stuff, definitely references the films of the seventies. David Fincher – who’s probably my favourite working director – his films are massively influenced by the cinema of the seventies. I know the big film reference for Seven was [1971 Pakula-directed thriller] Klute, and you can see it in the Dragon Tattoo film, there’s a sense of the texture of it that’s very seventies in its feel.

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Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy are known to give pretty intense performances. What was your approach to getting those characters on the screen?

As a director, I don’t really start with a frame and then force actors into it, and I think that’s something they responded to. With Tom and Cillian, the thing for me was to film for as much of the day as possible so they had the opportunity to play with it. We spent a chunk of time rehearsing their first dialogue scene, a chunk of time chatting, and then we set up two cameras and shot them both so they were both on camera at the same time. We kept two cameras on them all the time, so they could interrupt each other, or if they drifted away  from the page a little bit, that was okay. I think on the first day, we shot ten and a half hours of rushes, we were filming for five and a quarter hours of the day.

That must have given you a lot of different options to work with?

Yes, the difficult thing is the time factor. On a film, you get a lot of time to edit and on this it was tough. Particularly on that first Tom Hardy scene, we wound up spending a lot of time honing the first cut of that scene, which was five minutes in the cut, but started off as seventeen minutes long. It’s difficult, because you’re filming gold, and it’s like chopping fingers off your babies because it’s got to fit into the discipline of television. It’s got to be an hour long, it can’t be any longer.

There’s a lot of interesting work being done in television now. This is a show that’s very British in the sense that Britain has its own cultural identity, and it really gets what the big cable shows can do on television that films can’t in terms of the length of story. The best thing as a director is being able to be part of the thing that’s so cool about a TV show, like running a character arc over six episodes or multiple series.

Tell us about filming those beautifully mobile scenes in in the jazz club, is it called The Eden Club?

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Oh, that was fun. The Eden Club in general was fun. First of all, the approach to The Eden Club was that visually, we’re doing the old-fashioned thing a little bit, the colours in particular sort of keep the period and everything, but I wanted the club to feel like a young place. I think a lot of 1920s clubs and joints in TV shows in general are shown as really clean. I wanted it to feel like the Blitz Club in the 80s, or being at a Sex Pistols gig in the 70s, or a Hacienda gig in 1990, very young and vibrant and alive, so that was what we were doing there.

It’s definitely a change to the jazz club scenes in something like Downton Abbey, those featured less coke and considerably fewer hand jobs…

[Laughs] I did want manual sex in as many of the shots as possible! The brief was that if there was a shot and I couldn’t find somebody being fingered in the background, I was going to be really disappointed [laughing].

There’s a great 1921 film called Cocaine that showed those clubs were riddled with cocaine and they were the first places where inter-racial sex and Sapphic sex and gay men were all accepted in any kind of public arena. It was like all bets were off. It was a reaction partly to the austerity and depression that came in the 20s, probably a bit like the Blitz Club in the 80s, it was this scream against the dark, oppressive reality out there. I think it’s probably a reference for our times right now, because in this sort of self-imposed austerity, I’m sure that the hipster clubs – I don’t know, I’ve not been – but I’m sure all that’s going on in London, that it’s all debauched and crazy.

You’re no stranger to the action in a scene like that of course. You were the man who had Matt Smith riding a motorbike up the Shard! [in Doctor Who episode, The Bells Of St. John].

[Laughs] That was fun. That was a fun day filming. We shot in London for three days and the best thing was being sat on the back of the low-loader on the motorbike, and we had these paparazzi chasing us around town on bikes, so it was fun watching all the paps sweating while we were sitting there. Matt is such a lovely guy and a really great actor, and it was a lot of fun. I love doing action, I’ve been lucky enough to get to kill Adam in Spooks – Rupert Penry Jones’ character – by blowing him up with a fireball in the East End. I like a bit of all that, it’s good fun.

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You were also behind one of Sherlock’s most infamous scenes in The Sign Of Three – the drunken stag night…

Oh yeah, people like that don’t they?

Oh yes. Did Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman give you plenty to work with in that scene?

Yeah, there’s a whole load of the stag do that’s on the cutting room floor. I don’t know if they’re going to release it on DVD. There’s a lot of fan-pressure to. I mentioned it at a Q&A and [laughing] there’ve been a lot of Twitter demands to see it! It is really funny, there’s some really funny stuff.

The best thing nowadays about working in telly is that you’re working with movie stars. Benedict and Martin and Tom and Cillian and Richard Armitage from Spooks, who’s now in The Hobbit and all these people. There’s a big crossover between the worlds, unlike when I first started directing when there was a sort of snobbery from the film world about TV, but now everybody from film is trying to get into TV [laughs].

Have you spoken to Steven about coming back for series three of Peaky Blinders?

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We chatted a bit about it the other night, I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s an exciting world, I would feel sad to leave it. I know Steve has some crazy plans for it, as you would imagine from him, which clearly I can’t talk about [laughs]. It’s quite fun having a little peek over the fence though!

Would you return to the worlds of Doctor Who and Sherlock?  

As a director, you want to work with great writers. There’s a funny thing that in film now, everybody thinks that the director does everything, and in TV, everybody thinks that the writer does everything, and I’m quite comfortable with that as a director. I don’t mind that. But I do understand that your work can only be as good as the writers you work with, and Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are amazing writers. They’re writing in a way that other people in this country aren’t. For me, my mythology growing up was Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Star Wars and E.T. and Ghostbusters, that’s what I grew up on, and there aren’t many people who can write that kind of scale of story, stories that are that big.

Steven Knight and Steven Moffat are very, very different writers. Very different. The thing they have in common though is that they can write stories that are big in scale, so I wouldn’t rule out doing any of those things again. They’re the people who are writing like that in this country and I’m lucky to have got to work with them. I’d love to do more.

You talked about yourself being a nerd piñata at one point, stuffed with secrets about Sherlock and Doctor Who, which was a great image.

[laughs]

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In both your Who and Sherlock episodes, the women characters – Mary in Sherlock and Clara in Who – were enigmas at that point. How do you approach hinting, but not giving too much away about those characters, and also, did you know their secrets? Did you know the resolution to Jenna’s character when you were making The Bells Of St John?

[Laughing] I don’t think Steven Moffat knew the resolution to her character then! But we had some ideas and Steven shared a bit with me about what he was thinking. Obviously there were clues about Amanda’s character, there were clues planted in Sherlock.

You mean the telegram?

The telegram from C.A.M., yeah. There are also clues to what may come in the future of Peaky Blinders that we’ve planted this year. Part of the fun of the storytelling is not showing the trick, having it there but not showing it. I love that. One of my favourite films is F For Fake by Orson Welles which is all about the idea that as soon as you tell how the trick’s done, it’s sort of uninteresting, which is something that Steven Moffat is the manager of. I love hiding stuff in plain sight.

Where should we be looking in this series of Peaky Blinders for clues to the future, then?

It’s interesting that you talk about the female characters. A lot of the most interesting long-running stories will come out of them and their relationship with Tommy. Tommy’s a very Alpha-male character but he’s hugely defined by his relationships with women. All the most important, complicated relationships that he has are with women, not just Grace but Aunt Polly and Ada, and others this year…

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Colm McCarthy, thank you very much!

Peaky Blinders starts tonight, Thursday the 2nd of October, at 9pm on BBC Two.