Gangs of London: Ridley Scott’s Cows, Making Fake Soho and the Single Shot Finale
Gangs of London 'block two' director Corin Hardy breaks down episodes 2 - 4 of the explosive new crime drama
This article contains spoilers for episodes one -five of Gangs of London. For our spoiler free review head here.
Gangs Of London, co-created by Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery is a sprawling multicultural and international show spread over nine episodes, which studies the fallout after powerful gangster patriarch Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney) is assassinated. The pilot episode is feature-length and directed by Evans himself, setting up the large ensemble cast and different underworld factions across a reimagined capital city, and the potential repercussions of Finn’s murder now his vicious and volatile son Sean (Joe Cole) has taken charge of the business.
Episodes two – four – described as block two, after the pilot and taking us up to standalone siege episode five – was directed by Corin Hardy, who’s best known for The Hallow, The Nun and his attachment to The Crow reboot with Jason Momoa which never quite made it off the ground.
Den Of Geek sat down with Hardy – remotely and via Zoom to talk through the details, stories and behind the scenes goings on in his chunk of the new Sky and Cinemax show.
“Originally it was going to be one episode. I’d never done any television, so that sounded nice. Everyone says that, in TV, you come in, turn up, shoot, cut a little bit, and then you’re off a few weeks later. But it was actually a year and eight months’ work for me,” Hardy, who also directed the finale episode nine explains. “It was a completely new experience, coming from independent feature film to studio feature film to this hugely ambitious television show.”
“I suppose I had been hesitant of doing any television – I think probably for the same reasons as Gareth (Evans) and Xavier (Gens) – because we’d all come from film. Because we’re such lovers of cinema and wanted to make sure, if there was a TV show, that it could cope with our ambition and our world creation. And, also, could I lend myself to a TV show which is very grounded, doesn’t have any monsters or supernatural elements?”
No supernatural elements but there’s certainly no lack of ambition or world building, with his segment featuring a vast array of locations and scenes. It’s this segment that really begins to break down the different gangs we are dealing with. No monsters either – not literally at least – but episode two does feature a creature set piece.
“The ‘Narco-cow’ was shot in Wales, standing in for Turkey,” Hardy recalls. Narco-cow was the nickname given by the team to a sequence where Lale (Narges Rashidi) and her team intercept a truck load of cows carrying drugs in their stomachs.
“This was all based on a true story which the writers built on,” Hardy explains. “They swap the cows, and then the next thing you know, we’re in a warehouse in Kent, inside a cow. Someone’s sawing into it from the outside, and we reveal that the cows are empty. The heroin’s been taken. Then we cut to where the heroin is.”
When we ask him about the practicalities of how those scenes were put together he teases “It was a lot of fun. So, we got a real live cow, and I managed to fit a camera right…” complete with hand gestures, before clarifying he’s making a joke, with a “no, no, no”.
He is a fan of practical effects though, it’s clear, not least from the creatures from The Hallow we can see in the back of the studio from where Hardy is talking to us.
“I’m a big fan of doing things for real as much as possible and using practical effects and mixing them with visual effects,” he says. “Whenever possible, I really wanted live cows to be on the set to give you that feeling that this is real and grounded. Then I was adamant that we would also have prop cows.
“Actually, it’s quite hard to come by decent looking prop cows. We looked at making them from scratch and budgeting them, and it turns out that when Ridley Scott made Kingdom Of Heaven he made a lot of half cows, so we’ve actually got Ridley Scott’s cows in our production there. We had a number of these prosthetic foam cows. For the belly itself, we created an interior stomach that you could physically cut through, and we had tubes and pipes to put some blood in. It was then enhanced.
“We could basically look through and reveal our characters who were cutting into the cow from inside. People are obviously commenting a lot on the violence and the gore or the makeup, but actually to pull that stuff off, it’s quite fun and crazy the kind of things you end up doing.”
There’s more at stake than just heroin here. Lale and Asif (Asif Raza Mir) have long standing beef, and not about cows, which we discover more about in episode three. Sean Wallace’s lockdown on criminal activity, allowing leniency for Asif but no one else, will have serious consequences causing massive loss of life before the show is done.
“Their ongoing feud forms one of the main subplots that runs through the second episode into the third,” says Hardy. “What I loved about the show is you’d have a lot of subplots, but they’d all intertwine and overlap each other around this whodunnit plot that’s running through the middle. Sometimes you wonder who you’re watching and why, but it does become apparent in the later episodes.”
The knock on effect of Lale’s robbery is almost immediate when Asif arrives and interrogates his drivers to find out who took the drugs.
“It involved this very tense sequence of a man using a cow gun that you put a cow to sleep with in an abattoir,’ Hardy says. “We built one of those, and it had an air pump on the end of it so you could actually pull the trigger and it would sort of go off… but wouldn’t, of course. Faced with the challenge of, ‘How do we blow a man’s head off?’ we constructed this thing for real and had a brilliant special effects head-of-department, Alex Gunn who, amongst other things, did Rambo 4 with Stallone.’
He’s also credited as Senior Pyrotechnician for Wonder Woman 1984 coming later this year, so expect some impressive explosions there too.
Episode two ends with a massacre, a massive bloody shootout with the Wallace gang annihilating the Welsh travellers after they learn that Kinney’s (Mark Lewis Jones) son Darren (Aled ap Steffan) was responsible for killing Finn – even though he had no idea what he was getting into. This massive action set piece was directed by Evans, and Hardy says that was part of the appeal of coming on board. “He’s the best action director in the world as far as I’m concerned,” Hardy says. “I thought when I came onto the project, if Gareth’s getting to do what Gareth does in his movies in this show, then not only is that very exciting, but hopefully it will allow me to do a bit of what I do as an arc.”
It’s a sequence that leads directly into episode five – the arc of the show is non-linear which leaves the timeline of the episodes running two, five, three, four, six, seven, eight, nine though individual episodes also play with flashbacks and different timelines.
Episode three tells Lale’s story both in the present day and through flashback. We’ve seen her as a cold, powerful leader but this ep gives us a chance to learn what drives her.
“She’s a really interesting character and Narges really went for it, and she was so focused,” Hardy says. “You see her as a professional in the opening episode, but then you get to see a flashback and see where she’s come from. From this war-torn Kurdistan. Fighting. She’s a one-man army, really. We learn what drives her as well – she’s had this terrible trauma in her past and it’s connected to Asif.
“In a way, it’s not who the villain is – they’re all villains – but they’ve all also got human lives and families and past tragedies and current relationships. We wanted it to feel very lively and potent and relatable.”
Hardy’s block also lets us get to know Luan (Orli Shuka) better, who, “On the face of it is a terrifying Albanian gangster, but the next thing you see is him coming back to his family in Kensington. You understand that man and that life instantly and his family and his wife and children.
“Although we don’t all necessarily identify with spending half a billion on washing money to build towers in London, you can identify with the stress of putting on your daughter’s fifth birthday whilst you’re trying to conduct this investigation into the death of a gangster. I love genre, I love horror, I love action and crime, but I really want things to be emotionally gripping and grounded. That is the fundamental core of the show.”
If part of the nine-episode arc is watching the rise and fall of Sean Wallace then episode four is an important pivot point, and Hardy says it was one of his favorites to direct.
“In a way, coming off the end of three, we’d get as close as we’re ever going to get in the show to Sean Wallace appearing to be in control,” he says. “They’ve come through this mess with the situation with Lale, and Cole (Gordon Alexander) and Ed (Lucian Msamati) and Sean going behind each other’s backs.
“They agree at the beginning of four, ‘We’ve got to stick together on this.’ Sean wants to bring everyone together. He’s remembered his father’s words, ‘Keep your family close and everything will be fine.’ He’s trying to keep his mum calm. He’s invited his brother, Billy (Brian Vernel). He’s getting Jacqueline (Valene Kane) to come and trying to get his mother and his sister together. And he’s got Lale working for him.
“As the episode begins, everything seems to be working out. Meanwhile, you’ve got Ed investigating Elliot (Sope Dirisu) and taking him off to be tested with Mark (Adrian Bower), and Alexander (Paapa Essiedu) is getting groomed by these investors who are inviting them to this dinner. So everyone’s starting to do things behind each other’s backs, but in the face of it everyone appears to be working together.”
“It’s one of those episodes that I think for the first half you aren’t totally sure where it’s going. The others have maybe a slightly stronger drive, but what I loved about four was from around the middle of the episode when Elliot’s getting tested in that gym with the gang by Mark, and he’s got the pigeon man held captive, this spiral starts. It’s almost like a mixing pot of ingredients, and they all get dragged into it.
“We get to see the dinner with the Wallaces around the table, but you know something’s not right. Then Sean gets the call from Luan, and he’s invited to come to the alley where Luan’s going to tell him some important information that he doesn’t know about, the deal that his father, Finn Wallace had with Luan that Ed knows about. It was an opportunity to really embrace a set piece, which in the script was a relatively straightforward shootout. It’s an alley, they have a meeting, someone starts firing at them and Elliot gets hit.”
What results is not a straightforward shootout but an explosion of bullets coming as if from nowhere via an as-yet unknown source, which leads back to the Wallace house and further chaos from within.
“I wanted to go hell-for-leather with it. Not just for the action, but for the emotion because I realized it’s a set piece that has all the main actors present in both the scenes,” Hardy says.
“I treat it like almost one set piece that goes from the alley, all the way to the end of the episode with the family. That encompasses pretty much all the lead actors of the show. I wanted to really try and root myself in their perspectives and emotions at all times. So, initially, it’s got a slightly Western flavor as Sean enters the alleyway to meet Luan. I chose an alleyway specifically to make it contained – what will become an alleyway of death; if you’re in it, you’re going to die and you’ve got to get out of it. If you can’t get out of it, you’re dead.
“I had the idea of enhancing the genre side and the world creation with smoke and atmosphere and lasers. I felt like, if that red laser passes in your direction, you’re gone. I was trying to visualize things like this for an audience so it isn’t just hearing gunshots. It was a big challenge for Matt Gant who was production designer because I wanted to go for a Chinatown back alley feel. We could not afford to shoot in Chinatown in Soho. It would’ve been impossible. So we had to find a place that we could create our own. It was, again, a bit of a gamble when you’re doing things on a schedule and a budget where you’re like, ‘Ooh. Can we make this industrial estate feel like Chinatown in Soho?’ Because if you don’t get it right, then it’s going to look like we tried too hard. And if we don’t try hard enough, it’s going to look like, well…
“The production design was key. And then the special effects and the smoke. I wanted it to just be almost very muggy and hard to see exactly what was going on. To pull off this ambitious sequence myself and my DOP, the amazing Martijn Van Broekhuizen, planned and prepped it intensively with models and storyboards and previsualisation with Stunt Coordinator Jude Poyer in order to be able to execute it in just three cold wet nights. The idea was, generally, that we would always stick with Sean and Elliot when everything kicks off, and we would see things through Sean’s eyes.”
Hardy’s prime objective was to keep things cinematic and the climax to block two gave him the perfect opportunity.
“It was an overambitious idea. I thought, I’ve got a day to film this whole dinner climax. I can try to cover that where every single character gets a close up, a medium and a wide, but I knew I didn’t want to do that. I also thought, I really just won’t be able to do that in a day. I conceived the idea of doing it as a single shot. Now, I know we’ve just had 1917 which is a two-hour-long shot, or whatever. But this was our mini-version, a five minute one. I blocked it out with some stand ins and showed the actors in the morning what we were going to go for. Then we filmed the whole thing in 12 hours. To get to the end and make it feel like you’d been given so much to take in that you forgot to breath almost.”
The ending to episode four, where Joe’s face is covered in blood – not his own but faithful enforcer Mark’s who has been shot in the head – and Elliot has been shot and is lying on the Wallace family dining table tended to by very pregnant Jacqueline while Marian (Michelle Fairley) tries to shepherd Shannon’s son Danny away from the chaos is a maelstrom that even comes with a dark vein of humor which pops up throughout the show.
“This was the tone we were constantly coasting on. We wanted things to feel grounded and gritty and emotional and real, but equally there are some insane things happening in this show in terms of the revelations, but also the action,” says Hardy.
“It’s a tribute to that cast and in that scene particularly to Michelle Fairley. I said, ‘You’re the mother of this family and all hell is breaking loose. A man’s just been brought in dying, and then there’s your grandson, and you’ve got to get him out. And in this room, your son’s doing heroin.’
There was a madness. I really was trying to push for that as part of this unbroken shot. I love her performance there when she’s trying not to swear in front of the kid. And then of course you get this relentless next unexpected happening with Tove (Laura Bach). You don’t know who she is yet until you see episode five and then it all becomes clear why she was even emotional at the time when she was. It was a big challenge and it was really ambitious, but I’m really proud of that sequence.”
It’s an extraordinary ending to the fourth episode which sets up perfectly for the calm and then storm of episode five which at first takes us back to the campsite in the aftermath of the Wallaces’ shoot out with Kinney’s gang. Head over here for a full breakdown of episode five with director Gareth Evans.