Grant Montgomery interview: Peaky Blinders series 2

In the last of her Peaky Blinders series 2 set visit interviews, Juliette talks to production designer Grant Montgomery...

One of Peaky Blinders’ most distinctive features is the look and feel of its sets and the high quality of all aspects of its production design. We sat down with Production Designer Grant Montgomery to chat about what we can expect to see in series 2…

Where are we going in series 2? What new sets we will see?

Basically, Tommy’s empire has grown. You’ll see him moving to the metropolis of London and taking on the big gangsters that run London, so visually, you’re moving much more into bigger spaces, and you’re leaving behind a lot of the dark working-class world. Because they have money, and Tommy is beginning to use that money, he’s buying up houses in London. The world is opening up, it’s becoming much more expansive, and the spaces become bigger.

It becomes much more like a gangster world, the references become much more attuned to The Godfather rather than Heaven’s Gate. I was using Heaven’s Gate as a reference in season 1, [but] in season 2 the references are really to The Godfather. [Tommy’s] office is a total homage to The Godfather. There’s oranges on the table!

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There are a lot of [other] references as well. For example, there’s a huge club called The Eden, which is a big metropolitan club, and again I like to reference things, so there’s a lot of little nods, winks – there’s a scorpion design that’s basically from Ryan Gosling’s jacket in Drive. I wanted to turn it into a really big nod to Inception, there’s a lot of gold. There’s a lot of gold within the whole series, actually, and that echoes season 1.

You’ll see loads of [references] that are just peppered through the whole of the look, and I think that’s playful. That was in the first season, ‘cause it was all from a lot of Westerns, Rio Bravo, Deadwood and all the rest.

How much freedom do you have to do that, mixing in so many different references? Do you just not tell anyone?

I just do it, because it’s there! Steven [Knight]’s writing is so detailed, but allows you still to bring images and references to the party. So I’ve never felt constricted by what we’re doing, because it’s a mythology, it’s not strictly historically – it’s not a historical recreation, it’s very much a mythology.

Also, I’ve always brought a kind of Americana feel, like for example Tommy’s office, there’s a lot of references to Los Angeles there, the shape of certain curves etc. I’ve always tried to bring an Americana kind of sheen to a British gangster story. I think that’s legitimate because it is a myth.

The Garrison pub has been transformed, because [Tommy’s] gone to see London and he’s brought back an idea and done basically a Scarface on it. He’s done a 1980s Brian de Palma Al Pacino Scarface on his own pub, and it’s turned into this huge golden Las Vegas kind of mecca to his ambition, so it’s completely transformed.

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Is that your imprint, or is that implied in the script?

No, it’s implied in the script. He comes back and says, ‘right I’m gonna give Birmingham what I’ve seen in London. I’m gonna give the masses what they want’, which is this glamour. And he’s quite a glamourous individual. And I think also every location and every set is starting to change because he’s got money, so he buys a house from Polly in suburbia, and he’s buying racehorses, and he’s buying fast cars. You see him with this huge amount of money, and where’s that money going to take him? And I’ve always used gold as a symbol [for] his desire and ambition for money and wealth.

Has that made your job any easier compared to season 1, now that things look newer and plusher and don’t have to look so old and dishevelled?

There’s just a lot more to do. There’s still the down ‘n’ dirty aspects of the story, so you’ve still got to do those, but you’re mixing it now with the much more high end look, because that’s the nature of the story. But [you’re] still trying to keep within the colour palette, the feel of it, we still tried to keep it within a certain colour range and distinctive in its own right. Using a lot of gold, using distinctive gold – we’ve got a gold mix that is now called Peaky Gold.

But we’re still trying to keep it within the feel, so that if the audience sat down and watched season 1 and then went straight on to watch season 2, thematically you’ll feel that it is all one world. I think that’s very key, for the audience to feel that they’re still within that world that they love, but his world is growing and he’s embracing new environments, which is all in Steven’s scripts, so it’s there. And I think that’s really good because I think you want to see the rise of this character because right from the get-go, his aim is to get to the top by any means necessary.

You mentioned fast cars – will we see any 1920s cars?

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You will see some flashy cars, yeah, his flashy car anyway. There is actually a few flashy cars, but he’s the only one that has them, cause he’s the only one that’s rich enough to have them. There’s a lot more cars than there are horses, it’s moved on which is nice. He buys racehorses, but you don’t see him riding around on so many horses this time, he’s driving around in a very flash car.

Does that help to produce a gangster feel, rather than a Western feel?

Yeah, that’s important, cause he’s moved on. He always liked cars, but he’s just bought a few more, and yeah [he’s] much more like a gangster. The second season I feel is more reference to lots of gangster movies, it’s much more a gangster saga. I feel we’ve moved on. The first season was Western.

You wonder where the third series is going, then?

Yeah, but I think it’s really exciting because both genres are very masculine, cause it is quite a masculine story, and I think if you’re using those kind of genres, they’re kind of very muscular, and I think they’re a good template for this, there’s loads of visuals that you can bring to the party.

[In] the clubs, the nightclubs, if you’re gonna use flower arrangements, they may look flowery but they’re not, they’ve been sprayed in gold, or they’ve done something really exotic, or very sexy with it, very dangerous, cause you can use colours with them that are not obvious, so you don’t make them quaint. Nothing’s quaint in this world, it’s quite rugged, that’s what I would say.

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Steven Knight’s also talked in the past about his desire to try and avoid CGI as much as possible, which must make your job that little bit more demanding?

There is CGI involved, but it’s how you use CG. To create complete digital shots was not really ever our plan. I think you need to blend them so you don’t know where the CG is. I think that’s really the watchword, so we don’t create complete three-dimensional computer-generated shots, we blend it, and there’s only particular times when we do that, and they’re punctuated throughout the series. I think Steven’s right, it becomes too [much] ‘oh, look at that’, it’s much more sleight of hand. But still, the CG is fantastic, I mean everybody at BlueBolt, the company who did it last year, are fantastic, they’re just geniuses, and you just talk to them and you say ‘right, OK, we’ll use live action here and we’ll blend this in there’, they’re fantastic. You will see those ‘wow’ moments.

Do you ever get to see the cast’s reaction when they walk onto a new set?

I try to not be there, but I do. I think it’s really important that they feel like they’re in a living environment. It was really lovely that when Cillian walked into Tommy’s office, he said it made him feel powerful, and I think that’s quite key. If it makes the actor feel that the character’s powerful, then it really infuses the performance. I think that’s so, so important, that they feel it’s real.

For example, we use real brick, we don’t use any vac-form brick in interiors, we build it. All the exposed brick in the HQ, which has expanded [to] double size, all that is real brick, it’s not fake, so when you touch it, it’s real. All the timbers are real. I put ceilings on all of the sets. You create a living environment, so it’s completely closed off for them, so when you walk in, you’re in the world. I think that’s really important as part of the story. It’s why people do [the] things they do, because Tommy only does these things because of this environment where he starts, [where he’s] basically the bottom of the heap, and you only understand where he’s going to from where he’s come from. You have to know that they live in small rooms, they’re in back-to-backs and all that, so that environment’s important, so as soon as you start going to the metropolis you see bigger and bigger rooms, and wealth, so the world’s really part of the story, it’s part of [what] drives the narrative.

Do you ever have to negotiate with directors and cameramen about how closed you want the sets to be? Do they ever say they need more space to put the cameras?

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No, because you’re already discussed things with the director anyway, prior to anything being built, so you’ve already had those conversations. You make models and you have drawings, so you’ve worked things out, there’s no surprises. So when they walk on the set, they’ve got enough room, or a certain wall will float so they can get in, but essentially you’ve gone through all those discussions prior to it being built. As long as you’ve had those thorough preparation talks, you’ll be fine.

What was the trickiest set to get right? Which one did you tinker with the most?

The new interior of the Garrison. That took some thought, because you were basically demolishing what you had. It doesn’t look anything like what you saw last year, which was kind of like [a] Western saloon, it was completely transformed into something else. It’s important for the story that it was transformed into something that was really garish and rich in a different way, so that took some real thought about how that was gonna work.

Overall, the whole span of the look throughout the whole series had to be really thought through, because you were taking them into different environments than the one that they’d come from. And because you had probably double the number of sets that you had in the first season. Going to suburbia, how does that work visually, what was London gonna look like, because you made Birmingham look big, how are you gonna make London look big? How are you gonna make Camden Lock look different to Charlie’s yard? All those things. Keeping it thematically, visually connected. So those were the difficult things!

You’ve done some filming at Chatsworth for this series as well, haven’t you?

Yeah, I’m going back there [following Death Comes To Pemberley]. Chatsworth has the only glamour. We’re using it for bedrooms, actually.

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All I want with Peaky Blinders is for the audience to really love it and enjoy it, and go on a big journey. I hope we top what we did before. That was one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I love the story and I love the characters.

[As we’re finishing up] Oh, I didn’t tell you about the rum factory! That was a cool set. We found this rum factory that was filled with real rum, thousands of barrels of rum, that was just great! We built into that. That looked so cool. You’re gonna love it.

Grant Montgomery, thank you very much!

Peaky Blinders series 2 starts on BBC 2 on Thursday the 2nd of October.