'Gangs of London': On the Set of Gareth Evans' "Shakespearean," "Operatic" and "Very, Very Violent" TV Debut

Gangs of London - H - 2020
Credit: Sky

How Sky and Cinemax's bloody underworld action-thriller — and the first original drama from Pulse Films — began life as a video game before getting its unique spin from the iconic Welsh director behind 'The Raid.'

Inside a grandiose and no-doubt frighteningly expensive house overlooking a park in a very upmarket part of south London, just minutes by foot from the city's famously picturesque Kew Gardens, a pivotal scene in one of the most brutally violent gangland dramas to come out of the U.K. and from one of it most iconic action directors is about to take place.

While a group of parents watch their children play on the grass outside next to a cricket club, a production team inside — led by Gareth Evans — huddles behind a stack of monitors next to table casually piled high with sub-machine guns (under the watchful eye of a pair of armourers). Across the corridor and through another room, British actor Joe Cole, best known for Peaky Blinders but recently seen flexing his Thai boxing muscles in A Prayer Before Dawn, moves silently toward the body of veteran Irish actor Colm Meaney (Star Trek: Deep Space NineLayer Cake) in a coffin, a bullet scar on his prosthetic face.

Moments earlier, a makeup artist had discussed the aesthetic qualities of the perfect facial gunshot wound with Evans, likening it to a when a tomato is dropped and "kind of explodes like a star."

The scene lands early on in the first (and feature-length) episode of Gangs of London, a 10-part, 10-hour, blood-soaked thrill ride through the underbelly of the British capital for Sky and HBO Cinemax. It's a show with few comparisons, one that shifts gears between a mafia family drama and a high-concept genre actioner with an escalating series of frenetic and gruesome fight sequences (of the eye-wincing sort Evans became instantly synonymous with thanks to his Indonesian martial arts hits The Raid and The Raid 2).

The story kicks off with the murder of Finn Wallace (Meaney), London's most powerful criminal kingpin for some 20 years and whose sudden assassination rips a hole in the well-oiled billion-dollar organized crime network he ruled. But while his well-groomed and privately educated son Sean Wallace (Cole) assumes control and vows to hunt down whoever ordered the hit before business can resume, a multicultural assortment of armed-to-the-teeth gangs moves to take advantage of the sudden power vacuum.

Although the wake scene is one of the series' quieter moments, it gives a clear indication of the possible carnage that will follow. The grand Wallace home is soon filled with the heads of London's biggest crime families, each having come to pay their respects to the former mob boss in the coffin, a man who they may or may not have killed themselves. Wallace Jr. suspects everyone.

"But that's the thing, even when there's drama, someone in the room has to be fucking dead," says Evans with a laugh, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter from a nearby restaurant later. "I always loved the idea of joining the story when something's in flux, so we were like, what if, in the way that The Godfather starts with a wedding, our first episode starts with a fucking funeral, and it's the funeral of the king of an empire."

For Evans, who created the series — his first TV project — alongside his long-term cinematographer Matt Flannery, Gangs of London was an opportunity to break away from the rather clichéd cockney gangster trope and find a new way to explore modern-day criminality — with his own distinctly violent touch — in one of the world's most cosmopolitan and truly global cities.

"We wanted to abandon in some way the touristy elements of London," he says. "One thing that was really important to us was to create a city that feels grounded but also mythic at the same time. In a few scenes, especially in the first episode, we got to go from open-area spaces where people congregate, but then go, 'What does it look like behind that one window of a shop that always seems closed, is there a cellar, where does that go?'"

While some of Gangs of London's more scenic shots do feature the city's sleek, glass-fronted business towers, the cameras soon drop to street level, turning down otherwise unremarkable and dimly lit alleyways and behind unsuspecting doors, where much of the action takes place. "Gotham-izing" is what Evans describes as a shorthand version of the look they were going for.

The genesis of show — which lands on Sky on April 23 and on HBO's Cinemax later in the year — actually began with a video game of the same name, made for Sony's PSP handheld console. The action-adventure, released in 2006, scraped middling reviews and has largely been forgotten, but Thomas Benski, founder and CEO of London-based studio Pulse Films, saw an opportunity in its storyline, in which British, Russian, Chinese, Pakistani and Jamaican gangs battle for domination. 

"There was something really interesting in the multiethnic gang warfare, and the fact it was different families," he says.

When Benski took out an option on Gangs of London in 2011, Pulse, which he founded in 2005, was primarily a producer of music videos, but one with an enviable catalog of names, having worked with the likes of Calvin Harris, Ed Sheeran, The Weeknd and Katy Perry.

By the time Benski and his friend, collaborator and fellow "action film geek" Lucas Ochoa attended Sundance in 2014, where Evans' The Raid 2 was premiering, they had already started producing documentaries (20,000 Days on Earth, about Nick Cave, would be one of the company's first) and were kickstarting their move into scripted content (which began with smaller exec producing credits on indie titles likes The Witch and American Honey).

Evans had crept to the top of a list of creators they desperately wanted to work with, and this gangland project was pitched (Benski says Evans' reps were initially "quite perplexed," with the filmmaker having previously generated all his own work). The original idea had also been bolstered by Ochoa's own pre-filmmaking experience as a journalist wondering what went on behind the frosted glass and soaped up windows of north London's secretive-looking Greek and Turkish social clubs.

"There was this weird sense of considering what would happen if you sort of aligned being able to go behind those doors with the genre, magical realism thing that Gareth was doing on The Raid, where you can have your own unique set of rules," says Ochoa, now Pulse's chief creative officer.

"If you think about it, gangs of London as a concept is not the most original," admits Benski. "But if you put gangs of London as a concept in today's diverse world with a genre filmmaker like him that can create a world that is so unique, that's the bit we all got excited about."

Evans — who was still living in Indonesia as the ideas were percolating — saw something in the pitch, and by the time Benski and Ochoa flew out to Jakarta already "had a take, almost instantaneously" of what he could do. "It had immediately appeared in his head," says Ochoa.

According to Evans, the initial discussion was for a franchise of feature films, but he thought two hours wouldn't be enough time to get to know all the different gangs.

"So we said, 'Let’s do a longform TV series, where we can go off and spend time with different gang members, see what makes them tick, see their personal lives and drip feed that out through the traditional crime family narrative,'" he says, him and Flannery effectively pitching their own show back at them.

With the ball now rolling on not just Pulse's first original drama, but a hugely envelope-pushing project by any production company's imagination, the growing scale of what Benski, Ochoa, Evans and Flannery wanted to create saw them reach out to veteran TV producer Jane Featherstone.

After years heading up Broadchurch and Spooks banner Kudos and also co-chairing Shine UK pre-Endemol merger, Featherstone had recently gone out on her own, setting up Sister Pictures, now best known for the multi-Emmy winning miniseries Chernobyl (and with Elisabeth Murdoch and Stacey Snider last year coming on board).

"She was brilliantly progressively, she basically said, 'Yeah, I get it, I understand who Gareth is, I understand what it is, cool,'" says Ochoa. Benski claims having Featherstone on board as exec producer "really helped shepherd this extremely ambitious and bold idea."

It was a similar experience when looking for broadcast partners further down the road with European pay TV giant Sky, formerly of Rupert Murdoch's empire and now owned by Comcast, and its then-head of drama Anne Mensah (who left to join Netflix in late 2018). "It was a kind of cold call email really, but she was immediately like, 'Yeah, let’s get on the phone and talk about it,'" recalls Ochoa. HBO, which has a long-running relationship with Sky, followed soon after.  

Ochoa credits the lure of working with Evans — who has carved out an impressive global following in the space of just two feature films — with Gangs of London's relatively "dreamy journey" from development to production.

"There are people everywhere who are Gareth Evans fans, whether it was casting or just getting those meetings," he says. "People were suddenly like, well of course I'm going to talk to you about that."

As for Evans, he directed three episodes of Gangs of London, alongside Corin Hardy (who had a box office hit in 2018's The Conjuring spinoff The Nun) with four and Xavier Gens (best known for 2007 video game adaptation Hitman), who helmed three. Evans admits some of the "insane horrific stuff" that Gens had been shooting forced even a man of his onscreen bloodletting capabilities to turn away.

Naturally, Evans cherry picked the most explosive elements for himself, not least the show’s solitary trip outside of London (the series was predominantly shot on location in the capital). For an eight-week shoot in his native Wales, a house was painstakingly constructed from the ground up, only to be riddled with bullet holes and, eventually, blown to pieces.

Ochoa recalls the armourer's initial comic shock on hearing the list of weaponry demands for this particular episode.

"Normally, it's like you want a Kalashnikov, you want an AR-15, you want a Beretta, you want whatever, but here, it's the whole truck, you need the whole truck, and everything is getting used," he says. "I feel like there was this kind of joy and glee to it really."

Just a few minutes after the scene shot in the Wallace family home, the first of Gangs of London's very-much crescendoing fight sequences erupts. Elliot Finch (played by Sope Dirisu), effectively the show’s central character before Wallace and a "washed-up squaddie" who earns the gangland heir's trust through his combat skills, takes on an entire pub's worth of Albanian bruisers with his fists, feet, the occasional ashtray and a solitary playing dart.

"It's a wild crazy brawl," says Evans. "It's fun, it's insane, it's enjoyable."

The fight sequence — contrasting starkly to one further on in the opening episode that taps more into more Saw-like horror elements (Finch's main opponent is a man covered in blood, brandishing a meat cleaver and wearing only boxer shorts and rubber boots) — also serves as a hat tip to the world Evans is turning on its head, the East End London boozer very much part of cockney gangster film lore.

"It's essentially the world of Gareth crashing into all precedents that you might have thought existed about how a London gangster drama would work,” says Ochoa, who would frequently check in with compliance to ensure the all-out insanity of Gangs of London’s physical elements had actually been approved.

Preparing for the biggest release in Benski's and Pulse's history, when pushed he likens Gangs of London to Game of ThronesGomorrah and the films of John Woobut insists it's very much its own unique beast and something not seen on TV before: "It's Shakespearean and operatic, but set in a very, very violent genre world."