Fresh from stunning TV audiences, Sky’s crime epic Gangs of London earned an amazing response from critics and fans, who are now equally excited hearing about the newly announced second season. Details are few, but we already know it’s going to be good.
With the first season making its way to Blu-ray, DVD and Digital platforms, we caught up with the show’s stunt coordinator Jude Poyer, whose diverse stunt credits include Apostle, Ip Man 4, Grimsby and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Along with show creator Gareth Evans (Apostle, The Raid 1 & 2), Poyer devised the spectacularly brutal action scenes which left viewers breathless.
With the opportunity now to own the series, it’s a great time to jump back into London’s criminal underbelly, and Jude Poyer tells us how he arrived at the ideas for some of those landmark scenes. Warning: spoilers ahead…
Dragons Forever (1988)
Gareth and I have a similar taste and quote a similar library of films that we draw on for inspiration. We’re both big fans of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. It’s not just about the choreography, the rhythm is really important too. For Jackie, Sammo and Yuen Biao, their background in Chinese opera is no surprise once you see it’s traditionally performed on stage to percussion, which makes sense when you notice their rhythm.
In the pub fight during episode 1, the characters pick up improvised items such as an ashtray and a dart. I love the creativity of Jackie Chan within his fights, using improvised weapons in whichever environment he finds himself in. In Gangs, we just took that idea and went darker, in this case with quintessentially British objects, in a pub of all places!
In another moment, one guy grabs Elliot (Sope Dirisu) by the jacket and, at the same time, another guy grabs him by the leg and he simultaneously knees the guy on the floor and then kicks out the legs of the guy behind him. That was a riff on Dragons Forever. I also really respond to the Hong Kong style body stunts, with those falls and impacts. As an audience member, it gets more of a reaction than a 100ft fall.
Sope Dirisu is very tough and wanted to be heavily involved in his fights as much as he could. If I told him his stunt double was going to step in, he was very respectful and appreciated him being there, but he wanted to do as much as he could himself. I think he felt that it helped his performance.
Wheels on Meals (1984)
For the fight with Elliot vs Lenn, I was playing around with the idea of Elliot slipping out of his jacket to run away, then getting tangled with it wrapped around his face, and being flipped over. Wheels on Meals plays with this same idea but it’s very comical and slapstick. Since I’m so influenced by Hong Kong cinema, sometimes I worry that what I’m thinking about isn’t tonally quite right. When Gareth saw it, he liked it and kept the choreography, but through shooting it he gave it much more of a horror element, so you can feel the struggle and desperation.
More than any other director I’ve worked with, Gareth pays great attention to the rhythm of his fights. His background is in the Indonesian style of silat, which is where I think some crossover comes between his work and classic Hong Kong cinema. He’s obviously a big fan of Hong Kong films too, but I enjoy his own rhythmic influences from silat.
Speaking of Jackie, there’s another moment in episode 1 when Kinney, the head of the travellers, drops the jack of a car and the metal rim drops on a guy’s leg. Funnily enough, Gareth saw that in Twin Dragons, in a very different, playful way where Jackie avoids it and rolls out of the way just in time. Tonally, very different, so again we went darker.
Hard Boiled (1992)
Gareth and I don’t like seeing random henchman turn up, who we’ve never seen before, and get killed. There’s no emotional connection. We talked in pre-production about building worlds and decided to have stunt people play members of the Wallace gang and the travellers, so we subtly notice them throughout drama scenes and then, seeing them in action later, we’re seeing actual characters we recognise, not stunt people.
While preparing the campsite shootout, I suggested the idea of one Wallace gang member being a complete badass who we first notice when he shoots someone off a motorbike trying to escape, which is crazy. This was like the Mad Dog character in Hard Boiled, played by Philip Kwok. We did a homage to a Hard Boiled scene where he throws a grenade into a container, ducks down and the explosion goes off over his head. Our version showed our character throwing the grenade into the caravan and ducking down, before seeing somebody get half blown out of the window and shot at close range. In the same shot, it all feels connected.
In the big campsite shootout in episode 2 and the second half of episode 5, our influences from John Woo and Sam Peckinpah are undeniable. In fact, I believe episode 5 is Gareth’s love letter to The Wild Bunch.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2015)
When we were constructing our fights in Gangs, M:I – Fallout was getting pushed and referenced a lot, especially for the bathroom fight scene. I think it’s a really fun fight, but it didn’t feel like it had much in common with the world we were inhabiting.
In that scene, someone reaches under a washbasin and pulls out a bit of plumbing and uses it as a weapon. It’s pulled out like it’s nothing! But it’s a movie and it’s escapism. I love to play with audience expectations so, during the Elliot vs Lenn fight, we put some exposed piping in the wall. As Lenn is coming towards Elliot, Elliot makes a dash for the pipe and the audience expects him to pull it from the wall and gain a weapon. He gets there, pulls it and it doesn’t budge! Gareth said it’s similar to the scene in Police Story 2 where Jackie Chan grabs a drainpipe and pulls on it three times before retreating, so that was funny. I hadn’t thought of that one!
Paul Verhoeven is amazing, and we love his squib work. We said to Alexander Gunn, our special effects supervisor, that we wanted Robocop style squibs for certain moments, especially during the big shootouts like in episode 5.
The moment where you see a guy get ripped apart by the explosion was very much Gareth’s idea, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was inspired by Paul Verhoeven for that, too. He wanted to show a ripple effect from the explosion. My involvement was working with the SFX and the Visual Effects teams to keep it safe on the day.
It may not always be realistic, but it wouldn’t look out of place in a big action film. We knew we weren’t making a documentary, and it’s very much heightened. I’m nervous to use the word “operatic” but it’s in that territory, and I would always hope there’s an emotional truth to it.
I feel we created a lot of moments people haven’t seen before so I’m very proud of that. Choreography and performance is less than 50% of what makes an action scene. How it’s presented is what makes it succeed or fail.
I believe that part of the reason people respond to Gareth’s work is that he puts a lot of thought into how his action is presented and shown, such as seeing long scenes play out, which is what a lot of productions and especially TV series neglect to do.
Alongside all my conscious influences, remember that if you spend decades watching action scenes, they seep into your consciousness without you even realising!
After we’d finished shooting episode 1, we were on Christmas break and I decided to revisit the Bruce Lee films. I noticed two moments in Game of Death, and I won’t say what they are, but they felt similar to moments we shot in episode 1. I promise it wasn’t deliberate.
I also directed a fight scene in episode 8 and, a couple of months later, I revisited First Blood. In the scene where Stallone escapes from the police station, the staging of that had subconsciously influenced the fight I directed. I even shared screenshots with Xavier Gens, one of our directors, who thought that was funny.
I think it’s good to acknowledge all our influences. I believe that, without Yuen Woo-ping, we wouldn’t have the John Wick films. As film buffs we immediately notice the references. And if you’re not yet aware of those older films, they’re fun to seek out because they really do hold up today.
Dazzler Media presents Gangs of London on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital from 27th July 2020. Order via Amazon UK.