GANGS OF LONDON, the hit television series from Sky and AMC+, has been rightfully praised for setting a new high watermark for cinematic-style action and mayhem on the small screen. The bulk of that praise has gone to the series creator, writer/director Gareth Evans (THE RAID). This tale of the violent power struggle that occurs when one of the heads of the London underworld is mysteriously gunned down was not solely shepherded through production by Evans though. He shared directing duties equally on the series with two other men, one of those two was French filmmaker Xavier Gens (COLD SKIN).
Gens had the unenviable task of directing the three late-season episodes leading up to the season one finale that not only had to bring into focus all of the winding narrative plot threads setup by the earlier episodes, by Evans and fellow series director Corin Hardy (THE HALLOWS), but also raise the tension and urgency of the show to a fever pitch before the game-changing climax.
With his background in character-based extreme horror filmmaking, Xavier Gens was more than up for the task. His episodes not only contained what may be the most brutal violence of the series‘ first season, most notably a nearly episode-long interrogation of a failed assassin, but also some of its strongest character work and most memorable action beats.
To coincide with GANGS OF LONDON’s first season being released onto DVD and Blu-Ray recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Xavier Gens about his directorial stint on the series. We talked about how he became involved in the project, working in collaboration with Evans and Hardy, his influences, and just how much fun a little on-screen violence can be!
***Please note: Xavier Gens’ native language is French. He very graciously conducted the entire interview in English without the aid of an interpreter. Some editing was done to the transcript to allow the intent of his statements to come through more clearly.
Also, please be advised that this interview contains spoilers for the first season of GANGS OF LONDON.
How did you become involved with GANGS OF LONDON?
I’m good friends with Gareth Evans and when he called me to do three episodes of his show, I was very excited. So, I first answered the call. So, it was my “London Calling” and I jumped directly on the train and joined him in London.
The episodes of the series were divided evenly between yourself, Corin Hardy, and Gareth. Obviously, Gareth wanted to do the opener and the extremely action-heavy “house siege” episode in the middle of the season. Tell me about how the decision was made on who directed what from there?
It was more or less decided from the very beginning, Corin would do the shows after the opener, and I would do the three after Gareth’s midpoint. When I start reading the scripts, I understand why Gareth gave me these episodes because they are involving human torture…
We had a very good time doing that.
Outside of the obvious horror elements, how did you bring your voice to this collaborative process?
First of all, when Gareth asked me to follow that show, I wanted to first stick to his style. I wanted to understand his process and understand the way he is doing things, the way he’s staging things. So, it was important for me to talk with him and understand the way he’s thinking. Gareth is a real genius and it’s main work is doing it in preparation. So, for me, when I get involved with it, it was really in preparation and to try to understand his process. So, I work my style into his process. And when I was reading the scenes, at some point I wanted to do more of a long sequence shot. I like when I can do long sequence shots. I’m not into over cutting scenes. I was really trying to figure out how I could cut scenes together without over-shooting.
Sometimes you can cover a scene and you do so many shots, there is at some point, it’s over edited. I wanted to allow that over-editing we can see from American movies sometime. For me, the most important thing was really to figure out how I can keep the pace in the scene just with one shot. And I tried to figure out how I could stage some scenes in one or two shots maximum. When I look through the script, there is not so much action in the episode that has to be done. So basically, I was figuring out how to stage the drama scenes as if it’s a fight scene. So, for example, the Wallace and Dumani confrontation at the end of episode seven was something very important to be able to stage that as if it’s a fight sequence. So, I was trying to figure out the shot on Marian and Ed Dumani, the drama to see how Sean Wallace is moving around the table, like a young wolf ready to bite its prey
Also, there is the investment bank attack with the Nigerians. That was something specific I wanted from one point of view only, which is the character of Mosi, at some point, we need to create the idea that he is someone important because he’s one of the main antagonists. I developed a lot the relationship between Luan and his wife. And that big scene we have in episode nine, where Luan’s fighting against the Nigerians, which is a strong moment as well.
I was also in charge of the scene with the split between the Wallace and the Dumani families. And for me, that was a mythical moment I had to create. So that’s why I use all these slow mo moments between Alex Dumani and Sean Wallace when there is the explosion of the tower. In episode eight, it was super challenging because it was mostly inside the safe house of the Wallaces. So that was something I was trying to figure out how to be more character-driven. Most of my work is really character-driven and I pushed and developed the performance and the character. I really had a good time working on this.
You joked earlier about the level of violence and torture that is expected from your work. What is your philosophy when it comes to violence on screen? Also, what do you feel is unique about your approach?
My approach is really the most realistic as possible. When it’s about torture, it’s about the human… It’s something very specific because it’s all about the human condition and the respect of humanity and human beings. And as soon as you torture someone, these details are involved in it, the dignity. And for me, there is one character, which is Marian Wallace who is taking the dignity of the character of Tove out. And Tove is losing her dignity in that episode because of the torture, because of all the terrible things the Wallaces are doing to her. And even if we have seen her trying to shoot Sean earlier, for me, it was important to get emotionally involved with the character.
And where Lauren Sequeira, the writer [of that episode], is super strong is- she was trying to understand where is the humanity of each character, and basically trying to figure out not only a bad guy and a good guy fighting each other, everything is that gray area where everybody is good and everybody has his own reason to do things and people are defending themselves. So, you cannot say evil is everywhere. At some point, it just figuring out what way these human beings are going to behave to save themself, basically. That’s fascinating, I think, to be able to develop that kind of character-driven feeling where you feel for the victim, but the victim is also the enemy. And vice versa. So, I think in that episode, there is that strong ambiguity where you don’t want Marian to torture the other girl, because Sean is getting emotional, and he’s scared for her. And it’s all mixed and struggling altogether, which I really love. I think this is when it’s the most exciting.
That entire episode is very tense and involving. Were there any things you wanted to do in that one, or any of your episodes, that were prohibited either by time, money, or creative differences?
No, we were trying to show everything like how Gareth and Corin were with their action scenes. I had that realistic approach on the violence, but also wanted it to be super fun as well. As a fan, I love to see a violent film. When people are asking Quentin Tarantino, “But why your movies are so violent?” And he’s answering because, “Because it’s fucking fun!”
[Laughs] It is.
When you’re doing a show like GANGS OF LONDON, it’s very “pop.” And that pop aspect has to be in the DNA of the show. Some of the action scenes are directly influenced by Hong Kong cinema. And we assumed that at 200%, because Gareth and myself, we are huge fan of those kind of movies. And when there is a strong dramatic sequence, but if you want, I think Gangs is the baby of the influence of Asian cinema of the eighties and nineties we grew up with. We grew up watching HARD BOILED, THE KILLER, all these John Woo’s masterpiece of action. Now we digest them and we deliver these kind of stories set up in London, but with the same generality as the early John Woo work.
As a big fan of Asian genre films, I saw the influences and appreciated them. I think you guys did a wonderful job of showcasing that in a more contemporary television setting. What was the most rewarding thing about working on GANGS OF LONDON and what was the most difficult?
The most rewarding is, I think, the collaborative aspect of a TV show. Every show I work with… I did a TV show with Johan Renck, [titled THE LAST PANTHERS], and I enjoy working with him. I learned so much. It’s so, so good. I learned the way he’s shooting simplicity and even through that, he was telling a story. He was always challenging me, he was always asking me, “Oh, try to tell a story even when they see, when you took an object and you put this object on screen, try to tell a story with that object. Why is this guy is going to have this object around him? Try to find the story and the meaning behind it.” He was so good at telling me something like this. And with Gareth, I learned a lot about the action process, the process he had with Jude Poyer, his stunt choreographer.
That was so strong for me because I’m mostly coming from French cinema and the way violence is done in French cinema, but I never understand the process of Gareth. And working with him, I totally get his process and it’s fascinating. So that was, I will say, the rewarding thing- to understand the work process of another director when you are working with them. And that’s really a pure treasure they offer you, because it makes you better, if you want. You learn more and you share experience and that’s priceless. I will say the most challenging thing is the work of telling three hours of TV, it’s not that easy and you have to do three hours of TV in 30 days, more or less, which is quite challenging, but also super satisfying because you’re doing something which is exciting
And I will say the work with the best actors in the UK. And for me, that was challenging because I have to be better when I work with them. I have to be on the page and know exactly what I’m doing. And when you are working with people like Michelle Fairley, Joe Cole, Sope Dirisu, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Lucian Msamati, Paapa Essiedu, who was nominated for a BAFTA on I MAY DESTROY YOU or Narges Rashidi who was in UNDER THE SHADOW, these actors are so good, you have to be over-prepared to be able to be at the same level as them. Because they know exactly everything about their character and you arrive for three hours of TV, they are shooting nine hours of TV. And the most challenging is to be and to know this nine hours as well as them. And as an actor, they learn every line, they learn nine hours of a TV show. And I have to learn the same hours to be at the same level as them. And that’s challenging, but also super exciting because it makes you work better.
As we wrap up, what do you hope the future holds for GANGS OF LONDON?
My hope for season two is that they encounter the same success of season one and that they could have season three. And I hope to come back for season three, because on season two, I cannot work on it because I have some prior engagements already. And so, Gareth is doing HAVOC [with Tom Hardy for Netflix} in Cardiff at the moment. So, I’m going to join Gareth on that. And then I’m producing a second film of director Mounia Meddour who I had helped by producing their first feature PAPICHA. So, I’m pretty busy by doing stuff while they are shooting season two. But maybe I can be there for season three. So, we’ll see.
Well, I certainly hope you return for what I think would be an inevitable third season. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me, Xavier.
Merci. Thank you, Matthew!
GANGS OF LONDON Season 1 is available now on DVD & Blu-ray. It is also available to stream in the U.S. through the AMC+ app.