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Gangs of London
Amsterdam, 2021-04-23 - Aart Verschuur
Let the audience hoover between ‘then’ and ‘now’
With director Rolf van Eijk he worked on My foolish heart, the music filled neo-noir drama from 2018 about the mysterious death of legendary jazz player Chet Baker.
On his reel are also titles as The Hallow (with Corin Hardy), Coureur (with Kenneth Mercken), Gangs of London (S1, with Corin Hardy), Cool Abdoul (with Jonas Baeckeland), and Narcosis (with Martijn de Jong). At the moment DP Martijn van Broekhuizen works on the second season of the series Gangs of London.
Gangs of London is about the battle for power between International gangs in London, and the power vacuum that was created when a top crime boss is suddenly assassinated. But when I call Martijn he just arrived from Paris where he worked on an assignment for Chanel.
Do you approach a commercial different then when you work on a movie or series?
Not really, says Martijn: ‘I work and feel comfortable with many different aspects of cinematography. Commercial assignments are part of that. The quest for a visual translation I find interesting and exciting. Whether it is a commercial or drama, it is always about the specific visual-narrative structure.
‘What I want to say, is that I want to develop the visual language in all my work. A camera is not only to register or to observe. A camera gives also the possibility for poetry, to add a layer on the story. The story of someone else, the writer. To give a visual interpretation to that is a form of poetry by itself. You can use that in all genres.’
‘As Director of Photography (DoP) you certainly have influence. You interpret someone else’s story but I do not feel like a service provider to it. Working together on the vision is a beautiful thing and you put lot of your own soul in it. This visualization starts when reading the script and you start to think how you can put a frame around someone, how the light can fall on the subject because of the atmosphere in the script.
‘When I read a text, the visual translation immediately starts. I share this with the Director and together you let the film language grow. Sometimes the Director has a very distinct view on it and sometimes the Director asks you to dictate the visual story. Every script has its own energy and dynamics.’
‘I read something that has rhythm, with a closure attached. This rhythm is what I am trying to visualize in shots. Thereafter I try to find how I can keep the visualization consistent. At this point I search for passages to abstract, or to find another way to make this story clear by using the images. Working with images is a type of communication, where the most direct translation very often isn’t the best or most understandable one.’
‘When you are talking with someone and you use a metaphor in the conversation, at that moment you are not using text or words but with imagination. To understand what someone is trying to say, you create an image. This is identical to filmmaking. If something is written down metaphorically, you can translate this very directly. But you can also try to translate it to film language with your own imagination. The message arrives in a different and perhaps more poetic way with the audience.
Can you give me a concrete example of that?
‘I personally like it when a script has these moments between reality and inner thoughts of a character. Moments when at script level, space is created for more introspective or impressionistic storytelling. At these moments you can play around with the space around the protagonist: you can alter the room by leaving the protagonist in a room but within the same shot change or emptying the room around that person. By using these surrealistic moments you can create a feeling that you are balancing between reality and fiction and you are shifting between an actual observation and a metaphoric observation.’
Take a scene from the first “Gangs of London” series: one of the main characters lost a man that betrayed her, the main gangster boss who was killed at the start of the series. She is in a crowded restaurant, and the scene slowly unfolds via a flashback. It is designed in such a way that you never see the girlfriend and the gangster directly together in the frame. You do see them in one frame, but one of them is then seen via a mirror.
‘The scene ends with a long one-shot through the mirror, in which we see them sitting together. The camera dollies in on the table and closes in on the woman. The camera moves around her, and then we see that the restaurant is not full of people, but empty. In this way the world of the flashback (the crowded restaurant) is connected within one shot with the present, the empty restaurant. The camera dollies from the crowded restaurant into the empty restaurant.’
In this scene we have not chosen the direct narrative form with edited flashbacks. They were in the original script, but after long conversations with the director we chose for a more abstract form for this scene. We shot it without using VFX. The moment we slowly move in for a close-up there is a moment that the rest of the Restaurant is out of frame. At that very moment all restaurant visitors dive under the tables, subsequently the camera moves around her and you find the restaurant empty. It is a simple but for me very effective trick, if you execute it correctly and can fit it seamless into the final editing. You surprise the viewer this way, who has to “hoover” between then and now.’
‘I want the images to speak for themselves, so people can understand without words what is happening. I hope that people experience that as something special. Using this type of storytelling is not always possible, the story must allow it and a scene is never on itself. It only works if the rest of the movie or episode relates well to such a scene.
‘The rhythm towards the scene has to be perfect too. You can’t make a sloppy forty minutes or telling the story in another style and then suddenly put in one abstract scene. The approach only works if you lead the viewer towards it and prepare the audience for it. You have to guide the viewer towards the fact that information arrives in a different way than they are used to. The manner in which you abstract or interpret is very personal and can be very small and nuanced.
‘Tarantino abstracts violence, that has some truth in it. If you use images differently, another awareness emerges. Both by the makers of the images as by the audience. The production process of a movie gets another starting point, and you always feel that as viewer.’
‘I once went into conversation with an Australian director of an action movie. Out of 100 pages of script, about 98 of them concerned violence and action. I wondered if I liked this glorification of violence, especially being a young father then. I had no idea how to start the conversation and while reading the script I wondered a couple of times how you could step away from the beaten track of action. Ultimately, I asked the director: what if we don’t show the action at all? This was a hypothetical question of course but he completely fell silent. He did not get my point.’
‘My point was: what do we see if we don’t see the action. What is the world like around this action? Is there perhaps a more artistic view on this story, without one-dimensional action? The movie would still be action packed, but if you would show the world away from the action, perhaps another vision would emerge on the movie.’
‘From here you can walk a road that is very interesting from a cinematic perspective, because the ideas behind it are genuine. Searching for such images becomes a more collective quest. In the end we left it by this somewhat funny conversation. At a later stage the Director did get back to me on it, in retrospect he did like it as a interesting starting point.
The series “Gangs of London” S1 was shot using three crews. How much liberty is there to abstract? If the one crew wants to make poetic atmosphere, and the other chooses a more video clip style of shooting and editing, you will end up with a strange end product.
‘With director Corin Hardy I have worked often in the past. We were in pre-production on other projects when this opportunity suddenly arose. In the first season we were granted 4 out of 9 episodes, and now – in the second series – I only shoot episodes 1 and 2.’
‘At season 1 Garreth Evans was in charge, who developed the series together with his DoP Matt Flannery. They had a lot of success with Asian action movies, what was especially striking in the movies is how they framed the action. Evans and Flannery gave us initially much playroom to us and the other team – with Xavier Gens and Laurent Barres – to make our visual mark on the episodes.’
‘It did not mean a wild card to do whatever we wanted. Together you are telling one single story, so you look at each other and you try to improve the started film language and bring it to a higher level. But it is a series where Corin Hardy and I could put our mark on from the beginning.’
Now at the start of Season 2, Corin is leading. We dictate the art direction and visual language of the series completely and share this with the other crews. For example about positioning of lighting and the atmosphere in the images. We have to decide about the base of our style. Will the series be calm or hectic? To which level do we get and do we take the possibility to work abstract? Can we achieve the “thinking out of the box” that we want? Is the atmosphere bright or perhaps very moody?’
‘In season 1, episode 4, a family dinner that should have bring everyone closer together totally derails. Someone is shot down and brought inside the room. It is a dance of events that follow, with all main characters in one scene. A incredible chain of events starts there. The question was: how are we going to tell this story in pictures? And do we have the time available to do that?’
‘If we would film everything directly as written in the script would carry a huge workload to us, lots of scenes, many dialogues, action and violence. The whole house with all characters was in constant use for the epilogue of this episode. We wanted to do something special here and get caught in obvious storytelling. There we decided to bundle all incidents and scenes together, in one long one-take shot of 6 minutes. That is not without risk, since we only had one day for the take and there was no way to reshot the scene. Just getting the cast back together would give a major headache.’
‘We started to make a storyboard and write the shots down, then we rehearsed a couple of days without cast. After that we went to shoot the 6 minute take, it contains seven hidden cuts: we circle around the room, dolly in on a bullet wound, fly a couple of times over a table where someone is laying on while the bullet is being removed from his belly. We enter a flashback in which the person on the table sees his deceased son. The camera moves on through the house, at the same time one character is replaced by a stunt woman, till finally we end the shot through a broken mirror. We see the family through the shatters divided.
‘Yes, if you start a scene like this, there is no way back. Only as a fallback solution you can make the scene more chaotic in editing. You have to know each other very well and know how the other thinks and communicates. How deep can and does he want to go into it? You make the choreography together and you fill the visual gaps later. But Corin and I know very well from each other which way we want to go. Thanks to the fact that we are well-attuned and the courage to do this scene in the way we did, I was able to shoot one of the better scenes in my career.Text: Aart Verschuur
Translation: Herman Verschuur