24 January 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Peaky Blinders director Anthony Byrne talks with IFTN ahead of the Season 5 Finale
20 Sep 2019 : Nathan Griffin
IFTN caught up with the Irish director ahead of the Peaky Blinders series 5 finale this Sunday, to discuss working with the show’s creator Steven Knight, lead Cillian Murphy and returning for season six.

The gritty crime drama from creator and writer Steven Knight, follows Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy), the head of the Birmingham-based Shelby family, as he attempts to build an international criminal organisation after the fallout and destruction of World War One. 

The series has featured a wealth of Irish talent in front of and behind the camera over the years, from actors Aiden Gillen, Packy Lee, Ned Dennehy, Charlie Murphy and, more recently Daryl McCormack and Brian Gleeson – to director, David Caffrey, DoP Cathal Watters, editor Dermot Diskin, production designer Nicole Northridge, costume designer Lorna Marie Mugan and post-production supervisor Dee Collier. 

Since its air date in 2013, the popularity of the BBC drama has increased significantly, culminating in viewing numbers of 3.6 million during the season four finale last year. Such is its popularity that the television series was moved up from BBC Two to BBC One for season 5, proving a successful decision as 6.2 million people tuned in for episodes one and two of the latest season, almost doubling season four’s viewership figures.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin spoke with Byrne ahead of the series 5 finale this Sunday. 

IFTN: How did the opportunity to get involved with the new season come about?

Anthony: “There had been a discussion previously about doing a previous season that I wasn't available for, so I think I was always on their radar, their shortlist. Then, I thought it had probably gone away, but luckily, it came back and I jumped on it. Went and met Caryn and Jamie, had a really good conversation with them. Then, I had a conversation with Cillian and we hit it off pretty much straight away really.”

IFTN: Had you followed the show in the meantime?

Anthony: “I was a fan of the show from the beginning. It was something that I had always thought, 'I'd love to do it.' I always admired it, always loved what they were doing, it’s so unique and different. I always felt watching it that there was a space, within what they achieved so well, for me to do something different with this so I was always following it.”

IFTN: Can you tell me a bit about the dynamic that you would have shared with Steven Knight whenever you came onto the project?

Anthony: “At the beginning, Steve writes the scripts, obviously, but he would do maybe one or two drafts. The further we got into the process, the more contact I had with Steve. You're not sitting in a room with him going back and forwards on the scripts because the drafts that he delivers are so polished and are so beautifully written that actually, the conversations are more that we need to cut some stuff.”

“We all have these notes, and so it's a very easy dialogue and conversation to have with him. We started shooting and he was looking at the rushesthen that contact became more regular to the point where I've got a very good relationship with him. They've asked me to come back to do the next season - The proof is in the pudding, I suppose.

“Then, we did the Liam Gallagher music video a few weeks ago. So that relationship, has just gotten stronger and there's a trust there, I suppose. What it boils down to, is that he's looking at us and he's looking at the rushesand he's seeing what I'm doing. That's the closest interpretation of his script that he's seeing, so he's very happy about it, as am I; and that's what you really want.”

IFTN: Coming into a show of this magnitude and popularity, did you find as a director, your approach was confined to the pre-existing side of the show?

Anthony: “No, not at all. There's a responsibility to deliver the end result and not go crazy, but 100% I could see where I wanted to take it and what I wanted to do with it aesthetically. I was really pleased at the fact that season four was like a gangster showdown. I always felt that was what the audience needed at that particular time. It was like running and guns, it was gangsters shooting at each other, and it was a pay-off after three seasons. There were always moments back through the previous seasons, but not to the extent that season four was about the vendetta. 

“And season five, it's a character piece. That's what excited me the most. It was those conversations with Cillian about really getting back to what drives this man and what his psyche, his psychology, and the darkness of his soul.”

“So I had specific ideas about that and how aesthetically you would interpret that and present it. Then, obviously, there is a lot of action that takes place, but it's all really guided by the fact that you're following one man who, this time, is the antagonist to a degree because he is his own worst enemy. Mosley is the physical antagonist, but Tommy Shelby in this season is very much his own worst enemy. I think tracking a character like that and dissecting him and watching him fall apart is quite interesting. Narratively, it's also creatively rewarding to go on that journey with an actor like Cillian.”

IFTN: Can you tell me a bit more about your experience working with Cillian?

Anthony“If you were to sit down and design the best actor that you would want to work with, then essentially, it's Cillian because he is a total professional. He shows up to work, he keeps himself to himself, he is always prepared, always ready, he is the first person to the set. There is no ego, he just wants to be the best. If he is bringing that exemplary attitude to the set, well, then everybody else needs to follow that.

: Then, for me as a director, it makes everything so much easier because you're able to have those conversations and we both have the same sensibilities and similar personalities. He's also very funny, which not a lot of people know. I think people think he's very serious, but he's a very funny guy.

: Ultimately, it's about the work, so that just focuses everything, but it also focuses the set and it focuses everybody else, the other actors around him. Not that any of them are not there to work, but if your lead actors are coming on set every day and they’re always on and always prepared, then it makes it easier, certainly for me, to have that on my side.

: He's an amazing collaborator as well. He understood perfectly what I was trying to achieve. You could tell, given the amazing directors that he has worked with and the standards that he's used to, that you want to be on your A-game and you want to be doing stuff that is going to be elevating the material because ultimately, that's what you're trying to do. Working with somebody like him is going to help that because the standard is always high.”

IFTN: As you mentioned, the show does have a number of unique draws, one of them being the use of contemporary music in the period setting. How closely did you work with this season's composer, Anna Calvi, in getting that balance right?

Anthony: I'm a huge fan of Anna. I have been for years. I tried to work with her on ‘In Darkness’, which is a film I did a few years ago. It didn't work out because she was busy. I essentially hired her for this. In my head, I just felt that her music and her sound would marry perfectly with ‘Peaky (Blinders)’.I wanted to use less commercial music this time and use more of a film score because I was trying to score Tommy Shelby's inner world, his headspace, and his psyche.”

“You don't think of score when you think of Peaky Blinders,you think of all of the commercial music, so it was important then to find somebody who was going to bring a very unique voice and sound to the score and that it wasn't going to just be an orchestral score that's happening and then you just use commercial music. So that's what we set about doing. Then, Anna came on board with her amazing guitar sound.”

“She is a virtuoso guitar player and she has this incredible voice. I wanted to underscore the femininity of Tommy Shelby, which is something that isn't obvious or talked about but it's true because the underlying elements of his character are feminine. His mother is never discussed in the show but is in a later episode. I think all we know is that she committed suicide but he wants to find out why. That's a big guiding force that's controlling his character.”

“Grace, who is Annabelle Wallis, his dead wife, is begging him to commit suicide, to join her in the underworld essentially. Lizzie and the complexity of his relationship with her being an ex-prostitute who then worked as a secretary and is now his wife, it's so complicated. There are three very different complex female characters, and I wanted Anna to be this feminine voice who unites all of those things.”

“All of those conversations were very creatively satisfying to work with an artist like Anna who's probably one of my favorite aspects of making‘Peaky’ because she's somebody that I'd wanted to work with for a while. I was glad to have the opportunity to do it. It was the perfect experience. Anna is going to come back and do the next season and continue exploring all of that.”

IFTN: And so you played a different approach to the previous seasons musically? 

Anthony: The commercial tracks were harder, but I guess it's my taste because I chose them all. It's not a kind of committee thing where somebody is saying, ‘What about all of these tracks?’ and, ‘We want to use this artist or that.’ Most of it is my personal choice. Obviously, I'm open to suggestions and I was listening to new music and new artists and stuff like that, but it was to have less commercial music and more of Anna Calvi's music.

We also use Anna Calvi's commercial music. Also, Idols are a band that I'm a big fan of at the moment, and they just fitted the tone and the themes of the show. You hear them in the last two episodes, and it's two songs in the last episode, and one at episode five. Black Sabbath was like so obvious to me, I couldn't believe that they hadn't been used before.

I was like “they're from f**king Birmingham”. It's a no brainer. Maybe before, people thought they were cheesier, they're not cool and I was like, "They are f**king cool", those songs are amazing! To have ‘War Pigs’and ‘The Wizard’. I use ‘The Wizard’, which isn't one of their big hits, but to use that song for the ‘Peaky’ walk in the first episode, people were just really excited by that.

Fans were really excited by it. That was a big thrill. They're the biggest band we've used in terms of profiles of all the rest of the bands.” 

IFTN: What are you currently working on or what do you have in development that you can touch upon?

Anthony: “Nothing that I want to talk about. Every time I talk about stuff, then it doesn't happen. I'm taking a break right now. I only finished ‘Peaky’like two weeks ago, which is hard to believe.”

“I finished episode six like two weeks ago. Then, I was in Soho, finished work on that at like midday, and then I walked across Soho to a script meeting with Steve Knight and the producer and the execs about the next season. It doesn't really stop. It keeps going.”

IFTN: So you are confirmed for the next season?

Anthony: Yes, 100%. That's the first time they've asked me to come back as well, so it was a big deal, and I was very touched that they did so. That came about through conversations with Steve and with Cillian who both asked me during the shoot. Then, we had the conversation properly once I finished. It's hard to commit to something when you're still filming it because it's all-consuming. It's a hard shoot to do.

It's six hours, like three movies back to back on a tight budget over about 17 weeks. It’s pretty grueling. I thought, "I can't agree to anything right now, but let me finish filming this thing and then let's talk." The story is so great. Steve's writing is just incredible. Those scripts are a gift to any director, but to work with that level of talent on camera and behind the camera is also a gift. That cast is just extraordinary, and the level of cast that it attracts is also amazing. If you look at Sam Claflin, Anya Taylor-Joy, Neil Maskell, Cosmo Jarvis, you can put a movie together just with them, and they're the guest cast! Anya and Sam are stars. Emmett J Scanlan as well who I had worked with on ‘Butterfly’, such a fine actor, and to have him on board as well.” 

IFTN: Normally, each series has seen a new director so it's no small feat for you to get confirmed for next season… 

Anthony“Yes. It's a world that I love being in, and I understand the characters and I understand the world, and I understand, I think, what Steve Knight wants to see on screen. That's probably what Steve was responding to, was this is how he was seeing it, and I think that's what he wanted more of. I was happy to continue telling the story and being in that same environment, hard and all as it is, I just think it's the best that's out there. Like I said, reading it, it's a gift for any director to spend time in that world with those characters and with the quality of the writing. The writing, it's unreal. I don't how Steve Knight does this because he has written every single episode. 

It just pours out of him in this very natural novelistic way of writing that he has. Just spending time reading those scripts, breaking it down. Usually, you would read a script and you would go, "I know what they're trying to do, I know what the writer is thinking." With Steve, it's all on the page. You'd read a scene from somebody else's script and go, "I know what I'll do with this to make it better or to service or elevate it".

With Steve, you're reading and you're going, "I just want to see that," because it's like reading a book.”

The season finale of Season 5 airs at 9pm on Sunday, 20thSeptember on BBC One.  

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