Describing his first experiences of films, Byrne said he sat in the cinema watching reels that were “covered in shit’. In native Ireland, even Dublin cinemas got their reels 8 weeks after UK release, picking up, it seems, a lot of the country on the way.
TCS sat down with the BAFTA award-winning director, who has built his career from making short films and submitting them to film festivals, to taking the enormously popular Peaky Blinders show into its fifth and sixth seasons.
The show tells the story of the not-so-smooth ascent of the Shelby family. Led by the understated swagger of Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), the family goes from being ambitious book-makers in their local area of Birmingham to industrial magnates, philanthropists and political movers-and-shakers in a world plagued by a financial crisis and the rise of Fascism.
‘It’s a special story’, Anthony says, ‘all of those themes are directly mirroring what we’re dealing with now’. ‘It just so happens that the rise of Fascism and the financial crash are happening in our own world. It’s kind of uncanny.’
Aside from this uncanny reflection of today, season 5 takes the show in a new direction. Admitting that after the ‘running and gunning’ of season 4, taking the director’s chair was somewhat of a ‘poisoned chalice’, Anthony said, ‘I wanted to get back into the drama of it and wanted to get back into his [Tommy Shelby’s] head.’
Admitting that after the ‘running and gunning’ of season 4, taking the director’s chair was somewhat of a ‘poisoned chalice’, Anthony said, ‘I wanted to get back into the drama of it and wanted to get back into his [Tommy Shelby’s] head.’
One of the iconic things about ‘Peaky Blinders’ is the long, silent, and still somehow engaging shots of Tommy smoking and walking through inner-city Birmingham or sitting barely moving anything except his eyes. ‘He just does the tiniest movements that give you everything you need to know. That’s what great acting is about. It’s about communicating with your eyes and doing the least amount that you can do.’ Anthony praises, describing the close relationship the two have in making the show work. ‘We need to be tight, the two of us.’ Murphy told Byrne on one of their first meetings. Cillian Murphy certainly helped facilitate Byrne’s shift from the action and spectacle of season 4 back to the drama and characterisation of the earlier seasons.
This tight relationship was necessary, Byrne explains. In a directorial career, much of your career is spent ‘building relationships’ with actors and writers. He said that Cillian ‘protected’ him in the ‘war of attrition’ that was the shooting process.
One thing we come back to again and again is the ‘visual grammar’ of a shot. Peaky Blinders is ‘a lot of people in rooms talking’, Byrne says, ‘and we have to find ways of making those scenes do what they need to do.’ Byrne’s attention to detail and determination to strip away the ‘TV bullshit’ he sees on screens today are what makes Peaky Blinders so enjoyable to watch.
He gives the example of ‘Joker’, and the excitement in his voice reflects his passion for film-making: ‘Look at Joker. Such a masterpiece. Every shot, the camera’s in the right place.’ Like Tommy Shelby, ‘He’s in a lot of rooms by himself’, and still, ‘the camera’s always in the right place.’
One element of ‘TV bullshit’ for Byrne is the excess of shots filmed for each scene. ‘We don’t need 20 shots. We need 1 great one.’ He says that whether you’re making a short film of 10 minutes or a 6-hour long big-budget season you have to ‘spend time, compose the shot, do it right [and] get the performance. There’s more power in that than doing that scattergun approach.’
This economy is something he sees as a lesson that ripens with age. ‘When you’re young you want to keep it all in, whereas when you’re older you’re like ‘get rid of it, we don’t need it’. ‘Ask yourself, ‘What’s the most economical version?’ And do that.’
This precision comes from Byrne’s desire to make ‘memorable images’ and craft a show that benefits from close cinematic attention. He says, ‘In an age when we consume imagery all day long, Instagram, all around us, wherever we are, we don’t look at anything’. ‘I’m really making it for the five people who are like, ‘I’m going to sit at home, I’m turning my phone off, I’m gonna watch it on my TV and… get it’, you know? That’s it.’
It isn’t the easiest career to stand-out in, but Byrne has made it. ‘Thinking you can do it on your own is a necessary part of being a director. There are so many moving parts you need to be quite singular.’ he says, repeating his advice to students wanting to follow his footsteps, he says ‘I’d just get up and start taking shots on your iPhone because when I was young you couldn’t do that and it was frustrating.’
‘Lean into tropes and update them in some way,’ he says. For example, for Peaky Blinders he asked his location team to ‘think about it like it’s Western’, taking the ‘wild-west to the English countryside’. These shots should be economical, he says, ‘5, 10, or 12 minutes and no longer, and just keep them tight.’
Peaky Blinders is scheduled for its sixth season in the next year – ‘we’re going deeper into it… we’re going further into that world.’ Byrne teases. Soon the ‘gypsy Valhalla’ of the British screen will be back to resolve the cliff-hanger of season 5. Byrne is going to have a busy 2021.