A young woman sits alone on the top deck of a London bus at night as a figure – wearing a garish carnival mask, fringed by LED lights – crawls snake-like along the floor towards her. The point of view switches to that of a female passenger on another bus, who looks on aghast as she sees the masked figure cut the throat of the first woman as the two buses glide past each other in opposite directions.
This is a scene from the first episode of Season 5 of crime thriller series “Luther” – whose four-episode run played on consecutive nights this week on the BBC in the U.K., and screens later this year in the U.S. on BBC America. The first episode drew an average audience of 5.6 million, a 25.7% share of the U.K. audience, with many vowing on Twitter never to ride a night bus again.
Early last year, I watched the murder scene being shot in Bow, East London, and spoke with “Luther’s” creator and writer Neil Cross (see interview here). He said that although he and the show’s star, Idris Elba, were to be credited for the first time as executive producers they had been serving as de facto EPs from the show’s inception, and had been involved in every aspect of production. But they’d no desire to “micromanage” or act as showrunners in the hands on sense of the role as it is practiced in Hollywood as they trusted director Jamie Payne entirely.
“It is not a case of us, either in tandem or singularly, micromanaging, but each of us has very strong feelings about what a season of ‘Luther’ should be, and what it should look like, and how it should feel and sound. So we are both elbows deep in it,” Cross said. “There is not an aspect of any scene that we haven’t discussed at length and in fact we were doing it in the trailer this morning. But ultimately Jamie is our director, and the reason Jamie is our director is because I trust Jamie to be our director, and he is a thousand times better at it than I could ever aspire to be, so why would I sit at Jamie’s shoulder behind the monitor telling him how to do his job?”
Several months later I joined Payne, whose credits include “The Alienist,” “The White Princess” and “Doctor Who,” in an edit suite in London’s Soho district as he and editor Jamie Trevill put the finishing touches to Season 5 of “Luther.”
Elba has said that this season is a “classic” “Luther,” and Payne sees that as a reaffirmation of the confidence the BBC and Cross have in the world that has been created over the previous four seasons. “There’s a genuine understanding of what this universe is in terms of storytelling. It doesn’t need paddles to the heart in order to give it a fresh burst,” he said. “In that way it is a celebration of what’s come before. Luther as a character and the stories that play out in this season are absolutely connected to Season 1, and there are some very direct links to Season 1 in this season. So it is very much a continuation emotionally.” Season 5 also sees the continuation of a major storyline from Season 4, where we learn about the death of Alice Morgan, played by Ruth Wilson, and see Luther’s reaction to it.
While “there is no contrived fresh approach,” in Payne’s words, he mentioned a conversation he had with Elba at the beginning of the production process. Elba spoke about a YouTube channel that shows how children actually play with toys as opposed to how the manufacturer wants kids to play with them. “He said you should play with these toys – the Luther character, [his boss] Martin Schenk, whoever, this world – in a way that you want to. But of course the stories themselves are so connected to classic ‘Luther,’ being the history of Luther right back to Season 1, it will handle as every season has done with a new director coming in. So to be empowered by Neil, Idris, [exec producer Marcus Wilson] and [producer Derek Ritchie] to go, ‘Come on, make it yours, there is enough of a foundation here that keeps it familiar,’ has been massively empowering.”
With this permission from the show’s creators to make it his own, Payne has brought his experience of genre filmmaking to the new season and a “fresh perspective.” “It is too easy to look at four seasons of ‘Luther’ and want to do, indirectly, a greatest hits. It’s like learning your lines and forgetting them. I love genre and I have learned through having done successful moments of genre in previous television shows, and unsuccessful moments,” he said. “I love a good thriller that takes an emotional truth and makes it manipulative. It takes something accessible, ordinary, relatable and then puts a spin on it, because a good action film and a good thriller only really works if there is an emotional core at its heart. And what I love about ‘Luther’ is it needs you to understand how to create good genre sequences, but it also, more importantly, needs you to understand that at its heart it has to feel emotionally truthful.”
Although he believes that 10 years ago he couldn’t have directed “Luther,” he said he felt ready for it now. “I love it and I want to bring my understanding of how to create a genre sequence with a fresh perspective and how to balance those two.”
Cross had explained to me that many of the scary moments in “Luther” are rooted in his own irrational fear of what other people might do to him in real life, and while one of the attractions of the show is a certain heightened quality to the crimes, tinged by an understated sense of the supernatural and the gothic, they often play out within run-of-the-mill situations and settings. How has Payne kept the balance between maintaining a semblance of realism and deploying the tropes of the horror genre?
“That’s what excites me most about ‘Luther’: That it takes characters you can relate to, whether it be the victim or the murderer – something that you can point to in your everyday life, and then it takes you into the shadow of that and does the kind of graphic novel version of the darkest version of your truth,” Payne said.
“[The series] loves celebrating the genre of it but if you disconnect it from the truth – and that goes right the way back to casting, how you shoot, where you shoot – then it doesn’t work as well, then it just becomes genre, and what makes Neil’s writing so great is it is usually absolutely connected to our primal fear because it is something we can relate to. It is the ordinary in the extraordinary.”
He added: “I’ve always thought about ‘Luther’ as happening just alongside our life. It is a parallel world of ours but it is not disconnected. And if you disconnect it, especially from my point of view as the director, it becomes contrived and spectacle and noise. It doesn’t work.”
Season 5 sees the introduction of a new character to the show – Luther’s new sidekick Catherine Halliday, played by Wunmi Mosaku, a young detective who is being fast-tracked through the ranks of London’s police force. She has a pivotal role in this season, Payne explained. The world of detective dramas is very familiar to the audience, but by selecting a character who is relatively new to the world of cops allows the viewer to identify with her.
“She gets lifted from public life and put in at a level that affects everybody in [Luther’s] team – she is central. What that does is take a member of the audience and put them right in the middle, without the knowledge of how these crimes play out, without 22 crimes coming before. When you see Halliday witness the aftermath of a death then she helps you connect to it because she is very much you. And having someone like that around Luther – who is smart, who is questioning, who is not aware of where he’s come from or who he is… she is just present – has been really effective and has a massive effect on him.”
“Luther” is very much located in the less glamorous neighborhoods of London – those in the East End – rather than the picture postcard areas in the City of London and the West End. How did Payne bestow those blue-color districts with an otherworldly quality?
“The minute you enter into a picture postcard you are disconnected because you smell the contrivance. Neil encourages us to find the ordinary scene and make it extraordinary.”
Payne said that the work of American photographer Gregory Crewdson influenced his approach to the cinematography on “Luther.” “He takes very cinematic stills – as in there is usually a story going on, and predominantly they are very well lit, very well art directed… it feels like a little slice of a film – but what he does is he subverts the ordinary,” Payne said.
“One of the things that we do stylistically on ‘Luther’ is find a way of subverting the ordinary in every way, from a design point of view to a lighting point of view, that gets under your flesh without you absolutely being able to point at it.”
Payne paid great attention to the use of colors in this season of “Luther.” “Colors do affect us. We are not dialing the color out in grade, which has happened in previous seasons of ‘Luther,’ because color can have a great effect on you emotionally. If you desaturate the scene, you’ve put a layer of contrivance … before you’ve even seen it you are looking at a very constructed world. If you don’t do that then you can enjoy the power of color.” He refers to Season 1 when the color red was used strikingly. “The filmmakers in Season 1 were very conscious of how that red sits within that world, whether it be Luther’s tie, or the apple… I love that as a detail.” He said he was very respectful, as a fan, of the work that has gone into previous seasons. “We’ve just used a lot more color but with no less thought.”
While previous seasons had used hand-held cinematography “that very effectively created a very particular energy in a previous season,” and used multiple cameras, Payne “wanted to sculpt with a very solid single camera.” “I just wanted to bring a very different sensibility to how to sculpt those scenes,” he said.
“Luther” has followed the lead of many American cable dramas in adopting a cinematic look to the show. “It is how you treat the landscape the stories are played out in, and that does not just mean the blood-soaked streets of London, it is how you treat the houses that the characters live it. The current habits of television have affected that because a lot of the premium cable American shows are saying as a language it is okay to watch two people play a scene in a wide [shot]. Only 30% of how we communicate is verbal, so for me cinema is the frame, the attitude to storytelling, the sound and the music that allows you as an audience member to enjoy the balance of how we communicate on every single level.”
He feels that “by stepping out of British drama for a few years, which is what I have done, has allowed me to come back and celebrate it but also to bring a fresh perspective that isn’t parochial, and having the confidence to let stories play out, knowing that we can use sound to affect the emotion as much as dialogue.”
Although Cross wasn’t on set every day he had a clear idea of what he wanted the finished scenes to look like when he wrote the script. “Neil could quite easily project every single episode of ‘Luther’ from his frontal lobe, and it would be perfectly formed and scored,” Payne said. “He knows the mechanics of how to achieve those sequences so his edit notes are usually absolutely scientifically precise because he is so good at that manipulation. The great thing about Neil is if he trusts that you understand the sequence then he waits until he sees it play out in the edit before he brings in comment and that makes him a great collaborator, because he knows how these sequences play out. And if one doesn’t work for him he is very clear and constructive in why it doesn’t. ”
Although Cross doesn’t use the word “showrunner” to describe himself, Payne considers Cross to be the “best version of a showrunner.” “He’s there to comment on every single detail and he does, but it is that balance between doing that and making sure the team know that they are empowered also to make their own decisions, and if you come up with a decision that is better than Neil imagined, he is never threatened by that, he celebrates it,” Payne said. “So when you have got that relationship with a showrunner then it actually makes you want to drop the bone at his feet and go, ‘Look what I’ve done.’”
Payne said that having Cross’ notes during the editing process rather than while the series is shooting day to day is more constructive as it gives Cross “perspective.” “One of the things that Neil is great at doing is he recognizes that perspective is important. If we showed him every single version of our journey when we’ve got a complete sequence he’s already seen every iteration. His perspective is so much more valuable if he’s got a little bit of a distance than the moment he wrote it.”
He added: “That is great because it encourages us here to get the sequence or an episode together in good form before he sees it, and then his perspective on it has always been absolutely constructive, creative and really respectful to the people who are actually going to be transcribing the note.”
Cross and the other EPs have struck the right balance when delivering their notes. “When you get to any exec level of notes you can only really do the notes from a director’s point of view… The great thing about the British system is that it empowers the director to do the notes if you understand them. Neil and the other execs on this have been really good and really precise and that’s because it is a show they know well. And for a director coming in you want that balance between a show they know well, but a show that they are going to empower you enough to do something fresh with it. And for this [four-part season] I’ve had the best of both of those things.”