Gerard Johnson’s follow up to his cult hit Tony is a dodgy coppers crime thriller set in West London – but it’s a world away from the likes of Guy Ritchie, Catherine Bray reports.
“This little one’s quite friendly, the little one in there.” Gerard Johnson, director of Hyena, is showing me snakes of all sizes contained within tanks in the basement of an extremely grubby former funeral parlour in West London, near Ladbroke Grove. “This one… he’s not so friendly.” He indicates a chunkier python type you wouldn’t want to tangle with. Upstairs, I’ve already taken a gander at a head on a stick, dripping blood. The severed head is of course a fake – that’s the magic of movie-making. But the snakes? The snakes are very real.
I’m on set for Hyena, Gerard Johnson’s follow up to his cult Dalston serial killer film Tony. This time Gerard’s swapped East London for West, but he’s remained faithful to his lead, Peter Ferdinando, who is almost unrecognisable from one film to the other, having lost about two stone of his usual weight to play Tony, and now deliberately piled two stone and a half stone on to play the lead in Hyena, for a four and a half stone difference. Think Christian Bale in The Machinist versus Christian Bale in American Hustle. As producer Jo Laurie puts it: “Peter approaches his work with as much authenticity as he can possibly put into it.” Gerard is a bit more blunt: “He’s got a big gut this time,” he chuckles, “but yeah, he’s a chameleon.”
In real life, the director and his method acting muse are cousins, and were apparently close growing up, but as Gerard remembers it, Peter knew from an early age that he wanted to be an actor, while his own directorial ambitions developed much later. “But when I did want to do my first short, it was like, well, the natural person to ask is my cousin and we just grew from there.” It’s a successful partnership thus far that looks set to grow with both men’s burgeoning careers.
Like Tony, Hyena is concerned with life on the margins outside of polite society. But where Tony was about an unassuming Dennis Nilsen type, Hyena is more concerned with those in positions of underworld power, from corrupt cops to Albanian drug lords. The concept is neatly encapsulated in the title: “Hyena, in Greek, means pig. So, this is a film about pigs, really.” That’s pigs as in police, but also pig as in male chauvinist – and of course hyena has other connotations too… “Yes, there’s also the pack mentality and the nocturnal aspects of the hyena. It’s one of my favorite animals. It’s all about these different packs. So, we’ve got the Albanians, we’ve got the police, we’ve got the Turks. They’re all in their own little packs.”
Despite the dodgy gang culture, Hyena is not a Guy Ritchie geezer caper, nor yet a wham-bam action flick. Through street casting and research Gerard is striving for a greater degree of accuracy: “What I was very afraid of is films like Taken, that have painted a very unrealistic portrait of Albanians. For a start, they don’t cast real Albanians in the parts. They cast Serbs, Croatians, and then just say that they’re from Albania.” Most of Hyena was street cast, with more experienced actors like Stephen Graham (This Is England) and Neil Maskell (Kill List) rounding out the cast.
It’s not just with the cast that the filmmakers are hoping to shake up conventional movie wisdom – as Jo notes, “A big thing for Gerard is to put London up there with Paris and New York – London doesn’t really get that kind of cinematic treatment as much, that loving eye.” In every sense, there’s a bit more craft to Hyena than we’ve come to expect from the genre – you won’t find any Apprentice-style stock footage of the Gherkin here. And ironically, you won’t necessarily find all that much footage of those snakes I liked so much – apparently so much has been shot, the team will need to think carefully about what exactly makes the final cut. Some of the horrors of Hyena, like the underworld violence it depicts, will remain hidden behind closed doors.
Hyena premiered last night as the opening night film at the Edinburgh Film Festival and will open in the UK in October.