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Gerard Johnson • Director

“To try to destroy the limits of our usual perspective”


- Meeting at Les Arcs with British director Gerard Johnson to talk about Hyena, his hard-hitting thriller about police corruption

Gerard Johnson  • Director
© Ivon Bartholomew

British director Gerard Johnson, who rose to fame with Tony [+see also:
film profile
, tells us about the origin of his super hard-hitting second feature centred on police corruption: Hyena [+see also:
film review
interview: Gerard Johnson
film profile
(read the review). We met up with him on the occasion of the sixth Les Arcs European Film Festival, where the film was screened in competition.

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Cineuropa: Where did the idea for Hyena come from?
Gerard Johnson: It was born over ten years ago. With Peter Ferdinando, the main actor in the movie, on a tour of East London nightlife, we met a couple with whom we got on well. After a few weeks, the girl told us that her partner was an undercover police officer. We never would have imagined him to be in the police, far from it: long hair, tattoos, a big drinker and really into his drugs. He was a fascinating character. I figured that he’d be a really good British Bad Lieutenant. For a few years, this idea remained in a far corner of my mind, I directed Tony, and then it came back to the fore. 

How did writing the screenplay develop?
I did some research on police corruption, a global problem with many cases in the UK in the last few years. Then I met up with a corrupt policeman who is now a protected witness, and he told me some incredible things. These guys believe that they’re doing a good job as policemen, and they do, but with their own methods, which means they end up becoming very close to criminals. I was fascinated by this boundary: these fellows enter the police to do good, to stop criminals, then they become corrupt and act like criminals! I also met with some drug squad and Vice squad police who aren’t corrupt because it was important not to reduce the movie characters to mere crooks, but to show how effective their work is and what they really do. Finally, I interviewed an Albanian female victim of human trafficking and I immediately wanted to include that in the plot because her story really moved me. We often forget about what happens on street corners in every big city. All you have to do is scratch the surface and the forgotten worlds emerge. I wanted the movie to be radical, and I wanted to try to destroy the limits of our usual perspective.

What was the atmosphere that you were going for?
I live in London, and I've rarely seen my city represented in film like it could be, apart from some exceptions like Performance by Nicolas Roeg (1970). I love looking for authentic film locations, and as there are a lot of night scenes in the movie, we needed to find as many outdoor locations as possible. I also wanted to film in West London; it’s been very little exploited by movies and I find it really exciting with its clubs, secret societies, different architecture and more European atmosphere. I also decide to take on some non-professionals to play the two Albanian criminals so that they could bring their culture into the film. One is the number-one body guard of the Qatar Royal Family, the other is a plumber (laughs). Peter Ferdinando went with them to Kosovo to train in handling weapons. It had to be as authentic as possible, not like crime films like Taken that are made Hollywood-style. The captivating London that I know is cosmopolitan.

The music by The The is a character of the movie in its own right.
Matt Johnson from The The is my brother. For us, music and film are made to be together very early on in the creative process. Some people prefer to use pieces that already exist and to include them afterwards rather than using original music. That can be great, but in many films, it’s just a quick way of highlighting the emotions. We believe that music should be much more organic and that it’s really important. For Hyena, I wanted something quite rough, a grinding electronic sound.

Did you mute the rather high degree of violence in the film?
Most things lose all their impact if you just leave them up to the viewer’s imagination. If you delve into certain scenes, there’s violence there that needs to be shown. But I don’t like extreme violence used in order to make people laugh. In Hyena, Michael’s reaction to violence is the real reason for showing it beause he still believes that he and his teammates are real policemen. But that’s no longer true. Underneath it all, Michael was hiding and avoiding confrontation. He’s a hyena in part: an excellent predator, very strong in a group, but much less so alone.

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(Translated from French)

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