The Fallen Sun’ Creator on Piccadilly Circus & More Luther Movies
Mar 18, 2023
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Luther: The Fallen Sun.]
The Netflix original movie Luther: The Fallen Sun continues the television saga of DCI John Luther (Idris Elba), now a disgraced detective who’s sitting behind bars. In order to track down a disturbed serial killer (Andy Serkis) turning the shame of ordinary citizens into terror, Luther must break out of prison and pursue the man taunting him. That’s no easy task by far, when you’re cut off and viewed as a criminal yourself, forcing Luther to call on the small few he can trust for help.
During this interview with Collider, creator/writer Neil Cross and director Jamie Payne (who also directed Season 5 of the series) talked about how the movie evolved, the challenge of telling a story that works for fans as well as new viewers, balancing scale and scope with intimate moments, assembling such a great cast around Elba, how they worked out the massive Piccadilly Circus sequence, designing the tattoo shop/peep show, and whether they’d make more Luther movies versus doing more TV seasons.
COLLIDER VIDEO OF THE DAY
Collider: I appreciate you talking to me about this. I loved the movie, but it’s also still haunting me at night, so thank you for that.
NEIL CROSS: That’s the single best compliment you can pay us. If I could, I would transcribe that and put it on the poster.
I absolutely meant it as a compliment. Normally, I’m good with watching stuff and not having it bother me. I can watch horror movies with no problem. But the villains of Luther have always lingered for me. They’ve always given me nightmares, so congratulations on that.
CROSS: Thank you very much.
Image via Netflix
Neil, it feels like there’s been a conversation about the possibility of a Luther movie for quite a few years now. Clearly, it’s something you’ve been interested in doing and that didn’t just come out of nowhere. How much of the time between that first mention of possibly doing a movie and actually starting to shoot it did you think about the story you wanted to tell? Did you always know what it would be, before you actually got the green light to do it? How much were you thinking about what it would become?
CROSS: If you read screenwriting courses or screenwriting books, there’s a lot of advice given to young would-be screenwriters, none of which I am able to do. I’m the world’s least organized. I never know what an ending is gonna be. I barely know what a second act turning point is. I have no idea about this stuff. But I’m never not, at some level, thinking about what Luther is, or where he is or what he’s doing. For this particular story, we’ve been dragging the idea of the movie behind us, on a chain, without ever quite stopping. We didn’t start running before we could walk, but we were always moving it along behind us. That’s a terrible metaphor. Forget I made it. But on my last day, on the Season 5 set with (director) Jamie [Payne] we were somewhere inhospitable in London. I said goodbye to Jamie and I walked with Idris [Elba] back to his trailer. As I walked back with him in costume to his trailer, we were talking about, “What’s next? Is the movie next?” And as he reached his trailer and opened the door, I had the idea and just said, “Oh, my God, he escapes prison to solve a crime.” So, I left the Season 5 set and started writing then. There’s an underlying continuity. It never stops.
What is the biggest challenge of making a movie for a TV show that has had five seasons? Some people, like me, are going to come to the movie with five seasons of a relationship with this character, but you’re also going to have people that come to this who are being introduced to the character and have not seen the show. How do you balance that? How do you make that work?
CROSS: The truth is that I wish I had known, going in, how hard it was going to be to do that. It’s something that we took extraordinarily seriously. It was important. We’ve got great respect, and a debt of loyalty and obligation, to the people who have come with us for 13 or 14 years and watched the show. But we also want as many people to just come and watch this movie as a complete standalone who had never seen the show, and enjoy it as much as that first audience. It’s something that we never stopped talking about and were finessing until the very, very end of the process.
JAMIE PAYNE: It’s our greatest risk. For me, as a director, it was the greatest challenge, more than the largest set pieces, just making sure that we didn’t lose that core element of what makes Luther, Luther, and also connect it to 13 years of great storytelling, and promise more to come. It was both those things. But also, the lovely thing about this story is that it doesn’t show you every facet of Luther. The thing that I love most about this story is that you’re introduced to this extraordinary heart that he has and how he’s willing to push himself beyond all natural human ability to do what he believes is right and to protect you. That’s one facet of Luther that makes him great, and there are many more to meet, hopefully, as the stories continue.
Image via Netflix
The one thing that a film can allow you to do differently in telling a story is that you get a different scale. Were there things that you guys specifically set out to do with the size and scope of the story, knowing that it was a movie and not just a TV show anymore?
PAYNE: Absolutely. Also, in occupying that space of scale and scope, we didn’t want to lose those lovely, ordinary moments of intimacy. Some of my favorite exchanges in the film are almost unspoken and small. I’ve heard ideas that Neil had in the past, of set pieces that are pure Luther, right to its smallest form, that television has never really been allowed to achieve. The film has given us opportunity to balance off that important intimacy, those tiny moments that, as well as the grander spectacle. We get the best of both worlds.
CROSS: The truth was to always have the self-knowledge to step back from ourselves and look at what we were doing and why. Despite the access to a greater scale, whatever we did had to be psychologically true to the character that we created, over all these years. Although we go to distant climes and we go to different countries, literally, they still exist within the parameters of what we describe as Luther Land. For instance, you will never see Idris Elba in a silver jumpsuit on the International Space Station fighting crime.
PAYNE: Really?! That was the idea I was gonna pitch Neil.
CROSS: For movie five, maybe. What happens to a werewolf in space, where there’s always a full moon? There’s an idea.
Jamie, when it came to directing Luther, was it more of a challenge to direct all of Season 5, which is technically more hours of storytelling, or was it more of a challenge to direct this film because of that new size and scope to it?
PAYNE: They both had equal challenge. The amount of story and the story we had to tell within the confines, understandably of a TV schedule, was tough. But of course, taking it into a bigger space and making sure that we protected what made Luther great, with that DNA that we talked about, but also making sure that we didn’t take any of that resource for granted, was also tough. The story that Neil created, we wanted to properly dig in. The time in prep that I got meant that I could spend more time with Neil talking about two hours of story than I ever got to do over the four hours, just because of time. So, they were both equally difficult, but for very different reasons.
CROSS: One of the many reasons that I have such great respect for Jamie, as a filmmaker, is that he is no respecter of practical limitations. He was able, on the fifth season, to achieve things on a budget and a schedule, which for all intents and purposes, made it impossible, but you can’t see any of that impossibility on screen. At the same time, when the situation was essentially reversed 180 degrees, and we had resources, he always stayed true to the world and the character. That takes a considerable amount of filmmaking intelligence.
PAYNE: Filmmaking intelligence or blind stupidity.
Image via Netflix
You’ve always had Idris Elba at the center of Luther, which is a huge draw on its own, but I loved the addition of Andy Serkis and Cynthia Erivo. You really have a dream team of actors in this. Was there anything that either of you were concerned about being able to pull off, that you no longer had to worry about, once you saw the actors doing what they did with the material?
CROSS: The biggest practical challenge, and something that we discussed at great length before we embarked on it practically, was the ongoing challenge of finding a bad guy who can stand toe-to-toe with Idris Elba as Luther on screen, and that’s no small challenge. And we knew that, on the scale we wanted to tell this story, that challenge was going to be amplified. We talked strategy. We had cups of tea and had conversations about what would work. We assumed that we had embarked on what was going to be a very long, very intense, quite exhausting process. So, we hopped on a Zoom with Idris, to prep him for the beginning of this process, and to tell him that it might be like the search for Scarlett O’Hara and that it might go on a bit. And then, Idris said, “Oh, it should be Andy Serkis,” and that was it.
PAYNE: It’s interesting that you mentioned how important that casting is because it really is. It’s no accident that so many directors say, “If you’ve got a great screenplay and you cast well, then you’re 80% of the way there.” The balance and very different energies that Andy brought and that Cynthia bought, in comparison to what Idris is doing is fantastic. There’s a particular show that our killer puts on towards the end of the film, and one of the things of having a performer like Andy, is that he realized the showman element that we meet at the end of the film is absolutely connected, and has to be connected to the person that we meet, as soon as they arrive on the screen, without apology. That’s what Andy brought. And then, Cynthia has such incredible heart and fearlessness, as a human. You absolutely believe her moral goodness, or what she believes is moral goodness, and believing that you can be a great and effective police officer without having to tread too far into the darkness. She absolutely stands for what she believes in, and you feel it. On a practical level, if I told you that Cynthia was six foot two, you’d believe it, when in reality, she’s just over five foot. You never really question the incredible scale of Idris Elba on the screen with Cynthia Erivo, and that’s a testament to how engaging they are in their performances.
CROSS: It’s no small ask, especially in a movie like this, to be the moral center of the film because very often the moral center is the least interesting geography in a film, psychologically. Cynthia manages to bring levels of complexity and drive and passion and power to that position, which is very extraordinary.
Image via Netflix
What was it like to shoot the whole Piccadilly Circus sequence? There are so many moving parts to that. There’s the confrontation between the two of them, all of these people jumping off the roof, everyone running, and the cars crashing. It’s insane that you do all of that in one sequence. How elaborate was all of that to pull off? How did you even approach figuring out what you wanted to do with that?
PAYNE: Firstly, I was absolutely passionate that we had to achieve it. You can imagine that there may have been a few people along the way, because of the incredible resource that it took, that said, “Do we need it?” That wasn’t Idris or Neil, by the way. The lovely thing is that, when all three of us – Neil, Idris and I – made it clear that it was essential, we had a lot of resources and were given a lot of support by Netflix and our producing partners. We had to break it into a million different parts. For me, from a directing point of view, I had to make sure that I could literally prepare every single frame because we had limited time. We had three nights, which is more than any film unit has ever had in Piccadilly Circus. I think American Werewolf in London only had one night, and most of the stuff that they had, had to do with cutaways of the werewolf itself. So, I had to be prepped. The great thing about modern technology is that I could stand in the middle of Piccadilly Circus during the day and prep it, not in actuality, but through a gaming engine. I did it through VR that allowed me to literally create frames, and then create electronic storyboards, and I did 18 versions of that. And then, there was the stunt work. Every single car in that space is driven by precision stunt drivers, even if it looks like they’re just driving through. We built a fantastic team on Luther and allowed all of them to dig in and dive in. It took a lot of prep. There were million different components. But prep was the key for that because, in order to achieve it, I had to move from shot to shot. There was no sense of, “Why don’t we just gather a few pieces?” We had to be absolutely frame accurate with what we grabbed. I’m very proud of it and I was thrilled to be given the chance to do it. It was incredible. Neil initially had written it in another incredibly busy part of London. And then, Neil and I had a little conversation and said, “What about Piccadilly Circus?” And Neil was like, “I thought the space I chose was crazy enough, but if you think Piccadilly Circus is doable. . .” So, I got on a call with Netflix and I said to them, “Okay, how about this sequence being in Piccadilly Circus?” I thought Zoom had frozen for a moment because nobody moved. And then, they went, “Great. Break it down into a million pieces, and we’ll measure it and cost it and see how we go.”
CROSS: As I said, this man has no respect for practical limitations. I still can’t quite believe that we did it.
PAYNE: I’ve got a video of me walking in through Leicester Square towards Piccadilly Circus, just before midnight. I was sending a video message to Neil, and I was just giggling away at the whole idea. I was like, “Neil, I’m about to start this. This is incredible.” I listen to it and you can barely make out a sentence through the giggles, in that private little moment. Of course, when I arrived on set, there was no giggling. Just lots of very serious pointing.
I also was absolutely in love with and fascinated by the tattoo shop/peep show in the film. Was that something that already existed, or did you create that? I just wanted to look at what was in all the glass cabinets.
PAYNE: I could tell you what’s in those glass cabinets. We created. It didn’t exist. It existed on Neil’s page, and I got the chance to run with the design team and put the pieces together. The peep show element was really important to me because I saw an image of the Penny Arcade in Victorian England on the seaside. These men were queuing up to put a penny in and watch three or four seconds of a diorama that was a still image. I’ve never forgotten that image because the whole idea that we take the need to have this little private connection with story or an image, and then take it into the internet age and what that gives us. I think the internet is the modern peep show, at its most base. So, that element for me, in design, even though we ran through it really quickly, is a really important part of what I was so excited about when I first heard Neil explain what the story was.
CROSS: The peep shows with the pennies would give you 20 seconds to view. The peep shows with the pennies were the first streamers. It was the first binge-watching.
Image via Netflix
You certainly leave this in a place where there could be more Luther. Would you like to do more movies? Would you consider another season, or would it only be movies from here on out, if you do more?
CROSS: I’m pretty sure that there won’t be another TV [season]. In terms of how many movies we could tell, there is no creative limitation. We’re not running out of story or ambition or places to go or discussions to have or practical limitations to blithely ignore.
As long as the coat holds up, then you’re all in?
CROSS: As long as the coat holds up, yeah. It’s made us a special thread, that coat. I don’t know what they made it with, but I think it’s come off the space shuttle.
Luther: The Fallen Sun is available to stream at Netflix.
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