RocknRolla: Guy Ritchie's Portrait of the New London

For Guy Ritchie, the action and intrigue of “RocknRolla” is a mirror of the material changes taking place in his home city of London, where glass, steel and concrete have been superimposed over the historic streets and structures, adding a glossy new layer to the city, while not completely blotting out the old.

The New London

“'RocknRolla' is really about the consequences of London becoming an international phenomenon,” he remarks. “London is in the middle of the world in the sense that it's often the last place you go on your way to America, and it's the first place you arrive before you get to Europe.”

As Eastern Bloc nations have gained capital and influence in recent decades, the infusion of Russian and Eastern European businessmen into the city's real estate market has had a dramatic effect on the cityscape. “They have completely changed the rules of business,” Ritchie notes. “If they want something, they don't haggle the price; they double the price. The competition was completely stumped because how do you deal with that The rules of engagement have changed. London is evolving constantly, and you can see that in the buildings that are going up. It's a thriving metropolis now.”

For cinematographer David Higgs, shooting the city as it is today was a key aspect of Ritchie's vision for the film. “Since Guy made 'Lock, Stock…' the East End of London has completely changed,” he says. “It's now trendy; it's not grimy and grim any more. It's much more ritzy and ostentatious.”

But just as London is being reinvented, Ritchie wanted to shoot the city in a way it hadn't been seen on film, which presented a challenge to his key crew. “It became a question of finding those bits of the city that were brand new and in the process of being rebuilt, and focusing on them,” says production designer Richard Bridgland. “Guy was looking for spaces that had a grand scale to them. So, we looked for locations that had a kind of grandeur and giant open spaces around them.”

“Compared with shooting in most American cities, London is difficult,” adds producer Steve Clark-Hall. “In America, the roads are all parallel and ordered. Here, the roads go every which way and traffic is very difficult to maneuver around London. There were a lot of logistical challenges, but the plus side is the city itself: the buildings, the images, the interesting architectural shapes that you get in London.”

With the city featuring so prominently in the story, the filmmakers had to not only negotiate London's tricky infrastructure but also use every resource at hand to gain permission to shoot in some of the city's most iconic landmarks. Those landmarks include the imposing Battersea Power Station, built in the 1930s by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and soon to be redeveloped; the Fruit and Wool Exchange in the City of London, which looks out over the Swiss Re Tower (the so-called Gherkin) and the Nat West Tower; West India Dock Pier, sandwiched between the Millennium Dome and Canary Wharf, with its sleek, ultra-modern high-rise office complexes; and the 1960s modernism of the Barbican Centre.

“Guy was very insistent on representing a very specific London that is new and changing and being modernized rather than the old, Victorian image of the city we see so often in films,” says location manager Claire Tovey. “We achieved a nice mix between the ultra-modern of Wembley and the Gherkin and that sense of change and constant evolution you see in the Battersea Power Station redevelopment.”

For the place where Russian investor Uri does business with Lenny Cole, Ritchie and his team found the right space in the stunning new Wembley Stadium with its highly visible arch. “You couldn't imagine Uri having a small office in a regular office building or anything,” explains Bridgland. “So we went straight to Wembley Arena and put in his office overlooking the field. You could just imagine a property magnate like him owning a perch like that. Wembley was one of the places that we were particularly excited about filming in because it has these big, grand spaces and a wonderful cinematic quality.”

“Wembley was quite a coup,” adds Tovey, “because we were the first film crew to use it. It required a lot of persistence to secure it, but I think they just got sick of us in the end and relented,” she laughs.

Battersea Power Station is a structure made world famous by its appearance on an album cover by the band Pink Floyd. Bridgland and his team were able to convert some of the cavernous interior spaces into various sets for the production, including the spieler, the haunt of the Wild Bunch. The production designer did a little underground research of his own to create the space. “We had to surreptitiously find out what they looked like. It's a private place for them, away from the police, so we tried to recreate that atmosphere.”

Battersea Power Station also provided a vast old turbine hall, filled with old machinery, where Lenny Cole takes informants to find out what they know. “Battersea gave us some real scale, and the turbine hall was just a wonderful location,” Bridgland says. “It was 3 or 4 stories high, filled with all sorts of old, rustic metal, and it was just an amazing place to film.”

Middlesex Hospital

Another key location was Middlesex Hospital. “Middlesex Hospital is quite a London landmark,” Bridgland describes. “It has been there for a hundred years and has been derelict for a few years now, so we took over quite a few rooms in there and changed them around. We had half a dozen locations in that place. We just used various rooms and spaces and then decorated them to suit what we needed.”

Bridgland and his crew transformed the interior of the old hospital into a crack house, a library space, and even Lenny Cole's posh office. “We created the crack house location, which looked like this old, diseased building, and then, with a few partitions put up the library,” he recalls. “And then a week later, the unit all turned up again and we turned it into Lenny's office at his home, which is a smartly paneled house full of equestrian paintings and all this fine furniture.”

For Uri's yacht and the Councillor's office, it was crucial to find backdrops that were new and modern. Canary Wharf provided the ideal setting for Uri's yacht and the Barbican Centre housed the Councillor's office. “Since Guy's vision is to show the London you haven't seen before, we wanted to update the image of the local authorities in London, and the Barbican Centre is such a spectacular building, built in the '60s,” Bridgland enthuses. “It's got this real 'Dr. No' quality about it, with all the lights in the ceiling and everything. It has a fantastic look and we had to do very little to it. We changed the signage, but basically just dressed it as an office, and it turned out great.”

Gerard Butler on London Shoot

Gerard Butler, who lived in London for years, was delighted to not only return to the city but also get a taste of Guy Ritchie's particular take on the city. “I was quite excited to come back and do a movie in London, especially with Guy, who is seen by many as the ultimate authority on modern London and its culture and humor,” he says. “Guy has a great visual style for mixing the modern and the ancient, putting it all together, and filling it up with character.”

Visual Style

One of the standout features of Guy Ritchie's films is the style in which they are shot. Partly because of the large ensemble cast and partly to keep the production as efficient as possible, “RocknRolla” had a rapid six-week filming schedule. Using HD cameras throughout made it that much easier and efficient.

“Guy works fast,” comments Steve Clark-Hall. “Guy likes to create energy on the set and keep that energy going. That he managed to do that without creating tension during such a fast shoot is a testament to his great skill as a director.”

Mark Strong, who previously collaborated with Ritchie on “Revolver,” was well aware of the director's working methods. “He creates an environment that is fun and inventive, and he makes you want to get it right,” he says. “We did a scene in the middle of Cambridge Circus, a busy intersection in Soho, and the cameramen were hidden in a little workman's tent on the other side of the street. We just played the scene with the public walking up and down the road. It was chaos. But that kind of filmmaking is great fun to do because it keeps you sharp; you get in, you shoot the scene, you get out. You haven't too long to think about it, and that is often the best way.”

One of Butler's most memorable scenes was an epic chase through neighborhood backyards, train tracks and warehouses in which One Two and Mumbles are being pursued by two Russian thugs. “It's an incredibly long and tense action sequence, but it's also very funny because the guys chasing us cannot be stopped,” Butler says with a laugh. “We shoot them, we hit them, we club them, we crash our cars into them, and they just keep coming. The scene really speaks to Guy's incredible aesthetic and energy. It's one of the most unique chase scenes I've ever seen, or certainly that I've been a part of.”

Silver concludes, “Guy has made a movie that defies the boundaries of a straight-up action comedy or crime caper. It's a lot of fun but there's a fable in the midst of all the action. One of the characters compares life in this world to a cigarette box, which has a regal sophisticated appearance on one side, but on the other it tells you in no uncertain terms that it will kill you. In always looking for a shortcut to the good life, these characters are living on the knife's edge of life and death. That's 'RocknRolla.'”