- Film And TV
- 18 Oct 23
Having survived a bout of ultra-violent gun-play with rival assassins, Paul Nolan finds a safe spot to report on a unique "immersive experience" in London, as he attends the launch of Prime Video's barnstorming John Wick spinoff, The Continental.
To mark the arrival of Prime Video’s John Wick spin-off series The Continental, Hot Press has received an invite to a mysterious “immersive experience” at a real-life recreation of the titular hotel in east London. Set in the crumbling New York of the '70s, the series explores the origin story of Winston Scott, the cravat-wearing owner of The Continental so memorably played by Ian McShane in the John Wick action movie franchise.
Boasting uncanny similarity to McShane’s mannerisms and speech patterns, the young Winston is played in The Continental by US newcomer Colin Waddell. The storyline sees Winston’s tearaway brother, Frankie (Ben Robson), rob the hotel - a safe haven for assassins - of the coin press used to produce the tender used by guests, prompting its owner Cormac O’Connor (Mel Gibson) to seek revenge. The New York mafia and sundry other cut-throat types also get in on the action in the rip-roaring mix.
The real-life mock-up of The Continental in Shoreditch is somewhat anonymous, so much so that your correspondent at first walks by as rain starts to teem in London, before doubling back and entering the lobby. It quickly becomes apparent that Prime Video have spared no expense for what becomes a quite remarkable two-day adventure.
I’ve joined a group of international journalists at a drinks reception, where we’re advised to relax before we’re each checked-in in groups of twos and threes. Eventually, my number is up and I’m paired with a journalist from Turkey. We’re told to head up to the second floor, then go down a long flight of stairs before crossing an alley to The Continental’s reception.
Off we go, the two of us making small talk, before we get to the door at the bottom of the stairs. Here’s where shit starts to get really strange. I open the door to the alley and I’m immediately scolded by an actor playing a homeless guy, whose been sitting on the ground outside. A quick scope of the alley reveals there are sundry actors playing different parts, and to top it all off, we’re being filmed by a small camera crew.
We better start playing along! Myself and the Turkish journalist are harangued by the homeless guy into buying him a hot dog at the vendor across the street. We agree to his demand, only to be then told off by the woman at the stand, who claims we stiffed her on payment a few days back. Christ!
After being pestered by a hooker, the two of us finally make our way past the vintage ‘70s cars parked outside and into the reception area of The Continental. Any hope we can finally relax is dashed by the menacing gangster who comes over and stares us down, all while a bohemian looking woman - such as you might encounter on the downtown New York art scene - eyeballs us suspiciously in the background.
Adding to the surrealness, securing the keys to our respective rooms requires us to argue vehemently with the surly receptionist. Room keys finally handed over, we’re escorted to the lift by Tony the bellhop, and at last left to our own devices. On the way up, myself and my Turkish friend laugh disbelievingly and try to make sense out of what the fuck has just happened.
In my ‘70s-themed room, though, I barely have a chance to admire the period details - including the crackling radio in the corner playing classic hits and era-specific news reports - when the vintage dial-up phone rings. I answer and there’s a New York goon on the other end. I’m starting to feel like Michael Douglas in The Game.
He tells me to check under the bed for a package, inside which there’s a note wrapped around a tape player and cassette. The doorbell rings with the cocktail I’d ordered on the way up, and I’m sipping the drink and trying to make sense of the note when the phone rings again. The gangster is back on the line.
“Why the hell did you hang up on me?!” he asks.
“Look man,” I protest, “I’d ordered a drink!”
”Oh god,” he sighs. “What did you make of the recording?”
“What recording?” I ask.
“The one on the tape, ya dummy!” he fumes. “I knew you weren’t the guy for the job!”
”I haven’t listened to it yet!”
”Look,” the gangster concludes, exasperated. “Listen to the tape, bring the coin to dinner and wait for my signal. Got it?”
Click, brrrr. I check back inside the package, and sure enough, there’s a coin - of the type used by the assassins in the John Wick movies - inside a small cloth bag. The tape recording, meanwhile, turns out to be two guys discussing a heist on The Continental tonight. It appears us hacks are caught up in a real-life recreation of the Continental storyline in which Frankie steals the coin press from the hotel. I better have my wits about me.
Later on, we have dinner in the hotel’s basement diner, where a jazz trio entertain us with some ‘70s grooves. After the meal, the hooker from outside earlier takes a seat at the bar, where she’s eventually joined by a shifty-looking hoodlum type. That has to be the guy who was ringing my room, doesn’t it? Since he told me to wait for his signal, I’m unsure if I should be maintaining eye contact.
It doesn’t matter: he and the hooker end up in an argument, leading to her being kicked out by the receptionist, while he eventually disappears. Now what? A bit of time passes and I’m handed a note by the bartender, which tells me to leave the bar at 8, turn left and look out for Woody Woodpecker. Oh, and I need to bring the coin. Fuckin’ hell!
I do as instructed and end up assembling with the other hacks outside a run-down building, over the door of which is a sign advertising a screening of Woody Woodpecker (an allusion to a scene in the pilot episode of The Continental ). After taking our coins, the hoodlum from back in the bar admits us inside.
Again, the attention to detail is nothing short of astonishing. The whole premises has been done up as an abandoned building converted into a cinema. We go downstairs and pass through an area filled with paint-splattered sheets and film canisters, with posters on the wall for classic ‘70s movies like Duel and Badlands.
We pass through a door into the screening room, which has been done up a like a speakeasy, with cosy chairs and drinks and snacks at each table. We settle in for a screening of The Continental’s first episode, which is a genuinely barnstorming affair, complete with rip-roaring action sequences, exquisite period detail, quotable dialogue and a series of memorable needle-drops, with classic ‘70s cuts from the likes of Wire, James Brown, Donna Summer and Dr. John.
Afterwards, a journalist from Empire moderates a Q&A with the creative team behind the show. Then, of course, it’s time for the madness to begin again. With the panel discussion wrapped up, the lights go and off and there follows - wait for it - a simulated police raid. Officers shine torches and advise us to follow them out to the front door.
We’re stopped at the top of the stairs, where a detective in a trench-coat tells us there’s been a shootout back at the hotel, and that we need to be escorted back by officers. Meanwhile, in the background, it’s pelting rain in London, making it genuinely feel like we’re in a noir movie.
Eventually, my name is called and a New York officer holding an umbrella takes me back to the hotel, while a tabloid journalist pesters me for a comment. Before I step back into The Continental, a paparazzi photographer jumps out of nowhere and shoots a snap. Inside, we’re led back into the bar, part of which has been trashed to suggest a gun-fight.
After a quick drink, I head back upstairs, and as I get out of the lift on my floor, I’m confronted with a cleaning trolley filled with blood-stained sheets, overflowing ashtrays and bullets. Making it safely back to my room, I quickly fall asleep, at the end of one of the most surreal days of my entire journalistic career.
FRONT PAGE NEWS
The following morning, a brown envelope has been slid under my door. I open it and read a note saying, “So much for keeping a low profile!” The paparazzi snap of me from last night has been included on a mock-up front page of The New York Times. Your correspondent is officially notorious in New York.
We then assemble outside in the alley for a stunt demonstration, which gives a fascinating insight into the unique skill involved in this most unusual of disciplines. The scenario sees a woman fight off two men, who roll and tumble around on the concrete. Even though it’s only happening a few feet away, I’m still not quite sure how they’re doing it. Quite incredible.
We then wait back inside for our turns to meet members of The Continental’s creative team. Each time the process is the same: we’re led upstairs to a meeting room, outside which is a chair to sit while we await our slot. The whole procedure seems oddly familiar to me, and I eventually locate what it reminds me of: going to confession.
Out first chat is with the show’s costume designer, Sarah Arthur, who like all the team, has done a truly outstanding job. It seemed to me as if there might be aspects of ‘70s revolutionary chic in some of the clothing, with in particular, a pair of assassin twins who pursue Frankie apparently modelled on Baader Meinhof. However, Sarah replies this wasn’t the case.
”I didn’t want to copy anything specifically,” she says of the duo’s look. “We considered lots of different aspects. They needed a lot of mobility in their costumes, so we wanted them to look sleek and bland. You didn’t know what you were going to get with them, so that’s how that came about.”
The look of disco hotspot Studio 54 was also an influence.
”It was a big inspiration for the opening New Year’s Eve sequence,” Arthur nods. “It was so extravagant. Ian Traeger’s book has all the original photography and the documentary is full of footage. So it was a great place to start. We used it as an outline, but that was the area the director Albert Hughes wanted to go to. He wanted it be a spectacle, and we had horses, a monkey and trapeze artists.
“So yeah, we did use the book as a reference, and for example, the lads collecting glasses were in white tennis shorts and long football socks. We did emulate quite a lot of that scene.”
Next up, Hot Press meets executive producer Basil Iwanyk. I note the strong Irish presence in the show, with roles for Patrick Bergin, Katie McGrath and Sallay Garnett, aka Loah. Elsewhere, Gibson’s character, Cormac, is clearly of Irish extraction.
”There wasn’t a deliberate intent, although when you think about it, these characters are New York City,” he reflects. “At that point in New York, the Irish and Italian were prevalent, especially the Irish. I just wonder if the reason we drifted to a lot of Irish actors was because they sold that New York well.
”Obviously, it’s a gigantic city, and it has different looks, sizes and shapes. But there’s a New York vibe and swagger, a rough-around-the-edges quality. I’m half-Irish! But those are probably the reasons we cast so many Irish actors.”
The ‘70s New York backdrop to The Continental has been popping up a lot in the culture lately, with Joker the most high profile example to draw on the city’s socio-political tumult at the time. Then there were its cultural developments in fashion, and the flourishing of different musical genres like post-punk, hip-hop and disco. It certainly provides a great atmosphere for storytelling.
“It does,” nods Iwanyk. “It was a lawless time, when New York was falling apart at the seams. A city that bears very little resemblance to the city that exists now. I’ve always joked that if you went to the Lower East Side or the Meatpacking District now, you’d find great restaurants and overpriced apartments. If you went back then, you’d probably get shot or stabbed. The texture of that period is great.
”There were lot of traps you could fall into - you could go almost too period. You could have the wardrobe too foppish or broad, or the same kind of needle-drops you hear over and over again. It’s easy to drift into cliché, which we tried to avoid. Obviously, it logically worked for our timeline, but we just liked the idea that anything goes. There was trash on the streets, the police were corrupt, there were loan-sharks and criminals.
“I don’t know if that’s how New York was in the ‘70s, but I know that’s how New York was in Serpico, The French Connection and Fort Apache, The Bronx. They were almost more our North Star than what New York was really like. At the end of the day, the Wick movies are hyper-real.”
Finally, we have an audience with The Continental’s composer Benjamin Stefanski, aka Raffertie. When I enquire about one sequence being soundtracked by Wire’s ‘Strange’, he is quick to acknowledge its selection by director Albert Hughes, who as one half of the Hughes brothers alongside Allen, has helmed cult favourites like Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and From Hell.
”All of the needle-drops were Albert,” notes Raffertie. “He’s got great music taste. We had a big ‘70s playlist we were all sent when we started working on the project, which was full of these and also other things. It really helped to establish the time period and set us in that world.”
When Raffertie started out releasing music on cult dance and electronic label Ninja Tune, could he have imagined he’d end up scoring major Hollywood productions?
“Not particularly,” he considers. “I always thought I’d just be a music artist, but an opportunity came up in 2018 to score a TV series. I did that and I just enjoyed it so much, it felt quite creatively freeing. There wasn’t really anything to satisfy other than what was happening onscreen. That interplay was great, so I’ve just rolled with it.”
Was someone like David Holmes an influence?
”I’m aware of David Holmes’s work,” responds Raffertie. “He’s not specifically an inspiration for me. In getting into this, I was a great admirer of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and their work in film scoring. And of course, the Goldsmith soundtracks for things like Alien were hugely important. Film scoring is a really fertile area of music generally, and there’s a lot of exciting stuff out there.”
The Continental: From The World Of John Wick is streaming on Prime Video now.
- Film And TV
- 29 Feb 24