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An Interview with Writer/Director Steven Knight

Screenwriter Steven Knight is one of the most respected and prolific screenwriters in Hollywood, having penned Eastern Promises, Amazing Grace, and Dirty Pretty Things, for which he was Oscar-nominated.  For the 2013 film Redemption (known as Hummingbird in the UK) he also began a career as a director.  His latest writing/directing effort, Locke (you can read my review here) is an engrossing story of a man taking a car ride that will change his life forever.  The kicker?  The entire movie takes place inside of the car and the only actor to appear on screen is Tom Hardy in the titular role.  All other characters appear only as voices on the other end of Locke’s phone.  I recently had a chance to chat with Knight about the inspiration for, making of, and challenges that go into such an experimental, yet powerful film.

Jason Howard:  The structure and overall nature of the film are incredibly unique.  Which came first in this case – the structure or the storyline?  Did one inform the other?

Steven Knight:  I had just come off of making a more conventional film, which was the first one I’d directed, and I wondered if there was a way of doing the same job differently.  The basic task is that you invite people into a room, turn off the lights, and have them engaged to the screen for 90 minutes.  I wondered if there was an alternative way of doing the same thing.  And, at the same time, in making that first film, we tested the digital cameras while shooting from moving vehicles at night.  We looked at the test footage and I thought it was quite beautiful and hypnotic.  I had the idea that maybe that moving image could be a theater to put an actor into and shoot a play, effectively, in that regard.  I wanted to tell the story of a journey and tell it in as near as possible to real-time.  And, have someone who begins the journey with everything and ends it with nothing.  That’s the basic task.

JHHistorically, there have been other films that feature only a single character or a single setting, but usually there’s a gun pointed at the lead’s head or a bomb waiting to go off.  Was it a tough sell for your film in which the stakes are purely emotional?

SKBecause the budget was low, it makes it much easier to get the idea through the system.  The people who financed it were the same people who financed my previous film.  They made money on that and they were happy.  By the time the greenlight was lit, Tom was engaged and on board.  This whole project was unusual, to say the least.  My day job is writing screenplays for Hollywood and I go through the system, the same as anyone else.  But, with this, it seemed to have a bit of a charmed-life.  Doors just opened.  It was November that I had a meeting with Tom about a completely different project, but I had this idea in my mind.  I mentioned it to him and we got to talking about it.  He was really engaged with it, so when I wrote it, I was sort of confident that he would do it.  I wrote it over Christmas, and we were shooting it by February.  So, even though you would think an idea like this would be difficult, in fact, this was, without a doubt, the easiest journey from idea to finished product that I’ve ever had with any film.

JHWhat was it about Tom Hardy that made him the right man for this incredibly difficult job?  It sounds, then, like it was written with Tom already in mind.

SKIf you’re going to have one person on screen for 90 minutes, then they’d better be good.  And, I think he’s the best that we have.  He’s brilliant at becoming other people.  In the past, he’s become monsters and baddies.  In this case, he needed to transform into a person who I’d written to be the most ordinary person possible.  So, I set myself the task of creating Ivan Locke as the everyman.  He’s all of us – he works in construction, he’s married, he’s got two kids.  There’s nothing remarkable about him.  Tom said that it’s the first straight role he’s ever played.  To do that, and to make that work, you need someone with Tom’s ability.  So, even in other films when there are other people on screen with Tom, people look at him.  It’s not one of those things that you can teach or learn.  It’s just something that he has.

JHHe’s certainly fantastic in the role and any idea of Tom that we already have disappears completely.  Now, you also mentioned the film being like a theatre piece.  I felt, at times, that it took on a bit of a Theatre of the Mind as we hear the callers on the other end of the phone line and envision what people on the other end are doing.  I almost forgot, or at least stopped giving my attention to, the fact that we never see any of the other characters.

SKAbsolutely.  That’s such a great thing that a lot of people have said.  They forgot that they never saw the other characters and some even insisted that they DID see the other characters, which is great.  With conventional filmmaking, the imagination is there for you up on the screen with special effects and explosions and all of that stuff.  You sit and absorb someone else’s imagination.  But, with something like this, you are requested to do the special effects yourself.  In other words, you hear the voices and you hear the noises in the background, the dog barking and the TV.  I think, automatically, people start to create that scene for themselves.  And, I think people genuinely enjoy that experience.  I think it makes it much more of a personal experience.  When they’ve watched the end of the film, they identify with the character much more because they’ve been so engaged.

JHIs it true that you shot the entire film, beginning to end, multiple times throughout the shooting schedule?

SKYes.  Because there was no real interference, we had control of how we shot it.  Normally, when you make a film, there are a thousand practical reasons not to do the obvious.  But, with this, I thought it was important that we DID do the obvious, which was turn the cameras on, shoot it, and see what happens.  We put three cameras in the car and the car was on a low-loader so that Tom could have a teleprompter with the script available to him.  We had the rest of the cast in the conference room of a hotel near the motorway.  We opened a real phone line from there to the car.  We would shoot the whole film, with the three cameras rolling, from beginning to end.   Then, we’d take a break, and try to do it twice a night.  We ended up with sixteen versions of the film.  That’s good because there’s no continuity issue.  The background is always moving.  So, when it came to the edit, it was possible to choose purely on the ground of performance and nothing else.  It was a great luxury.

JHAbsolutely!  How much of the dialogue in the phone conversations was scripted, and how much was improvised?

SKIt was all scripted.  At the beginning of the process, I had a discussion with Tom and told him that, if at any point he wanted to go off-script, that would be fine.  But, he doesn’t work like that.  He’s a theater person and sticks with the script.  I think, in the end, if there had been a lot of ad-libbing, it could have been quite chaotic due to the nature of the way we were filming.  You couldn’t stop and then start again.  I think we would have meandered, so Tom had the script on the teleprompt in front of him, in the rear-view mirror, and in the GPS.  The other actors, obviously, had the script on paper in front of them.  So, it was pretty word-for-word.  What that meant was, without the need to remember the lines, the actors were completely free to improvise in terms of performance, so every performance was different.

JHFrom a technical standpoint, how were you able to pull off so many different angles in such a tight space?

SKWe had three cameras mounted in the car at all times, so whenever we set off, all three cameras were rolling.  We had one at a sensible angle, one less sensible, and one at a weird angle that would give us a little bit of alternative.  The memory cards of the cameras last 30 minutes, so every 27 minutes, we’d pull over and change the memory cards.  But, we’d also change the angles and the lens on each of the cameras, so we got a lot of variety in how it looked for each sequence.  When it came to the edit, again because of no continuity issue, we could choose what looked good or the best performance.

JHBecause of the experimental nature of the way the film is structured and shot, was there a backup plan in place in case things didn’t work logistically?

SKNo, this was it.  We only did it this way.  There was never a plan to cut away to other characters or try to do things differently.  It was always hoped that this would work.  When we looked back at the monitors at the end of the first night, we ended up having a film that I felt I liked and probably that Tom liked, so we thought other people would engage with it.  But, it wasn’t until we screened it at the Venice Film Festival and the lights went up and there was an overwhelming response, which was very emotional and fantastic, that we knew that this had worked.  People weren’t so much concerned with the WAY it was filmed.  They were more interested in the character and the story.  That’s what kept their attention.

JHSpeaking of that emotional impact, without giving too much away, one of the biggest resonations for me was the character of Bethan.  In other films, she would serve as someone that the lead character would be running towards to start a new life, but here, she was more of just a symbol for his redemption or proving something to his father.

SKThat’s very astute, because that’s exactly the point.  Rather than her being much younger or Locke being in love with her, in the more conventional way, it was quite important to me that he was NOT going off to start a new life.  He’s purely driven to do what he believes to be the right thing.  Also, this whole journey is about him proving to himself, and to his dead father, that he is not his father.  This is the sort of thing that his dad would have walked away from.  It terrified Ivan, so he spent his whole life not doing that – being different, reforming himself, being punctual, working hard, and doing the right thing.  Then, this happened and he’s terrified that fate always had this in for him; that there’s no way of changing your destiny.  It’s almost like trying to take control of his own destiny’s journey.  The name “Locke” is a reference to John Locke, the philosopher, who was a believer in rationality, reason, and the individual being in control of their destiny.  That’s what Ivan’s trying to do.  I suppose you could say it’s a selfish motivation because he’s doing all this just to prove something to himself.

JHIt definitely resonated.  Now, with past scripts, you’ve gone into great detail about realistic subjects such as the Russian Mob (Eastern Promises), immigration (Dirty Pretty Things), and the slave trade (Amazing Grace).  In Locke, you are very precise and detailed with a concrete pour that is coming up.  How much research do you do when writing?  Is it important to get the realistic details correct in a fictional piece?

SKReality is always more interesting than anything you can make up.  So, it’s a no-brainer that you go find what’s really there.  When I was younger, I worked on construction sites and the arrival of the concrete was the big drama.  That’s the big day when everybody’s job is on the line.  When it arrives, you’ve got to build – you have no choice.  So, that stuck in the back of my mind.  When I was researching this film, I spent some time with the person who was the “Ivan Locke” of the construction of one of the biggest buildings in all of London called The Shard.  He built that building from when it was just a piece of ground to when it became one of the tallest buildings, dominating the London skyline.  It was just fascinating to hear about the drama, tension, and high stakes involved in getting it built, as well as the details of the concrete; the C5 and the C6.  Here is a man who, in reality, his marriage broke up and his health was damaged because he devoted everything to getting this building built.  That’s how people in that position are.  They take it personally.  It’s not about the money in the end – they think of it as their building.  That’s exactly what Ivan’s like.  The point of the film is to do justice to the drama that we all live through in our working lives and our personal lives.

JHAt the end of the day, do you hope people walk out of the film marveling at the unique structure and experimental nature in which it was shot, or do you want the more personal reaction of audiences thinking, “I need to call my dad” or “I should spend more time with my kids?”

SKExactly.  It’s the latter, definitely.  That’s the reaction we’ve been getting, no matter where we’ve shown it in the world.  Venice, Vienna, to Salt Lake City.  People have come up to me afterwards and said, “that’s the journey my dad made,” “that’s the journey my dad DIDN’T make,” or “that’s the journey I didn’t make.”  A lot of people have said this is very close to home.  And, close to home is exactly the point of the film.  It’s an every-man with a problem anyone could have, and how one person decides to deal with it.  That’s the thing that I’m most interested in.

JHWhat hit me was the father not getting to watch the football match with his kids.

SKExactly.  It’s what dads do, and I do.  In a moment of crisis, talk about football!

So, there you have it.  Locke, starring Tom Hardy and written and directed by the subject of today’s chat, Steven Knight, is now open in limited release and rolling out everywhere else soon.  I highly recommend that you check it out.  It combines a unique approach to filmmaking, and engrossing story, and a stunning performance into a fantastic film.

by Jason Howard

2 May 2014

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