Bold move Mr. Steven Knight, bold move. Making a movie that takes place entirely in one car over a series of blue-tooth enabled phone calls doesn’t exactly pop out as exciting but it does lay the groundwork for a phenomenally restrained performance courtesy of Tom Hardy while showing an avant-garde approach to what cinema can be. Even though I didn’t find myself completely bowled over by Locke, I appreciate how off-the-cuff Knight’s film was – an ode to the everyman forced to reckon with real life decisions. Maybe it was the early morn of a Sundance 8 AM screening that found me drifting in and out of interest but I was always captivated by Hardy’s turn. Talking with Steven did imbue a further appreciation of the film as his earnest sincerity and boldly esoteric approach certainly makes the film different, if not entirely enticing.
Join me as we talk about Tom Hardy being the best living actor (in his opinion), the allure of the open road, Eastern Promises 2, being a writer versus being a director, and, well, cement.
In the production notes I read something that said that from the inception of the film you thought of it as more of an installation piece that you’d see at an art gallery than a film in itself. Now, having completed the film, would you say that that ideology also reflects your thoughts on the final product?
Steven Knight: Yeah, I’m sure you’ve read that we camera tested film before, and we shot from moving vehicles just to test the sensitivity of the cameras and I thought it was very hypnotic and beautiful. But then I thought that we’d turn that into a theater and have an actor in there and shoot a play with that background, all the time not worrying about the continuity of the real motorway. I wanted there to be Tom in his bubble of life trying to make everything rational and fixed and solid and around him is just this swirl of life that can’t be controlled. I said to the director/photographer in the beginning that I hoped that it would also be possible to turn the sound down and just look at it and wonder what it is; do you know what I mean? I think we achieved that; I mean Harris achieved that. He’s the DP and he worked wonders on how the thing looks.
You said that he was actually doing all of the driving. Were there ever any situations where there was maybe any kind of problems on the road?
SK: I think we did six nights where the car was on the low down flatbed truck, wheels off strapped to it. Two nights we took the back seats out of the car and the cameras were in the back and that’s when Tom was driving for real. I think there was one occasion when he got a little bit…because we had a sort of a convoy and we were taking an exit and it went a bit wrong.
When you’re doing something like that, are all the other cars on the road hired guns?
SK: No, this was real stuff. It was quite late at night so we weren’t gonna hit traffic jams but it was sort of between 10pm and 4 am.
I also read that Tom signed on for this over drinks with you before there was a script, basically right in the very fledgling stages of the project. What did you say to him to get him to sign up?
SK: I told him the story of the moving images and shooting it in a particular way and also saying that I wanted someone to play the most ordinary man in the world. That was the original concept. He’s a rational ordinary man, married with two kids and nothing is out of the ordinary. As he said himself, he’d never played a straight role before. He’s always been monsters or crazy men. This was the total opposite, which intrigued him as well. We were talking about doing other projects and I mentioned this in November, wrote it over Christmas, and we shot it February.
What was your approach to directing him in this? Working with only the one actor, aside from the various voices through the phone, I would be led to assume that you have to be quite an actor’s director. Would you describe yourself in that way?
SK: I’m definitely primarily almost exclusively interested in capturing a performance which is why we wanted to shoot it the way we shot it, which is beginning to end with as few breaks as possible. I think actors thrive when they can calibrate their own performance instead of stopping and doing takes. The conventional way is to turn up one morning and you have one scene you have to get done that day. With this, you’re shooting the whole thing, you know you’re gonna get it wrong somewhere different tomorrow and you’re gonna get it right somewhere different tomorrow. You can play around a little bit more and be a bit more free. That’s the thing that I’m most interested in, getting the performance on the screen. I hope that there is an audience for that, where they just want to see the performance.
So I know that in Spike Jones’ ‘Her’ for instance, when they were doing the voices of what ended up being Scarlett Johansson’s character, at first it was Spike Jonze doing it then they had Samantha Morten doing it and then they went finally to Scarlet Johansson. When you were filming your scenes was it always with the voice actor on the other line?
SK: Absolutely. All the calls were for real because we had a phone line from the conference room where they were into the car. So Tom would take the call and the conversation would begin because I didn’t want to change any of the actors. I think people can tell whether it’s subliminal or not and people can tell if it’s not real.
Did you require them to be on set, or rather, where were they calling from?
SK: They were in a conference room in a not very good hotel near to the motorway with red wine and biscuits from 9pm to 4am every day. They would be there on call and obviously they’d be hanging around a bit and then they’d come and do their calls, would stop to have a breather, and then we’d shoot the whole thing again. We tried to shoot it twice at night.
So I know this was filmed over a very abbreviated period of time and yet Ivan (Hardy) pretty much spent the entirety in this one car-bound scene. How many of the shooting hours did Tom Hardy actually have to sit there scrunched in?
SK: Almost all of them! Without him there was nothing to shoot so he was there about 100 hours.
Did he ever get cramped up?
SK: Well there’s a couple of things. First of all he’s an actor that’s prepared to physically put in the performance that’s right. Also when you’ve got a short shooting period people bring absolute enthusiasm and energy to it because they know it’s going to be over soon. Even if you get no sleep, people are completely full-on for that period and I think that shows on the screen.
At one point I read that the reason you sought Tom Hardy out was that, in your opinion, he’s the best actor working today. Which performances in general made you feel like that?
SK: Inception was the one that got me, the reason being that he walks into that film with lots of brilliant actors around him and takes it over.
I remember watching Inception and going, “Oh who is that guy!?” as if you’d known him forever and yet he was totally new on the scene. I thought that was extraordinary. Speaking of extraordinary, you just said that this is a film about an ordinary man living an ordinary life and the circumstances he’s put in are not extraordinary but they have extraordinary significance in his life. Now, did you feel that there was a slight possibility of maybe alienating an audience who do expect the extraordinary in movies?
SK: The point of making the film was to say we’re not gonna point the camera at kidnap or murder. We’re gonna point it at an ordinary man who has this night journey that changes his life and hope that the audience that sees it sees elements of themselves and their own lives in it where they wouldn’t in a fantastic Jason Bourne movie; no one feels themselves to be Jason Bourne but I think people can identify with Ivan Locke. The reaction we’ve been getting which I find the most heartening is that when the lights go up it’s often the people who’ve been dragged to the cinema, who didn’t wanna go. They have seen something of their own life in it. They’ve forgotten that it’s an experimental way of making a film and they’re now engaged with the story and with the characters so I think that vindicates the method of doing it this way and not choosing some dramatic events.
Sure, can you talk about some of the risks of making a film that is about ordinary events?
SK: Yeah, there are many risks and it’s almost deliberate to pile on the risk because he’s an ordinary man, there are no car chases, he works with concrete, you know, he’s got a beard, and he’s got a knitted jumper, and he’s not an action hero. It’s almost saying to an audience, “that’s what it is on paper but come and have a look and you’ll be surprised”. People who’ve seen it say that very thing. They say, “When I came in I thought one thing but now I realize it’s something totally different”. It’s very difficult to convey and the only way to do it is by going and seeing it.
You just brought up that he’s a foreman at a cement factory. I read briefly about the symbology behind concrete representing building a foundation and the significance of getting the pour right the first time. Can you talk in a little more detail about that symbology?
SK: First of all an ordinary man can have a very dramatic day in their work. Lots of people who do lots of different sorts of jobs actually have high drama in their work, which is not reflected usually in films. I worked briefly on building sites when I was younger and the arrival of concrete is a big deal that day. The foreman’s job is on the line, Millions of dollars are on the line, and you have to get it right. You don’t get a second chance, it has to be poured. It also was great for me because it sort of represents Ivan Locke’s approach to life: It’s concrete, it’s solid, and it’s hard. You shape it and you make it right. You don’t make mistakes because if you do make a mistake the whole thing is gonna collapse and that is so perfect for Ivan’s Life. He has a very concrete solid life but he’s made a mistake. The cracks in the film… we’re watching the cracks of his.
I like that. So obviously you’ve had a bit of a parabolic rise as a writer and then director, ’cause the last couple movies you’ve done you’ve been directing, and yet scoping out the page you have on IMDB, I don’t see any further directing credits pop up immediately.
SK: I’ve been doing my day job which is writing. There are a couple of my films that are coming out.
It makes me wonder, as having directed now, is that something that you’re maybe shying away from? Or have you just whetted your interest?
SK: I’m hoping to shoot the next one in January with hopefully a good cast of British actors, again doing it quite experimentally with a shooting period of 21 days. I think Tom may be in the cast of that one too. We’re looking forward to doing that one but again the day job is writing. Now when I write, I give the difficult part of directing to someone else.
As a writer, how do you find that affecting your directing and vice versa? Are there certain approaches that you’re taking to writing now that you had not before?
SK: Being the writer of something you direct is fantastic because there’s a sure talent you can use in yourself and you don’t have to explain something sometimes that is unexplainable. You can just do. In terms of the directing affecting the writing, I think one of the tangible things is trusting the actors more because you know that some of the lines you’ve put into a script are not necessary because the actor will do that anyways. Also, whenever you write, the film is in your head. You see the film in your head completely and I suppose it’s not necessary the best thing but you do then start to adapt it because you know what’s possible and what’s not possible. You start to make it a little more possible to do.
Having done both, what are things you prefer about one over the other?
SK: Well, the writing process is great because you’re not getting involved. It’s warm and dry and you’ve done your job when you deliver the script. However, directing is better after the fact when you look at something and you know it’s yours. When there’s something wrong it’s your fault and something good is down to you. It’s much more of a complete experience.
Would you ever consider just directing something?
SK: No, I wouldn’t direct someone else’s stuff. I can’t imagine it. Having been the writer and having the director take it off you and changing it, it’s not great. I wouldn’t want to be in a position where I’d take someone else’s dialogue and direct it. I can’t conceive of it.
Obviously the other way around is fine for you? You’ve worked with some really great directors. What are some things that you learned from directors such as David Cronenberg that have influenced how you direct on the set?
SK: Lots of things, both subliminal and practical. Before I started directing redemption I went to the directors that I had worked with and asked them for specific advice. They all told me different things but really practical things. No one gave me vague advice, it was all very specific. One director said if you get a good take, do it again but faster; so simple but straight forward. Another said on the first day stand on a chair and yell loudly, “Shut the fuck up”. I didn’t follow it. I learned the importance of getting the performance and everything else can sort of look after itself.
Having worked with David Cronenberg on Eastern Promises, that was a project that for a long time there was speculation that there was going to be a sequel. Can you give me an update on that?
SK: It’s been dead and resurrected so many times but it’s something that I think would be better than the first one. But like Locke, most films take a long time to be put together financially and getting the actors in their right place. But I think it will get made eventually.
That’s good news. Speaking of sequels, what is your approach to writing a follow-up? This will be the first and only sequel you’ve ever done. What do you think of the sequel culture that has been dominating Hollywood?
SK: At first when someone suggested an ‘Eastern Promises 2’ I assumed it was a joke. It’s not the sort of film that you have a sequel to. It’s not a franchise by any means. But some people said it had been left open on purpose which it was a bit. Looking at it again I thought it was a good experience so what I did with the second one was sort of finish the first one in the opening two minutes and then start the new story with the same characters. It goes in a different direction but I think it’s worth it.
In terms of how saturated the market is with sequels, do you think from an artistic standpoint that that’s a negative thing or a positive thing?
SK: It depends on the sequel. You take your template as ‘The Godfather. There’s nothing better than that.
Final question: do you have a dream project in mind?
SK: I want to do a western at some point
What’s your hope for that?
SK: I just want to do a western. I’ve got some ideas. Something like ‘The End of the West’. ‘The End of the Frontier’.