Drive, He Said :: Director Steven Knight on ’Locke’
You may not yet know Steven Knight by name, but a quick look at his film work and the accolades he's received for his script is enough to make you take notice. Not only has this British gentleman garnered an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay for Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things," but he's also a two-time BAFTA nominee for that script, along with his for David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises." The British Independent Film Awards also nominated his work on the latter for Best Screenplay, an award he's now won twice, first for "Dirty Pretty Things" and more recently for "Locke," which he not only wrote, but also directed.
Knight's second time behind the camera (he also wrote and directed the underrated Jason Statham-starring crime drama, "Redemption"), "Locke" puts London-born rising star Tom Hardy (who memorably portrayed respirator-wearing villain Bane in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises") behind the wheel of a BMW for 90 minutes. Although the entire film is set within this car, with Knight's unflinching camera never moving from the bearded Hardy's face, the actor's performance as Ivan Locke, a dedicated worker and family man whose world is about to unravel over the course of a claustrophobic nighttime drive, is nothing short of mesmerizing.
This is due in no small part to Knight's crackling script, which finds Hardy's Locke making a fateful decision that sets off a chain reaction he calmly attempts to control, as his job and home life hang in the balance.
EDGE recently sat down for a chat with the genteel Knight in a conference room at Boston's Ritz Carlton hotel, on the eve of the Stateside rollout of "Locke," which has been picking up strong reviews and posting great numbers in limited release.
A charmed life
What was the genesis of a film that upon first glance might seem a better fit for the stage, than in cinemas?
"It turned out to be a project that had sort of a charmed life. Sometimes these things happen. Most times, it doesn’t," he says. "It was amazing. I’d just finished making ’Hummingbird,’ or ’Redemption,’ as it was called here, and I asked myself, ’is there another way of making films?’ Is there another way of making people sit in a room and watch a screen for 90 minutes? We had done a test for some scenes in ’Redemption,’ with Jason [Statham] shot from moving vehicles, just to test the sensitivity, and looking at that on screen was just hypnotic. It was beautiful! And so, I just thought, we could take a car, make that your theater, put an actor in there, and shoot a play in that environment. That was the plan."
Another part of this plan was to shoot the entire film like a play, all at once, completely in sequence. "The whole thing," he recalls. "That was the stipulation: I didn’t ever want to say, ’Can we do that again?’ It’ll go wrong in a different place tomorrow night, and it will be right in a different place every time, so..."
Knight ended up shooting 16 versions of the film, "and we just took what was the best. After 7 or 8 nights, we’d gotten everything. Because we’d always had three cameras rolling inside the car, we shot two versions a night, sometimes a bit more. So it’s a lot of footage! It means that in that short space of time, you’ve got everything you could possibly have from that interior. And then we shot some ’establishes’ from bridges, but I thought we would need a lot more of them, so that it breathes, to get viewers out of the vehicle. But when we showed it to people, they didn’t want to leave. They wanted to stay inside, and they wanted to be there for the calls. So in the end, a lot of that ’establishing’ stuff we didn’t use."
This wasn’t an expensive visual effects film, either. That’s not Hardy inside a shell of a BMW, shot on a stage in front of a green screen, with backgrounds to be composited in later.
"Everybody always says: don’t shoot inside cars, but me? Only in cars," he laughs. "Whenever you’re making a film, there’s always a practical reason to not do the obvious thing, but also, you approach it like a kid: ok, we’re going to make this film-start acting, we’ll film it. And that’s exactly what we did. We put the cameras in the car with Tom, had all the other actors in a conference room, had a real phone line to the car, and I’m on the back of the low-loader" that was pulling a wheel-less BMW with Hardy inside, "cueing the actors in sequence. So," he says, matter-of-factly, "we just shot the whole film, got to the end, took a break... then did it again."
Was it a bumpy road that led Knight to Hardy? Apparently not, although the destination wasn’t originally going to be this film, which wasn’t even scripted when they met.
"We were meeting with Tom for a different reason. His people wanted me to write him a different thing, but I got talking about the idea, and the theater idea, of shooting it the way we ended up shooting it, and he was really keen, so I wrote it shortly afterwards, with him in mind. And then we shot it! I met him in November, and we were shooting in February," a feat which is almost unheard of when making movies.
"Usually if something is quick, it’s good. If it’s slow, there’s a reason." And there was nothing slow about this picture. He secured funding based on a two-page outline and a commitment from Hardy, then spent three weeks writing the screenplay.
"It’s almost a blessing, in terms of writing," he divulges, "when you’ve got different dramas unfolding at the same time; you can leave cliffhangers all the time, and then move on to a different character, and then resolve, and set up another one, and resolve," and it’s also vital, he says, "that the audience, when the lights go up, are engaged with the character, and are moved, and they recognize themselves in it." And what better an actor than Hardy to identify with?
I hired Tom, because he’s the best that we’ve got," Knight says, without hesitation. "Hopefully, the writing should make it obvious what you’re trying to get," but the writer/director stresses that the week-long table read prior to shooting was important to finding the right rhythms and interactions between the cast-especially when neither Hardy nor the audience would see but only hear the other actors. "After 5 days, we’d pretty much got it," he’s happy to report.
"At the outset, I thought there would be a lot of improvisation. However, Tom being a theater person doesn’t like to improvise. He wants to do the script, so we got auto-cue," or what we know as a teleprompter on this side of the pond. "We had two of those on the back of the low-loader, right ahead of him, so that when it looks like he’s driving, there’s one in the rearview mirror, and one in front of him." Professional that he is, Hardy wanted to have the script down, word for word. "But there were 90 pages," says Knight, observing that "there was no way he was going to remember it all with what little prep time we had-especially when you’re going to be interacting with another actor you can’t see.
"Any improvisation would have led to chaos, I think. It would have led to a lot of stutters, and stops, and starts, and ’when are we going back to the script?’ Whereas, the actors in the conference room had a script in front of them." They also had red wine.
"They were in a conference room about the size of this one," he says, looking around our room at the Ritz. "What we did is, we had the phone call going into an earpiece in Tom’s ear, and we also recorded their voices clean," so that their voices and ambient sound could be added in after the fact. "All of the actors in that room were having a very good time! We’d get back from shooting on the road-it was 4 o’clock in the morning, and the sun was not yet up-and they were all feeling good after many bottles of wine!"
Things go wrong?
Were there any instances where things perhaps didn’t feel so great?
"It’s such an unusually made project, that all the things that I feared would go wrong, didn’t. Like the phone line going down, technical problems with the rigs-we really didn’t have much trouble. Thankfully!"
Our talk coming to an end, Knight mentions that he once wrote a play for the National Theatre in London, "The President of an Empty Room." "I loved it," he wistfully remembers. "It was such a nice process, and it’s probably the purest process for a dialogue writer, because it’s just that. And that’s why I was attracted to doing this."
Has he considered mounting "Locke" as a play?
"Oh, I would love to put this on a stage somewhere; it would definitely work."
But for now, he has the film, a one-of-a kind, uniquely cinematic experience.
"Locke" is in theaters.