When it comes to people talking on their cell phones in today’s modern world, director and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”) finds the task all too fascinating.
“I think it’s a reflection of how we all live now,” Knight told me during a phone interview last week to discuss his new film “Locke,” which stars actor Tom Hardy. “Someone talking on the phone is in one place geographically, but their mind is somewhere else. There is an almost disembodied nature in the way people are now. Reality to them is what’s coming down the phone line.”
That’s definitely true for the title character in “Locke.” In the film, Ivan Locke (Hardy), a construction foreman, attempts to manage a series of calls coming into his hands-free car phone that will affect the rest of his life. While Ivan drives to his destination to “do the right thing,” the life he is leaving behind begins to come crashing down around him.
During our interview, Knight talked to me about writing the character of Ivan with Hardy in mind, his personal cell phone protocol while driving, and explain how exactly the production worked to get this film made. He also talked about his next screenplay about intriguing chess champion Bobby Fischer.
As a screenwriter and second-time feature film director, what kind of challenges did you face directing something you’ve written? Does taking on both roles automatically make you too close to your own work?
Yeah, it’s a danger you have to be aware of. The reason I wanted to do it is because whenever you write a film – even if you’re going to give it to another director – you have that film in your head written and edited and performed perfectly. Then you have to try and bring it out to the world. That’s when the trouble begins. You want to get as close as you possibly can to the film in your head and put that on the screen. To do that, you have to direct it yourself, especially with something like “Locke,” which is quite controlled. It’s as close as I’ve gotten to achieving that. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s pretty close.
What did you find specifically different about writing “Locke” than you didn’t with past scripts you’ve written for other directors?
Well, the process is different. It’s unlike a normal process where I would write for a studio and I would get notes and different people would have their opinions. With “Locke,” what we did was sit around in a circle for five days with the script and the [voice] actors and Tom and we just read it and read it and read it to see how it felt. At the end of that process, it’s in a shape where you know how it feels and sounds. So, we went on the road and shot it. You try and set the pace before you turn the cameras on.
You’ve written some strong leading male characters in your career, especially for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character in “Dirty Pretty Things” and Viggo Mortensen’s character in “Eastern Promises.” Where do you start in the writing process to create someone like Ivan Locke?
There is always a basic idea about the character and then you just start fleshing him out. For this particular character, I wanted him to be the most ordinary man in Britain. I wanted him to be completely in the middle. I wanted him to be a man who was married and had two kids and works in concrete, the least glamorous profession you could imagine. I wanted to take that person and give him a problem that could happen to anyone. It’s not a kidnapping or a murder or a drug deal. It’s a mistake he’s made. Then I wanted to point the camera at what happens next. What happens isn’t going to make the local news, but for the people who are involved, it’s the end of the world. I wanted to try and do justice to the drama of what some people might think is an ordinary tragedy.
When does someone like actor Tom Hardy come into the picture for you? Is it during the writing process? Was he someone you were always thinking about?
There was something serendipitous about the making of this because I had the idea for the film and knew to pull it off we were going to need an actor who was extraordinary. I think Tom Hardy is the best actor that Britain has. By chance, I had a meeting with him about a completely different project, which he wanted me to write. While we were talking about that, I got to talking about [“Locke”]. When I wrote it, I was pretty certain he would do it, so I wrote it with him in mind.
Over his career, we’ve really seen the extent of Tom’s range as an actor. What specifically did you see from him that resonated with you the most? Was it something like “Bronson?”
“Bronson,” yes, but also “Inception.” Even when he’s on screen with other great actors, it’s him you’re looking at. He has that quality, which I don’t think can be learned or taught. There are certain people – for reasons I don’t think anyone understands – that other people want to look at. There is just something about them that people watch. I don’t think you can invent that. Also, he can transform himself entirely. Even though Ivan Locke is an ordinary man, it still requires a total transformation. That’s what is so convincing about him.
What were the most difficult logistical aspects of shooting a film like “Locke?” I mean, how did you pull something like this off?
We sort of had to break most of the rules of filmmaking. Normally when you make a film, there’s usually a logical reason not to do the most obvious thing. But with this, because of the level of control we had, I wanted to approach it in almost a naïve way. So, we got the car. We put it onto a low-loader truck and put three cameras in the car. Tom had a teleprompt, so he had the script in front of him on the back of the truck. We put the other actors in a conference room in a hotel near the motorway and opened the phone line between that room and the car. I would say, “Action” and we would set off. I would cue the other actors on when to make their calls in sequence. We would shoot the whole film from beginning to end and then take a break and shoot it again. In total, we shot it 16 times. We had 16 complete movies. Then, we took it to the editing room and cut it together.
You make it sound so easy.
Well, at the beginning, there was all this talk about sound stages and green screens, but in the end none of that really mattered. I think what people are looking at is [Tom’s] performance. The background and the [traffic] lights are meant to represent the chaos. Ivan is there in his bubble of light trying to create order. So, I didn’t think we needed to be strict on certain things the way other films are. Delivering a performance to the screen was the main task, I thought.
I love how Ivan sort of changes his personality depending on who is calling him and vice versa. Do you find that to be true for most people?
Everyone becomes an actor when they look at the phone when it rings and see the name of the person calling you. You become the person that deals with that certain person. When the next call comes in, you’re a different person. You can be the boss, the employee, the partner, the father. All of us have to crunch the gears because we don’t know what part of our life is about to come through. I thought it would be interesting to see, instead of a man going through his life, a life going through a man – a man in a situation of duress. This film wouldn’t have been feasible 10 years ago. That’s not how [we communicated] then, but that’s how it is now. I think that really lends itself to drama.
How did we ever live without caller ID, I wonder?
Yeah, I know. Now, you adapt accordingly.
Do you answer your phone when you’re driving?
I don’t. I try to keep that moment of driving sacred. It’s another aspect of Ivan’s story. Whenever you drive on your own, you’re alone in a particular way. Your body is doing the driving and your mind is free to think about the future and the past. I think people become very odd when they drive alone. They talk to themselves. They sing. They do all sorts of strange things. It was one of the reasons I wanted to write this story in the first place.
I think we’re in a cinematic age where most mainstream audiences just want their monthly dose of superhero movie and not have to really invest in something or someone on screen. Do you feel “Locke” is the type of film that expects a lot from its audience?
Well, there’s nothing wrong with those other films. That’s why they’re popular. People like them. But I do think people should have a choice. With this film, one of the things I’ve heard people say is that they forget they haven’t seen the other characters. So, some people actually invent those characters for themselves. I think that gives people a persona stake in the film. They are doing some of the work. They are using their imagination. With a lot of the films that have special effects and big budgets, the imagination is put on the screen for you and you just absorb it. With something like “Locke,” you’re invited to create. People relate this story to their own lives. I think it’s partly because they’re engaged in the process of making the film themselves.
You’re next film as a screenwriter is “Pawn Sacrifice” starring Toby Maguire as chess champion Bobby Fischer. How immersed did you have to become in the life of Bobby Fischer to capture this specific part of his story, which is his legendary match against Russian chess player Boris Spassky?
I read a lot of other people’s accounts about him. Most important to me was seeing footage of him being interviewed. I think that’s a great way of capturing the way someone is – the way they talk and move and act. He was an incredibly troubled individual. There are a lot of hooks into the character. I find his story fascinating, in particular the chess match in 1972, which was effectively during the Cold War.