One of the chief pleasures of the Göteborg International Film Festival, aside from the charming Swedishness of it all (particularly fond of the helper whose novel take on the “switch off your f*cking phone” message was to implore us not to forget to turn our phones “back on, the second you leave”), is the quality time we get to spend with our interview subjects. One of or most enjoyable meetings this time out was with screenwriter Steven Knight, whose fascinating sophomore directorial outing “Locke,” (our review from Venice is here) played the festival. Here are the fruits of our wide-ranging conversation with the “Eastern Promises,” “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Peaky Blinders” writer (who also—random trivia—devised and originally pitched “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”), including his thoughts on writing for TV vs. film, his crowded upcoming slate and lots about “Locke” ...so we should probably give a little background.
“Locke” stars Tom Hardy, in a formally rigorous, strictly real-time one-man-play, in which a single late-evening car journey sees a seemingly ordinary man, a construction site foreman, put through the wringer as, through sheer force of will and a series of fraught telephone conversations, he tries to hold together a crumbling life without compromising his sense of himself and of what’s right. It’s completely different, not only from most everything else out there right now, but also from the majority of Knight’s previous work both as a director and a writer (though of course, through-lines remain). So that was where we started.
At what point in the process did you know you were writing “Locke” as a directorial project?
I'd just finished the [Jason] Statham picture [“Hummingbird,” called “Redemption” in the U.S., Knight’s directorial debut], which was very conventional. And the whole process just made me think to look again at the basics of what the job is: get a load of people into a room, turn off the lights and get them to watch a screen for 90 minutes, and how many other ways there are, without using all the tricks that normally go with a film.
Editing ["Hummingbird"], all the stuff we shot of the urban night time was beautiful, I thought that could be an installation. So I thought maybe that could be the theatre, and in the theatre you film a play. And that meant it needed to be one person and I think Tom is the best actor we've got, so when he was interested, I wrote the script knowing that he was going to be in it. The whole thing was all quite odd and very quick, we met in November, wrote it over Christmas and shot it in February.
So the “Hummingbird” experience made you more ascetic in your approach?
It just made me think, “How much of this is necessary?” I’d been on millions of sets but never as director and I just felt sorry for the actors, the work is so hard and you break everything up and they never get to perform, and they all love to perform. So I thought, “Surely there's a way to shoot a play?” So we ran through it all every night in sequence—we did it the whole thing through, every night.
I was wondering how you managed the phone conversations, I mean, if the other end was pre-recorded…
We had lots of suggestions of how to makes this work, but the funny thing about film is that there's always a practical reason why you don't do the obvious thing.
It reminds me of that “The Simpsons” gag about how on movie sets they paint horses to look like cows, and when they need a horse they tie a bunch of cats together...
That’s exactly it! But I insisted on doing the obvious thing, so I get all the actors in a hotel conference room, feed them red wine and biscuits, they've all got the scripts with them I set off with Tom and the crew with 3 cameras rolling, with a real telephone line open to the car.
So I cue the calls, and we carry on driving: all the calls that come in are real and we did them all in sequence. We did a 5 day roundtable read-though and I'd given [the other actors] any direction they required so then when we went out on the road everyone knew what to do. So they could just do the play. I said, “Do what you would do on stage.”
And you’ve got such a strong cast including Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott, and then you don’t even show them.
I couldn't believe they did it, despite it just being voice jobs. They worked for seven nights from 9 to 4. Apparently, though, they had a great time, while we were out in the cold.
And how about Tom Hardy’s Richard Burton-esque delivery, was that his idea or yours?
Actually he listened to [Burton’s recording of] ”Under Milk Wood” by Dylan Thomas. But really, we needed Locke to be the most ordinary man in Britain. I wanted him to have a so-called ordinary job, but then, they often have huge dramas in those jobs—I worked on a building site when I was younger and the arrival of the concrete is a huge deal, and the one man in charge, it's his whole life as all these trucks arrive and are backed up.
So I wanted an ordinary man who has this ordinary tragedy where it's something that anybody could do, but his life unravels. Which for him is the end of the world; it's not going to make the papers, it’s not a drug deal or an explosion, it's what happens to people. So the Welsh accent is working class without the baggage of other working class British accents like London, Liverpool or Birmingham... that was the reason.
He has an ordinary job, and an ordinary problem but I’d say the film shows that he's an absolutely extraordinary man.
Well that's the point, he's the hero of that evening, and when we pass the cars at the end, full of people, I think I was trying in a way to say that in each one there's somebody being heroic or not heroic but they're doing something.
Going into it, it was kind of billed as a “real time thriller” and, not knowing anything about it, one could expect some sort of “Nick of Time”-style genre piece. Which it absolutely isn’t.
I mean, it's essentially a story about making someone pregnant but I find it much more interesting than if he's going down there to shoot the prime minister, or something. And then, yes, when it was announced, it was online as a "real time thriller," "a race against time" and "a man's life is on the line." I thought, “What are they on about?”