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Interview: Locke Writer-director Steven Knight

By (May 2, 2014) No Comment

Steven+Knight+Locke posterThere’s always the danger with reductionist film making that sticking with a single character and/or  location–as in films like Castaway, Phone Booth, and Buried–will come off as more of a stunt than an actual film.

That’s certainly not the case in writer-director Steven Knight’s new film Locke, starring Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, an ordinary man dealing over the phone with pressing matters of life, family, and job during a (nearly real-time) evening drive from Birmingham to London.

Though Locke is on the phone nearly continually with several people (including his wife and his boss), Hardy is the only actor on screen, and the film takes place almost entirely within his car.

Thanks, however, to Knight’s compelling script and its complex look at universal interpersonal themes about life, identity, and responsibility, and especially thanks to Hardy’s mesmerizing (and often unsettlingly “calm”) performance, Locke is much more than just a “gimmick” film–in fact, it’s one of the best films of the year, so far.

I sat down with Knight a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about the film, the character of Ivan Locke and Tom Hardy’s performance, the shooting process, and the idea of “ordinary tragedy.”

Locke opens at select theaters today.

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locke-tom-hardy-a4The film is about a man, in the course of a single car drive, working to hold on to what’s important to him. But what is really important to Ivan? I feel it’s not as simple as it seems.

Stephen Knight: I started out wanting to create the most ordinary person in terms of his situation and who he is. Married, two kids, works supervising the pouring concrete for big building projects. It doesn’t get any less glamorous than that.

Then he makes a very ordinary mistake–an ordinary tragedy, is how I think of it. So the film is taking the camera and pointing it at something that isn’t a hostage situation or a drug deal; it’s just an ordinary man who’s done something wrong, and this is what he has to do.

The building and his job are important to him, but they’re not the most important or he wouldn’t have taken off just before a big concrete pour. His wife and family are important to him, but the question is are they the most important thing to him?

Everyone can take a different thing away from it, but to me I see it as him doing this journey to prove to himself that he’s not his father, who had walked away from this situation. Ivan wants to prove it’s not genetic disposition—this is a man proving that his destiny is in his own hands and is not preordained. You could say that in itself is a selfish decision, because he’s proving that for himself. But he’s doing the right thing, taking responsibility.

tom-hardy-lockeObviously there is the sense here of a one-man play. How did you approach the script? Did you block it out like scenes and acts?

Knight: I wanted to try to do something different from the kinds of scripts I usually write for others to direct, which are more conventional with three acts and character arcs. Here the journey of the character is a real journey. The future is through the windscreen and on the GPS. The past is in the rear-view mirror; for example when he talks to his dead father, it’s in the rear-view mirror.

The idea was that the moving background is like a theater stage. In terms of structure, I definitely knew that if we went this far away from normal, we have to have an involving story. It’s not enough for it to just be a cinematic novelty. It’s been heartening so far that audiences come away engaged by the character, story, and themes and not the fact it was done in a different way.

It had to be conventional in the sense that you have to have something of a mystery and a cliffhanger situation, and you have to hit the right beats to keep people involved, to keep them in the story. And you have enough different elements, with his wife, his boss, the concrete pour, the hospital, to keep it varied.

locke-tom-hardy-steven-knightAll of us today, with all our cell phones, when we look at the phone ringing, as we answer it, we become the person who has to deal with that call. You change yourself—it’s a master class of acting that we all do all day long. I thought it’d be interesting to point the camera at someone doing that, but in a very stressed situation, which is what Ivan does.

Did your approach to working with Tom Hardy change because he is the only actor on screen?

Knight: That’s why it was important to get the best actor. Only certain people could get away with this. You need someone who holds the screen. We had five days around the table with all the voice actors and Tom and me. Whatever direction that needed to be done was done in that period. And then we shot the whole thing, the entire script 16 times, start to finish, in order, twice a night for eight nights.

I’d imagine Hardy gave you different types of performances over each of those 16 times.

Knight: Each time there was something different, so when we got to the editing process we had lots of choices. It’s quite daunting because there were 10 billion potential films there. But we kept returning to the same nights and the same sequences when everything seemed to be going just right.

maxresdefaultWhat were some of the directions you chose not to go in with the editing?

Knight: Because of who Ivan Locke is, because his job is to control things and sort out problems, I didn’t ever want him going with other peoples’ emotions. So when someone else on the phone gets angry or upset, I didn’t want Locke to get angry or upset, but to stay in control and move on to the next practical step.

So he never loses his composure, except with his dad—who’s not really there. When we see emotion in Locke, when he’s crying, his voice is doing the opposite, saying, “It’s all fine, there’s nothing wrong, nothing’s happened.” So it was walking that tightrope of never going with the emotions of the call.

How did you approach the challenge of making the film visually interesting when nearly every shot is inside the car?

Knight: I’d done camera tests before, shooting from moving cars in the city then watching it on a big screen to check the camera sensitivity, and I found it absolutely hypnotic. I wanted that to be the background. It looks like chaos outside, lights coming from all directions, and here’s Ivan in his bubble of light, inside his car, trying to create order from chaos.

Locke-DIBecause the outside looks so weird and hostile through the window, with the lights at night, it’s also making a point about the individual. When you pull back and look at all those cars on the road, inside every one of those little bubbles is another story going on. All of our stories are going past each other and around each other without touching. You make mistakes, it gets messy and ugly, but if you look away in soft focus, it becomes beautiful. The ordinary–our ordinary lives and our ordinary struggles–can be beautiful.