Two weeks ago, I sat down with Steven Knight, the director of the new Tom Hardy drama, Locke. The film follows Hardy as Ivan Locke and takes place in his car. Throughout the film, Locke makes phone calls that affect his life in many different ways and it’s one of the most gripping films that I’ve seen all year. Hardy creates a miracle in this one-man-show and that’s due to the wonderful writing and direction from Knight, who’s changing the way we view and appreciate film. Locke focuses on facial expression and voice and it’s a film that’s relatable to so many on some levels. I loved getting to talk with Mr. Knight and our conversation can be found below. Look for my review of Locke this Friday!
(This interview was originally published on nicktiffany.com on May 6, 2014.)
Nick: Hi, it’s nice to meet. My name is Nick.
Steven: Steven Knight. Very pleased to meet you too. Coffee or tea?
N: No, thank you. I had some on the way over *laughs*. I’m a big fan of the film.
S: Oh! Good, good. Thank you so much.
N: A24 has had some great films this year.
S: They’re really great, aren’t they?
N: I’ve got a few questions jotted down for you, so what say we get things rolling?
N: In general, handling anything over the phone is a little bit better than texting or sending something over email. However, there’s still an aspect that’s impersonal about it. Is it better that we’re talking face-to-face, as opposed to over the phone?
S: Well, there’s something interesting about phone calls. I mean, first of all, phone calls in general where it’s possible for your voice to say one thing and for your face to be saying something else. Which is always interesting dramatically. But I think specifically this film couldn’t have been made even probably ten years ago, because of the technology we now have. Cellphone/hands-free-phone rule all aspects of our life at all times. I think it just means that all of us perform a masterclass of acting everyday, where when the phone rings, you look at who’s calling and you become the person who deals with that person.You just have to keep changing gear, because the calls can be one after the other. So, it can be the kids, then the boss, then someone else. So, I think it’s interesting to point a camera at that, especially when someone is in a moment of intense pressure.
N: I completely understand that. You’re friends call and you’re all happy. Then your mom calls and you’ve got to get all sweet and brace for impact.
S: Exactly! Everybody is so good at it, that’s the thing.
N: We all do it on a daily basis. It’s just a facet of our everyday lives.
N: When it comes to uncomfortable situations and confrontations, there is a sense that’s comforting about handling them over the phone. Have you ever had to make an important decision or an uncomfortable decision when on the phone with someone?
S: About every other day. *laughs* Yeah, a lot. But, it is better because they can’t actually hit you. Or throw anything at you. I tried to look at it in the story as well with people. If you find there’s a shock or a surprise, people, instead of being really angry immediately and then calming down, I think go the other way. I think people start relatively calm and then get angrier, and angrier. So, as the story progresses and the journey goes on, I think that’s what happens to Ivan.
N: I think that’s definitely what I saw. This movie is so true to everyday life and the phone-calls and decisions we make as well. You could say something that they might not like to hear and then they have time to really think about it.
S: Then it gets even worse. *laughs*
N: There is some comfort in it when it comes to confrontation, where you can say something to your parents or a friend from a safe distance.
S: That’s very true. The third level is the text. *laughs*
N: That’s a really tough one.
N: Giving directions over the phone is probably one of the most frustrating things you can do. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, and most people are familiar with the daunting experience. With this film, I’d read that you’d set up all the other voice actors in a conference room and then you were with Tom. Do you think that, were that reversed, you could have directed the film from the conference room, with Tom driving?
S: I suppose, feasibly, it could have been done, because we did five days of read-through before we ever went on the road, so that all the direction in terms of character and performance was done. So, the people pretty much knew what they were doing. But, I was on the low-loader, because that’s where most of the things could go wrong, because in the conference room, not much was going to go wrong. We had the phone line open, the actors were all there with their scripts in front of them, but on the road, all sorts of stuff could happen. It was better for me to have direct contact with Tom so that if there was a problem, it could be dealt with directly.
N: Locke has made this conscious decision to stick with what he’s doing, no matter how hard it is for him and the people whom he most impacts in his life. As a director and a successful writer, have you ever been in a situation where you’ve made a decision and others were opposed to it?
S: Making Locke was one of those. *laughs* Deciding to direct any film is always tough, because what you’re doing is volunteering your life. I mean, for a conventional film, you’re going to be totally committed to that. So, everyone around needs to accommodate that. The good thing with Locke, was it was less of a commitment, because with a shorter shoot, you just get a burst of activity and energy and then it’s done, which is great. But yeah, difficult decisions that you stick with… Directing the film is definitely one of the biggest.
N: So your film, Hummingbird, or I guess Redemption in America…
S: Yes, I don’t know why it’s called that. *laughs*
N: … How long was that shoot? About the same?
S: It was eight weeks, yeah. That was a conventional shoot.
N: That’s not too bad, in the grand scheme of things.
N: There’s a lot of pressure being a director, especially when making that transition from writer to director. I was doing some research and you’ve got over 30 writing credits and then you’ve made that jump into directing…
S: Well, I just thought I’ve written a lot of stuff and I’ve been lucky with a lot of directors who have done it well for years. In the end, you have to ask yourself “can I do this myself?”, because when you write a film, you see the film in your head complete. It’s perfect. There are no mistakes. Then, when it’s made, it’s different, inevitably. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse and the sort of decision is what percentage of this can I get dead on-screen, absolutely how I wanted it to be. It’s never 100%, but with something that’s as controlled as this, you can get close to the film that’s in your head.
N: When doing the research, I read that this is only your second directing credit. What made you want to make Redemption and Locke? Were they stories that you thought “maybe I want to try doing this one?”
S: Yeah, I think that they were stories that maybe another director wouldn’t do.You know, when you’re directing, you can make choices that are a risk in terms of how you cast it and how you shoot it. I mean, I learned a lot about what I wanted to do. What I want to do is capture a performance when I’m directing. I’m not capable of, or interested in the big spectacle movies, because, I mean other people do that far better than I ever would. My belief is that, no matter what the film is that people are watching and no matter what the budget and special effects, people really are looking at the eyes of the actors. That’s what they’re interested in and what’s going on inside their heads. So, I wanted to strip it down to just that.
N: It’s funny that you should mention eyes of the actor. I was going to ask about Tom Hardy, because I’d read that you’d had the idea for the film and that he’d said he was interested in filming with you, and that’s then when you wrote it down. Did you ever have a phone-call audition with him for this role?
S: *laughs* No, I never did. I never auditioned Tom. When you’ve got an actor like that, when you’ve seen so many examples of his brilliant work, you know you can trust him to do it. It was more a question of… we were auditioning the process, really. The whole thing was “can this work and can we do it this way?”. We didn’t know until we showed it at the Venice Film Festival and the response was so overwhelming. That’s when we realized that we… it was okay… it worked.
N: It is something totally different and that payed off. When you mentioned eyes, my mind immediately went to Tom Hardy as Bane…
S: BANE!!! I know what you’re thinking!
N: … because it’s a very facially suppressive performance that relies so heavily on his ability to emote through his eyes. There are some amazing scenes where his eyes do all the work. Then, there’s Bronson, another film where he’s just a very expressive and theatrical person.
S: In this film, the beard is the equivalent of the Bane mask.
N: When I watched the film, I wondered why I couldn’t grow a beard like his.
S: It’s not an easy task, let me tell you that. *laughs*
N: In this film, there’s an essence of repetition with the phone-calls, certain dialouge that Locke has about cement and planning, and with his past. When he realizes some of that, he starts to break the mold and he starts to try to get away from that. I’m wondering if you, especially as a writer, have seen some signs of repetition in your work that maybe didn’t work so well in the past that you’d noticed and wanted to change?
S: By terms of dialouge, you mean?
N: Perhaps in dialouge, or how certain events play out, or ever a characters backstory. When I think of certain movies, there are always some tropes and schemes that pop up. “Of course this woman has to be pregnant, because her husband needs more stress at the moment.” There are certain things like that and I’m curious if you look for that in your work and are there some that you try to avoid when you create a knew story?
S: Um… I wish I was that rational about it. I mean, what I tend to do is just start writing and I see what happens. What does happen is that you present yourself with a problem, like when I started writing this, it was sort of “he’s in a car and he’s going South. He’s going for a really big reason, because he’s abandoning something. What could that reason be?” That sort of comes through the process of writing. It is true that, when you read things back, you think “who wrote that?” You know, because sometimes it just seems to happen on its own. I think it’s inevitable, like the way you play futbol, the way you walk, the way you swim, and the way you do everything. It’s a characteristic of yourself, so this feels like a natural process for me, that will inevitably be characteristic. In terms of repetition in the dialouge, I like reflecting the fact that when people talk, they keep saying the same things.
N: They do. When you try to calm someone down…
S: Yes They just keep saying the same things, because even if it’s not working, they keep doing it. In this, Ivan keeps saying “I want to move on to a practical next step.” Which is never going to work. *laughs*
N: *laughs* I loved that, because the first time I heard that, there was almost a mixed reaction of laughter and understanding.
S: That’s good, because people should know that they can laugh at this film, because the idea that someone is under that amount of pressure is at times comical, which is fine. It’s good.
N: You can only imagine what it must be like on his wife’s end of the call, where she’s not sure what to think.
N: I like that you brought up a sense of absence, because this film is almost ironic as well, because as he leaves his family and becomes absent from them, he’s going to prevent an absence in his new family.
S: Mhmm… He’s made a choice of absence and basically, you can look at Locke and say “he does the right thing.” Or, you can say “he does this to prove a point to his dad and to himself, to say that he’s not the same as his father.” In which case, you can say it’s a selfish motivation, really, if he’s just doing it to prove a point. Look who gets hurt. To avoid that, you’d have to tell a lie.
N: It’s such a conflicting scenario.
S: I hope people leave the theater not knowing which way to think. I’ve found that that a lot of people spend time thinking about it and it stays with them.
N: Whether he’s a hero or whether he’s justified in his decision. It’s a tough one, because no matter what happens, as is with most things in life, someone’s going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get the raw end of the deal.
N: Family, as you mentioned, has a large influence in Locke’s life. His absentee father, loving family, and his fellow employees all offer up questions, emotions, and decisions for him. What has your family or what have your friends offered up that has influenced your work?
S: They’re so difficult… *laughs* No, I’m only joking. It’s not really like that. It’s not that it’s a direct translation of anything personal.
N: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply anything by that. I was wondering if there was anything that you take from them, that you have to work with?
S: I suppose that the background that he’s from would be an element… The background from where I come from is called a working-class background, so the idea that dad goes to work, comes home and doesn’t talk about is very Ivan Locke. So, I suppose part of that is from my background.
N: Being an Oscar-nominated writer is no easy feat. I’d like to congratulate you on that! You’re the second person I’ve interviewed who is…
S: Oh, really?
N: Yes, I interviewed Bob Nelson, who wrote Nebraska.
S: That’s wonderful!
N: It’s somewhat intimidating, but also very awesome. With that labeled to your name now, “Oscar-nominated Steven Knight”, is there a set expectation that some people have for your standard of writing?
S: *laughs* It’s a good thing. It’s a bigger thing than I thought at the time, because it stays with you and they can’t take it off you, which is great. But, I do want to replace it with “Oscar-winner” at some point *laughs*.
N: That’s the goal. *laughs* In general, whenever someone is nominated, there is some expectation that your next project has to be bigger and better than this one that was just nominated. When you think of a project like Locke, for me at least, Locke wouldn’t be the first film to pop into my mind, given your film history. It’s something that’s so drastically different and from the outside it could like “Oh, he’s in a car for 90 minutes talking to himself on the phone”, but it’s really the dialouge and how the characters respond to that. With that in mind, did you struggle to get this film made, given its nature?
S: No, not really. I mean, my sort of day job is writing. I write much more conventional stuff, which is Hollywood stuff, which is great. If I’m doing something this experimental, then I will direct it myself. The fact is, the financing of this was very easy. I’d just finished Redemption and the same people who financed that, financed this. It was done on two paragraphs. It was IM Global and they’re very good and they leave you alone. They invest in you and they trust you to deliver stuff. The financing of it came very quickly.
N: You don’t often here simple stories about getting a more independent film financed. *laughs*
S: I know! It’s really unusual!
N: You said your day job was writing. I’m curious, as someone who’s experimenting with that, how often would you say you dedicate to writing? Does it vary?
S: It definitely varies. I think you have to just do it. You know, you have to get on with it, because if you wait for “the moment”, it might not come. The way I tend to start writing early, is is get up early and I write and try to get stuff done. You can’t allow yourself to believe that it’s a struggle. Just pretend that you’re messing around and that you’re not really doing it.
N: Do you ever have instances where you know that you have to write something down and you…
S: Oh yeah! Lots of times. Put everything away and just write. Absolutely.
N: I’ve got one last question…
N: Locke, at least to me, felt sort of like a play. There’s one man on stage, one setting, and he talks to the other people through the phone. The lighting was stylized to somewhat reflect the mood and I think that when you go and watch a play, there’s a level of intimacy that you experience. You’re there and you’re seeing everything happen live and it feels authentic, and I felt that when I watched Locke. That’s a very unusual feeling, at least for a movie. Were you intending for that kind of feeling…
S: Yeah, I mean the original idea was to have the backdrop as the theater, put in actor in it and shoot the play. What I hope, is that you get a cross between the theater experience and the cinema experience, when you’re in that room with the lights off. I hope you feel intimately engaged in the film… In touch with that character.
N: Thank you so much for your time and engaging responses…
S: Thank you for being here and thanks for such great questions. I do hope you enjoyed the film.
N: I certainly did and I can’t wait to tell people all about it! Have a great day.
S: You as well. Cheers!