Interview: Steven Knight

Steven Knight - Locke

It’s pouring rain outside of the downtown office where writer, producer, and filmmaker Steven Knight is seated. Thankfully, unlike the protagonist of his latest feature, Locke (in local cinemas this Friday), he won’t be driving anywhere any time soon. With a healthy supply of tea, several bottles of water, and a tray of assorted pastries all to himself, Knight seems like less of a person on a promotional junket and more of someone bearing down for the long haul ahead.

He kids warmly about how the single setting he finds himself in during his Toronto visit to be a near perfect metaphor for his most recent film’s protagonist, albeit that he has actual people to interact with face to face, he can leave at any time, and he’s there under vastly more pleasant circumstances.

Shot in a scant number of days with actor Tom Hardy, Locke is an incredibly precise bit of filmmaking where only one person is ever visible on screen throughout the running time and he only interacts with the outside world via his hands free mobile while driving his car to London one evening after work. Ivan (Hardy) is a workaholic construction foreman about to sabotage the biggest job of his career over a mounting crisis of conscience. He calls in to work the night before the biggest make-or-break job of his career is about to take off. He has to tell his wife that he’s been keeping a secret from her. The purpose of his sudden journey is to make it to the bedside of a lonely older woman that he got pregnant out of wedlock because he feels that being there for the birth of the child is the right thing to do.

The UK born (and former Toronto resident) Knight is probably most noted for being the writer behind such films as Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, and the Jason Statham vehicle Redemption (which also served as Knight’s directorial debut). He worked for decades in British and American television before making the leap to the big screen, most intriguingly as one of the creators of the game show juggernaut Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

We talked with Knight about the casting of Tom Hardy, the claustrophobic nature of his film, our culture of always being in touch and how it pertains to loneliness, and about the film’s intricate, specific details.

Aside from the film taking place in a single setting, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about is the specific language of the film. Every line of dialogue that Ivan speaks is very precise because that’s kind of the nature of his job and how he views his own responsibilities. What’s it like doing a film where you have an economical setting, but you have to have very specific dialogue that needs to forward the story and this character?

Steven Knight - F2Steven Knight: It’s good. The thing that I’m always interested to most in above anything else is dialogue. If you have something like this and you don’t have precise dialogue, you only have a performance. This is a lot more like a theatre piece, which is always how Tom and I wanted to approach this.

There are a couple of interesting things going on with that dialogue to me, actually. Dialogue over the phone has always fascinated me. All of us conduct our own master class in dialogue and acting every day when the phone rings. If you’re a parent or a child or a boss or an employee, you still act like a completely different person on the phone. The voice in this case is the truest way to get inside of someone’s soul

But also, sometimes when you are speaking on the phone, you are openly saying one thing, but what you actually mean and what you’re feeling is the exact opposite. The fact that it’s phone dialogue means that it has to all be about the dialogue, which is very pleasing to me. I knew that within seven minutes of the opening of the film, we would need to get the audience engaged with the situation because unless you make them care about the dialogue, all people will think about at the end of the day is why the film was even made in the first place instead of thinking about the characters. The action is all about the character and the dialogue is a big part of how that was done.

It seems like this was a pretty easy project to come together despite the ambitious idea behind it. You didn’t run into too many problems and everyone was available in the ways you needed them to be. So ultimately is this the same film that you envisioned from the very start with little deviation over time?

SK: I mean, God knows that I’ve worked on and that I am working on many projects where you have to do a ton of new work, things go wrong, things fall through, etc. But this film had a really charmed life. Everything worked and it worked really quickly. Once we got the method of shooting established, then it was all very controlled.

Whenever you write the film, you have it all in your head. Up there it’s all directed, cut, staged, and performed perfectly. Then you’ve got to get it out into the world, and that’s always the difficult part. But the reason to do something like this – and the reason I wanted to direct this – is to get as close to that dream as possible. Something like this where it’s very controlled made it easy to see where everything will be completed on the page.

I mean, there were lots of hitches, but our policy was: anything that goes wrong:,use it and keep it. See if you can integrate it into the film rather than trying to delay yourself to work around it. Tom showed up on the first day of shooting with a cold, and so rather than try to disguise that fact, we worked it into the film. Anything like that we used. We opened ourselves up to all that chaotic stuff.

Another thing like that was when we were shooting in the BMW – because we weren’t always driving that much – was that we didn’t fill it with a lot of petrol. So every, I don’t know, maybe 12 minutes, the car would make a noise that tells you you’re low on petrol. We didn’t know what it was when it first happened and I got on the phone with the manufacturer who had to tell me what the noise was. Every time that happened, Tom would get go pissed off and just curse and bang the steering wheel. (laughs) So we kept that in, but instead of the noise, we dubbed over it with “You have a call waiting.” (laughs) It looks as if he’s annoyed by another call coming in, but really he’s just mad that noise happened again.

We went in just wanting to shoot it all beginning to end and to just be flexible. At one point, a truck comes into shot and it says on the side “It’s always been.” And that just happened out of nowhere. You would never script that. It’s just fantastic.

What was it about Tom Hardy that made you think he was the right guy for Ivan?

SK: I think whatever he’s been in, even if there are other people on screen with him, people are always looking directly at him. I think that he has one of those faces that people can look at for a long time and the presence to match. We tried to mess him up a bit with the beard and his jumper so he didn’t look so moody, but even so he still has that certain quality. He’s just so riveting. He even said it himself that this was really his first “straight” role where he isn’t playing a madman or someone becoming a monster or someone who’s angry all the time.

The original idea for Ivan Locke was to make him the most ordinary person possible. Give him and ordinary job, an ordinary domestic life, and send him on an ordinary journey where something happens that makes everything change for him.

To what extent were you influenced by John Locke and his theories of rationalism? Because Ivan is nothing if not almost rational to a fault.

SK: Yes! The name is very much a reference to that. Ivan in Welsh is kind of their equivalent of John. Ivan tries to be a rationalist and tries to be reasonable. It’s reflected in his job with the concrete that he works with every day and the foundations that he builds. The idea is that the outside world around him is chaos, but inside his little bubble of work he’s able to control everything. I hope that it sort of becomes clear when he arrives at his destination, that thing that he did as a mistake is where he has to realize that he did something that isn’t rational. “It was the result of two boxes of wine and someone being lonely,” as he says. It’s sort of like everyone can draw their own conclusions, but that there’s beauty in mistakes and beauty in confusion.

A good example of that which isn’t strictly in the narrative is the opening shot of my home town of Birmingham. The opening shot is of Spaghetti Junction, which is kind of this famous intersection, and it’s really not much to look at on its own and it’s crazy and confusing, but Haris (Zambarloukos), our DP, shot it so beautifully. It sets up nicely this ordinary motorway, ordinary man, ordinary events in a beautiful way to give it an extraordinary backdrop.

One of the themes of the film, and something that fascinates me about Ivan and everyday life, is that with our culture of cell phones and the internet people who have jobs like Ivan, and people like yourself, are always meant to be seen as being on the clock at all times. We’re raising a culture of workaholics with how much we all have to keep in touch, and Ivan has very much to his own detriment become a huge part of that.

SK: Yeah! That has to affect how people are fundamentally. To be available to all aspects of the world at all times. You may not care to pick up the phone or respond to an email, but people are going to keep calling. We used to write letters, but now we live in a different world. I think that does affect how people actually are and how they protect their own identity and their own soul. Your soul gets roughed up a bit by all these people who keep coming into your world, and that’s definitely what happens to Ivan. You can see from him talking that he thinks everything is fine, and even though that’s not the case in the film, in reality I think that’s something that we’re forced and required to do much more often. That’s the effect that technology can have and always being available. There’s that fear of showing the wrong emotion and then causing a domino effect.

And there’s something to be said about how technology today isn’t as tactile as it once was. Ivan doesn’t even have to touch anything really to answer his phone. There’s a further loss of emotion and human connection.

SK: That’s what I really wanted to get close to, that when calls are coming in they’re like voices in your head. When he starts talking to his dad in the backseat who isn’t even there, that’s indicative of the voices of the past. The phone is the future. His GPS is telling him where you need to go. The future is one spot, the past is in another, and they’re all filled with voices. I always thought it must be a blessing sometimes for homeless people who see the mentally ill all the time because they can always say it seems like people are just talking on the phone.

The father thing was really indicative of how when you go on these journeys that require a lot of focus, your min starts doing things to you. It’s sort of like the judge and jury in your head and what people think about when they think about you. You start to think that these voices are real and that they have validity to them.

I think Ivan doesn’t feel comfortable unless he’s doing something for a rational reason. He’s got to be working or he’s got to be doing something. If he’s not doing that, he’s got to be talking to his kids. When he’s explaining things to his wife, he’s not making excuses for his loneliness. I don’t think Ivan could entertain the idea that being lonely was ever an excuse for doing something. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think as a supreme rationalist that he could ever allow himself to feel alone, and that really plays into his personal troubles and his work troubles.

When Tom was in the car getting these calls, how much of it was planned and how much of it did you manipulate in the moment?

SK: He never knew when the calls were coming in, but he always knew which were coming in what order. He was ahead of where he would be in a normal situation like this, but I always spaced out and delayed what was coming. He would just be driving and I would wait. Then the phone would ring and the call would be connected.

He had the script in front of him at all times, and he’s such a brilliant sight reader that you can almost see that replication of thought to math. He does it so well that you would never know he’s just reading this. We weren’t playing tricks at all, but we were trying to keep things as real as possible.

And to Tom’s credit it’s really hard to keep that going when we had to stop every 27 minutes to change out the cards and the lenses in the cameras. It was like a Formula One pit stop. We’d pull the memory card, change the lens, but we would leave Tom exactly as he was. I actually spoke to Tom as little as possible. We did five days of rehearsal before so we could make sure that all of the actual direction was done.

How much of the film was actually spent with him driving?

SK: We drove for about one and a half miles where we were really driving and the camera was in the backseat, but obviously you can’t have a ton of dialogue in those moments. There was lots of movements with his hands, but that was about it.

Did Tom want that kind of isolation?

SK: I’m not really sure, but it was bound to happen anyway just by the design of the shoot and the amount of time we had. We would shoot everything, so anything that happened could be used.

And that was a lot more liberating for the both of us, really. When you shoot in conventional ways you start to be concerned because you have to get a certain amount of things done in a certain amount of time, and no matter what happens you have to find a way to make it through. There’s a duty to get it done somehow. Doing it this way, almost anything that goes wrong within reason is going to be perfect. We’re constantly going, so the actors can just keep constantly going. The constraints are nothing compared to the positives.

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