Interview: Steven Knight writer/director of Locke

Imagine this: a man sits in a car and drives. He continues to drive. He drives a little more. An hour later, he’s still driving. In fact, the film that captures his story consists of nothing other than him driving while he talks to people via his car phone.

British writer/director Steven Knight’s critically acclaimed dramatic thriller Locke, which has wooed festival audiences around the world (including at Venice and Sydney) and is now playing in cinemas in Australia, has a rare and distinctive premise: a single setting project in which the protagonist never physically engages with other actors, but also never stops moving.

Tom Hardy is terrific as Ivan Locke, a workaholic construction manager from Birmingham who drives away from his job and his family on the eve of the cement pour for the biggest building of his career.

As a result of a one night affair, Locke has got a woman pregnant and, having grown up without a father, is determined to be there when the child is born. This causes issues with his family and colleagues, who he engages with via a constant stream of phone calls.

With no other characters on set (if you can call the motorway a set) Hardy –a very physical actor — is challenged by a role in which he does nothing but sit down and talk.

Locke hangs together remarkably well as a tense and captivating psychological study of a troubled but determined mind. Given the boldness of its premise, getting the money to finance it must have been one hell of a challenge, right?

The Oscar nominated writer/director (for his 2004 original screenplay Dirty Pretty Things) pictured below sat down with Daily Review to talk about one of the most interesting films so far in 2014.

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When you first explained the concept of Locke to a potential financer, presumably their reaction went along the lines of “Great, you want to make a film with Tom Hardy. How many people does he fight? How many places does he drive to? What happens when he arrives?” And every time you’d presumably begin your response with “Um well, actually…” Exactly how hard was it to convince people to finance the film?

It actually wasn’t that difficult. I found that if the budget is low enough people leave you alone. I sold them on a paragraph — and on the script, obviously — and I just said trust me, it’ll work. But even I didn’t know if it was going to work. We kept the budget down, we said this was going to be an adventure and we’re going to do it differently. I think because they enjoyed the script and because they trusted Tom we got given the green light quite quickly.

How important was the casting of Tom Hardy to get the film over the line?

I was meeting Tom about another project he wanted me to write. I had this idea in advance for a different kind of movie and I always knew I would need somebody brilliant to pull it off. I put the idea to Tom when we had the meeting about the other thing and he was really excited by it. I finalised the script knowing that he was going to do it. He was very enthusiastic and his enthusiasm continued throughout the project.

When it comes to Locke’s distinctive concept — single setting, one actor, loads of dialogue — it’s reasonable for audiences to be concerned that this would be a film with limited appeal. Were you worried audiences wouldn’t connect with Locke because of these reasons? It is, as you say, a very different kind of film.

It was always impossible to know for certain whether it was going to work. Films these days obviously have big budgets and explosions and things but I still think that people primarily look into the eyes of actors, no matter what the film includes.

We had a really interesting story but I wondered if that was enough, so I tried to create a really theatrically interesting experience for the screen. It wasn’t until the Venice Film Festival where — at the end of the first screening where people were applauding — I realised it had worked. People engage with characters they identify with. As soon as you give them a story where they think ‘hey, this could be me’, you’re half way there.

Ivan Locke sure talks on his phone a lot. His phone bill must be astronomical.

Yeah, but that’s the least of his troubles.

With regards to the way it was filmed, Locke really opens up the road. You’ve captured a sense of a journey, a sense of motion and geographical progression as the camera hovers around the car and the dotted lines on the freeway. How much of the film was shot on the road and how much was shot on a studio lot?

Nothing was shot in a studio. It was all real. All the people involved were people who worked in conventional filmmaking. They’re all very good and at the top of the tree – but I wanted to do this in a different way. So what we did was put three cameras in the car, which was on a low loader. We then set off on a journey.

I was on the low loader; Tom had an autocue for the script. The other actors were in a hotel conference room. The phone line was real. They were making the calls on cue and I was cueing them. We shot, beginning to end, every night, twice. We shot two films every night without Tom coming out of the car at all. There wasn’t a budget to use a green screen or a studio. Everything’s real.

When it comes to sustaining dramatic intensity you didn’t have the luxury of changing locations or physically introducing other actors. And yet the film is completely compelling. What do you believe was the most important factor?

It all goes back to storytelling. When you’re with your kids telling a story or around a fireplace telling a story people start to see images in their head. One of the greatest things about this film that people have said — and this makes me feel really happy — is that they forget they haven’t seen the other characters.

We all have an ability to create pictures in our heads. That’s what I think Locke does. It goes back to a very old form of storytelling. You don’t get to see the people, so viewers start to create them for themselves.

Read Luke Buckmaster’s review of Locke

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