Tom Hardy has defined his career by playing very distinct and willfully hard-as-nails men. His breakthrough came in portraying a sociopathic prison inmate in “Bronson,” then came a flamboyant dream criminal in “Inception,” a taciturn bootlegger in “Lawless,” an intractable UFC pugilist in “Warrior,” a dogmatic terrorist in “The Dark Knight Rises” and he’s about to play the iconic wasteland traveler that Mel Gibson made famous in “Mad Max: Fury Road” next year.
But before that, this week he hits theaters as Ivan Locke in “Locke.” Directed and written by Steven Knight (the screenwriter behind David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises”), “Locke” is about an ordinary man in largely ordinary circumstances. Ivan Locke is a man in crisis, but it’s not extraordinary like you see in most movies. And so “Locke” shouldn’t work for several reasons.
For one, Tom Hardy is the only character on screen and he’s stuck in a car for 90 minutes trying to manage and micromanage the various crises of his soon-to-be crumbling life. If it sounds like a stunt or a gimmick, well, it only is on the surface. And if it sounds boring or painful, it’s not. Hardy is such a commanding performer, that for 90 minutes you are literally transfixed and riveted with Locke (read our review here). Co-starring Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels and Tom Holland – but only as disembodied voices on the phone – like “127 Hours,” “All Is Lost” or “Castaway,” Knight’s latest drama is a one man show (see our recent feature on this genre too). No doubt an experiment, a huge risk and a film that could have ended up as folly, “Locke” is a mesmerizing portrait of a man, his need for control, while his life collapses around him and the choices he makes to attempt to survive it all.
“Locke” opens in limited release this weekend via A24 Films, and we sat down with Knight and Hardy earlier this week to discuss this bold and formalistic gamble.
On so many levels this movie shouldn’t work. It almost reads like it’s uncinematic on the surface, but it’s the exact opposite, really. How did you come up with such a difficult challenge for yourself? Did you even think of it as such?
Steven Knight: I’d just come off making a much more conventional film [“Hummingbird” with Jason Statham] and wondered is there, you know going right back to basics of what’s the job. The job is to get in the room, turn off the lights and have them look at a screen for 90 minutes. Is there another way of doing that? At the same time I’d seen the test footage that we’d shot with digital cameras from a moving vehicle on a motor way, which we’d done to test the cameras’ sensitivity. I thought it just looked hypnotic and thought, well, is it possible to make that move and energy into a theater? Put an actor in there and shoot a play?
So that was the basic idea. I wanted to do something about an ordinary man, who isn’t Jason Bourne or James Bond. He’s a very ordinary man and he’s made a mistake. Just to watch in that real time journey, watch someone’s life go from that to that. From everything to nothing and what would cause that. So, naively hoping that Tom would do it – I think he’s the best actor we’ve got, and if you’re going to be up there for 90 minutes it’s got to be somebody good. So we were meeting about something else and mentioned the idea and told him we would write the script and then we shot it.
Tom Hardy: It’s not often you get to make a student film, but when you’re not a student. Do you know? And you’ve got the full assets of a professional world. Because you know we’re going to do something which is ultimately massively experimental, you don’t really get the freedom to do things like that since you probably were a student, but with the assets of having x amount of years in the professional environment to play with. So it’s a proper bit of fun but with everybody knowing what they were doing and doing something out of their comfort zone.
Knight: And we kept getting the best people to say yes as well, which is really weird. But they’re actors in the U.K. that are as good as it gets. The crew were great, the DP was fantastic.
Hardy: It was like a shotgun wedding.
Knight: It’s a quick burst, shot in one week, bang, and everybody puts everything into it.
Hardy: One week, what can we do with a week? It’s pretty cool, right? Did we set out to make a movie? No, it’s like we set out to test ourselves and our limitations and embrace and celebrate those limitations and create a structure and do an experiment. And I think we stepped up into taking on a new responsibility as well. It all comes down to the script and vision and team and then getting on with it, ticking the boxes.
So, for me it was really exciting, really invigorating in a world of industry whereby boxes are ticked because they’re formulaic and that’s what works. Then you have art-house films, independent, struggling to get made. Theater and the screen and stage plays, there’s a world out there to play with, if you just take it by the hands, take the opportunity and go look, we’ve got the opportunity to make something off the sum of those parts, and then go for it really.
So you said you got Tom to agree to star in it before you wrote the script?
Knight: Right, it was an idea, a character and an idea and a sort of commitment to doing justice to an ordinary man’s drama.
Hardy: But the premise was that … it was an experiment, I want to shoot it very quickly, “as soon as you can.” So as soon as you can make it, within five or six weeks, the window that it was probably going to be in was between two films. It started to get smaller and smaller.
Knight: But it was the method of approaching the making … filmmaking for some reason has got so many rules attached to it. It would be, the three acts and the arc, the character must change. All of these things you are told, they are invaluable, you can’t get around them. But, it would be like saying to a painter, you’ve got to use this much blue, this much red, this much white. Why? You don’t have to. With this film the idea was to be almost naive about it and we put the cameras in the car and then shot the whole film beginning to end, every time. So I would say action once and that was it.
So you were shooting all these long scenes in real time?
Knight: Yeah, and we’d pull over every 27 minutes to change the memory card, change the lens, change the angle.
And Tom, you’re actually making the calls to the actors?
Knight: The calls were real because we locked the other actors in a conference room, in a hotel.
Hardy: We set ourselves rules and we stuck to them, we were strict about them. It would have been ideal to have one take for the whole thing and see what you had, that would be the real … because we shot it once and that was it, this was what you got. But obviously that’s not viable, there is a way to do that and this is testament to that. There’s no reason you couldn’t push that, for that one shot. But also, you know, it’s a fucking good film.
The insurance policy of having sample takes allowed the ability to cherry pick from the options over the 16 versions of the film we ultimately had. But we went and fished for different bits in each take and set up cameras because you couldn’t just … you’d have to change the camera set and that kind of thing.
A reset in that instance can probably only help.
Knight: It would be great seeing the choices in the edit were all made on the basis of performance. Because there was no continuity issue. Because the background is always chaotic lights and movement. So you could always choose the perfect moment for each sequence, for each telephone call, without regard to other issues like the performance and the actors and the vision or the lights and the background.
Hardy: You could set up an personal agenda on every take too. You could say okay, “in this version imagine that you never wanted to be with Ivan, you never loved him, you couldn’t wait to get rid of him.” So when she plays the whole thing in that tone it changes again the dynamic of the outcome. But we’re going from the beginning of the film to the end of the film, so it’s not like we broke up the … the whole thing is colored with this new agenda.
Knight: We just kept changing the character motivations. The actors about halfway through the week were just tweaking what their motivation was. In reality then you can then intercut, you can cut between the two different ones and it’s just like real life. We’ve all got millions of motivations.
Right, and if you change the motivations for the characters on the phone, that’s going to affect Tom.
Hardy: Yeah and again, it’s a slight of hand in editing, but the dimension of the character becomes again another layer. It’s still honest, but it’s not from the original reading, which is a hybrid of … like a patchwork, a collage.
There’s obviously so much risk involved in this, was that the appeal for you in taking this role?
Hardy: Yeah, it’s one of those things. But really, there was no risk working with Steve.
Sure, but the risk that the whole thing would work, no?
Hardy: Oh yeah, I don’t think any of us thought, for one moment, that it wouldn’t work. It was just to what extent we were going to be satisfied with the result personally.
I think if you go into something thinking, this is going to sell, then that’s the wrong head for me. It’s, how much am I going to mind this for personal investigation interests in the craft? What can we do? How can we push what we’ve got as a team. The combination of that over the days, built on the trust and the script and the obvious anchor points of what are all essentially great assets, you just see what you get.
Then the editing and the tailoring and the marketing of the film. The feedback that we get from people who are watching it. If somebody enjoyed the process then ultimately it comes again back to script. You know, you have an ordinary man in a huge crisis that opens his mouth and stuff starts to come out. The film could have been called, “Not Very Good Wednesday.” It’s a normal person’s absolute nightmare.
It’s interesting to watch you play such an ordinary guy, especially after playing all these very heavy and colorful characters many of whom are pretty sociopathic.
Knight: But that was the point: to create the most ordinary person and also to make the job that he does not glamorous.
The other test was, I suppose, the audience’s need to be in the story within six minutes. Because as soon as the novelty’s worn off and they know that they’re in the car for the duration, they’ve got to forget that. They’ve got to be in the story, and that’s just a testament to the performance and people going and identifying things in the story with their own lives. A number of people have come up to me afterwards and said, that’s the journey my Dad never made, that’s the journey my Dad did make, it’s the journey I should have made. It’s a bit close to home for a lot of people. But when the lights go up, look who’s got tears in their eyes.
Hardy: It’s relatable to so many people in a way that another genre or film wouldn’t be. If you go with it, you will be taken on a journey. Ultimately that’s what a film should be: going on a journey while you’re watching. What was interesting as well is, if you took Locke out, remember Harrison Ford did “Frantic,” there’s no difference with that guy. Take him and then you snatch his wife from him and he has to go find her in Paris. You could push this guy, you just have a base level of a man dealing with just a real life situation…
You guys subvert the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances paradigm.
Knight: Yeah, an ordinary tragedy, because it is a tragedy.
Hardy: There’s nothing remotely memorable about them, they’re ordinary and pedestrian tragedies, but they are legitimate. In every individual case they are crises and that’s the jumping off place for many people.
Knight: There’s an interesting moment in the film where putting music to the situation is so related to enormous things. Because it’s sort of suggesting huge emotion but when he’s driving down the motorway and his wife says, I don’t want you back, and he’s looking at the men putting the stuff out in the motorway, the road signs and you think well they’ve probably got similar situations. They’re working all night, they probably have a terrible home life. The music sort of says yes, this is serious, yes this is a drama in your life.
Hardy: And every other car on the motorway might have that same drama.You can zero in on every single car and there’s something going on in every car and every head. Every audience member’s got their own version of events of their own life.
Tell me about the Richard Burton-esque Welsh accent you employ accent. It’s very distinct, stentorian, but also feels key to this guy’s need to control this falling-apart situation.
Hardy: Yeah I brought the Welsh into it, because there’s a softness to that accent but there’s also, it’s a very hardy terrain and you get a lot of tough lads coming from Wales, a lot. They have this, they sing beautifully don’t they?
They play rugby very hard, they’re a very particular sort of bunch. But there’s a gentleness that we need for Ivan Locke. And Ivan, I think, is also, there’s a gentleness to the Welsh accent and tone. But when you listen to Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas, there’s a poetic gentle nature. Which I think was essential to calming and putting out fires, even the ones that he started himself. That kindness. I’m going to say something really awful, and I want to be practical about it. There’s not a hint of malicious in him, there’s no agenda other than I’ve totally fucked up. You know? Rather to hear that from a voice that’s gentle and neutral and kind than any other accent. It seemed to fit.
Knight: Subsequent to that, what was great about it was the Celticness, the Welshness, the fact that his Dad drank and he was a rogue, is very very … it could be a very Celtic choice. The Dylan Thomas sort of character. Here’s Ivan trying to say no, I’m not like that, that’s not me. It really is a sort of break with the past and the culture.
Right and his journey’s about defining himself in his own way. So you guys are working again on some TV projects? So I assume this was fruitful collaboration?
Knight: It was great, it was good and it was brief [laughs]. But it’s great, it really is. When the shoot is this short, everyone brings everything every day. Everybody’s really full on and I think it shows on the screen.
Hardy: Yeah, when the clappers going, you get down to it. You couldn’t sustain that for three weeks. What you can do at maximum, minimum effort but maximum force, here it’s maximum effort and maximum force.
But you guys do have a TV project coming up, right?
Knight: I think we’ve both got things in between, but the next thing we’ll be doing together will be “Taboo,” the TV thing.
What’s that about?
Knight: We can’t really tell you. It’s a period drama.
It doesn’t come out til next year, but you must have had your share of shooting in cars last year with ‘Mad Max’ and “Locke”
Hardy: Mad Ivan and sensible Max. I should switch the characters.
Is there anything you can take from one to the other?
Hardy: No, just me. Everything’s different and everything is subject to what it needs in its requirements and what can be done in the day really with what assets one has. Everything’s different and it’s a different process.
“Locke” opens in limited release on Friday, April 25th.