With “Locke,” UK writer-turned-director Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises”) has delivered a daring film experiment. He wanted to film one performance in normal time from start to finish. Using three multiple cameras, inside and outside a BMW driving through the night on the M6, Knight and actor Tom Hardy ran through an intense sequence of bluetooth phone calls 16 times over 12 days. No other actor appears on screen–the voice actors, including Olivia Colman and Ruth Wilson, were sitting in a conference room as the calls rolled into Hardy’s car. “Locke” is a tense, well-written and edited drama carried by Hardy’s riveting, naturalistic performance. Despite the small scale of this digital movie (which cost less than $1 million), Hardy’s performance is so towering–and moving–that it’s awards-worthy. Step one: critics have gone for it.
The film made its world premiere at August’s Venice Film Festival, where it won raves despite showing out of competition, but the Toronto Fest would not give it a prime gala slot without the working Hardy on hand. But the film screened for buyers there, and A24 picked it up before playing October’s London International Film Festival. The distributor of “Spring Breakers” and “The Bling Ring” is on a roll after “The Spectacular Now” and “Under the Skin.” They booked the film at Sundance, where it played without much fanfare outside the main sections. So they’re opening the film April 25 –while there’s room to breathe –and hoping it does well enough to justify a Best Actor awards campaign.
Hardy isn’t yet a household name. But anyone who tracks acting knows he has the right stuff. He debuted in HBO’s “Band of Brothers” and broke out with Hollywood insiders via passed-around screeners of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson,” which revealed an extraordinary actor. Casting agents took notice, and Hardy landed back-to-back roles in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” as well as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Lawless.” He’s coming up in a number of films at various stages of production: George Miller’s long-in-the-works “Mad Max” sequel “Fury Road,” the Dennis Lehane robbery story “The Drop,” Daniel Espinosa’s “Child 44,” also starring Gary Oldman. Up next: a new collaboration with Hardy and Knight–who created UK TV hit “Peaky Blinders,” which will come to the US soon, on which Hardy has a character– the upcoming BBC series, “Taboo,” executive produced by Ridley Scott. And Hardy has landed the title role in upcoming Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” which he insists will indeed get made.
As the movie unfolds, you start to figure out why the very stressed Ivan Locke, who is trying to hold himself together under immense pressure, is driving away from a gigantic building construction site, giving instructions about pouring concrete to his right-hand man, and talking to a woman he hardly knows in a hospital. He also talks to his wife and kids, and to someone who is not on the phone at all: his father. Each call ratchets up the stakes as you get to know and care about this decent, well-intentioned man, who in an instant abandons control of his well-organized life. He is heroic as he does something that he believes is right that threatens to upend everything. “I have made my decision,” he keeps telling the people who are questioning just that. And he adds, “I have behaved not at all like myself.”
As he talks to his wife and kids, his employee and boss, and a woman and a doctor in the hospital that he is hurtling toward on the M6, he feels a wide range of emotions: frustration, anger, anxiety, guilt, concern, pride, anticipation, sorrow, amusement, pain, loss, joy and grief. We all feel these things: but not in such a concentrated period of movie time.
In the video interview below, Knight and Hardy explain just how they pulled this off.
The whole cast rehearsed intensively for five days around a table –which is rare, says Hardy, who developed a Welsh accent for this successful and controlled family man. “Practically I’ve not played a character on the screen where I’m a thinking ordinary man, he is actually closer to me than any other really. So it’s not such a departure from being myself, obviously he’s a character, with camouflaging accents and stuff like that. The actual difficult mental work of some of the conversations was much closer to home than say playing Bronson, when you… create a world and a fantastical character, embellishing it with imagination. This ultimately comes back to script, and connecting with the person on the other end of the phone, the scene partner I’m working with. It’s more like an analytical therapy session. This is a bloke in an environment who’s having a very bad day, he’s performing heart surgery with his thumbs… Whatever voice goes down that phone has to be mellifluous and calm so he can put out fires. There’s a hope it’s going to be OK, by being honest and straight, at some point in the immediate future or in ten years time. He’s broken the foundation of everything that he has built, in order to restore and refurbish and recreate a future…He’s a brave bloke.”
Knight wanted “to create an ordinary man with relatively ordinary problems,” he says. “He does not kidnap or murder, he’s not Jason Bourne, he’s this bloke driving down the motorway. He does what he can.”
During filming Hardy worked off two sets of autocues from the 90-page script in the car, which mirrored his need to watch the road as he managed the phone calls. They kept to the script. While I was convinced (against practical likelihood), that Hardy was actually driving, only when the camera comes from behind him is he controlling the wheel. The cameras were mounted each night in three different positions, inside and outside the car. “It’s a theater experience with a script provided,” says Knight who was inspired by test footage of urban environments shot from cars. “The audience is required to invent the other characters for themselves. The structure is already quite strange and unusual. It’s a radio play and a theater piece. But it has to be a film outside observing both of those things. I wanted you to listen to it without the pictures and watch without the words. It looks beautiful. This should work like an installation piece that moves. The chaos of the universe is outside and the order of Ivan is inside.”
Each phone call is preceded by a pause as Locke figures out what he needs to say to the person. “Everyone does this,” says Knight. “It’s like a master class on our lives. You look at your phone to see who’s calling, and become a different person with your boss, kids or partner. It’s a gift as a writer with the situation with the man in the car, watching someone do what everyone does but in a stressful situation. He’s given 1000 things to fix at once. People like him because he almost succeeds, he almost makes it.”