One of the chief pleasures of the Göteborg International Film Festival, aside from the charming Swedishness of it all (particularly fond of the helper whose novel take on the “switch off your f*cking phone” message was to implore us not to forget to turn our phones “back on, the second you leave”), is the quality time we get to spend with our interview subjects. One of or most enjoyable meetings this time out was with screenwriter Steven Knight, whose fascinating sophomore directorial outing “Locke,” (our review from Venice is here) played the festival. Here are the fruits of our wide-ranging conversation with the “Eastern Promises,” “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Peaky Blinders” writer (who also—random trivia—devised and originally pitched “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”), including his thoughts on writing for TV vs. film, his crowded upcoming slate and lots about “Locke” …so we should probably give a little background.
“Locke” stars Tom Hardy, in a formally rigorous, strictly real-time one-man-play, in which a single late-evening car journey sees a seemingly ordinary man, a construction site foreman, put through the wringer as, through sheer force of will and a series of fraught telephone conversations, he tries to hold together a crumbling life without compromising his sense of himself and of what’s right. It’s completely different, not only from most everything else out there right now, but also from the majority of Knight’s previous work both as a director and a writer (though of course, through-lines remain). So that was where we started.
At what point in the process did you know you were writing “Locke” as a directorial project?
I’d just finished the [Jason] Statham picture [“Hummingbird,” called “Redemption” in the U.S., Knight’s directorial debut], which was very conventional. And the whole process just made me think to look again at the basics of what the job is: get a load of people into a room, turn off the lights and get them to watch a screen for 90 minutes, and how many other ways there are, without using all the tricks that normally go with a film.
Editing [“Hummingbird”], all the stuff we shot of the urban night time was beautiful, I thought that could be an installation. So I thought maybe that could be the theatre, and in the theatre you film a play. And that meant it needed to be one person and I think Tom is the best actor we’ve got, so when he was interested, I wrote the script knowing that he was going to be in it. The whole thing was all quite odd and very quick, we met in November, wrote it over Christmas and shot it in February.
So the “Hummingbird” experience made you more ascetic in your approach?
It just made me think, “How much of this is necessary?” I’d been on millions of sets but never as director and I just felt sorry for the actors, the work is so hard and you break everything up and they never get to perform, and they all love to perform. So I thought, “Surely there’s a way to shoot a play?” So we ran through it all every night in sequence—we did it the whole thing through, every night.
I was wondering how you managed the phone conversations, I mean, if the other end was pre-recorded…
We had lots of suggestions of how to makes this work, but the funny thing about film is that there’s always a practical reason why you don’t do the obvious thing.
It reminds me of that “The Simpsons” gag about how on movie sets they paint horses to look like cows, and when they need a horse they tie a bunch of cats together…
That’s exactly it! But I insisted on doing the obvious thing, so I get all the actors in a hotel conference room, feed them red wine and biscuits, they’ve all got the scripts with them I set off with Tom and the crew with 3 cameras rolling, with a real telephone line open to the car.
So I cue the calls, and we carry on driving: all the calls that come in are real and we did them all in sequence. We did a 5 day roundtable read-though and I’d given [the other actors] any direction they required so then when we went out on the road everyone knew what to do. So they could just do the play. I said, “Do what you would do on stage.”
And you’ve got such a strong cast including Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott, and then you don’t even show them.
I couldn’t believe they did it, despite it just being voice jobs. They worked for seven nights from 9 to 4. Apparently, though, they had a great time, while we were out in the cold.
And how about Tom Hardy’s Richard Burton-esque delivery, was that his idea or yours?
Actually he listened to [Burton’s recording of] ”Under Milk Wood” by Dylan Thomas. But really, we needed Locke to be the most ordinary man in Britain. I wanted him to have a so-called ordinary job, but then, they often have huge dramas in those jobs—I worked on a building site when I was younger and the arrival of the concrete is a huge deal, and the one man in charge, it’s his whole life as all these trucks arrive and are backed up.
So I wanted an ordinary man who has this ordinary tragedy where it’s something that anybody could do, but his life unravels. Which for him is the end of the world; it’s not going to make the papers, it’s not a drug deal or an explosion, it’s what happens to people. So the Welsh accent is working class without the baggage of other working class British accents like London, Liverpool or Birmingham… that was the reason.
He has an ordinary job, and an ordinary problem but I’d say the film shows that he’s an absolutely extraordinary man.
Well that’s the point, he’s the hero of that evening, and when we pass the cars at the end, full of people, I think I was trying in a way to say that in each one there’s somebody being heroic or not heroic but they’re doing something.
Going into it, it was kind of billed as a “real time thriller” and, not knowing anything about it, one could expect some sort of “Nick of Time”-style genre piece. Which it absolutely isn’t.
I mean, it’s essentially a story about making someone pregnant but I find it much more interesting than if he’s going down there to shoot the prime minister, or something. And then, yes, when it was announced, it was online as a “real time thriller,” “a race against time” and “a man’s life is on the line.” I thought, “What are they on about?”
Historically you’ve done similar things with making us feel really embedded in a subculture, be it the Russian mob, the homeless population or the immigrant experience. Here it’s a construction site foreman, but it still feels very much an insider’s view. How important is research to this aspect of your work?
On “Locke” I spent some time with someone who worked on The Shard in London. So he was just the engineer—the architects will win the awards—but this is the guy who started with a plot of land and built this massive building. So working with him was great and I loved picking up the jargon, you learn these words and you don’t really understand them, but you sort of know what they mean…C6 or C5? I love all of that, I think it’s more interesting because it’s the real world, and if you go beyond that and you do normal plot stuff, you’re just making it up. But I will say the research on this was much easier (and safer!) than on some of the previous stuff.
Is there a significant difference in your writing approach when you know you’re going to be directing?
Yes. I mean, with “Hummingbird” I wanted to write something manageable, which is potentially dangerous. But the cast were fantastic and I really want to work with Jason [Statham] again and I really want to work with Agata [Buzek] again. I will, definitely. But if you come to something new, you do question it much more, and on “Hummingbird” I had the best DP in the world, Chris Menges, and he’s been tearing his hair out for about 50 years about it, he keeps asking, “Why are all these trucks here?” So he was of the same mind.
The other thing is, you’ve gotta have fun doing it too, because it’s brutally hard work, so if you can find a way where everybody is enjoying it, you can work with deeper subjects because you can survive it.
Did the way “Hummingbird”/“Redemption” was weirdly buried on its U.S. release bother you?
I think the distributors didn’t know what to do with Jason not being “Jason.” Subsequently, people are discovering that film and people are really interested in it now. It will “develop in the can.” They were worried about a Jason audience turning up and not getting it, but Jason was brilliant he really wanted to do something different, to act and perform, and I loved how he and Agata worked together.
You’re also working on TV, with “Peaky Blinders.” What can you tell us of Season 2?
It’s written as far as the last 2 episodes, so I haven’t quite decided how it ends, and it starts shooting on February 28th. And I can’t really say too much about plot, but the business has expanded.
What is your experience of TV as opposed to film? Is it really the “writer’s medium” of cliché?
It really is. I think an under-recognized fact is that TV has changed because the screens have, we now have these massive screen in our homes… so it’s worth making your show look good. And you get more time for your story. Also, TV has such evangelical support, people saying, “You’ve got to watch it.“ It seems to be really personal to people and they’ve invested so much time in it, maybe it’s because you don’t watch it with a crowd. I’ve had more reaction to ‘Peaky’ than anything. People react really intensely. And now, the BBC is wonderful, they leave you alone, no notes. It’s “Oh, it’s done is it? Off you go!”
You have a million future projects lined up, it seems. What’s happening next?
They’re all out there, I’ve been either planting seeds or planting incendiaries.The “Chef” project with Bradley Cooper is ready to start shooting with John Wells [directing, taking over from Derek Cianfrance] in the summer. “Pawn Sacrifice” is done and is being edited by Ed Zwick—that’s the Bobby Fischer thing, he was a nutcase, a really good story. “The Hundred Foot Journey” with Helen Mirren is done and being edited as we speak and is due for release in August.
How about the intriguing-sounding “November Criminals”?
Yeah, that’s still in development. It’s a funny one, that. I hope it goes, it was fun to do, and it was cast with Chloe Moretz, and she’s really keen, she’s staying with it come what may.
And you’re also writing a remake of “Rebecca.” How do you tackle a property that casts such a long shadow?
That’s written, actually. You know, you just have to think so what, it’s a great story, and I went back to the Du Maurier book,and rediscovered how wonderful she is. She was such an interesting person it’s a wonder nobody has made the story of her life. In her letters she described lesbian experiences as “a trip to Venice” and heterosexual experiences as “a trip to Cairo.” And “Rebecca” is a really modern book about women. But remaking a Hitchcock/Olivier film? You have to think “Ah, so what?”
And are you altering it, updating the setting or anything?
No, no it’s set back in the same period.
And for the one that’s closest to my heart, the much-mooted but seemingly not hugely active “Eastern Promises 2”?
Oh, I know, I’m trying, it’s written. And it works, so watch this space.
And is it possible that it would be Cronenberg again, or will it go to somebody else?
We don’t know yet, but I can say the script for the second one is much better that the first. Honestly it’s one of the things I’ve written that I most like and it’s driving me mad… so I’ve got to get it made.
Would you consider directing it yourself?
Hmm. Trucks, a lot of trucks.
Heh, OK, too many trucks. So do you have another directing project lined up that might not be so truck-heavy?
I’m possibly doing something else with Tom [Hardy] at the end of the year, there’s a few thoughts I’ve had, which again will be different ways of doing something. And one in particular which I think could be really good which I’m going to start writing soon. But I have other things like… it seems ridiculous but what else have I got on?
There’s an RFK project?
That’s in the pipeline. The thing is that whenever I like something I go, “Yeah yeah! I’ll do it!” and then they’re like “Great, we’ll wait!” and it’s a bit “Fuck…“
That you have to then actually do it?
Well, I like doing it, when I have the time. It takes forever but I love the process of writing, I can’t stop writing, it’s something I would do anyway.
And finally, I think you were at one stage attached the adaptation of Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”?
Well Dan took that back and worked on it himself but I did a draft. That was the good old Hollywood system of, “come in, write a draft, and someone rewrites that.” I just think that’s that job and then there’s the other job of doing smaller scale things you’re in control of, but Hollywood is great. Good people, unionized, you get paid. I find in Britain people are both more arty and more willing to rip you off.
With all this work on, do you ever get to see any films?
No, not really. And I used to say… it didn’t use to be deliberate but now it is. I just don’t like cinemas very much. And when I do see a film it depresses me.
Because it’s bad or good?
Good! I always think “this is really good” and it depresses me, I see something work so simply and I think “Why can’t I do that?”
“Locke” will be released stateside on April 25th.