Neither Doug Liman nor Sam Levinson is capable, it seems, of sitting around twiddling his thumbs. Over the summer, in pandemic lockdown, both prepped a new movie, unsure if it would ever happen. With breathtaking speed, they raised financing to shoot their pared-down indie movies without studio interference. “Locked Down” was filmed in 18 days in London, England, while “Malcolm & Marie” shot over 14 days in the glass Caterpillar House in Carmel, California.
Both movies are two-handers centered on a faltering relationship. In “Locked Down” (now streaming on HBO Max), writer Steven Knight stopped writing “Peaky Blinders” episodes long enough to knock out a story at the behest of Liman and producer P.J. van Sandwijk (“Citizen K”) about an estranged couple (Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor) who, forced by the pandemic to continue to cohabit in lockdown, plan and execute a Harrods jewel heist that reheats their romance. Over the summer, Liman and Knight talked out their ideas over Zoom.
Both movies were made in a spirit of throwing off all shackles and fears, and just going for broke. At the urging of bored-at-home Zendaya, who wanted to keep the crew of “Euphoria” employed, Levinson churned out script pages for “Malcolm & Marie” (February 5, Netflix). Each night, he read his day’s work to her over the phone, as he plotted out an explosive night-long fight between a rising young director (John David Washington) and his younger wife and muse (Zendaya) after he forgets to thank her at his movie premiere. This happened to Levinson at the premiere of “Assassination Nation,” he said on a Zoom call, when he forgot to thank his wife and producer, Ashley Lent Levinson, but their discussion was contained to the car on the way home.
Hollywood scion Levinson, who grew up watching TCM movies with his father Barry and studied acting at Lee Strasberg in New York, was “taking [out] my love and my frustrations with the film business, with making movies, and my anxieties, feeling like sometimes I’m not as expressive in life as I can be in art. I wanted to make a movie about relationships and about how much we desire to be acknowledged and acknowledge our partners. I started writing a Socratic dialogue between the two characters. Malcolm comes out celebrating, swinging, taking shots at whoever he wants to. Marie holds back and then starts pulling the threads. I wanted it to be this ongoing debate, that continues to build upon every position previously staked and not give it a traditional structure, like one continuous scene.”
In the case of “Locked Down,” after producer van Sandwijk had driven into London and saw the empty streets, he urged Liman and Knight to write a movie set in the now “because of the production values we could get.”
It wasn’t what you could shoot in London that inspired Knight and Liman. They threw around ideas about “what is special, the emotional impact of what we are all going through,” said Liman. “We just started telling stories to each other about the experience we and other people were having.”
Back in June and July, Liman was still thinking in terms of shooting after the pandemic, “because there’s no socially distanced way to make a movie. I had emotionally prepared myself, I wasn’t going to be making a movie for a while. Then I saw Tom Cruise bending heaven and earth to get ‘Mission: Impossible’ back into production. Suddenly, it opened me up to the possibility that maybe there was a way to make a movie during the pandemic.”
Both “Locked Down” and “Malcolm & Marie” went into pre-production without finished screenplays. In April, with his script well under way, Levinson and Zendaya decided to approach Washington, who neither knew well, to play the director. Levinson called and read him his first 10 pages. Washington said yes, in part because he was a “huge fan” of Levinson’s film “Assassination Nation.” “Also where I was in my life, I was supposed to be gearing up for a globetrotting tour, rolling out ‘Tenet’ all over the planet, celebrating what Christopher Nolan did, in the best year of my life.”
Instead, Washington was home in Brooklyn. “It’s unknown, it’s scary,” he said. “It makes you sit with yourself, doing self-inventory of what’s happening — what you should have done and should not have done — and ultimately to panic: ‘I don’t think that I can act again.’ We can’t do the thing anymore that we love. I was in a state of desperation, hankering to express something.”
Not only was Levinson asking Washington to join his merry band in Carmel, but to help pay for the movie. “Not having to answer to anybody other than the people we trust and have faith in was thrilling,” said Levinson. The filmmakers and stars fronted $2.5 million of their own money; with limited resources to pay the 21 members of the skeleton “Euphoria” crew, who were being asked to take on multiple production roles, they agreed to share any proceeds with them after a sale. “How do we make sure people are compensated properly,” said Zendaya, “for taking this step and this risk with us, with an equitable share?”
AP Photo/Richard Drew
In Hollywood, Liman is known as a maverick director, not unlike Steven Soderbergh, who likes to break moviemaking conventions and set himself challenges, often driving studio producers crazy. Liman and his “Edge of Tomorrow” star Cruise were already planning, with van Sandwijk and Elon Musk, to shoot their SpaceX movie in outer space on the Axiom Space Station. “I like to put myself in situations where I run the risk of falling flat on my face,” said Liman.
But Cruise helped push “Locked Down” forward in another, more practical way. In order to get “M:I” back into production, he successfully lobbied the British government to adjust its quarantine rules to accommodate filmmakers. But what God gives, he can take away.
When Knight handed in his first pages in mid-August, Liman became determined to pull off this feat of filming inside what could be a very short window. Now, Knight’s screenplay was hurtling toward an actual start date in September or October, because by November COVID was predicted to get worse.”If we [could] shoot it in September and October and finish it by December, we could do something no one has ever done before: tell a story about about an historic event while still living through it, and release it to an audience still suffering through it, speak to an audience in a way no other movie could,” Liman said.
To finance the movie, they needed a cast willing to take the safety risk, and permission to shoot inside iconic department store Harrods, which swiftly signed on, along with Hathaway and Ejiofor. “What I was asking of them goes so far beyond what has ever been asked of an actor,” said Liman. “The script was only partially written when I asked them to put their trust in me and the project. They just let go and came in with such a loose energy.”
The filmmakers raised about $3.5 million (with no completion bond insurance and no upfront fees) to shoot 100 pages in London in 18 days, the number of days Liman had on his first movie, “Swingers.” He wondered at the 80-page mark, how Knight was going to wrap things up. Then he turned in another 100 pages, with the Harrods jewelry heist dominating the last third.
“‘Should we do this outrageous thing?'” Liman said. “It’s not a conventional heist movie. [Steven] was a writer living through the pandemic writing from a personal place, not a writer 10 years from now doing research. What he was experiencing, he was putting on the page. There was such specificity to that. I felt, ‘We can’t muck with that.'”
Liman timed himself reading the script and decided to ask his actors to spit out their dialogue at top speed, like a Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy. And he asked for an epilogue.
But first he had to get to London. At the time, he could take a commercial flight to the U.K., but Liman, a pilot with 20 years experience, decided to fly his own single-engine turboprop TBM 930.
He flew nine hours with three stops, from Massachusetts to Newfoundland (when he managed to lose some noisy ice on his propellers), then over open ocean with no radio contact to Greenland, then Iceland to London. “You were supposed to be looking for ships in case the engine quit,” said Liman, who flew with a pilot friend. “In Greenland they really didn’t want you: ‘We have no cases on the continent!’ When we got to Iceland they allowed us to stay the night.”
DOMINIC MILLER/NETFLIX © 2021
For “Malcolm & Marie,” Zendaya, 24, earned her first PGA credit as a producer. “I was essentially involved in every aspect of its creation,” she said on the phone. “Sam and I have a creative relationship we started a long time ago, and were able to go through a whole show together. To be able to work every day was my lifeline.”
Before the shoot in June, cast and crew had to quarantine and test in order to shoot inside their own bubble: once they were in, they couldn’t leave. In those 12 days of Carmel quarantine prep, Washington had time to play catch up with his co-star, who had helped Levinson to build the movie from the ground up. Much like a play, he and Zendaya workshopped the script and rehearsed together.
But 65 pages in, Levinson had not completed the third act. “We didn’t know how it was going to resolve,” said Zendaya. “The last scenes came through the workshop phases.” Sometimes Levinson sat at the computer with the actors talking to him, as Richard Linklater did with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy on the “Before” trilogy. “Sometimes he would go off in a cave,” said Zendaya, “and come back the next day with pages.”
During filming, both actors did their own hair and makeup and dressed in their own clothes. But it came as a shock when on the first day, Levinson and his cinematographer Marcell Rév (“White God”), who were filming on 35mm black and white film (inspired by Joseph Losey’s “The Servant” and Otto Preminger’s”Bunny Lake is Missing”), threw out the painstaking choreography they had shot.
“It looks like a whiskey commercial,” Levinson told Rév. He agreed. On the second day, they shot handheld, and the exhausted, sweaty cinematographer looked like he’d lost 10 pounds. They threw that out too. “We’re butchering this,” Levinson said.
They were trying to figure out what they were doing. “Look, we had no first AD, no script supervisor, none of that usual logistical stuff,” said Levinson. On day three they laid track in the house for an elaborate shot connecting Marie in the bathroom to Malcolm outside. It worked.
“This is the way,” said Levinson, “we are entering an objective perspective. He’s in one world, she’s in another. Emotionally they are clicking, We are not taking sides in this ongoing discussion. You’re seeing the house in full outside, looking bright. It’s like eavesdropping.”
They had one hour to capture the seven-minute take before the sun came up. They got three, and used the last one. “I never for a moment felt confident we weren’t fucking it up,” he said. “That’s a good sign. The only time I’ve felt confident was when I was making bad decisions.”
In late August, they landed a handsome payday after showing 20 minutes of footage to buyers; Netflix won the bidding war among eight distributors with a $30-million offer for worldwide streaming rights. (The filmmakers then made a big donation to Feeding America.) “Shout-out to Netflix,” said Washington, “for being a great companion and cheerleader and very pro-artist.”
As hard as the flight was, making “Locked Down” was harder. “There was no margin for error on any day,” said Liman, who shot the opening of the film on the street across from where he was living in Notting Hill one morning on the way to work. “It’s like pitching a perfect game. London was shutting around us, I was more and more scared that Boris Johnson was going to shut down production. We were all taking the gamble that we could get the movie complete. It was uncharted waters. That was the risk we all took for putting our time into it.”
Liman was filming with a large format Arri. Each day, the director would walk onto set, lay out blocking, and shoot one to seven takes, as needed. The fast-talking worked, and finish they did. But as they edited fast and looked for a buyer, it was also unclear how audiences would receive “Locked Down.” “On one level, it was hitting so close to home,” said Liman, “and on another, it was giving them some escape.”
Warner Bros. and HBO Max stepped up and rushed the movie onto January 14 day-and-date release. How did it do? “I don’t know,” said Liman. “I’ve done Netflix and HBO. They’re closely guarded. Where was it most watched? We’re behind ‘Wonder Woman 1984.’ That’s a good sign.”
Clearly, the pandemic gave both filmmaking teams a chance to break away from what’s normal and find some creative freedom. Both movies are infused with that energy.