Writer-Director Steve Knight Moves from Indie ‘Locke’ to TV Hit ‘Peaky Blinders’ and the Sequel to ‘World War Z’

Writer-Director Steve Knight Moves from Indie 'Locke' to TV Hit 'Peaky Blinders' and the Sequel to 'World War Z'
Writer-Director Steve Knight Moves from Indie 'Locke' TV Hit 'Peaky Blinders' and the Sequel 'World War Z'
Knight’s also the creator of Netflix Brit import “Peaky Blinders,” a seedily atmospheric turn-of-the-century look at gangster life. (Our review here.) Charismatic tar Cillian Murphy used to be able to walk around in New York unrecognized but can’t do it anymore. One obsessed fan is Snoop Dog, who Knight recently took out in London. “He told me how he related to his experience with gang culture,” he says. “It’s been one of those things that’s gone off like a rocket. He says it’s going down so well with black people that they are getting into the way of dressing. The same thing happened here on the East End, people dressed like Peaky, wearing caps.”

Knight wrote Bleecker Street Media’s upcoming Ed Zwick chess thriller “Pawn Sacrifice,” starring Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer and Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky, which played well at Toronto. He’s writing the treatment for the sequel for Brad Pitt’s Plan B’s “World War Z,” which is set to shoot in October for 2016 release. “I thought, ‘why not? What fun.’ It’s not quite like the other, we’re starting with clean slate. When they’ve signed off we’re on.”

He’s seen the first “brilliant” cut of John Wells’ untitled drama starring Bradley Cooper as an American chef in London going for his third Michelin star. “It’s a terrible thing for chefs, that unlike filmmakers, they get their third star and the next year they get it taken off them.” His wife in “American Sniper,” Sienna Miller costars. They hope to be done in time for Cannes.

As busy as he is, Knight hopes to write and direct a film for the end of 2015 with Hardy. Another long-gestating collaboration between Hardy and Knight is the upcoming BBC series, “Taboo,” inspired by Hardy’s father, executive produced by Ridley Scott. 

Knight’s day job is “writing scripts or original ideas or adaptations of books, that’s great, that’s my profession,” he says. “But every now and again an idea comes to mind that you think, ‘no one would want to do this, I really want to do this myself.’ I directed Jason Statham in [“Redemption”]; it wasn’t a conventional film shot in a conventional way. I think, ‘is there another way of delivering 90 minutes of screen to an audience in a not normal way in terms of script or the way of shooting to offer everyone a vacation from what we normally do?’ I try to buck the very basics. We’re making a piece of art for people to look at in dark room.”

His writing routine starts as early as 4:30 am, “when no one’s around and I can just write, wherever I happen to be. I try to never sit down and think, ‘in this scene she has to find out he’s in love’ and set tasks to do that job. It never works. I think you have characters in your head in whatever environment they’re in and let them talk to each other in a dream way and let them go. Sometimes they say things that change the plot that are inconvenient. On many occasions I look at what characters said innocently that was contrary so far and then go back and change everything else to fit what has been said. It’s the only way to make dialogue work. It’s so weird, people often say the opposite of what they mean, they repeat themselves constantly.

“It’s so strange and random. I try to get to that, which is more interesting than plot, it’s got to be more authentic. Sometimes life is full of such randomness and chaos, because that’s the way the world works and everybody knows it. People can spot real dialogue and written—when I’m watching TV I can see someone talking and know if it’s a real person or an actor. Real people are all over the place. I try and get close to that. My ambition is to get close to the surreal way of talking that everyone has in normal conversation, and within that find the gem of poetry I need to preserve.”

Watch: How the Tom Hardy and Steven Knight Pulled Off the Ultimate Film Acting Stunt

Locke” –which is now on DVD –was a daring film experiment. The tense, well-written and edited drama is carried by Hardy’s riveting, naturalistic performance. While the small scale of this digital movie (which cost less than $1 million) kept some audiences away, critics raved over Hardy’s performance; he won Best Actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics.

Knight wanted to film one performance in normal time from start to finish. He threw out the idea during a meeting with Hardy who jumped at it. “We met in October and were shooting in February,” Knight says. “With him when he’s on screen with other actors people look at him anyway. It’s not something you learn, or can be taught. I needed  someone so watchable, not just a brilliant actor.”

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. 
Using three multiple cameras, inside and outside a BMW driving through the night on the M6, Knight and 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 (“Broadchurch”) and Ruth Wilson (“The Affair”), were sitting in a conference room as the calls rolled into Hardy’s car. 

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, 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.” 
Why the long takes on “Locke”? “The thing with “Locke” wasn’t even ‘let’s be arty and experimental,’ it felt like the most practical way of shooting the film action was to get three cameras rolling. We just shot from beginning to end. There was no continuity issue. The enemy of good cinema is retaking and going back and over and over and over.”

Ironically, before shooting his first film David Fincher gave him a three hour master class on filming and told him “You must have it have it by the sixth take!” When you make a conventional film, “you arrive on location knowing you have one or two days and by the end you have to have it in the can,” Knight says. “There’s no way around that. You have to get it done, whatever you’ve got, that is it. This way the whole film is good in different places and terrible in different places every time you do it. When you genuinely shoot the whole film from beginning to end things happen in that 90 minutes that are disruptive or wrong or brilliant, you invite chaos into process, a police car when you are not controlling traffic with the siren blaring and lights flashing. It could be the right moment, the perfect moment. When the car goes over rough road, everything would shake, the camera, once it happened, absolutely when Tom was most vulnerable, it was perfect. Invite chaos in and it will give you things when to plan it would be impossible to pull off.”

New technology made the shoot possible. “The nature of the digital camera, you can shoot the way we shot, more fundamental to the story is the fact that because cell phones are hand-free phones, and we are all now accessible to all aspects our life at all times, when the phone rings you’re the father, the son, the employee, the boss, you have to switch all these roles. You look at the phone to see who’s calling you and you become that person. It’s a master class in acting that everyone does.”
“This offers the possibility of putting the camera on someone as the life goes through them, as they go through their lives, a lot of different bits of their life comes through them on the phone. That’s never been available to dramatists before.”
For those who saw the film in the UK and stateside, the movie pulled a response from “middle-aged men with long handshakes after the screening: ‘that was my Dad or me,’ it seemed to oyster knife open up secrets in family histories that people got emotional about. I didn’t think it was ever going to be mass market film.”
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