Steven Knight interview: Locke, World War Z 2 and more

As the thriller Locke arrives on disc we talk to writer-director Steven Knight about its making, Tom Hardy, World War Z and more...

One of the best thrillers of the year takes place inside one car. Said car is being driven by Ivan Locke, played by Tom Hardy.

Steven Knight, the creator of Peaky Blinders, wrote and directed the movie (having previously helmed the mighty Statham in Hummingbird), and he spared some time to talk about the film as it arrives on DVD and Blu-ray…

Shooting Locke, you did the drive down the motorway 18-20 times for real to film it, and pulled together your cut from there. Were you aiming for the claustrophobia of a small theatre?

Yeah. While making Hummingbird, we tested the cameras by shooting from moving vehicles. Then we would view the test footage in a cinema, and I found it really good. So I wanted to put an actor in there, in that moving image. I shot it from beginning to end each time, and the other actors who were phoning in were in a conference room, and I’d cue them. Then we’d take a break, and do it again. That was the way of trying to capture the moment.

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How did Tom Hardy’s performance evolve then with subsequent takes? Clint Eastwood would print the first take and use that. You had him reading cue cards, so presumably the first few goes were a lot rawer? Which bits did you choose to cut in? More from the early stuff or the later stuff?

He’s a very, very good reader Tom Hardy. He can read something he’s not read before, and do it well. But we’d been through the script for five days with all the actors around a table. And then the script was on autocues in front of him. My main direction was to always go for less emotion. For Ivan Locke not to follow the emotions of the people he’s speaking to on the phone.

The best take was usually at three o’clock in the morning, when everyone was exhausted. That’s when we really captured Ivan Locke.

From your directorial career so far, you seem to have a fetish for night shoots as far as I can make out!

And yet I hate them! There’s a joke amongst all the people I work with that I’ve promised them the next thing I do will begin with ‘Exterior. Beach. Day’.

Or maybe just do another remake of Insomnia!

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Yeah! It’s hard, working at nights. It’s not deliberate. Especially with Locke. A motorway at night is a different thing to a motorway during the day.

I’m guessing in good and bad ways. You get the random nutter on the motorway at night. But I gather you had a police escort when you were shooting? And they jumped into the film.

They did. They’d get bored, put on their lights, and shoot past! It was great, because it worked. We used it a few times. But normally when you’re shooting you do get people hooting their horns and interrupting. But we got very little of that. At the time of night we were shooting, the traffic was quite thin anyway.

I said to all of the actors, no matter what happened, carry on. We did hit traffic jams. But because of the way we were shooting, we knew that we always had options. We had three cameras rolling at all times, so we had lots of coverage.

Was this more fun to edit than Hummingbird, then?

Yeah. You don’t have the continuity issues. You can take something from any place on any night and it’ll work. You’re not worrying about anything other than performance.

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I read an interview with someone once, whose job it was to monitor timings on traffic lights. He talked about how he once altered the lights by six seconds or so, and instantly, half hour traffic jams disappeared. He called it the traffic light engineer’s equivalent of winning the World Cup. Ivan Locke is based in that ethos: a job that means nothing to most, but needs a near world expert to do it?

Absolutely. I decided early on that this man is what’s normally considered to be an ordinary person doing an ordinary and mundane job. But having done lots of ordinary and mundane jobs in my time, within each one there is always drama. A thing where someone does something, achieves something, and goes back home where nobody knows what they’ve done.

I worked briefly at a building site, and it’s the arrival of concrete, that’s the big drama. One man is in charge of it. I spent some time with the man who built The Shard, the man who oversaw it. That was his building as far as he’s concerned. It belonged to him. He organised it, and when that building was finished, his feeling of satisfaction was incredible. That’s what I wanted to capture, the everyday drama.

Locke came together very quickly, I understand. Under a year start to finish wasn’t it?

Yeah. I met Tom [Hardy] because he and his people wanted me to write another project. So while I was talking about the other project, I talked about this. That was in October. And we were shooting in February. It was really fast. I think if you have a very low budget, and a good actor, then you can do it. IM Global financed Hummingbird and this, and they were great. They said yes on the basis of a paragraph. 

So is it your intention to keep the films that you direct yourself on this scale, so that you can keep that level of control?

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Yes. I think where possible I want to do things in a different way, so I can concentrate on the performance of good actors. My day job is writing scripts for films, and it’s a very good living. What I want to do when I’m directing is have control, and you can only maintain complete control with a low budget.

When you came to make Hummingbird, you said back then you’d been keen to direct. Two films on, how does your relationship with directors change once you’ve helmed movies yourself?

Having directed, I now understand the brutality of it. It’s very hard work. When you write, you have the film in your head. When you direct, it’s the business of putting it out into the real world, and that’s where problems arise. I now understand how difficult it can be.

With Locke, one of the reasons to do it in such a limited way was that I wanted to see how close to the film in my head I could get.

How close did you get?

It’s very close. Because the environment is so controlled, there’s not a lot of areas within that. So it’s pretty much identical to how I envisaged it, which is very unusual.

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You’ve talked about controlling your work, and yet some of your earlier scripts to get to the screen had some extraordinary directors attached – Stephen Frears and David Cronenberg. Are you happy with how they handled your material, and how does your view on it alter in hindsight?

Absolutely. I’m been so fortunate that the directors who have taken on my stuff have been so good. What they do is different to how I would have done it. Often it’s how you imagined it, but not always. Different director, different approach. But after a while, you think what would I do, how would I do it?

Was it the Oscar nomination that opened doors for you?

Yeah, it did help. I didn’t really realise it at the time. But it did.

Going back to Locke. How did the physical release of this one contrast with Hummingbird for you? Hummingbird, by the time it went to the US, it’d had a name change on it as well – to Redemption – and it seemed certainly outside of the UK, that one was a little bumpier. Whereas Locke has seemed a smoother ride.

Absolutely. It’s good in that Hummingbird was a risk because when you have a Jason Statham film, no matter what you tell people, they will expect a certain thing, and it wasn’t that. I’m really pleased with it, and I know Jason is. He thinks it’s one of the best films he’s ever done. I’m really pleased he’s pleased with it as well. But when you have a complication as to what people expect, you’re going to have a bumpy ride.

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With Locke, it’s been great. It became much simpler. People were relating to it very personally. It is about an ordinary man. And I think all of that helps. Some projects take ten years, some have a charmed life. Locke has had a charmed life. 

I’m guessing you weren’t keen on the title Redemption either?

No. My point was that if there is anybody out there in the world who can name films and by doing so can increase the box office by even 10%, then they deserve to keep it.

One crucial Hummingbird question: do you get to keep The Statham’s hairpiece from the start of the film?

[Laughs] Yeah. Therein lies a tale! [He did not tell this tale!]

Your heritage lies partly in The Detectives too. How was working on that show?

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I loved doing that. It was such a laugh. I was writing with someone called Mike Whitehill. And then The Detectives became a long running thing, which I’m really proud of. Whenever I see an old DVD of it, I’m really pleased with it. And Robert Powell was great too. We used to have a lot of fun.

How intimidating was it writing jokes for Jesus?!

[Laughs] Yeah. It was fun! Robert Powell is very underestimated as a comic performer.

Your background stretches back to novels though. I interviewed John Michael McDonagh earlier in the year when Calvary was announced. He argued that the best stories are in novels now, but nobody seems to read them. Would you go along with that?

I think people are still reading. I’m just not sure they’re reading books. I think they’re reading stories. But there are people who say television series are taking the place of the novel. You have so much more time. You can tell a saga, like Peaky Blinders for example, of a family over generations.

Talking of Peaky Blinders, how close are you to getting a green light on series three?

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Well, the BBC are the BBC. You never know. But I’m confident! 

How do you feel when a bunch of Birmingham City fans, being one yourself, turned up at the last game of last season, dressed Peaky Blinders style? Were you there?

I couldn’t make it, sadly! I think it’s brilliant though. It was a great honour when the Blues fans did that, I was really pleased with that!

You’ve been linked with other projects this year. At one stage, you said you were writing on a script for Steven Spielberg. Is that still the case? Can I ask more about that?

Well, I am, but the nature of it means I can’t talk about it!

It’s not one of his announced projects?

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No, no.

And then there’s World War Z 2? You were linked with that. Is there truth in that?

That is happening. I’m doing that. Yes I am.

The first film battled taking a source with non-sequential narrative and turning it into a three act film. Will your sequel script stay close to the book, or take some of the creative licences that the first film did?

Well, again, I’m afraid I can’t really tell you too much! The process and the writing is underway. I can’t talk about where we’re taking it!

What else are you involved with?

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The 100 Foot Journey comes out over here soon. Then we’re shooting a film with Bradley Cooper in London at the moment. We will be shooting until the end of October.

You’re not directing that one?

No. I’ve also got Pawn Sacrifice. And then another project starts shooting in January.

-Finally, given you’ve directed a Jason Statham film in the past, I have to ask you to exclude Hummingbird. But I do have to ask you what your favourite Jason Statham movie is?

[Laughs, and thinks for a bit]. Oh God! The Bank Job! That’s the one I’m thinking of!

Steven Knight, thank you very much!

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Locke is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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