Locke Review
Credit: A24 Films

Steven Knight had an idea. The writer/director, best known in the U.S. for scripting David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, wanted to tell a story in real time of a man driving home from work. There would be no high-speed chases or car-crashes. There would be no flashbacks to help explain his predicament and motivations. Instead, his one and only onscreen character would calmly engage in phone conversations with a multitude of people who were depending on him for something important: his wife, his kids, his boss, his friends. Through those increasingly tense chats, clues would trickle out, and the audience would begin to understand who he was and where he was going.

Knight recruited Tom Hardy to play his driver, an ordinary man named Ivan Locke. Their movie, Locke, is one of 2014’s overlooked gems. EW chatted with Knight to learn how he made an 85-minute car ride into one of the year’s most powerful cinematic experiences.

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A man drives his car for 85 minutes while making crucial, life-changing phone calls. That’s an oversimplified plot description for Locke, the Tom Hardy movie in which Ivan Locke’s marriage, his job, and his soul are all on the line during a fateful late-night drive from the office to a hospital.

Written and directed by Steven Knight, who wrote Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, Locke is a one-man show that unfolds in real time. The action never shifts away from Hardy, and his Ivan Locke never leaves his car. At the end of a work day, on the eve of a multimillion-dollar industrial concrete pour, Locke exits the construction site and makes the consequential decision to turn his BMW X5 right instead of left. For the next 77 minutes, the audience learns why, as he exchanges calls with his wife, his son, his boss, his subordinate, and a former colleague who is counting on his help.

If the film’s premise is simple, there was nothing easy about its execution. Knight made the unconventional decision to shoot the film as one extended sequence, like a play. There were no pauses or retakes. Each night, Hardy and the production crew would set out on the M1 motorway between Birmingham and London and perform the script from beginning to end. Then they would do it again. Twice a night. For eight nights.

The idea for the film came to Knight during the production of his last film, Redemption, starring Jason Statham. “We’d been testing the sensitivity of the digital cameras by shooting from moving vehicles,” Knight says. “When I looked at it on the big screen, it just looked absolutely beautiful. My first instinct was maybe you can make that into a piece of art—just a live shot at night from a moving vehicle that looked sort of random but very composed. One thing led to another, and I started to think about the possibility of turning that moving image into a movie. Therefore it’s a journey—and if it’s a journey, I would love it to be [a character] who starts with everything and ends with nothing.”

As a writer, Knight found the straightforward plot of a man driving a car alone at night rich with literary potential. “There’s something about shooting in a car on a journey that offers you quite simple metaphors that work without having to be explained,” he says. “Ahead is the future, without a doubt. The past is behind you, so it’s in the rearview mirror. GPS was important because that was almost like destiny saying, ‘That’s where you’ve got to go.’ It all gives you a good shorthand to use when you’re actually writing and shooting.”

Knight knew he needed an actor who could command the audience’s attention, and he immediately set his sights on Hardy, who’d raised his acting profile in The Dark Knight Rises and Warrior after stealing scenes in Inception. “I think he’s one of those actors that even if there are other people on the screen, people look at him—he’s just got that whatever that thing is that makes him very watchable,” says Knight. “I explained [to Hardy] that I wanted to do this very odd thing and to shoot a journey almost in real time with one actor on the screen. Tom loves to experiment. His obsession is acting rather than celebrity, so he was all for it.”

Knight recruited other actors to provide the voices for the phone conversations that would accelerate the drama, including Ruth Wilson (The Affair) as Locke’s wife, Olivia Colman (Hyde Park on Hudson) as his former colleague, Tom Holland (The Impossible) as one of his sons, and Andrew Scott (Sherlock) as a panicked subordinate. For five days, they rehearsed together around a table and fine-tuned the script, so that when the rubber finally hit the road, everyone was on the same page.

The character of Ivan Locke was written as an average bloke. “I wanted to give him a problem that wouldn’t make even the local paper,” says Knight. “It’s an ordinary tragedy that can happen to anyone. But he is called Locke because he follows the John Locke philosophy of reason that everybody’s in charge of their own destiny. And I wanted Ivan to encapsulate that in the car. You have him in his little bubble of light trying to create order against that chaotic background outside.”

Those initial night-time images from Redemption that sparked Knight’s storytelling mojo were a springboard for cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Thor), who was given free rein to amp up the night lights and enhance the vivid reflections that scroll across the car’s windows. “He had extra lighting on the outside of the vehicle so that everything looked very sort of surreal in a way,” says Knight. “What Haris did was make these sights look so chaotic that it really the job of saying, ‘Here is a man who is confronted with chaos of his own making, and he’s trying to make it okay.'”

That delicate dance between chaos and order hovered over the production as well. Knight’s strategy demanded that everything be precisely planned in advance, and Locke’s luxury SUV was situated on a low-loader. Three cameras captured his every move inside, while the script was fed into three auto-cues—on the rear of the trailer, in the rear-view mirror and in the GPS system—so that Hardy could read his lines just by looking where a driver naturally would. With a trailing police escort, the rig would set into traffic and whatever it brought along with it. “Tom and I wanted [the car] to look like a ship in a storm,” says Knight, who retained eye contact with Hardy the whole time from the back of the low-loader. “It is almost like a boat that’s really been rocked around, and you’re not sure whether it’s going to make it or not.”

The rest of the cast was gathered in a hotel conference room, enjoying beverages and biscuits until each was called to the phone to record their conversations with Hardy. Though the actors rarely, if ever, deviated from the script, Knight decided about halfway through the production to throw them a little off balance. He wrote them individual letters that adjusted their character’s motivations. “For example, for Ruth Wilson, who plays Ivan’s wife, I said, ‘Try the scene as if you’ve always wanted to get rid of him. You know, you’ve wanted to get rid of him for two years, three years. And this is your chance. So you’re jumping at it. You are angry, but it’s sort of a relief to you as well.’ I didn’t tell Tom I was doing it, so often it would come as a surprise. And that was good, because then he had to adjust and you could see the adjustment.”

The outside world enforced its own adjustments on the night-time drives, but often those technical challenges proved to be opportunities as well. “All kinds of things happened that if you tried to create them, it would be impossible,” says Knight. “There were occasions when the car would go over very bumpy parts in the road at the moment when [the scene] was very tense. And it was a great reflection of the mood that he was in at that particular moment. And we had real police cars go by at particularly appropriate moments. We can use all of that. And you can start to enjoy the fact that you’re not in control of everything.”

Once production wrapped, Knight and editor Justine Wright had to sift through more than 68 hours of film—16 takes x 3 cameras x 85 minutes—to piece together a riveting cut. “Practically, what we did is we streamed four at a time of each sequence, so that we were looking at four versions of the same thing,” says Knight. “And we would say, ‘That’s the best one.’ At first, you felt you were trying to find a needle in a haystack but eventually it did actually resolve itself quite well.”

Locke opened in theaters in April, and though it didn’t make an impact at the box office (it grossed only $1.4 million), critics took notice. “Locke is a bit of a storytelling stunt,” wrote EW’s Chris Nashawaty. “But even with nothing to cut away to and no flashbacks to offer context, the film manages to stay as tight as a vise.”

Knight won the Best Screenplay Award at the British Independent Film Awards, and Wright recently won European Film Award for Best Editor. Theater directors in three different countries have approached Knight about adapting the film to the stage, but those future productions won’t have Hardy to anchor the story. His portrayal of Locke, which was named the best of 2014 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is one of the most sublime performances in recent memory.

There are moments in the film where Locke subtly shifts from being a father to an employee to a husband to a friend, all in the span of a few moments as he’s forced to confront the misdeed threatening to fracture every aspect of his life. “Tom managed to encapsulate that [transition], but also, the wonderful thing about looking at someone on the phone who is allegedly alone is you know that what’s on his face is real,” says Knight. “They can be saying something into the phone: ‘It’s all fine. Everything’s okay.’ But if they have tears in their eyes, you know you’re looking directly into the soul of that person. Because that’s obviously the truth.”