Steven Knight became best known as a quality writer or co-writer of such works as DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (for which he received a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination), AMAZING GRACE, the Jason Statham thriller REDEMPTION (known as HUMMINGBIRD in many parts of the world), the surveillance-based story CLOSED CIRCUIT, and most famously EASTERN PROMISES for director David Cronenberg. This summer Knight's screenplay foor THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY, starring Helen Mirren, will hit theaters, and perhaps one day his fantasy adventure SEVENTH SON, starring Jeff Bridges, will make it to the big screen (it's presently slated to debut in February 2015).
During a meeting with actor Tom Hardy about a British TV series they were doing together, "Peaky Blinders," which will hopefully debut in the U.S. later this year, Knight took the opportunity to pitch Hardy on an idea he had about a film that would be nothing but a man in a car for 90 minutes on the most chaotic day of his life. Just a few months later, the two were shooting LOCKE, which Knight also directed, a riveting one-man show in which Hardy plays a man whose life is crumbling before his eyes, even as he attempts to hold it together from the driver's seat. This isn't a traditional thriller; lives are not at stake; there are no villains chasing him. It's strictly about watching one of the most engaging actors working today take phone call after phone call, in an attempt to keep his personal and professional life from collapsing.
And in the coming years, we'll see his screenplay for PAWN SACRIFICE brought to the screen by director Edward Zwick, concerning the great chess showdown between Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). And his upcoming projects continue with another series with Hardy ("Taboo"), a second season of "Peaky Blinders," a film with Bradley Cooper about a chef that used to be called CHEF, and possibly a World War II drama with Brad Pitt. And apparently, Knight already has a finished script for a EASTERN PROMISES sequel. He's a machine, and a truly enjoyable guy to chat with. Please enjoy my talk with Steven Knight
Capone: I wanted to talk to you about the very specific language of this film, largely dealing with construction and concrete pouring. You said you had worked in construction for a while, but is that where all that came from, or did you do additional research to make Locke's knowledge that detailed?
SK: A long time ago just to have money when I was in college and afterwards I worked in construction, and all I remember from that was, first of all how hard it is, but also the importance of the concrete pour, and that was the day when everything happened. Often there would be a laborer who really knew what was going on. He would be the one who would sort things out. So it’s quite an interesting idea that that could ever be used as a theme for a film. But then I spent time with the man--I’ve forgotten his name--who built The Shard [the tallest building in the European Union]. He organized it, oversaw it from when it was a piece of waste ground, to when it was the tallest building in London. The technical side of concrete I got from him, basically.
Capone: The one shot in the film that isn’t inside the car is the shot of a construction pit. Where was that?
SK: That is actually in London. I’m sure by now, it's probably half way built, but it was the foundation of another skyscraper.
Capone: It looked pretty massive.
SK: Yeah, it will be--the Leadenhall Building.
Capone: So talk about the initial discussions with Tom Hardy and recruiting him for this. What did you say to him that sold him on the idea? I can’t imagine any actor saying no to just being the sole focus of a film like this.
SK: [laughs] There is that, yeah. The real, real, real story--because it’s now public knowledge that I’m doing something else with Tom--is that the meeting was about that. It was about "Taboo," which is a Ridley Scott-produced thing that is going to be next year. So, he and his people wanted me to write the opening episode or some of the episodes for that. So that was the meeting. Tom was driving himself, and got a bit lost as he does in London, as everybody does. So while we’re waiting, I said during the meeting, “I’ve got this odd idea for a film. I’d love to talk to Tom about it.” And they said, “Yeah, fine, fine, fine.”
So we talked about the other project, which is great, and then I said I’ve got this idea to shoot effectively a play in a theater which uses the moving image from a car. And I explained what it would be about--a very ordinary man who has this ordinary tragedy. And he was engaged immediately, because he loves theater, and I think he liked the idea of being able to control the performance as well. And you know, we are all sick of the way films are made. Everybody. And the idea that you could make a film in a different way is, I think, very attractive to people. So, that was November . I went away and wrote it, and in early January  had the script, and he read it, loved it, and said, “Let’s do it.” And so by February 4 or 5, we started shooting.
Capone: So within a month of giving him the script.
SK: Yes. God knows, I know how it normally goes. It’s script meetings, it’s drafts, finance, and all of that. This was like, if the budget is low enough, you can almost get away with no one even noticing that you’re doing it. You know what I mean?
Capone: And the time commitment is nothing for the actors.
SK: Exactly. And you win in all ways, because they know it’s going to be over soon, so they give you all of their buzz, all of their excitement, everything. You don’t get the sag in the middle and all of that stuff that happens on a conventional shoot. And even if you’re not getting much sleep, you just carry on and get it done, and I think that comes through. And it was just a great experience for all concerned. And the crew were really into it, and the DP, Haris Zambarloukos, was really excited by the idea of making this, because I said to him, “I’d love it if you could turn the sound down on this and still watch it and wonder what it is.” So that was the challenge for him, and we still didn’t know it was going to work until we actually started shooting.
Capone: So the "Taboo" series…
SK: It’s going to be a television series, which will play in the UK and US. I’m not writing all of them, but I’ve written the pilot and gotten the characters, and basically put it together as a story.
Capone: What was it about Hardy that just made you think this is the guy for this? It doesn't sound like you even considered anybody else.
SK: No, he was first choice, and since he said yes straight away, there was no need to consider anybody else. I think he’s the best actor we’ve got. He’s very watchable. People like to watch him. I think it was INCEPTION really that made me think he’s got something special.
Capone: Well we talked last night about his Welsh accent and how very articulate he is, and somebody made a joke about, “He’s making up for what he did in DARK KNIGHT RISES, where nobody could understand him.”
SK: But it’s all of that. Not only does he not wear a mask in this, he’s absolutely the only thing you see. He’s totally opposite. And as Tom said, this is my first straight role, because he’s not a mad man or a monster. He’s actually an ordinary human being.
Capone: That’s right. It’s not a character as much as he's a person. You mentioned that he was actually sick when he made the film, which is why he sounds sick--he was blowing his nose. But there are other little idiosyncrasies that he’s got--touching his beard a lot, pushing and rolling up his sleeves. Where did that come from?
SK: That was him, and it works because rolling the sleeves up looks like work. "Let’s get it done, let’s do something practical."
Capone: It’s totally subconscious.
SK: Of course. Yeah. It’s just a twitch. The way of shooting it meant things happen while you’re shooting it, and rather than stop and go again, which we never did, we just let it go and try where possible to use the happy accidents. Because the BMW was on a low loader, we didn’t need to fill it on petrol, so it was very low on petrol. The car keeps telling you it’s low on petrol. We didn’t realize that, so the first couple of times we did it, we didn’t know what this noise was. Every now and again, we’d hear “Ding, ding” coming from the dashboard. And Tom would go, “Ach!” So, we used to cut those, and instead of having the noise, we put “You have a call waiting.” So it looks like the pressure is even greater. And there was a rattle in the car at one point. The sound people were saying we’ve got to pull over and sort it, but cars rattle. Just leave it.
Capone: You essentially shot this film from beginning to end 16 times over the course of almost as many days. What is the biggest difference between the first version and the last version?
SK: They’re all different. Some of them play like comedy, some of them play really sad, really down. The thing that I emphasized was Ivan was someone who solves problems, so when someone like Donal goes off mad, gets angry, don’t go with him. Don’t start shouting, don’t get mad, stay calm. Pause, and then just say "So you are drinking," or whatever. Tom is like a wall that everybody else bounces against. That’s the idea. And once we got that, it was great. With the other actors, we spent five days around a table to get in character and performance, but then after the fourth night I wrote a letter to them all suggesting an alternative. Not saying that what you’re doing is wrong, but saying "What if…" For example, I said to Ruth Wilson [who plays the voice of Locke's wife], “Imagine you want to get rid of him. Imagine this is your chance. You’ve got the opportunity to get rid of him at last.”
Capone: That she wanted to get rid of him even before this?
SK: Yes, exactly. And to Bethan [voiced by Olivia Colman], get more angry with him, not because there’s anything wrong with what we have, but because we were doing it again and again and again, and why not try something else? And then they digested the letter during the day, and then that night it was different, and the same for all of them. What it meant was that you could cut between different takes, and I think that’s good because I believe people change very quickly. One phone call there will be this, the next phone call there will be that.
I’m experimenting with the idea that when someone gets a shock, it builds. It doesn’t go massive and then tail off. It starts with nothing and then it gets worse. So as Ruth gets angrier and angrier, as she thinks about it and talks to people and starts to really imagine it in her own mind, she starts seeing it. And just trying wherever possible to just make it as close to what I think would really happen in that situation.
Capone: You mentioned you had this group of actors [all playing characters calling into Locke on his car phone] in this conference room at the hotel for a few days. Is there any footage of that?
SK: There is some. It’s the least pre-possessing room you’ll ever see. It’s like this really cheap motel conference room, with a lot of red wine.
Capone: I’m just curious what that looked like with the calls coming in.
SK: It just looked like a really bad party. [laughs]
Capone: If you just went continuously, it must be so much easier shooting it chronologically.
SK: Exactly, it was fantastic And when the actor gets emotional, it’s because they’ve been through something already, they’ve experienced it. Obviously, you can’t shoot films like this unless they are very specific, and you do have to do takes and all of that stuff that you have to do, but in this particular form, you can do that lovely thing of just doing it.
Capone: Some of the films you’ve done over the last few years have been have been more conventional than others. Does doing something like this and having it come out this well inspire you to break that thriller mold that everybody is conforming to?
SK: Yes, definitely. I definitely want to, and I will be doing something next year, which I’ve told myself will be a 21-day shoot, which is a little longer, but with a cast of really good actors. And again, it will be all about capturing a performance and putting it on screen rather than showing everything, so other people have to do some work.
Capone: We talked last night about the mindset of a man making this journey, and that one of the reasons it helps that he has a planning background, that site management background is that he knows how to get his ducks in a row and get the list together--he says it right at the beginning; “I have a list of calls I have to make.” Was that one of the reasons you picked that as his profession?
SK: Yeah. It was one of those things where lots of things fit in because of what he did, and we had the concrete as a metaphor and the construction and the baby and building stuff, and nothing was good.
Capone: He says it too. That making a baby is the ultimate construction.
SK: Yeah, exactly. And it’s one of those things, again all part of the ethos of the film, where this is a job that would be considered to be ordinary, not spectacular, but it is really spectacular, it’s really dramatic, and it’s really stressful for the people involved. And what I wanted to do was take a very practical man, somebody who would be very very practical--he’s not going to burst into tears for nothing--and then offer these problems to him and see what he does. He’s called Locke, after John Locke the rationalist. He’s going to be rational, concrete, solid, use your hands, put it all together, and it doesn’t work.
Capone: It sounds like the construction’s going to work, not so much the rest of his life.
SK: Oh yeah, that will be fine. The building will be fine.
Capone: He does use words like "practical" and "rational" a great deal.
SK: That’s his mantra of “I want to move on to the practical.”
Capone: It’s almost like he’s decided that for that day that’s how it’s going to be, the same way he decides today I’m not going to lie to anybody. "I have to put it all out there," even though that might not be the way he lives his life every day. Tell me about him making that decision, and what does that add to the day?
SK: As he says in the script, he’s been meaning to [tell his wife this big secret], but it’s so difficult to tell the truth, and now he has no choice, because the baby is on its way. And when he indicates the left, that would be what most people would do and pretend and say it’s okay, but then he goes right. That’s when the decision is made he’s not going to be his dad, and that’s why it’s important that he has the conversation with his dad, because you can look at this as selfish behavior, because he’s doing all of this to prove a point, you could say.
To his dad and to himself that it’s not genetic, he’s not inherited this, it’s not inevitable, it’s not his destiny. His destiny is that way, not that way. Because he’s chosen that. He’s chosen that route, it’s not been chosen for him. So that’s the reason that on this day he’s not going to tell a lie to his wife, he’s not going to tell a lie to his boss, he’s not going to do the weasel thing, he’s going to do the straight-forward thing and see what happens. Is he a hero or not? A lot of people get damaged because he want’s to prove a point. You could look at it that way.
Capone: Is there a different approach to your writing now when you know you’re going to be the one directing it? What’s the difference?
SK: Yeah. Yeah. I try to make it a little bit easier [laughs].
Capone: You said last night, you imagine the shots, you can see it edited and done in your head.
SK: Yeah. The stuff that’s coming out this year, it’s very conventional in fact, which I wrote knowing that someone else would direct. I try and write it in a conventional way. But when I’m doing it for myself, there's a short hand between yourself and yourself, and you can try other stuff. And if you know you are going to direct it, I want always to do something that probably no one else would do. Something that would not be considered conventionally commercial--not commercial, but done in a normal way. As I said yesterday, there appear to be so many rules that everybody just accepts.
Capone: You save the experimental things for yourself.
SK: Exactly, exactly. It’s more fun.
Capone: Let’s just run through some of the things you have as a writer coming out--THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY.
SK: THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY with Helen Mirren. It’s a feel-good film out of DreamWorks. And PAWN SACRIFICE, which is a little bit edgier, which is the Bobby Fischer story.
Capone: It’s a very specific chess battle.
SK: The chest tournament in Reykjavik in 1972 against Boris Spassky.
Capone: That’s Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber. I’m excited to see that.
SK: Yeah. Apparently both of the films, people are telling me they’re looking really good, which is great.
Capone: And then is that it for this year?
SK: I’ve got the Bradley Cooper chef film starting in June. And then it’s now out there on the net, so people know about the Brad Pitt thing, the World War II thing, which should start shooting in January.
Capone: We talked last night a little bit about the EASTERN PROMISES sequel, which you’ve written and trying to pull everyone together for?
SK: Yeah, this is the normal way of making a film. Getting everything together in one place, then someone gets fired. But yeah, the script is done. I think the script for the second one is much better than the first one.
Capone: And you’re somehow linked to a redo of REBECCA?
SK: Yeah, I have written a script for that, and I'm in search of a director at the moment.
Capone: When there is such a famous, much-loved version of it, what do you do differently to not tread on that?
SK: It’s a stupid thing to do really, but I love the book. The film’s great as well, but the book is fantastic. I just looked again at the book.
Capone: Thank you so much.
SK: Brilliant. That was good stuff. Great talking to you.