Steven Knight is primarily known as the screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Amazing Grace (2006) and Eastern Promises (2007), directed by Stephen Frears, Michael Apted and David Cronenberg, repsectively. Last year saw Knight add to his early television directorial credit, helming his directorial debut and sophomore features Hummingbird (2013) and Locke (2013).
Complimenting his writing credits both as a writer and director, Knight’s one location car drama Locke infers his appreciation that all the art forms are branches of the same tree – film, literature, theatre and music all intertwined within Locke‘s eighty-five minute journey. Whilst Locke discovers drama and suspense in the most unlikely of characters, it would do writer-director and film a disservice if we were to not acknowledge that it’s accomplishment is a marriage of the art forms, a deft hand creating an harmony through not only the palette of human emotion, drama, angst or even sound and image, but also artistic mediums.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Well I obviously began writing, and I didn’t direct for a long time. The first film began as a novel, and then I started to write a screenplay instead – I suppose that was the first step into filmmaking. If you are a writer then you eventually feel that you have to see if you can execute your scripts differently, although I have been very lucky with the directors who have taken on my scripts – David Cronenberg and Michael Apted, which have been very easy experiences. In the end you do feel that you have to do it for yourself, although I put it off for a few years. But in the end I thought I’ve got to write something that I can direct myself, and these two films came along one after the other.
Speaking with filmmakers they often talk of directing whilst they write. How do the two inform one another for you?
I think it does help, and it’s absolutely correct. When you are writing the script you see the film executed in your head. The problem begins when you try and bring it into the real world, because the real world is stubborn and it changes, and it doesn’t do as it’s told. In the real world there are all sorts of things that can go wrong when you are actually making the film. Part of the reason to make Locke was to try and set up an environment where everything works script down, so that in the end you’ve got as close as humanely possible to the film in your head that’s on the screen. So part of the motivation of making Locke was to try to nail down that image I had in my head.
Were you successful in capturing the film as you saw it in your head?
Yeah definitely, and I saw it before anyone else did. I thought that’s the film I had in my head, but the problem with that is if you take it out into the world and people don’t like it, then you have no one to blame but yourself. Luckily with Locke the response has been fantastic, and so the whole experience has been gratifying.
Film is one of the great collaborative art forms. Are you the kind of writer-director who welcomes the input of the actors to help shape the film or do you prefer them to stick to the script?
I prefer people to stick to the script, and it’s difficult because there are many ways to make a film, and many of them are successful. For me as a writer it is painful when the words are changed – you spend a long time getting them right, and there’s pretty much a reason for everything you have written. Other directors are happy for there to be lots of changes, but I think that sometimes leads to chaos that has to then be resolved in the editing, which is counterproductive.
One filmmaker recently remarked to me how he compares writing to composing, and directing to conducting. Would you agree that there is a musical or rhythmic nature to film?
There is definitely a rhythm, and it is something you have to be aware of. It’s not just the writer or director that feels it – the audience carries it as well even if they don’t know that they know it. If there’s an interruption in the rhythm of the film then people feel it – they feel the bump of it. I do think there is too much structure imposed on films, where people feel that the rules that they impose are like the weather, in that they have always been there, and they can’t be changed. The three act structure of the journey, the arc and all of that stuff is optional, and you just have to be aware that people will go through a certain scene with certain emotions, and therein through the various scenes with different emotions. There is a lightness and darkness just like in music, and I think it is something that is definitely there. It is something that everyone sees, and people know the language of it somehow – I don’t know how, but everyone is literate in that structure of film, and they can feel it when it goes wrong.
Did the lack of visual presence of the characters change the dynamic of the writing process?
It has an impact because it’s about knowing that the characters are not there, and so you need to move quickly to get across who they are. But equally one of the best things that people have said to me after watching the film is that they forgot that they hadn’t seen the other characters. Some people even said they were sure that they had seen the other characters on the screen, and that’s because everybody has the capacity to create characters from various forms of information – this is what we do all the time in our lives. One of the pleasures of Locke is that one is invited to use one’s imagination to create these characters, and people on the phone talk and behave in a particular way, and trying to capture that helped people to identify with these characters.
Film is an extension of literature, and Locke is an intriguing film in how it merges the two. Film is a visual medium that visualises for us in contrast to literature that demands that we visualise. Whilst Ivan Locke is visualised for us, the other characters are presented in the context of cast of literary characters.
I hope so, and if you think back to when you are a kid and someone reads you a story, then you can see in their eyes that they are seeing the very thing that you are saying. People are able to do that, but maybe with the vast budgets that are available then people are used to not having to imagine, because it is all on the screen, whereas people here are asked to imagine for themselves. But I’m hoping for a combination of theatre and film.
One of the great collaborative relationships is the one between the filmmaker and the audience. Is that something you take satisfaction from – communicating with the audience and trying to touch their sensibilities and engage with the imagination of each individual viewer?
When you set something up at the beginning of the film – whatever the set-up is – you feel that you don’t want to get it wrong, because you know that the audience will spot it somehow. If you get it wrong they’ll know and so you try to walk a tightrope all the way to the end without falling off to tell the story. The biggest help that I always look to is what would really happen – not what would happen in the film, but what would really happen.
So it’s almost trying to merge the world of fiction with reality to give it an authentic sensibility?
Yeah, it’s trying to, and especially with Locke it was pointing the camera at someone who wouldn’t normally have the camera pointed at them; taking what would be an ordinary life and job and finding the drama in it. Locke has to be a different person every time that phone rings – it’s what everybody does. We all do master classes in acting every day, and when we look at the name of the person on the phone we become the person who deals with that person. We do it effortlessly – we shift gears quickly and that is sort of what Locke is about.
Looking to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957), Locke alongside Buried (2010) evolves the one location drama by removing the visual presence of the other characters. How do you perceive Locke‘s cinematic context and were there any specific sources of influence or inspiration?
In publicising Locke a lot of films are mentioned, but I deliberately haven’t watched those because I try where possible not to be referential to other films. In other words I try not to take films that are likeable or refer back to other films, which is a tendency that is quite dominant when people talk about films in terms of other films. What I am trying to do is open it up by using the dialogue and making it more real – not like film dialogue, but to try to make it more how people talk for real. But in terms of influences, it’s more a theatre influence I suppose, and trying to get the idea of the silique off the ground if you like, even though speaking to other people it often distances itself as well. So rather than referring to other films, it’s a chance to put together lots of different tools such as theatre, literature and cinema to see how that works.
Mark Cousins in his recent documentary The Story of Children and Film (2014) looked at images of children in cinema, and drew on how the representation differed between various countries, and yet presented them as belonging to one grand cinematic narrative. It is not necessary to reference because through individuality you still end up being part of that cinematic community.
Exactly, and I think it is inevitable that with a camera, actors and a story you will speak the same language as the other people making films. There is the language of film which is common to all films, and I don’t think you need to explicitly reference other films in order to be part of that.
One of the effective touches is the way you bookend the drama by tracking into the car and tracking out at the end, to set and then to leave the stage, an introduction and goodbye as we are left to imagine what happens in the next chapter of his life. It is a simple but effective technique.
Well what I wanted to do at the beginning in those opening shots was to show lots of cars and lots of lights, and it’s almost as if you are choosing one of those moving lights. So you go for that one, and it happens to be Locke; it happens to be this night and then at the end you pull out where you see all of the lights again. So the lights moving around are lives, and every one of them has its drama and tragedy. So that was the idea of starting wide and then going back out wide again.
Do you view films as chapters of the characters’ lives, requiring the audience to then imagine the chapters surrounding it on either side or the possibilities of these chapters?
It is best to leave people with the option to make their own decision as to what happens with the characters, because even though you are writing the script and presenting the characters, in a sense they are the ones who create the characters for themselves. It is they who decide who this person will be, and some people believe Locke will go back to his marriage, whilst others believe he will go off and be on his own. When you write those kinds of endings it means the responsibility of the filmmaker is over, and the story can go off in any direction. So yeah, rather than tie everything up completely, I like to leave things a little bit open.
Going back to technique, the way you use reflections creates an ambience that is more visual for that stage than the audio of the phone calls.
What I wanted to do was to create the idea that the inside of the car was Locke trying to create order, by seeing in theory what he could control. He’s called Locke because the philosopher John Locke believed that breeding and nationality could triumph over everything. The lights and the movement outside of the car is trying to create this image of chaos, and the universe that can’t be controlled, though Locke tries to impose order on his life and fails. I just wanted to get that feeling that there’s this little bubble of light going through the chaos, with his rational mind trying to create order. But in the end it’s not order that brings him the most pleasures, although in the end it’s a happy ending. So I think that’s what Locke learns, and the lights are deliberately used in the end to almost depict the world as a surreal and odd place where nothing is solved, and nothing is permanent.
Locke is not ignorant to the fact that human beings are flawed, and there’s a refreshing honesty to his character. In order to create order he’s realised the importance of honesty, though that is not to say that it will not be both painful and detrimental for him.
Absolutely! He’s chosen this night, and he’s going to tell the truth to everyone – he’s going try to keep things on track. In the end when he finds out the baby has been born that’s his big mistake – a mistake in creating a new life. So what does Locke learn from that – I don’t know? But at the end when the baby is born all of that reason and rationality that is so admirable is all emptied by this mistake.
The point of the film is that the beating heart of film and stories are characters – human beings and emotions.
Yeah, and I think that no matter how much money is spent on the budget for effects, the place that the audience are looking on the screen is into the eyes of the actor, and that’s what counts.
Locke is available on Blu-ray, DVD & across digital platforms from August 25th.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.