Director Doug Liman was on the phone with screenwriter Steven Knight and producer PJ van Sandwijk in July when they wondered what it would be like to make a film about the current moment in the current moment.
Liman makes films about characters in unusual situations: an assassin with amnesia (“The Bourne Identity”), a military officer in a time warp (“Edge of Tomorrow”), an unhappy couple who are also secret killers (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith ”). The lockdowns, the economic stress and the isolation of the quarantine, he thought, could be the perfect setting for one of his films.
And in four months, in the middle of a pandemic and widespread shutdowns, he and his team in London wrote, directed and edited a brilliant Harrods heist film with Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The “Locked Down” result comes to HBO Max today.
“For the next 50 years, people are going to be making films about what we’re all going through,” Liman said.
He wanted to be the first and use the chaos of the moment to capture some truth. He’s also a filmmaker who lives on the impossible. His next film will literally take him into space with Tom Cruise.
The creation of “Locked Down” opened up opportunities where they would never have been before. They got big movie stars and funded with just a quarter of the script. Harrods, the luxury department store in London that doesn’t often allow film and television sets on their premises, agreed to have them shot there. They told them there was no Plan B. If there were no Harrods, there would be no movie. A few days later they had a yes. In other words, it’s a movie that could only be made during the pandemic.
“Filmmakers, certainly myself, have been known to be optimists and suggest outrageous things, and then producers and the adults in the room curb them a little,” Liman said. “This is a situation where there were no adults in the room.”
Hathaway’s agent told Liman to at least speak to her and describe his vision if she couldn’t get a full script. A few minutes later, Hathaway told him to save his breath: “I’ve read it, I love it and I’m in,” he recalled.
They were filming within a few weeks.
Liman decided to shoot the 180-page script in 18 days. It was a self-confident decision: in 18 days he had also shot his debut “Swingers”.
“I equated what we did to pull this movie off with what the on-screen characters were trying to rob Harrods,” Liman said. “These are both completely insane and bold plans.”
Everyone had to be on their toes. Once he had to switch to a nine-page dialogue scene that none of the stars had prepared for. And they did, recording Hathaway’s dialogue everywhere they could, including, but not limited to, Ejiofor’s body and a calendar on which she relied.
“When she said she was in, she was in,” he said. “I got some of the most honest appearances I’ve ever gotten on screen because Annie and Chiwetel could see how far I was on a branch and they took me out.”
There have been numerous instances where its cast and crew have dived in with innovation and a can-do spirit. The first shot of the film, an empty intersection in Notting Hill, was shot by Liman himself outside of where he was staying before going to work. The vast majority of Harrods Extras are actually Harrods employees. The composer John Powell, who spent six months on the score “Bourne Identity”, did so in three weeks.
And the Zoom and Skype scenes? They were done live. The people on the other end, from Ben Stiller to Mindy Kaling, are in their own homes, in their own dressing rooms, and trading alongside their own families. There were interesting casting inquiries: For Ejiofor’s brother and sister-in-law, he needed two actors who were already living together. For Hathaway’s boss, he needed someone with a teenager and to be in a place resembling Vermont. He needed someone with a toddler for her employee.
“There have been so many times when I’ve said, ‘When will you ever have the chance to do this again?'” He said. “I thought let’s just hug it.”
When Warner Bros. bought the movie for HBO Max and asked them if they could finish it a week early, they didn’t shy away.
“We thought you spoke our language,” said Liman.
Part of the collective energy was that “Locked Down” was one of the first independent films to go back into production in the UK and people were just happy to be back at work. They used the security protocols that Cruise developed for Mission: Impossible as a guide.
But Liman was always very aware that there was no guarantee that they could end Locked Down. They couldn’t afford to shut down for two weeks like the larger productions; her entire shoot was hardly longer at first. In the end, they ended without incident.
“The logs work,” he said. “The social distancing, the masks, they work.”
And he hopes more independent films will follow suit. Otherwise, he said, “This time next year there will only be franchise films.”
Liman is also somewhat concerned about awareness. Because of the fast timeline, there is no six-month, studio-refined advertising campaign. It’s just coming out. And he cares even more about “Locked Down” than he imagined in July.
“It’s a little gem of a movie,” he said. “It takes people who are committed to it.”