How HBO Max’s heist dramedy ‘Locked Down’ was conceived and shot during the pandemic
Doug Liman understands that it goes against conventional wisdom to expect audiences to watch a movie about a historic event they haven’t finished living through.
But the director — whose past credits include action spectacles such as “The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Edge of Tomorrow” — says the unusual challenges posed by making the pandemic-set heist dramedy “Locked Down” meant he had to give it a shot.
“From Day One everybody said, ‘You think people who are locked down in their homes are going to watch a movie about people who are locked down?’” said Liman by phone from New York. “That’s like making a movie about the Vietnam War during the Vietnam War. And that’s what those of us who set out to make movies about the Iraq War were cautioned. We were told ‘You’ve got to wait a generation before you can tell stories about it.’ And for the most part, the naysayers are correct [in that] audiences are not flocking to go see in their movies what they’re seeing in their evening news. But I didn’t wait to do [‘Fair Game,’ based on Valerie Plame’s memoir after she was outed as a CIA agent] and I obviously didn’t wait to make ‘Locked Down.’”
Now streaming on HBO Max, “Locked Down” is one of the first star-studded entries in an emerging genre of pandemic-set movies. Written, shot and released during the pandemic, the film stars Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor as an estranged London couple stuck quarantining together who conspire to steal a $3-million diamond from luxury department store Harrods.
Liman says he felt compelled to offer his own pandemic-set story now rather than later to capitalize on the universal resonance of the historic global event. “In some ways this pandemic unifies the world,” he said. “We’re all going through this. There isn’t anybody on planet Earth not dealing with COVID-19. There isn’t anybody who isn’t nervous for what the future holds or who hasn’t suffered from it or knows somebody who’s suffered from it. But at the same time, it’s affecting people so differently. I think making ‘Locked Down’ was my way of processing and dealing with the pandemic in the only way I know how. For me, there’s only two choices: Talk to a therapist or talk to a screenwriter.”
In early July, Liman teamed up with British screenwriter Steven Knight (“Peaky Blinders”) to brainstorm ideas for a movie that could be shot in September “because every actor will be available since there’s no movies in production,” he said. They spoke for 10 minutes about the disparate experiences people were having and discussed potential character ideas. Two days later, they got back on Zoom to flesh out concepts.
“In normal times, things wouldn’t happen this fast because people have busy lives and things going on besides their careers,” said Liman. “But because Steve was locked down in England and I was locked down in America, neither one of us had pressing social plans. So we started brainstorming what a movie would be. And at least for me, it was a form of escape to imagine not only the [plot] but also that we might actually go make it because it seemed inconceivable. There’s no socially distanced way to make a movie.”
In an unprecedented move, Liman began reaching out to actors with just half of the script written, casting Hathaway first. “I had an inkling that she would [know] how to breathe life into the role,” he said. “These characters are struggling, but I wanted somebody who could find the humor even in the darkest moments.”
With the pandemic rendering chemistry reads impossible, the decision to cast Ejiofor as co-lead came down to the same gut instinct that led the director to cast Angelina Jolie opposite Brad Pitt for “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” sight unseen.
“Chiwetel, in our first conversation, understood that there was comedy in this movie,” said Liman. “I just thought Chiwetel could bring that Cary Grant energy that would bring a film this verbose alive.”
In September, Liman flew himself to London in a single-engine plane to begin shooting. Filming in the city amid rising cases and citywide shutdowns “forced us into creative solutions that will forever set ‘Locked Down’ apart from what will inevitably be a slew of movies made about this moment in time,” Liman said.
In addition to being tested regularly, all of the crew members and actors wore face masks up until the cameras began rolling. Food wasn’t allowed on set so there’d be no reason for masks to come down. They also shot short days five days out of the week so that people could get ample rest. “We literally shot 180 pages in 18 days,” said Liman. “I don’t think there’s a way to physically go any faster than that. We basically needed to get in and get out.”
The film features several celebrity cameos, with those actors appearing on Zoom self-filmed from their own homes. If they were scripted to be in scenes with another character, Liman sought out performers who had a family member against whom they could act. “So when we needed Chiwetel’s brother and sister-in-law, I went looking for two actors who were already a couple,” he said. “And that’s how I found Dulé [Hill] and Jazmyn [Simon].”
In one scene in the film, Hathaway answers a Zoom call from her boss (played by Ben Stiller) whose teenage son tries to sabotage the call quite literally behind his back. “I went looking for actors who had teenage children and that’s how Ben Stiller came to be in the movie with his son, Quinn,” said Liman. “Ben and I worked over FaceTime picking where the shot would be in his house. Thinking about how to minimize risk as much as possible [deeply] informed the creative decisions and my casting.”
The biggest test came when it was time to film the heist scene inside Harrods where “suddenly we had 100 extras,” said Liman. “The film was set early in the pandemic, when there were so many unknowns about the virus. In March and April, when the movie is set, it was up for debate whether civilians should be wearing masks and so I didn’t want everybody [in the scene] wearing masks because that would not be honest to that moment in time. Ultimately, we used Harrods employees because they’re already in the building. And they already have their own testing regimen that we just bolstered.”
Even with shooting underway, Liman was never sure that he’d be able to see the film through. “When I went and raised the money for ‘Locked Down,’ I had to tell the company that backed it that they may lose everything and that I can’t guarantee that it’s actually possible to finish shooting a movie under these conditions,” he said. “I just had to come up with the most clever, safe plan so that we had as good a chance as we could possibly have to complete the movie while London was shutting down around us.
“This was not an easy production,” he added. “This was harder on my actors than anything I’ve ever put actors through and I made ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ where Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt and the rest of the cast had to wear 80-pound suits every day. This was harder.”
Although “it’ll take 10 years before people look at this movie as just a movie,” Liman hopes the film will at least offer an entertainment alternative in a time where the release landscape for films experiences a historic lull.
“There’s obviously risk in trying to make the first independent film made in England [post-pandemic] when the only movies going into production are giant tentpoles,” said Liman. “We don’t want to find out a year from now that you can only see Marvel movies and things with dinosaurs. We’re going to need dramas and smaller comedies too. So I really wanted to see if it was possible to get a film like ‘Locked Down’ made because then other films could follow in our path and there could be more variety for audiences.”
As for how audiences will receive his film, “I’m really curious how it will play and resonate with an audience because what we’re doing here has never been done before,” he said. “When else in history is there a movie where literally every single person who watches it is going to have a personal connection to the story? There’s nobody who can come to this movie and not bring their baggage. It’s just not possible.
“I wish that ‘Locked Down’ was playing in movie theaters so I could actually sit in the theater and see how the audience is experiencing [it],” he added. “I’m hoping for those who turn to it while still struggling that it gives a sense of there being light at the end of the tunnel. Both because of the fortitude of the characters, but also because the start of people making movies about this moment in time should be an indicator that it will pass.”
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