'Locked Down' Director Doug Liman on Shooting a Movie About the Pandemic During the Pandemic [Interview]

Doug Liman resists paths of convention. The director, who’s always prided himself as a rule-breaker, typically doesn’t follow trends but establishes them. Look at The Bourne IdentitySwingers, and even Mr. & Mrs. Smith – other movies have tried to copy their success. Once again, Liman ventured into uncharted territory with Locked Down.

Liman shot the heist movie, which is more of a relationship drama, during the ongoing lockdown in London. There is a third act heist involving the garish Harrods department store, but it’s not the main focus of the HBO Max release. The first 90 minutes of Locked Down are a suitably, dizzyingly claustrophobic experience that depicts a couple crumbling during the pandemic.

It was only months ago when Liman started shooting the Steven Knight-written movie, which was quickly filmed, edited, and sold to HBO Max. As Liman stated, the surreal experience began when he flew his “little prop plane” over the Atlantic on a two-day journey to London.

You’re someone always looking for challenges and trying new things. What about Locked Down, in that regard, appealed to you?

The world has changed. I was excited to tell a story with characters that we can relate to today. We’re not who we were a year ago. None of us. And the idea of taking characters that an audience, today, can relate to not in some nostalgic way of how we used to be, but characters that reflect who we are now. And then take them on an adventure and figure out a way to break out of lockdown with them.

It was an exciting challenge to figure out the rules of how you portray a zoom conversation in a film, because, from this point forward, any film set in 2020 or beyond, human beings don’t just make phone calls anymore, right? So the way we communicate has changed and the film language hadn’t been, yet, invented for how to portray that, right?

How do you portray a phone call in a movie? That’s been long since established, but here’s an opportunity to be the first post-pandemic film to show what life looks like for us right now and beyond. And then, obviously, there was a pressure down on us making the film because we’re making it while London was locking down around us. There was the risk we just would not be able to finish the movie hanging over us. It led to an urgency to how I shot the movie because, again, there are big tentpole movies happening with giant studios behind them, but in terms of smaller character-driven movies, we were the only one going in England. In the whole country.

It’s like the film center of the world, London, and only tentpole movies. If you had dinosaurs or Tom Cruise in your movie you’d get help if you’re a franchise. But the smaller, character-driven movies, there was no insurance. Because I knew that making this film was going to, even the conception of this movie that we started on July 1, fantasizing, literally fantasizing, right?

What’s surreal about this conversation is I’m sitting at the same desk I was sitting at, what seems like yesterday, fantasizing with Steve Knight about, “What if we wrote a movie and shoot in September? What if I flew myself in my little prop plane to London to shoot it?” This isn’t a pipe dream. And you know what? It’s lockdown. It’s not like we got burning social plans. So, Steve and I used our free time to continue to brainstorm this idea, and it came to fruition.

Did you imagine the movie going to streaming or theaters?

Well, I wouldn’t be in the movie business if I weren’t an optimist. This whole film was conceived around a pipe dream. Let’s brainstorm in July, write in August, shoot in September, be done by the end of the year. My pipe dream included the pandemic ending and Locked Down showing in movie theaters by New Years’. Then the pandemic didn’t end.

I do think that I made a film that holds a mirror up to what we’re all going through and is fun and funny and escapist, but totally relatable and ends with hope. I do think that there’s something interesting about showing it to an audience that is an audience going through the exact same experience the characters on screen are going through. That just has not happened in the history of filmmaking. I already knew we were in uncharted territory, in terms of myself and the cast and the crew, having more in common with our protagonist than will ever happen ever again, in any movie I make.

I was locked down while I was making the movie. I went to a McDonald’s once and I got in trouble. They’re like, “No. You can be at home or you can be on the set. You cannot be anywhere else.” So when I finally got to go to Harrods to film, that was like a release for me, as a human being, in the same way, that it was a release for our characters in the movie who had been suffering from lockdown.

There’s Purell that’s on the counter in their kitchen. Those bottles were disappearing every day. The continuity was a nightmare. By the end of the shoot, there’s no Purell left on that counter because crew members were taking it home because you know what? We’re all going through this lockdown.

Your process generally involves finding the movie, trial and error, reshoots, and radically reshaping movies. How did your process change while making Locked Down? Creatively, were there more restrictions? 

Well, a lot of times, I don’t have a script that’s nearly as strong as a script from Steve Knight. I started from a stronger place. Sometimes, I’m more searching for the movie because it’s just not on the page when I start. In the case of Locked Down, I still was searching for the movie while we were shooting it. So even though we shot this really quickly, I was reshooting things as we went along and I was going back and picking things up. And so, it’s still my same process. I don’t always get it right the first time. But I try to get it right, by the end, is my goal.

From the outside, your process can look stressful or chaotic, but for you, is it an experience you enjoy or is it stressful? 

It’s stressful and it’s enjoyable. I don’t do it on purpose. I’d love to get it right the first time, but I’m very honest with myself if I think I can do better. If I look at a scene and I go, “I think I could’ve done better,” then I’m like, “I want to go back and do it again.” Maybe there are other filmmakers who look at something they’ve done and say, “Well, I could have done better. Oh well.” But I don’t because I just go back and try to do it and squeeze it in. Making films is an adventure for me. Going back to Swingers where we’d organize the shoot with the things most likely to get us arrested at the end of the shoot.

Like, shooting by the highway?

Yeah. So I was just in LA last month, driving on the 118 freeway. I was like, “Whoa, this is the freeway that I did the last night of shooting on.” Because I’d never been on it. I assumed there’d be no police. Just talking about how naive I was thinking, “I don’t know anyone that lives on the 118, therefore no one must live on the 118 freeway. Therefore, there must be no police, so we can get away with doing this illegal thing on it.” I got lucky and we didn’t get caught. So that’s an example of what an adventure it was to set out to go make Swingers. Making American Made with Tom Cruise, we flew ourselves to the Rainforests of Columbia and camped under the wings of the airplane, and that sounds more like a camping trip than a job. That is the definition of adventure.

I’m sitting, talking to you, from the same desk I fantasize with Steve Knight about, “Hey, we can break the monotony of this lockdown by going and making a movie?” And, “Hey, maybe I could get in my little propeller plane and fly all the way across the Atlantic to London to shoot it.” Both things happened. So it’s not some abstract idea that I treat filmmaking like an adventure. This film started with me going on the ultimate adventure and flying myself across the Atlantic. Which, by the way, I thought when I landed in London, “Okay. I finished the hardest part of the movie.” I, of course, was totally wrong. The hardest part of the movie was making the movie.

Since you mentioned a few of your past titles, what do you think about The Bourne Identity‘s influence on action movies, specifically the Bond franchise? Is it flattering or annoying? 

Really, it’s more specific to me. I always wanted to make a James Bond movie and they were like, “They don’t hire American directors. And by the way, you’ve made two little indie movies. You’re never going to direct James Bond.” I went and made Bourne Identity. And then after Bourne Identity came out, the next James Bond to come out was Casino Royale, which totally copied the tone of Bourne.

I had a very surreal thing where I was making Bourne because I really wanted to make Bond and then Bond copied Bourne. I just didn’t quite know how to process that. I still don’t know how to process that. I don’t know if I got what I wanted or didn’t get what I wanted. It’s just beyond my computing power to know how to feel about that. So I can’t even think about other movies because of the specificity of the Bond franchise and my own aspirations. So, it’s probably an unsatisfying answer.

Not at all.

Because it’d be easier to say, “I’m annoyed, they’re copying, or I’m flattered,” but I’m still confused about how I should feel about this. I don’t quite know how to process it or how to feel about it.

I wish more action movies ended like Bourne fighting maybe only five guys.

Yeah. Universal, actually, had wanted Bourne fighting like 200 people. Still one of my favorite mementos from my career is, Universal telling me that they thought the ending was weak, unsatisfying. They wanted Jason Bourne to fight 200 people. And I told the two executives to go eff-themselves. Unfortunately, one of those executives now runs Netflix, but I’m still proud of having sent that memo.

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