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He’s no Jason Bourne but ordinary Locke is shaking up summer blockbusters

Writer/director Steven Knight says of Locke actor Tom Hardy’s onscreen intensity: ‘When he’s onscreen with others, everybody’s looking at him anyway.’

Everett Collection

It's a guy in a car, making a series of phone calls while driving, for 85 minutes. That's it, that's the movie. It's called Locke, after the English rationalist who did not believe in predetermined fate. It stars Tom Hardy as the title character, the only character we see. It was written and directed by Steven Knight, who also wrote David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. And it must be blowing the minds of the folks behind all the summer blockbusters that are headed our way, hoping to crush everything in their paths (Godzilla, X-Men, Maleficent, Transformers, stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp) – because this wisp of a movie, written in three weeks, shot over eight nights, and costing less than $2-million (U.S.), is giving them a run for their money. (It opened in select cities last week, and continues to expand.)

The concept is so crazy, it sounds like a dare. Imagine the most average bloke in Britain: a concrete-construction specialist, married with two kids, lives in the Midlands, Welsh-born. No-nonsense. Everything solid. He makes one unexceptional mistake, a single crack, if you will: a one-night stand that results in a pregnancy. And in the time it takes for him drive from Birmingham to London, his world comes toppling down.

"I was really keen to point the camera at an ordinary man," Knight said during a recent visit to Toronto. "Not Jason Bourne or James Bond. Just this bearded construction worker in a sweater, who makes a choice. And see if that's a film."

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Knight hooked Hardy – a capital-I Intense actor best known in North America for playing the masked villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises – without a script, just a pitch: a project that blurs the line between theatre and film, a one-man show about a crisis in real time. "If you're going to have somebody alone onscreen for 90 minutes, he's got to be good," Knight says. "I think Tom is the best actor we have. When he's onscreen with others, everybody's looking at him anyway."

Hardy, 36 and darkly handsome, is hulking on the brink of stardom. He's effected dazzling transformations in the films Bronson, Inception and This Means War; next year he'll play Mad Max in a reboot opposite Charlize Theron.

He fearlessly flaunts the scars of his real-life battles with alcoholism, drug abuse and misbehaviour. In the admiring cover story of this month's Esquire magazine, writer Tom Junod slots him into the bad-boy lineage of Brando and Burton, and Hardy's rippling muscles, map of tattoos, and Moebius-strip mental exertions are on full view. (I was hoping to talk to him, too, but he cancelled his Canadian interviews.)

Hardy said yes to Knight in November, 2013, Knight pounded out the script, and they shot in February. (I suspect it took longer than that to do some single effects in Godzilla.)

"The script is all dialogue, which is what I love to do, so it was quick," Knight says. "Sometimes when writing goes well, you can't get it down quick enough. It seems to be there already." I'll have to take his word on that one.

The shoot was as crazy as the concept: They shot the entire film, from start to finish, twice a night for eight nights. The car was attached to a low loader, where Knight rode with some crew; Hardy sat in the car with three cameras on him at all times. His dialogue appeared on prompters in the rear-view mirror and the dashboard. Every 27 minutes, they'd pull over to change the memory cards in the cameras, and adjust the lenses and angles. "It was like a Formula One pit stop; everybody knew what they had to do," Knight says.

Meanwhile, the voice actors who were playing the various people Locke speaks to on his drive – among them, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott and Olivia Colman, playing Locke's wife, co-worker, and one-night-stand – were hanging out together in a hotel suite stocked with red wine and cookies. As Knight cued each via remote, he or she would go to the room next door, where a land line and microphone was set up, and make the appropriate call. "It was much more pleasant for them than it was for us," Knight says, chuckling. "There was much hilarity, because they all knew each other. One brought her knitting, they were telling theatre stories, it was like a party. We'd burst in at the end, wet and freezing cold."

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Why did they shoot the whole movie 16 times? "Whenever you're making a film, there's always a logical reason not to do what's obvious," Knight says. "Since the budget was so low, I had total control. I thought the usual methods – green screen, sound stages, cutting it up into sequences, using prerecorded calls – were a recipe for complication and irritation. I wanted the randomness of real life. Whatever hitches happen, just carry on. It invites chaos into things, which is great, because you can later select which bits of chaos you want. The lights, the reflections are real. You never know when something beautiful will happen just at the right moment."

At one point a truck came into the shot, with the slogan "It's always been" written on the side. "You couldn't plan that," Knight says. "I still don't know what it was. But it was so nice."

The film received a standing ovation at its debut in Venice, and was the No. 1 movie (per screen) its opening weekend in the U.S. Critics have been positive, and every time Knight has shown it, someone says to him afterward, "'That's the journey my father didn't make,' or, 'That's the journey I should have made' – people really see personal stuff in it," he says.

Knight maintains that every one of us does a master class in acting every time we answer the phone: "You see who it is, and you become whatever part of you is the part that deals with that – the boss, the parent, the spouse, the friend. And then the next call comes in, and you're a different person. To put a camera on that in a time of duress was interesting."

As Locke's calls become increasingly emotional and destructive, one of the questions the film asks is, at what point does commitment to a decision become stubbornness? "I call it reckless integrity, that's what Locke has," Knight says. "He believes he's doing the right thing, the honourable thing. As well, he's proving that his destiny is not preordained, that he's not bound to make the same mistakes his father made. And he's not going to tell a lie the whole journey. Everything is going to be the truth. Because this is his moment of truth.

"But look at the damage he does," Knight continues. "So is that selfish? I welcome everyone's opinion about what he's doing and how he's doing it."

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And that's a kick you're not going to get from, say, Transformers.

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