It’s likely that in the coming months and years, movies set during the coronavirus pandemic will become increasingly commonplace, as filmmakers around the world aim to reflect the bizarre and tragic circumstances of the last year. Not many of those films, though, will be able to boast of having been conceived, written, and shot entirely during the pandemic – but that’s the case with Locked Down, the new film from acclaimed blockbuster director Doug Liman.
The movie revolves around a feuding couple played by Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who are all set to separate only for restrictions to come into effect – meaning they have to see out lockdown together in their swish London flat. Just as everything appears to be heading downhill, however, the pair agree on a daring plan that will help mend their relationship – stealing a £3 million diamond from the Harrods’ vaults.
The film is one born directly from the pandemic, with the idea having first emerged following a discussion between Liman and writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) last summer. Originally, brainstorming ideas about what a pandemic movie might look like had just been a form of escape for the pair – a fun exercise to keep them busy – but it quickly became apparent that they could make the film a reality.
“It was only because Steve and I were locked down that we were even engaging in what seemed like a fun exercise to imagine what a movie could be,” Liman told RadioTimes.com. “And then we started falling in love with what we were imagining and we were like… could we actually do this?”
The next stop was making sure Harrods would be on board with filming taking place at the department store, and after they had agreed to that, it was down to Knight to write the script, with Liman committing to directing it sight unseen. Of course, making the film was no easy feat, and indeed Liman believes the task that was undertaken by the characters in the film – to stage a heist – was actually several times less challenging than the one he had set for himself.
“I think it’s more outrageous to think you’re going to write, shoot and finish a movie from beginning to end in five months – I think that is more outrageous than robbing Harrods,” he explained. “In fact, we had an opportunity, my producer Alison Winter and I, we found ourselves alone in the Harrods vault, where they store all their diamonds, where we easily could have taken the diamonds! So I know for a fact it is easier to rob Harrods than it is to make a movie about robbing Harrods in five months!”
When it came to casting, Liman and co. didn’t have too many issues – indeed he said that pretty much everyone he asked to take part in the film agreed. In addition to the two leads, this includes a string of big-name guest stars including Stephen Merchant, Mark Gatiss, Ben Stiller and Ben Kingsley, many of whom only appear via Zoom, and Liman said there were some crucial criteria for deciding which actors to call on.
“In the case of Anne Hathaway’s boss in the film, he was written to have a teenage son who does something very funny to sabotage the call, and so I only looked for actors who had teenage children,” he said. “I just looked around and was like, ‘which actors have teenage children? Oh, Ben Stiller has a teenage son named Quinn…’, and so I approached Ben and Quinn and was like, ‘Do you guys want to do this together, it’ll be in your own home?’.
“And so Ben took me around his house with his FaceTime showing me the house and I was like, ‘Why don’t you do it in front of that fireplace because you’re supposed to be in Vermont’ and then he took my costume designer into his closet and they picked out what he was going to wear.”
The problem with Zoom, as anyone who has relied on it during the pandemic can attest, is that it is often subject to technical difficulties, and Liman was keen to let this come across rather than airbrushing any connection issues out of the film. And so while he thought about bringing a film crew to Ben Stiller’s house, he decided that instead, the actor should simply film himself with his phone or computer.
“Like, let’s embrace that there’s a lag and things freeze because that’s what it looks like,” he said. “And I really wanted to make Locked Down be a film that reflects our world today, not the way we used to look, not the way we fantasise about it being, not some other planet, but take place in the world we’re living in today. I was excited not to use Zoom as some sort of gimmick, but to just tell a story that takes place in the world that we’re living in.”
It wasn’t just the obvious logistical hurdles Liman and his team had to overcome either, he also had to make sure that while the monotony of life during lockdown came across, the film itself didn’t become too monotonous. Liman says he and Knight relied on humour to keep the script fresh and lively, something which he thinks is vital when it comes to reflecting the pandemic.
“Comedy is always really important to me,” he said. “I mean, I come from a family where we laugh during funerals! I think that humour is the chicken soup of the soul, so it was really important to me. Because I knew that we were making a film for an audience that was going to be suffering through a pandemic and a lockdown, it was important that we make something that holds a mirror to what we’re all going through and allows us to smile and laugh a little – God knows we need it!”
Liman is looking forward to seeing what other films are made about lockdown life in the near future, with the director claiming that we could be seeing pandemic-themed movies for the next 50 years. But he says that because of the circumstances surrounding its production, his film will always be unique.
“I think someone is going to win an Academy Award in the next couple of years for playing some doctor on the frontline sacrificing themselves or something,” he said. “But Locked Down will forever be the only film set during the pandemic about this moment in time.
“Because the texture of Locked Down reflects the conditions under which it’s been made – I mean we were making it under a lockdown, we were rushing to get the film done because London was shutting down around us. The opening shot of the film is just the view across the street from where I was living in London – it wasn’t like we had to imagine what London looked like locked down, it was locking down around us while we were shooting!”