Your average debut director starts small. A few characters, limited settings, achievable challenges. Ridley Scott’s first film was a short following his brother on a bicycle, made in 1963 on a pittance. It’d take him years to rack up the skill and ambition necessary to attempt the likes of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator.
But even the most pie-in-the-sky first-timers would have balked at the challenge Woody Harrelson set for himself with his debut feature film. Lost In London isn’t just a one-night tale of misadventure on the streets and in the clubs of the English capital. It’s also shot in a single take, with Harrelson playing the lead role alongside Owen Wilson and Willie Nelson. And he did it in real time, live, beaming the footage into theaters in London and the U.S., in the full expectation that it could all collapse around him at any moment.
Granted, Harrelson doesn’t come from nowhere. He has nearly 40 years of acting experience under his belt, and you don’t spend four decades in front of the camera without developing something of a grasp of what goes on behind it.
But what could be more disruptive than attempting something nobody had tried before? Sure, there are a handful of one-take wonders floating around, especially now that digital technology has vastly expanded the amount of time a camera can run without a break. But to shoot and screen live? That takes a fearlessness most mortals can’t conceive.
The film is based on a real night out for Harrelson in 2002, involving nightclubs, broken ashtrays and police chases. “Too much of this is true,” a title card on the film announces. And he plays himself, too, though he stresses the film has heightened his misadventures for comic effect.
Where did the original idea for Lost In London come from?
It was one drunken night I had in London [in 2002]. A lot of bad stuff went down, and I really wanted to forget it, but I kept thinking about it and pondering it—thinking, you know, there’s something to this. Aside from me getting arrested and going to jail, I had some stuff go down between me and my wife, Laura. All of it together amounted to something really interesting. It was a story about someone who kind of has it all, and is almost going to lose it all, and then has a shot at redemption.
When did you actually start writing it down?
For a long time I just tried to forget it. Then at some point after the fact I wrote down a rough draft. Then I think I just threw it in a drawer and didn’t read it again for a couple of years. Then I picked it out, looked at it, hated it, thought it was terrible, threw it back in the drawer, and didn’t look at it again for two years. It was that kind of slow progress. In the end, I guess I just kept tinkering with it, slowly trying to make it better and reworking it. Structurally it always stayed the same, because it was always about what happened that night.
Was it always going to be a one-take movie?
That developed over time. Years ago, before it was even possible, when all we ever shot on was film, I had this image of doing something in one take. Not necessarily on one camera, but in one take. I love theater, and I thought it’d be so cool to capture something in one take.
When did you realize that you were going to make it as a film?
I’d written another screenplay before this. It’s called The Misadventures Of Lester Fitz, it takes place entirely in Ireland, and there’s a lot of slapstick. I had always intended to do that first, but then I started thinking that maybe it was more appropriate to do Lost In London first. And I started thinking this could work into that concept of capturing it in real time. I had the idea of merging theater and film—capturing the moment. That was the concept I had in my head.
How did you set about making it?
It was years before I really got serious about it. Really, I didn’t get too serious about it until probably about a year-and-a-half ago. I’d been going from project to project, and I thought if I was ever going to do this, I would have to carve out the time. So I got a hold of my buddy, Ken Kao, who produced Rampart, and once I had a decent draft, I sent it to him. He liked it, and he co-produced it with me. Since I first had the idea, there have been [single-take films such as] Russian Ark and Victoria, which I consider like a truly great movie. But, in the beginning, I hadn’t intended to use a single camera. That idea came from the DP, Nigel Willoughby, who I really wanted to work with, and he tried to convince me three times, because I just couldn’t see how to do it. There were just too many problems with it. But the third time, he convinced me. I literally sat down with the script and figured out how to reconcile the images I had with the single camera. And now I can’t imagine it not being single camera. I think it would really be a bit jarring if I’d done it with more cameras.
It’s your first movie. You’re shooting it in one take, with multiple locations, and screening it through a simultaneous live feed. You couldn’t have been any more ambitious with it.
Yeah, I’d have to agree with you. But I can’t give myself so much credit for that. I didn’t realize how ambitious it actually was. I thought it was going to be a little easier than it was, but it was actually about as hard as I could imagine. It was very challenging and stressful. There were just so many things that could go wrong—technical things, like sound, and the live feed. Just the general choreography of it. We had 50 RF receivers, 160 radios for crew communication stuff. We condensed, like, two to six months of prep into six weeks. We had 300 crew, 300 extras, 25 cast, 14 locations, we had to negotiate with buildings and locations over two square miles so that it could all go smoothly—and not everything could be tightly controlled. It kept me up at night, many nights. I had a real struggle with insomnia, which is funny—in spite of all the sinning I’ve done in life, I seem to somehow usually get a good night’s sleep. But this one challenged me in that regard.
Given that you’re also the star of the film, in the moment of doing it, did you also have to let go of everything else that was going on around you and just focus on the performance?
While I was rehearsing it, I never could let go of just looking at everything as a director. I couldn’t. I’d look round and I’d say, “Oh, OK, the camera can’t be there,” or, “This shouldn’t be done like this.” I was so busy thinking of it from a directorial vantage point, or even as a writer, that I wasn’t really accomplishing what I needed to as an actor. Finally, on the night that we were shooting it, just before we shot it, Nigel said to me, “OK, you’re just the actor now, so stop thinking of the other stuff.” And he was right. It was good advice, because, it’s very hard to not think about what’s going on and what could be better. Or, “Why is this happening?” Man, oh, man. I’ll never forget it. It was quite an exciting undertaking.
How would you describe the moment when the camera finally shut off and the whole endeavor was over?
My God. Well, at the very end, I was still a little conscious of a mistake that happened, and it kind of took me a minute to just, y’know, chill out and enjoy the moment. Once I realized that it wasn’t as glaring as I thought it was, then it was OK. It just took a minute or two before I got to that state. Man, I got to say, I just felt like partying.
Do people notice the mistakes?
I’ve asked about that in the Q&As I’ve done for the film. I’ve asked people, and they didn’t know. Well, actually, they would kind of shout out about a few things that were intentional and I was like, “Oh, damn.” It got a bit embarrassing. The “big” mistake is not as obvious as it felt to me at the time, but with it being a single-camera movie, I couldn’t really see what I could do about that. You’re not going to cut into a movie like that without it being pretty obvious. But a lot of people said they forgot that it was a single camera. They just got into the story, which is really what I’d hoped.
After all the stress and all the sleepless nights, was it worth it?
Yeah, it was really worth it. I had a great experience with it. I didn’t even know if it was possible, I just kept believing that it could be done. It was hard, but in the end, a lot of the people who I’ve worked with, they feel like family now. I really feel so lucky to have been a part of this thing with all these great collaborators. I really liked how it turned out. An imperfect gem, y’know? It was quite cathartic to finally do it. I feel like it shifted something in me, to finally tell this story. It’s like a weird love letter to my wife. A very strange love letter, and also a comedy, but she really likes it—that’s the main thing.
Would you consider doing it again?
I can’t see doing the exact same thing again, but I would do something like this maybe with one or two locations and maybe a handful of actors. I could see doing it that way. But even that would have to be awhile in the future.