In the Doug Liman-directed Locked Down that premieres today on HBO Max, Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor play an estranged couple ready to call it quits if not for being shackled to their flat like every other Londoner by Covid. They co-exist uneasily and only find a spark when they hatch a daring plan to heist a diamond from Harrods before it is delivered to an overseas despot. Hathaway and Ejiofor are the stars, but the third lead in the Steven Knight-scripted film is the global pandemic that since last March that has overtaken every element of our lives and caused nearly 2 million deaths around the world. It continues to be hard even to go shopping, but imagine crossing the ocean to make a feature film in a country that had strict lockdown curfews and rules. Here, Liman explains how he and cohorts pulled off this heist movie and how an adventurous spirit that included his wild solo flight from Massachusetts to London in a single engine plane — has helped raise his courage for Liman’s next movie adventure. That’s the one where he and Tom Cruise will go into outer space to shoot a film aboard an Elon Musk SpaceX capsule.
DEADLINE: What emboldened you to shoot a movie with multiple locations in London, during a time when the film industry was shut down by global pandemic?
DOUG LIMAN: It really started as a fantasy, at least for me. We were locked down in July and Steven and I said, what if we wrote a movie to shoot in September in London? It was an outrageous fantasy, but no more outrageous than the characters onscreen fantasizing about robbing Harrods. Because of the pandemic and the lockdown, we had time to indulge this fantasy. It wasn’t like we had pressing social plans or parties to go to, or anything else. We were just…home, and for me at least this was a fun escape to imagine what this movie might be.
We were like, they’ll rob Harrods…it was a chance for myself and for Steve to think back on the last few months and all the different kinds of experiences people were having during the pandemic. We pretty quickly became drawn to the idea of a couple that had decided to break up but were forced to quarantine together. Versions of that were happening everywhere; this lockdown was pushing people into crazy, outrageous places they never thought they’d be in. Steve and I just had fun, from a character point of view, exploring what kinds of stories we could tell in that world. We always wanted it to be a heist; maybe because it provided a level of escapism, not only for the audience but for Steve and myself, fantasizing and living in the world of what this movie would be while we were locked down. This was all done on Zoom. He was in London, and I was in Massachusetts.
DEADLINE: How long before fantasy became real?
LIMAN: By mid-July, we really had the shape of what the movie would be, but it was loose, like, each time we finished a Zoom conversation, should we do another? And it was like what Chiwetel says to Ben Kingsley in the film. ‘We’re all home. Anyone on a Zoom saying, well, I got somewhere to go, I got to go. It’s like, no you don’t, where are you going?’ So, I kept being surprised that Steve wanted to keep engaging on this because it was just a fun pipe dream, brainstorming what this movie would be.
By mid-July, we had settled that it would involve a heist of Harrods, and we said, let’s approach Harrods and see if they would be interested. Harrods never lets movies shoot there; it’s a giant corporation with a big brand and this is a heist of their store. They’re going to be very protective. There was no script. I’m like, this is not going to go well, but we had a Zoom meeting with the marketing people there and their enthusiasm surprised me. They said, we’ll give you an answer next week. In normal times, you’d have to give them a complete script and wait a few months. Then they would say no.
They got the urgency of this, and they gave us the answer the next week, and this crazy pipe dream suddenly got one step closer to being real. But it was going to require Steve to start writing, which was the next hurdle, because it was just us. There’s no studio, no financing. And I said, Steve, start writing. A not insignificant amount of work to ask with a low likelihood the film would happen. No films were going into production, and the only ones talking about it were giant franchise movies. Sometime in July, he handed me the first 50 pages, and they were so brilliant, I said, you’re in the zone, Steve. Whatever this pandemic has done to you, it’s coming out on the page with such sharpness.
DEADLINE: What did you do while he was writing?
LIMAN: I was like I’m in, I’m making this movie, and I went and raised the money off those 50 pages, with this crazy premise that we’re going to try to shoot in London, during a pandemic, at Harrods. I don’t know if we’ll succeed. I said, your investment in making this movie is 100 percent at risk because there’s nobody who can tell you that this is doable, and I’m not going to lie to you. Harrods had said yes by then.
LIMAN: I didn’t ask why. It shocked me because, the film is about a heist of Harrods. I just think these were unprecedented times. I don’t know if it’s because Harrods was struggling as a brick and mortar and open to things they might not have otherwise been open to, or because the actual people who made the decisions, like Steve and myself and everybody else, were suffering from the lockdown. And the idea of going and making a movie would be a fun escape from what otherwise has been the monotony of every day being the same.
DEADLINE: Indie films have been hobbled by inability to insure for Covid outbreaks. If your star gets sick, you shut down for a couple of weeks and you’re sunk. How did you manage?
LIMAN: So, first of all, I budgeted the film low enough that its cost would be basically the cost of developing a usual Steve Knight script. I recognized that we had to put ourselves in a place where insurance wouldn’t be the thing that stops us. I sold it as, if we can pull this off, you have a home run because you have a Steve Knight/Doug Liman film for way below what it might normally cost. But there’s a chance we get shut down for a million reasons. The other part of the plan was shoot it very quickly because I knew that it was only a matter of time before you suffer a shutdown that would be catastrophic for a film of our scale. That meant that we then had to try to get in and out quickly enough that we had a shot of getting through this without having a Covid shutdown, even following the protocols that had been established by bigger-budget movies.
DEADLINE: Sounds like your strategy of making a heist film was the guiding principle of a heist, get in and out before they realize what hit them.
LIMAN: Before the shit hits the fan. But the urgency of the shooting, I was really excited to see how that would affect what it looks like onscreen. I still feel like Swingers is a way better movie than it would’ve been had I had the proper production plan to go make it. I didn’t, so I had to do crazy things to get that film made, and that’s reflected in the energy onscreen. The Bourne Identity, the energy that you feel in the camera work mostly comes from the fact that Matt Damon and I were stealing scenes in places we didn’t have permits for, and so, I’ve been rewarded by, in my career, by allowing the practical realities of what’s happening on the set permeate what ends up onscreen. It would be boring to me, as a filmmaker, to just have a film with two people in a house. But we were going to try to shoot this at some insane speed, so we can possibly have a chance of getting through this before there’s an outbreak on the set or London shuts down completely. Because London was shutting down around us while we were shooting. There was this urgency to the filmmaking and I’m really proud of how it looks onscreen. There will be no shortage of films made about this pandemic and I wanted to really embrace the fact that we were making this during the pandemic and we let that actually influence creative decisions so Locked Down could stand alone, when it is compared years from now to other movies made about the pandemic. Because the style of the movie reflects the time in which it was made.
DEADLINE: You got Stuart Ford’s AGC Studios to finance. Did you get a Covid policy?
LIMAN: Because our budget was small enough, we managed to get some form of insurance. But we were not immune from an outbreak and I told Stuart, I’ll try to finish a movie, but I’m going into this knowing full well what I’m going into. I’ll roll with whatever happens, and I’m not just going to leave you. If there’s any way for me to finish this movie, I’m going to finish it, but…I don’t know.
DEADLINE: When the streets are deserted, who was going to get in your way?
LIMAN: That deserted London intersection that is the opening shot of the movie, it’s the intersection across the street from where I was staying. I just went out my door one morning and just shot it. I cast it with a partial script. I sent it to Anne Hathaway, and explained why she wasn’t getting the whole script, that we planned to start next month. That even in rehearsals, every day you’re rehearsing runs the risk of there being an outbreak, even though I cut every scene I looked at that ran the risk of there being an outbreak and somebody getting hurt and the film getting hurt.
DEADLINE: Her response?
LIMAN: She’s like, you can save your breath, I’ve read it, I love it, I’m in. I get what you’re trying to do. Chiwetel, when I sent it to him, said the same thing. When I say they were in, I mean, they were all in. Whatever I threw at them, they rolled with it. Never once did they waver.
DEADLINE: You flew yourself to London. Is that a trip you’ve taken before?
LIMAN: No, absolutely not. No. I mean it’s something you dream about. But you know, Lindbergh flies an old propeller plane across the Atlantic. Amelia Earhart does. When they heard me sort of brainstorming about this, my friends all started calling me Doug Amelia Earhart Liman. But the reality is that, I’m talking to you from the same desk I was sitting at in July, brainstorming with Steve Knight about the idea of us escaping our own personal lockdowns to make a movie. And as long as you’re fantasizing about this impossible thing that’s never going to happen…by the way, I recognize that I sound a little bit like Anne Hathaway, in the heist plotting scene which she would say, if we did this, which we’re not going to do. That was us. If we make this film, which is obviously not going to happen, it’s not possible. But if we did…In the emotional state of us putting this film together, and as long as you’re fantasizing about it, I was like, well, maybe I’ll fly myself across the Atlantic for the shoot. Throw in all the fantasies.
DEADLINE: Could you not have booked a commercial flight from Massachusetts to Heathrow?
LIMAN: No, you could’ve. It was just…it had always been my fantasy. You know, as a pilot, I’ve always dreamed of flying across the Atlantic. As a kid on the beaches of New York, I used to think I could see England across the Atlantic…
DEADLINE: So it was more a bucket list thing than a necessity for this film?
LIMAN: It was bucket list, but an outgrowth of the film, which I also probably never would have done but for this pandemic and this lockdown and this feeling of, I’m going to attempt to do something outrageous, like go make Locked Down. Why not throw in that flight? Once I challenge myself with something like that, for better or worse, I just can’t walk away from it. I had a conversation with Michael Bay at the end of August, told him I’m really thinking I’m going to fly myself across the Atlantic. He had pilots who work for him. He got them to call me to try to talk me out of it. They, of course, were like, that sounds so cool, and we wish we could do that, on a little propeller plane. It just got me more excited.
DEADLINE: Any problems on the flight?
LIMAN: Ten minutes into my flight, the airplane started vibrating violently. Literally, I’m 10 minutes into my cross-ocean flight, 10 minutes into a two-day journey, and I’m terrified because the whole airplane’s shaking violently. What the hell is that? And I finally deduce that I picked up ice on my propeller, which I eventually managed to shed. Normally there’s a system to keep ice off the propeller, and I’m flying across the North Atlantic, where there’s going to be a lot more ice. I spent some time on the ground in Newfoundland to make sure the system was working, which I finally decided it was. And then I continued the journey.
DEADLINE: Nobody was traveling at that time when you landed in Newfoundland to get gas. How were you greeted?
LIMAN: Three hours from Massachusetts to Newfoundland, and three hours to Narsarsuaq, Greenland. They didn’t want me to get out of the plane. I was like, well, can I go inside and use the bathroom? And they were like do you really have to? I did. They’re like, okay, you can come inside, but seriously, go to the bathroom and then leave.
DEADLINE: Why so inhospitable?
LIMAN: Because of Covid. There were no Covid cases in Greenland.
DEADLINE: To them, you were Patient Zero.
LIMAN: And by the way, there’s no hospital anywhere near Narsarsuaq. They’re in the middle of nowhere. They did see me as Patient Zero, everybody did. Then, three hours to Iceland.
DEADLINE: Same cold treatment?
LIMAN: No. Iceland, because I was the pilot, they let me stay. They didn’t let tourists in, but they let me stay the night. And next day, I flew to London in just about four hours. When I got to England and before I flew back, I had somebody look at the airplane to confirm it was okay. It was bad weather in Greenland. I really had been excited to see Greenland, for so long. It’s remote, all these mountains and fjords and glaciers, none of which I got to see because it was low ceilings. I basically got to see the fjord that the runway was on and the runway.
DEADLINE: What are low ceilings?
LIMAN: The clouds were low, 1500 feet above the ground. You’re in the clouds until two minutes before landing, which is terrifying. And I mean, I’m used to flying around North America. The you’re so remote and isolated, and there’s no air traffic controllers. I mean you are on your own.
DEADLINE: How long did it take to make the film?
LIMAN: We shot in 18 days, a schedule I set because that’s how long the Swingers shoot was.
DEADLINE: Did the production endure any positive Covid tests?
LIMAN: My production designer, on the first week. But we had been following these safety protocols that had been established by Tom Cruise for Mission: Impossible, and we these different zones, and the production designer was in a different zone than the on-set crew. People always wore their masks…we were such a small family making a film, there were no bad apples in the mix. Everybody was in it together. There wasn’t a single person involved in the production or anyone that she interacted with that got sick. She just worked remotely after that, and luckily, her illness wasn’t too tough on her. A few days after we finished shooting, someone else on the production got sick, but again, everyone wore masks and that was weeks later, so there was no connection between the two cases. But it was happening all around us, and all around London, and every week, Boris Johnson was shutting things down. It really was a charmed shoot. We could not have gotten through this if good fortune was not shining down on us. I think about all the ways in which things could’ve gone wrong and didn’t. Some productions are like that. I just know there was some good luck in the mix on top of how hard everybody worked together.
DEADLINE: You benefited from Cruise’s Covid protocols. Having shot this movie under scary Covid conditions, when you heard the audio of Tom being sharp with the people on the set who were lax in protocols, what did you think?
LIMAN: To be honest, I didn’t hear the audio. But In my first week of shooting of Locked Down, I thanked an actor who’d come in to just do one line of dialogue, a grande dame of the West End Theater. And she’s like, ‘are you kidding, there are no jobs out there, you’re putting all these people to work, thank you for making this movie.’ I looked around and thought, that’s right. We’ve a teeny budget, but every cent of it is going into paychecks. All these people could be on unemployment. We could be sitting on our ass, people collecting unemployment. But by just following a few safety procedures and by wearing these masks, we’re getting people back to work.
The only reason I even probably considered making this film in the first place is that because of my friendship with Tom. I was aware of how hard he was working to get Mission Impossible back into production when the rest of the industry was saying, how can you shoot a movie during a pandemic? There’s no socially distanced way to make a movie. Anchors were doing newscasts from home. Even late night talk show hosts are literally alone at home, with no crew. I’m like, that’s the world we’re in. How could you possibly go shoot Mission: Impossible? You can’t. We’re just going to have to ride this thing out, wait for the pandemic to end, and then we’ll go back and make movies. And here’s Tom Cruise saying, no, like, I’m going to get all these people back to work, which is how he talked about his film. He said he felt a responsibility to Paramount, and to all these people that were unemployed because the film had shut down. He said, I’m going to get this film back into production, and that more than anything, inspired me to go try make Locked Down. That maybe, if he can get a movie made, maybe I can get a movie made.
DEADLINE: Of all the film stories Deadline broke last year, probably the two biggest were Tom Hanks contracting Covis and you and Tom Cruise planning to shoot a movie in a space capsule. How did that movie idea come about?
LIMAN: It connects to Locked Down because the same producer who a year ago came to me and said how would you like to try to shoot a movie in outer space? That’s PJ van Sandwijk, and he’s the same person who said to Steve Knight and myself on July 1, what about you guys writing a movie for us to shoot in September? Same guy, and when, a year ago, he proposed something insane like the space movie, I initially humored PJ. I was like, well, I’ll take a few meetings on shooting a movie in outer space, because I kind of am curious. You know we’re obviously not going to be able to do this, but I’m curious, why not? It was similar to my humoring PJ this summer on the pandemic movie. Sure, we’ll explore that. But here’s the thing. When a producer proposes something crazy to you, like, let’s try to shoot a movie in outer space, and NASA and SpaceX sign on, and Tom Cruise signs on…you’re just a little bit more receptive when that same producer says I got another crazy idea, and that became Locked Down. I do think it came full circle because Locked Down, if you attempt to do something outrageous and cinematic, and you pull it off, that just gives you a little bit more confidence for the next time.
And obviously, the next time is going to be about going to outer space. I also think, when I thought about the flight across the Atlantic, which really did scare me, and one of the reasons why I didn’t shy away from it, at the end of the day, is I had been to the SpaceX launch in the beginning of the summer. It scared me, imagining myself in that rocket, venturing out into unknown places. I thought the flight would be a good first step towards getting the courage to strap myself in that rocket with Tom Cruise.
DEADLINE: How much is it in the back of your mind that you’re going to be like one of these heroic characters we’ve watched in movies like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, as you and Tom strap yourselves in and light that candle?
LIMAN: That’s not lost on me because I’m a regular person.
DEADLINE: Compared to me and most everyone, you’re a Viking.
LIMAN: I’m a regular person. I don’t even live in Hollywood or have many Hollywood friends. I’m a regular person, and none of what you are saying is lost on me, but nor is it lost on me when we have conversations, and things come out of our mouths like, we’re going to shoot this scene on Earth, or this scene won’t be shot on Earth. That just gets uttered casually and often during prep meetings. That’s not lost on me, and I don’t think it’s lost on Tom. I think the reason that Tom is such a superstar is, as much as we’re talking about making a movie not on Earth, I think Tom very much has both of his feet planted on the ground. And more than anyone I’ve ever worked with, he appreciates the extraordinary opportunity he has to go make movies. It seems like it’s never lost on him. He’s like a kid in a candy store. No matter what the movie is, he’s like, I’m getting to go make a movie. That enthusiasm! He has made god knows how many movies, and he hasn’t lost that enthusiasm.
I’ve been lucky to work with amazing people. I mean I can’t imagine how I could’ve gone through Locked Down without Annie and Chiwetel. I literally can’t, and for all the amazing people I’ve worked with, I just can’t think of two actors I could’ve gotten through this experience with other than the two of them.
DEADLINE: Years ago, I did a Playboy interview with Tom and was fascinated by the analytical way he broke down stunts that no other star of his stature would attempt. Including scaling around on the outside of a skyscraper in Dubai. He calmly said if he did it 20 stories up and fell he would die, so why not 120, if he trusts the rigging and the team? How much does having a partner like that help your own ability to sleep at night?
LIMAN: I mean, Tom’s not building the rocket…
DEADLINE: But he will understand everything about it…
LIMAN: Here’s the thing. I like facing my fears. I love my films being an adventure. Earlier in my career, that caused friction with studios who didn’t quite get that, who maybe don’t want their directors treating the film like an adventure. I’ve since found like-minded people who celebrate that. Making Locked Down, everybody got that this was going to be an adventure. Going into space, who doesn’t get that that’s going to be an adventure? So, rather than me changing to fit this corporate Hollywood approach, I have found the people in Hollywood who appreciate that I treat every film like an adventure.
DEADLINE: How helpful was the risk taking on Locked Down and the solo flight across the pond in preparing you for that space movie? Was this the riskiest film you’ve made?
LIMAN: I think many of them have been risky. Starting with Swingers, where I organized the shoot with the scenes most likely to get us arrested, and put them at the end of the shoot. Which is not how you normally arrange the schedule on a movie. When you’re risking getting arrested, that’s adventure, right there. From there I just pushed myself into arenas where…when I was starting Edge of Tomorrow, I told Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, I’ve never made a movie like Edge of Tomorrow. My producer was like, never say that again. Warner Bros. does not want to hear that. Nobody wants to hear that. And Tom’s like, I want to hear it; I’m excited, I know you’ve never made a movie like this, and I’m excited to watch you figure it out, I want to go on this adventure with you. They’re not always life-endangering adventures or liberty endangering adventures, but they are always adventures.
DEADLINE: You told me recently that on The Bourne Identity, you felt you hadn’t quite captured the scene with Clive Owen and the studio absolutely forbade you to go back and do it again. And you stole the shot and risked getting fired, and then you and Matt Damon moved quickly to the next scene. Were there repercussions?
LIMAN: No, because the film ended up being a success. But some of my friends said, you’re taking a chance, running the risk that if you act like this, you maybe won’t be able to weather a flop as well as somebody who gets along with everybody and just does their bidding. This was a good friend, just trying to get me to recognize you’re taking a chance like that. That person was right, but I told them, you know, I can’t help myself.