How 'Locked Down' Director Doug Liman Made a Big, Glitzy Heist Movie During the Pandemic

Doug Liman on shooting his new COVID-themed movie, available on HBO Max, in the legendary Herrods and how he and Tom Cruise decided to make a movie in space.

anne hathaway and chiwetel ejiofor locked down

Before shooting Locked Down, his pandemic-themed heist movie, director Doug Liman was inspired to do something everyone told him was crazy: He flew across the Atlantic, by himself, in a prop plane. Liman and his friend and collaborator Tom Cruise are planning to make an upcoming movie in space, in partnership with SpaceX and NASA, so Liman figured he'd test out his ability to withstand isolation, flying to London where Locked Down was going into production. Even Michael Bay thought it was a bad idea.

"He said, 'You're going to kill yourself flying across the Atlantic. Don't do it,'" Liman recalls. "There's been a number of people like, 'You're going to kill yourself going to outer space.' But I thought flying myself to and from London to make Locked Down perfectly encapsulated the fact that we were going to be venturing into the unknown making this film, and let's just embrace that."

Locked Down was conceived in July, shot in the fall, and hits HBO Max this weekend. It follows a couple played by Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who rekindle their strained relationship in the early days of COVID by deciding to rob a precious diamond from Harrods, the department store gone quiet because of the virus. It was a ragtag effort on the part of Liman, who developed it alongside writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Locke) and worked from the first draft of the screenplay that was being constructed as the actors were signing on. 

I happened to have watched a lot of Liman's work during my own period of lockdown. In anticipation of a cross-country move to Los Angeles, I watched his two time capsules of '90s L.A., Swingers and Go. I also took comfort in a binge of The O.C., which Liman produced. He also directed the, dare I say, perfect pilot of that show, another one of his surprising credits, along with Edge of Tomorrow and The Bourne Identity. Given that he has one of the more fascinating careers in the industry—his space travels with Tom Cruise merely his newest adventure—I hopped on the phone with him to chat about making a coronavirus movie, even as coronavirus delays his upcoming blockbuster with Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, Chaos Walking

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Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

Thrillist: What were the initial conversations like about making something in these crazy times? 
Doug Liman:
I'm probably not alone in thinking, "How could I go shoot a movie during this pandemic? How could I take advantage of opportunities that might be available because of the pandemic? How do I get back to work?" It starts from a fairly simple place of wanting to create stuff and being idled. Steven Knight and I were having a conversation about a different project on July 1 and a producer who was on that call said, "Why don't we write something to shoot this fall?" And Steven and I were like, "Well, let's talk about it, but that's a crazy idea. That's never going to happen, but these are crazy times." So Steven and I both sort of entertained taking a minute to brainstorm what something would be and it just clicked.

The idea evolved to the point where we decided it would be fun if a couple who was cooped up together hatches this insane idea together to rob Harrods, which is closed for the first time in its 150-year history, and is literally the most glamorous department store in the world and has everything you could ever want. It was a heist borne out of the same impulse that was driving us to make the movie: The world's turned upside down, there are no rules; why not? The adults have left the room. That precipitated a call to Harrods, which has [rarely] allowed movies to shoot in their store. Our approach was: There's no script. We're not even going to write the script unless you agree now we can shoot it in Harrods in two months, and because these are crazy times where everything is turned upside down, Harrods agreed. 

What was your approach to mask-wearing on screen, and the challenges of the times both on camera and on set? 
We conceived of the movie as not only something that was going to be set during what seemed like the height of the pandemic—the early days of the pandemic where nobody quite knew how to deal with it. Presumably now, we sort of know how to live with it, but the early days of it: Was it really only going to be two weeks of lockdown? Were you supposed to wear a mask or not wear a mask? There were so many unknowns.

We knew we would be shooting it while the pandemic was still going on, so we approached the script from the point of view where we thought it could be accomplished safely. A number of the characters only appear via Zoom, at home, wherever they are safely quarantining during the pandemic. So, Ben Stiller is in his own home. He's not exposed to anybody on the outside. But we also knew we would be going out into the world in Harrods with hundreds of extras. There would also be some scale to it, but that we would be very strategic. I'm sort of somebody who looks at lemons and makes lemonade. I said, "Look, there are going to be a lot of restrictions on our ability to make this film because of our budget [and] because of the pandemic." We were going into uncharted waters. We were the first independent film to go into production.

You're good friends with Tom Cruise, whose opinions on COVID safety have gone viral. Were you talking to Tom or anyone else working on these big productions about how they were handling the pandemic? 
Yeah, to be honest, Tom getting Mission: Impossible back into production is what inspired me to do this. I really thought we're just going to stay locked down until this thing ends. I'm obviously collaborating with Tom. I saw how hard he was working to safely get Mission: Impossible back into production and he was pulling it off. I thought, "Well then, why am I sitting on my ass?" It really inspired me, and then obviously we were able to piggyback on the coattails of the bigger productions that had figured out safety protocols, which we then used. 

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Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anne Hathaway browse Harrods in 'Locked Down.' | HBO Max

Your highly publicized upcoming project involves going to space with SpaceX and NASA. Did you see any parallels as you are developing that project with Tom to the very Earthbound COVID restrictions? 
The connection is that on July 1, the producer that said to Steve Knight and myself, "why don't we write a movie and shoot it in September" was the same producer who said to me the year before, "Why don't we make a movie in outer space?" When a producer proposes something as insane as shooting a movie in outer space and the project actually starts to happen, and when that same producer proposes something that is probably even more audacious—let's write and shoot a movie in a couple of months, during a pandemic where everything is locked down—you entertain the idea because of from whom it came. You're like: Maybe the impossible is possible. The idea of shooting a move in outer space seems impossible, but the idea of pulling this film off in these conditions seemed even more impossible. That, to me, was the inspiration that I took away from making Locked Down that I will carry with me for the rest of my life: I'm just never going to say that anything is impossible.

We didn't just make a movie, I believe we made a good movie. And more important than it being a good film, it's a film that will touch audiences around the planet. You were talking about having watched Swingers before you moved to L.A. I was in my 20s when I made Swingers, and all my friends were going through breakups and heartache. I can't tell you how many times I said to someone who is suffering from a heartbreak and didn't know how they would get over it, "I have the perfect film for you to go see that will make you feel better. I've got to go make it, so I can't show it to you today." I understood how Swingers was going to touch its audience, and on a much bigger scale Locked Down has the ability to touch audiences around the world who have been suffering and find that there is some universality, especially in America where things are so divisive, [but] we are all going through this. 

It was just announced that the 101 Coffee Shop, one of the key locations in Swingers, is shutting down because of the pandemic. I wanted to get your opinions on that and memories of shooting there. 
The 101 shutting down is just another example of how this pandemic is touching all of us. Even if you're not in the restaurant business, there's a place that holds special memories for you: The restaurant you got engaged in or, for me, the restaurant where I shot pivotal scenes in Swingers, being a victim of this pandemic. That's a spirit that infuses Locked Down. We're all been affected in so many different ways by this pandemic.

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You have another movie coming out this year, Chaos Walking. From an outsider's perspective, it seems like the opposite kind of experience. Whereas Locked Down was scrappy, Chaos Walking is a big production that very publicly went through reshoots. What has the waiting being like for that to get to audiences? 
I tend, with my movies, to do things that are not like any other movie. There will be no other movie like Locked Down ever, and Chaos Walking, from its very conceit, is not going to be like any other movie. It's a really fun adventure and it's not on Earth. Locked Down is very much about what we are all going through right now. Chaos Walking is the opposite. It's the ultimate escape because it's not even on Earth, but even more original in its conceit.

You wouldn't be in the movie business if you weren't an optimist, and in the back of my mind while we were making Locked Down, even as London was shutting down around us, I was thinking, Wouldn't it be amazing if we turn the corner on this thing and movie theaters open around the globe and our film comes out at Christmas in movie theaters? And then obviously, I was looking forward to Chaos Walking opening up in theaters. That has not happened. They pushed it back a few months, and with the vaccine, maybe movie theaters really will be able to support the release. It had been my dream that Locked Down would play in movie theaters at the end of the year. But all I can control is the movie I made. I can't control the pandemic.

Locked Down is coming out on HBO Max, which is part of Warner Media, which is saying that it is going to release all of its films day and date on the streaming platform. What's your take on that? 
We're not like the filmmakers who made a theatrical film and then found it out it was coming out on streaming. I think the movie theater business is a very tough business during a pandemic because the economics are that you have to sell popcorn and soda. You have to fill every seat and get everybody eating. That's not very safe in a pandemic. You can't be like, "Well, we won't have people eating and they'll just wear masks" because the business model doesn't work. Again, I wouldn't be in the movie business if I weren't an optimist and I'm hoping maybe that coming out of all of this will be a system where maybe a movie's entire fate doesn't ride on its opening weekend, and that movies become more of the meritocracy they were before the blockbuster era. Even Bourne Identity never won an opening weekend. That was 20 years ago, but it was able to stay in the movie theater for months, and it ultimately did better than all the movies that eclipsed it in opening weekends that summer. And maybe we'll get back to a place where it's not all about an opening weekend because you just can't pack people in. I am optimistic that somehow out of this movies will be stronger, and honestly the experience of making Locked Down showed me that human beings are really resilient. We found a way to go make Locked Down under impossible circumstances, and the movie business will recover and, I genuinely believe, will be stronger.

Well, I know we have to wrap up soon...
By the way, just one other thing about Tom and the lockdown. Because I am going to be going into outer space with Tom, I did fly myself to London in my little prop plane to go make the movie. Part of the impetus was that I was going to be venturing into outer space and I should get some experiences on Earth putting myself really as far as you can get possibly on Earth from other human beings and help. It was not only that Tom sort of inspired me to go make this movie and establish safety protocols using his big budget that we were then able to emulate, it's that this spirit of attempting the impossible and venturing into the unknown started before I even got to London to shoot the movie because I was like: "I've never done it before but I'm just going to try to fly myself across the Atlantic." I had dinner with Michael Bay just before I left, and he spent the entire meal trying to convince me not to do it. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.