Directed by Doug Liman Blocked Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who premiered on HBO Max today, play an estranged couple willing to end it if they don’t get covid chained to their apartment like every other Londoner. They coexist uncomfortably and only find a spark when they come up with a daring plan to raid a Harrods diamond before delivering it to an overseas despot. Hathaway and Ejiofor are the stars, but the third track is the global pandemic that has overtaken every element of our lives since last March, causing nearly 2 million deaths worldwide. It’s still difficult to go shopping, but imagine crossing the ocean to make a feature film in a country that has strict curfews and rules. Here Liman explains how he and his co-workers made this heist film, and how an adventurous spirit that included his wild solo flight from Massachusetts to London in a single engine airplane helped fuel his courage for Liman’s next movie adventure. Here he and Tom Cruise will go into space to make a movie on board an Elon Musk SpaceX capsule.
: What encouraged you to make a multi-location film in London when the film industry was shut down by a global pandemic?
DOUG LIMAN: It really started out as a fantasy, at least for me. We got locked up in July and Steven and I said what if we wrote a movie to be shot in London in September? It was an outrageous fantasy, but no more outrageous than the on-screen characters who dreamed of robbing Harrods. Because of the pandemic and lockdown, we had time to indulge in that fantasy. It wasn’t like we had urgent social plans or parties or anything else. We were just … home, and at least for me this was a fun escape to imagine what this movie could be.
We thought they were going to rob Harrods … it was a chance for me and Steve to think back on the past few months and all the different experiences people had during the pandemic. We got attracted pretty quickly to the idea of a couple who decided to split up but were forced to quarantine together. Versions of it happened everywhere; This lockdown took people to crazy, outrageous places that they never thought they would be. Steve and I just had fun, from a character perspective, exploring what kinds of stories we could tell in this world. We always wanted it to be a raid; Maybe because it gave not only the audience but also Steve and I a certain amount of escapism to fantasize and live in the world what this movie would look like while we were locked up. This was all done on Zoom. He was in London and I was in Massachusetts.
: How long before the fantasy became a reality?
LIMAN: By mid-July we really had the shape of the movie, but it was loose, how should we make a different every time we finished a Zoom conversation? And it was like what Chiwetel says about Ben Kingsley in the movie. “We’re all home. Everyone on a zoom that says, Well, I have to go somewhere, I have to go. It’s like, no, don’t you know where are you going?” So I was always surprised that Steve was up wanted to keep doing it because it was just a funny pipe dream to worry about what this movie would be.
By mid-July, we had decided it was going to be a raid on Harrods and we said we should contact Harrods and see if they were interested. Harrods never has films made there. It’s a huge company with a big brand and this is a raid on their business. You will be very protective. There was no script. I don’t think this will work out well, but we had a Zoom meeting with the marketing people there and their enthusiasm surprised me. You said we’ll give you an answer next week. In normal times, you have to give them a full script and wait a few months. Then they would say no.
They got the urgency for it and gave us the answer within the next week, and that crazy pipe dream suddenly got one step closer to reality. But Steve had to start writing what the next hurdle was because it was just us. There is no studio, no funding. And I said, Steve, start writing. A not inconsiderable amount of work to ask, with a small chance of being, if the movie was going to happen. No films were made, and the only ones who talked about it were huge franchise films. Sometime in July he gave me the first 50 pages and they were so brilliant I said you are in the zone Steve. Whatever this pandemic has done to you, it appears on the side with such a sharpness.
: What did you do while he was writing?
LIMAN: I was like in, I’m making this movie, and I raised the money from those 50 sites, with this crazy premise that we’re going to try and shoot at Harrods, London during a pandemic. I don’t know if we’ll be successful. I said your investment in this film is 100 percent at risk because no one can tell you this is doable and I am 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 raid on Harrods. I just think these were unprecedented times. I don’t know if it’s because Harrods fought brick and mortar and was open to things they might not otherwise have been open to, or because the actual people who made the decisions, like Steve and me and everyone others, including the curfew, suffered. And the idea of making a movie would be a fun escape from what was otherwise the monotony of every day that is the same.
: Indie films have been hampered by the inability to insure Covid outbreaks. When your star gets sick, you shut yourself off for a couple of weeks and get lost. How did you do that?
LIMAN: So initially I budgeted the film so low that its cost was basically the cost of developing a standard Steve Knight script. I realized we had to go to a place where the insurance wouldn’t stop us. I sold it like, if we can do that, you have a homerun because you have a Steve Knight / Doug Liman movie that is way below what it could normally cost. However, there is a chance we will be shut down for a million reasons. The other part of the plan was to shoot it really fast as I knew it was only a matter of time before you suffer a shutdown that would be disastrous for a movie our size. That meant we then had to try to get on and off the bus fast enough to get through without shutting down Covid, even according to the protocols set in movies with larger budget.
: Sounds like your strategy for making a mugging film was the guiding principle of a mugging. Hop on and off before they realize what hit them.
LIMAN: Before the shit hits the fan. But given the urgency of the shoot, I was really excited to see how this would affect the look on screen. I still feel like Swingers is a much better movie than it would have been if I had the right production schedule to make it. I didn’t, so I had to do crazy things to make this movie and that is reflected in the energy on the screen. The Bourne IdentityThe energy you feel in camerawork comes mainly from the fact that Matt Damon and I stole scenes in places we weren’t allowed to go, and that’s why I’ve been rewarded in my career by allowing the practical realities of that what happens on set permeates what lands on the screen. For me as a filmmaker, it would be boring to have just one movie with two people in one house. But we wanted to try and shoot this at an insane speed so we might have a chance to get through this before there was an outbreak on the set or London shutting down completely. Because London closed around us while we were filming. Filmmaking had that urgency and I’m really proud of the way it looks on screen. There will be no shortage of films made about this pandemic and I really wanted to applaud the fact that we did this during the pandemic and we actually let this influence creative decisions Blocked could stand alone when compared to other movies about the pandemic in years. Because the style of the film reflects the time it was shot.
: You financed Stuart Ford’s AGC Studios. Did you receive a Covid policy?
LIMAN: Because our budget was small enough, we managed to take out insurance. But we weren’t immune to an outbreak and I told Stuart I’ll try to finish a movie, but I’ll go into it and know exactly what I’m getting into. I’ll roll with whatever happens and I won’t just leave you. If in any way I can end this movie, I’ll end it, but … I don’t know.
: When the streets are deserted, who would get in your way?
LIMAN: This abandoned London intersection that is the opening shot of the film is the intersection across the street from which I lived. I walked out my door one morning and shot it. I have occupied it with a subscript. I sent it to Anne Hathaway and explained why she didn’t get the entire script that we wanted to start next month. Even with rehearsals, there is a risk of an outbreak every day you rehearse, even though I edited every scene I watched, there was a risk of an outbreak and someone was injured and the movie was injured.
: Your answer?
LIMAN: She thinks you can save your breath, I’ve read it, I love it, I’m in. I understand what you are trying to do. Chiwetel said the same thing when I sent it to him. If I say they were in, they were all in. Whatever I threw at them, they rolled along. They never wavered.
: You flew to London yourself. Is this a trip you’ve been on before?
LIMAN: No, definitely not. I mean, that’s what you’re dreaming of. But you know Lindbergh flies an old propeller plane across the Atlantic. Amelia Earhart does. When they heard me brainstorm this all of my friends called me Doug Amelia Earhart Liman. But the reality is that I am speaking to you from the same desk I was sitting at in July and pondering with Steve Knight the idea that we can escape our personal locks to make a movie. And as long as you’re fantasizing about this impossible that will never happen … By the way, I realize I sound a bit like Anne Hathaway in the robbery plot scene she would say if we did what we won’t . That was us. If we make this film, which obviously won’t happen, it can’t. But if we had done that … In the emotional state in which we put this film together and as long as you dream of it, I thought, maybe I’ll fly myself across the Atlantic to shoot it. Throw in any fantasies.
D.EADLINE: Couldn’t you have booked a commercial flight from Massachusetts to Heathrow?
LIMAN: No. It was just … it was always 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 thought I could see England across the Atlantic …
: So was it more of a bucket list thing than a necessity for this movie?
LIMAN: It was a bucket list, but a result of the film that I probably would never have done if I hadn’t done something outrageous about this pandemic and this lockdown and this feeling, like go make for example Blocked. Why not throw in this flight? When I challenge myself with something like this, for better or for worse, I just can’t walk away from it. I had a conversation with Michael Bay at the end of August and told him that I really think I will fly myself across the Atlantic. He had pilots who worked for him. He got her to call me to try to talk me out of it. They were like that, of course, that sounds so cool, and we wish we could do that on a small propeller plane. It just made me more excited.
: Problems on the flight?
LIMAN: Ten minutes after my flight, the plane began to vibrate violently. I’m literally 10 minutes on my cross-ocean flight, 10 minutes on a two day trip and I’m scared because the whole plane is shaking badly. What the hell is that? And I conclude that I picked up ice on my propeller that I was eventually able to throw off. There’s usually a system in place to keep ice off the propeller, and I’m flying over the North Atlantic where there will be a lot more ice. I spent some time on-site in Newfoundland to make sure the system was working, which I ultimately decided. And then I continued the journey.
: Nobody was out at the time when you landed in Newfoundland to get gasoline. How were you greeted?
LIMAN: Three hours from Massachusetts to Newfoundland and three hours to Narsarsuaq, Greenland. They didn’t want me to get off the plane. I thought can I go in and use the bathroom? And they were like you really must? I did. They like, okay, you can come in, but seriously, go to the bathroom and then go.
: Why so inhospitable?
LIMAN: Because of Covid. There were no Covid cases in Greenland.
: For them, you were patient zero.
LIMAN: By the way, there is no hospital near Narsarsuaq. You are in the middle of nowhere. They saw me as Patient Zero, everyone did. Then three hours to Iceland.
: 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 the next day, I flew to London in just four hours. When I got to England and before I flew back, I had someone look at the plane to confirm that it was okay. It was bad weather in Greenland. I was really excited to see Greenland for so long. It’s remote, all these mountains, fjords and glaciers, none of which I could see because they were low ceilings. I basically saw the fjord the runway was on and the runway.
: What are low ceilings?
LIMAN: The clouds were low, 1,500 feet above the ground. You will be in the clouds until two minutes before landing, which is terrifying. And I mean, I’m used to flying around North America. They are so remote and isolated and there are no air traffic controllers. I mean you are alone
: How long did it take you to make the film?
LIMAN: We shot in 18 days, a schedule that I set because it takes so long Swingers was shooting.
: Has the production passed positive Covid tests?
LIMAN: My production designer in the first week. However, we had followed these security protocols that Tom Cruise had established for us Impossible missionand we these different zones, and the production designer was in a different zone than the crew on set. People always wore their masks … we were such a small family making a movie that the mixture didn’t contain bad apples. Everyone was there together. Not a single person was involved in the production or anyone she interacted with got sick. After that she only worked remotely and luckily her illness wasn’t too severe for her. A few days after we finished filming someone else in production got sick, but everyone was wearing masks again and that was weeks later so there was no link between the two cases. But it happened all around us and all over London, and every week Boris Johnson shut things up. It was really a lovely shoot. We couldn’t have gotten through this if luck hadn’t shone down on us. I think about all the ways things could and may not go wrong. Some productions are like that. All I know is that there was a bit of luck in the mix, in addition to how hard everyone worked together.
D.EADLINE: You benefited from Cruise’s Covid protocols. After shooting this film in scary Covid conditions, when you heard Tom get sharp with the people on the set who were sloppy about minutes, what did you think?
LIMAN: To be honest, I didn’t hear the sound. But in my first week of shooting BlockedI thanked an actor who had only done one line of dialogue, a grande dame of the West End Theater. And she says, “Are you kidding, there are no jobs out there, you bring all these people to work, thanks for making this movie.” I looked around and thought this is correct. We’re on a tight budget, but every penny of it goes into paychecks. All of these people could be unemployed. We could sit on our asses, people collecting unemployment. By just following a few safety precautions and wearing these masks, we’re getting people back to work.
The only reason I’ve probably even thought about making this movie is because of my friendship with Tom. I knew how hard he was working on it Impossible mission Back to production when the rest of the industry said how do you make a movie during a pandemic? There is no socially distant way to make a film. Anchors made news broadcasts from home. Even late-night talk show hosts are literally home alone, without a crew. I think this is the world we are in. How could you possibly go shooting? Impossible mission? You can not. We just have to drive this thing out, wait for the pandemic to end, and then go back and make movies. And here’s Tom Cruise saying, No, I’m going to get all of these people back to work. That’s how he talked about his film. He said he was indebted to Paramount and all of these people who were unemployed because the film was shut down. He said I’m going to get this movie back in production and that was what inspired me to do Locked Down in particular. Maybe I can make a movie if he can make a movie.
: Of all the movie stories released last year, the two biggest were likely Tom Hanks, who signed COVID, and you and Tom Cruise are planning to make a movie in a space capsule. How did this film idea come about?
LIMAN: It connects with Blocked because the same producer who came to me a year ago and said how would you like to try to make a movie in space? This is PJ Sandwijk, and he is the same one who said to Steve Knight and me on July 1st, what about you guys who are writing a film to make in September? The same guy, and when he suggested something crazy like the space movie a year ago, I initially humored PJ. I thought I was going to have a couple of meetings to make a movie in space because I’m kind of curious. You know we obviously can’t, but I’m curious why not? It was similar to my humorous PJ in the pandemic movie that summer. Sure, we’ll look into that. But here’s the thing. If a producer suggests something crazy for you, we try to make a movie in space and NASA and SpaceX sign up and Tom Cruise signs up … they’re just a little more receptive when the same producer says I had another crazy idea and that became Locked Down. I think the circle has come full circle because Locked Down, if you try to do something cheeky and cinematic and you manage to do it, it just gives you a little more confidence for next time.
And of course next time it’s about going into space. I also think when I thought of the flight across the Atlantic that really scared me, and one of the reasons I didn’t shy away from it at the end of the day, was that I had been to the SpaceX launch at the beginning of summer. It scared me, introduced me in that rocket, and ventured into unknown places. I thought the flight would be a good first step in getting the courage to strap myself into that rocket with Tom Cruise.
: How much is in the back of your mind that you’re going to be like one of those hero characters we’ve seen in movies like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff while you and Tom buckle your seat belts and light that candle?
LIMAN: I don’t lose that because I’m a normal person.
: Compared to me and most of the others, you are a Viking.
LIMAN: I am a normal person. I don’t even live in Hollywood or have a lot of Hollywood friends. I’m a normal person and I don’t lose anything you say, but neither do I lose it when we have conversations and things come out of our mouths like we’re filming this scene on earth, or this Scene is not shot on earth. This is only spoken casually and often during the preparatory sessions. I won’t lose that and I don’t think Tom will lose it. I think the reason Tom is such a superstar is because as much as we talk about making a film that is off earth, Tom has both feet planted on the ground. And more than anyone I have ever worked with, he values the extraordinary opportunity to make films. It seems like it was never lost to him. He’s like a kid in a candy store. No matter what the movie is, it is like, I’ll make a movie. This enthusiasm! He let God know how many movies he had and he hasn’t lost that enthusiasm.
I’ve been fortunate to work with great people. I can’t imagine how I could have walked Locked Down without Annie and Chiwetel. I literally can’t, and with all the amazing people I’ve worked with, I just can’t imagine two actors I could have had through this experience with anyone other than the two.
: I did a Playboy interview with Tom years ago and was fascinated by the analytical way he broke down stunts that no other star of his stature would attempt. Including scaling on the outside of a skyscraper in Dubai. He calmly said that if he made it 20 stories up and fell he would die. So why not 120 when he trusts the rigging and the team? How does such a partner help your own ability to sleep at night?
LIMAN: I mean, Tom doesn’t build the rocket …
: But he will understand all about it …
LIMAN: Here’s the thing. I like to face my fears. I love it when my films are an adventure. At the beginning of my career, this caused friction with studios who didn’t quite get it and who might not want their directors to treat the film like an adventure. I’ve since found like-minded people who celebrate this. When we did Locked Down everyone got that this was going to be an adventure. Who doesn’t go into space, it’s going to be an adventure? Instead of conforming to this Hollywood approach, I’ve found the people in Hollywood who appreciate that I treat every movie like an adventure.
: How helpful was the risk of taking on locked down and solo flight across the pond in preparing you for this space movie? Was this the riskiest film you’ve made?
LIMAN: I think a lot of them were risky. Starting with Swingers, where I organized the shoot with the scenes that were most likely to arrest us and placed them at the end of the shoot. This is not usually how you arrange the schedule for a movie. If you risk getting arrested this is an adventure right there. From there I just pushed myself into arenas where … when I started Edge of Tomorrow, I told Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt that I had never done a movie like Edge of Tomorrow. My producer said never say that again. Warner Bros. doesn’t want to hear this. Nobody wants to hear that. And Tom wants, I want to hear it. I’m excited, I know you’ve never made a movie like this, and I look forward to your finding out. I want to start this adventure with you. They are not always life-threatening adventures or freedom-threatening adventures, but they are always adventures.
: You recently told me that on The Bourne Identity you felt you didn’t quite capture the scene with Clive Owen and the studio absolutely forbade you to go back and do it again. And you stole the shot and you risked getting fired, and then you and Matt Damon quickly moved on to the next scene. Was there any impact?
LIMAN: No, because the film was a success. But some of my friends have said you are taking a risk and running the risk that if you do so you may not be able to make the flop, as well as someone who can get along with everyone and just make their bids. This was a good friend who was just trying to make me realize you were taking such a risk. That person was right, but I told them you know I can’t help it.