In anticipation of the upcoming screening of Lost in London at the Annenberg Center, Street got a chance to interview Woody Harrelson, the first–time director and main star of the movie. The film was shot in a single take, with one camera, and for the first time in the history of cinema, live broadcast into 550 theaters in the US on January 19, 2017. The film is inspired by a real incident: in 2002, after a night out in Soho, Harrelson broke an ashtray in a London taxi, which led to him spending a night in jail. Lost in London, which also stars Owen Wilson and Willie Nelson, follows the three as they recreate the events of that night.
34th Street: We’re extremely excited about the upcoming screening of Lost in London, so we have a couple of questions about the movie. I want to start out by talking about how it came into being. I know that the idea for Lost in London came to you in 2002?
Woody Harrelson: Well, it’s based on an incident that happened then.
Street: Could you tell me more about the incident? How did the idea come to life, and how did you initially envision the movie?
WH: Yeah, yeah! What’s ironic is that that’s one of the top…five? Yeah, top five worst nights of my life… You know, I… (laughs) I had a terrible row with my wife, and so I had some worries about the dissolution of the marriage. Then, you know, a lot of things happened. I ended up meeting this prince who was, like, “let me take you for a drink.” I was, like, “okay, but I gotta get back to the hotel.” Anyway, I went, and one thing led to another, and I ended up getting into trouble with Johnny Law. All in all, it was a hell of a bad night, and I thought it would be great to erase it from my memory, and hopefully the memory of everyone else who knows about it. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought…You know, you gotta flip this thing a little bit, look at it in an inverted way, and it’s kinda funny! (laughs)
Street: Isn’t that what always happens?
WH: Yeah, but this could be comedy! So, I ended up thinking, well, maybe I could make people laugh. Oh, and it was also this weird, unusual, love poem to my wife! I mean, not love poem but…you know what I mean, a love letter to my wife. But yeah, that’s what happened.
Street: That sounds really sweet. But given the technology at the time, did you initially think of it as a live one?
WH: No, no, I didn’t think of it like that at all. See, this was before we even had the technology to do that. I had thought of the concept of shooting something in real–time, but you couldn’t just shoot in real–time, like The Russian Ark or Victoria later on…there’s been a couple of movies that have done that. I had this concept, and I didn’t even know if I could do it with this. But I’m slow–moving, so by the time I got around to it, the technology existed. So, I decided that I wanted to do something with it, and while we were prepping, there came the idea: “Hold on, if I can shoot in real–time, then maybe I could stream it live while I’m shooting it.” And so, I started a series of nightmares and panic, but I’m glad it did finally happen.
Street: Yes, and it didn’t only happen, but had massive success among critics, from what I understand. Would you say that the growing popularity of Instagram or Facebook live played a part in this? What do you think makes a story worthy of being shared with people in real–time?
WH: Umm…I don’t know, that’s an interesting question. I like comedy, I like making people laugh, so the first reason was that I thought it might be a cool way to entertain people. But also, it had never been done, so I guess it was also a cool concept, and I wanted to make it happen.
Street: Yeah, it was a big innovation. Given that the movie has no editing, where do you think it stands? Is it closer to a documentary than a feature film, or is it something else entirely?
WH: Oh, there’s an extensive amount of editing in documentaries as well. But this is kind of separate. This is a little bit outside of that: there’s no editing because it was shot in real–time with one camera. I forgot to mention that, it’s a single camera, and one take. There’s no way to edit it, which I guess, you know, comes from my love of theater. I grew up in theater…well, not grew up, but my career began when I was in high–school and got into theater. Then I got into college and I tried again, dreaming of cracking it in New York, moving there. I’ve always been obsessed with theater and I still go every year to watch a play, in London, New York, or wherever. So, this infatuation with theater kind of simultaneously made me become pretty infatuated with film, so I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to marry the two? This is how this idea came about. Even though it’s not really theater, in the sense of having everything occur before you on the stage, there’s 14 locations, 500 extras, the cast…it’s a different thing, but it’s still theater, because it’s all happening live. That really intrigued me.
Street: I understand you are currently touring the film across the US. Even though—
WH: Oh, I’m not touring it across America, I’m just doing five shows in five nights.
Street: But you did have a Q&A session at the end of the initial screening. How would you evaluate the audience reception, and who do you think is the target audience?
WH: I don’t know. The thing is, I’ve only seen it with some audiences in England. Some of it wasn’t even quite complete, in terms of…I mean, what work we did—if you couldn’t hear a line, we tried to improve a couple of things in terms of audio. The picture’s still the same. Anyway, it really seemed to me that the best response was among college students. I don’t know why, but maybe just because when you’re in college, when you’re younger, you can laugh more easily, I don’t know what it is. But the response was good, so maybe that’s what I have to do—show it to high–schools and maybe I’ll get that response again.
Street: I’m sure, although I can only testify for Penn students, a lot of whom I know are already excited. Do you hope to start a trend, or perhaps even a new genre, around these live–films, these hybrids between cinema and theater? Or would you rather keep Lost in London a one–time experiment?
WH: Well, I’m not starting a trend. It was more of a try, and there was this snowball effect which…I told you, I just thought I could shoot it in real–time and then live–streaming it, then I thought about the single camera. So, those things just kind of evolved, it wasn’t like I said, “I’m gonna do this.” It kept evolving, and I guess in a way I kept making it harder for myself as a director.
Street: It was your first time directing, right?
WH: First time, yes. And I’m really happy with how it turned out, although it was a challenge. But I also think that, the next time I direct, I won’t shoot it in real–time or live–stream it, you know. Not that I wouldn’t do that again in the future.
Street: I imagine it was indeed very hard. So, you do have plans to continue your career as a director. Do you have any interesting upcoming projects, or any ideas about what you want to do next?
WH: Yeah, I wrote another screenplay called The Misadventures of Mr. Fitz. It takes place entirely in Ireland. That one, I have thought of before this one. It’s a lot of slapstick, a lot of funny stuff, uniquely Irish. So, hopefully I’ll do that in the next couple of years.
Lost in London will be shown at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, January 27th from 6PM. The screening, which will be followed by a Q&A session with Woody Harrelson, is free of charge courtesy to SPEC Connaissance and SPEC Film. Tickets can be found here.