5 Screenwriting Takeaways: HBO Max’s ‘Locked Down’ Is a Fanciful Respite From Pandemic Living
February 1, 2021
The world is approaching a year into a pandemic being fully recognized as a state of living in America, and the repercussions in entertainment are just starting to truly be felt. HBO Max decided to fully embrace it with Locked Down. The film is a mix of existential crisis, love story, and diamond heist. It’s some fun genre bending in a period where the only bending of genre that seems to exist is the fact that time is a flat circle. The film is penned by Locke and Peaky Blinders screenwriter Stephen Knight, who knows a little something about building tension in a limited setting, as does the film's Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman. A lockdown is inherently a great setting for tension, and that’s perhaps the movie’s greatest strength. With a spoiler warning, here’s how Knight and Liman made watching a pandemic lockdown more than bearable, and, in fact, quite entertaining.
1. A Tension-Filled Premise.
When we first meet Linda (a stripped-down Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (a poetically charming Chiwetel Ejiofor) they are already in crisis. They have decided to separate at some point along the way in lockdown, and we meet the long-term couple still living together, but now on separate floors of a very nice London apartment where they still have to share common areas like the kitchen. It’s initially unclear what brought the pair to this point, but when talking on a Zoom chat with longtime friends, it’s also clear at one point these two really worked, and their separation feels like a loss not only to each other, but to those in their surrounding life. They haven’t given each other a ticking clock to move out, but when Linda gets an enticing job offer in New York City, it’s clear this relationship is living on borrowed time — that is, until, their paths cross not only in the path to the kitchen, but also in a coincidental time of access to Harrods department store simultaneously (with Linda having full access to a one-of-a-kind diamond just purchased by a client at her high-end, soul-sucking corporate job run by a very funny Ben Stiller). Linda and Paxton can’t help but dream of a life-changing escape from their prison of banality and a change to live their dreams free from their final shackles — the humdrum of a crappy work life. It’s a wonderful escapist premise for a time where that’s what we all long for.
There are wonderful opportunities for musings on the existential crisis the world is collectively living through. After Paxton tells a friend, “I’ve been furloughed by the way. Now there is literally zero purpose to my life.” He readily goes on an opioid trip after encountering some kids in his yard who inform him that his garden is growing the wonderful drug naturally. Also a man who espouses, “I’m not stupid. I read poetry.” Paxton takes to the streets nightly to recite some of his favorites to the neighbors, who watch on because what the hell else is there to do? Meanwhile, Linda picks up smoking again after years of not having touched tobacco. Outside, while having a good fix, she interacts with a neighbor who asks, “How are you?” Linda: “Terrible. You?” Neighbor: “Awful.” It might hit too close to home, but it’s simultaneously a nice dose of honesty. When the world stares down tragedy it becomes harder for any of us to wear an everyday mask of “everything’s fine.”
3. Using the Pandemic to Your Advantage.
There’s some astounding footage in the film of an empty London. Shot in the somewhat early days of lockdown, Liman captures completely empty city streets and follows Paxton on a freeing motorcycle drive that re-establishes his sexual attraction to a malaise-filled Linda. The ride is so brisk, freeing and lonely all at once, one can almost taste Paxton’s vigor and it’s nice, for just a second, to feel alive. Not to mention the wonderful set piece of an empty Harrods. As Linda and Paxton are welcomed to raid an empty marketplace because the food will otherwise go to waste, Linda muses on a rooftop Harrods picnic that it’s the first time the store has closed in 100 years. Certainly having run of an empty classic department store feels like a feat only achievable with millions and millions of dollars...or in the middle of a pandemic.
4. Mixing Genre for Maximum Effect.
Locked Down mixes the rom-com breakup with a great ticking clock meets a diamond heist. It’s not an easy or straightforward pitch, and that’s also what feels like its strong suit. A tenuous relationship dramedy with a crime twist feels right for an undefinable time period where it’s easy to lose track of the day of the week — or when you last had a shower. We are all yearning to be awakened from a nightmare, so watching two people about to ruin their lives or get away with the greatest crime ever feels like a lovely wake-up call indeed.
5. A Will They/Won’t They.
Liman and Knight give the audience time to really know Linda and Paxton. This feels rare in the typical Hollywood flick that can often give way more real estate to plot or hook, than to character development, but here we slowly learn both what broke these people and what lit their fire. It’s a slow unravel, but it’s worth it because the audience then cares about them both. It becomes a fun reversal of the will they/won’t they — will they get back together, and do they belong that way? And/ or do they deserve each other for better or worse? Asking if two people can be an antidote for these complicated times is indeed enough to drive a movie, and, at its core, that’s what drives this one. Since lockdown, Linda is worried that she’s forever on a loop looking back at herself, and Paxton fears his inherent weirdness has no distinct future. But when they both agree to meet in a moment instead of slog through an endless day-to-day, you feel they have a fighting chance, and right now that’s all any of us can ask for.
Final Takeaway: Some say to avoid taking on the pandemic right now in writing and filmmaking, but as the world comes to grips with the reality that a version of Covid-19 could always be here, we must also reckon with both our now and our future. Locked Down does a good job of examining both by ultimately giving into the moment, and reminding us that sometimes just a moment can mean more than anything else.
Written by: Lindsay StidhamLindsay holds an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. She has overseen two scripts from script to screen as a writer/ producer. SPOONER, starring Matthew Lillard (SLAMDANCE), and DOUCHEBAG (SUNDANCE) both released theatrically. Most recently Lindsay sold PLAY NICE starring Mary Lynn Rajskub. The series was distributed on Hulu. Recent directing endeavors include the Walla Walla premiering (and best screenplay nominated) TIL DEATH DO US PART, and the music video for Bible Belt’s Tomorrow All Today. Lindsay is currently working on an interactive romcom for the production company Effin' Funny, and a feature film script for Smarty Pants Pictures. Lindsay also currently works as an Adjunct Screenwriting Faculty member at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. You can follow her work here: https://lindsaystidham.onfabrik.com/