On January 19th, I was able to attend the screening of the first film to be shot live and broadcast simultaneously into theaters in England and the U.S. While one would expect an experience like this to be the brain child of some indie filmmaker making his name, a new, unexpected Cloverfield movie, or some found footage experience coming out of Blumhouse Productions, it actually came from the mind of Woody Harrelson. Lost in London is the result of an idea Harrelson had for a film, following an actual experience he had in London back in 2002. As the film opens, we are told “too much of this is true” and are then off and running on a unique odyssey shot in one take, with one camera.
The concept is certainly novel and makes me curious about what other ideas Harrelson has for a possible future behind the camera. Clearly he’s done more than just openly muse about being an actor and what it means to both perform and consider what it is to be someone who can make people laugh or challenge their emotions through drama. As Lost in London was also written, produced and directed by Harrelson, he is clearly the man taking on the entire burden of such an ambitious project. But was it a burden? There is a level of stress no doubt associated with the planning of a film like this, but in terms of having creative freedom and a clear vision, well there must be a level of satisfaction to have gotten out of this.
Harrelson brings up his concerns about working as a performer early on, which sets up the thematic questions of the film. Starting off at the conclusion of a play starring Woody (to which I’ll refer to the film’s version of his character as) has been starring in on London’s West End, we then movie with him and a friend, as they walk through the narrow confines of the theater and discusses why people like him. It is made clear he respects the dramatic art form, but also wonders whether it is more beneficial just to make people have a good time watching something. This sets the stage for the rest of the story, which feels inspired by both Victoria, the terrific 2015 German thriller shot in one 138-minute take, and Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, a film featuring the same lead character in a comedic story and a dramatic one.
As Woody shares his concerns and also speaks to another dueling construct – cinema versus theater, we also see what will be a constant limitation of this experimental film’s staging – natural lighting. This is dialogue-heavy film and a lot of it essentially takes place in shadow. While it would be too much to comment on whether or not everyone’s microphone worked properly at all times, a film like this certainly requires careful calculation in regards to cinematography.
Director of Photography Nigel Willoughby and his camera operator certainly deserve a load of credit for pulling off this feat (and without any sort of Nascar-level disaster that would have surely made this into a bigger and more infamous event), but a film like this shows how important lighting can be. Especially for a film taking place in the middle of the night, in dark clubs and in the streets, Lost in London constantly finds us losing images to latch onto, as Woody interacts with many people in silhouette. This doesn’t break the film (if anything it stresses the difficulty of pulling off the gimmick), but it does hurt getting more of a chance to notice the little nuances.
Aside from this, on a technical level, there is plenty to admire. The film ends up lasting around 95-minutes without credits and the camera never stops. As stated in the Q&A with Woody and the cast & crew, following the screening, there was only one major missed cue where an actor took a few extra seconds to return to a scene. This meant having to riff a bit, until things righted themselves, but it was not even noticeable. More notable were the directorial decisions in regards to the moves to different locations. This is a film that ends up in over 20 different places and Woody travels by both foot and various vehicles to move from place to place.
No doubt this meant having plenty of crew and cast members rushing around to different spots and setting the stage for the different types of scenes that played out. Notably, there is only one major scene that doesn’t involve Woody and it is handled well as far as watching the camera cleverly switch perspectives and move down a staircase, only to travel back up it and get back to what Woody is up to. Credit also goes to the little tricks required to keep the reality of this film intact. Given the obstacles and limitations of a project like this, Lost in London is not the flashiest of films, but it does have its charms.
Speaking of which, while I haven’t discussed much of the story, I will say it is involving enough, even if it is a bit long. Presented mostly in real time, for obvious reasons, the film focuses on Woody having a wild night in London, following a fight with his wife Laura. Woody ends up going off on his own and meeting a variety of people, including his best friend Owen Wilson. Through all of this, Woody plays a passive character going through a lighthearted existential crisis, with occasional fits of frustration. It is pretty basic stuff, but for a guy largely known as a likable hippie with some considerable acting talent (for the record, his work in Kingpin is just as strong as True Detective or The Messenger), this is a fun way to see him mix theater and cinema into one prolonged performance.
All of that in mind, Harrelson’s screenplay is nothing transcendent. I can admire what he is trying to do, especially since he had to tie this narrative to a real-time format, but the execution of the themes presented sometimes come off a bit shallow, while the comedy can sometimes be a bit too dry. There are some moments of drama that are affecting, but not enough to suggest the film needed to be as long as it is. Unsurprisingly, when Wilson shows up, the film gets a burst of energy thanks to his comedic rhythms and the natural camaraderie seen between real life friends. Sadly, we only get so much of these two (and a good dose of easy, but still humorous Hollywood-related humor).
It’s that zaniness this film really could have used more of. While I can understand that Harrelson really wanted to tell a specific story that combined comedy and drama, such an outrageous idea for presenting a film could have really benefited from more craziness. Things do build up to that point when the film gets to the events involving a taxicab that actually occurred, but the staging of that sequence made it difficult to get the full effect. Yes, it’s hard for a cameraman to capture all of the elements required in one shot, but given how important certain aspects of the story should be, it becomes one of the obstacles that Lost in London doesn’t quite get over.
All the good spirits and proactive work that went into Lost in London is certainly admirable. Harrelson’s interest in making features is also intriguing (the Q&A once again shows just how much more interested in actors are in talking about things other than acting, such as filmmaking). I wish the film was actually broader, given its constraints, but I no doubt recognize the challenge involved in such a project for a first time director. Lost in London certainly delivers on its promise and without incident. One just has to wonder if any future attempts will really challenge the art form in even more significant ways, or at least figure out a better way to handle lighting.