At a time when live video is exploding across the social sphere, Woody Harrelson’s latest creative venture is opportune. Filmed in a single take, Lost in London was broadcast to cinemas in the USA and UK as it was being shot – a cinematic first. As Harrelson (who wrote, directed and starred in the film) put it: “No one has ever shot a movie and live broadcast it into cinemas at the same time. No one’s ever been that stupid… until now.”
Stupid? Maybe. The reasons nobody had previously attempted this complex feat are glaringly obvious. A staff of dozens was required for sound alone, and every one of these technicians – many of whom worked on colossal live broadcasts such as the Olympics – agreed that it was the most complicated piece of work they’d ever done. Shot across 14 central London locations and four moving vehicles, Harrelson certainly didn’t make things easy for himself, and rehearsals were plagued by a series of technical issues. Despite the numerous uncertainties, the twice-Oscar-nominated actor remained buoyant, promising he would jump into the Thames if the enterprise failed. This vow was made soberly ironic when a dormant World War II bomb was discovered in the river only hours before the shoot was due to commence, threatening to derail the project by forcing the closure of Waterloo Bridge, the location of the film’s final scene. Fortunately, the bridge was reopened just in time for the live shoot to go ahead as planned.
What drove Harrelson to undertake this demanding venture was a desire to blur the boundaries between two of his great passions: theatre and film. “I really wanted to figure out a way to merge the two. Then I thought, this particular story does occur sequentially and cohesively, so I thought I’d like to shoot it in real time, like live cinema or whatever you’d call it,” the 55-year-old told Entertainment Weekly.
‘This particular story’ is that of a calamitous night Harrelson endured in London in 2002; a night he calls “one of the worst… of [his] life”. The evening began with an intense marital row, and culminated in the then 40-year-old smashing up a black cab and fleeing to a second, hotly pursued by the first driver and, by that point, the police, who arrested him for criminal damage. “I was a freaking idiot,” he told newspapers at the time.
But, as Harrelson quipped after the film had wrapped, “tragedy plus time equals comedy”, and the film was a witty, self-deprecating mea culpa and satire of celebrity ego. The comic highs of the film sprung from these self-aware moments, amplified by numerous cameos: a career-bashing slanging match between Harrelson and Owen Wilson, in which Wilson is lampooned for being “out-acted by a dog” in Marley & Me (2008); a wannabe-Rastafarian Bono drawling over the phone to a police officer that he doesn’t deal with “Babylon”; Harrelson frenziedly singing the Cheers theme song to a bouncer in a desperate attempt to get into a nightclub.
Despite several genuinely funny and poignant moments, the film was largely awkward, and the atmosphere in the cinema was charged with a tangible air of apprehension. Harrelson seemed distracted for the better part of his performance, and the technical complexities of the event meant that both sound and image were often crude. The only real gaffe occurred when actor Peter Ferdinando prematurely walked out of a scene, and Harrelson and co-star Martin McCann were forced to briefly ad lib until he scurried back.
To dwell on snags such as these misses the point, however. Live in London was never going to be as polished as films that have the luxury of numerous cameras, retakes and post-production, and the conceptual and technical feats it accomplished are nothing to scoff at. There’s no sense in comparing the performance to ordinary films, as it would be crass to overlook what the dimension of live viewing added to the experience. Watching the story unfold with the peculiar thrill of knowing that what we saw on screen was happening right at that moment (and, for those of us at Picturehouse Central in London, that it was all happening less than a mile away) made the experience truly compelling and strangely intimate.
While Lost In London did make cinematic history, it wasn’t actually the first film to be broadcast as it was being shot. That honour goes My One Demand (2015), an interactive film by art group Blast Theory, which was streamed online and to a single cinema screen last year. Additionally, theatres have been live streaming stage performances into cinemas for years.
The distinctiveness of Harrelson’s brainchild owes much to Victoria (2015), a single-take, single-camera film about a frantic night in Berlin that Harrelson dubs “genius”. Although Lost in London conveyed a similar sense of urbanity and urgency, the tonal grittiness of Sebastian Schipper’s masterpiece was replaced by comedy and a gentle surrealism. The film also gave an apparent nod to Birdman (2014) – a film that won an Academy Award for pretending to do what Lost in London actually did – in opening with the antihero’s apathetic curtain call.
The question now is whether we can expect more of this genre-bending, medium-bridging entertainment in the future. Harrelson said that the experience “felt like being on a high-wire” and that he’d never do it again, adding that if anyone approached him with the intention of trying it themselves, he’d do everything he could to talk them out of it. While another similar project of this scale may not come around again soon, the culture of ‘Live’ is nonetheless booming around us. Each of us carries the power of live video around in our pockets, and with it perhaps the power to turn our worst experiences into something incredible.