Live-shooting with Woody Harrelson at 2am: ‘There’s something about the terror of it I love’

26 days ago

In 2002, the star ended up in jail after being chased through London by police. Now hes turning that wild night into a single-take movie starring Owen Wilson and Willie Nelson to be beamed live into cinemas. What could possibly go wrong?

It is almost midnight on Monday evening and Woody Harrelson is presenting me around the situate for his directorial debut, Lost in London. An unused building in the centre of the capital has been hijacked to house assorted places including a club with burlesque trimmings where gold statues hang from the ceiling and a police station complete with cells and interview rooms.

Theres just one problem: Harrelson doesnt seem to know where he is. Hold on, he mumbles. I lost track of what floor were on. Wheres the? His bleariness has always been a considerable part of his charm: that sleepy Texan drawl, that quizzical gaze, half-amazed and half-sceptical. But padding around in tracksuit bottoms and a fleece, his eyes faintly bloodshot, the 55 -year-old actor looks positively somnambulant. He smiles as he recognises his cinematographer, Nigel Willoughby. Nigel, wheres the room where I get booked by the policemen? An affectionate chuckle: Next floor up, Woody.

No wonder Harrelson is dazed. In stimulating Lost in London, he has taken on the biggest challenge of a 32 -year career that has stretched from the sitcom Cheers to Natural Born Killers, from True Detective to the Hunger Game series. Shortly before we gratify, it is announced that he will play Han Solos mentor in a new Star Wars spin-off due next year. But tonight he cant think about anything except why he decided to write, direct and star in a movie about the worst night of his life and then shoot it all in one unbroken 100 -minute take in 14 locatings across London, complete with chase sequences on foot and by car.

So far, so Victoria. But, while Harrelson was inspired by that German reach, which used the one-take, single-camera approach to tell the narrative of a frantic night in Berlin, he also needed to go one better. That cinema is genius, he tells. Its an inspiring work of art. Ours is a different animal. Willoughby explains: It was me who told Woody we had to do it all with one camera. He told, Victoria did that. How can we improve? Harrelson then came up with the idea of blending elements of theatre and film by live streaming Lost in London to cinemas as it is being shot. Im an adrenaline junkie, he grins. Theres something about the terror of it that I love. Its maintaining me up at night.

Though the movie cant claim to be the first to be broadcast as it is being shoot that honour goes to My One Demand by the interactive-art trio Blast Theory, which was transmitted online and to a single cinema in Toronto last year it is certainly the largest-scale project of its kind; it will hit more than 500 screens in the US on Thursday evening and one in central London in the early hours of Friday morning.

I
I was a freaking moronic Harrelson in rehearsals. Photo: Alex MacNaughton

The film has its origins in a long, disastrous evening that Harrelson spent in Londonin 2002. It began with a spat with his wife before progressing to a raucous evening at the West End nightclub Chinawhite. It was hellish, he tells ruefully. Im never going to that club again. By the time it was over, he had smashed up a taxi and fled the scene of the crime to hail another taxi, heatedly pursued by his first driver as well as the police, who eventually arrested him on suspicion of causing criminal injury. I was a freaking moron, he told newspapers at the time.

But that was 15 years ago. As a self-professed anarchist notorious for hell-raising, he must have had other, messier nights in his life. Why did this one stay with him? I guess it genuinely was one of those nights that I would have gone to quite a lot of trouble to erase from my life. I wish to God I could excise it. But I thought about it a lot. It stuck with me. Ive been to jail many times, but this one well, it wasnt just going to jail. It was the overall night. There wasnt a tinge of witticism in it. It was a complete bummer. But afterwards I believed, Hey, this could be pretty funny. A occurrence of tragedy plus hour? Thats it! Youve got comedy. Though he doesnt want audiences to dwell too much on its factual basis, the film nevertheless begins with a cheeky title card that reads: Too much of what follows is true.

The 30 -strong cast is predominantly British but also includes two of Harrelsons friends, the actor Owen Wilson and the vocalist Willie Nelson, playing themselves. Wilson was instrumental in keeping the cinema loyal to the live-streaming idea. There was one point when the obstacles seemed insurmountable, Harrelson recalls. I decided we wouldnt go live after all but it was Owen who said, Duuude, why wouldnt you? It was a great notion! Get back to that. His mimicry of Wilsons slow-mo surfer-speak is uncannily exact.

We stroll through the club, past a statue of Christ brandishing a neon toilets sign, and Harrelson maps out the movie for me between yawns. The band will be playing here, therell has become a flamenco dancer over there and this is where I gratify my buddy Owen. Ive had this upsetting thing with my spouse and the last place I wanna be is in this Sodom and Gomorrah. He gestures to the vast frescos of pre-Raphaelite nudes. I shouldnt be confronted with these temptations considering all thats gone on with the wifey-poo.

We retreat upstairs to the production office where Laura, wifey-poo herself, is waiting with their eldest daughter, Deni, who has a small part in the film. An performer dressed as Christ is enjoying a snack from the nearby all-vegan craft services table. Oh, this is Jesus, tells Harrelson casually, then waves at another Jesus in the doorway. More Jesuses. He believes for a second. Jesii?

Co-star
Duuude! co-star Owen Wilson at a read-through for Lost in London. Photo: Alex MacNaughton

Two full, filmed run-throughs of Lost in London were completed last week. The first went like a dream; the second was a nightmare, with batteries running out on some of the lightings and whining feedback ruining parts of the soundtrack. If that happens on the night, weve got problems. There are 24 people only on the audio and theyve done the Olympics, marathons, all kinds of stuff. Every one of them agrees this is the most complicated thing theyve ever done.

Matt Adams of Blast Theory believes the cast and crew of Lost in London should consider a few problems as positives. I would advise Woody Harrelson to embrace the chaos, he tells me. The adrenaline is intense for everyone including, hopefully, the audience. Willoughbys main concern, though, is extreme cold. Lenses have a tendency to fog up if you go from cold into warm, he tells, out of his directors earshot. Its all a long way from his best-known work as director of photography on Downton Abbey. As much as he loved Victoria, Woody doesnt want that grittiness. He wants it to appear polished like Downton.

During the live run-through that I watch from the control room, there is a genuine frisson of hazard and exhilaration. In the first 20 minutes alone, the camera ways Harrelson from the stage of a theater during the curtain call and into his dressing room before accompanying him to the stage doorway where he signs programmes for fans. I miss Cheers, tells one, to which Harrelson answers gloomily: Me too. Then its on to a daringly complicated sequence following the comings and goings of several characters in a eatery before the crew joins Harrelson and other casting members in a van and zooms over to the main club set to continue the action there.

I make it out on to the pavement just in time to see Harrelsons vehicle screech up to the curb, followed by two police motorcyclists who place road closed signs in their wake to prevent other traffic from cluttering up the shoot. As night bus drift woozily by, Harrelson starts singing the Cheer theme song to a bouncer in front of a giant Banksy canvas while a clubber in chunky, colourful beadings scrolls through images on Jesuss mobile phone and something Willoughby had said earlier in the evening abruptly begin to construct perfect sense: Whats Woody like? Hes a natural born nutter.

Lost in London is in US cinemas on 19 January and at Picturehouse Central on 20 January. Tickets from fathomevents.com.

Read more: www.theguardian.com