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

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

There’s just one problem: Harrelson doesn’t seem to know where he is. “Hold on,” he mumbles. “I lost track of what floor we’re on. Where’s 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, where’s the room where I get booked by the cops?” An affectionate chuckle: “Next floor up, Woody.”

No wonder Harrelson is dazed. In making 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 Games series. Shortly before we meet, it is announced that he will play Han Solo’s mentor in a new Star Wars spin-off due next year. But tonight he can’t 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 locations across London, complete with chase sequences on foot and by car.

So far, so Victoria. But, while Harrelson was inspired by that German hit, which used the one-take, single-camera approach to tell the tale of a frantic night in Berlin, he also needed to go one better. “That film is genius,” he says. “It’s 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 said, ‘Victoria did that. How can we improve?’” Harrelson then came up with the idea of combining elements of theatre and film by live streaming Lost in London to cinemas as it is being shot. “I’m an adrenaline junkie,” he grins. “There’s something about the terror of it that I love. It’s keeping me up at night.”

Though the movie can’t claim to be the first to be broadcast as it is being shot – that honour goes to My One Demand by the art-film 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 was a freaking idiot’ … Harrelson in rehearsals. Photograph: Alex MacNaughton

The film has its origins in a long, disastrous evening that Harrelson spent in London in 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 says ruefully. “I’m 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 cab, hotly pursued by his first driver as well as the police, who eventually arrested him on suspicion of causing criminal damage. “I was a freaking idiot,” 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 really 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. I’ve been to jail many times, but this one … well, it wasn’t just going to jail. It was the overall night. There wasn’t a speck of humour in it. It was a complete bummer. But later I thought, ‘Hey, this could be pretty funny.’” A case of tragedy plus time? “That’s it! You’ve got comedy.” Though he doesn’t 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 Harrelson’s friends, the actor Owen Wilson and the singer Willie Nelson, playing themselves. Wilson was instrumental in keeping the film loyal to the live-streaming idea. “There was one point when the obstacles seemed insurmountable,” Harrelson recalls. “I decided we wouldn’t go live after all but it was Owen who said, ‘Duuude, why wouldn’t you? It was a great idea! Get back to that.’” His mimicry of Wilson’s 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, there’ll be a flamenco dancer over there and this is where I meet my buddy Owen. I’ve had this upsetting thing with my wife and the last place I wanna be is in this Sodom and Gomorrah.” He gestures to the vast frescos of pre-Raphaelite nudes. “I shouldn’t be confronted with these temptations considering all that’s 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 actor dressed as Christ is enjoying a snack from the nearby all-vegan craft services table. “Oh, this is Jesus,” says Harrelson casually, then waves at another Jesus in the doorway. “More Jesuses.” He thinks for a second. “Jesii?”

Co-star Owen Wilson at a read-through for Lost in London.

‘Duuude!’ … co-star Owen Wilson at a read-through for Lost in London. Photograph: 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 lights and screeching feedback ruining parts of the soundtrack. “If that happens on the night, we’ve got problems. There are 24 people just on the sound and they’ve done the Olympics, marathons, all kinds of stuff. Every one of them agrees this is the most complicated thing they’ve ever done.”

Matt Evans of Blast Theory believes the cast and crew of Lost in London should see any 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.” Willoughby’s main concern, though, is extreme cold. “Lenses have a tendency to mist up if you go from cold into warm,” he says, out of his director’s earshot. It’s all a long way from his best-known work as director of photography on Downton Abbey. “As much as he loved Victoria, Woody doesn’t want that grittiness. He wants it to look polished like Downton.”

During the live run-through that I watch from the control room, there is a genuine frisson of danger and excitement. In the first 20 minutes alone, the camera tracks Harrelson from the stage of a theatre during the curtain call and into his dressing room before accompanying him to the stage door where he signs programmes for fans. “I miss Cheers,” says one, to which Harrelson replies gloomily: “Me too.” Then it’s on to a daringly complicated sequence following the comings and goings of several characters in a restaurant before the crew joins Harrelson and other cast 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 Harrelson’s 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 shot. As night buses drift woozily by, Harrelson starts singing the Cheers theme song to a bouncer in front of a giant Banksy canvas while a clubber in chunky, colourful beads scrolls through pictures on Jesus’s mobile phone and something Willoughby had said earlier in the evening suddenly starts to make perfect sense: “What’s Woody like? He’s 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.

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