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Woody Harrelson broke ground last year with Lost in London, a first-of-its-kind live-streamed film based on what he describes as the worst night of his life. The pic was shot in a single take throughout 14 London locations, thanks to the work of 300-plus crewmembers and 30 actors.
“There weren’t a lot of laughs on the night,” Harrelson recalls of the June 7, 2002, evening, which serves as the inspiration for the film, shot on Jan. 19, 2017, and now available on iTunes.
The three-time Oscar nominee is currently onscreen in Solo: A Star Wars Story, but back in 2002, Harrelson was in London rehearsing the West End debut of the play On An Average Day. He hailed a taxi after leaving the exclusive nightclub Chinawhite and was heading to his hotel on Sloane Street. But soon after entering the cab, he allegedly damaged an ashtray in the vehicle’s backseat and got into an argument with the driver. The actor left the scene and was eventually arrested by police and placed in a holding cell.
In the fictionalized version, in which Harrelson plays a version of himself, the night also draws upon a real-life tabloid story that put Harrelson in the center of a cheating scandal that threatened his relationship with future wife, Laura Louie.
“It was certainly one of the worst nights ever,” says Harrelson. “It paralyzed me with the fear of losing my wife and also the fear of the law having its way with me. All those things make for a story that I didn’t really want to tell anyone, much less make a movie about it.”
As time passed, though, Harrelson began to see the events that transpired as a life-affirming story, which serves as an unusual love letter to his wife. He also saw the potential for comedy.
Harrelson’s formula of mixing fact and fiction elicited a positive reaction from audiences and critics when it screened live on 550 screens in January 2017. To pull off the comedic transformation of the story, Harrelson approached his longtime friend and fellow actor Owen Wilson. Harrelson found that getting a “yes” from Wilson wasn’t a quick process.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Owen get onboard anything immediately — it’s almost glacial speed with him,” Harrelson says with a laugh.
The exact opposite was true of co-star Willie Nelson, who happened to be hanging out with Wilson when Harrelson called his friend.
“Willie said in the background, ‘Why didn’t you put me in the movie?’ I wasn’t too sure if he really wanted to do it, but he said he was game and he did a great job,” says Harrelson.
Harrelson cites Wilson’s first scene as his favorite in the film. It sees Wilson run into Harrelson at a popular London nightclub and attempt to console him because of the scandalous newspaper headline. Things quickly escalate as the two trade insults and punches. That scene was the hardest for Harrelson to craft as the film’s writer, and he went through many versions, with Leonardo DiCaprio initially in mind for the part.
“I thought about getting Leo for Owen’s part because I was actually out with him and Tobey Maguire on the night. I just couldn’t find a way to make it funny on the page. When I started thinking about Owen, that’s when it really came together,” says Harrelson.
Assembling the team was nothing compared to the technical challenges and the unpredictable nature of live-streaming a film as it was shot. In fact, the day before the performance was to be live-streamed, the camera dropped its signal multiple times during rehearsal.
With less than 24 hours to troubleshoot the glitch, Harrelson and his team felt immense pressure. The potentially catastrophic technical glitch was overshadowed by an even greater threat. On the day of the shoot, Harrelson learned that a major filming location, Waterloo Bridge, was shut down due to the discovery of unexploded World War II ordinances.
“By the time we got the news, we were so close to shooting that we didn’t have access to all the cast and crew to even choreograph and rehearse an alternate path,” says Harrelson. “If the bridge wasn’t available, we would’ve really been flying by the seat of our pants.”
Luckily, the bridge reopened in time for the live stream. That didn’t mean that the cast was off the hook in terms of improvising. Early in the film, an unruly traffic light held their limo hostage for far too long.
“That light just went on and on and on, there was no question that we were going to run out of dialogue and everyone knew it,” recalls Harrelson. “Fortunately, the other guys just started improvising.”
A single cameraman, John Hembrough, was responsible for capturing every choreographed moment as Harrelson traveled across 14 different London locations.
“John was the real hero on this project,” shares Harrelson. “Before this he’d done a 10-minute Steadicam shot, and now I’ve got him doing 100 minutes of hard labor. I got him a masseuse because I knew he was gonna need some help after all that.”
Lost in London is available on iTunes for rental and purchase.