An Interview with Eric Larson ("Check the Locks")
Triple-threat filmmaker, Eric Larson, left a career in journalism to pursue his passion for film. His first short, Check The Locks, is already raking awards in the festival circuit and won Best Picture at New York Film Awards as well last month. We sat down to chat with Larson about his career change, the inspiration for his award-winning short film, and his insights from the filmmaking process.
1. Eric, thank you for joining us today! Please tell us about yourself.
Thanks so much for having me! I’m so delighted to be here.
I live in Brooklyn with my wife and our rascally dog, but I’m originally from a small town in Wisconsin just outside of Green Bay.
Like most kids, I was obsessed with movies. Jurassic Park, Hook, Batman Forever – those were pretty formative for me. I have so many fond memories of staying up late at my cousin's farmhouse watching VHS tapes on repeat.
Despite my interest in movies, the idea of one day making them myself seemed completely unrealistic. Filmmaking wasn’t a thing where I grew up. I didn’t know anybody who had done it. I think I subconsciously decided not to pursue it because I just didn’t know how I could.
It wasn’t until years later, when I moved to New York City after college and began working as a journalist and getting exposed to more film-adjacent opportunities, that I felt confident enough to finally try it for myself.
2. What made you decide to step away from journalism and go into film?
The transition happened pretty gradually. I moved to New York to work as a journalist for Mashable, where I primarily wrote long-form features articles. We had a really small video team at the time – as in, there were two people sharing a DSLR camera and a lav mic. They started to join me as I went out in the field reporting and would create these incredible short documentaries or video accompaniments to my stories.
I became really interested in what they were doing, and I ended up spending a few months, on nights and weekends, giving myself a crash course in the basics of filmmaking: shooting, lighting, editing. The video team at the company eventually grew, and I was able to begin shooting and editing my own mini documentaries and “explainer” type videos.
After a few more years working as a video producer, with stops at Conde Nast and BuzzFeed, I moved into the advertising world, where I worked as a senior creative at Stink Studios. It’s a pretty scrappy shop, so my role there ran the gamut from writing to art directing to film editing – whatever the project needed. As a result, I got to spend a lot of time on set for big commercial shoots, and work really closely with some amazing directors. After a while, I felt like I had learned enough to try to make my own short film.
3. Are there any elements or practices from your previous career that are useful to you as a filmmaker?
A lot! My core job as a journalist was to be an effective storyteller, which I think carries over directly into filmmaking.
4. Your film, CHECK THE LOCKS, which you wrote, produced, and directed won an incredible amount of awards in our festival last month, including Best Picture. This is a huge achievement as is, but to add to it - this is your first movie! Once again, congratulations. Tell us about the process of making CHECK THE LOCKS.
Firstly, I just want to say thank you for the recognition. It really means the world to me.
The idea for the movie started during the onslaught of the pandemic. I was taking an online screenwriting course through the Gotham Writers Workshop, where I was developing a feature-length screenplay. The class was wonderful and extremely formative, but after a while I hit a roadblock with my script. I got frustrated with myself and decided to take a break and try something at a smaller scale.
Mainly, I was just anxious to make something – something I could start work on then and complete in a year, give or take.
I wrote down all the resources and connections I had: friends who were producers and DPs, the amount of my savings I was comfortable putting toward a project, locations I had access to. Once all those parameters were in place, I wrote a short script that worked within those guardrails. I kept it grounded, knowing exactly what I would – and wouldn’t – be able to pull off with the resources at hand.
My co-worker, Jessica Hong, who was an Executive Producer at Stink Studios at the time, and had spent a decade before that producing independent films, was an incredible mentor throughout the process. She was one of the first people who read the script, and she gave me a good sense of what type of crew I would need and how to most efficiently utilize the budget.
Kenny Suleimanagich, the DP for the film, is an old friend from Mashable. Since then, he’s gone on to pave a killer career as a cinematographer, shooting all over the world and having his work screened at major festivals. I called him and told him about the project, and, to my delight, he signed on.
Casting the role of Anna was the last step. I became aware of Angela Wong Carbone after seeing “Doublespeak,” the excellent short film from Hazel McKibbin, in which Angela plays the leading role. There’s this incredible scene at the end – sorry, spoiler alert – where Angela returns to her desk after being told by her H.R. department that no action will be taken against the man who sexually harrassed her. Then, the man walks into the background and begins speaking suggestively to a co-worker – all while the camera is locked on Angela’s face as she processes everything with her harasser standing over her shoulder. It’s an incredibly powerful scene, and the emotion that Angela is able to express without any words is seismic.
In “Check the Locks,” the main character rarely speaks, so I knew I would need an actor who could portray the character’s journey through facial expressions and body language. I knew that Angela would be perfect for it. I reached out to her agent, who then sent her the script, and I was thrilled when she said she wanted to be a part of the movie.
We ultimately shot the film – with our small and scrappy crew – for two days in Tupper Lake, New York, in September of 2021.
5. What inspired the story and its main character, Anna?
The story was inspired by my own experiences with anxiety. For several years, I’ve had this annoying and uncontrollable habit: every time I leave my apartment, I meticulously check the stove to make sure it’s turned off (even if I haven’t used it that day).
Throughout the pandemic, it only got worse, to the point where I’d take pictures of the turned-off stove before I left so I could check in later and assure myself: “See, the stove is turned off. You have nothing to worry about.”
It wasn’t much of a solution to my anxiety. Really, it was just a bandage over a much larger problem. Over time, I felt like I was becoming a little too reliant on these pictures to quell my anxiety – and that’s where the idea for the film was born.
The lead character, Anna, has the same affliction as me – only her obsession is with locked doors (which I thought was more interesting and cinematic than a stove).
Through the lens of atmospheric horror, I wanted to explore the idea of what would happen when a reliable comfort, like photographic proof, is ripped apart from the inside out – and why that ultimately might be the best path toward healing.
6. Through the eyes of its main character, CHECK THE LOCKS examines anxiety, obsessive behavior, and what happens when our coping mechanisms become obstacles in our journey towards healing. What would you like your viewers to take from your film?
I hope audiences walk away from the film viewing Anna’s journey as one of enlightenment. By the end of the film, she’s freed herself – metaphorically, and, with her phone smashed to bits on the floor, physically – from this behavior that’s been holding her prisoner.
The ending is intentionally ambiguous. It’s not intended to propose a concrete solution to what Anna’s been going through, but rather demonstrate her realization that this coping mechanism – a bandage over a wound, at best – has actually been holding her back instead of helping her move forward.
It’s so easy to fall into bad habits that we don’t realize are keeping us stuck in a rut. I think everyone has experienced that. My hope is that audiences are able to insert themselves into Anna’s story and reflect on their own lives.
7. Can you tell us about your visual inspirations? How did you create your visual language for CHECK THE LOCKS?
Visually, I wanted the tone of the film to evolve, along with Anna, throughout the film. It begins with a lot of hand-held camera work, specifically around Anna’s anxiety attack in the kitchen. I worked closely with my cinematographer, Kenny, to create a sense of rawness. The color palette for the first half of the film is intentionally earthy – a lot of greens and browns. It’s overall meant to feel somber and claustrophobic.
As Anna’s journey progresses, and she comes closer to what I like to call her “maniacal enlightenment” at the end, we wanted the camera work to become more stable and symmetrical, with the color palette – the rich moonlight and the cosmic orange glow – starkly contrasting the tones from the beginning.
8. Looking back at this first film directing experience, is there anything you’d do differently? What did you learn while working on CHECK THE LOCKS?
I learned so much while working on this movie, but what sticks out the most is that, no matter how much you prepare and prepare and prepare, things will go wrong on set, and you need to be able to be flexible and make quick decisions when that does happen.
One example from our shoot: Originally, the fire poker was meant to be placed by the fireplace, and Anna grabs it after she comes down the stairs – right before the tracking shot that follows her into the kitchen. She holds it throughout the hallway sequence and then, at the end, smashes her phone with it.
However, that dolly shot is one of the first shots we filmed, and in the midst of our scramble on set, we forgot to place the fire poker by the fireplace. I didn’t realize it until later in the day when we were filming the hallway scene that shows her succumbing to the cosmic glow and smashing her phone… with the fire poker.
We didn’t have time to relight and reshoot the scene by the stairs, and I knew that, continuity-wise, we couldn’t just show her smashing the phone with the fire poker without showing how she obtained it. I realized that we hadn’t yet shot the scene where she enters the cabin, which takes place in the same hallway but, narratively, takes place much earlier in the film; luckily, that shot was scheduled for the next day.
We decided to nail the fire poker to the wall in the cabin, as sort of a weird decoration (it seemed to fit the rest of the production design we’d established). We filmed Angela grabbing it off the wall before smashing her phone.
Then, the next day, we placed the poker back on the wall and filmed the shot of her first entering the cabin, and had her sort of give the fire poker a skeptic glance as she walked past it.
I actually prefer how this turned out. The nod to the poker on the wall at the beginning is a nice bit of foreshadowing, and I think having Angela rip it off the wall right before smashing her phone at the end adds more drama to the moment – much more than if she had picked it up from the fireplace and been holding all along, as it was written in the original script. So that ended up being a happy accident.
9. What is your favorite scene in the movie? Why is it your favorite?
The final shot of Angela erupting in manic laughter toward the orange glow. It’s my favorite because it’s such a brilliant display of Angela’s talents; it’s also such a satisfying moment to see this character, who up until this point has been morose and quiet, fully unleashing and letting go.
This was actually the very first shot we filmed. It was like 8am on the first day, and everybody was tired from the long drive the night before. We were still all getting to know each other.
But then we started rolling and Angela just went off. It was incredible. We rolled for probably three minutes straight, and she just kept laughing more maniacally and getting louder and more intense. I remember looking over to our producer, Becky, and camera assistant, Jonathan, who both had their mouths open in awe.
It was the best possible ice breaker. From that point forward, there was just this energy on set and a vibe of just, “Yeah, this is going to be a fun shoot.”
10. Do you have any advice to future directors as they’re preparing to make their first film?
I’d probably repeat what I answered in an earlier question: be as prepared as possible, but also expect that there will be things that go wrong on set. Strive to be a Flexible Control Freak, if that makes sense.
11. What are you working on right now? Can we expect more film work from you anytime soon?
Yes! I’m working on a couple of short films, plus a music video. Stay tuned! More to come soon!
12. If you could work with anyone in the world, who would that person be?
Taika Waititi. I’ve been following his career ever since I saw his debut feature, Eagle vs Shark, while I was in college. I really admire his ability to craft stories that are simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. His indie films – particularly Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople – have such a unique tone and elicit emotions in me that so few other films do. I just think he’s an incredible artist and storyteller.
13. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I would love to be working on a feature film in five years.
14. Where can we find you online so our readers could keep track of your career?
I keep my portfolio up to date with my advertising and film work here: www.ericlars.com. I’m hoping to have a more film-specific website, once I get a few more films under my belt, but for now this is a general collection of my creative work across film, advertising, and journalism.
My iMDB page is here: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm13945115/