On September 24th, the Chris Sparling suspense flick Buried hit limited theaters across the country. The film stars, exclusively stars actually, Ryan Reynolds as Paul, a father and U.S. contractor working in Iraq. After an attack by a group of Iraqis, he wakes up to find he has been buried alive inside a coffin. With only a lighter and a cell phone, Paul is in a race against time to escape the claustrophobic death trap. The film is directed by Rodrigo Cortés, who does a wonderful job telling this story with obvious limitations. That’s right folks, the entire film takes place from within a coffin. No cut-aways, no exterior shots. Finding unique ways to capture this script with only one small environment to work in, Cortés does an amazing job keeping up the film’s pace and driving the suspense. Reynolds really goes above and beyond in this flick. Having a limited number of props and dialog to work with, Reynolds really shines in this film and manages to give enough emotion to keep us holding our breath.
On a recent press tour supporting the film, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with both Ryan Reynolds and the film’s writer, Chris Sparling.
First off, why Iraq and why 2006?
CS: I wanted to tell the story of the civilian contractors out there. In doing research I found out that these men and women they’re facing some pretty difficult situations out there. A lot of them, especially the ones I spoke to, it doesn’t get much better for them if they’re lucky enough to make it home. I just felt that, if I were a documentary filmmaker it’s certainly something I would consider making a documentary on. But, I’m a narrative filmmaker. I learned how frequently so many of these people are being taken hostage and held for ransom. Again, these are just the civilian men and women that work doing every day things, like carpentry and stuff like that, these aren’t black water guys. Naturally when they’re held for ransom, they aren’t kept in a nice hotel. At that point, that was actually stage two for buried, stage one was actually coming up with the concept of a person buried alive. So I just married truth with a piece of fiction. I said, what if my guy is taken hostage and buried alive instantly raising the stakes in this fictional setting with this fictional character. Why 2006? I think 2006, we were seeing a more difficult time with the Iraq war than we are seeing presently.
Can you describe the process of the script getting picked up and your experience?
CS: It was, not to sound too cliche and like a wide eyed kid, but this whole thing has been a dream come true for me. I’ve been, up until that point, probably 12 to 13 years just banging my head against a wall trying to catch my proverbial break. First as an actor, then as a writer, then as a writer/director and just trying anything. To write this project, I wrote it with the intention of directing it myself. I thought it would be a $5,000 movie, I would shoot it in my buddies apartment probably in LA. This is the god’s honest truth, I was at the point where I was going to have him start taking daily trips down to Santa Monica just to get sand (laughs) So, that kind of gives you an indication of where I was in my career at that point. Mind you, I’m only talking about two years ago as I say this. Once it got into one producer’s hands, then it got into Peter Safran‘s hands and that was March 2009. So from March 2009, we got Rodrigo Cortés on board, we got Ryan on board, we got the film into Sundance.
RR: So unusually. I mean I get scripts sometimes that were designed for actors that are all dead now.
This role seems different for you. Usually you seem to play the cocky confident leading man, here you seem more vulnerable. How did you go about approaching that?
RR: I’ve done a lot of dramas, they just usually aren’t on people’s radars (laughs). I think that Rodrigo, at least the way he tells it, saw me for this role initially, because he saw a little move I did called The Nines. It was a drama and it was very esoteric and existential and bizarre and not many people saw it. It was at Sundance and a couple of other festivals. He saw that, and I was eager to try something else. I mean I love that. This is the kind of script, kind of project that comes along once in a career. A lot of times you let it go by. In fact, I almost did. I said no at the beginning. When I was first given the script, I thought this was the most riveting story, the most terrifying story I’d ever read and it’s a novel. This is a novel this isn’t a movie because technically it’s impossible to shoot. You already have a narrative challenge that’s difficult enough and as much as you have one actor trying to tell a story on screen for 90 minutes now we have a technically challenge. I’m in a coffin, really? I mean really? (both laugh) The whole thing just didn’t seem feasible at all and I said no. Then I got this letter from this Spanish director named Rodrigo Cortés. This letter was a little bit longer than Chris’ script. It basically assuaged any fear that I might have had. These weren’t thin promises, this was something very substantial and real. He flew out and the next thing I know we’re shaking hands and saying ‘let’s get buried’. I found out we were shooting in Spain. I was like, “really? We can’t do this in my living room? Really? You’re going to send me to Spain?” (everyone laughs) So off I went. The biggest fear I had going in was that I had to do a movie in close up. You can’t lie in a close up. You especially can’t lie because everything Paul goes through in the movie…if I’m breaking down in a scene I have to hit the breaks, I have to recover and then I have to go on without any tricks. We can’t cut to an exterior central park, we can’t cut to another actor, we can’t cut to the people I’m talking to. It presented a really unique opportunity, is how I looked at it, but it was also a huge challenge to have to convey the full spectrum of human emotion in full close up and really have no gimmicks or tricks. We called this movie, some people would say it’s a gimmick, but we overcome the gimmick the first ten minutes by storytelling. I think most normal movies are gimmicks. The gimmick in those films is that we’re seeing what has been gobbled together in an edit room. It’s rare that you see something on screen that’s truthful. I like to think it’s truthful. There’s no right or wrong at any given moment in the movie which I loved as well. This is a situation where you look and go, ‘what would I do? I might not do what he’s doing right now on screen’, but there is no right or wrong because of that, there’s only honest, you have to be honest.
How many days were you shooting?
RR: 17 days. Short by Hollywood standards, long by tolerant standards. (laughs)
What type of preparation did you do before you starting shooting?
RR: I looked into their (contractors) day to day a little bit, but beyond that there’s not a ton of preparation you could do for an extraordinary situation like this. That might have been the only disagreement Rodrigo and I ever had going in was over rehearsal. I didn’t want to rehearse but he did. I understand why he wanted to rehearse. But, what we had was a trust exercise between a director and an actor and I was trusting him to put this impossible story on the screen and he was trusting me to accept this challenge and go forward with him. He, for some reason, trusted that I knew what I was talking about, that I wasn’t being lazy. It was really because I wanted ever reaction that Paul was having and every moment to be happening for the first time on camera. I wanted to discover it as it was happening as opposed to manufacturing something during rehearsal. I knew if I rehearsed I would get in my own way. I would start thinking, ‘God, we did that thing in rehearsal that was really effective, we should try to manufacture that in this moment.’ I thought that would take the air out of the movie a lot, so he’s generous to just let me go for it on camera.
How far in advance did you know that there would be no alternate shots that it would only be you?
RR: Yeah, I don’t think I would have wanted to do the movie. If you cut away from the coffin, that would have made this movie very small, ironically. That’s what would have made the film small. What makes it so big is that we don’t, we refuse, we hang in there and we just go for it. I did have a fear, one of the reasons I said no at first was not because I didn’t think it was a fantastic film, it was actually because I thought that some asshole in a really nice suite would come down to the set on day five and say, “hey, I paid for this thing, so we’re gonna shoot some exteriors now”. I want to see this, I want the film to breath. That happens sometimes. It was Rodrigo, who is also kind of a cowboy, he assuaged that fear and said, “there’s no way that’s going to happen”.
What influences were there film wise for you when you decided to write ‘Buried’?
CS: Film wise, I looked a lot to Life Boat, I looked a lot to Rope, and again to Phone Booth. It was kind of a backwards process, because once I had decided to write a movie about a guy buried alive and the whole movie was going to take place in that once spot, I needed then to see examples of people doing something similar successfully. So I went back to movies I had known and already seen and those three being chief among that list. They’re brilliant films. The difference with this film, even with Life Boat, you can cut to nine other people, or eight other characters, or cut to the sky or the water or whatever the case may be. You aren’t going to have that luxury in this film. So the performance, I always knew that was going to be paramount. Wherever the actor was, they had to be absolutely astounding. They did. They weight of this film was going to be on their shoulders.
RR: Instead they got me.
CS: Instead we got Ryan. (laughs) We’re living with it. I mean, there’s no question. I don’t need to say anything more about that. The second part is the direction. It couldn’t be stagnant. It couldn’t be, just ‘here’s your camera, here you go very talented actor. Do your thing. Like it’s a one man show on stage, go do your thing.’ The thing is, if the performance was strong enough, that would still be compelling. We’ve seen plenty of one man shows that are compelling. But, the fact that to make this truly cinematic, you needed a director that thought in a very large scope as opposed to a very small scope. I think in watching this film, between the music and the shot selection and every piece of it, it’s as big a film as possible for such a contained thriller.
RR: If you talk to Rodrigo too, he always saw it as North By Northwest in a coffin. Sometimes he would say Indiana Jones in a coffin. (both laughs) It’s the latter I don’t understand as much. I was kind of amazed, when I saw the movie I don’t feel like I’m watching myself because it’s such a filmmaker’s showcase. Shooting it was such a fever dream. I just remember certain fragmented moments, I don’t really remember the whole thing obviously it feels like a bad nightmare. But seeing the movie, the thing I love that I’m attracted to most about it and I also felt it in Chris’ script, we start this movie off in pitch blackness and we know nothing about this guy. By the time the movie is ending, this coffee is filled with his entire universe, we know everything about him. From ten phone calls, we have a real feel of his character and a reel feel of the people that matter to him and the life that he hopes to lead if he can get out of this situation. I thought that was really an amazing testament to your storytelling (to Chris).
How did the success of this script help you with your next script ATM?
CS: Enormously. It’s funny because, I never fully answered your question before. There was a life of Buried the script, before Buried the movie. I remember when the script was going around, there was a lot of great response but, as you thought, people thought it was an unfilmable movie. So what my agent and I thought was that it would be a great writing sample for me. Hopefully it would land me some jobs. The fact that it went from that, to this movie that we thought was a good sample was actually going to be a real movie, they’re going to make it. So many doors have been opened. Beyond my wildest expectation. ATM is going into production in October. I was very very fortunate getting a job working for M. Night Shyamalan. I’m just going to keep going. Like I’ve said, I’ve been doing this for thirteen and I’ve been doing it for free so there’s no way I’m going to stop now that they’re actually paying me.
You’re doing the next Night Chronicles correct?
CS: Yes, I wrote the script for the second Night Chronicles film.
Can you tell us anything new about that?
CS: (laughs) Night is very secretive. I can tell you what’s out there without probably getting killed. It’s a jury deliberating a case involving the supernatural.
How was that different writing for someone else as opposed to your own idea?
CS: You know, it really wasn’t much different. You’d think someone that’s as talented as he is and been around as long as he has would be very demanding. He’s very much about the collaboration. It was based on his original idea. He just said, “here’s my three page synopsis and go off and write this”.
Was there any pressure to change the ending to Buried?
CS: Here’s the thing, along the way of the script’s life, I received a lot of suggestions. Starting with, let’s open it up, let’s cut to these people he’s talking to, let’s have flash backs, let’s have Paul get out of the coffin halfway through and have him encounter new problems. Certainly among the list of suggestions was ‘let’s change the ending’, because it’s not your typical Hollywood happy ending. The fact is this movie is, I feel anyway, is rooted in reality as much as it possibly can be. The fact is you have a guy buried alive in the desert and if you can’t triangulate a signal or all these high tech things you do, you’re not going to find the guy. I’m sorry, it’s unfortunate but you’re not. Especially not in 90 minutes or two hours or whatever the case may be. So if you wanted this movie to be satisfying to an audience, you couldn’t expect them to buy this for 90 of your 94 minutes but in the last 4 minutes, ‘you lost me’.
RR: Paul is gonna crawl out and seek his revenge (everyone laughs) with nothing but his bible and his pen knife. (laughs)
CS: You couldn’t have him do the Uma Thurman thing. That’s not this movie. Actually, akin to that would be them finding him and that would almost be on par with him punching his way through.
RR: I tried it by the way and it hurt like fucking hell. (everyone laughs)
CS: So no, I didn’t want the ending to change. I’m very excited they didn’t change it.
Can you tell us a little about the snake? Was that in the original script? Was the snake real?
CS: It was in my production draft, my second draft of the script.
RR: The snake was real. Some of it was CG because the snake was terrified. (laughs) It was totally scared, I would be too.
CS: It was pretty simple why it came about. My initial idea of this box he was in, was a bunch of planks nailed together. A very simple box. I just never envisioned it having any knots or holes really on the side or anywhere else. Rodrigo just said to me one day, from a technical stand point, he said “I want to make it where Paul’s not always holding the lighter. Can he maybe put it down on the ground, maybe there’s a hole on the side? Maybe one of the knots fell out?” I said, “like on the side? Won’t the sand come in?” He said, “No, the sand is compacted on the sides on the top it would come in. I want Paul to maybe put it in this hole.” I said, “Alright, if we have a hole, that means we have things bigger than in my initial draft.” In my initial draft I had ants, so I toyed with ants, with spiders, with all these things that could crawl in a space in between planks, but now that I have a bigger hole…
RR: Oh terrible. That’s why I’m glad you described this part (everyone laughs)
CS: So now that I had that, I could have a snake. It just kept getting worse.
RR: Exactly. Your snake and your big hole, we get it. Get her head out of your pants. Jesus.
RR: What I liked about it is that it created an action sequence. Which is a very difficult technical challenge, but not too dissimilar to the entire film. I mean the whole thing is an incredible narrative and technical challenge.
[END OF SPOILERS]
Ryan, what’s next, R.I.P.D. or Deadpool?
RR: Neither are next. I shoot a movie called Change-Up next, it’s kind of an R-rated comedy. Not kind of, it is an R-rated comedy. Right after that, I start a movie called Safe House with Denzel Washington. That’s going to be a lot of fun. After that, is where hopefully one of those two movies will fall. People ask me this question like I have any say in the matter. They’re both movies I’m interested in, they’re both movies that are in fast-track development. I never say I’m doing movies until I break for lunch the first day. It’s such a crap shoot this industry, everything is so fickle and contingent on so many factors aside from just an actor. Because it has an actor and these films have interested directors, it is I will say, likely that they’ll both get made. I think it will be more likely that only one of them gets made with me.
Yeah, I’m sure it’s hard with time restrictions, possibly with The Green Lantern 2 eventually…
RR: Maybe yeah. If we’re going to get that cart well in front of the horse I guess. (both laughs)
Have you seen Buried? What did you think of this thriller?