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Posts Tagged ‘Buried’

“I was really beginning to question if I’d ever catch my proverbial big break. I drifted away from film work and started applying for police jobs.”
Chris Sparling, Buried screenwriter

“(Chris Sparling) went directly from struggling indie director to successful Hollywood scribe when the screenplay for his horror thriller Buried was picked up, cast with a major up-and-coming star, and thrown before the cameras in just six months. And now it’s receiving its U.S. première at the Sundance Film Festival.
Melissa Silvstri
Filmmaker Magazine Winter 2010

You can’t get more minimalistic than Buried (2010). And while it was shot over 21 days with Rodrigo Cortés directing— it could have been shot in a 1 to 4 days. Granted it wouldn’t have been as good, but it could have been.

And from interviews back around the time Buried was purchased between three and four million, it sounded like an ultra low-budget film was what screenwriter Chris Sparling was originally after. (He had little success in distrubuting his short films and one low-budget indie film.)

“Stealing a page from Hitchcock’s playbook, I decided on writing a story that takes place entirely in one small location. In my case, this was inside an old, wooden coffin.”
Chris Sparling

Two of the most well-known films in Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook that embraced limitations were Rope and Lifeboat.

Sparling was asked in an interview with Carson Reeves at Script Shadow, “How many scripts had you written before Buried? Which script did you realize that maybe you were getting the hang of it?” Sparling said, “Before Buried, I think I’d written about nine or ten features and two TV specs. Truth be told, it didn’t start to click for me until about my seventh feature script.”

Ryan Reynolds plays a  U.S.  contract driver in Iraq who is attacked and placed in a coffin with a flashlight, a cell phone and a lighter and must find someone to pay a million dollar ransom or he’ll soon die. A primal survival story reminiscent of low-budget success stories of past years; The Blair Witch Project, Open Water and Paranormal Activity. 

If you’re interested in low-budget filmmaking with a contained story elements read the Buried screenplay and study he movie. A nice bookend to Buried is 127 Hours. 

Related posts:
Ticking Clock (#103)
Conflict-Conflict-Conflict

Scott W. Smith

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Only three more days left in my Month of Marhsall, where I’ve been finding bits of wisdom from writer/director Garry Marshall. Long before his success in films (Pretty Woman), or as the creator of TV shows (Happy Days, Mork & Mindy), he was a comedy writer for some of the biggest names in the 60s; Lucille Ball, Danny Thomas, Joey Bishop, and Dick Van Dyke.

One cost cutting technique he learned from the world of sitcom writing (that some filmmakers today would call “containment”) Marshall calls the ‘stuckinna” plot.

“Another favorite formula of sitcom producers was the ‘stuckinna’ plot, in which the main characters would get ‘stuck in’ something because it helped reduced the number of sets and kept production values down. These stories might find characters stuck in a bath tub, a basement, an attic, a bus, or anything that would be conducive to physical humor. Jerry [Belson] and I wrote a two-part Dick Van Dyke episode called ‘8 1/2’ in which Dick and Mary got stuck in an elevator and were held up by a thief played by Don Rickles. The episode was nominated for a Writers Guild award, which goes to show you that just because an episode is cheap productionwise, it’s not without merit.”
Garry Marshall
Wake Me When It’s Funny (written with Lori Marshall)
Pages 81-82 

It worked for Charlie Chaplin when he got stuck in a cage with a lion, or in a cabin with a bear.  It worked for Hitchcock in Lifeboat.  And it worked for Rodrifo Cortes in the film Buried based on Chris Sparling’s script, where Ryan Reynolds is the sole actor on screen set inside a coffin. Embrace your limitations.

Update 6.23.13—The Stuckinna plot worked when Lucy was stuck in the assembly line.

P.S. Another more subtle comedy tip in that Marshall quote is the title 8 1/2. While it wouldn’t resonate as much today, back in ’60s it would have been instantly recognizable as a humorous play on the 1963 Fellini film 8 1/2.

Related links:

Screenwriting Quote #124 (Chris Sparling)

Writing for Low Budget Films (includes a list of films shot on one location)

Scott W. Smith

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“When they offered me the remake of The Thing, rather than remaking the original film I thought I’d go back to the short story which I felt was never done.”
Director John Carpenter

Monster Blizzard…how long until that comes out as the title of a Hollywood film? Or maybe a sequel to Buried, Buried…in Snow. Perhaps the movie, Jim Cantore—Force of Nature.

 

Lake Shore Drive in Chicago— AP/Kichiro Sato

 

 

The best thing about the snow storm that (as I type this) is hammering a chunk of the country is I’m getting a lot of writing done. I thought I’d share with you what I’ve come up with overnight while all cooped up:

Okay, maybe that’s from The Shining, but have you noticed that  snow storms in movies tend to bring out the worst in people? Probably because one of the key elements of drama is conflict. Bad weather usually equals conflict. Just look what it did to poor Jack…

Over the years there have been a few films where bad weather is like a character in a film.  Here are a handful of films that are either “man vs. nature” stories or stories where unusual atmospheric conditions serve as the backdrop for stories:

The Perfect Storm
Twister
Touching the Void
White Squall
Ice Storm
The Thing

A quirky screenwriting sidenote to The Thing (1982) is it was written by Bill Landcaster, who just happened to be the son of Oscar-winning actor Burt Landcaster (Elmer Gantry). And if that’s not odd enough, how about the fact that Bill Landcaster not only wrote that classic sci-fi film, but his first feature was the comedy Bad New Bears starring Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal.  And to top it off, The Thing was directed by John Carpenter and starred Kurt Russell who had worked together on the excellent TV movie Elvis (1979). That’s a lot of genre mixing talent. (And just for the record, I think Russell is the king of Elvis impersonators.)

While Carpenter said that he loved the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, for The Thing he decided to return to the original short story/novella Who Goes There written by John W. Campbell. (Campbell also wrote under the name Don A. Stuart.)  Isaac Asimov called Campbell (1910-71) “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.”

Here’s a taste of The Thing and The Thing from Another World and some behind the scene stuff with John Carpenter.

Scott W. Smith


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When I was in high school there was a guy who was cut from a different mold and I always wondered what happened to him. I thought of him after seeing The Hurt Locker because to be on a bomb squad one has to come from a different mold.

Daws only weighed 135 pounds and he not only played football, he was a nose guard. (Not the place for little guys.) But he was tough. His helmet actually had the paint scratched off the front of it from hitting other helmets so hard. After one game which we lost we could hear him on the practice field in the dark hitting the blocking sled–which would not have the pads on it. Daws was a warrior and I’d be very surprised if he didn’t end up in the military.

One of the things I like best about The Hurt Locker is it isn’t about the war, but about the warrior. The kind of person that is more comfortable disarming a bomb than grocery shopping or updating his Facebook status.

Movies made in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom, Brothers , Redacted ,  A Mighty Heart, The Messenger) have one thing in common–they don’t find much of an audience. Unfortunately, The Hurt Locker joins the club.

Unfortunately, because it’s a great film. Time magazine called it “A near-perfect movie” and recently it tied Avatar with nine Academy Award nominations. Perhaps it will find a life on DVD.

While audiences have supported many films about war (including the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, & Viet Nam) Iraq appears to be a different monster. I’m not sure why this is the case, but I can speculate. Time would seem to be the first factor. I seem to recall an interview where screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart said that one of the troubles with getting An Officer and a Gentleman made was the lingering effect of the Viet Nam War.

Keep in mind that An Officer and a Gentleman was not a movie about Viet Nam, just military centered. The movie got made and was a box office hit, but it came out in 1982–eight years after US involvement ended. Granted The Green Berets was released in 1968 (during the war in Viet Nam) but that was because it was a film John Wayne wanted to make. But generally, the war in Viet Nam was avoided by Hollywood at first.

Certainly, The Deer Hunter (1978) dealt with the lingering effects of returning home from Viet Nam, but that is still four years removed from the conflict.  Apocalypse Now is almost its own genre that transcended Viet Nam, but still didn’t come out until 1979.

I think Platoon was the first movie that was a hard look at Viet Nam that found an audience, but that was 1986– a full 12 years after the war.  Then Viet Nam was in vogue in Hollywood, Good Morning Viet Nam (1987), Full Metal Jacket. (1987) , The Hanoi Hilton (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Casualties of War (1989) and Born on the Fourth of July(1989).

So I think time is needed for audiences to be comfortable reflecting on Iraq. When I last checked, we were still in Iraq. We’re still in Afghanistan.  And I think we now realize we will always be in a war with terrorism.

The second reason I think audiences aren’t fond of movies about Iraq is the shear politics of the matter. It’s hard for the word propaganda not to come up. People generally don’t like to heavy-handed arguments from either side. (Though I should point out that that Michael Moore’s documnetary Fahrenheit 9/11 made $119 million domestic/$222 million worldwide (on a $6 million budget.)

And thirdly, movies are largely about entertainment. Definitions usually include the words amusement, diversion, and pleasure. That doesn’t mean we don’t make difficult films–just pointing out that it is hard for those films to find an audience no matter how well they are made. We’ll see how Buried does this spring (about a an American contractor in Iraq) –sounds like an interesting twist and was well-received at Sundance.

The Gulf War was short lives and out of that came Three Kings and Jarhead that did find audiences but the expenses were so high that the domestic box office was below their budgets. Courage Under Fire (1996) had a solid cast Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, and a newcomer named Matt Damon and the budget was estimated to be below $50. million and made $60 million domestic and topped $100 million worldwide.

But with all those statistics there are said to be over  100 Iraq/Afghanistan-centered war movies in development.

How has Dear John been able to have a big box office run? I haven’t seen the film, but words that reviewers are fond of using are “syrupy,” “sentimental” and “schmaltzy.” Not the kind of film my high school friend Daws would be interested in seeing, but enough people were for it to double its money in just two weeks.

Related post: Screenwriting from Hell

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“I have not failed. I have just found 1,000 ways that did not work.”
Thomas Edison (And one of screenwriter Chris Sparling’s favorite quotes.)

Los Angles is full of screenwriters who came from outside L.A.

Of course, most of them broke in the old-fashioned way. They moved there. That’s been going on for 100 years ever since L.A. replaced New York and Chicago as the go to place to make movies.

And that may be true for the next 100 years, because that is still the heart of the film industry. It’s where the majority of studios, executives and film talent are based. It’s the main place for deals to happen and for movies to be made.

But what keeps that heart pumping is the fresh talent that movies through it. And that talent often comes from outside L.A.

And I’ve spent two years giving accounts of talented writers who come from all over the U.S. (and sometimes other countries) to make an impact on the film business. Occasionally, writers have enough clout to stay in their hometowns (John Hughes/ Chicago) and sometimes they move back to their hometown (Mike France/St. Pete Beach) or move to their ideal creative place (George Lucas/Skywalker Ranch). But those are exceptions to the rule.

The big question now is has the technology and the business evolved to the point where it is becoming more common for screenwriters and filmmakers to not only launch a career outside L.A., but sustain one from wherever they want live? In the 70s & 80s Francis Ford Coppola & Lucas fled to Northern California to do their thing. In the 90s & 2000s, we’ve see places like Austin, Atlanta & Portland become places where filmmakers live and work. I think that is a trend that is going to continue to spread throughout the country.

Let me throw out a quote that point to where things are heading:

“I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.”
(Steven Spielberg in interview with Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show in 1999)

Have you noticed that the phrase “I think that the Internet…” has become a very popular? As in I think that the Internet…helped Diablo Cody become a screenwriting rock star.

But I think that it is fair to point out that Diablo Cody moved from Minneapolis to L.A. soon after her script for Juno sold. My guess is newcomer Chris Sparling will be moving from Rhode Island to L.A. soon (if he hasn’t already done so). I think Sparling is a recent and great example of how to launch a screenwriting career from outside L.A.

At this point he’s just a few days removed from the stir that was created at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival where the film he wrote, Buried, sold for $3 million plus. So there is not a lot written about him, but I’ve pieced together a few things I could from the internet.

Since he’s said he is roughly the same age as Ryan Reynolds (who stars in Buried), I’m guessing that he has been writing for ten years (maybe even 15 if he started as a teenager). He made some short films and in 2005 made a low-budget feature called An Uzi at the Alamo where he was the producer, director, writer and lead actor. The film can be viewed on Netflicks.

But as is often pointed out, getting a film made and paying the bills are not always the same thing. In one interview he said he recently “started applying for police jobs.”

From what I can gather Sparling earned money as a personal trainer and a freelance writer for magazines and blogs such as Maximum Fitness Magazine, Sunrise Helpers, Indie Slate and Imagine Magazine,The Diabetes Blog, The Cardio Blog, FitBuff,  America Online’s That’s Fit and Exist Magazine. He also taught screenwriting at Emerson College and I found an ad from just a year ago where he would read scripts for people and help them write query letters for extra money.

In an interview with Emerson College, Sparling was asked how one gets an agent and he said,“You have to cultivate relationships. You have to nurture them. You may meet an agent and send him a script. Odds are it will be a pass if he or she reads it at all, but you keep that relationship open and get recommended to others, and maybe on the fourth or fifth script you send to an agent…that’s the one they love and want to rep.”

Did you catch that? He said “maybe the fourth of fifth script.” Good writing is a process. It takes time. Sparling has said that it took him seven scripts before it “clicked” for him and that he wrote 9 or 10 scripts before Buried sold. Then he was on the fast track as it went into production, was edited, and shown and sold at Sundance all within the last year. It will be released in the spring of 2010. He’s a hot writer in Hollywood now as he’s sold other scripts and picked up other assignments. But don’t forget the many years and many scripts that paved the way for his recent success.

Living in Providence, Rhode Island he would also make occasional trips to L.A. to make contacts in the film industry.

“The first time I flew into LA, I had 15 meetings in five days. The next time it was 20 meetings.”
Chris Sparling

So did Chris Sparling just get lucky? I don’t think so. His is not the only way to break into Hollywood, but it follows a pretty common path that I would condense as:

1) Read a lot of scripts
2) Write a lot of scripts
3) Meet a lot of people

And if you want to read most of the good, logical reasons on why you should live in L.A., check out Ashley Scott Meyers’ post Do you have to live in Los Angeles to be a screenwriter?

© 2010 Scott W. Smith 
 

 

 

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“The idea (for the script Buried) was born out of financial necessity. It had been several years since I directed a feature (2005’s An Uzi at the Alamo), and I wanted to write something I could afford to shoot with almost no budget. This meant cutting back on cast, crew, lighting, locations, props, wardrobe and just about everything else—which basically left me with nothing. And then one day I came up with a very challenging conceit: A guy buried alive for an entire movie. No other actors appearing on screen, no cutting away from this one location.”
Screenwriter Chris Sparling (Buried)
MovieMaker
interview with Kyle Rupprecht

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“It was a brilliant script.”
Director Rodrigo Cortes on Chris Sparling’s script Buried
(And why he didn’t change the one location/one on-screen actor concept.)

So here’s my latest angle to give “Screenwriting from Iowa” a new perspective. My first video blog. Since shifting to daily posts was burying me why not add video into the mix? Right now, I’m going to try doing one video a month for now and see how it goes. (Of course,  the shooting style of this video is best understood if you’ve seen the original trailer for Buried.)

Buried was purchased by Lionsgate for between $3 & 4 million after the film was shown at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival just a few days ago. The entire movie is said to feature one person (Ryan Reynolds) held captive in a coffin for the entire length of the film as he tries to call people on his cell phone to secure his $1 million ransom.

Buried alive? There’s no app for that.

Scott W. Smith

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