Rodrigo Cortes' incredible Ryan-Reynolds-in-a-box thriller Buried opens across the UK officially this Friday, but the screenings are kicking off today. In the US, it's on a limited release and will go wide at the end of next week. Go and see it.
To support the release of the film, I was lucky enough to get Rodrigo Cortes on the phone and ask him about all of the things I was particularly interested in. It got a bit geeky.
So, from our conversation, here are Rodrigo Cortes' Five Things you'll need to know in order to pull off a film with the ambition and quality of Buried. We start with the assumption that you've already got an actor of the calibre of Mr Reynolds… but then what?
1. How To Light The Film
We have five different lights – the flame of the zippo, the cellphone itself, the green glow stick, the regular flashlight and the red one. We did it with a high sense of practical lighting so everybody perceived it was physical and touchable. I wanted this to be a pyhysical experience – not a film to be seen, but a film to be experienced, so everybody leaves the theatre 4 pounds lighter. So, the audience has to feel they can touch everything and this has to do with the lighting. In a regular film, where there's darkness, there's that kind of fake darkness in which the audience assume they're seeing things that the character cannot see, you have some shade and things like that. But here, you have pitch black.
So when we shot with the Zippo, 70% of the time it was just the real zippo and nothing else. And you can't improve upon the magic of a dancing flame that you cant completely control.
We used the cellphone as a source of lighting, as you would if you were in the characters position. Every bit of light comes out from the real prop and the audience can notice that, of course. We didn't use a real screen, we used a system of LEDs inside the cellphone that we could control with radio control so we could turn it on or turn it out as we wanted.
With the flashlight, it was just a $3 HMI lamp. We had to shoot with a real short depth of field because we when you have such little light, you have to keep your iris in the extreme position.
With the glowstick we did a lot of tests because we used basically the real glowstick with just some fill lights. But with those fills you have to be very careful. Of course, we couldn't shoot entirely practically, but the audience had to think that everything was practical so that they believed in everything. If they don't believe in one thing, they are out.
2. Is It Okay For The Camera To Leave The Box?
The first suggestions we had were to cut outside to the other side of the land, to the surface and show the other characters but I thought that was the perfect way of spoiling everything. So rule number one was: Never leave the box. Why? Because I wanted this to be an experience. I wanted everyone to be trapped inside that box for 94 minutes so they cannot leave it.
But this is a very subjective position. You have to be inside his brain but not necessarily his eyes. So, there's a moment in which in the camera goes up because he feels as though he's not going to be able to leave the box. He can fight darkness, he can fight a lack of oxygen, he can fight unexpected visitors, or the terrorists, but he can't fight everything, so we see how the character feels.
In this shot, we see mental space. We see endless walls, that so, so high and never end. It's a way of expressing what he feels now. We are still inside his brain but we are not showing what he sees, but what he feels.
3. So How Does The Box Limit The Film's Style And Vocabulary?
Everything has to come from the story. First note: don't use common sense. If you use common sense you realise you can't make a movie inside a box. Making a 94 minute movie inside a box is impossible but you have to go on like it is possible.
You have to focus on the story and focus on the emotions you want the audience to feel and then you think of the cinematic tools you need in order to get those emotions – but don't think about the box. But if you think about the box you are going to limit yourself and you are going to focus on the restrictions. And you shouldn't do that.
If you want to make a compelling and engaging film it has to be as if it happens in New York City, in a big jungle or on a giant planet. If you'd want to use a circle round the character to mesmerise the audience while they hear a very complex dialogue, of course you can not do a circle around the actor in the box – but don't think about it! Circle? You're right. Just do a circle inside the box. If you need a crane shot to get a certain kind of feeling, it's the most effective way to get the audience to feel what you want them to feel, then simply write Crane Shot Here.
If you need handheld camera, which is of course impossible inside a box, do it. If you need that handheld camera to bring some violent or nervous energy, brings everybody to the edge of their seats, you just write on your notebook Handheld Camera Here. And then, and only when you are in production, find out a way to do that inside the box. Everything has to come out of the emotions.
4. You'll Need More Than One Box
We built seven different boxes, with seven different technical deals. One of them had collapsible walls that we could take out so the camera could describe that circle. We had a nine page shot that describes almost two circles around the actor, it was probably the most complex shot of the film.
There was another coffin that was especially long so that we could give some perspective effects and allow dolly shots inside the box. Another one was specially reinforced so Ryan could push as hard as he could, which is a lot, this guy's very strong. Another one could turn over. We had to invent a couple of things to make possible the impossible.
5. How To Edit The Film For Maximum Suspense
In my way of working, directing and editing are the same. When I start to think about the film, I think of the final result so I'll get the material I need to get it. So in my case, shooting and editing are two steps of the same process.
And if you shoot a movie in 17 days you better shoot it with the brain of an editor. You're not going to have time to get every possible angle to let you choose afterwards, you need to get exactly what you need to make the puzzle.
Suspense. I couldn't have the rope tight the whole time because if you do that, you lose the effect of that tension. You are too tired twenty minutes afterwards. At first I wanted the film to be very, very raw because you are living this nightmare in the most naked way, so at the beginning every angle is very raw, very Cartesian and then, little by little, the camera starts to angle a little bit, starts to move, little by little. It's in the same way as the character moves as he feels more used to the box. And little by little, we feel the same with the box. But this cannot be a linear ascent. This cannot go up and up, it has to be more like a rollercoaster. It has to have a peaks and it has to have valleys.
One thing that is very difficult in a film like this is that you are shooting for real time. In a normal film when an actor cries you can cut away to an exterior then go on with the story, but here, you have to stay with the character as he cries, as he recovers and he goes on. You have to be very aware of the rhythm. You have to see the film only as a member of the audience.
If you think that something happens too fast, you have to stretch it. Real time doesn't matter, just cinematic time and space. That's the first lesson that you learn when you are a spectator of Hitchcock who did everything before, and did it better.