Imagine waking up buried in the desert, with no idea how you got there and armed with only a candle, knife and cell phone. This is exactly the deadly predicament dreamed up by screenwriter Chris Sparling’s twisted mind a little more than one year ago—and it got him into Sundance. The modest idea turned into Buried, a film starring Ryan Reynolds (and only Ryan Reynolds) as a civil contractor working in Iraq who finds himself in the nightmarish situation. This innovative new thriller, directed by Rodrigo Cortés, takes the idea of a “one-room indie” to the extreme.
Before the much buzzed-about movie makes its world premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival on January 23 as part of the “Park City at Midnight” program, Sparling took time out of his busy schedule to answer MM‘s questions.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): What was the writing process like on Buried? How did the concept come about?
Chris Sparling (CS): The idea 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.
I wrote the first draft of the script very quickly, but wasn’t thrilled with the story. So, I spent a good amount of time figuring out the “why”—why would someone bury another human being alive? I didn’t want to go the horror route and create a Saw-like madman; I wanted to make an emotional, tense and dramatic thriller, which meant the “why” had to be realistic and compelling. That’s when I came across information about contractors working in Iraq. Not the mercenaries, but civilians—men and women there doing carpentry work, fixing plumbing or, in the case of Buried, driving construction supply trucks. You don’t hear about it all that much in the news, but these same people frequently come under fire and, in some cases, are kidnapped and held for ransom (not to mention the horrors they face—i.e. insurance claims denials, PSTD, etc.—if they’re lucky enough to survive). If I were a documentary filmmaker, I probably would have jumped all over this; it’s an expose just waiting to happen. But, as a narrative filmmaker, I felt this was still a story that was very much worth telling, even if it meant doing so in a fictional movie.
MM: Movies set in Iraq are known to have trouble at the box office. Did you have any trepidation about setting the film there?
CS: Not really. The films that didn’t perform well (and even those that did, like The Hurt Locker) were about the war, and Buried isn’t a war film. It’s not even about a soldier. It’s about a civilian. Plus, you never once see anything outside the old, wooden coffin that Paul (the lead and only on-screen character) is buried in. So, even though the story is set in Iraq, the film is technically set in a box.
MM: The time between you sending out the script, attracting a major talent like Ryan Reynolds and director Rodrigo Cortés and its premiere at Sundance was incredibly fast. What has the whirlwind experience of making Buried been like? How did it come about so quickly?
CS: The experience has been amazing, Rodrigo and Ryan are both incredible talents, and I feel honored every time I see my name listed alongside theirs. The whole project has been a “lightning in a bottle” sort of experience, particularly how quickly it all came together. In literally less than a year the script was shopped, purchased, had a director and star attached; the film was shot, edited and then accepted into Sundance. I can only hope it happens this way every time!
MM: You’ve previously directed your scripts, An Uzi at the Alamo and Balance. What was it like having another moviemaker at the helm?
CS: I was slightly resistant at the very beginning, only because I knew I had something pretty unique on my hands. I wondered how much of the story a new director would want to change. (Would they want to cut to the other people on the phone? Have Paul get out of the box at midpoint? Not set the story in Iraq?) Then along came Rodrigo. When I read his director’s statement, and then after watching his previous feature, The Contestant, I knew he was exactly the right person to direct this film. He saw it for what it was: An intense, dramatic thriller—not an action film, not a war film and certainly not a horror film. Plus, to my amazement, he wanted to stay true to the script by keeping all 90 minutes of the film inside the box—no cutaways, no flashbacks and no respite for the audience. Pure claustrophobic tension from start to finish.
MM: How involved were you in the production and post-production process of Buried? Were there any major changes made to your script when shooting began?
CS: I was very fortunate, I was involved throughout production and post-production. I was on the set during the entire shoot, and Rodrigo and I worked out some script items via Skype and e-mail throughout post. As far as changes to the script go, no, there weren’t many at all. The few minor things that changed were all first discussed by Rodrigo and I, and then made by me per those discussions. I realize this is seldom the case, and that the writer is often left behind at this later stage of the game. As I said, I feel very fortunate to have been kept so involved throughout.
MM: What’s next on the horizon after Buried? Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
CS: I recently sold a spec script to Gold Circle Films, titled Mercy, which has been fast-tracked for production for some time this year. In addition, I have a separate project Peter Safran is producing, a horror-thriller that is slated to go into production this spring. As a director, I’m in the very early stages of developing something based on a script I wrote a few years ago. Beyond that, who knows? I’m just going to keep working as hard as I can and see what happens.
MM: What’s the best piece of advice you’d offer an aspiring screenwriter on how to get his or her script sold?
CS: I don’t claim to be any expert on this, but I guess it would be to make sure your script is ready. Workshop the hell out of it until you know it’s the best script possible. I know this answer sucks, but it’s the truth. There’s no ancient wisdom or secret handshake (not that I know of, anyway). At the end of the day, it all comes down to the material.