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Screenwriter likes to think inside the box

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At a time when computer-generated visual effects are opening up infinite new vistas for motion pictures, you have to love the sheer contrariness of the movie Buried, opening tomorrow.

The movie, starring Ryan Reynolds, places one man inside one coffin-sized box. That's it, setting aside a few glimpses into the outside world courtesy of a cell phone. The movie does not leave the box, from beginning to end.

A premise like that does allow for a certain thriftiness in production. It's a one-set movie, and apart from some vocal contributions from other actors on that phone, it's mostly a one-actor movie, too.

Just try writing it.

"It is something of a narrative challenge," says the film's screenwriter, Chris Sparling. "You don't have the luxury of cutting to another location. You can't resort to cheapness, or to relying on a set piece like a huge explosion or CGI or anything like that.

"You really do have to let your story drive everything forward."

Sparling, a sometimes actor who has also directed his own short films, demonstrated sufficient storytelling prowess with his script for Buried that his follow-up script likewise employs a small cast and a minimal set to evince maximum suspense. Directed by David Brooks -- the film ATM, which started shooting Monday night in Winnipeg -- traps a trio of office workers at an automated teller kiosk in a remote shopping centre at night. They are prevented from leaving by a mysterious, hulking figure with evil intentions.

"ATM kind of came about directly from Buried," Sparling says, over the phone from his home in Providence, R.I.

"It's the same producer on both projects, Peter Safran, and it was kind of born from when we were in Barcelona shooting Buried," Sparling recalls. "Over lunch one day, sitting at these cafeteria-style tables eating lunch with the cast and crew... the cast was Ryan... and we're eating lunch and Peter just looked at me and said, 'Do you have any other contained thriller ideas?'

"I told him about (ATM)," Sparling says. "He said, 'Go write it.' And I did."

Both films follow a kind of less-is-more esthetic prized by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, who himself made movies in which characters were either trapped or chose to be confined in a single space (Rear Window, Lifeboat, Rope).

"That was part of the inspiration," Sparling says. "When I decided I was going to write a movie about a guy buried alive, I had to look at examples where that sort of thing is successfully done. And I remember re-watching Lifeboat, Rope, and Phone Booth (a Joel Schumacher film based on a Larry Cohen script originally intended for Hitchcock) and from those movies -- all of them great and successful movies -- I had to learn how this could be pulled off successfully."

Sparling suggests these movies and recent films such as Frozen (in which three characters are stranded on a ski lift) may actually constitute a reaction to the huge inflated epics Hollywood churns out regularly.

"While a lot of people love CGI and they love movies in 3-D and they love the direction big cinema is heading, I think there's a lot of people out there who appreciate a good story, and it doesn't matter if it takes place all over Manhattan or if it takes place on a ski lift or whatever the case may be," Sparling says.

"As (Buried) director Rodrigo Cortez says, you can't measure a story in cubic inches. That's not how it works. You create a universe. That's what we try to do in Buried, create a universe within this space.

"It's a difficult thing to do because it's such a small space, but it's still an entire story and I think an audience appreciates that sort of thing," he says.

"With so many big movies and blockbuster films, sometimes people walk away dissatisfied because, after a while, you get numb to these big explosions and everything else. They get redundant and you walk away saying, 'What was that movie even about?'"


-- -- --


Initial reports on the casting of ATM included actors Josh Peck (The Wackness), Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker) and Margarita Levieva (Adventureland)

In fact, actress Alice Eve has taken the role of the female co-worker trapped at the titular bank machine, according to a local producer. The 28-year-old London-born actress starred in the Harrison Ford drama Crossing Over. Coincidentally, she also played the dream girl who, against all odds, hooks up with Jay Baruchel in the recent sex comedy She's Out of My League.

Baruchel will also be in town prepping the hockey movie Goon, which he co-wrote with Evan Goldberg.

That's not to say Eve and Baruchel are likely to cross paths while they're working on their respective movies. ATM is filming on location at night in Fort Garry for its 20-day shoot.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 7, 2010 d3

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About Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

His dad was Winnipeg musician Jimmy King, a one-time columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. One of his brothers is a playwright. Another is a singer-songwriter.

Randall has been content to cover the entertainment beat in one capacity or another since 1990.

His beat is film, and the job has placed him in the same room as diverse talents, from Martin Scorsese to Martin Short, from Julie Christie to Julia Styles. He has met three James Bonds (four if you count Woody Allen), and director Russ Meyer once told him: "I like your style."

He really likes his job.


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