Equipped with just a Blackberry mobile phone and instructions to secure his own ransom, he begins the frantic race get himself released before the oxygen runs out.
Buried opens in a very compelling way, with credits that seem inspired by Saul Bass and music that evokes the films of Alfred Hitchcock – that was clearly important to you wasn’t it?
“It was very important for a film like this because when you watch Buried it’s not a film to be seen so much as experienced and I wanted people to come into that experience from the very first moment. It also starts with about two minutes of pitch black darkness, you hear nothing but breathing and you start the movie with Paul Conroy, so you live through things that he lives through and know what he knows. This sequence was also a great way of showing the audience that it wasn’t going to be an experimental, dark, introspective film but a high tension thriller, a Hitchcockian movie. Make no mistake about it this is going to take place in a coffin, but this is Indiana Jones in a coffin.”
Given the films lack of locations there are obvious echoes of Alfred Hitchcock here aren’t there?
“Hitchcock is a reference you can’t avoid not only because of the genre but also for the kind of narrative and technical challenge this is. When you see Lifeboat, which happens inside a boat in the middle of the ocean, or when you see Rope or Rear Window, with their kind of narrative and technical challenges. Everything in Buried has been done against common sense because logic tells you that these movies shouldn’t be done.”
Were there particular rules you established to tell the story in the way you did, for instance not cutting to any of the other people Paul speaks to on his Blackberry?
“That was the basic rule actually, and it was the only one that everybody asked me not to use. In the beginning I received every kind suggestion to cut to the other end of the line. Everybody thought we should bring some more oxygen to the film, but first I thought it was stupid trying to bring oxygen to the story of a man who was buried alive. It made no sense at all. It was going against the flow. If you want to be brave enough to do that film you should keep that bold option and try to use it for you instead of against you. So you make this a physical experience, as I said, and you make everybody feel as if they were buried alive for 94 minutes.”
Buried would have been a daunting prospect if you’d spent too much time thinking about it, wouldn’t it?
“The thing was not to think too much about the location, because if I used logic and reason from the beginning I would have figured out that it’s impossible to do this movie. I wanted to discover that when it was too late. I didn’t want to feel limited by logic, so I only thought of the tools I needed so people could feel the way I wanted them to feel. If I needed to do a circle around the actor, or a crane shot, or a handheld shot I started thinking of the tool and then I figured out a way to do that, instead of working the opposite way which would have limited me.”
How many coffins did you have for the film?
“We designed and built seven in order to do everything we needed in technical terms. And we gave them different names. The one that was used most was called The Joker and we did about 65% of the film with it. It gave this confined sound we needed, and at the same time it was more comfortable to shoot very fast, because we did the movie in just 17 days which is a nightmare, I can tell you. If you were used to shooting 10 or 12 shots a day, we did about 30 or 35 shots a day, every day. One day we did 52, this is agony. I’m not proud of it, I just pray that nobody allows me to do it again.”
What did some of the other coffins allow you to do?
“Well another gave us 360 degrees of movement, it had removable walls we could take out of the scene, so the camera could describe a circle so everything you see in front of the lens is right, you see the right walls, the right actor, but then you realise that you are on the other side of the actor and you don’t know how it happened because it’s impossible to get there. I knew that I needed to achieve some so-called impossible shots in order to keep the audience interested. That’s why in visual and lighting terms the film evolves that much, it changes telling the story for narrative and stylistic reasons so everybody feels the right thing at every moment and they don’t get bored, which is the real challenge.”
How much of the film was Ryan actually confined for, in the box?
“All of it. Basically, what we did is to get him inside a real, regular sized coffin and then take out one of the walls depending on the angle you needed, to place the camera there. In some cases you could take the top off, but many times you don’t take out the whole top, you just take out a part of it, or a couple of lengths. Sometimes you’d take out a third of a side wall. So he really felt it, it was very, very hard for him in physical terms. We sent him back to LA with his back bleeding, with his fingers fried because of using the lighter, with his skin totally destroyed by the friction of the sand. It was really, really hard for him.”
The choice of Ryan is interesting, because he’s very likeable but also quite a physical character, and therefore an unlikely victim isn’t he?
“Of course, those things worked but the main reason I wanted him was because he is so talented. People say it’s an interesting decision to cast him, that they didn’t expect him to give such an amazing performance. But I didn’t invent that. In every film I have seen from him – even the ones that weren’t so good – he’s so committed with things he’s doing. He has amazing timing, he knows how to hold the line for an extra second and deliver it to create a new effect. This story was so dark, I also needed some dark humour to came out from inside the character. I mean that it came out in an organic way from his emotions. He never acts he always is, he’s always truthful and he’s so technical at the same time. He managed to light himself with the flashlight, holding it on the right place at the top of the coffin, avoiding the sand falling down so you can see his eye, and when he does 12 things and you go for another take and ask him to do another two things he just looks at you and he says ‘okay,’ and does it. It’s absolutely amazing.”
The dark humour you refer to helps to the tension in the film, doesn’t it?
“That’s how I felt it too, the only thing I really added in the re-writing was some dark humour because you cannot always keep the rope tight, if you do that you lose that effect and in the end you get people too tired and too bored. At the same time Chris, the writer, who did an amazing job was afraid that we could lose people. But I thought that was not a danger at all. As long as it came from his emotions. This way you feel more related to the actor, you feel more committed to him and feel more empathy. I also changed certain things to keep it visually interesting the whole time. That’s when certain gadgets came out like this flashlight that doesn’t work properly, the green glow sticks and things like that. Ryan is the perfect actor to manage all those things, with his humour and truth and technical capability to achieve all these moments. You just need a comfortable chair to enjoy the show.”
Ryan does not, or did not, suffer from claustrophobia does he?
“No, but he has asthma, there were moments when he’d need his inhaler. I didn’t want to use that for the film though, because I didn’t want people to think I was enjoying making him suffer too much. It’s more than enough that he was dying because of a lack of oxygen. You don’t need him to be claustrophobic too, because even if you don’t suffer from that if you’re buried alive you’re going to feel a real primal fear.”