Screenwriter Interview: Chris Sparling, Writer of ''Buried''

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The thriller Buried comes out this Friday, Oct. 8, 2010., It features Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal)
as a contractor in Iraq that wakes up in a coffin with a cell phone, a
lighter, and 90 minutes of air. The script, a tight, contained thriller,
was one of the most highly regarded in its genre these past few years. I
am very excited to share an interview with its screenwriter, Chris Sparling.

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GLA: Without
giving away too much, tell my audience a bit of what Buried is about.

CS: Ryan Reynolds plays
Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver working in Iraq who is taken
hostage, buried alive, and forced to coordinate his own ransom. The
entire 94 minutes of the film takes place within the confines of
coffin-size box he's buried in.

GLA: A few years ago, Buried
ended up on The Black List. [The Black List is a list chosen by
Hollywood readers of the best scripts they’ve read all year that are
making the rounds.] How were you notified you were on the list? Did this
generate buzz and help a production company decide to move forward with
the deal? Or was there some major buzz even before you made the list?

CS: It
was actually last year that the script was selected for The Black List,
which was quite an honor. The funny thing was, by the time the list was
published, the film was already shot. Still, a lot of executives
learned about the script for the first time after seeing it on the black
list, and it certainly helped generate some additional buzz, in
addition to landing me some really great meetings.

GLA: Where did you come up with the idea for Buried?
Did it evolve simply from your original desire to “make an inexpensive
movie”? Or were you struck by a news story about Iraq? Something else?

CS: Buried
was born out of financial necessity, really. My intent was to make a
feature film to direct, produce, and self-finance, so that made it
paramount that my locations, props, and actors were kept to an absolute
minimum. In other words, it had to be on the cheap. After I settled on
the concept (of a man buried alive, talking to the outside world through
a cell phone), I then had to come up with a compelling enough reason
for why he'd be buried in the first place. I didn't want to go the
horror film route, so I started searching for what would be an engaging
premise for a dramatic thriller. In the course of doing so, I learned
how frequently civilian contractors are being taken hostage in Iraq.
Thankfully, none of them have ever been buried alive, but they are often
held in small rooms and in squalid conditions as their hostage-takers
are attempting to get paid ransom. My goal was to write something that
seemed socially relevant, and telling the story of these contractors—a
story that is seldom told in the mainstream media—answered that call.

GLA: What was the first scene of Buried that you wrote out, and did it make the final cut?

CS: It
was a vastly different screenplay than any I'd ever written before (or
since). Because there aren't any cutaways, flashbacks, or anything other
than seeing Paul Conroy for the duration of the film, the story had to
play out almost in real time and in a very linear fashion. Because of
this, the first "scene" I wrote was the first scene in the movie—and
then that "scene" stretched out for about 20 pages. Again, this is
because the story takes place in close to real time. And, yes, this
scene did make it into the final film. I was very fortunate in that
99.9% of what I wrote ended up on screen.

GLA: Buried is a claustrophobic thriller. Your other spec script that’s gained some popularity is called ATM,
which is about, I believe, people trapped in an ATM booth/enclosure who
can’t easily leave. Now you’re working with M. Night Shyamalan on
writing a script that’s connected in some way to the recent movie Devil,
which incidentally enough, is a claustrophobic thriller. In Hollywood,
it’s important to have a niche—like “the guy who writes raunchy comedies
really well.” You seem to have carved out a niche as a high-concept,
low-budget thriller writer.

CS: ATM is another contained thriller, and Reincarnate—the
project I wrote for M. Night—is also on the contained side. Having this
niche has helped me quite a bit career-wise, especially because these
particular projects—including Buried—are affordable to make.

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Screenwriter
Chris Sparling



GLA: Are
you getting offered rewriting assignments all over the place for
thrillers just like these? If so, what makes you say yes vs. no to any
one project?

CS: I
am extremely fortunate right now in that many producers and studios are
interested in working with me, and not just on such contained ideas.
It's truly both an honor and a privilege to be speaking with some of the
people and companies that have made the films I grew up loving. As for
what I say no or yes to, it really depends on the material and the
people involved. Plus, I have a really great team of representatives who
know this business extremely well, and they are always actively
involved in these types of decisions.

GLA: This M. Night movie—Reincarnate—is it in a similar vein as these other projects? A contained thriller?

CS: For
the most part, the movie takes place in a jury room as a group of
jurors deliberate a case involving the supernatural. It's actually more
of a drama than what would typically be considered a thriller, but it
certainly has some thriller moments.

GLA: What
draws you to this type of writing style? You obviously do it very well.
Have these “tight, tense” thriller stories always fascinated you?

CS: I
think the narrative and technical challenges involved with writing
contained thrillers forces a writer and/or director to find creative
solutions, rather than always relying on special F/X or large-scale set
pieces. Coming from the indie film world, I appreciate this
problem-solving approach to filmmaking.

GLA: Who were you more nervous to meet? Ryan Reynolds or M. Night? Any interesting anecdotes about hanging out with them?

CS: I
think the only reason I was nervous about meeting Ryan was that, by the
time I had flown over to Barcelona for the shoot, he had already been
in that damn box for about ten days straight. I wasn't sure if he was
going to shake my hand or take a swing at me for putting him in it!
Thankfully, he was more than happy to be a part of the project, and I
didn't have to throw down with the Green Lantern. As for M. Night, I was
somewhat nervous about meeting him at first because I was such a huge
fan of his work. Quite honestly, I learned how to write thrillers—to
build tension, to draw in an audience, etc.—by watching his films. But,
like Ryan, he turned out to be such a warm, kind, and genuine human
being, which immediately put me at ease. We still talk on the phone
every once and a while, and my wife and I were recently invited to his
house to attend his 40th birthday party.

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Ryan Reynolds in Buried


GLA: On
a similar note, it seems like anyone who makes it in Hollywood on any
level has a moment, where when talking with Jack Nicholson at a party or
something, thinks to themselves “I can’t believe this is really
happening.” Did you have such a moment?

CS: Buried
had its official red carpet premiere at the Toronto Film Festival two
weeks ago. You see that type of thing on TV all the time, but to
actually be the person walking on the red carpet was utterly surreal.

GLA: I see you were involved with writing and directing some smaller, under-the-radar films before Buried.
It seems to me like every story is different in terms of how a writer
breaks out and how they secure an agent/manager who takes them to the
next level. How did you make this jump?

CS: I wrote,
produced, directed and starred in a pretty horrible, no-budget feature
film that served its purpose—and that was to get the attention of some
Hollywood reps. From there, I fostered those relationships for many
years, sending them scripts and short films that I continued to write
and direct. Ultimately, it was sending the person who is now my manager
the screenplay for Buried
that started my career going. Days after he read the script, he signed
me. A week or two after that, we started talking to agents with whom he
had working relationships, and we ultimately decided that United Talent
Agency was the right fit. After that, he connected me with a great
entertainment attorney, and we've all been working together since. It
truly took years of trying to get representation before I finally did,
and it was Buried that finally opened that door—and so many others—for me.

Interested in screenwriting? Jeanne Bowerman,
founder of #scriptchat on Twitter, is teaching all
about screenwriting at her webinar, "How to Write
a Marketable Screenplay" on Oct. 14,
2010.
She is critiquing work from all attendees.

Want more on this subject?

  • See a
    profile of script agent Garrett
    Hicks of Will Entertainment.
  • Is there a difference between literary agents and script
    managers?
  • Want a great database of script agents/managers,
    script contests, conferences and theaters? Buy the 2010
    Screenwriter's & Playwright's Market
    today
    ! An interview
    with Blake Snyder is in the 2010 guide.
  • Check
    out an interview with script manager Marc Manus.
  • Confused about formatting? Check out Formatting
    & Submitting Your Manuscript
    .
  • Read about What Agents Hate: Chapter 1 Pet Peeves.
  • Want the most complete database of agents and what genres
    they're looking for? Buy the 2011 Guide to Literary Agents today!
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