Frame Jobs: 'Buried' And Other Boxed-In Stories Despite the big screen's ability to show vast worlds, some directors love to narrow the focus. Director Rodrigo Cortes expands on the tactic (made famous by Hitchcock and others) by setting an entire film within an underground coffin where a contractor in Iraq has been buried alive.
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Frame Jobs: 'Buried' And Other Boxed-In Stories

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Frame Jobs: 'Buried' And Other Boxed-In Stories

Frame Jobs: 'Buried' And Other Boxed-In Stories

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DAVID GREENE, host:

The movie "Buried" arrives in theaters today, and it takes place on what may be the smallest movie set ever created. Actor Ryan Reynolds spends the entire film trapped in a coffin. And that got Bob Mondello thinking about this decades-old phenomenon of the big screen going small.

BOB MONDELLO: Film technology has advanced to the point where a movie can do more or less anything - plunge us into Leonardo DiCaprio's dreams, take us mountain-climbing with vampires, rocket us to a moon called Pandora. So what possesses filmmakers to set entire films in tight, defiantly uncinematic spaces?

Director Rodrigo Cortes is making a choice in "Buried" when he puts us, along with actor Ryan Reynolds, in a box six feet by three feet by 18 inches.

(Soundbite of movie, "Buried")

Mr. RYAN REYNOLDS (Actor): (as Paul Conroy) I'm buried in a coffin in the ground, and I need help. Please send help. I'm begging you.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as Character) How did you end up in the coffin, sir?

Mr. REYNOLDS: (As Paul Conroy) I was put here.

MONDELLO: Ryan Reynolds is hardly the only actor who's suffered this movie fate. Characters were buried alive in the Belgian thriller, "The Vanishing," in the Coen brothers' "Blood Simple," in the gangster movie "Casino," and most memorably perhaps in "Kill Bill 2," where Quentin Tarantino stuffed a battered Uma Thurman into a casket and nailed it shut.

(Soundbite of movie, "Kill Bill 2")

MONDELLO: But Thurman only spent a few minutes there in a movie that otherwise let her demolish half the Wild West and a good chunk of the inscrutable East. And those other scenes I mentioned were also just scenes. The pictures they were in also gave you broad vistas, streetscapes, open air.

"Buried" belongs to a different subgenre, movies where the director decides to ratchet up the tension by trapping the audience in a tight space along with the actors. Think "12 Angry Men," where you're confined to a jury room.

(Soundbite of movie, "12 Angry Men")

Unidentified Man #1: (as Character) You know, we could be here all night.

MONDELLO: Or "Das Boot," the German sub movie, where you're so deep underwater the gauges are exploding.

(Soundbite of movie, "Das Boot")

(Soundbite of explosion)

MONDELLO: Or Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," where getting rescued in wartime comes with a catch.

(Soundbite of movie, "Lifeboat")

Unidentified Woman #2: (as Character) I think it'd be a good idea to get out of here.

MONDELLO: Hitchcock loved to narrow the camera's focus and did it over and over after "Lifeboat," to a motel in "Psycho," an apartment in "Rear Window," knowing that holding the audience hostage could make a taut situation downright claustrophobic.

(Soundbite of movie, "Lifeboat")

Unidentified Man #2: (as Character) We're all sort of fellow travelers in a mighty small boat on a mighty big ocean. And the more we quarrel and criticize and misunderstand each other, the bigger the ocean gets and the smaller the boat.

Unidentified Man #1: (as Character) The boat's too small right now for me and this German.

MONDELLO: Of course, there is that mighty big ocean to make the film feel expansive because, after all, the big screen's great gift is for being big. A stage play is stuck on a set, a painting has a frame. But films capture the imagination because with close-ups, they can be bigger than life, as big in fact as all outdoors.

But there are reasons to go the other way. Restrict your action to a single room, and you lower your budget. Restrict it still further, and you start to play with cinematic form, especially in how it affects content.

When the Israeli film "Lebanon" opened this summer, much of its fascination came from the fact that it was a war movie set entirely inside a tank. The audience saw things only as the tank-crew did, through the crosshairs of a gun sight, nice metaphor for how conflict can lead to tunnel vision.

(Soundbite of movie, "Lebanon")

(Soundbite of explosion)

MONDELLO: The movie "Buried" also takes place in a war zone and also invites a kind of tunnel vision, not philosophical this time but cinematic. No question it's a gimmick, so restrictive that you figure the shoot must have been hell.

Imagine the director looking for a fresh camera angle in his six-by-three-by-one-and-a-half-foot space. The temptation to open things up must have been intense. And it would have been so easy to show the ringing phones the trapped guy is frantically calling on his cell or cut away to people walking right past his shallow grave.

But as with "Lebanon" and "Das Boot" and "Twelve Angry Men," films that put aside convention to think outside the box, there is never a shot outside the box because if your point is to keep things tight, you have to have the courage of your restrictions.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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