A Letter To The Progressives: Working within Restrictions by Isaac Ayodeji

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New filmmakers, even before transitioning from shorts to features, are advised to utilize minimal locations for financial reasons.

In an interview with Scott Meyers, Chris Sparling, the screenwriter of the 2010 film Buried, when asked why he decided the shoot the film entirely in a coffin, refusing flashbacks, cuts aways or the introduction of new characters, simply said that it was the cheapest way to make the movie. Chris wasn’t new, like most of us, or desperate, he was actually established, but he just embraced the difficulties such restriction would bring. He felt it could stimulate his creative being and it did; Buried was met with critical acclaim upon release and Chris went on to be a sought-out commodity in the film industry.

Alfred Hitchcock, arguably the most influential director in film history, is described by Indiewire as having “a sort of masochistic creative proclivity for putting his productions into extra challenging situations”. A distinct example is his fifth movie, Lifeboat, released in 1944, shot entirely within the confines of a lifeboat. Much later, Hitchcock, upon the release of the iconic movie, Rear Window, a movie famed for the restrictions in varied forms, was reported to have said that he made the movie at the most creative stage in his career, akin to the proverbial lightbulb moment.

Thanks to huge financial limitations and the sometimes chaotic climate that riddles the industry, producers are wont to prefer stories with limited cast, minimal locations, majorly interior scenes and simple production values. For most writers, this is seen as an encumbrance, a reason to complain about how the industry refuses to fulfill our long-held fantasies of crafting action flicks, thrillers with gun-toting villains, blood pumping car-chase scenes and other Hollywood staples we enjoy. But should it really be seen as such?

The hunger to try out new, much daring things is valid. Our film industry is truly in desperate need of diversification. But there are truths we must accept. The millions, billions and trillions posted on social on media as box office returns shouldn’t paint a false reality of the industry’s financial viability. It is tough for producers and more often than not, the way to make sure substantial profits (that will, invariably, be pumped into the next production) are made is by reducing production costs to the bare minimum.

The reality is what it is and while things remain this way and the hope for a better tomorrow remains the North Star that drives us, the big question should be how to tell good stories within these restrictions. Indeed, it is possible to tell good stories in single/limited location movies. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Hitchcock’s Rope, Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, Maoz’s Lebanon, Fincher’s Panic Room, Malle’s My Dinner with Andre are examples from a repertoire of films that made the most of the restrictions to achieve both critical and commercial acclaim.

The aforementioned films share consistent qualities that writers looking to plot single/minimal location and cast movies should follow. After all, it’s common knowledge that screenwriters looking to work on projects must dig into the annals of history to see how similar projects, already produced, were executed.

The qualities writers should look to infuse into their scripts are:

STRENGTH OF SCENARIO: The best single/minimal location movies ever produced thrived because the scenario, the seed that would birth the tree that is the complete screenplay, already stood out as original, peculiar and interesting. Interesting scenarios are like lush fruits writers can bite into without fears of hitting the rind too quickly. They provide multiple possibilities and avenues the writer can wriggle in and out of, beat to shape and mold with the vision, genre and theme as contexts. With respect to the readers or viewers, interesting scenarios are bound to raise interest and attract attention. As a writer, the first step to making your single location idea less of a chore is to think up interesting scenarios. Reservoir Dogs, 12 Angry Men, Rope, Locke and Buried are examples of movies with unusual scenarios that served as the substrates upon which brilliance was built. Ordinary scenarios can come out well too, but most times, they have to be adorned with an X-Factor, as the likelihood of falling into the cliché trap is high.

STRENGTH OF CHARACTERS: Film reviewer Glenn Kenny was full of praise for Tom Hardy’s performance as the titular character in Locke, a movie shot predominantly in a moving vehicle. She praised the unusually complex character, going on to describe Locke as “a being conveying the weightless pressure and the suffocating freedom that can only be felt simultaneously by a man who’s divesting himself of his entire way of life.” Some character, that. The restriction in locations mean extra time will be spent with the characters as they will become the central focus of the script. There are no spectacles to provide escape routes; it’s you, your characters and enclosed spaces. It’s the job of the writer to enrich the characters, make them distinguishable from one another so readers/viewers will be sucked into the world their interactions have created rather than worry about the limitations in location. Underdeveloped or clichéd characters will fall into the trap of exposition and no reader/viewer is going to sit down for that.

DIALOGUE: The art of dialogue is famed for its dubiousness. Say too little and the reader/viewer is confused, say too much and the reader/viewers gets sucked into you’re a pool of meaningless, boring exposition. The key to writing great dialogue is to let the words, with all the pauses, inflections and cadences, flow from strong characters. Any attempt to squeeze out words from undercooked characters runs the risk of sounding contrived or forced. So yes, it’s important to have the ear for dialogue, to read good dialogue and practice painstakingly, but the one sure way to make sure dialogue sounds fresh is to first create good characters. This is especially important for scripts/movies that will be situated in limited locations; a lot of time will be spent dialoguing and if the words, at least most of them, don’t hit the mark, there’s going to be trouble. A street urchin should never sound like a university lecturer; a 9 year old shouldn’t sound like a 50 year old; the words must be sound true, fresh and lyrical.

So when location and cast-size restrictions are placed on writers by producers, they should not necessarily be avenues to grumble or remember that the industry sucks; there are scenarios everywhere (social media, real life, newspapers, dreams, visions and more) that can be adapted for screen. It’s not going to be easy, it never has been and never will be, but it is workable. With practice, persistence and determination, scripting good work within these restrictions is possible.

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