Fantastic Fest 2010 Interview: BURIED actor Ryan Reynolds and director Rodrigo Cortés
Back in January whilst at the SundanceFilm Festival, I had the pleasure of seeing a little film about a man in a box. No, it was not a mime documentary. Rather it was the minimalistic, stylistic, claustrophobic thriller entitled BURIED starring Ryan Reynolds, a coffin, a lighter, a flashlight, two glow sticks, a half-charged cell phone, a few ominous voices...and that's it! (Reynolds plays contract driver Paul Conroy who, while working in the Middle East, finds himself six feet deep in problems after he awakens mysteriously buried alive in a coffin following an insurgent attack on his convoy.)
Fast forward nine months to Fantastic Fest where we had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Reynolds and the man responsible for putting him in a pine box and burying him underground (also the man responsible for this brilliant film), director Rodrigo Cortés. Together the pair unearthed a film so real and unrelenting in its non-stop thrills and terror that it would make even Alfred Hitchcock smile behind his hand as he covered his eyes. It keeps you completely immersed in every single second of its 95 minute runtime, never leaving the box it takes place in but always thinking outside of it.
With that said, I was excited to dig up some dirt on BURIED. Read on for our interview!
First question would be for you Ryan and that is...it’s a little bit personal...could you just please stop taking your shirt off in movies cause it’s really making me look bad with my wife. And I just think mankind in general.
RR: (laughs) I only do it after a studio has put me in a gym for six or seven months. You know, right now if I took it off it’s pure Dick Van Dyke. Long and lanky.
Okay, good. I was actually surprised in BURIED there was just at least some inserted scene where you were like “Ah, I really need a pillow...let me figure out some impossible way to get my shirt off."
RR: I know, I know! And as much as Rodrigo [BURIED’s director] insisted upon it, we avoided it.
RC: At the last minute [we changed our minds].
Okay, I got that out of the way. In all seriousness though, you are an actor that definitely trains physically before a lot of your roles but is this one you train physically for? It seems like maybe more mentally.
RR: Yeah, you don’t...you really...you can’t do a tremendous amount of preparation for either of those aspects only because it’s such an extraordinary circumstance that this guy’s in and it’s an extraordinary circumstance for an actor as well. There’s no co-stars, there’s no real cutting away. You know, you have to go through entire emotional arcs in one shot so it’s pretty tough. So, there wasn’t much I could do other than really make sure I knew my shit going in, given the parameters of a 17 day shoot and the difficulty of getting 30..what was it? 30-35 shots a day.
RC: 30-35 shots a day. Yeah.
You mentioned that one day it was 52?
RR: Yeah, typically being 8-10 set-ups. And then also lighting yourself in every scene...you just really have to know what you’re doing each day and if you don’t, we’re all dead in the water.
Yeah, or in the coffin.
You said last night [during the Q&A] that you really don’t like to romanticize acting...like the “actour” kind of thing.
RR: The process, I don’t. Yeah.
You didn’t go in listening to Nirvana and Soundgarden, locking yourself in a dark room for six weeks to get ready for this.
RR: Well, no. I mean I do my things but I just don’t...a lot of times when actors talk about it...it’s an anecdote masquerading as arrogance. It’s like...
It’s a little bit like masturbation.
RR: Yeah, it is! It’s a little gross. So, I try not to do too much of that but sometimes there’s genuine interest in what that process might be and I’m happy to talk about it but I don’t need to get poetic about it.
And then you have preparation as a director...I think a lot of people are probably curious if you were to walk in the sound stage or wherever you guys shot this what that set-up would have looked like. I read that you guys had six or seven coffins. What was the actual shooting set-up like for you and how did you prepare?
RC: It was pretty intimate. It was in a sound stage. It was also surrounded for sound reasons with black curtains. So it was pretty intimate. It was even smaller than the sound stage was...and everything was softer. That’s the way it was. I believe the seven coffins were not there...they were on the other side [of the sound stage]. We simply took one out and brought in the next one.
RR: Apart from shooting, it was dead silent almost all the time. It was a very small crew and it was very...when you watch the movie now it’s very weird. The strangest thing for me is it’s voyeuristic. I feel like someone’s watching our home video that we shot.
RC: That’s the way he could feel totally protected to do whatever and to emote whatever and to show whatever of him. So he needed that. I think that an actor can jump from the 18th floor but he has to know there’s a net there. And if there’s a net, then they are going to do whatever they want. But they need to trust that you are not going to use anything that’s not really working.
RR: But I never had a moment where I thought “Wow, they didn’t think of that.” It was as though Rodrigo had lived with the script a decade before shooting.
Talking about your approach as an actor and as a director, the whole thing seems like it was very minimalistic across the board. In the way it was shot. In the way it’s presented. It doesn’t fall to convention because you never leave the coffin. There’s no flashbacks...there’s nothing you would expect if it was the conventional thriller.
RR: Yeah, there’s no cheating.
Yeah, there’s no cut-aways. It’s you. In the coffin. By yourself and that’s it. I understand it was that way on the page but how much improv was done as an actor?
RR: Not too much. The script was fantastic. I mean...as an actor you have to add all those...I guess I’d call it the caulking in between the lines. You have to kind of fill those spaces with whatever it is you need to fill them with so it all sounds organic and very real. Otherwise I’d sound like a dialogue machine. But layering and other things were important. A few things we did add were just unlikeable traits to the character just because it draws you in more I think. As a viewer, the human condition is that of empathy. We’re gonna empathize with this guy no matter who he is so why not add to the reality? Let’s not make him a saint.
You referring to the hints of his other relationship [with his co-worker]?
RR: Yeah, that and the way he treats...the way he sort of speaks to Donna, his wife’s friend.
You can’t blame him for that!
RR: No, you can’t! But at the same time you think this guy’s probably a...he might be a tough guy to have a beer with or something. I don’t know. Maybe we wouldn’t necessarily want to hang out withhim but we do want to see him live.
RC: And she doesn’t know about you [Ryan’s character]. She doesn’t know where you are. It’s not like “I’m in a box and I’m about to die” and she yells. That’s not the way it happens.
RR: Exactly. She thinks I’m standing and hanging out at the USO or something.
The Red Lobster even.
RR: Yeah, yeah! Exactly! The Bacuba Red Lobster.
That’s an interesting question...and this may be impossible to answer but I’d be interested to know if you think that, given the situation if you found yourself in it, do you think you would you behave very similarly to your character?
RR: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think a lot of it is...I mean you have to kind of pour so much of yourself into a role like this that you feel like a lot of it is you. I might have made different decisions or choices early on than Paul. You know, some people might say “Why is the lighter on? There’s limited oxygen and what are you doing with the lighter?” I know for a fact if I woke up in a space as dark and scary as that I’d have that lighter on, uh...a lot. Because I don’t want to be alone with myself in there. And I think things like that are understandable. But I would have made a few different decisions but I think I would have tonally been very similar. And that’s tough to admit because it’s not like Paul is the very face of heroism and bravery. He’s vulnerable. He’s scared fucking shitless and that to me is very important to show that side, as unflattering as it might be. But we need to have that.
RC: And I think the thing with the lighter is throughly explained and it has emotional reasons. In the beginning, you only have the lighter so you have to use it. Okay, in spirit would you use it? Maybe not. But you’re not in a physics lesson and you’re not so clever. You’re in the middle of nowhere and you don’t know where you are, you’re going to try to see. When you [Ryan’s character] discover other lighting sources, you don’t use the lighter. You start to use the other ones. And then actually you only use the lighter when you feel really afraid of something. It’s also telling the story. There’s a moment where you yell at someone and he doesn’t answer and then you say “Hello? Hello?” and then you light it again. So, it reflects those moments. It tells the story once he doesn’t always have it lit.
Well, let’s talk about that. Working with those props it seems like at certain point it would have just become second nature.
RR: Yeah, well lighting myself was the hardest part. That never became second nature. But you have to make it feel like that.
RC: Not only lighting yourself but when it doesn’t work...when the flashlight doesn’t work, he’s controlling it. He’s doing that. He was the one making it work in the movie.
RR: I have to make it flick off and flick on and smack on and smack off. It was all these little things that could go wrong.
RC: And he’s controlling everything with his finger. For instance, with the cell phone, it was radio controlled so we could control it from the outside of the coffin. But with the flashlight, he’s doing everything. He’s making it work. So, it was amazing. When you see it that way, you can’t believe it. Like “What’s this guy doing?”
Other than the fact that the objects are probably pretty useful when buried alive in a coffin, was there any particular reason for choosing certain ones? Or was it just “Well, these would be what you would want in there.”
RC: No, they are all there for just that reason. The terrorist puts them there so he can do whatever. So he can cut his finger, so he can light it [the coffin], he can read the note, he can record the message. This is not a bad guy from James Bond just giving him some [tools].
And he’s [Ryan’s character] not MacGyver. Where he’s like “You have these things to get yourself out of this coffin!”
RR: Yeah, yeah! No, no! There’s no monologing bad guy who leaves him these things by accident!
“I’ve given you a stick of chewing gum and a paper clip. 90 minutes...go!”
RC: But of course if you have those things, you are going to try to use them somehow. You have a knife. What can you do with a knife? Nothing! But you are going to try something. You don’t know what. But you’re not going to nothing. For certain you’re not going to lay there. You’re going to try something no matter what how useless it is.
I think that’s a testament to this film because it really is a portrayal of human nature at it’s absolute last hope. And then you get to that point as a character where you’ve accepted as a character and as an audience that he’s probably not going to get out of it. And that sure terror of being absolutely helpless is the genius of this film.
RR: There’s that old...what’s it called? The Kübler-Ross model, which is all the stages of grief. You know, you go through anger, fear, resentment, acceptance, surrender...all these different things. You kind of have to go through all that with Paul.
I think with a lot of people these days, the thing is when you don’t know how to describe a thriller you say it’s very “Hitchcockian.” Yet, it’s becoming used so often these days to the point that it’s like the word “quirky” with a indie dramedy. Almost as an easy way out when describing a film. However, I think BURIED is one of those films that really earns that moniker. As I mentioned, it has a very minimalisitic approach into exploring the depths of the human psyche when it is at its most barren. Very much in the same way that Hitchcock did with LIFEBOAT. But people who haven’t yet seen it don’t know that. They just hear “Hitchcockian” and it resonates. What would you, the director of BURIED, and you, the only actor who carries the entire weight of the film - literally and physically, want potential audience members to know about this film and its tones?
RR: I just think it’s so subjective...in a way that we haven’t quite seen before. But that’s the great things about films, you know? You can walk away with your own idea. When I watch the movie, I think “Gosh, it’s not the terrorist that’s killing him, it’s not a coffin, it’s not limited oxygen...it’s bureaucracy that’s killing this guy. We have this hubris, entitled state of mind in modern society that we’re always connected, we can always communicate with everybody. We’re safe because of that and that’s just not true. Paul has a tremendous amount of entitlement in that box that “I’m an American, so therefore you will harness the vast resources of that country and come get me!” And that’s not true at all. He’s just a tiny spec in a dust storm. And that to me is what I take away from it.
RC: That’s what the premise of this story has. It’s at a very powerful, allegoric level. It’s not necessarily on the nose. It’s not necessarily obvious. But it resounds inside of you. And it can have different meanings for everyone. At it’s heart, it’s so contemporary but timeless because anyone can identify with him [Ryan’s character]. They live very similar things every single day. Of course not being buried alive but for example they try to change their cell phone company and they spend 20 minutes just pressing 1 and 2...like they’re in a rowboat. And when they finally speak to a human being they feel like that person just wants them to be someone else’s problem. So that’s the way it works. People feel connected to him for those reasons. They find everything to be realistic because they live it everyday.
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