Ryan Reynolds and Rodrigo Cortés
Actor Ryan Reynolds and director Rodrigo Cortés explain how to shoot an entire movie set in a coffin.
Ryan Reynolds and his director Rodrigo Cortés have an easy, joking chemistry. I watched them do a hilarious two-man comedy routine, technically a Q&A with the audience, at a recent preview screening of Buried, the thriller set entirely inside a coffin buried in the sand in Iraq. As truck driver Paul, captured during an ambush and buried with a cell phone, a lighter and a flashlight plagued by iffy wiring (like many flashlights, it requires frequent shaking to keep it lit), Reynolds gives an unnerving, sweaty, riveting performance. The morning after the screening, I sat down with them to talk about filming Buried, which had been kicking around Hollywood as one of a handful of great scripts considered impossible to shoot.
Last night after the screening, Ryan, you talked about getting a letter from Rodrigo that convinced you to talk to him after you’d read and passed on the script. So, Rodrigo, how you do you write a letter like that, from a director to a star, trying to persuade them to do your film?
Cortés: Well, “Dear Ryan” is the most important part. [Reynolds laughs] After that you just have to sign it… I knew this was an impossible film and he considered it unshootable. Everyone considered it unshootable. So my work was trying to tell him why it was possible. So I did tell him exactly how I wanted to achieve that so-called impossible film. About its philosophy, the way I intended to shoot it, the number-one rule, which was “never leave the coffin.” I tried to sound foolish enough that he would be interested. You don’t try to cover yourself when you climb from a lift [elevator]. You try to convince him how this is the best possible way to jump from a lift.
Reynolds: Yeah, that’s about right.
So, Ryan, you get this letter. How can you tell the difference between someone who can make this work and someone who’s just a passionate crackpot?
Reynolds: The letter acknowledged why I would feel this way [that it was unshootable]. What I saw there was a depth. This wasn’t just a guy who knew how technically to put a camera in an impossible place. There was a depth there, and I needed a partner. Not just somebody who could help me, guide me through the incredible emotional stress that this guy goes through, but someone who understood that and had some compassion for this guy who was going to be in a box. For the most part it was just that: I sensed this wellspring of depth that this person possessed and I was excited to meet him. And once we met, that’s when we really connected, and 40 minutes later we’re shaking hands.
I want to talk about that relationship of trust. Because, Rodrigo, he’s all you’ve got onscreen for 90 minutes.
Reynolds: He’s all I’ve got when we’re sitting at the premiere. I’m thinking “God, he did it. Good.”
So how do you talk to Ryan, get him to achieve what he needs to do every day on the set?
Cortés: Actually, we didn’t talk that much on the set. At the beginning we did so we were totally sure that we were on the same page. And we found out that we were, very, very soon. And we found out that we could do things very fast without speaking at all. The better the actor is, the less words you need. It’s not that you don’t need to talk to him; you had to use just a few words, because we were totally synchronized. I remember for instance there’s that moment when he breaks down and he laughs in a very weird way. I just needed to tell him “Here, laugh.” I didn’t need to explain to him “Okay you are so overwhelmed by the situation that you are destroyed and somehow your body reacts and you need to free your frustration this way, and…” You just say “Here, what about laughing?” And he looks at you and tells you “Okay, okay, that’s going to work.” So it was that fast. It was a two-people dance from the very beginning. We had only each other, as you say, but there was a mutual trust from the very first day. He told me “I will give you my last drop of blood.” Of course, I took it literally. He didn’t know yet.
Reynolds: Yes, I will take that last drop. And then we will take your death husk and put it on an airplane and send you back home.
You talked last night about having to scream every morning to get your voice to the right huskiness for the middle sections. But how do you psychologically get yourself into it? I’ll tell you; I was sitting at the screening next to a woman with a big cowl-neck sweater, and she pulled it up over the bottom half of her face, not covering her eyes, but just using it as a defense while she watched. That’s us, that’s where the audience is mentally. But you’ve got to get into that headspace all through the shoot.
Reynolds: Part of it is a big exercise in being present. Because if you start to think “Well, what do I have to do all day today?”, you just can’t. After a couple of days I realized I can’t work that way. I have to just be very present and compartmentalize these days. And again, that falls into that trust. I knew the words I had to say each day. I just looked to Rodrigo. And it felt as if he’d been living with the script for a decade. And there was so much implied trust that I would just lay down and we would just dive in. I never really thought about the long term or the next day or anything like that. I found it was just “Here’s what we’re doing today. Here’s the story that we have to tell today. This is the five minutes that we are going to tell today.” That kind of got me through it. But that woman that was sitting next to you in the theater…I have rarely done a movie in which I’m so lost in it all that when I watch the movie I don’t remember a lot of the things that happen. We also didn’t do 20 takes of something. It was always one or two or maybe three. So when we’re watching the movie, by the time we finish seeing the movie, I look completely different. My suit looks like I packed it in my wallet. I’m trying to get up and smooth things out at the Toronto Film Festival [from which Reynolds and Cortés had just come at the time of this interview], and not look like a schlub.
Rodrigo—what’s your feeling watching this with an audience?
Cortés: Well, I have to feel pretty relieved. I felt very proud of the film from the very first moment, but you never know what’s going to happen with a film. They are so unprotected at the beginning, because it depends on certain reactions that mark the way. And so far, everything is the best possible thing that can happen. It became like a snowball that you roll and it becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. So I feel pretty relieved. Because it was so exhausting, the process. We had to shoot that fast [snaps fingers]. I edited in less than six weeks, working about 20 hours a day, I’m not kidding. So the only reason I finished the film was because someone took me by the shoulders and put me in a plane and shoved me into the snow. So now that we did this impossible film, and we’re going to release this so-called small film in thousands of screens, I feel more relieved than happy. It seems now like we knew what we were doing… [smiles] or maybe we were just lucky. I don’t know.Reynolds: I think all of the above, except that the luck doesn’t apply to you [gestures at Cortés]. It applies to me.
You two seem to have a jokey kind of relationship. Was it possible to be like that on the set? Or did you have to be a dick to Ryan to keep him in the box?
Reynolds: I was like a zombie on the set. I’d come down the stairs, and think “You gotta be Paul [the character].”
Cortés: It was Paul who came down.
Reynolds: There was very little humor on the set. But afterward there was. We get to do our little post-screening Q&As and do our little Abbott and Costello routine and it’s a lot of fun. But shooting it we didn’t have that.
Cortés: There was no time for anything. Even for humor. We just shot and shot and shot. It was uncomfortable. He was in that small confined space, crowded by cameras and some lighting and stuff. I was close to him but yelling, because I couldn’t be right there; you don’t have the room. And he had to try to break my heart while he’s also trying to light himself with the flashlight. So it was a real nightmare. I don’t know how he did it. But it was a real gift having this guy, because he could do literally whatever. He’s a killing machine.
I don’t know; I think you came closer to killing him.
Reynolds: Yeah, I dunno about that.
Ryan, so much of an actor’s tool kit is physicality. Particularly for someone like you, with a background in comedy, where your body is one of your tools. Did you think about that? Do you know the story about Peter Weller? When he did Robocop, he realized that he wasn’t going to have much physical movement in the suit and wasn’t going to have the top half of his face, so he studied the silent Russian actor who played Ivan the Terrible.
Reynolds: Wow, yeah. No, I wasn’t studying any silent Russian actors. [Laughs] For me it was the most physical role I’ve ever had. It was counter to everything I imagined going in. Going in I still thought the whole movie was going to be in a close-up. And basically it was, but I don’t think I ever stop moving in the script. I mean, there are only a few moments when Paul is completely still. Mostly I’m using every square inch of that space. And I have the scars to prove it. When I left Spain [where the film was shot], I was virtually skinless. Obviously that’s part of the job and I’m not bemoaning that. I’m glad that all happened; those are the spoils of war. But the physicality of the film was so essential. That was something Rodrigo showed me at the beginning. That it was possible, and that we could create that, and not just a sense of drama, but of adventure inside this coffin. It’s a 94-minute magic show, and you get that kind of ride. And it’s because of that ability to turn this small space not into a larger space but into a universe.
Rodrigo, let me start from a small detail. There’s a nail sticking out in the coffin that he uses to cut the rope, and when I’m watching, I keep thinking “Oh, God, he’s going to cut himself on that nail.”
Reynolds: He’s got bigger problems than that nail.
Yes, much bigger problems. But my point is that there’s a tension that you’re building, and I’m trying to figure out how you do it. And part of that is the edit. I was surprised for instance that very early in the film you have a rapid-fire editing sequence within that coffin. Cut cut cut. I thought we were going to be in long shots. Was all that detailed in your mind in advance? I imagine the storyboard from hell—all coffin.
Cortés: Eh, it was just luck. [Laughs] It was planned, I’m afraid. The first thing I did was to NOT think about the coffin at all. If you think about it as a coffin, you’re going to focus on what you can and cannot do. That will limit yourself. And you don’t want limits. You want total freedom. So at first I focused on the emotions of the story, and what I wanted the audience to experience and to feel. And then I focused on the tools I needed to get that. That has to do with pace and lighting and camera. If I needed a 360-degree dolly shot around the box, which is of course impossible inside a box, I didn’t think about that yet. I didn’t renounce it. I needed a very violent handheld shot, and I didn’t think “It’s impossible to shoot handheld inside a box,” which it is. I didn’t renounce that shot either. Instead, I left it for afterwards. And so we designed and built the seven coffins in order to achieve those so-called impossible shots we needed. But you have to start from the story and the emotions. Otherwise you just have the gimmick. So you have to work very hard on the gimmick to have everything under control and then put it aside and concentrate on what really matters.