Script: Buried by Chris Sparling
Logline: Paul is a U.S. truck driver working in Iraq. After an attack by a group of Iraqis he wakes to find he is buried alive inside a coffin. With only a lighter and a cell phone it’s a race against time to escape this claustrophobic death trap.
The wife and I were talking about this movie a few weeks ago, and that’s why I chose to review the script. We were both very interested to see how a guy trapped in a coffin for an entire movie could be anything remotely entertaining.
I remember the buzz around Ryan Reynolds when this film came out, that he and his costars in Green Lantern went to go see it, and how everyone thought Ryan was a brilliant actor. I never did get to hear what they thought coming out of it. I have no opinion on that for two reasons:
1.) I didn’t see the movie.
2.) I have a man crush on Ryan Reynolds.
Will that same adjective of “brilliant” be applied to the script? We shall see.
(One thing to keep in mind as you read this…HE’S STUCK IN A BOX! From beginning to end.)
1.) Can we visualize the description?
I’ll come right out and say it.
The description was one of the weakest parts of this script. Mainly because it felt so “matter of fact.” The opening even leaves a bit to be desired:
INT. UNKNOWN ROOM – NIGHT
Darkness. Silence. After a long beat, we hear movement,
confined and contained.
We then hear the sound of a man, PAUL CONROY, groaning,
making confused attempts at words. We hear his movement;
short, abrupt shifting, ending almost immediately with the
sound of his body banging against wood.
Could have used some spice here, BUT, I digress, on to a matter of fact bit.
He kicks and slams his hands against the top and sides of the
coffin, all to no avail. His violent movements cause small
grains of sand to trickle in through the space between the
sides and top of the coffin, as well as a small gap that
exists between one of the coffin’s broken wooden planks.
First it’s long. Too long.
Second, can’t we break it up a bit like:
He punches the rough wood above him, scraping off skin.
He delivers a couple hard kicks to the lid in frustration.
Amid pants of exertion, grains of sand trickle onto Paul’s face from above.
He struggles to peer between two haphazard planks of his prison.
Again, remember that he’s in a box, which in itself is going to be boring. That means we’ll be working overtime to make this a great read.
Paul’s stuck AND he’s desperate. This should come out in everything he does and says.
Two small things
Page 5 – There’s an unfilmable that bugged me where Paul “tries to remember the Safe Number he was given.” Now the few sentences after that show him struggling to remember, but again, it’s a long way to go about describing something easy.
Unfilmables are meant to work the OTHER way, explaining three lines of description in one succinct line.
Paul takes a few moments to catch his breath. He looks again
at the cell phone. Remembers receiving a Text Message.
The icon on the phone’s display indicates that he does, in
fact, have an unread Text Message waiting for him.
Did you see it? In case you missed it I’ll spell it out for you. Paul’s got a text message.
The description wasn’t bad in a confusing way, it was bad in a “let me use the most words possible to explain this” kind of way.
4 out of 10 points.
2.) Does the author use an acceptable format?
Format was decent.
I felt “we see’ed” to death, so I’m taking off a point, but everything else was fine.
Found three typos total too.
9 out of 10 points.
3.) Is the dialogue free of exposition and rich in subtext? Does each character have a unique voice?
Again, Paul Conroy is STUCK IN A BOX!
Everything he says needs to be panicked and desperate.
Most of the dialogue was, especially when talking to other characters. The problem I had was when he was by himself. It felt like filler dialogue and I almost wished the author chose for him to say nothing at all.
What is this?
Come on, come on. What was it?
This line particularly deals with the forgotten safe number, but you get my point.
Sure Paul will be trying to rationalize things as he contemplates dying, but a few sobs can be MUCH more powerful than a “WTF?!” comment.
Again, it wasn’t too bad though, especially when Paul talks to other characters. Desperation certainly plays out.
SPECIAL AGENT HARRIS
A bunch of kids?
No, you’re not listening. The kids
threw the rocks at us, but then
some Iraqi guys — maybe
insurgents, I don’t fucking know —
popped out of nowhere and started
shooting at us.
SPECIAL AGENT HARRIS
I thought you said they didn’t
shoot at you.
They didn’t, I don’t know! But
they shot them!
SPECIAL AGENT HARRIS
Sir, you’re going to have to stop
shouting if —
I’m shouting because you’re not
listening! I need you to help me!
The one problem I had with a lot of the dialogue from other characters though, is they took too long to believe him. Almost like they get teenage kids calling in on a daily basis claiming to be buried in coffins under the Iraqi desert.
8 out of 10 points.
4.) Does the writer understand the challenges and rewards posed by the medium chosen in which to tell his/her story? Shorthand version of this is: Is it a movie and not a play?
This question took me a bit of thinking to arrive at my score.
Since it’s in one place, it could easily be a play. In fact it’d probably make for a pretty cool play if done right.
The one thing that saves it for movie status is Paul’s face. We need to be close to it, and see his reactions to grasp the full intensity of the story.
Since it also helps to make him BIGGER on screen than we are (causing us to feel smaller and more trapped) I yield to a slightly higher score for this question instead of halfway.
6 out of 10 points.
5.) Is there anything unique in what the writer presents? Are the writer’s ideas, based on this sample, likely to continue to be original?
Are we rating description and dialogue? Then no.
Are we rating the ability to make the story of a guy stuck in a coffin exciting? Then a resounding YES!
I’d find it very interesting to have all of our readers (and even Roy and I) try this same sort of story and see how successful we would be.
Even with the few slight drawbacks to the writing, the fact that I was interested for 90 pages is an impressive accomplishment.
9 out of 10 pages.
6.) Does the script have a hook?
Talk about coming in late.
Paul’s stuck in a coffin, buried under the sand, and has zero idea how he got there.
That’s easily got me for a few pages.
15 out of 15 points.
7.) Is that hook effective?
Pretty much, however I will say it’s slightly convenient that Paul has a cell phone with him, even if it’s part of the plot.
He starts out trying to get through to people he knows, which makes sense.
Then his brain kicks into analytical mode and tries to call people that can actually help him.
This story even has a decent inciting incident, but I’d argue it comes too late (reason enough to subtract a point).
Paul remembers a text message and calls a number where he reaches Jabir, a disgruntled Iraqi, who demands the US pay $3 million for Paul’s release.
Since I’m already at page 17 by this point, in a 90 page script, I’m engaged enough that seeing this story through isn’t a problem.
14 out of 15 points.
8.) Is there enough to maintain the hook? Reveals, conflict, etc.?
I can’t stress enough how AMAZED I was that I was interested in this story.
Keep in mind that not only is he running out of air, the cell phone being used to figure things out is also running out of battery life.
That’s TWO ticking clocks Paul’s up against!
Once we find out Paul’s technically a hostage, things start clicking together.
He’s connected to the FBI who then connects him to a special response team who handles “cases” like his.
Paul does a great job arguing that these people don’t care about finding him, and only want to cover their asses.
All of it makes sense, and all of it continues to build up.
We even find out that there’s a girl in Iraq Paul has been “chummy” with (it’s never actually spelled out even though he’s accused of it). Since he’s a married man this adds to the DRAMA, especially since she’s also a hostage.
His employer also terminates his employment in an effort to damage control whether he lives or not.
All of it is great, and finally builds up to an ending where I the first curveball, but got thrown by the second. I like being surprised by the ending of a story.
It’s an excellent ending to an excellent story, as far as stories from inside a coffin go.
10 out of 10 points.
9.) Does the story play to a target audience, and have the elements demanded by that audience?
It cost $3 million to make (ironically the same initial demand for Paul’s release) and made almost $20 million to date.
Given those odds, studios would crank these out on an assembly line. Why else do we have Saw Infinity?
There were some minor points I feel I have to mention, since they didn’t feel like what would actually happen for someone stuck in Paul’s situation.
Page 9 – Paul’s talking to a 911 responder, and she can only connect him to the sheriff’s department? That seems lame, and at this point he should have reached the FBI via an emergency number. Or he could have at least argued to get someone higher up the chain.
Page 56 – Paul’s in tight quarters, and after flash burning a snake (which itself seemed far fetched in a WOODEN box) he ignores the alcohol slowly oozing closer to his lighter. The problem with this is there’s no suspense. We “see” it’s getting closer, then he fixes it. (Maybe this is another description topic from above, but I included it here for the “too convenient” factor.)
Page 60 – Same thing with the suicide. He attempts to kill himself, then just stops. One second a knife’s at his throat, the next he’s huffing cause he can’t do it. I AT LEAST wanted a slight build up of several failed attempts. He IS essentially struggling with what’s a better death than suffocation.
Page 65 – Alan’s HR questions were STUPID! Paul should have seen it coming a MILE AWAY. Even if he DIDN’T, his situation of wasting precious battery life would have overcome the need to stay on the line with Alan. (It was one last good “FU!” to Paul though, but Alan should have tried to trick him more.)
Page 86 – Jabir says he’ll go after Paul’s family unless he cuts off his thumb. Paul contemplates whether Jabir has that ability or not, but ultimately yields to removing a digit. Sadly you think he’d remember to tell Linda to get the hell out of town when he talks to her at the end. Or at least WARN her. (No, no, I’m sure these folks are people of their word, even if they DID kidnap and bury me alive.)
Lastly, and not really going to take points off for this, but I think a reader will have a much easier time with a story like this than an audience. My reason for that is because I could imagine the other characters in their offices and such, and other than cell phone video the only thing we’d see on the screen is Paul.
5 out of 10 points.
Is this script the most interesting story ever told? No.
But it was COMPLETELY told from a pine box. That’s amazing when you think about it.
This is an EXCELLENT exercise for all writers to attempt, since it is the ultimate in contained thrillers. I know a lot of writer classes, teachers, sites, etc. will tell you NOT to give yourself constraints, but I’m telling you right here, and right now to TRY it.
Even if you don’t get anything close to a sellable story, this will still be great practice.
You can’t use just a bed, coffin, cell, etc. fine. Even limiting your character to one room and making a worthwhile story will greatly sharpen your writing, especially dialogue. Get a solid pacing down and we’re stuck with your character, desperate to get out.
However if you CAN pull this off, you’ve just created a very inexpensive to produce writing sample (which is never a bad thing), but this will be the ULTIMATE test of “give me the same, only different.” A new plot, a unique spot, and you’ve got a wonderful world of experience under your belt.
Not to mention that in pulling it off while constrained, the possibilities for your writing when your imagination is UNLEASHED to it’s FULL POTENTIAL are UNFATHOMABLE! Mwahahahahahaha!
Total 80 out of 100 points.
***PS – Do yourself a favor and READ THIS SCRIPT! It’s only 90 quick turns of a page.
“Does the writer understand the challenges and rewards posed by the medium chosen in which to tell his/her story? Shorthand version of this is: Is it a movie and not a play?”
Why would you ask if it’s a “movie and not a play”? Many good/great movies started as plays, were produced as plays or are adaptations of play scripts. 12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Rope, Glengarry Glen Ross, Frost/Nixon, Sling Blade, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Few Good Men, more recently War Horse and The Ides of March.
Many more could easily be produced as plays, such as Clerks, Reservoir Dogs, Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, Quarantine ([REC]), Exam, The Interview, Rear Window, The Man from Earth, Lifeboat.
Plays are limited to how they can use their environment becasue they are contained within a stage. A movie can show and not tell more easily therefore if you are writing a screenplay and have two people in a room talking about what they did in the past, this is more of a play write as a apposed to haveing a flashback and showing what the two characters did in the past.
Correct me if i am wrong here Roy and Hank.
No correction needed 🙂
Yes, of course, we all understand this is a basic difference between films and plays. That’s irrelevant.
Asking the question “Is it a movie and not a play?” implies that a script that could be a play could not make a good movie, and that’s patently false. It’s simply not a useful question as it relates to the craft of screenwriting. Many indie films prefer three or fewer locations, as it greatly reduces costs.
Not all plays make good movies, and versa vica.
We’re here to discuss movie scripts, not plays. The intent of the question is that for a movie script YOU CAN have huge action sequences, multiple scenes, big bangs, etc. The question asks, “Is this author making use of that medium?” Does it need to be BIG things, of course not, but the BENEFIT of writing a screenplay is that you can think big and not limit yourself to a stage!
Sorry, did someone claim that?
You should increase the budget requirements of the movie just because you can? That is simply unrealistic and outright detrimental advice. Higher budget requirements will limit the potential buyers or optioners of a property.
You can “think big” but it’s not a requirement for a good screenplay or a good movie. I would certainly rather have written 12 Angry Men than the Clash of the Titans remake.
Perhaps a better question would be “Is the conflict external, or externalized?”
I’m not knocking the theater, but a good example of what the question’s leading to is Saving Private Ryan. It’d be damn near impossible to have the same emotional impact of that film if trying to present it on stage.
Remember, I’m very UN-sophisticated, so most theater stuff is lost on me. Just ask Walker. He asks me to go to the theater with him all the time.
“…A Streetcar Named Desire…”
Hey Atlas…HEY ATLAS!!!!
Are you coming on to me? Sorry, people named “Hank” are pretty much off my list.
I would, however, appreciate an answer to the question I asked. What is the utility of asking “Is it a movie or a play?” considering that the answer is clearly irrelevant to whether or not the script/movie is any good?
That may have been true 100 or even 50 years ago. Today live camera feeds are a fairly common part of stage productions. For example, A Spanish Play as well as most of what The Wooster Group has done for the last ten or twenty years.
It would be fairly simple mise-en-scene, actually; just have the coffin lengthwise across the stage with a live camera feed of Paul’s face projected onto a screen above the coffin or at the rear of the stage. The audience would be just as “close” to Paul’s face as a movie theater audience.
So what say you?
I know this is really late but in case anyone was having a ball reading this as I just did, I wanted to add a quick comment. All of the plays that Atlas mentioned are typically ADAPTED into screenplays. I haven’t read all the examples given but I have read Mamet’s play and screenplay (Glengarry Glen Ross) and I have read Sorkin’s play and screenplay (A Few Good Men). All are exceptional but in both cases (even with the same writers) there are big differences between the play and the screenplay. I know in both cases, main reasons for these differences were due to the limitations and strengths of each medium and producers’ and writers’ attempts to buffer and cater to them respectively.
So I’m not entirely disagreeing with Atlas and I wouldn’t quite say he is being inane but I think it’s a bit misleading to imply plays and screenplays are the same or that Hank’s question has zero merit. Because plays are to my knowledge, always ADAPTED (which Atlas too notes) and in that process, like any other process of adapting text from one medium to another, changes tend to be made. And not just superficial changes concerning layout and format but important ones like whether or not locations can change as frequent, pacing of scenes, length of dialogue, action that occurs with dialogue, use of internal monologues, use of monologues period, how action sequences progress, where action sequences progress, use of a sound-bridge, number of characters, likability of a character and etc. etc.
So I guess my main point in a nutshell is Transformers 10 could be a play if we all wanted it to be. There would just be considerable changes (adaptations) that would be necessary for it to work and be best received.
I wrote that question. The idea was to measure whether a script demonstrates the textural qualities of a film. That is all. It is self-evident what was meant by the question. What you are doing is disagreeing by being inane. That’s fine and you are more than welcome to do that, if that inspires you. However, if you don’t know how a script has “the texture” of a movie and not a play– if you really don’t understand that– then no examples I could give to validate the question will make sense either.
I have written 150,000 words in all my articles for this site. Disagree with any of them you want. Even better, contribute to the discussion. Just don’t waste my time being inane.
Atlas got both of you there. You avoided his very valid points and questions until you didn’t know what else to say. Then you got upset and started calling him inane, which, having read your replies, is very ironic.
Also, though I enjoy your reviews in general, you really do know how to squeeze the fun and life out of screenwriting sometimes. Instead of endlessly nitpicking over pointless little technical details and the aesthetic of a script (stick to the big errors/no-no’s), you might try focussing more on the content. Case in point: Buried. Full of supposed deal-breaking “taboos”, but guess what? Nobody gave a fuck that it was full of “we’s” and whatnot, so please stop making such a big deal of such things.
Lastly, stop advocating that-
It’s shit like that which has brought down the art of screenwriting in the past few decades. Literary eloquence is not a sin, not even in a script.
I apologize this review and its comments got you so upset.
It is however almost 2.5 years old at this point, and I’ve adopted a broader style of reviewing like you suggested.
And I apologise in return. I wrote my comment in a flurry right after reading a few reviews and this one. Though I stand by my points (the Jurassic Park review has more examples) my tone was highly uncalled for.
Also, yes, I am aware that this old stuff. I’m only now reading all the reviews which, once again, I really enjoy doing. Thanks.