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Buried - Rodrigo Cortes interview

Rodrigo Cortes directs Buried

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RODRIGO Cortes talks about some of the many challenges of filming claustrophobic new thriller Buried, about a truck driver in Iraq who wakes up one day to find himself buried in a coffin.

He also discusses putting his faith in leading man Ryan Reynolds, adopting a Hitchcock approach to tension and why the idea of doing the impossible grabbed him from the start.

Q. How did you first become involved with Buried?
Rodrigo Cortes: Well, after I read the script I thought the idea was impossible, and that attracted me – the feeling that this had never been done before and probably shouldn’t be [laughs]! So, I followed the idea of directing it like a Hitchcock movie such as Rope, with a single take show. I said to myself I have to do this because it’s impossible.

Q. So, how did you go about making the impossible possible?
Rodrigo Cortes: First, you have to try not to use common sense. If you do, you’re dead! If you use logic, you find out very soon that you can’t do something like this. Now, of course, I know it‘s impossible, but it’s too late [laughs]. But you cannot focus on the coffin… if you focus on the location, then you start to focus on the restrictions this poses. So, you have to do everything in order to make this possible. You focus on the story and what emotions you want the audience to feel. You just work on the story as if it’s happening in New York or in the middle of the jungle. If you need a 360 degree shot of the actor, or a crane shot, you don’t think of it yet.

Once the story was right, and we knew what we wanted to achieve emotionally, we designed and built seven different coffins – one with collapsible walls, another one that could turn, another one that was very low in order to get a different perspective of depth and to help achieve a dolly shot inside box. We had everything we needed then to make the movie as authentic as possible.

Q. And then you had to find the right leading man? I gather you first became aware of Ryan Reynolds after seeing him in The Nines?
Rodrigo Cortes: I saw The Nines three years ago and immediately discovered an actor who was able to convey very deep emotions though very small acts. He’s always truthful. It’s something a director always appreciates… not only how an actor gels or how he cries, but the way he listens, or holds a glass. It’s during those smaller moments that the truth happens, or something magical. Ryan has a perfect sense of timing. He is totally in control of nuance and pace. In that sense, he’s like a musician who became an actor.

Q. I gather it was Ryan, though, who suggested not rehearsing for scenes and getting some shots in just one take?
Rodrigo Cortes: Yeah, you’re right. In the beginning I felt uncomfortable about that. I said: “Ryan, don’t be lazy, you should rehearse!” But he was insistent that he wanted to discover everything at the same time as his character. He didn’t want to prepare… rather, he wanted to be as uncomfortable as possible and to get used to the coffin little by little, just like the man he was portraying in that environment. So, I said: “OK, I need you to trust me, so I have to trust you…. this is going to be a two-person dance, so we need to be close partners.”

We only had 17 days to make it, so we had to get it right quickly. Unlike most movies, which get through 10-15 shots a day, we were having to do 35 shots a day… in fact, one day, we did 52. It was like a cookie factory, I can tell you! So, there was a communication between us that went beyond words. I found out just how good an actor he really was.


Q. So, did Ryan learn the hard way about the difficulties – both physical and mental – a film like this posed? Didn’t he pick up a few injuries?
Rodrigo Cortes: Everything you see in the film happened. If you want this to be a physical experience, where everybody leaves theatre 4lbs lighter, then everything has to be totally believable – physically, mentally… and that’s why Ryan needed a massage afterwards. We sent him back to LA with his back bleeding and his fingers fried from the heat of the [cigarette] lighter. His skin totally destroyed from the sand he was covered in every day – and that was the easy part! The emotional part was even worse! He had to develop extreme emotions in just 94 minutes that most people will never go through in their lifetime. He goes to primal fear, panic, joy, anger, hope, surrender, acceptance, frustration… you name it. It was exhausting for him.

Q. Do you think it’s too early to predict an Oscar nod?
Rodrigo Cortes: Well, I don’t think of those things. We’re not horses running. I’m so exhausted and busy with doing the promotion for this film that I have no time to think about anything that isn’t going to be happening within the next 60 seconds of my life. It’s not healthy. If you try and succeed on that basis, you will stray from the story. But if you want to succeed in making Buried, then you have to trust in the story and remain focused and committed to that, without being distracted by other concerns.

Q. So, what’s been the most surprising or extreme reaction you’ve had to the film? Has anyone passed out on you?
Rodrigo Cortes: I don’t know. There was one guy who was totally white when he left the cinema. He was about to vomit, then he did, and he then went quiet for about 20 minutes looking at me, and then he hugged me. He was thankful to me… so that was a pretty strange set of contradictions. It wasn’t what he had been expecting. But that’s what I wanted to try and achieve… when people went to the movies in the ‘50sand ‘60s to see Hitchcock it was similar. When we see a film like The Birds now in 2010, it’s not that intense. But back in those years, people didn’t know where to look. It was unlike anything they’d ever seen before.

Q. What’s next for you? Has the success of Buried started to open doors for you in Hollywood?
Rodrigo Cortes: Well, it’s not about so much about where… of course, all those things you read about have started to happen. For me, though, it’s more about how and what. I’m not against Hollywood or Spanish cinema, or whatever, but if you give me creative control then I appreciate that more. I have to have creative control for films like Buried. So, if I get that, then I am happy to make a film wherever the work takes me.

Rodrigo Cortes directs Buried

Q. So do you have something you’re working on?
Rodrigo Cortes: Yes, it’s going to be a paranormal thriller with a very scientific approach. It’s going to explore how your brain is not a tool you can trust to perceive reality… because it basically lies.

Q. And where will that be shot?
Rodrigo Cortes: Well, we’re still working on that. We want to repeat the formula from Buried, to keep control.

Q. What’s the greatest lesson you took away from your experience on Buried?
Rodrigo Cortes: Maybe that you should not complain about anything… usually, the more painful something is, the more rewarding it becomes. So, even if you complain, you will still suffer. So, just focus and get on with it.

Q. Which filmmakers inspire you, aside from Hitchcock obviously?
Rodrigo Cortes: I’ve always felt close to the early directors and editors from silent cinema, people like Buster Keaton, as well as the greats such as Scorsese, Hitchcock and Orson Welles. But I’m also very, very interested in contemporary directors like Spike Jonze, David O Russell and Michel Gondry… people that have a certain insanity about the way they approach things and don’t necessarily do things the way you may be expecting.

Buried opens in UK cinemas on Wednesday, September 29, 2010.