Location, Location, One Location

3 12 2009


'Paranormal Activity'

If you’re out shopping for, say, a small car or an acre of land, then $15 000 is a reasonable amount of money to have in your back pocket. If, on the other hand, you’re planning to make a feature film, $15 000 is very little indeed.

Yet that’s the amount of money that American director Oren Peli reportedly spent on his debut film Paranormal Activity, a chilling tale of suburban demonic possession that has, in recent months, taken over $107 million at the US box office.

Peli was partly able to keep production costs so low by shooting the film almost entirely within the confines of his own home in San Diego. With a principal cast of two, Peli presents his movie as ‘found footage’ shot by a young couple trying to get to the bottom of spooky goings-on in their house at night. This device largely works, with the director using the confined spaces of his home and some unnerving night-vision footage of the couple sleeping to create a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere that’s ripe for all kinds of shocks.

But if shooting an entire film in one location is easy on the pocket of the cash-strapped film-maker, it throws up some unique challenges too. How do you hold the audience’s attention for 90 minutes or more without a change of scenery? How do you make your film cinematic as opposed to theatrical? And how do you move the camera around in what could be a pretty restricted space?

For answers to these questions and more, budding film-makers could do a lot worse than watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), something of a master class in one-location film-making. Rear Window takes place entirely within the New York apartment of LB Jeffries (James Stewart), a professional photographer confined to his home by a broken leg. Passing the time by being a nosy neighbour, Jeffries soon senses something awry in a flat across the way, where a salesman’s invalid wife seems to have suddenly disappeared. Could the salesman have murdered her? The photographer enlists the help of bipedal girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and tries to find out.

In Rear Window, Hitchcock takes what might seem to be rather restrictive, stagy premise and uses it to create an almost perversely cinematic piece of work. As many people since have pointed out, the rear window of the flat is analogous to a cinema screen and the mixture of fear, desire and voyeuristic titillation that the main character feels mirrors the emotions of a cinema audience. When Lisa is in danger in the apartment opposite, Jeffries can do little more than watch and pray, just like us popcorn-munchers, and the tension is almost unbearable.

James Stewart in 'Rear Window'

Similarly ingenious is the Canadian sci-fi / horror film Cube (1997). Again motivated by budgetary constraints, director Vincenzo Natali hit upon the idea of putting his characters inside, erm, a bloody big cube for 90 minutes. In Scene One they wake up with little idea of how they got there, and they spend the rest of the film trying to figure out how to escape. To do so they must pass through a series of portals in the walls of the cube that lead them from one seemingly identical room to another. But – aha! – here’s the catch: some of these rooms contain booby-traps that proceed to pick off members of the group in increasingly nasty ways. Natali’s script calls for only one set, but manages to be tense, frightening and a little bit philosophical at the same time. 

Also a little bit philosophical, although set in a much more recognisable location, is Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002). Here, extending a device he first used in his 1997 film Taste of Cherry, the Iranian director films ten conversations between a woman driving around the streets of Tehran and the various passengers that she picks up along the way. Kiarostami’s method was simple: two small digital cameras were mounted on the dashboard; he gave the actors some basic instructions, then off they went. The director himself was not in or near the car when the scenes were being shot, which raises some interesting questions about ‘authorship’ in the cinema and about the nature of cinematic performance too.

Mania Akbari in 'Ten'

Of course a single location can be much bigger than a house or a car. In The Blair Witch Project (1999) the location is a wood; in Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002) it’s a desert; and in Open Water (2003) much of the action takes places in the middle of the ocean, where the main characters are nibbled and menaced by a school of sharks. Shooting outside in natural light is cheap and offers the film-maker almost limitless options. But, at the same time, it is very hard indeed to write a script for a feature film that doesn’t require its characters to make at least the occasional trip indoors.   

In this regard, Gerry in particular has a lot to teach novice screenwriters and directors. Part-Bela Tarr and part-Samuel Beckett, the film tells the story of two young guys called Gerry (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) who go for a walk in the desert, get lost and die. Its scenes are funny, simple and absurd – one involves Damon’s character trying to get down from a boulder – but they demonstrate well how limited resources can be a good thing for film-makers, forcing and stimulating creativity.

So the next time you’re out for a walk in the woods or stuck in a Portaloo, why not take a DV camera with you? You never know what you might come up with.

Paranormal Activity is on general release in the UK.



3 responses

20 05 2010
Annaliese Diane Cortez

hello i am 12 years old and i thought tht the movie wasn’t tht scary but some of the ending made me scream and i would like to say tht i thought it was really good keep up the great work!!~!~

2 06 2010

“So the next time you’re out for a walk in the woods or stuck in a Portaloo, why not take a DV camera with you?”

I wouldn’t recommend filming what goes on in portable toilets there’s a fair few folk been arrested for that type of thing! 🙂

4 01 2011
Most popular posts of 2010 « Matinée Idle

[…] Location, Location, One Location December 2009 2 comments […]

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