It’s not possible surely. How do you make a 90 min feature about a guy buried in a box with NO cutaways? That’s right. No shots of the hostage takers, no action footage of US forces trying to rescue him and no images of distraught family back home. Just an hour and a half of a guy confined in a coffin unflatteringly lit by Zippo lighter. How did writer Chris Sparling do it? With sequences, that’s how.
In my screenwriting classes at AFTRS, I preach the importance of breaking down the challenging 50-60 min expanse of Act 2 into a series of escalating sequences. Each sequence supports the overarching narrative goal of Act 2, but has its own mini-objective. And, the success or failure of the protagonist in this sub-quest will dictate what he needs to do in the next sequence.
With such limited dramatic options at his disposal, it was imperative that Buried screenwriter Chris Sparling used the power of sequences to squeeze and release his audience through 90 gripping minutes. Here’s my breakdown of the sequences in Buried.
SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film. Go see it. It’s sure to earn an Oscar nomination.
Sequences of Buried
(Note: The screenplay I read was not the shooting script so the page numbers might be askew.)
1. Man buried in a box pp 1-3
Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver in Iraq, awakes after an ambush to find himself buried in a coffin with a Zippo lighter. He tries to escape and calls for help but to no avail.
2. Phone a friend pp 3-15
A text message alerts Paul to the presence of a mobile phone – half-charged – and with one bar of reception. The clock is already ticking. Ignoring the text, Paul phones all the people he believes will be able to help him: 911, his home (gets the answering machine), the FBI and his employers, CRT, but gets no indication that help is likely.
3. Ransom demand pp 15-18
Responding to the text, Paul makes contact with his Iraqi captor who makes a ransom demand of $5m. If Paul doesn’t deliver by 9pm, the box will become his coffin. The super objective, the forces of antagonism, and the stakes are set. End of Act 1.
4. Please, Uncle Sam, can I have $5m! pp 18-28
By a circuitous route, Paul makes contact with the State Dept and pleads for the ransom but is told that they don’t negotiate with terrorists. He’s failed in this mini-objective, so that leads us to …
5. Please, Uncle Sam, come and save me! pp 28-31
Paul makes contact with Dan Brenner, commander of the Hostage Working Group, who insists he doesn’t go public. The goal now is to try to find out where he is so they can rescue him.
6. You make video pp 31-43
Paul’s captor calls and insists that he makes a ransom video but, after reading the script he’s meant to recite, Paul screws it up. He calls Dan who tells him not to make the video and says that he has saved people in Paul’s situation, including a guy called Mark White.
7. Goodbye, Mom pp 43-46
After refusing another request from his captor to make the video, Paul concludes that he’s not getting out of there and calls his dementia-suffering mother in a nursing home. When he asks whether she got the flowers he sent “a few months ago” it’s clear he’s not been in touch. He tells her that he loves her and says this might be the last time they’ll speak. In a film with a lot of “Squeeze”, this sequence represents a “Release”.
8. I make video pp 46-49
After receiving a video message showing a female friend of his with a gun to her head, Paul agrees to make the ransom video to spare her life.
9. Snakes alive pp 49-51
Paul awakes to find a snake crawling down his trouser leg. In scaring it off with a flame, he almost incinerates himself. (Note: In the draft of the screenplay I read, it wasn’t a snake but fireants.)
10. This guy means business pp 51-57
After calling his wife and leaving a message with his phone number, Paul receives a video message showing his friend being shot. He calls Dan who tries to keep him calm.
11. Friendly fire pp 57-58
US F16 fighters drop bombs above, cracking his coffin and allowing sand to pour in. He has to work feverishly to plug the cracks but, like sands through the hourglass, his time is running out.
12. CRT covers its arse pp 58-62
Paul gets a call from the head of personnel at his employers, CRT, who says that because he was fraternising with the woman who got killed (which Paul denies), his contract was terminated and his family won’t get any life insurance in the event of his death.
13. Last will and testament pp 62-65
When Paul can’t raise his captor, he assumes they must have been killed in the bombing raid. He commits his will to video, and apologises to his son for not being much of a father. Again, this is a “Release” sequence because we’re about to Squeezed awfully hard indeed …
14. Sacrificial offering pp 65-71
His captor calls and insists that Paul cut off his finger on video to enhance the chances that the ransom demand is met. Threats of violence against his family persuade Paul to commit the grisly deed.
15. Hang on, help is on its way pp 71-73
Dan calls to say that they picked up an insurgent who is leading them to Paul. He just needs to hang on another 3 minutes. With the final countdown having started, we’ve reached the end of Act 2.
16. Hi, Honey pp 73-76
Paul’s wife Linda finally calls and he apologises for not having listened to her about taking the job in Iraq. In the film’s most moving moment, they express their love for one another. This is a final “Release” before the film’s ultimate “Squeeze” …
17. Climax pp 76-79
As sand pours into the coffin, Dan calls to say that they have arrived at Paul’s location and they are digging. Alas, the person they dig out is not Paul, but the other supposedly already rescued hostage, Mark White. The last air pocket fills with sand, and Paul dies.
So that’s how Chris Sparling pulled off the impossible. With a series of sequences. Hitchcock, who is invoked in the opening credits and music, would have been proud.
I encourage you to use sequences to help navigate your way across the Bermuda Triangle that is Act 2. Here’s what I recommend you do:
- Break the overarching goal down into about 5 sequences (the number of sequences in Buried is abnormally large because the scenario limits how much can be achieved in any one sequence)
- Give each sequence a name that identifies its dramatic focus
- Make sure the sequence has a clear goal, conflict and stakes
- Make sure it has a climax that drives the next sequence
- Know what part the sequence plays in the character’s emotional arc
- Ensure you squeeze and release so you don’t exhaust your audience
Of course, if you’re familiar with the Hero’s Journey, using sequences will be second nature.
Once you begin to see a film as a series of about 12 sequences rather than 3 Acts, your approach to screenwriting is likely to be transformed. It clearly worked for Chris Sparling. Buried is one of the best screenplays I’ve seen in the last 5 years. Update: The National Board of Review agreed, giving Buried its Best Original Screenplay award for 2010.