When film studios introduced the larger Cinemascope screen, artist Jean Cocteau said, “The next time I write a poem I’ll use a big sheet of paper.” Lately it seems filmmakers have forgotten that bigger is not always better, and that Cocteau was being sarcastic.
Clear and concise stories told in a limited space have, it seems, gone out of fashion. At least for the big names. I love the work that Christopher Nolan is doing, but every film he makes is bigger in every way possible. He uses more characters in more settings, and he even uses IMAX cameras. It is a perfectly acceptable storytelling form (one that Hollywood will continue using as blockbusters become their main income), but it should not be the only one. Storytellers should remember the power of the confined setting.
Die Hard. The Shining. Jaws. These are classic blockbusters, and each one includes drastically confined settings. An office building. A hotel. A three-man boat. To expand beyond these settings would spell doom for the narrative impact. In the Die Hard sequels the filmmakers face diminishing quality as the single building was traded in for an airport, a city, and then a state.
Take for example one of the finest directors in history, Alfred Hitchcock. In Rear Window he confines the main character, a photographer, to a wheel chair and points him out his apartment window. Dial M For Murder also takes place within a single apartment, and so does Rope, which Hitchcock filmed with only 11 shots to create the illusion of a single take. Hitchcock’s masterpiece of confined setting is Lifeboat, which he convinced John Steinbeck to write the story for. After a German U-Boat sinks an Allied ship in WWII, survivors in a lifeboat rescue one of the German crew and must decide his fate. These confined settings build tension and drama in the same way as many stage plays. Hitchcock understood conflict is stronger when characters are unable to avoid it.
Most of my examples have been thrillers, but the power of a confined space to drive people crazy can be funny as well as horrifying. It just depends where the writer takes things. Consider The Odd Couple, Arsenic and Old Lace, Oscar, or Noises Off, which are very funny films based on very funny plays. Film has the same opportunities for comedy as the stage, and sometimes more because of the opportunity to do a second take. Non-play adaptations like The Breakfast Club, The Terminal, Clue, and The Ref use the confined spaces of a school, an airport, a mansion, and a suburban home to take conflict to hilarious new levels.
Filmmakers have not forgotten this entirely, and many young filmmakers (working with limited budgets) have taken advantage of this. Kevin Smith began a very successful career with Clerks, which spends most of its time in and around a convenience store. Duncan Jones made Moon, which focuses almost exclusively on Sam Rockwell in a lunar mining facility. Director Rodrigo Cortés and writer Chris Sparling made an impressive debut when they convinced Ryan Reynolds to spend the 95-minute runtime of Buried inside a coffin.
Buried is an interesting example of how limited space can be taken too far. They should have considered the power of 12 Angry Men, where the limited space builds tension as director Sidney Lumet moves the cameras lower and closer to the characters stuck together in the hot jury room. When the claustrophobia reaches unbearable heights the film hits its climax, and then, in the final shot, the audience is treated to the relief of the wide open streets outside the courthouse. This was where the makers of Buried failed to take advantage of their hard-earned claustrophobia; instead of building to an exhilarating release, they bury the audience along with the main character. Part of the power of a limited space comes from contrasting it with its opposite.
Perhaps the best recent example of limited space is Life of Pi. The film’s most powerful sequences involve the isolation of Pi and Richard Parker in the middle of a mirror-smooth ocean. The contrast of the infinite space with the rigid confines of the boat makes us feel Pi’s isolation, and the tiny set allows for an examination of detail that would be missed in a larger location. We come to know the physical world that Pi is confined to in far more detail than we will ever know Pandora from Avatar, no matter how many sequels James Cameron makes. As a result of our detailed understanding, we are more connected to the characters and their struggle.
In terms of film narratives, bigger is not always better. As long as film is limited to the four corners of the frame, no grand worlds can be shown in full. But, if focus is brought down to the level of small things in small places, it is possible to see something in its entirety, which can have powerful results.