TORONTO — When Ryan Reynolds was sent the script for the claustrophobic thriller Buried, his first instinct was to say no.
“Only because it (seemed) impossible,” Reynolds said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.
“It was just this fantastic piece of writing and it was impossible to accomplish in a film — there’s no way you could shoot it.”
The script consisted of a single character on screen for 90 minutes, with the action — if you could call it that — all taking place inside a wooden coffin. Bit by bit, pieces of a flawed hero’s life are revealed as he uses a cellphone, lighter, pencil and flashlight to plot his escape.
The story centres on the plight of family man Paul Conroy. He’s a truck driver working on a U.S. government contract in Iraq and is abducted when his convoy comes under attack.
His backstory is heard — and not seen — in urgent phone calls to his boss, the government and his family. Conroy and viewers have only a dark and dusty coffin to seize onto visually.
Reynolds said he struggled to imagine how that could be effectively captured on film, and only saw the movie’s potential after talking to impassioned Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes. He said a 40-minute meeting in L.A. ended with the duo embracing and planning Reynolds’ trip to Barcelona to begin filming.
“Rodrigo saw this technical challenge as something that he could . . . not only overcome, he could invent moments and invent ways to shoot this film,” said Reynolds.
“I love that the beginning of the film is in darkness and we don’t know who this person is, we know nothing about him. And then 10 minutes into the film we still are starting to learn these little things about this guy and suddenly by the end of the movie there’s a whole universe in this coffin.”
Cortes said he felt it important to keep the camera moving as much as possible within the tiny confines of the box.
Seven coffins were built to accommodate different angles and shooting styles that help shift the film’s tone from Paul’s frantic first moments to a measure of acceptance.
“So, in minute 20, you don’t think anymore about the box — it’s just an environment, that’s what it is, it could be New York City, it could be a big jungle, whatever,” said Cortes.
“It’s not the box anymore — it’s just the story about Paul Conroy and you want to know what’s going to happen next.”
The low-budget indie marks a rough-edged departure for Reynolds, whose recent high-wattage successes The Proposal and X-Men Origins catapulted the Vancouver actor to the big leagues.
All that heat is expected to ramp up even more with next summer’s release of the superhero feature Green Lantern, along with other buzz-laden projects including the potential franchise Deadpool, and the broad comedy The Change-Up.
Reynolds, whose early roles include leading the shortlived TV series Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, said he’s thankful for a slow-burning career that has allowed him to build a diverse resume and take risks along the way.
“I was very fortunate to have success (that was) incredibly incremental for me — it was an inch at a time and because of that I think it afforded me an opportunity to be working in different genres a lot,” Reynolds said at a festival press conference.
“I never had that meteoric success that so many young actors achieve these days and that can be incredibly debilitating. And also, I just think, psychologically, it’s just not good for you. That’s really tough. If I was 21 years old and in a position where I had that kind Twilight sort of success I don’t know how well I’d handle that. I don’t know how well I’d navigate those choppy waters — and they are considerably choppy.”
Cortes praised Reynolds as a natural actor with the commitment needed to helm the demanding role. He said he knew Reynolds was his man when he saw him in The Nines, comprised of three seemingly unrelated stories that feature Reynolds as a down-on-his-luck actor, a screenwriter and a family man.
“I discovered an amazingly talented actor,” Cortes said.
“He never acts, he always is. You cannot catch him lying and (he has) a perfect sense of timing. That’s supernatural and when you are doing a movie with just three other men you have to be very aware of pace, of rhythm, of music. And here you have (it).”
Wary of “overly romanticizing” the shoot, Reynolds said the work on “Buried” was tough physically, emotionally and mentally.
He spent much of the 12-hour days lying down in a wooden box strewn with sand, and the friction left his back bleeding by the end of the 17-day production.
The skin on his fingers, meanwhile, were fried after repeatedly called upon to illuminate the scene with a lighter. And his voice was shot after the first day of filming from all the screaming that was required.
“Wood and sand are tremendous exfoliants,” Reynolds deadpanned.
“I wore away a hole in the back of my hair because of the sand on the surface — rubbing against the sand constantly just sort of wore (it) away eventually. I looked pretty hideous when I got home. I’d lost a lot of weight. It’s a great diet, by the way, coffins.”
Toughest of all was the emotional stress, he said, noting he had trouble sleeping and eating and was grateful when the shoot was done.
But Reynolds said he’s knows he’s had a charmed career.
“My career is an aggregate, really, as opposed to something else and it’s been amazing,” he said.
“There’ve been peaks and valleys like anyone else would have but I just consider myself really fortunate to have chipped away at it long enough. I hung around long enough that they gave me a shot.”
“Buried” opens in select theatres Friday.