Anatomy of a Contained Thriller
There is a specific sub-genre of thriller called the “Contained Thriller” that has always been one of my favorite kinds of film.
It started many years ago when I was head of LIterary Management for Handprint Entertainment (now dissolved) in Los Angeles. I read a Scottish writer by the name of James MacInnes, who wrote a script called The Bothy. A Bothy is a safe house on a mountain usually; some place where one can take refuge if they need a rest or the weather has gotten too bad.
All the action except for a little in the beginning, took place in the Bothy and believe me, those four walls made for a tense read. When I started representing James, after having read this script, it was set up with Icon in the UK and afterwards, it proved to be a great writing sample to break him into the United States. Since reading this piece, contained thrillers, which are as they sound, a thriller primarily taking place in a contained space (which, of course adds to the suspense), has become one of my favorite sub-genres.
There are a few handful of good contained thrillers out there (Buried, 12 Angry Men among them), but I want to recommend two brilliant and perhaps lesser known ones to you now. They are both British and available on Netflix. What happens in a contained thriller is that the writer cannot rely on outside action to propel the story, it’s all right there. The dialogue and the characters are what counts here and there is often a time limit or a sense of intrigue from outside the containment which we never see but we know is there. Not only should writers read these two scripts to see how to build suspense through character and dialogue and not action but directors can see how to use a single environment to create the most fear and tension using the dialogue and the characters theta they can.
The first is called “The Hide” (2009), directed by Marek Losey. based on the stage play The Sociable Plover by Tim Whitnall, who also wrote the screenplay. Often stage plays can become contained dramas or thrillers as they are set up in that way already. However, it takes a special skill to create the space on the screen and illicit performances that make us feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic.
The Scotsman’s Alistair Harkness described it as “an absorbing drama from two characters in a single location that simmers with menace and builds to a satisfyingly macabre conclusion”. Tom Robey of The Telegraph called it “Thoroughly enjoyable” and “Addictive stuff”.
Taking place within a bird hide on the Suffolk marshes, one man is waiting for sighting when he is joined by another man. A walkie-talkie announces a murderer is on the loose and suspicion creeps in.
“The Hide” is 82 minutes long, was made for ₤100,000 and was shot in 9 days. Film4 bought the rights for television.
From this Losey, whose grandfather was Joseph Losey, has gone on to direct great mystery television, including “The Poison Tree” and “Breathless” for ITV Studios as well as just wrapping “Vera” with Brenda Blethyn. He also has many feature films in development.
“Locke” (2014) was written and directed by Steven Knight. It stars Tom Hardy and the entire film takes place within a car, which was driven down a motorway on a flatbed truck for most of the time. Shooting took place in real-time, and the filmmakers only took breaks to change the cameras’ memory cards.
All other characters are only heard via voice as Locke speaks on the phone, leaving behind work and family to tend to a fragile woman whom he had gotten pregnant during a one night stand. This is his chance in his life to redeem his father’s inadequacies and ‘do the right thing’.
Olly Richards of Empire Magazine awarded the film 4/5 stars and said: “There are films to see on huge screens, but this is one that almost cries out for a small cinema, surrounded by total blackness. It’s a daring experiment brilliantly executed, with Tom Hardy giving one of the best performances of his career”. Indeed, to command the screen for that long, only speaking, just driving, is a performance to behold.
Locke’s budget was less than $2 million and has made at least $6 million. It runs 84 minutes of Tom Hardy. Knight was primarily a writer, winning awards for “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises”. He continues to direct a lot of television.
The most famous contained thriller of course is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope”, notable for taking place in real time and being edited so as to appear as a single continuous shot through the use of long takes. The film did not receive great reviews as critics felt the experiment, though bold, did not hold up the thin story, which was based on the murder by Leopold and Loeb. Nonetheless, Roger Ebert called it “one of the most interesting experiments ever attempted by a major director working with big box-office names.” (Jimmy Stewart)
Both “The Hide” and “Locke” received excellent reviews, made their money back theatrically (not to mention DVD release, etc..) and moved their directors careers up and beyond where they’d been. Both also, for their innovation, were accepted at many film festivals and won awards. It pays to be creative, to take risks and to try something different if you’ve got the right creative group and material to work with. It also proves that one need not hide behind fancy settings and big explosions. Dialogue and character are what drive a story, no puns intended.