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‘Buried’ cinematographer looks for boxed-in angles

Thriller was a challenge to light and shoot

What’s almost as scary as being buried alive in a coffin? Shooting a feature film inside that coffin, says cinematographer Eduard Grau.

In “Buried,” the recent Lionsgate release helmed by Rodrigo Cortes, Ryan Reynolds plays a U. S. contractor in Iraq who wakes up six feet underground, entombed in a ransom attempt after his truck convoy is attacked. With only a lighter and a cell phone for illumination and communication, he spends the next 90 minutes squirming inside his claustrophobic confines, desperately trying to inform the outside world of his predicament and whereabouts.

With not even a flashback in the script to take the story outside the dark box, and no freedom to use anything other than close-ups and tight angles, Grau had his work cut out for him.

“We thought we were going to run out of tricks,” he said, “but we kept coming up with new ideas of how to change things and make it interesting.”

In fact, the crew constructed four different coffins with removable walls on a soundstage in Barcelona — each one designed to allow specific shots. But to ensure that everything looked authentic, they were built small. “The coffin is the size it looks,” said Grau, “but you’d be surprised how much space you can find to put a camera — or even a two-camera team — in a meter and a half.”

Grau and his co-camera operator, Pau Esteve, worked “very close” to each other. “He would be shooting Ryan’s eye, I’d be shooting his whole face, in different positions. Both of us would wiggle around in that tiny space.”

While the original intent was to shoot digitally, Grau ended up using 35mm film and Moviecam Compact cameras. “Digital would have been cheaper, but we discovered that it was also going to be more difficult, and wasn’t going to look as good. Film was an artistic decision,” said Grau, who was helped by Kodak and Deluxe.

Grau relieved the monotony of the darkness inside the coffin by alternating between different light sources: the cigarette lighter casts a warm, flickering glow, the cell phone a cool blue radiance. Reynolds uses one, then the other as he struggles, twists and turns, creating varying patterns of light and shadow.

Grau credits Reynolds with an exceptional physical and emotional performance over the course of the 18-day shoot in August 2009. “It was very intense for him,” he said. “Lying in a coffin every day, he ended up full of bruises, splinters, sand on his face and an aching back.

“We had one very long scene when (his character) speaks to his mother on the cell phone. We shot it without rehearsal on the very first take. I really cried because of his performance of that intense moment. I was surprised. That had never happened to me before.”

Grau, 29, picked by Variety last year as one of its 10 cinematographers to watch, is keeping busy. Before shooting “Buried,” he was d.p. on Tom Ford’s “A Single Man.” He recently wrapped Nick Murphy’s “The Awakening” with Rebecca Hall and Dominic West in England, and has just begun Marcal Flores’ “Animals” in Spain.

Bookings & Signings

Dattner Dispoto has booked d.p.’s Bobby Bukowski on Oren Moverman’s “Rampart,” Stefan Czapsy on Boaz Yakin’s “Save,” Claudio Miranda on Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” Dave Perkal on Gil Junger “Ex-Mas Carol,” Declan Quinn on Mary Harron’s “The Moth Diaries,” Glynn Speeckaert on Radu Mihaileanu’s “La Source de femmes,” and David Stockton on Oz Scott’s “Home Run Showdown.”

Innovative Artists has signed producer/UPM Louis G. Friedman (“Piranha 3-D”), d.p. Checco Varese (“True Blood”) and production designer Zack Grobler (“My Bloody Valentine”).

Gersh editor bookings: Matt Chesse on Marc Forster’s “Machine Gun Preacher,” Alan Cody on Tom Hanks’s “Larry Crowne,” Scott Gray on Scott Hicks’s “The Lucky One,” Eric Kissack on Todd Strauss Schulson’s “A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas,” Jeff McEvoy on Brad Furman’s “Lincoln Lawyer,” Lee Smith on Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” Troy Takaki on David Bowers’ “Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules,” and John David Allen on Bruce Beresford’s “Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding.”

Gersh also booked production designers Lester Cohen on NBC’s “A Legal Mind,” Mark Hutman on Fox’s “Glee” and Cory Lorenzen on NBC’s upcoming “Next”; costume designers Chris Peterson on NBC’s “A Legal Mind,” Melissa Toth on HBO’s “Too Big to Fail,” Delphine White on A&E’s “Breakout,” Mary Jane Fort on John Schultz’s “Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer,” Ellen Lutter on Dennis Dugan’s “Jack and Jill,” Kurt and Bart on Todd Solondz’s “Dark Horse,” Ha Nguyen on an untitled J.J. Abrams film, Abby O’Sullivan on Mark Mann’s “Generation Um,” Beatrix Aruna Pasztor on Oliver Parker’s “Johnny English,” Laura Jean Shannon on Craig Brewer’s “Footloose,” Mary Vogt on Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Men in Black 3,” and Jacqueline West on an untitled Terrence Malick film; and line producer Sean Ryerson on Lifetime pilot “Exit 19.”

peter.caranicas@variety.com

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