In Praise of Pulling Back

In the creative process, constraints are often seen as burdens. Budgets are too small, locations inaccessible, resources unavailable. Sometimes, though, the opposite is true. Sometimes, a multiplicity of options can be the burden.

“In my experience,” writes Brian Eno, “the instruments and tools that endure… have limited options.” Working with less forces us to find better, more creative ways to accomplish our goals. As sprawling and sometimes unwieldy as movies can be, low-budget and purposefully limited projects provide excellent examples of doing more with less.

Like many of us, James Wan and Leigh Whannell started off with no money. The two recent film-school graduates wrote their Saw (2004) script to take place mostly in one room. Inspired by the simplicity of The Blair Witch Project (1999), the pair set out not to write the torture-porn the Saw franchise is known for, but a mystery thriller, a one-room puzzle box. Interestingly, like concentric circles, the seven subsequent movies all revolve around the events that happen in that first room. They’re less a sequence and more ripples right from that first rock. And let’s not forget that the original Saw is still one of the most profitable horror movies of all time, bettered by the twig-thin budget of The Blair Witch Project and the house-bound Paranormal Activity (2007), two further studies in constraint.

James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence (2013) is also the product of pulling back. After working on big-budget movies (e.g., Rango, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, etc.), Byrkit wanted to strip the process down to as few pieces as possible. Instead of a traditional screenplay, he spent a year writing a 12-page treatment. Filmed over five nights in his own house, Coherence documents a dinner party gone astray as a comet flies by setting off all sorts of quantum weirdness. The story is small enough to tell among friends over dinner but big enough to disrupt their beliefs about reality. With the dialog unscripted, the film unfolds like a game. Each actor was fed notecards with short paragraphs about their character’s moves and motivations. Like a version of Clue written by Erwin Schrödinger, Coherence works because of its limited initial conditions — not in spite of them.

When producer David W. Higgins was developing the film Hard Candy (2005), he knew the story should play out in the tight space of a single room or small house, so he hired playwright Brian Nelson to write the script. Not as cosmic as CoherenceHard Candy nonetheless tells a big story in as small a space and with fewer people. The budget was intentionally kept below $1 million to keep the studio from asking for changes to the controversial final product — another self-imposed constraint in the service of freedom. Tellingly, Nelson also wrote the screenplay for Devil (2010), which transpires almost entirely in the confines of an elevator.

Narratives have personalities we have relationships with. An audience can’t get to know something that continually evolves into something else. Eno concludes, “A personality is something with which you can have a relationship. Which is why people return to pencils, violins, and the same three guitar chords.” Personalities have limits. Intimacy requires constraints. Don’t let lack of resources stop you from pursuing a project. The end result might be better anyway.

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