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This piece was originally printed in our 2010 Winter issue.

Hell can be many things — being buried alive in the Iraqi desert, for example, or perhaps just watching your screenplay slowly disintegrate on the shelf during never-ending studio “development.” The opposite of most screenwriters, Chris Sparling knows the former but not the latter. He went directly from struggling indie director to successful Hollywood scribe when the screenplay for his horror thriller Buried was picked up, cast with a major up-and-coming star, and thrown before the cameras in just six months. And now it’s receiving its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sparling made his debut feature, An Uzi at the Alamo, in 2005. He wrote, directed, acted and produced the low-budget comedy about a failed writer pledging to kill himself on his 25th birthday. The film received only minimal distribution and after making a short, Balance, Sparling decided to come up with a high-concept idea that could be shot cheaply and quickly. He remembered news reports about U.S. contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan building bridges and houses. These aren’t the Blackwater types but “everyday folks, like truck drivers, carpenters, etc.,” Sparling says. “Over the years, many of them have been taken hostage and held for ransom. I considered the possibility of one of these individuals being buried alive and given only a very short amount of time to coordinate their own ransom. And if they’re not successful, they’re left to die right where they are.”

That ghoulish concept, echoing not only the popular Saw series but also George Sluizer’s classic psychological thriller The Vanishing, led to his script for Buried. Ryan Reynolds plays that American contractor working in Iraq and stuck in a coffin with only a cell phone and a lighter.

Although the film’s setting is a metaphorically rich one considering recent American foreign policy, Sparling says he was guided by more practical concerns. “Stealing a page from Hitchcock’s playbook,” he says, “I decided on writing a story that takes place entirely in one small location. In my case, this was inside an old, wooden coffin. From there, I needed a plausible reason why someone would be buried alive.”

To research his tale he interviewed actual contractors who worked in Iraq. “I didn’t want to tell a POV of their specific stories,” Sparlings says. “Rather, I wanted to get a sense of what it was really like over there for them. More than anything, I wanted to portray them, and the difficult job they did, accurately. I felt a certain responsibility to do this, probably the same way a documentary filmmaker would.”

After finishing the script, Sparling made a crucial decision: to step back from his previous role as a writer-director. “I decided to go out with the script as a spec,” he says. Buried was quickly picked up by producer Peter Safran, who attached Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés. “Rodrigo had an incredible vision for the film, and after watching [his Spanish film] The Contestant, I knew immediately that he was exactly the right person to direct the picture. And he was also the only director who wanted to shoot the film as it takes place in the script; that is, keeping the story inside the box for the duration of the film.”

A well-known actor had to be found to bring in investors and interest, and Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal) was quickly chosen as the hero stuck underground. “Ryan, Rodrigo and I are all repped by the same agency, so I imagine that made it a bit easier to get him the script,” says Sparling. Once he had the script, the movie happened the way movies are supposed to happen but rarely do. “We sat down at a restaurant one day in L.A. to discuss the project, and then literally, within weeks, the cameras were rolling.”

Buried was shot on a soundstage in Barcelona over a 21-day period last August. Sparling, who only knew his own no-budget productions, was surprised when he arrived in Spain to visit the shooting. “I was amazed at how big of a production it actually was in spite of the contained nature of the film,” he says. Buried’s charmed life continued when, barely four months after the start of principal photography, it was accepted to Sundance, where it will world premiere in the Midnight section.

Since Buried wrapped in September, Sparling’s been busy. He recently sold a script entitled Mercy to Gold Circle Films to be produced next year. He’ll reunite with Safran on an untitled thriller set to shoot next spring and is currently developing a script titled Falling Slowly, which will see his return to the director’s chair. And prepremiere, Buried saw its industry profile increase when its screenplay was selected in December for the prestigious “Black List” of Hollywood’s most-liked screenplays of 2009.

Of his whirlwind year, Sparling says, “I was really beginning to question if I’d ever catch my proverbial big break. I drifted away from film work and started applying for police jobs and even began the interview process with the A.T.F. It’s not that I intended on throwing in the towel, but I thought I was really going to have to restrategize my approach to… well, to life.” But Sparling is taking his current good fortune in stride. “All told, I guess I’m still waiting to see if this really is my big break,” he laughs. “But even if it turns out not to be, I’m very grateful to have a break of any kind, because, quite honestly, my hands were getting pretty damn tired from all that knocking.”

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