By Victoria Tickle.
One-location (or one-room) films are films that do exactly what they say on their metaphorical tins: their narratives take place within the confines of one location or one room. In order to compensate for their lack of locations, settings and (potentially) character interactions, one-location films have to give the audience an intense injection of drama via their narratives. For this reason, most of these films are in the thriller or horror genres.
The premise of a one-location film can be seen as a bit of a gamble in all respects. Financially it can be a dream, one location or room often means one set, and a limited cast and crew number. This means that the production costs across the board are dramatically cut or non-existent. All of the equipment used can stay in one location, meaning that transport costs are eliminated completely. One location can almost guarantee a low production cost, whilst not necessarily sacrificing production value.
However, films of this nature can be a nightmare for creativity. The production crews, writers and directors can be extremely challenged as well as limited in these projects. This can cause the failure of the film in critics’ eyes or completely shut it down.
The challenge for the writer is in creating a scenario within the story that is compelling enough to keep the attention of the audience throughout the length of the film. The director also has a hard task in getting the actors to bring their characters to life in such a way that the lack of locations or even scenery change is incidental. The actors need to show character development and progression, and character interaction in a natural way.
The production team and director must work together to find ways of shooting scenes in a method that is not obviously repetitive or boring for the audience to endure. In order for a one-location film to be successful, all of these measures and elements must blend perfectly and complement each other. If any single aspect fails then the whole film can fail.
Both studios and independent filmmakers have attempted to make one-location films, and the successful ones have all followed the rules above. In many of these cases, the gross income of these films far surpasses their budgets. This makes them both successful for their entertainment value as well as financially speaking.
The characters themselves are integral to the success of these films. This is because they are the focus of the story, and the most prominent things on screen. Without breath taking establishing shots, staggering CGI or SFX and complicated set designs, all the audience is left with are the characters.
These characters are initially complete strangers to the audience (and often to each other), so we must quickly be made to feel strong emotions for them in order for a successful connection to be made, which compels us to keep watching to see how events unfold. Which emotion we feel rarely matters; it could be empathy, fear, hatred or any other emotion, as long as it is there.
Where there are multiple characters, it is essential that there is some form of conflict between them at some point. This conflict acts as the catalyst to moving the plot forward. Conflict usually comes from characters wanting to hide something (a physical object or information) or when characters have opposing viewpoints (usually concerning how to proceed in life threatening situations).
These instances for conflict allow the characters to divulge their backstory to each other, and the audience, in order to help them through these situations. Their back-stories are often rich and intriguing, as they are the life force that the audience feeds on. With the lack of opportunity for traditional backstory explanation or character development, the characters in one-location films often explain large chunks of information rather quickly instead of in bite size pieces throughout the film. While this would be seen as potentially overwhelming to the audience in films with multiple locations, it is an absolute necessity for at least one character to go deep into herself/himself to give the audience something to work and connect with. This is because the audience and the characters are usually in the same position with regard to not knowing much about the (other) characters on screen, how they got there or what will happen to them.
The characters also have to be drastically dynamic, yet remain realistic. The contrast of character personalities helps to keep the story effortlessly fresh and new, as these dynamic personalities are guaranteed to naturally clash and cause drama and tension.
Dialogue in one-location films has to be extremely well developed, as it has to work to replace elaborate sets and locations and even the absence of secondary and tertiary characters. Dialogue also has to be to the point, funny, smart or reflective, while remaining both realistic and entertaining.
The art direction, while seeming simple on its surface to viewing audiences, is not as easy or straightforward as it may appear. Dressing a set that will be the only one requires a great amount of skill. The sets have to be practical with concern to production time, space and costs and must inaugurate the mood for the entire film. The one and only location must have metaphoric meaning to the audience, which is revealed through carefully selected aesthetics such as colour palettes, props, costumes and hair and makeup. On top of all of this, it has to provide the director with ample choices with regards to camera angles and light sources, all whilst remaining meaningful and maintaining a sense of realism for the audience.
There are films that have had huge success as one-location films. Some of the most notable recent examples are Buried (2010), Paranormal Activity (2007), Cube (1997) and Exam (2009).
Buried is the quintessential one-location film. Its entire on-screen narrative is not just set in one location, or room, but in one coffin. The camera does not leave the inside of the coffin once, not for flashbacks, not for telephone calls, not for anything. Not only is there only one physical character present onscreen for the entire film, he is confined to a very small space and can only lie down. Yet this film was highly successful. It hinges on the character’s conversations with people over the phone to try to assist and save him. The film offers the audience the same unrelenting experience that the character is going through by keeping the film very claustrophobic and real.
Another highly successful, both financially and with fans, film in this genre is Paranormal Activity. This one-location film was shot in the director’s house, the characters kept their actors first names and the cameras were all commercial ones. The whole film was shot for $10,000 and took over $30,000,000 at the box office. This was because of its successful transference of its characters ordeal to the audience. The use of handheld and surveillance type cameras put the audience in a helpless and voyeuristic position. The audience is kept in one location and knows very little ahead of the characters, forcing the audience into a submissive role. The use of unknown actors and a very realistic set means that the audience can very easily accept the realism being presented to them. This film went on to become a successful franchise, spawning three more films to date.
Exam is a British thriller film that takes place in one room. While it is the most under-the-radar from this list it was still a success. It has several characters who have all been placed in a high stakes and very tense situation, and are all vying for a position only one of them can have; a job at a very prestigious and successful company. They are told they can’t talk to the armed guard, leave the room where the exam takes place or spoil their papers without being disqualified. They are further told that there is only one question, but their exam papers are blank. What follows is the drama of how the characters go about finding the question – especially because they’ve been informed that nothing is illegal within the room. For a one-room film, Exam has quite a large cast, but this works to the films advantage as the characters offer a diverse range of representations. These include the level-headed thinker, the arrogant leader, the manipulator, and the shy wallflower to name just a few. These group dynamics help the audience associate with certain characters and help them figure out who the protagonist is, as one-location films rarely have a defined protagonist before the second act.
Cube is a one-location film that takes place in several different identical rooms, giving the illusion of one room. Five strangers awake to find themselves in a cube shaped room and must figure out how to get through a maze of identical cube shaped rooms alive. Some rooms are rigged with death traps. The five people must figure out how who they are can be related to why they were put together, and how to get out safely – and alive. Cube helps to relieve the audience’s sense of claustrophobia by allowing the characters to move between rooms, but the looming threat of the death traps keeps the suspense alive. The characters personalities clash in order to help the audience stay intrigued and the character development is fresh and entertaining.
The one-location genre has been implemented and paid homage to in several other film genres. For example, Devil (2010) has its main focus on one room, the elevator, but leaves regularly to focus on the other characters. The same can be said for Hunger (2009) and The Killing Room (2009), both of which often leave the one room focus to show other parts of the narrative.
Some films just use the draw and appeal of a one-room film to enhance the narrative. One example is Phone Booth (2002) – although the focus is on the phone booth, a lot of the film takes place outside of it. The same goes for Saw (2004), Reservoir Dogs (1992) and 1408 (2007). All of these titles may have drawn inspiration from one-location film narratives, but do not follow enough of the rules to the classified as such themselves.
The one-location film is an experience, and the audience must feel like they are part of it, not just viewing it. Due to the level of difficulty that surmises the entire process of making these films, they are a relatively rare occurrence in mainstream cinema. Even when they are made, it is a struggle for them to be considered a success, as just one error in any one of many areas can bring a failure rating to the film as a whole. However, when the rules are followed and the production is executed with skill and precision, the fruits of everyone’s labour yields a refreshing, interesting and welcome break from the overwhelming and all too familiar releases of the status quo, mainstream cinema.
Victoria Tickle is the founder and sole writer of Inkblot Thoughts, a website analyzing all aspects of society and culture. She is also a recent graduate with joint honors in film & media and journalism.