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Making Friends With Claustrophobia

There is a minor boom in single-location stories, which force moviemakers to maintain drama without scene changes.

April 14, 2002|HUGH HART

When Alfred Hitchcock was preparing to make "Dial M for Murder" in 1954, the big question was how to turn the hit play into a hit movie. Director and former film historian Peter Bogdanovich recalled Hitchcock's solution, imitating the suspense master's phlegmatic drawl: "Doooon't make it cinematic. Just shoot it." Bogdanovich, who interviewed Hitchcock in 1963, continued: "When I asked why he didn't open it up, Hitchcock said he didn't believe if you had a successful play that you should fuss around with the construction. And it didn't seem to hurt 'Dial M for Murder,' which took place almost entirely in one apartment."

Bogdanovich brought up Hitchcock while discussing his latest directorial effort, "The Cat's Meow," which opened Friday and which also takes place primarily in one location. A fact-based story about the mysterious death in 1924 of Hollywood producer Thomas Ince aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht, "The Cat's Meow" is one of several recent films that squeeze maximum dramatic tension from a minimal amount of space.

"Panic Room," directed by David Fincher, depicts a single mom (Jodie Foster) and her daughter hiding in a high-tech cubbyhole after thieves invade their New York apartment. Ethan Hawke's directorial debut "Chelsea Walls," which opens Friday, is set entirely in Manhattan's legendary Chelsea Hotel.

Last year's "Final," a futuristic thriller starring Denis Leary and Hope Davis, was filmed at a former Connecticut psychiatric hospital by actor-turned-director Campbell Scott. In "Tape," also from last year, three former friends (Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Uma Thurman) spend the entire movie sequestered in a seedy motel room while they revisit a traumatic high school incident. For the haunted insane asylum drama "Session 9," writer-director Brad Anderson found all the atmosphere he needed in an abandoned Victorian-era hospital outside Boston. "The Anniversary Party," Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming's satiric look at neurotic show-biz relationships, takes place during a party at a single Hollywood Hills home.

Other single-setting indie features include last fall's "The Business of Strangers," in which a corporate executive (Stockard Channing) and her just-fired assistant (Julia Stiles) play psychosexual mind games while stuck overnight in an antiseptic airport hotel. The politically charged ghost story "The Devil's Backbone" unfolds within the confines of a Spanish orphanage.

Actors have always loved single-location films: They don't have to compete with the scenery (see related story, Page 19). Resourceful directors also enjoy the challenge of a static setting. Observed Bogdanovich, "There's something about the unity of place and time and circumstance, which the Greeks knew about and which certainly applied in 'Cat's Meow.'" During an overnight cruise from San Pedro to San Diego, Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) and Hearst (Edward Herrmann) party through the night with a gaggle of Hollywood hangers-on, then wake to find a dead man on board.

Filming off the coast of Greece and shooting interior scenes on a Berlin sound stage, Bogdanovich wanted to create the illusion of a single setting and asked writer Steven Peros to compress the screenplay so that all key scenes would transpire on the yacht.

"Enclosures--a ship, a hotel, a train ride--are very good for drama," Bogdanovich said. "I think it increases the audience's suspense. It's not coincidental that Agatha Christie would use that sort of thing. In 'Cat's Meow' you have a single location, but it's traveling, which gives the story a certain momentum."

Writer David Koepp came up with the idea for "Panic Room" when he moved to New York in 1999 with his family and started renovating a four-story brownstone.

"I realized ... this is a cool setting for a thriller," said Koepp, who a few years earlier had read about hidden, impenetrable "safe rooms" to which residents could retreat in the event of a home invasion or kidnapping attempt. "It just seemed like such a great paranoid thing: There's this tiny space within this great vertical space that's narrow and tall and kind of confining on its own, but it still gives you great visual opportunities like skylights and stairwells."

Koepp has scripted his share of epic-scale pictures, including "Jurassic Park," but he enjoyed working within the constrained universe of "Panic Room." "It definitely increases the dramatic tension," he said, "and it also forces you as the writer or David Fincher as the director into more creative choices because you're limiting the number of colors you can paint the thing with."

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