Inspiration, Pro Tips

5 Tips for Making a Movie Set in a Single Location Feel More Tense

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There’s something thrillingly audacious about a film that’s set entirely or mostly in a single location. “Thrillingly,” because very often movies that take that approach tend to be thrillers, or horror movies, that allow the claustrophobic angst of their scenarios to be mirrored in the space in which they’re set. “Audacious,” because making a movie set in a single location is much harder than it seems. It may appear logistically simpler — fewer locations, fewer camera set-ups, lower budget — but it can be quite the opposite, especially if you’re trying to squeeze as much tension into your project as you can.

If you’re planning on attempting this yourself, or just curious about how it’s done, read on for some lessons on living up to the concept’s full potential.
 

1. Ensure You Have Dynamic Characters

When writing the script (or directing the performances) for a film set in a single location, you need to spend extra time on your characters. If you don’t have variety in location, you need variety in your characters, not only because they’ll become the central focus, but also because audiences are going to be spending a lot of time with them. Leave your characters underdeveloped and you’ll run into trouble fast. You’ll especially want to make sure your characters are distinct and clearly distinguishable from each other, so no one is left wondering, “Wait, which character is this again?” A great model to use is Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, which puts a dozen characters into a very small jury deliberation room. That many characters squeezed into a confined space for 96 minutes shouldn’t be sustainable, yet you never confuse them because they’re all distinctly drawn (albeit with shorthand archetypes).

 

2. Know Every Angle and Camera Placement You’re Working With

Good filmmakers go into any production with a strong sense of what they plan to do with the camera on set. After all, that’s why storyboards exist and why it’s important to create good ones. That pre-planning becomes especially important when shooting in a single location, because you’ll be more limited in what angles and camera placements you have to work with. You need to know those in advance for two reasons: It can give you the chance to brainstorm creative alterations to your location to give you more options; and it will allow you to plan out a healthy variety in the sequences of shots. If you don’t do that kind of homework, you risk the panic of setting up a shot on a shoot day, only to realize the camera doesn’t work where you’ve placed it.

 

3. Establish Geography for An Audience

Situating your audience in the geography of a location is a fundamental filmmaking practice that becomes even more important when setting a story in a single spot. Because space in a single-location film is more scarce, audiences need to know every inch of its dimensions clearly. There should never be a cut to a corner of a room that leaves a viewer wondering, “Wait, where is this?” Think of it like world-building in science fiction or fantasy: audiences need to know what the established rules are about that world. The same goes for space. If you’re looking for how to best orient an audience, use Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window as an example. The opening shots of the thriller efficiently familiarize us with everything we need to know – we’re introduced to the entire layout and geography of James Stewart’s view into an apartment complex in a matter of minutes.

 

4. Don’t Neglect Shot Composition

The choice to make a single-location film is often driven by the desire to seize the inherent claustrophobia baked into the concept. We all, to varying degrees, have an apprehension when it comes to entrapment. That’s why horror films and thrillers — which draw on our universal fears — so often pursue single-location concepts. However, it can be tempting to simply allow that concept to do all work in creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. For example, Green Room’s core hook – a punk band spends most of the film trapped in the backroom of a Neo-Nazi club – is anxiety-inducing enough, but director Jeremy Saulnier doesn’t forget the power of shot composition. Look at the clip below and you’ll see how characters are either crammed shoulder-to-shoulder or hovered over in the frame. It accentuates the panic and entrapment of the moment – not dissimilar to the techniques used in the chestburster scene in Alien or a moment from the recent Murder on the Orient Express.

 

5. Embrace the Potential of Low Light

Framing isn’t the only way to convey the claustrophobic situation characters find themselves in. Another crucial component is lighting. In particular, shooting efficiently in low light can create an ominous mood. Even just using shadows to limit the visible safe spaces on screen that a character can occupy is effective. In the process, it further enhances a palpable sense of entrapment. A good example of this is Wait Until Dark, in which Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman being terrorized by criminals in her apartment. In the climax, she plunges her home into darkness to get the best of her oppressor, and during the sequence, shadows are used to great effect to mirror her panic, the thief’s confusion in the dark, and the overall confinement of two people squaring off in such a small space. Echo that same approach, and your single-location film will feel a lot more tense.

 
Do you have any other favorite examples of this style of film? Tell us what they are and why you love them in the comments!

Top image: The cast of 12 Angry Men. Image courtesy of MGM Home Entertainment.