A contained screenplay is a script that contains a limited number of characters, locations, props and production requirements. Basically, it’s the film equivalent of a television “bottle episode” where the main characters typically remain in one main location throughout the duration of the script.
Immediately, the cost benefits should come to mind: Only one location to secure; very few characters to cast; little if any special effects and most importantly – a contained story that must be told creatively to keep the audience engaged and interested without all the bells and whistles usually afforded by larger scale productions.
If you’re fortunate enough to win a cash prize for a screenplay contest, this is the type of script to have at the ready to make.
Even if you don’t venture into the contest realm, there are consistent needs of others for these types of scripts [View our Script Search Board]. Be sure to have one in your portfolio – and be creative to an extreme – often the plot will reveal unique ways to share a story.
My suggestion is to look at these examples:
Here the subject and overall film message lends itself to introspection and a focus on what is seen rather than showing lots of variations of scenery and locations. The story itself centers on the fascination of watching and the attraction of being looked at.
Here's a story that plays into the limited location requirements of a contained script. If your scope of looking is limited, increase the intensity of the focus. Have the story revolve around the almost obsessive need to look harder. Fortunately, movies play into our internal passion to see what we do not normally see. We love to be ‘in’ on something when we are the exclusive audience.
This film was shot entirely at the Paramount Studios lot on a soundstage. However, while the plot revolves around confined voyeurism; the screenplay still required the universal seasoning to make a compelling story. The recipe includes samplings of clever dialogue and touches of comedy or romance to fill the period between intense drama and conflict.
12 ANGRY MEN
The stark simplicity of the entire film, apart from a brief setup and epilogue, taking place within a small New York City jury room on the hottest day of the year. 12 men debate the fate of a young defendant charged with murdering his father.
Here, the tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue and body language; not action. Those elements lend better to a play than a movie but the challenge for the screenwriter is to create those unique voices of each personality so that they can come alive when there’s internal conflict among a group. It’s also a great opportunity to reveal more of what’s being said by ‘how’ it’s said. Parentheticals in dialogue warrant a whole separate blog but in a contained film like this, they are essential. A sarcastic or droll tone can convey completely the opposite effect of simple words on the page. It’s important for the screenwriter to engage the reader with what the characters do while saying their dialogue.
In one of the most powerful scenes, a juror begins a racist rant and, as he continues, one juror after another walks away from the table. Even those that think the defendant is guilty can’t sit and listen to the blatant prejudice.
View your location as a number of different venues for action. When I co-wrote, this contained horror spec (with J.E. Clarke), we knew from the outset that we’d set it completely within an old deteriorating community playhouse. There’s an endless array of horror staples afforded here, including, a trap door on the stage; dressing rooms, a balcony and lobby area as well the typical rest rooms and prop rooms etc. Anytime there are spooks and surprises needed, a venue such as an old movie theater or community playhouse affords a wealth of opportunities for surprises and drama.
If a venue like this is not available, look beyond a venue’s typical use and use its nuances toward your genre.
For instance, Jay Bonansinga (“Walking Dead”) used the unique location of a Self-Storage facility for his “Self Storage” book that offers the perfect example of a type of venue that might be available in your area to shoot or adapt a story that benefits from the nooks and crannies in a storage site.
What kind of venues do you have access to?
Now, you may only have open land near you. In good weather, nature offers a very compelling landscape. In bad weather, it’s a nightmare – so, if you have no unique venue and limited resources that necessitate shooting inside an apartment? What do to? Hey, as a creator, borrow from real-life and have EVERYONE have to stay inside – we all now know what playing out with a shutdown due to a pandemic feels like.
LEARNING TO LOVE
Another co-writer I’ve partnered with, Gary Howell, and myself wrote a script set completely within an apartment with only a male and female lead. Of course, we had some outside influences appear via FaceTime and Zoom calls, but we were forced to craft a story around someone who literally could not leave his apartment. There are only so many places to go, so it’s best to have multiple character motivations revealed in layers. This is where you can really shine if your dialogue teases exposition from each character as they interact.
Use the circumstances around forcing containment to reveal character, just like human nature. All of us deal with adversity differently; some get anxious and manic, while others view it as an adventure and happily take a detour from the norm.
If only two characters are in your story, here's the perfect way to create instant conflict and let it play out in the most original way you can craft. Make an ordinary story extraordinary by letting us see unique ways to address a common problem.
Don’t go it alone. If you’ve never written a contained script, notice a consistency in my last two examples? I co-wrote them with someone. Try it. Get outside of your own head and work with another writer that you trust. If nothing comes of it, I guarantee you’ll be a better writer for it. Embrace the newness and acknowledge your skillset. Maybe one of you is better with dialogue and the other with story structure. Play to your strengths. What better place than the limits of a few characters in one location?
Think of new challenges to your stage direction. Remember to show your secondary character’s emotions and beliefs by having them walk away from the table – choosing to not endorse a certain path or accusation. Choosing NOT to do something is just as important a choice as to join.
SHOW your character’s motivation by HOW they use their body language without words.
Bottom line – Producers continuously seek attractive contained scripts. [Check out our Query Letter E-Blast] ]They are affordable and allow the talent to really shine free of the limitations of multiple locations, sets, ensemble casts and diluted material. Challenge yourself to have at least one in your portfolio and scan the opportunities available here and in the marketplace. Mastering the art of creating a well-executed contained script is a feather in any screenwriter’s cap and one to aspire to when honing your writing material.
Need help writing a query letter for your limited location script? www.screenwritingstaffing.com/query-letter-assistance
Need industry professional notes on your contained script? We can help: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/pro-screenplay-coverage
Are you an industry pro looking to option or purchase a screenplay? Post here: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/search-for-screenplay
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Blog written by Rick Hansberry
Rick Hansberry is an award-winning screenwriter with more than 25 years of industry experience. With several produced credits on his IMDb page, Rick has written, produced and directed several short films. 2017 saw the release of two feature-length movies, "Alienate" and "Evil In Her." 2018 brought the release of another award-winning short, "My Two O'Clock". In 2019, Rick wrote, produced and directed his first web series pilot, "Clean Slate" and delivered creative and narrative material to an Emmy-winning documentary, "This Is My Home". Watch out for new productions from Rick later in 2022, including the feature roadtrip dramedy "Baggage Claim" (with Nikki Neurohr); a short romantic comedy, "Impression" (with Brooke Vanderdonck) and a horror feature, "Crimson Shadows" (with Chloe Carroll).
Rick is presently working on new shorts and features. He has dozens of scripts available for production and is also interested in spec writing, collaborating and adapting stories for the screen. Many of his scripts can be found on Script Revolution: https://www.scriptrevolution.com/profiles/rick-hansberry
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