Directing the One-Man Show: Advice from 'Locke' & 'Buried' Filmmakers

I was in 8th grade when Cast Away came out, and I remember thinking, "How can you make a movie with only one character?" "One-man" shows can be supremely engrossing pieces of cinema, full of rich explorations into the human condition, as well as debilitating human struggle. However, from a filmmaking standpoint, there are plenty of pitfalls that a director must navigate and maneuver around in order to avoid a flat, undecipherable, and ultimately uninteresting film. Directors Steven Knight (Locke) and Rodrigo Cortés (Buried) offer some insight into how they approached their one-man films, as well as some excellent advice on how you can approach yours.

This past year, one-man show All is Lost made it up on the big screen, receiving a few nominations (and a win) at the Oscars and Golden Globes, but there must've been something in the cinematic water in 2010, because we saw an incredible amount of one-man shows hit the theaters: Wrecked, Buried, and the critically acclaimed 127 Hours. Even in the 80s we saw the releases of what some consider the 2 best one-man shows, Swimming to Cambodia, featuring Spalding Gray as himself, directed by Jonathan Demme, and Philip Baker Hall as Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor.

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So, if you're interested in making a film that only features a single character, you definitely have an assortment of films you can study. But, if you want a few tips on production, Knight and Cortés offer some great advice as they talk about their films Locke and Buried in Filmmaker Magazine. Check out the trailers for each director's film, and continue on to check out their tips.

Stay true to the concept

There's no doubt that making a film with a single character is a risky move, and any time you take a risk in storytelling, the desire to make your narrative a little more safe is going to creep up. However, Knight says to stay true to your concept. There's a reason why you wanted to fix your lens on just one character -- remind yourself of it, and follow your own rules throughout your production. Knight says:

There are rules. If you establish the rules early on, people just go with it. I think if you break the spell by doing anything else, then you are in trouble. Once [Locke] was in the car, I sort of insisted that we resist cutting to anything else other than the road.

Make the camera interesting 

Perhaps the biggest fear a filmmaker could have in making a one-man film, or any film for that matter, is making it boring. The odds are against you if your project's cast consists of a single actor, because you may not have the luxury of cutting away to other actions, including much dialog, or even just introducing new and exciting characters (and elements) into the narrative. One way to combat this is to make sure your film has outstanding cinematography, something that Knight's Locke is being heralded for, and something that Cortés  had to get creative with, since his film not only had a single character (Ryan Reynolds), but it took place in a buried coffin.

We worked out that we needed seven different coffins, and we designed and built them with different technical needs. So, to do this circle we designed one with collapsible walls that we could take out. If I felt that the right way to film something is the crane shot, which is impossible inside to shoot in the box. I didn’t renounce it, I found another way to do that.

Check out this behind the scenes featurette below of Buried for more about the construction of the "coffin set".

Create empathy with the character as soon as possible

Great cinematography, like with any film, can only take your film so far, because if your story is lacking life, cinematography won't be able to resuscitate it. One of the most important story elements (in my personal opinion, it's the most important element) that if done well, especially in a one-man show, can ensure a happy, interested, and invested audience is character development. Creating dimensional, relatable characters is imperative, because they're the elements to which your audience will invariably be drawn. And one way you do that is by giving your audience a reason to empathize with them. Knight describes creating a character with problems that almost everyone could relate to:

I thought that what we needed to do is get people absorbed in the story as soon as possible because they have nowhere else to go -- we are not offering them anything other than the story and the performance. I wanted it to be a very ordinary tragedy, a tragedy of everyday live that people experience -- It’s just about one man who made a mistake and this is what happened.


Cortés explains how he creates empathy for his Buried character Paul Conroy by putting the audience in his shoes immediately.

I thought that the best way of starting was having these minutes of pitch black, just him feeling around to see what is happening, and when you see the first spark and then another one and then the lighter, it shows you for the very first time that you are inside a box and you are trapped, the same way that Paul Conroy is. That was the way of making the audience feel and experience everything that the character does.

Are you currently working on a one-man show? Do you have any insight into how to approach making a film with a signal character -- issues that you didn't expect to arise? Let us know in the comments below.

Link: Locke Director Steven Knight and Buried Director Rodrigo Cortés with Eight Tips on Directing a One-Man Movie -- Filmmaker Magazine

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I'm not making a one character movie but a single character is going to carry the whole movie by herself. She is going to be in almost every single shot and all the characters are gonna come in and out of the movie as they revolve around this character's life.

It's been tough to write, still working on it. It's been tough to create empathy in my characters cause it's a touchy subject here in Venezuela. We'll see how it does once I'm done writing.

Beginning of next year you'll see it in a crowdfunding campaign hopefully.

April 26, 2014 at 3:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Great article. Probably one of the hardest films to make especially for an actor but if it works well it could do wonders for their career. I think Ryan Reynolds is a good actor but a roll like that could be a defining moment for him. I say he answers the call and blows us away, at least I hope so. I enjoy 1 character films, much older than you VR I said the same thing about Cast Away, I sure did enjoy it. Life of Pi, had me that way too, though there was more than one character. Good read

April 26, 2014 at 4:05PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Anthony Marino

FYI, Buried has been out for a few years now although Green Lantern may have trumped any credibility Reynolds received.

April 26, 2014 at 5:16PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Lol, guess I gotta brush up on my Ryan Reynolds filmography.

April 26, 2014 at 7:30PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Anthony Marino

I am not sure Green Lantern's can be fairly pinned on Ryan's acting. I think he was and is a good selection, but the script, editing, and overall directing faltered for me.

April 29, 2014 at 1:00PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Morgan Simpson

"I was in 8th grade when Cast Away came out ..."

Thanks for making me feel old :)

April 26, 2014 at 7:25PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I agree... so old!

Most of these one man structures are still based around a central relationship that is still one of the tenets of story, a beach ball, Brenner and the terrorist on the cellphone. 127 Hours is the most ingenious his relationship with a rock, the two of them destined to meet after billions of years....

April 27, 2014 at 10:38AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Thanks for the article, its helpful for me..I'm currently working on a script that highlights only a kid on 70% the film..well, there'll be other characters, but using their shadows, ofvoices only.. I find working with the sound here is the most challenging task, (convincing a producer is moreover the hardest).
it'll be great. if i get more references & ideas here, thanks.

April 26, 2014 at 9:16PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Saw LOCKE. After 40 minutes I'd had enough. Just get out of the f*cking car already. He is great to look at, but it didn't work for me.
BURIED was actually much better.
There's also the not bad BRAKE (2012) and why not PHONEBOOTH?
There are a few more I couldn't remember the names of. Not a new concept, and that's without counting theatre based one man shows shot on film.

April 28, 2014 at 8:09PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Did we see two different movies?

May 14, 2014 at 3:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I recommend watch "the big shave" by Martin Scorsese. is one of the best piece of one character. i lov the way that him keep it simple

May 3, 2014 at 11:22AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM