In television parlance, a “bottle” show is an episode designed to be shot on a handful of standing sets using only the main series regulars. “Bottle” show scripts usually are commissioned when a series runs over budget and the producers need to pump out an episode as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Think of all those “Star Trek” episodes where 90 percent of the action took place on the bridge. Those were classic “bottle” shows.

As the COVID-19 epidemic continues to rage, producers are looking for feature scripts that conform to the same criteria as “bottle” shows for traditional television. They want scripts with just a few locations and a minimal number of characters. Such projects can be filmed under tightly controlled conditions and don’t require large on-set production crews, thus minimizing the opportunities for viral infection.

Writing under such restrictions is not as difficult as you might imagine. Playwrights have been doing it for decades. In Ira Lewin’s classic thriller “Deathtrap” (1978), the lead character, a Broadway playwright, describes the perfect theatrical thriller as having “one set and five characters.”(Which, not coincidentally, is precisely the elements of “Deathtrap.”) Multi-camera sit-coms from “I Love Lucy” to “All in the Family” to “Full House” to “To Big Bang Theory”operated for decades under similar restrictions.  For years, there was a running joke in Hollywood that the perfect “B-Movie” would involve one character and take place in a phone booth. (This was back when there were such things as phone booths.)  Writer Larry Cohen ultimately took the challenge literally, the result being the 2002 hit thriller “Phone Booth.”

In the age of COVID, can you take up the challenge as well?

Here’s how you can write the kind of “bottle script” producers are looking for – now.

  1. Come up with a reason to trap your characters in a limited “arena.” Think of a reason why your story – regardless of genre – mustbe told in a single location. Maybe you’ve got a bunch of people trapped in a high-rise building during a blackout. Maybe they’re all being held hostage during a bank robbery-gone-bad. Maybe they’re in a cabin that’s been snowed in. Maybe they’re in a bomb shelter waiting out the end of the world. Maybe they’re on a boat or on a spaceship or in prison. Or maybe they’re just all at Grandma’s house for a family reunion. All kinds of situations – both dramatic and comic – are possible when people are forced to be together.
  2. Focus on just two or three characters. It takes two characters to create conflict, but add a third character and things can getreally Three characters allow for narrative conflicts to escalate through power plays, shifting allegiances, secrets, and betrayals. Having an odd number of characters at the center of the story guarantees that group’s politics will always be out of balance. And that makes it easier to drive the narrative forward.
  3. Exploit “unseen dangers.” Horror movies have always capitalized on the audience’s fear of the unknown. The scariest monsters are always those we never see – or only glimpse in passing. But you don’t need to be writing traditional horror to take advantage of this axiom. Violent weather, war, terrorism, crime, disease – all of these very real dangers can threaten your character without ever having to be literally depicted on screen. In low-budget filmmaking, the creative use of phone calls, text messages, social media posts, TV and radio newscasts, and even just sound effects have long allowed cash-strapped filmmakers to suggest activity in the “outside world” without having to actually take us there.
  4. Don’t Forget CGI.Modern computer-generated imagery (CGI) allows filmmakers to create vast, complex worlds that exist only inside a computer, yet appear as real as anything an actual camera can capture. Knowing this allows you to write a “bottle” script that looks like anything but. A great case-in-point is the recent Tom Hanks film “Greyhound,” the WWII action drama currently streaming on Apple TV+. Although the film contains a lot of pulse-pounding destroyer-vs-submarine action, it’s virtually all CGI. The only “real” action – involving Hanks and his few co-stars — takes place in a hotel lobby, on the destroyer’s tiny bridge, and in a few below-decks corridors. (Even the German U-Boat commander out to kill Hanks only appears as a taunting voice over the ship’s radio.) The Disney+ “Star Wars” universe series “The Mandalorian” is shot entirely on a high-tech soundstage that allows vast interior and exterior locations to be digitally recreated in-camera. (Similar stages are currently being built all over Hollywood.) The lesson here is, thanks to modern computer technology, you don’t have to think “small” to write a “bottle” script.

As we continue to spend week upon week confined to our homes, perhaps it’s only fitting that “confinement” should be the watchword currently driving script searches in Hollywood. But limiting the physical arena doesn’t mean limiting your imagination. In fact, when you realize the dramatic (and comedic) potential of physical restrictions, the possibilities become limitless. – Allen B. Ury

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