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Top 10 Films That Take Place in Real Time

by Alisdair Hodgson
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Filmic time bears little resemblance to what we experience in the real world, invariably cutting out the boring bits and skipping hours, days, and years on a whim. Condensing a story in this way typically sharpens the plot, and most filmmakers make liberal use of it, exchanging scenes of characters going to the toilet for pulse-pounding, globe-trotting sequences whose temporal qualities we have to piece together in our heads.

But sometimes directors say no, we must see our characters eat and walk and urinate! The films they produce painstakingly track every second of screentime in real time, going from beginning to end without a minute unspoken for—and these are ten of the best.

Related: Ten Incredible Film Directors with Distinctive Styles

10 Phone Booth (2002)

WTF Happened to Phone Booth?

Joel Schumacher’s tightly wound thriller Phone Booth has been lost in the annals of cinema in the two decades since its release, but it really stands from the director’s oeuvre on a technical level. Having never made something like this, Schumacher decided to do the film—which takes place in real time within the titular booth—because it felt genuinely original.

Set in Times Square, publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) answers a public phone and is soon fighting for his life and admitting his lies to an unknown caller with a sniper rifle (Kiefer Sutherland). Farrell was in the booth from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon, with no lunch break, for a ten-day shoot because he’s in every scene of the film. Even when another character is on-screen, Schumacher uses split-screen to keep Stu present and the clock ticking.

But for a film that takes place in such a short timeframe, it took ages to come out. Phone Booth was first delayed by 9/11 and again by the DC sniper attacks. In a strange twist, journalists used footage from the film to report on the latter incident, boosting its audience prior to release. [1]

9 Carnage (2011)

How Carnage can help ?

Roman Polanski is no stranger to adaptations, and he levied the full force of his innovative approach when turning Yasmina Reza’s play Le Dieu du Carnage into the Hollywood-heavyweight four-hander Carnage.

Set in a Brooklyn apartment, this comedy of manners stars Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, and Jodie Foster as two couples who meet to discuss an altercation between their school-age sons. Civility soon departs, and the parents’ real personalities drive a war of words.

Taking place in the same 80 minutes the film runs for, the inspiration for Carnage’s continuous action came from the play, which has no breaks or scene changes. And while this makes sense for the stage, where audiences view the action from one perspective, it poses a more technical challenge for cinema. Thus, Polanski’s professed desire for artistic challenge on every production came to the surface, and he rose with it. He didn’t want to “cheat” in the edit like Hitchcock did with Rope (his words), and so presented the whole thing in one rolling, real-time sequence.[2]

8 Crank (2006)

‘Gotta Keep Moving’ Scene | Crank (2006)

If the Transporter films hadn’t ensured Jason Statham was the British heir to the action movie empire, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Crank would have. Statham stars as Chev Chelios, an L.A. hitman who is poisoned by the mafia and must keep adrenaline coursing through his body to stay alive while he seeks vengeance.

So far, it’s a typical high-concept action thriller. However, unlike similarly frantic genre entries, Crank pitches all its action against the clock of Chelios’s beating heart, moving with him every second of his madcap journey around the city and giving the film an immediacy that keeps the tension wire-tight until the conclusion.

Neveldine and Taylor’s goal in making Crank was simple: find creative ways to sustain an adrenaline rush second to second (like, say, a public sex scene in Chinatown) while never allowing the audience enough time to get bored. To achieve this, they took an “ADD” approach to scriptwriting, reckoning that if they could keep themselves entertained and astonished, they could do the same for their audience.[3]

7 Buried (2010)

BURIED | Ryan Reynold’s Greatest Film

In Ryan Reynolds’ transition from rom-com heartthrob to global superstar, he took roles in smaller, more intimate films—and it doesn’t get more intimate than Buried. Reynolds stars as Paul Conroy, a truck driver working in Iraq who is captured by terrorists and buried alive in a coffin, with only some assorted knickknacks and a cellphone for company.

Running at 95 minutes, the film charts Conroy’s attempts to communicate with the outside world and lead them to his burial site while sand fills his coffin and he consumes the last of his oxygen. While every aspect of this nail-biting setup oozes dread and tension, the actual reason for the film being constructed like this is somewhat more mundane.

When setting out to write the screenplay, Chris Sparling only had a $5,000 budget available, so he wrote Buried as a straightforward story about a man in a box, with no expensive camera rigs, special effects, costumes, or additional actors. Luckily for him, Hollywood took notice, attached Reynolds to the project, and raised $2 million to make something much bigger but no less constrained.[4]

6 Blind Spot (2018)

BLIND SPOT Trailer | PÖFF 2018

Norwegian drama Blind Spot tells the story of Marie (Pia Tjetla), a mother struggling to face her daughter Thea’s (Nora Mathea Øien) mental illness. It boasts the double honor of being both filmed and presented in real time.

Taking place from the point when Thea comes home from handball practice and jumps out of her bedroom window, the film stays with Marie as she finds help, journeys to the hospital, and undertakes a personal reckoning with her own blind spot. And all this is captured with two cameras shooting a single long take.
Writer-director Tuva Novotny wanted to present a clear vision of the drama unfolding, unobscured or influenced by editing, and with plenty of time for the viewer to take in every aspect, including pauses, silences, and spaces between the palpable action. The minutes on screen are the minutes used to shoot the film, and while it was a gargantuan technical challenge, particularly considering the location changes, the cast and crew accomplished it in just three attempts.[5]

5 Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Official Trailer – Al Pacino Movie

Based on the 1972 robbery of a Chase Manhattan branch in Brooklyn, Dog Day Afternoon stars Al Pacino and John Cazale as inept bank robbers Sonny Wortzik and Sal Naturile. While holding up a bank one August afternoon, the pair of small-time crooks get both more and less than they bargained for. They find hardly any cash, the police arrive before they can escape, and a hostage situation unfolds. The film tracks every event of that fateful afternoon, second to second, as Sonny bargains with the police, attracts the attention of the national press, and becomes something of an impromptu public hero.

Director Sidney Lumet was dedicated to creating something that remained as true to the real events as possible while letting audiences be in the room and get an unfiltered understanding of the characters and their story’s emotional core, rather than as the “freaks” the press portrayed the real men as. This not only meant telling events in real time but, unfortunately, also scrapping the score entirely, which Lumet felt detracted from the sense of realism and took audiences out of the story.[6]

4 Before Sunset (2004)

Before Sunset (2004) Official Trailer #1 – Ethan Hawke Movie

Richard Linklater set a new standard for romance with 1995’s Before Sunrise, in which a young couple—Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy)—have a chance in encounter in Vienna and spend the night wandering the streets discussing love, life, death and time, before departing separately.

Rather than retread the same ground for the sequel, Linklater upped the ante but also toned down the sense of romantic wonder by having it take place in real time (its predecessor condensed an entire night into 100 minutes). Thus, nine years later, he took his two leads to Paris and shot an 80-minute picture that tracks them from their bookshop reunion and onward as, again, they walk and talk and fall in love, with the deadline of Jesse’s impending flight hanging over them.

But this wasn’t always the plan. Originally, Linklater wrote a multi-location, bigger-budget flick that would expand on the scope of the original but couldn’t get it financed. So he went back to the drawing board and wrote a new film with Hawke and Delpy, and the tight, down-to-earth, real-time style was borne of these constraints.[7]

3 Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Through Agnes Varda’s Looking Glass

French New Wave icon Agnès Varda sought to tear up the script and make a film without convention when she was writing and directing Cléo from 5 to 7, which follows the singer Florence “Cléo” around Paris between the hours of 5 and 6:30 in the evening (making the famous title a misnomer) while she awaits a cancer diagnosis.

Eschewing conventions of narrative and cinematic time, the film has no well-defined acts and takes place in the 90 minutes during which it is set, offering every detail of the often-mundane encounters Cléo has with other Parisians. Though it stunned audiences at the time, this approach makes sense in the context of Varda’s early career as a photographer, where the image, its surroundings, and implied narratives are more important than direct fiction.

Ultimately, however, the director chose to approach the film in this way because she wanted to show how bad situations can shape people in such a short space of time. And Cléo is nothing if not changeable, taking up with a solider (Antoine Bourseiller) she met in the park by the film’s conclusion.[8]

2 Victoria (2015)

How to Make a Film in One Shot: Victoria

Sebastian Schipper’s German-language thriller Victoria follows its titular protagonist (Laia Costa) on a messy night out in Berlin, which progresses from weird to bad to bank robbery—as these things have a way of doing. And when we say it follows Victoria, we mean it: the entire movie is a single, continuous take with no cuts or transitions, doggedly tracking its protagonist. And it’s all the more impressive, considering it clocks in at 138 minutes.

Impressively, Schipper managed this in just three runs, with a near-seamless style that makes use of a variety of locations and improvised dialogue in three languages (German, Spanish and English). And it’s lucky he did, because his production budget only allowed for three attempts at the single take, after which he would have had to just cut and edit it like a conventional movie. Perseverance paid off, and the film’s technical mastery and success in unifying time, place, and cinematic form led to extensive media attention and an Oscar nomination.[9]

1 12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men (10/10) Movie CLIP – Not Guilty (1957) HD

Sidney Lumet’s first feature film, 12 Angry Men, put the director on the map and kicked off his career with three Academy Awards nominations. Adapted from the 1954 teleplay of the same name, the film is a courtroom drama without the court, which follows 12—you guessed it—angry male jurors as they deliberate on a trial and quarrel over the decision to send the defendant to the electric chair.

Needless to say, the film’s origins as a teleplay greatly influenced the presentation of the film and Lumet’s decision to play the action in real time. And, given the end result—where we move as if through the jurors’ very thoughts while they argue and change their positions—it was the right decision to make.

However, the film didn’t fare well at the box office, with star Henry Fonda (who took a salary deferral so the picture could be made) only having received half his payment a year and a half after release. Ironically, 12 Angry Men initially had a greater lifespan in theater, as a variety of stage versions were adapted from the film internationally and held a grip on the public in ways the film failed to.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen