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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why Location Matters

On every coverage report, there's a spot for the reader to fill in called "location." Location means different things to different people. To a producer, it means dollar signs. If "location" says Venice, Italy, I just got queasy. But - maybe the coverage has a "recommend" to offset a location that instantly skyrocketed the costs of this film. Unless - gee, can I find a way to shoot this somewhere else? Somewhere with canals and...That's not gonna be easy. How many exteriors does this script have? A lot. Damn it.

Sometimes writers don't really indicate the location where their story takes place. I have filled in the "location" part with things like "rural US town" or "generic US suburb" many a time. Sometimes the "location" might say Europe, Asia, Africa - because the script was some kind of roving BOURNE IDENTITY type of script.

So the question is: How specific should you be about your story's location? Well, first of all, I wouldn't worry about the budget for now. You are a storyteller and you should just tell the best story you can. If the location has to be changed in pre-production, hey, that's not a bad problem to have. But when you are envisioning your story, just set it where you want to set it.

Why do so many writers of romcoms wind up choosing New York? I think that shows an imaginative laziness, personally. I mean, New York is great - there are a lot of sights and sounds and potential set pieces in a city like that. But what about Madison, Wisconsin - wouldn't that put a whole different spin on who the main characters are, who their friends are and what their lifestyles are like? It's Wisconsin. Things have to be somewhat different. Is there a Cheese Parade you can use as a set piece?

When you think about location start from the macro - is this story a rural or urban one? - and then work your way down to details - what is the landscape, geography and culture like in one place compared to another? Do you follow? A story set in Atlanta, Georgia is going to have a different vibe than a story set in Phoenix, Arizona. Rural Connecticut versus rural Northern California. Different accents, flora and fauna, weather, traditions and observances - all of these things will lend a specificity to your characters and to your story.

Can you be too specific? What if you say okay this scene is set in Smitty's Coffee Shop - or, oh, better example, I was just at the Formosa Cafe last night, where a scene from LA CONFIDENTIAL was shot. Why shoot there, specifically? Well, it's in LA so that makes a location shoot pretty easy. Was it important to get right the specifics of this historic, Golden Age of Hollywood cafe or could the set have been built? It could have been built, but it was probably way cheaper to shoot there in the cafe for one day. And the bonus there was that this cafe really is historic and really did have meaning and backstory for the scene shot there. But a viewer would not know the difference. So it's about economics. Say you've got a scene set at Madison Square Garden - oh god, now we have to get permissions and insurance and oy vey is that going to be difficult. But in development, another way might be found. A smaller venue, a set, maybe CG effects. So can you be too specific? Yes and no. If your script is just so terrific in every way - your characters are unforgettable, your story is totally unique, the writing is just superlative - and you have a scene set in the United Nations or Bernie Madoff's old offices or the Pope's coffee lounge - well, that problem will get worked out. Right? Right.

My writing partner and I set our thriller in Seattle. I made that decision early on when I came up with the idea. Why? Well, I know Seattle relatively well; I have family there and I have visited a number of times. So I get the way it's laid out, I have a sense of the local culture, and I liked the fact that Seattle is very verdant and rainy. It's not gloomy there, exactly, because there are so many beautiful gardens (Seattlites love to garden, apparently). But what's interesting is that because the rain comes and goes in Seattle with frequency, a sunny, cheerful day can turn dark very quickly and suddenly the city is transformed. I liked that. And Seattle is surrounded by water. Puget Sound, Lake Union, Lake Washington...I just felt immediately drawn to this place for a creepy thriller. But further, my partner and I said okay well which neighborhood is this set in? We choose a particular part of Seattle that is near a lake and a neighborhood that a person like our main character would like - an affordable yet charming family neighborhood with views of downtown Seattle. So we got pretty specific.

But when I say specific, I don't mean tediously so. To read the script, you can see it's Seattle and you can see what the views and surrounds are as you read along, but unless you KNOW the city very well, the street names wouldn't mean much to you. We didn't overdirect or over-download that information - it's not important - the story is. It's more that iceberg thing - we know that that particular street is one block from Greenlake. So we know our set piece will work when the car goes flying into the lake.

Sometimes the location is more powerful when it is emblematic and generic. A small, rural US town can be Anytown, USA. Many movies can be set in generic-urban-anytown: Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Philly, DC...If the story feeds off of a certain sense of discombobulation vis a vis location - go for it.

Just make sure you aren't missing an opportunity for specificity, particularity, local color, customs and general vibe. When you think about locations, think carefully and have fun. If you are choosing a location that you know nothing about - get on the interwebs and do some research. Do NOT use Philadelphia, as one example, and get the streets and sights wrong. That would be really, really lame. Because somebody is going to read that script and know Philly and you are going to look lazy and foolish.

So today look at your script and ask why you chose to set it where you did. Are you fully exploiting that location for everything it can offer like local customs, seasons, accents, foods and sights? Is your character from there or a transplant? Have you been too specific with your location, using street names or business names that are too "insidey?" Have you been accurate? If those steps Rocky ran up in Philly lead to a Best Buy and not the art museum, you're going to look like a fool of gigantic proportions. Get it right. Unless you're writing a parody. Rocky running up steps that lead to a Best Buy is actually hilarious! But I digress.

Make a conscious decision; don't wimp out or be lazy and use Anytown unless you have a thematic, emblematic, powerful reason for doing so.

Think about light, color and the vibe of particular places: San Francisco (foggy, shifting clouds, the glittering bay); Arlington, VA (so green, very stately, a little humid, views of DC); Cleveland (a little sad and broke down, on the shores of a churning, grey Great Lake); Phoenix (flat, hot, a little bleak); Des Moines (friendly, flat, cornfields, quiet); Memphis (humid, a little sad and broke down, very green, very southern); Minneapolis (urban, tree-lined, hip yet normal).

Each of those mini-descriptions were subjective, weren't they? So that's the fun part. If you want to set a noir thriller in Phoenix, for my money that's a great choice. Because I find the desert bleak. But maybe you don't. How do you know I've set foot in any of the places I just listed? Have I? You don't know. Maybe I just watch a lot of TV and read a lot of books and I made all of those descriptions up. Actually I have been every city I just listed except two. Can you tell which ones I used what I think I know or read about that place? It's fun being a writer, right? So don't let not having been to a place stop you.

Location is one of the funnest paintbrushes in your toolbox. Enjoy that. Do your research, get the details right and explore and exploit the details of the place you have chosen.

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Joe Public said...

Doesn't hurt to set your story in a state with a huge tax credit either.

Julie Gray said...

Unless you are producing the film yourself, or planning to be a part of obtaining funding, etc. I think story should come first and tax credits come second. Story, story, creativity, imagination, story. Tax breaks and stuff like that are for producers to worry about.

Joe Public said...

Then this is a letter to the Powerball God.

Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.

Yours Humbly,


Silliness is welcome here...right?

Trina0623 said...

In addition, a state that does not have a tax credit could add one by the time the movie is produced; and a state that has one when you're writing could take it away by the time it's produced.

JPS said...

Just remember: whether set in Seattle, Manhattan, London or Moscow, movies are almost always shot in...Vancouver.

E.C. Henry said...

Julie, I drive arround Seattle ALL DAY LONG! So if you need some picture of Seattle, lake Washington, lake Union, all you have to do is day so and I'll shoot ya some on my digital camera, and you and your partner can use them to fuel your thriller's fire.

ALSO: buisness opportunity with a chance to catch up with your relatives. Ever thought of coming up north to put on Friday - Sunday script thinge for the Northwest Screenwriting Guild (NWSG). I attend SOME of their functions, and there may be some buisness opportunites for your there. In a couple weeks Romany Malco ("Jay" of "40 Year Virgin" and "The Love Guru" fame will be there on a Fri/Sat to take pitches from Seattle writer on "potential" staring vehicles for him.
The "thinge" you may be interested in is pitching what "The Script Department" has to offer. May get you some coverage buisness...

As for NY popularity in the rom-com relm, isn't that because New Yorkers' chummy, warm personalities LEND themselves to romance? Or is that there population group in most need of the HOPE that rom-coms bring?

Anyway, if the picture offer or the NWSG "thinge" interestes you let me know.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Julie Gray said...

@EC - awww...thank you, EC. Got the Seattle thing pretty much covered, as the script is quite done and as I mentioned, I already know Seattle fairly well. But thank you. :) As for the NWSG, I'll let my marketing people explore that possibility. Not this time though, tell ya that. Too much else going on.

@Joe Public - silliness lives and breathes on TRW :)

Seth said...

I came back to my hometown, Atlanta, this week after being gone for about six years, and I'm disturbed to realize that apart from being green and pretty and new, the place where I grew up has no personality. It's bland and impersonal and suburban. Good setting for a Stepford Wives or a Heathers, I guess.

Lisa said...

@ Seth - your home town sounds like my home town of Dallas. Heck, it's so generic, they didn't even want to make a movie about it here.

@ JPS - and you're right. Although I believe it's been shelved, the movie entitled, "Dallas" was to be shot in Vancouver!

Christian M. Howell said...

Very timely post as MM has posted about timid writers and the 10 things that distinguish them.

My pet peeve is the exotic location. It's not as much a budget thing as a necessity thing. A coming of age hunter story doesn't have to be set on the Serrenghetti to be effective.

I do try to locate as a factor of the story. One I'll be submitting to Silver uses...well, anyway.

I get the point. Make the location a character whenever possible. And locatuon can be night or day along with inside or out.

JPS said...

Careful what you say about New York City, Mr. Henry. Contrary to what some think, we're a very friendly people, certainly far more genial than the generally angry Bostonians.

It's just that we move at a faster pace. A "New York Minute" is very different from an L.A. minute, as Julie certainly knows. Our patience runs thin after three seconds. But we handle it with a smile.