Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Locations are one thing I don't think I've ever had much instruction on, screenwriting-wise -- either in class or from books. Most people will teach you about the basics: (1) character, (2) plot, and (3) dialogue (in that order). Not that there's anything wrong with that. If you can't nail those three elements, nothing else is going to save you. But there are other components to a really good screenplay, and depending on the genre, some of them can be pretty important. So let's talk about one of them.

It's easy to take locations for granted when you're watching a movie. Scenes in films are typically short, and they're focused on action and character. By the time you digest those things, you're already watching a new scene that's taking place somewhere else. And that's usually true even if you're watching a film as a writer, actively trying to pick up tips. Sure, there are exceptions, like when a location is used as a punchline. Example: Guy invites girl to dinner at "the best place in town," place turns out to be a strip club. Cue laugh track. (Note: Only for use on The CW.) And there are plenty of occasions where the scene dictates the location. If the main characters are going out drinking, you can't set the scene in an elementary school classroom. (Although, if you could figure out a way to do that, it would be pretty awesome.) But I'm not interested in any of these situations right now.

I'm talking about scenes where, on the most basic level, the location doesn't really matter. A knife fight. A meeting of two competing businesspeople. A couple breaking up. A father and daughter reuniting. And so on. In any of these examples, the focus of the scene is the characters, what they're saying and what they're doing -- and rightly so. Nonetheless, finding the right location can really elevate the scene; and by extension, finding the right locations throughout can really elevate the script. Look at Pulp Fiction. Vincent and Mia's iconic dinner date is so well-written that it could take place anywhere and still be great; and the location itself doesn't really matter in the overall scheme of the plot. Nonetheless, I think it's fair to say that the setting -- Jack Rabbit Slim's, the restaurant everyone wishes really existed -- is what made it truly memorable. How about the chase through the sewers in The Fugitive, culminating in that historic jump? It didn't need to happen there. The sewer and the dam are not plot points in and of themselves. The plot point is really just, "Gerard finally catches up to Kimble, who makes a daring escape." You could make that happen in any number of other ways, and the movie would carry on identically afterwards. But I can't imagine another way that would have been nearly as good. As great as the entire movie is, that's the scene that we all remember 15 years later -- not just because of what happens, but because of where it happens.

The bottom line, clearly, is that locations need to serve the story. But the level to which they serve the story is highly variable. In a lot of scripts I've read (and some that I've written), the locations make sense to the story but they don't add much. Coffee shop. Office. Apartment. Yawn. Sure, you could say, a lot of movies don't have the budget for interesting locations. You could say that, but I'd disagree, because look at Swingers, which was made for practically nothing but still managed an interesting variety of settings that conveyed the feeling of being young in Los Angeles more effectively than just about any other film I've seen. Clerks, which makes Swingers look like a Spielberg film budgetwise, pretty much has just the one location -- but it's the right one, and it works. (Clerks 2, not so much.)

I remember a line from a screenwriting book I read many years ago that said all scenes have both context and content, and that writers need to be conscious of both of those elements. The notion of context is itself composed of a myriad of other factors, including but not limited to: Time, position in the story, the characters' emotional states... and, of course, the physical location of the scene. As writers, we have absolute control over every one of these details for as long as the script remains in our hands, so it behooves us to use that control to ensure that each element is perfect. We can agonize over every line of dialogue, spend hours pondering whether it's better for Steve to say "Bob, I just don't know" or "Well, Bob, I just don't know" and yet it's so easy to write "INT. BAR - NIGHT" on the very first draft and never give a second thought to whether or not a bar is the most interesting place for that scene to happen. I think part of the reason for this phenomenon is that, in trying to get our minds around this vast, 100+ page mountain of story, we tend to use locations as footholds ("We open in the park, then they're at the courthouse, then they're at the mansion, then they're on the plane, then they're at the bar...") and it can seem like we might just fall off that mountain if we mess with any of those footholds. But they're much more than footholds -- to use an entirely different metaphor, if the scene is a drink, the location is the glass it's served in. And if you really want to impress a guest, you don't just mix up the best drink you can; you also look through the cabinet for the best glass you can find.

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