Knowing Your Location

What’s Your 20?

Every good real estate agent knows it’s all about location. It’s the same when it comes to screenplays. If you don’t take the time to research your location your story is not going to sound realistic. In my last couple of posts I mentioned the area of Winchmore Hill, north-east of downtown London as a possible location for the 200-yer old house. Upon further research Winchmore Hill appears to be the subway stop rather than a town. It looks to be in the greater London area. So I had to find a new place to put the house. Do I keep it in England? Move it to Scotland or Ireland? Or elsewhere in Europe? I decided to keep it in England so I used Google Maps and Google Street view to find possible locations. I’m still looking at the moment, but there are some interesting looking homes in Sawtry, England that could work. The exact location would be left to the Director and Location Manager.

Google Street View is a great way to start your location research. Need to write a scene outside New York’s main branch of the public library? Head to street view find the location and look around. Maybe you have a scene in downtown Springfield, Illinois but you’ve never been there. With Street View you can take a walk down the streets. Below is a screen capture of the photo of East Ash Street & South 11th Street, Springfield, Illinois taken in August 2007. In the 5 years since the photo was taken you can bet there has been changes, but without further investigation you won’t know for sure.

Where would you look for additional, updated information? You can contact the restaurant chain, The Keg, and see if they can confirm if the restaurant in the photo is a member of their chain and if it’s still there. You’re going to need to introduce yourself and explain that your writing a screenplay that takes part in Springfield, Illinois. They may not help, but then again, they might. You would then contact Springfield, Illinois’ Business Association and again introduce yourself and explain the reason for your call. They might be able to provide you with more up to date information on the intersection. Maybe even updated photos. Finally, contact’s Illinois Film Office and see what they might be able to provide you. Finally, the best choice is to visit the location yourself before you start writing. A field trip is always fun and if you are professional you should be able to write off much of the cost of the trip. Nothing is more current than photos you’ve taken yourself. But remember, always take photos from public locations. If you must take photos of private property, get the owners written permission before proceeding.

Identifying Your Primary Locations

In my screenplay, The Family House, I have two locations. The first is Toronto, Ontario, Canada, home to Derek and his wife Cynthia. I decided on Toronto because it’s where I live so researching specific locations will be easy and at the same time, it’s not the primary location of the screenplay. During the First Plot Point, Derek and Cynthia will fly to London, England where they will rent a car and drive out to the house in the country. When identifying your locations you need to write out different aspects of the location that you’re going to take advantage of while writing the screenplay. Here’s some examples;

  • The house will be set in from the road with a single, narrow dirt driveway leading in past hedges and other trees.
  • In the back yard there will be a small river, deep enough to have the occasional fish swim past and to allow the characters to swim
  • The house will be made from local stone
  • There is a auto garage set back from the house, built by Simon’s father in the early 1900’s
  • The nearly village needs to be at least 10 minutes away by car
  • The village needs to be small enough that the media attention brought to the village by Simon quickly becomes annoying, turning the villagers against Simon and later Derek
  • A beautiful wraparound porch added in the 1950’s by Simon and his son.

The easiest thing here would be to pick a small village north of London and then create the fictional house as I need it.  Without any expensive special effects the budget of the film should allow for the building of the house so that it is exactly what the story calls for as well as built with removable walls to make it easier to film in. With a fictional house, that means you will need to design it. This is where a detailed floor plan will help. Of course these drawings may change once the screenplay is in the hands of the director, but while you’re writing the screenplay it’s important that you remain consistent with the descriptions of the house from scene to scene.

If you’re not an interior decorator a good idea would be to visit model homes in new developments that have a basic plan as the house your designing and take photos. Again, ask for permission first. Same if you visit home improvement or furniture stores that have displays setup as it would appear in a house. With permission you can take a few photos of displays that you like and the integrate them into your home’s design. I know that the house in my screenplay has been updated or improved once or twice every 50 years or so. The kitchen might be modeled after designs from the 1970’s while the living room has been refurnished with a 50” flat screen TV and wrap around sofa. That is based on the character’s preference.

Character Influence

In the Workshop I described how the location has a influence on the character’s personality and point of view but the same is also true. The character’s personality and point of view influence the location’s appearance. For example, two young men live in a small two-bedroom apartment. How would you describe their living room? What does it say about the characters if the living room has pizza boxes tossed around, video game controllers laying on the floor? Or what if the living room is well organized and clean? Without meeting the characters your audience learns a lot about them just by seeing their living conditions. Show, don’t tell. What if a man, dressed in an expensive business suit drives his BMW up to the curb and just climbs out, leaving it for the valet parking agent? You don’t need to hear him speak to know he’s not a nice guy. You can really show the character by having him say “Don’t scratch it!” as he tosses the keys.

The house in my story will be spotless, but old. There have been no updates to the interior since the 1970’s. The kitchen will come right out of my grandmother’s 1950’s house. The living room will have seating from a number of different eras and most importantly every horizontal surface will be covered in photos from the last 100 years. On shelves, on walls, on dressers and night stands. Photos of a very young Simon with his parents and brother sits in the living room next to photos of his father at the same age, both photos taken in the same living room. It is important that the house tells the audience a story of a single families life. The details in the house explain the age and importance of the house helping the audience understand why Simon will not give it up.

What about Derek and Cynthia’s apartment? Small, sparsely decorated with cookie-cutter furniture. The audience needs to understand how poor the couple is. There is only one photo on the wall, a photo of the couple at there wedding. That is there only important memory. Derek and Simon must be opposites. That’s going to draw out the conflict between the two characters. While Simon understand and cherishes memories and family, Derek has not experience enough of either to understand it let alone cherish it. This is where the characters will clash. Its important in any screenplay that every character has a reason to have some conflict between each other. Not just Hero vs. Villain.

Conclusion

Just as it’s important to know your characters and your story you need to know your locations. You have the describe them in enough detail that a director and set decorator can present that location exactly as you intended. If you can, visit your location and take photos, shoot some video, write notes, maybe even write a scene that takes part at that location while your there. Be creative with your locations. Take a boring scene and set it in an interesting location. If there is important information being said that your audience must understand then keep the location and back ground action simple – don’t distract the audience from the important stuff.

Talk to you again next week,
Steve

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