FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
CHARACTERS ARE LOCATIONS
Locations are more than just the places where scenes take place, they are part of the story... and part of the characters. Because my writing is usually aimed at production, I tend to limit the number of locations in my script and try to reuse them whenever possible. This not only makes a script easier to schedule and film, in makes you think about the locations in ways you may not if you can just type up a new slug line.
2018 was a great year for Oakland, CA on film (the closest big city to where I grew up) with SORRY TO BOTHER YOU and BLACK PANTHER and BLINDSPOTTING in theaters. The most “Oakland” of the three was BLINDSPOTTING, so let’s use that as an example. It’s the story of two guys who live in West Oakland have been friends since they were 11 years old - Collin Hoskins (Daveed Diggs) is Black and Miles (Rafael Casal) is White. Collin was recently in jail for fighting, and the conditions of his parole: He will have to live in a halfway house for one year and do all of the chores assigned to him, he must find and work a job, he must not break any laws, he must live under a strict curfew, etc. As the guy who runs the halfway house tells him, “You are now a convicted felon Mr. Hoskins. You are now that until proven otherwise. Prove otherwise at all times.”
The movie’s title sequence sets the scene for Oakland, California in 2018 - because no one can afford to live in San Francisco anymore, the yuppies have begun invading. Gentrification is in full swing. The “white flight”: from the 50s and 60s has reversed - and now even the “inner city” sections of Oakland are turning into Yuppyville. Because this film has comedy elements, Collin and Miles are introduced at Kwick Way Burgers - a real local chain that has gone out of business - which has now reopened serving vegan food. Which explains why the burgers are five times as expensive and taste funny.
When he gets out of jail, Collin’s ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar) gets he and Miles jobs at a moving company... where they spend their days moving black families out of houses that have been in their families for generations and move in white yuppies into those same houses. So their *job* takes them through Oakland neighborhood and demonstrates the way the city is changing around them. There are heartbreaking scenes where they are packing up old family photos... to take to the dump. The corner market that they stop in for coffee and snacks before work now has kale juice smoothies - who drinks that stuff? Collin tries some... yech! All of this is the background to the story - and if you have never been to Oakland, you get a pretty good glimpse of the city. The West Oakland BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station on 7th street where trains zip past in the background - carrying commuters from the suburbs to San Francisco. Mandella Parkway just around the corner. Sorry to say that the new strip mall on 7th across from the BART Station is now mostly vacant - the 99 Cents Only Store moved out, as did a bunch of other businesses.
The story has Collin with three days left on his parole witness a Police Officer shoot and kill and unarmed Black kid named Randall Marshall, and is caught between reporting what he has seen (and probably getting into trouble with the police with only three days left on his parole) or pretending that he didn’t see anything. Complicating all of this is that Miles has a hair trigger temper and has recently bought an illegal gun for family protection. Miles could screw up his parole just by being Miles (later we find out that Miles was the reason why Collin went to jail - a bar room brawl they were both involved in, but only Collin was arrested). Collin considers what he should do about the shooting he witnessed every day when he jogs up the hill at the Mountain View Cemetery & Piedmont Funeral Home - another Oakland landmark. The city is a major character in the story - not just in the background, but something that impacts every aspect of the story. This is a movie *about* Oakland.
My COWBOY NIGHTS script (one of 2009's new specs) was kind of "cowboy noir" and takes place in present day Albuquerque. The protagonist gets fired from a dude ranch and heads to the city, where he becomes involved with a femme fatale who has a robbery scheme. In order to make the protagonist's choice to hook up with the femme fatale something we could see - visual, and not just words on the page - I created a nice cowgirl as a potential romance. That meant there *was* a choice - the femme fatale wasn't the only woman available. The protagonist now must make a physical choice between the two women, and that nice cowgirl he doesn't end up with becomes a physical symbol of his wrong choice when things go south in the robbery scheme. Also, she allowed me an ending where our protagonist gets a shot at redemption and a future.
There are several scenes in the script where the protagonist and femme fatale have sex, and one where the protagonist and nice cowgirl make love. Now, you can see the distinction between those two things on the page - I've used different words - but how do you make sure those words show up on screen? How do you turn words into something visual so that they do not stay on the page? In both scenes, the protagonist has sex with a woman. Sounds like the same scene.
The first thing I did was look at what made the two female characters different. The femme fatale was a city girl and the nice cowgirl was a country girl - and all of the basic character things and specific character things that come from that. I wanted to use location as one of the elements to explore character - even if it was so subtle most people wouldn't consciously notice. The sex scenes with the femme fatale were all rushed and in urban locations. The rushed element matched the hustle of city life, but also fit the story - the femme fatale is the wife of a small time gangster and these sex scenes are cheating on her husband, so they have to be fast so they are not caught. But the scenes could have taken place in beds or anywhere - I decided to use previously established urban locations that would make these sex scenes part of the city. One takes place in an alley, one is in a car parked in a busy parking lot, one is in the husband's place of business. None of the scenes take place in a location that is *not* obviously a city. (Except one bed scene - required for plot purposes.)
The nice cowgirl love scene takes place in the country - which fits her character - and is also relaxed and unrushed. They have a picnic in a beautiful outdoor location after a horse ride. Where the femme fatale sex scenes are surrounded by car horns and man made buildings; the nice cowgirl scene takes place surrounded by trees and wild flowers without a building in sight. I high-lighted all of the simple beauty of nature, and the simple beauty of the cowgirl. When they make love, they take their time, and are surrounded by the best scenic location the location scout can find. Because the location is beautiful, the audience will subconsciously find the sex scene to be beautiful as well. The location is doing its part to tell the story and reveal character.
The other difference between the two types of sex scenes was also designed to show that the tone of these scenes was different: The sex scenes with the femme fatale always took place at night and in darkness. The love scene with the nice cowgirl took place is bright daylight. Bad girl and nice girl, darkness and light. Hey, seems obvious when I say it, but how often do you *consciously* notice the time of day in a sex scene? This is something that the audience feels more that realizes. A simple thing we do in the slugline that changes the tone of the scene and changes the way the audience sees the actions.
CAN WE DO THAT AGAIN?
But here's the problem: this beautiful location for the nice cowgirl scene will only be used once in the script, and that is wasteful (and expensive, and time consuming). Is this a mistake? Should I find a previous location and reuse it?
There *was* a previous outdoors location - the dude ranch our protagonist gets fired from in the opening scene. And my thoughts were that the dude ranch location and this beautiful picnic location would probably be next to each other and easy to schedule on the same day. But once we've set up the camera at the picnic spot, is there some other scene I could also shoot there? I tend to think like this because the 1st AD who schedules the film will be thinking like this, and I don't want *creative decisions* to be made by the 1st AD. If they look at the schedule and only see one scene at that location and the schedule is already running over time, they may decide to change that location to somewhere we have already shot - and not realize the nice cowgirl's apartment (used later in the script) is *not* going to show the audience the difference between the types of sex scenes.
To the 1st AD it is a scheduling decision, a time saving decision, and not a creative one. They are just doing their job, and it is *our job* to make sure the scenes and characters and moments in the screenplay make it all the way to the screen. So, it became my job to "amortize" that location by using it in another scene, so that it would just make sense to *not* change that scene to another location - because there were other scenes that also took place there. A location that is only used once is going to be the first to get changed.
So, what other scene could take place in this beautiful outdoor place full of trees and wild flowers? The love scene takes place in day - when I wrote it I hoped that butterflies might flitter through a shot. So, if we have the camera there and the crew hanging around, what do they do when the sun sets? That's darkness, the time of the femme fatale...
There was a scene in my script outline where a murder victim - part of the femme fatale's robbery scheme - needs to be gotten rid of. Originally I thought it might be some typical crime movie thing where the body is put in a dumpster (there was also a woodchipper kind of fate introduced in an earlier scene) or maybe buried in some urban location. But why not bury the dead guy in the most beautiful location in the story... at night? Reuse the *romance* location for the *crime* story? Not only do I reuse my location and "defend it" from being changed because it was only used in one scene, I also manage to do many other things to *improve* the story just by placing the scene in this location.
LOCATION *IS* CHARACTER
1) Contrasting the action of burying a dead guy and a beautiful location adds irony to the scene. It's also an unexpected and unusual location for this scene - when someone in a crime film hides a body, it usually doesn't require transporting it on horseback.
2) The peaceful location surrounding the protagonist burying the dead guy will make the audience reflect on the protagonist's wrong decision... and that will be projected onto the protagonist. So it will seem as if the protagonist is reflecting on his bad decisions when all he is doing is burying a dead guy. Put this same scene in a neutral location and we lose the protagonist's "thoughts" and "feelings". The audience associates that location with a good thing that happened to the protagonist in his past and contrasts that with this bad thing.
3) The femme fatale's scheme has polluted the protag's relationship with the nice girl. That possibility for happiness now has a dead body buried in it. How could they ever go back to their "special place" if there is a corpse buried right where they made love? By going with the femme fatale, the protag has ruined any chance he may have had with the nice cowgirl.
4) Because the protag is a cowboy, and an outdoors type, this is *his world* he is desecrating with the dead body. His future, his life... his existence. Instead of burying his sins in some neutral location that he will never see again, he is burying his sins in *his world* where he will have to live with them for the rest of his life. No escape.
And probably some other things I haven't thought of. This is the great thing about limiting your palette when creating a story - when you have fewer characters and/or locations to select from, you are forced to find the characters and locations that have deeper meaning and end up accidentally finding secondary meanings along the way. Though my purpose in reusing locations is to make production easier (and protect the locations from schedule changes), when I look over my list of previous locations for one to use in this scene, I frequently strike gold. I see the location in a new light, or notice a contrast between location and scene or situation, or find some "baggage" from the past scene at that location that will impact this new scene. The scene creates an "echo" of that earlier scene (or scenes) and this adds another layer of meaning to the new scene.
Locations are an important element in any scene. Why does this scene take place at this location? What makes this location unusual for this type of scene? What is the connection between location and character? What is the connection between location and story? Are you getting the most out of every location by "amortizing it" throughout the screenplay? Location is an important part of telling the story - use it!
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Use your creative energy to focus on the content; let Final Draft take care of the style. Final Draft is the number-one selling application specifically designed for writing movie scripts, television episodics and stage plays. Its ease-of-use and time-saving features have attracted writers for almost two decades positioning Final Draft as the Professional Screenwriters Choice. Final Draft power users include Academy, Emmy and BAFTA award winning writers like Oliver Stone, Tom Hanks, Alan Ball, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron and more.
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