Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Film Courage Plus: Researching Locations

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?


One of my early movie crushes when I was a kid was Leslie Ann Warren, who played CINDERELLA in the TV version of Rogers & Hammerstein’s musical back in 1965. I was 8 years old! It’s not that she was cute (she still is) but the song she sang “In my own little corner in my own little room I can be whatever I want to be” - that was (and is) me! So maybe I really have a crush on Oscar Hammerstein? Only he’s definitely not as cute. But I was a clumsy unpopular kid who lived in my imagination - and could be whatever I wanted to be. I think that’s a major part of being a writer, whether you have seen the musical version of CINDERELLA or not. We imagine ourselves doing exiting and amazing things... while we sit at our laptops or tablets or whatever we write on. But how do we write about being a cowboy or astronaut or spy or whatever exciting life of we have never lived that life? How do we write about all of those exotic places that the story takes place in (the old west, space, cool international cities) if we have never been there? We need to combine our imaginations with research.

One of the things that I talk about in the clip is my script that takes place in Finland - a country that I have never been to. About ten years ago, I landed an assignment with a company that had connections to a company in Finland and was looking to do a co-production that was similar to TAKEN - a fast paced action revenge film. They called me, and I pitched them an idea that was similar to TAKEN but different. Everything I write has some autobiographical thread in it, so my idea was: what if a guy who writes spy novels, and knows all kinds of things about the spy world, went to a big event with his wife, and she wore the exact same dress as the President’s wife... and got kidnaped by mistake? Now our novelist hero has to get her back before the bad guys realize that they have the wrong person and kill her. He writes about spies, but can he live that life for real? (I can be whatever I want to be!). The whole deal was to take advantage of shooting in Finland, but I have never been there! And the Finish co-producers *live there*.

In the old days, when I had to write about some foreign country, I bought a bunch of travel books. I found that the “Let’s Go!” books were great because they were designed for backpackers and usually had interesting “non tourist” places to check out. They also had really good descriptions of places, even if they didn’t have pictures. This was in the pre-internet times, where you couldn’t just Google someplace. So I had to find other books (usually in the library) that had photos of places that sounded interesting in the books. The problem always was - these were glamor shots of buildings and streets, made to look as beautiful as possible. And I was sure that in real life those places didn’t look as nice. But I wrote a giant stack of spy and thriller screenplays and even a couple of novels using the “Let’s Go!” books and travel picture books and the occasional travelogue film. Worked fine, some of those screenplays sold and were optioned...

But for the Finland screenplay? Since the internet had been invented, I went online. I discovered that Helsinki often doubles in movies for St. Petersburg, Russia - so that’s where I began my story. I found the sections of the city that they used in other movies and the sections of St. Petersburg that they were supposed to be. I found everything I needed online. In the clip I talk about looking at people’s vacation videos of Helsinki online - Google search. Made me feel a little like the crazy killer Frances Dollarhyde in “Manhunter” (1986) who works at a film developing lab and selects his victims by watching their home movies. Creepy! But watching a bunch of family’s home videos of their fun Finland vacation gave me multiple angles of locations and all of the small things that never made it into those pretty pictures in the travel books. One of which was a guy with a push cart who sold fish snacks (and sodas and everything else). In two different home videos! This guy is always there! So I put him in my screenplay.


Which is a great lesson in research. Find the details that make it seem real. Look for the things that are unusual and distinctive about the location... and look for locations that are different than anywhere else on earth. If you are writing a scene in Finland, don’t have scenes take place at a location that could be anywhere else. Not only do the details create a vivid image in the reader’s minds, they add a level of reality that your slugline can’t do on its own. Details are like anything else in your “description” - they need to be part of the story and “action”. So my guy with the push cart who sold fish snacks wasn’t just part of the description, he was critical to the scene. My spy novelist hero, when searching for his kidnaped wife, asks the street vendor questions that will help him find her or the people who took her. You don’t want to include *pointless* details in your screenplay, so you need to find a way to make all of the details important to the story... and the great part about that is that it makes the details memorable.

One of the odd things with my guy with a push cart is that the production companiy’s readers who *lived* in Finland knew exactly who I was talking about. That guy is a fixture in that neighborhood. Though you may not have a producer who is familiar with the details that you use as part of your story, details are convincing. A vague description of something sounds less credible than one with a specific detail that makes you feel as if you are there. One distinctive details is worth hundreds of words about something general. And words are gold in screenwriting. You don’t want to spend words on worthless things... or use too many words.

Thanks to the internet we can be virtually anywhere. Google Street View allows us to see those great details anywhere in the world. I think I might have mentioned my screenplay that takes place in Detroit, a city I have never been to, and finding a You Tube video that gave me a guided tour of one of my locations. I also used Street View when I did a recent rewrite to improve the description of a specific location. I wanted to make sure that people in Detroit wouldn’t think I had never been there. I had written a screenplay ages ago, “Recall”, about the auto industry and even though I had read some books I had managed to get some things wrong (reading about a location isn’t nearly as good as seeing it with your own eyes). Though it might be nice to actually go there, as writers we end up writing about places all over the world... that we have never been to. My “Hours Of Darkness” screenplay takes place in Seattle, a place that I hadn’t been to since I was 5 years old. I had seen multiple pictures of one of my locations... but none of them showed the railroad tracks that ran behind the building.

That came from a *map* - another great tool when dealing with places that you never have been. One of the great moments in Wesley Strick’s “True Believer” screenplay is when our lawyer hero realizes that two locations that seem far from each other are actually close to each other and connected by an alley. That’s the clue that helps them prove their client innocent of murder. So grab a map for locations where you have never been and look for the details that may not be in pictures. Maps are great research tools!


Unusual locations make it look as if you are very familiar with the city or country that you are writing about. As someone who was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area I get bored with the generic locations in most movies (and the Golden Gate Bridge... which is the *second* most important bridge in the city - nobody ever shows the Bay Bridge that connects Oakland and San Francisco). There’s a travelogue element in going to the movies, so I want to show the audience places that other films haven’t shown them. If I’ve seen it in another movie, I want to find someplace else to set the scene. So in my “Past Lives” screenplay I have a scene in Tommy’s Joint - a bar and restaurant that’s kind of the DMZ - where a cop might be having lunch at a table next to a crook. It’s a fascinating place that I have never seen in a film. My big suspense ending takes place at one of the *two* Dutch Windmills in Golden Gate Park. You probably didn’t even know there were Windmills in San Francisco. So I am showing you something that isn’t in the usual “Welcome To San Francisco” montage.

Every city has “tourist places” and places that the residents know of, and part of making your story seem real is finding those places that don’t usually end up in films... and making them part of the story...

Though the way that can backfire is if they shoot your screenplay in Vancouver.

But think of the “Travelogue” element when writing your screenplay - where can you set a scene that shows the audience someplace fun and exciting to visit, so that the audience feels as if they have been on a vacation while watching the film? Growing up, I loved how the James Bond movies took me to exotic places around the world, and set scenes in those places so that I could see more details than if it were just that “Welcome To Tokyo” montage. In YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE a scene is set at a Sumo Wrestling Match - the wrestling is going on in the background, but you feel as if you are right there! Because every word is gold in a screenplay, you want to *incorporate* these interesting locations into your story, so we get the “travelogue” in the background... and it’s required to go to that exotic location by the story itself.

One of the things that I found in my Finland screenplay research was an ancient island fortress that is now a park. I asked if we could film there, and found out that parks are an “easy permit” and inexpensive. There were rules - I couldn’t have explosions or fires or anything else that might damage the old fortress, but I could have scenes where people are chasing each other and fighting hand to hand. Great!

But while researching the island fortress, I discovered many things that made it into the story, including a fairly new emergency tunnel *under the sea* that was built in the 1970s. Ambulances and fire equipment could quickly get to the island, now... but that also meant there was a way to get there other than the ferry boats. And usually long tunnels have places to turn out and maintenance rooms along the way... so I had my villain using a maintenance room as his hideout, and when they triangulate a cell phone call it shows that the villain is in the middle of the sea! On a boat? They look for a boat and there isn’t one. So how is it possible? Our hero eventually finds out about the new tunnel - and finds the villain. Researching locations finds story possibilities that you didn’t even know existed. You *need* to research locations!


My COWBOY NIGHTS script is kind of "cowboy noir" and takes place present day. 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... but what if I used *Locations* to help tell the story?

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 don’t get 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.

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’s sex scenes are surrounded by car horns and 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. As different as – NIGHT and – DAY!

Locations can be instrumental in telling your story - and researching them is easier now than it ever has been. So takes some time to think about the best location for your scenes. The best location for your story. Locations that are evocative and distinctive...

Then they will probably film it in Vancouver.

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill

No comments:

eXTReMe Tracker