Monday, April 22, 2013

Location, Location, Location

Six miles to Exposition City.
Ten kilometers, using the metric system.
Professor Richard Walter of UCLA is a proponent of integrated screenplays. Namely, that every line, action, scene, and script tells us something about character as well as moves the story forward.

To paraphrase him, he discusses the extension of this idea to setting, and how far too many scenes are set in coffee shops and restaurants. Blake Snyder calls this idea "the pope in the pool."

Professor Tim Albaugh of UCLA and Hollins University tells us that the world of your film should create physical/plot and emotional/thematic conflict, including but not limited to affecting character (location can act as one, can define one, or establish stakes, etc.), mood/tone, plot complications, or even reflecting the story, itself.

I instruct my own students to always default, in their writing, to action. I tell them that if an action will perform the work of a line of dialogue, choose the action. Dialogue, I tell them, is one method of communicating to an audience, but it is not the only method, and not always the preferred method.

What I (and these instructors) are saying is that you should use the same line of thinking before writing your slugline. If you need to have a conversation between two characters, it's the easiest thing in the world to write:


...for a meeting between two characters. But unless it's integrated, it's boring. We've seen it a thousand times. How many restaurant and coffee shop scenes have you seen? Too many. Just as you need to train yourself to think, "action over dialogue," you need to think, "integrated setting over non-integrated setting."

I'll use a few examples, starting with Snyder's "pope in the pool." Snyder states our goal: relay information while keeping audience attention. He relates a scene from the script, The Plot to Kill the Pope by George Englund, in which the audience is told that someone plans to kill the pope. However, instead of this scene taking place in a stuffy office or in a restaurant, it takes place at the Vatican swimming pool, with the pope in a bathing suit. It's a terrific, unusual image, and we're so entertained by it that the writer's job of slipping us expository information becomes that much easier.

Another great example comes from George Lucas's screenplay to Star Wars: Episode IV. Obi Wan throws the gauntlet at Luke's feet: "You must learn the ways of the force if you're to come with me to Alderaan." But the galaxy is a dangerous place, which we learn before even setting foot off of Tatooine. Make no mistake: Mos Eisley spaceport is a setting that screams integration. Like Luke, we're blindsided by scum and villainy. From catchy lounge music to scoundrel smugglers to aliens with the strangest-shaped heads in the universe, the expository information that flows into our brains through Han Solo and Obi Wan's negotiations is passed deftly under the cloak of the setting. Lucas doesn't merely tell us that Mos Eisley is dangerous: he shows us, from the stormtrooper guards at the gate to the bloody incident with the fellow who's wanted in twelve systems. By the time our heroes sit down over a drink, the setting has already been established as its own character.

In the opening scene of The Social Network, we're treated to a packed restaurant. However, this scene is assuredly integrated. Look no further than the line, "The reason we're able to sit here and drink right now is because you used to sleep with the door guy." Mark's entire outlook on his relationship and on social stratification is summed up in this line, and it could only be said in such a place, at such a time.

If two characters need to talk about something, if they have to tell us something, always show us something engaging, simultaneously. Have them doing something. Give them hobbies, habits, superstitions, and the like. In Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, we have two hitmen, having a conversation about fast food in Europe and foot massages, on their way to a hit. It could be a standard conversation, but there's something to see in every frame.

For reasons I can't recall, my favorite go-to example is to have a character conversation over a bike repair. It could be a conversation about anything, but having a character fixing a bike can show us a lot about the character as well as give us needed information in a way that's a bit sneaky, yet most effective. As Andrew Stanton of Pixar says, "The audience wants to work for their meal: they just don't want to know that they're doing it."

It takes work, however, to make the audience work, and a good place to start is with setting. Bring us there and show us what you have.

No comments:

Post a Comment