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BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Film Location is Everything

Film location is critical to story -- sometimes location is a character in and of itself. Doug Richardson explains what happened when the powers that be wanted to change the location of 'Die Hard 2.'

Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder.Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.

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BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Film Location is Everything by Doug Richardson | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

“There’s a new draft in of Die Hard 2,” lamented producer Lloyd Levin over the phone.

“Really?” I replied. “That was fast.”

“De Souza is that way,” said Lloyd, referring to Stephen E. de Souza, my replacement on the picture after my summary – yet predictable – firing (which you can learn more about in this previously stirring post.)

“You wanna give it a read?”

“You tell me,” I said, before reflexively answering myself. “Yeah, yeah. Send it over.”

I was still pretty wet behind the ears. The Die Hard sequel was my first produced picture. I hadn’t yet earned the huevos to deny my own morbid curiosity as to what evil my replacement was doing to my movie. Yeah. Like it was really my movie. I’d written a sequel based on another movie co-written by Jeb Stuart and Stephen E. de Souza. So who was aping who? But I digress.

“The rewrite was kind of a test,” excused Lloyd Levin. “They want to change the location.”

“To where?” I asked, already wondering to which snowbound airport they might set John McClane’s wrong-guy-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time derring-do.

“L.A.,” monotoned Lloyd. He didn’t disguise his disappointment.

“Here? L.A.?”

“Yeah. They’re replacing the snow with fog.”

“You serious? A fog bank traps aircraft into a holding pattern around LAX?” I said, repeating the primary plot line of Walter Wager’s 58 Minutes, the book on which I’d based my screenplay.

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The new script landed on my doorstep that afternoon. I eyeballed it that night. And yes, if you’re as aghast at the change in premise as was I, by the time I flipped the last page the studio, et al had realized the preposterousness of their revised concept, ditched the fog idea, and set their sites on Washington DC.

The preceding anecdote, as well as the one which closes this post, serve to illustrate both my point as well as the age-old real estate axiom; location is everything. It’s my fiction-loving opinion that the same rule applies to storytelling. Or perhaps it’s better applied to the act of story consuming. Ergo copping to being a card-carrying member of the paying audience.

Allow me to explain.

When composing a tale – either novel or screenplay – I apply this simple theory. It is not my own. Nor can I recall from whom I heard/stole it. But it goes like so:

I want to vacation in a place where I want to be, with people I want to be with, guided by someone I trust to show me a good time and bring me home safe, sound, and sated.

For the purpose of this missive, I’m going to stick to the first part. Location. Or place. I need to imagine a location as a character. In Die Hard 2: Die Harder it was Dulles International Airport under a mid-Atlantic siege of killer weather. The entire eastern seaboard was a no-fly zone. Not exactly a place I’d care to visit on my own vacation, but in the safety and comfort of a movie theater, an audience would be more than willing to risk the cold.

Script EXTRA: Behind the Lines with DR: Location, Location, Location

Now let’s get something out of the way. I’m not suggesting a troll through vacay websites as if Expedia, et al, were tools available at or The Writer’s Store. Though heck, if it works for you, have at it. What I’m saying is that the formula about which I spoke is a package deal. Just like in any good story, all the elements need to work in congress with each other.

For pop culture sake, let me make examples from my three favorite films of this past year. Mad Max Fury Road. The Revenant. And Room. Each movie expresses its own unique footprint. The post-apocalyptic future, the frontier wilderness of 1823, and an impossible-to-escape bunker disguised as a tool shed in a sexual deviant’s suburban back yard. Each is a world unto itself, highly explorer-worthy and served in a digestible way where we, the audience, might extend a piece of ourselves for the sake of suspension of disbelief.

If not for the filmmakers’ unique choices and vision, we might otherwise have never ever visited. This is not at all unlike The Magic Kingdom where without Walt Disney’s imagination and genius… you get my point.

I will rarely endeavor into any screenplay or novel without a very strong mental picture of the place I intend to set my tale. This includes my Lucky Dey novels. The backdrop is my hometown, the ubiquitous and over-filmed back lot of Los Angeles. Only the places where Lucky lives and operates are often some of the least traveled patches. So before I started writing, my choice of locale was not necessarily Los Angeles in total but the dark noir corners where sunny and seventy usually applies as counterpoint instead of the constant.

Speaking of Los Angeles…

I was working on yet another draft of Black Water Transit, my adaptation of Carsten Stroud’s most excellent novel (read more about my gut-churning experience adapting BWThere). During the incarnation where TV commercial and video auteur Samuel Bayer was attached, I was asked to revise the screenplay to accommodate an L.A. shoot.

“You mean shoot L.A. for New York?” I asked Sam Bayer. The book and movie (until that point) were set in New York City, a surrounding character unto itself. The term in play – shooting X for Y – refers to dressing the actual filming location to act in stead for another. “I mean, L.A. for New York works in TV. But do you really want to make that kind of cheat on the big screen?”

“No,” agreed Sam. “I hate shooting L.A. for New York. I’m talking shooting L.A. for L.A.”

Black Water’s so specific to New York, though,” I tried to firmly imply. “It’s a whole character.”

“What about Los Angeles as a character?” he keenly asked.

What followed was a conversation about movies using Los Angeles as both a locale and character. But for the obvious period pieces – Chinatown and L.A. Confidential – we both felt present-day Los Angeles was an oft-missed opportunity in the thriller genre, both of us referencing To Live and Die in L.A. as our singular modern favorite.

Hardly one to back down from a challenge, I gave it a team player go and, upon my delivery of the draft, felt I’d more than lived up to the task. Sam agreed. So did the independent company that was producing and financing. For about five minutes, it appeared Los Angeles was a go.

Next came budget and casting. Bruce Willis, who’d initially been attached to both star and produce, had since dropped out. With the change in location – as well being told the star might be harboring second thoughts regarding his decision to pull the ripcord – the waiting-with-baited-breath producing team queried if Bruce might be inclined to revisit playing Earl Pike, the story’s contract killer with a family agenda.

And who better to ask him than me? Or so it was floated. When King B finally called me back, I informed him of the script change to Los Angeles, as well as a more recent notion the company was considering: adapting the script to shoot New Orleans for New Orleans.

Note: I wasn’t sold on New Orleans and hadn’t yet had time to wrap my pea-brain around the idea when BW’s number appeared on my mobile phone screen.

“If I were to reconsider playing Earl Pike,” Bruce said in a terse and sanguine tone, “It would be Earl Pike in New York City, right? It’s a New York movie. That’s part of the whole attraction to it. I mean, why do it otherwise?”

With the company still vacillating on the New Orleans play, I wasn’t at all in the mood to argue to Bruce Willis that he give my Los Angeles draft a look-see. Why waste the movie star’s time if those of us still in the movie-making mix weren’t set on the destination for our tale and audience?

New Orleans and the Louisiana State tax credits won out. And soon after I was replaced only to later again be asked to return once Sam Bayer made his ignoble exit. By then, I was ready to insist the movie be made in New York. Bruce Willis was right. It was a New York movie because New York was the character and destination the audience that was me most wanted to visit.

Check out Doug’s popular novels and his newest release, REAPER.

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