Sometimes the specific needs of a scene lock you into a particular location. But, in situations where this is not the case, you might consider choosing film locations that add a degree of richness to the scene.
Often the obvious location is simply generic and adds very little to the story.
Where you choose to locate a scene can go a long way in enhancing its Visual Mindscape. The location can add richness to expositional scenes or express the inner journey of your characters through metaphoric representation.
North by Northwest
No one understood the Visual Mindscape of Location better than Alfred Hitchcock. Screenwriter Earnest Lehman tells the story of how Hitchcock always wanted to do a chase scene across the faces of Mount Rushmore. The Visual Mindscape of Mount Rushmore was the catalyst for North by Northwest.
North by Northwest
Years earlier Hitchcock had used another iconic location for the climactic backdrop to his 1942 film Saboteur, written by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker. The climax of the film takes place on the top of the Statue of Liberty. This location not only offers an intriguing Visual Mindscape, but it also speaks metaphorically to the freedom that Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is seeking, having been falsely accused of sabotage.
Saboteur - The Statue of Liberty
There Will Be Blood
In There Will Be Blood,writer/director P. T. Anderson could not have chosen a more visceral and appropriate location to introduce the soulless, hardhearted Daniel Plainview.
Deep within the coal-black bowels of the earth, Plainview relentlessly swings his pick ax into the rock. The heat is sweltering, the work backbreaking, and the location tight and black. The only light comes from the sparks as the pick ax strikes the rock. If Plainview isn’t the devil incarnate then he’s a very close relative.
There Will Be Blood
Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay of Babel is about our inability to communicate and connect with one another. This is explored on numerous levels - be it language, race, estrangement, discrimination, or self absorption.
The location of the final scene is a balcony of a high rise, symbolic Tower of Babel, where Cheiko, a disaffected deaf/mute Japanese schoolgirl, stands naked.
It is here where Cheiko and her father connect with each other for the first time.
EXT. BALCONY, CHIEKO'S APARTMENT – NIGHT
From the balcony, naked, Chieko observes the city stretching before her.
Yasujiro walks in and encounters his daughter completely naked. There are still traces of Chieko's tears in her eyes. Yasujiro is affected when he sees his daughter like this, but says nothing. He slowly walks toward her. Chieko looks hurt, but whole.
Yasujiro stands beside her. They look at each other. Chieko holds out her hand and takes his. Chieko squeezes. She looks at the city and then looks at her father's eyes. He strokes her hair and they both stand on the balcony, with the massive city sprawling under them.
Sealed With a Kiss
In Sealed With a Kiss, I have a scene that involves an interview between a cop and a young girl who has been forced onto the street because of sexual abuse at home.
Usually this sort of scene would take place either in an interrogation room at the Police Station or some neutral territory such as a coffee shop.
But I wanted the location to speak to the child beneath the façade. I chose to place it at the Merry-Go-Round in Griffith Park, a location that comments on Barbara’s lost childhood.
EXT. MERRY-GO-ROUND, GRIFFITH PARK DAY
CLOSE UP on the intricate details of the head of a carousel horse. It rises up, then dips out of FRAME.
In the B.G. Cullen and Bellows walk up the grassy knoll toward the carousel.
She can make a connection between two of
the victims; her father and Greene.
How did you find her?
I use to work at Central Juvenile.
The cadence of the merry-go-round begins to slow, taking a little longer for each new horse to appear until one comes to rest in FRAME.
CLOSE as young female hands stroke the horse’s mane and forehead. They explore the finely crafted nicks and crannies of the wooden sculpture.
Cullen and Bellows arrive at the platform.
Barbara, this is Detective Cullen.
BARBARA BROOKE has the kind of angelic face that will always look 15. There is a sense of clarity about her, the natural outgrowth of her obvious intelligence. She has none of the beaten down trappings found in street kids. That said she speaks with a lot of mileage behind her voice.
Children of Men
In Children of Men, a scene takes place in an abandoned Public School. The scene could have taken place anywhere but, by choosing this location, it is a powerful representation of the full consequences of this new world. It is a world where the youngest person alive is 18 years old.
Obviously there is no need for a public school anymore or even the swing set that is rusting away in the school yard.
But the most potent image is all of the children’s art work on the walls and you now realize that this form of art will never exist again.
By choosing the old school as the location for this scene, we no longer simply know what the crisis is; we now viscerally connect and recognize its full impact. We make the explicit link between the lack of children, the onset of despair, and the beginning of the collapse.
Children of Men (Children's Art on the Walls)
Prior to this, there is another scene where location serves as Allegory. It takes place when Theo meets Kee for the first time.
Kee is pregnant. Theo realizes that she is the savior of mankind.
The location for this scene is in a barn. Kee stands semi-nude surrounded by cattle. Theo, in utter disbelief, says “Jesus Christ!”
Children of Men - The Nativity
The Sweet Hereafter
In the opening scene in Atom Egoian’s The Sweet Hereafter, the location chosen brilliantly expresses the isolation and disconnect of the film’s main character, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holmes), who is seeking redemption and cleansing for his failure as a father.
In this scene, Stephens is in his car going through a car wash when his daughter calls him on his cell phone.
INT./EXT. CAR WASH. -- NIGHT
From the peaceful tableau of the sleeping family, the scene shifts to a vehicle entering a car wash. The image is shot through the windshield, from the driver's point of view.
The car enters the lathered world of spinning felt wheels and gushing water.
INT. CAR -- NIGHT
Inside the car MITCHELL STEPHENS, a man in his mid-fifties, listens to a stirring piece of music. The sound of the car wash is filtered out by the strains of music.
EXT. PHONE BOOTH -- NIGHT
The phone booth is located in a rundown area of a large city. A young woman, ZOE, enters the booth and lifts the receiver.
INT. CAR WASH. -- NIGHT
MITCHELL STEPHENS is going through the wash. The automatic mops and buffers embrace his car with water and suds. The cellular phone in the car rings. MITCHELL picks it up.
Yes? Yes, I'll accept the charges.
Sometimes the best location is the obvious one for reasons that are beyond the obvious and, if you have put thought into it, you will know what those deeper reasons are.
It could be argued that the location you choose for a scene is the canvas a painter uses to express his/her story.
What you do with it goes a long way toward enriching the story, but the location should always be organic to the story. It should represent the story in some way with obvious connections.
- More Visual Mindscape articles by Bill Boyle
- Behind the Lines with DR: The Cost of Location
- An Interview with Writer/Director Clare Kilner
- Write, Direct, Repeat: Get Set
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