Location – every writer’s delight and every producer’s bane:
ME: “I’ve written a thrilling chase scene set in Paddington Station at rush hour!”
PRODUCER: “Could it be Gunnersbury at 3am?”
In this blog post, I’m going to talk about the use of location in novels, low/no budget screenplays and stageplays – and how to make the right choices for your project.
First, what is a location? This may seem like a stupid question, but I want to emphasise that locations are not just externals – fields, castles, deserts, mountains. Locations are office buildings, hotel rooms, toilet cubicles. Anything you would put after EXT/INT in a screenplay.
Locations are also towns, countries – or planets. Space, The Final Frontier. A hotel room may look the same in London, Paris and Dubai, but the context of being in that country may determine the action of the scene – in fact, I would argue that it should.
Locations are not incidental. Setting your film in Australia for the tax breaks is a disservice to your story. Unless you plan to embrace Australia with all your writing heart, get to know it intimately and deeply, and lovingly depict both its triumphs and its flaws.
Locations can be made up! Famous examples include Narnia, Middle Earth, Vulcan, Galifrey, Isla Nublar, and The Lost World’s plateau. There are also mythological/legendary locations, like Atlantis, Kumari Kandam and Valhalla.
And, finally, locations are times. There’s a reason The Doctor travels in Time and Space and that Shakespeare called the future “the undiscovered country” (also my favourite Star Trek film, in case you were wondering). The 9th, 19th century and 29th centuries are location choices that have a significant impact on your storyworld.
With that in mind, how do you go about picking a location?
Write what you know
I chose to set The Amy Lane Mysteries in Cardiff. Why Cardiff? Firstly, I love Cardiff. I wanted to show it off for an audience. Secondly, I lived there for five years – I know that city, its dodgy streets, its cheap cafés, the feeling of being in the Millennium Stadium when Wales are playing rugby. I was born in England, but I know something of what it means to be Welsh: the patriotism, the tensions of a devolved government, caught between nationalism and dependence.
But, perhaps most importantly, it was the place for the kind of story I wanted to tell. If you set a serial killer story in New York, you join a multitude – to the point where at least 20% of the NYC population must be serial killers, and the rest victims or cops. If you set it in London, you tap into the anonymity of a big city, the Underground, some history of multiple murders – you probably evoke Jack the Ripper, at the very least.
Wales has a murder rate of three people per year. There has never been a serial killer in Cardiff. The UK has been known to obsess over the disappearance of one solitary student for days and weeks. A serial killer in Cardiff throws the local police into disarray and attracts national media attention. It creates an atmosphere of fear in a fairly easy-going city.
The other advantage of Cardiff is that my ex-con Jason is a known face. He has a reputation with the local gangs and the police. The criminal community is small enough that everyone knows everyone – and that everyone can be found and hunted.
But what if you need to set your story in a small rural village and you’ve always lived in Birmingham? Or vice versa? If possible, try to stay in a similar place for at least a weekend. In a village, you need a feeling of how well people know each other, the chat in the local Post Office or Co-op, the public transport, the mobile phone signal, how it feels to walk out at night. If you can’t get there, find someone you know who lives in a location similar to what you need – this particularly applies to foreign countries. Read books by locals – not professional tourists – and watch YouTube videos and documentaries, preferably filmed by natives.
This applies equally to specific settings, such as military bases and hospitals. I actively avoid hospital dramas, because I don’t want to take my work home and because I spend more time railing against the inaccuracies than I do enjoying the drama. Seek out a professional with specific knowledge of the location and consult them at every stage: planning, first draft, final beta.
“Write what you know” means that if you don’t have experiential knowledge of a thing, you go out and get it – or do your research until you can blag well enough to convince an editor/director/genuine local that you know your shit.
In broadcast media, the screenplay is only one part of a vast clanking machine that runs on money (or, more accurately, the promise of money). Your job as a writer is to write a highly-entertaining film that people want to watch and also makes some other people profit. Obviously, the smaller the initial outlay, the higher the profits.
If you’re working on a low/no budget movie, that starting pot of money may be virtually non-existent. In which case cheap and free location choices are the way to go. However, what may seem like a reasonable location for a budget movie may bloat into a cash-draining nightmare.
When I was a teenager, Realm Pictures – now-renowned for their breath-taking and revolutionary underwater filming and $100,000 Kickstarter – was called Three Arrows Productions. And made a medieval romantic tragedy. First off, this concept did not exactly lend itself to no-budget filming but the team have never been less than ambitious.
Anyway, there was a scene where our hero was attacked by bandits. In the woods. At night. In the rain.
Assuming we already have the cast, costumes and swords, the woods are a free and easily-accessible location. However, as soon as you film after dark, you need a complex and high-powered lighting setup. Also a generator. You also need a rain rig. Additionally, your soaked, freezing and exhausted cast and crew have no ready exit to hot drinks, food, indoor space or toilets.
General rules (and there are definitely exceptions) are that indoor locations in the day are much kinder to budgets.
Historical period drama isn’t necessarily a problem. We are fortunate in the UK to be glutted with buildings in excess of 500 years old. Finding a castle is easy but acquiring filming permission may be difficult. However, finding an old pub or cottage is significantly easier and then all you require is an indulgent landlord/homeowner. There are also reenactment societies who may be keen to advise and get involved in your production. When Realm Pictures needed a spitfire cockpit for The Underwater Realm, the Spitfire Society were an amazing help.
The other important factor is number of locations. The more locations, the higher the budget – and the longer the filming schedule. Having one elaborate, complex high-budget location is preferable to having ten cheap/free ones.
Use of space
Particularly relevant for the theatre, this also applies to film/TV and to a lesser extent novels – how do your characters interact with the space and how does the space push back?
I have a horror stageplay in a drawer from last year where there are no staging changes but four different locations. The main location is a theatre (yes, I know – there’s a reason it’s in a drawer) and so the “props” littering the stage become significant features of the location when the scene shifts. This can also be emphasised with good lighting, though a lot of smaller theatre spaces have limited capabilities. If you’re putting on a play in a pub, can you use the tables and chairs, the bar, the closeness and claustrophobic atmosphere?
In Binary Witness, Amy’s building has gone through several redesigns to account for the rooms required for the plot and because I was so involved in that location that I didn’t realise it was largely indecipherable to an outsider. The solution to a particular access problem, in the end, was to swap out a staircase for a lift – in a novel, you have total control over every aspect of the environment.
In TV, you don’t have that luxury. Unless you’re writing Doctor Who and you want to add another room to the TARDIS, but there’s that old budgetary concern again. In serial dramas and soaps, you are limited by what has gone before, the constraints of the series. It’s noteworthy that Albert Square is being extended for filming purposes, but the layout remains the same.
A really good example of using space and location is Cube. You take a room and you shut your characters inside. The location is fixed but innovatively used – a cube has six sides and we are constantly reminded of the fact.
Potential Pitfalls and Workarounds
So, if we put together the above points, what do we see?
What if you want to set your feature film in China, because you know and love it absolutely, but your producer has no budget? What if you have the perfect free location in your local wine bar but your director can’t light the space? What if your play’s being staged in a basement but the location you’re desperate to write is the Kansas Prairies?
Well, can you make London look like China? What about an empty warehouse? What bits of China do you absolutely need to make this work? Can you film in China – do you have contacts over there, or can the Twitter network help you out?
What are your options for natural light in the bar? Can the production team source different-sized equipment? Does someone know an alternative wine bar down the road that offers a larger toilet and higher ceilings?
What do you need to make a prairie? How can you aid your audience’s sense of disbelief – turn up the heat, turn up the lights, cover your cast in dust?
Or maybe you need to set this project aside, no matter how much you love it. Perhaps it would be feasible in a different medium. My beloved Steampunk Assassins feature has shifted towards becoming a graphic novel, because that medium allows me to tell the story I want to without relying on a billion dollar budget.
Question your choice of location at the planning stage. Choosing to set your novel in the 1920s because Downton Abbey is so hot right now might not be the best creative decision.
New worlds, alternate history and the future come with their own headaches. If you are creating a new storyworld, how does it function? Does physics work the same way there? If your world uses magic, what are the rules? Who lives in this world – humans, aliens, creatures? What is society like? There’s a reason that Middle Earth and the Seven Kingdoms bear a striking resemblance to medieval Europe. And if you choose the future, you have to create a feasible technological progression, or post-apocalyptic struggle.
If you fail to define the boundaries and laws of your new world at the beginning, you will probably tangle yourself in a confusing mess of contradictions and half-finished ideas (See: Almost Human. Also: Lost).
Write a history of the place. Draw a map. Think about how you might compose a tourist guide. Read Trip Advisor for ideas of common things about a place people like to know and examples of how different those countries can be, in myriad surprising ways.
In summary, your choice of locations – settings, geography, space and time – are unlimited in your imagination, but may be constrained by your knowledge/research, budget, and use of space. However, if you’re prepared to be creative in your workarounds and thorough in your preparation, the worlds are your oysters!