By Jennie Jarvis
In 2006, the Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock romance The Lake House came to theaters. For the most part, the film was mediocre as far as romances go. I cared about the characters, and the situation that kept them apart was an interesting twist, but overall, it didn’t exactly touch my heart and soul the way that some other romances have in the past (including the Sandra Bullock film While You Were Sleeping, which I honestly think is the best romantic comedy script of all time – feel free to disagree).
In The Lake House, however, one scene really stuck with me over the years, and not for the reason that you might think. On the evening before his death, famous architect Simon Wyler (played by the always exceptional Christopher Plummer) sits in his hospital bed, furiously working on what would wind up being his last design. His son Alex (Keanu Reeves) asks him where the structure will be built, and Simon jokes with him about how he should know based on the design itself.
“Now, come on. You know as well as I do that the light in Barcelona is quite different from the light in Tokyo. And the light in Tokyo is different from that in Prague. A truly great structure, one that is meant to stand the tests of time, never disregards its environment. A serious architect takes that into account. He knows that if he wants presence, he must consult with nature. He must be captivated by the light. Always the light. Always.”
In an otherwise sappy film, I found this little monologue to be particularly brilliant, and I have often thought of it when it comes to talking to my screenwriting students about setting. A trend that I have noticed with novice screenwriters (and which I suffered from myself when I first started out) is the instinct to write a film that can take place “anywhere.” If the script takes place in a small town, it can take place in “any” small town. If it takes place in a city, it can be “any” city. The story exists outside of location, and the characters and their actions take precedence over the world in which they live.
I can understand this idea from a filmmaking perspective; a production rarely shoots the film or television show in the actual city that it takes place. Supernatural, for instance, shoots in Canada, even though every episode takes place in some Midwestern American town. The Hatfield and McCoy mini-series, which details the feuding families of West Virgina, was shot in Romania. Romancing the Stone, which takes place in Columbia, was shot in Mexico. Shooting these stories in a location other than the one where the events are suppose to take place is always due to financial or scheduling needs. But does this mean that a writer can use this same “well… whatever is convenient” mindset?
Even if the actual name of the town never occurs in a screenplay, it’s always important that the writer chooses a very specific somewhere for the story to take place. Just like a good architect understands the importance of taking the environment into account when designing a new building, a good screenwriter knows that a horror that takes place in Colorado is going to be much different than one that takes place in Maine (Don’t believe me? Ask Stephen King). The external obstacles that the landscape will give a character must be taken into consideration. Escaping from a pursuer over a mountain is much harder than escaping over relatively flat land. Someone that is training to run a marathon will have a much different experience running in New Mexico, where the air is dry, than running in the South, where the humidity in the air can weigh a runner down. If a man dreams of taking a romantic walk under a gorgeous canopy of yellow and red leaves, then the action has to take place somewhere that the seasons actually change – or, conversely, he needs to live somewhere that the seasons don’t change, hence his dream to be somewhere else.
Not only will it matter in terms of what the characters can do, but the setting also helps to create the personality of the world in which the characters live. Someone that lives in a town where the only restaurants are McDonald’s and Olive Garden is going to have a different view of the world than one in which the main places to eat are all locally owned. If someone walks into a store to buy a drink, they are going to ask for pop, soda or a Coke depending on where they live. Someone in Santa Monica will refer to “the 10,” while someone in Jacksonville will refer to the same highway as “I-10.” And while we are talking about Florida, a character’s view of gay rights might change based on whether they live north or south of I-4. BBQ in the South is its own cuisine; BBQ in the west is just another word for grilling. These details matter in order to make the world believable and true.
If a screenwriter doesn’t think that it matters where her or his story takes place, then my guess is that the screenwriter isn’t spending enough time thinking about the world that she or he creates. Understanding the location is just as important to creating a rich and compelling story as creating character bibles or outlining – other essential tools that might never be seen by the reader of the screenplay but are required nonetheless.