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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Q & A: Location Details

First of all, before I forget...

I've been meaning to mention that if you send me an email, please include a descriptive subject line so I'll know it is an email about the blog or something. I get a lot of spam, and am relatively aggressive about deleting emails when I don't recognize the sender. On that note, if you have previously sent me an email, and I did not respond, either on here or directly to you, please resend. I make a point of trying to respond to all queries, as quickly as possible. So it is possible I accidentally deleted your email, thinking it was spam.

Now, I received an email from Eddie Lee Murphy, who writes:

Hey FJ

Love the blog. Easier to post comments now.

I often read/hear that detail is important when talking about locations. I find big cities - NY, LA, Chicago, ideal for settings mostly because of access. You can find virtually any backdrop you need somewhere in these cities. While I can see location being a crucial factor in the success/failure of many movies, I prefer to concentrate on story. I see Big City or Small Town in my head. I'm more concerned about what's going on than specific, geographically correct locations.

I open one screenplay with a traffic accident on the George Washington Bridge. I picked the GWB because it's a known brigde in NYC. I researched the bridge online to the best of my ability. I would've loved to visit the bridge, but that's not a realistic option$.

If you read my screenplay, and saw a detail that made my scene technically off in feasibiltiy, would you think I was being lazy and toss me in the Pass pile?

Would I be better off writing in more general terms, using scene headings like Big City, or Big bridge?

I'd appreciate any comment you may have on this, maybe it could even turn into a post, or maybe it already is a post and I just don't know about it...

Have Fun


I guess it's turning into a post now! This is actually a manifold question. Firstly, will I notice the error, and if I do, will it make me toss your script into the PASS pile? To answer the first part, most probably. Especially if it is set in New York or Los Angeles, cities that I know well. Readers, in general, are knowledgeable people, and we're detail oriented. So if you make a mistake of locality, we'll probably pick it up. I don't know Chicago at all, so if there's a geographical detail in there, I'd probably simply look past it.

But as to the second half of that question, I would not let that sway my decision into sending the script to PASSadena. I remember a script I read years ago where a character is being chased in Manhattan. He ran out of the Manhattan Mall (33rd and 6th Avenue) and into Times Square (above 42nd & Broadway) or Central Park (beginning at 59th) -- I can't remember which. Based on the way the action was written, it was clear this was meant to be continuous action, not later in the sequence. It was also clear, by detail, that it was not referring to Herald Square, which is right next to the Manhattan Mall (for those of you detail-focused NYers out there).

I made note of the idiocy of this guy's description. But I still read the whole script with an open mind (as I recall, it was a PASS anyway, but more because of the script itself). Furthermore, I would never even make comment about something like that in my coverage (for a studio -- I would if I were giving feedback to the author). Same as I won't comment on whether a script is written in proper format or has spelling or grammatical errors. Why? Because that's not what my employers are paying me for. They want me to evaluate whether they should buy the script. Couldn't they fix that in rewrites? So my coverage comments focus on the things that would make this a good or bad film, not whether the author knows his details. But don't think I'm unaware of them.

Which also brings me to the other part of your question. Should you just write "big city" or "bridge." I would say, in almost all cases, no. There are a number of reasons for this. Different cities have distinctly different auras, and I'm not just talking about the way they look. There is usually a very good reason that a film is set in NYC, rather than LA, Chicago, D.C., Las Vegas, or Boston. They are all extremely different. And if your film doesn't have a reason to be set there, why are you setting it there. But also, writing "BIG CITY" creates a very distinct feel, as opposed to just, "any city." It means an anonymous city, that is anonymous for a reason. It is the type of thing found more frequently in comic-book type movies. Think Sin City for example. Not a specific extant city.

So then, if you're unsure about your details, but shouldn't write simply "Big City" or "Bridge," what should you do? Obviously, first learn as much as possible about the city you choose. If you can't afford to go there, read about it as much as possible. Talk to people about it. Read the city's newspapers. Watch other movies set there. It's the same as doing research on a profession about which you know nothing. What all these things will do is give you a better feel for the city. That will also help you determine if you've chosen the right city to set your film in, and if it has the appropriate tone.

But beyond that, if you're still unsure, have someone who is familiar with the city read your script. Ask them to pay attention to the location details to see if they are accurate and appropriate. And make sure it is someone who does know their stuff.

But bottom line: these details will not make or break your script. It goes back to something I was telling another writer the other day after I read his script. When a reader and/or a studio evaluates a script, the two most important things they pay attention to are CONCEPT and STORY. Everything else is secondary, because everything else can be fixed in rewrites. But if you don't have a strong story or a unique and/or saleable concept, nothing else matters.

More on that topic, and the difference between story and concept in another post some time!

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Blogger Chris said...

I struggled with this question in my first (and only at the moment) script. There were several locations where events occurred that could have just been a generic "AUDITORIUM" or "ARENA." I chose, however, to make them specific, real-world places despite the fact that it wasn't essential to the plot that they be fixed. First, I did it for verisimillitude. It read better and made the story feel more real if the scenes were occuring in actual locations. It feels like a cheat to me to just use the anonymous or generic, as if the writer is too lazy to do a little research. Second, why not? In the unlikely event it ever got produced, any set or generic location could stand in for the actual place I identified in my script and the audience would likely be none the wiser. Worst case, pickup some external (or even internal if you wanted to greenscreen them in) establishing shots with a second or third unit. I think the more little details you can reasonably put in to flesh out the world you're creating, the better.

2:46 AM  
Blogger The Awful Writer said...

What with Google Earth nobody has any excuse for making such mistakes like having a character run out of Manhattan Mall into Time Square. Just enter “Manhattan Mall, New York” in the search field and there you are. Zoom in to see what’s in the neighborhood.

4:00 AM  
Blogger Konrad West said...

Really, really great advice. Making details specific makes a story so much more real, and transports you into its reality. Keep up the great posts!

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Eddie said...

Thanks Joel. Very helpful. You actually can find a lot of information online, and the example you present is inexcusable in my opinion. Lazy. I'm detail oriented to a flaw I think, getting hung up on much more precise matters. In the heat of writing, research can kill the moment. Guess I need to plan better, or plow on through and touch things up later.

While costly, making a trip to check things out in person is probably best. If it isn't worth my time and money, why should it be worth the studio's? It's all about commitment.

10:48 PM  
Blogger oneslackmartian said...

Good stuff. I never considered this much, but will now have a keen eye for this, along with the other 5,000 details. I think writing a constitution in iambic pentameter for a provisional government is easier than writing a screenplay.

And I can't wait to visit Google Earth . . . uh, being one slack Martian . . . .

4:21 AM  

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