“Location, location, location”. This is a common response to the question, “What is important in real estate?”, but what about screenplays? Locations play an indispensable role in a screenplay, but their significance can be overlooked because they, unlike characters, do not move. Adjectives describe locations, and good writing in screenplays, the kind that keeps the pages turning, is often fueled by verbs, words that describe action. After all, locations don’t fight villains with a light saber. Locations don’t run into a burning building to save a trapped child. Locations don’t fight giant marshmallow men from the tops of skyscrapers.
But in a good screenplay, a location itself can be a character, and can be used to add subtext, accentuate exposition, foreshadow plot points, and otherwise strengthen the writing that results in a more subtle, layered story.
Let’s look at a few examples. In The War of the Roses (1989), written by Michael Leeson, Oliver Rose (Michael Douglas) is wooing Barbara (Kathleen Turner). As he flirts with her, they walk through a graveyard before Barbara runs off to catch a ferry. The message is subliminal, but one that works to foreshadow what we will discover in subsequent scenes; this couple is doomed.
In The Fugitive (1993), written by David Twohy and Jeb Stuart, Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) has been chasing Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) for days. Both men are at a hotel in downtown Chicago and Gerard has Dr. Kimble trapped on the top floor. Dr. Kimble is an innocent man, and this scene represents the desire of both characters to come clean. So where do the writers set the action for this climactic scene? On the hotel’s laundry floor.
Locations can go deeper, in a figurative sense and, at times, quite literally. There is a common theme in screenplays that follows the mythic structure of the Hero’s Journey. It’s called the Belly of the Whale and it represents the final detachment from the hero’s ordinary life.
Fatal Attraction (1987), written by James Dearden, borrows from this archetype when Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) confronts Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), with whom she had an affair, outside an office building in New York City. She has something to tell him, but Dan is in a hurry, rushing to catch a train. They descend down a long staircase, just before Alex spills her secret. She’s pregnant, and Dan, a married man with a five-year-old daughter, is the father.
The place where Alex has revealed her truth — a confession that will set the tone for the rest of the screenplay, ratchet up the stakes for Dan, and deepen the dramatic irony that will color every subsequent scene between him and his unsuspecting wife, Beth (Anne Archer) — is underground. In the subway station, buried deep underneath the mayhem of the city, is where Dan realizes his darkest fear, the destruction of his idyllic family life.
Fatal Attraction also gives us another example of using locations to enhance a screenplay. When Dan confides the truth about his affair with Alex in his best friend, Jimmy (Stuart Pankin), where he chooses to do this is, no pun intended, very telling. In a library, people speak in hushed tones. It’s the perfect place to divulge a secret. The location forces an unnerving silence into the scene, and gives Dan’s words, which slice through that silence and convey the enormous anxiety he feels, a devastating potency.
Another example of the Belly of the Whale motif can be found in The Woodsman (2004), written by Nicole Kassell and Steven Fechter. In the film, Walter (Kevin Bacon), a convicted child molester, is released from prison after twelve years of confinement. As he attempts to assimilate back into society, he finds daily life challenging.
Living across the street from an elementary school, Walter fights the temptation creeping into his mind every day. One day, he succumbs. He follows a little girl after she gets off a school bus. He catches up with her in a wooded park, and attempts to seduce the young child, asking her if she would like to sit on his lap. No, she says. Her father asks her to do the same thing, she explains, and she does not like it. Walter realizes this girl is a victim of abuse and he tells her to go home.
This powerful scene takes place in a wooded park. The title of the film refers to a character in the classic Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. The woodsman rescues Little Red Riding Hood trapped inside the stomach of the sleeping Big Bad Wolf. In this scene, and in this park, Walter has faced his worst enemy, himself. The little girl’s revelation has put a mirror in Walter’s face, and he loathes what he sees. Walter has become the woodsman and, by letting her leave the park unharmed, has saved the girl from himself.
In conclusion, writing a screenplay is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Love, hate, happiness, anger, jealousy, revenge, the entire spectrum of human emotions, these are the pieces that, when put together properly, can paint a vivid picture. Writers must not forget the potential locations have in giving that picture a more meaningful interpretation.