Week 7 – Locations and Places

“Finding a landscape to fit the film has always been vital to me.”

John Boorman

This week we will be getting more into details, i.e. we will start talking about locations and places and how they can help us to find ideas, how they can trigger the creative process.

A picture tells more than a thousand words and often a place, a location can be the trigger for a film idea. Sometimes a postcard or an old photo album from a flea market, photos of interior design or architecture magazines, a location you’ve seen in a movie, a place you’ve experienced in the real world by yourself or just Google maps street view can be enough. If you have the chance talk to set designers and location scouts about their art!

Places create mood. You should always be on the lookout for visually interesting locations that can serve as compelling backdrops for dramatic encounters. Also keep in mind that certain behavior and actions tend to occur in specific places.

Let’s google images for the keywords “abandoned places”. Could a whole film be developed out of one of theses images? And if you combine some of them? Or just the opening scene, from which then afterwards the rest of the film derives?

Take such diverse films as Tom McCarthy’s >The Station Agent<, Martin Sulik’s >The Garden<, Alex van Warmerdam’s >The Northerners< and Luis Bunel’s >Viridiana<. What do all of these films have in common? And in what do they vary significantly?

Each location has its own lines of force, its own magic of light. Paths that put themselves forward for walking. Corners and spots, caught in darkness, where enigma resides. By entering any old room: What is it that draws the attention first? Its residents – furniture, objects, materials -, all of them are creating a certain atmosphere. These are further factors that can serve as an inspiration. And in the end they are all adjustable: a film location is not static! You can take things out, reposition them, substitute objects, open and close doors and windows etc. All this can change the character, the ‘face‘ of a location fundamentally! Suddenly a new story may show up. The “What-if …?“ game can and must be played here too!

“In the process of developing a script I used always to try to have an exact picture of the film in my mind, even down to the sets. Now, however, I am more inclined to work out a scene or shot only in a very general way, so that it will emerge spontaneously during shooting. For the life on location, the atmosphere of the set, the actor’s moods, can prompt one to new, startling and unexpected strategies. Imagination is less rich than life. And these days I feel more and more strongly that ideas and moods should not be all predetermined in advance.“ (Andrei Tarkovsky)

It seems absurd, but you could say that imagination is less rich than life! Therefore: Go on location! Photographs are not enough to experience the specialty, the atmosphere, the light and the soundscape of a location! Even the latter can serve as an inspiration: A public telephone or one in a bar that rings every day at the same time, without anyone to answer…

That’s why science fiction author Bruce Sterling is recommending to travel a lot:

“Science fiction authors do not hesitate to imagine Mars, but they have never been to Malaysia or Indonesia… You need this flair for small trends. You have to be prepared to give a lot of attention to stuff that will remain unimportant for a long time. At Christmas everyone gives presents to the poor, in February it’s just cold and they don’t get anything. You have to be the guy who comes by in February. Go to the places where people were in December and where they lost interest and ask there what it looks like.”

Have a fresh look at all the flats and houses of your friends: What kind of Woody Allen style romantic comedy could take place there? Imagine people, actors moving around and talking to each other…

“When I like something about a place, I immediately get the idea of moving characters into that setting. Inspired by the place, or even just based on the gestures and actions I see, I try to imagine what story may be unfolding before my eyes.“ (Michelangelo Antonioni)

Sometimes it also helps in the creative process to think in contrasts:

  • Public versus private space.
  • Transit versus living space.
  • Locations that connect versus the ones that separate.
  • Abandoned and empty locations versus crowded ones.

Places of transition, Marc Augé calls them non-places, like an airport (check out Angela Schanelec’s film >Orly<), a bus stop, a gas station, a train station, a hotel, a cemetery, IKEA or a supermarket: they all are a great inspiration for ideas. Just sit down in their periphery or in the midst of them and watch people while little stories unfold in front of your eyes.

Your turn!

1. Talk to location scouts about their art & business.

2. Have a look at as many photo books as possible. Check out all the photos that are location and places related. Especially check out Wim Wenders’ >Places, strange and quiet<. Choose 3 photos and take them as a starting point, a seed, for the first scene of a film. Put one, two, three or four people in it.

3. Words can trigger pictures and pictures can trigger words. Try visualization again! When you for example hear the words churchyard, garage or kitchen, what kind of places come into your mind first. Try to describe them in detail.

4. Take 1-3 of your favorite films. Watch them again and make a list of all the locations, describe them in short. What else could have happened there? Use the location as a starting point for a new idea!

5. Have a second, closer look at all the flats and houses of the people you know. What story could unfold there?

6. Do things, go to places you normally never go, you’ve never been before.

7. Visualize imaginary rooms and places, that don’t exist in reality.

8. Often a certain kind of scene takes place at a certain location – mix it, find new combinations.

9. Narrative map: Use post-it notes to write down little scenes, ideas by only using two parameters: place and (what happens over) time.

10. What’s a story that only YOU can tell because of where you live?

11. Go for a long walk or ride in a bus or car to find an unfamiliar location that interests you as a storyteller. Study the scene carefully and list the details that you find compelling, or even just interesting. Imagine sounds, along with this image. When you have found the sound or combination of sounds that appeals to you most, add it to your location description. Go to a public place, a coffee shop, a park, a train station, a supermarket – wherever you can watch someone (without being noticed) who might engage you as a possible character. Don’t choose anyone you know. Try to memorize quickly the person’s appearance and general style.

12. Get Patricia Schultz’s bestseller >1000 Places to See Before You Die<. There is also an US/Canada version.

Films to watch

Jerry Barrish

  • Shuttlecock (1989) IMDB

Sarunas Bartas

  • Few of us (1996) IMDB

Raymond Depardon

  • Empty Quarter (1985) IMDB

Aleksey Fedorchenko

  • Silent Souls (2010) IMDB

Tom McCarthy

  • The Station Agent (2003) IMDB

Lukas Moodsson

  • Lilja 4-ever (2002) IMDB

Martin Sulik

  • The Garden (1995) IMDB

Alex van Warmerdam

  • The Northerners (1992) IMDB

Konrad Wolf

  • The Devided Heaven (1964) IMDB

Edward Yang