When a movie creates a vivid sense of place — as so many of 2017’s best do — people rightly credit the director, cinematographer and production designer. But before that team works its magic, a shrewd screenwriter will try to provide pointed hints as to how locale ought to serve story.
“I really do believe that the screenwriter’s task is to present as complete a roadmap as possible, from which everyone in the production can navigate,” says Anthony McCarten, whose “Darkest Hour” portrays an austere London keenly aware of that its very survival was at stake in 1940.
Greta Gerwig, showing off Sacramento, Ca., as never before in “Lady Bird,” couldn’t agree more. The script is the production’s “jumping-off point,” she says, “to help them hone in on what’s important … and then when you’re making it you can be very deliberate about it.”
In his stage directions, McCarten dubs Winston Churchill’s HQ “the underground nerve center … down a narrow staircase that leads to the secret war rooms.” The adjective “narrow” is meant to convey austerity (“no hint of luxury,” the writer says), while “secret” imparts “a mood of espionage, almost, to the set.” He’s dangling hints to the art director, director of photography and even composer, who can take an edgy cue from the “nerve center” motif. “Every department ought to be able to take from the script the essentials of what the movie requires,” he says.
Liz Hannah’s Washington, D.C., circa 1971, in “The Post,” the film she co-wrote with Josh Singer, was crafted to come across as both glamorous and ominous, in that getting in bed with each other at “the intersection of the government and the fourth estate” leads to momentous conflicts of interest when the latter is required to blow the whistle on the former.
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Hannah says she highlighted “the dinner parties where they could decide who the president would sit next to, and what deal could get made. This is where they could have the backroom cigar talk … a real melding of worlds back then.” All the suburban social elegance contrasts sharply with a big city newsroom running with a hot story, when “you just feel the energy, the vibrancy of these people.”
The Ebbing, Mo., outside of which Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards” are erected, he says, “is, on the surface at least, a quiet, affluent and picturesque little Southern town … pretty, cinematic, and [with] some kind of community,” yet “as its layers are revealed, shows us something quite a little darker.” McDonagh’s advice is “to picture that town quite clearly in your mind, and find a real place that’s as close to that picture as possible.”
By contrast, Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” is set in the wide-open spaces of the American West, representing not just a promised land for those pursuing personal freedom, but also a terrifying hunting ground in the ongoing battle between Native Americans and those intent on displacing them. Since the screenplay limits the dialogue to bare-bones necessity, its silences open the door to DP Masanobu Takayanagi’s painterly vistas, which give the audience time to visualize a natural or human threat lurking behind every crag.
Picturing Orlando for “The Florida Project” wasn’t tough for constant theme park visitor Chris Bergoch, who jokes, “I started location shooting for the film when I was 4,” thanks to “these iconic, kitschy establishments that never left my brain. … You have this weird world that I’ve never seen on screen before: bright colors, supersaturated vibe blazing in the hot sun.” Setting an investigation of America’s “hidden homeless” there, with children of poverty jerry-rigging their own magic kingdoms without paying hundreds in admission fees, proved irresistible.
Says writing partner and director Sean Baker: “Because of the parks there and Disney’s presence, the juxtaposition makes this issue really very, very in-your-face. …The location helped drive home the point.”
Speaking of driving, Sacramento native Gerwig says she “kind of wove into” her screenplay “the drives and the rivers and the light.” She and cinematographer Sam Levy “wanted everything to look plain and luscious” for a film “about middle-class people in a city that’s often overlooked … a city that feels like a small town.” The goal was to “allow it to be what it was, and not adorn it, because that would undermine what’s actually beautiful about it.”
Like her colleagues, Gerwig directly connects locale to character, in the case of “Lady Bird,” a high-school senior who can’t wait to bail. So the screenplay “was almost like trying to reverse-engineer the love letter to the city, and to present a character who can’t see what’s beautiful and wonderful about her city.”
“But the movie knows it. And if the movie knows it, then the audience knows it. It’s this contract that you have with the audience, where you’re waiting for the character to catch up to what you already know. Which is that it’s great.”