It goes without saying that as a screenwriter works away in isolation on a project it’s important to give serious thought to the locations where scenes are set. Imaginative and unusual settings can help raise the stakes in a story and at times can even play a significant role in moving the story’s plot forward. But it’s also worthwhile to keep in mind that once a script is greenlit and pre-production gears up, those carefully considered locations in the screenplay may very well be drastically altered as location scouting for the production commences and new and exciting possibilities start presenting themselves.
This is exactly what happened on our feature The Sensation of Sight. The movie was set entirely in a small New England town. Once we located the town where we wanted to shoot the film (Peterborough, NH), we set about looking for locations that would work for us. Our locations manager Nick Koloski, writer/director Aaron Wiederspahn, and DP Christophe Lanzenberg spent many days investigating various possible settings for scenes and they found some wonderful surprises. In fact, a number of the key scenes in the film were shot on locations that didn’t exist in the script—locations that actually demanded that the script be altered to include them.
For example, the central character in the finished film and other key characters are living in an ancient rambling B&B, where they meet and form key relationships. In fact, this old and quirky building almost takes on a role of its own in the film. The interesting thing is that the B&B doesn’t exist in the final (or any) draft of the script. It was found after the fact, so to speak, and the screenplay was adjusted and revised to incorporate it into the story. Incidentally, we were also lucky to be able to book the entire B&B for the duration of the shoot and our principle actors actually ended up staying there as well! Our Making Of doc on the dvd of the film talks about this experience in some detail.
I think the most significant example, however, was an immense century-old stone barn that we stumbled across on the edge of town. It had been abandoned years before and totally left to smolder and collect dust and whatever else abandoned barns accumulate over time. Aaron, our director, after seeing the inside of this huge structure was instantly convinced that the climactic sequence of the film had to shot here. It offered numerous approaches to filming aspects of this sequence in terms of camera angles and visual textures and lighting. Out went the locations in the script for this action and in came our barn. The same story unfolded, but now with a heightened tension and sense of mystery.
In fact, in the end, this old barn became the background for our long opening shot in the film as well. It sits there mysteriously in the background fog as the opening credits roll and the beginning action plays out in front of it. None of that was in the script that we went into pre-production with and no one associated with the production can now possibly imagine the film working as well as it does from start to finish without that barn’s presence.
All this to say that it’s important to keep in mind that a screenplay—no matter how wonderful and integrated it’s settings and locations may be—must remain fluid and open to constant adjustment as the project moves beyond the script stage and into production. Because changes—big and small--are inevitable. Keeping this in mind, the key for the writer is to create settings that suggest the tone and mood of the scene, locations that move the story forward and add color and texture to the unfolding tale.
This is critical if the production crew is going to know precisely how a location or setting is supposed to function in the story and to recognize a true find when they come across it no matter how far removed it may be from what's on the page. For in the end, the script and all it holds, including its suggested settings, is really nothing more than a roadmap for the journey of making the film.