Where Are You
As you work on your screenplay, you will notice that your characters will need to be somewhere. Whatever is happening from scene to scene, it must happen in a location that the people in your movie can populate. And since your characters are going to be stuck in these places, why not make those places interesting!
The locations in which your characters appear should not just provide shelter from the elements and a place to hide the boom mic. They should tell us as much about your characters as their dialogue does, they should surprise us and they should provide pressure, inspiration and/or motivation for your characters.
Any location can go from being just a set to being a place unique to your character and story. Even if the location is someplace relatively simple like a bedroom, office or bar, it should still give us additional information about the people we are watching. Why did your character choose this bedroom, office or bar? What specific things are in those places that make your character feel at home…or feel uncomfortable? What photographs, art or random oddity is on the walls, shelves or floor that inform this story? Or, is it a location that your character doesn’t mesh with? What’s in the place that lets us know that? How does your character blend in to or stand out from this location?
Try this to build your locations the same way you build your characters: Think of an office. Let me guess, there’s a big window, a sizeable desk and some sort of Aeron Chair? Nothing wrong with that, but nothing exciting either, what can you do to that office to make it as memorable as your story? Are the walls a strange color? Was it decorated by a hippie? A robot? A child? A prison designer? (Don’t laugh, my dorm was designed by a prison designer. When we were told that, it made a lot of things about the space make much more sense).
Is the window too big or too small, or does it have windows at all? Is the chair one of those kneeling chairs, maybe a yoga ball or is the desk a standing desk? Is the room in disrepair? Is there a friendly spider that lives in one corner that no one has bothered to clear away? Are the plants in good shape or do they all (like every plant I’ve ever touched) have one starkly dead frond that signals its imminent doom? What was in that office before it belonged to your character? A school? A drug ring? A nursery?
While you don’t want to get overly clever and take your viewers out of the story, think of ways to make your location unexpected. For example, if your character is in someplace typically messy like a construction site, is there a way to make the site unusually clean? Or vice versa. If your character is in a typically sterile environment like a hospital, is there a way to make it messy? Are they in a cave that’s bizarrely brightly lit? Or on a porch that was built so that it can’t get any sun? Inside of a sauna whose motor has broken so it’s cold or a walk in freezer that’s malfunctioning so it’s hot?
You should also look at how changing a location changes the feel, importance, urgency or meaning of the scene. I had a director take an argument scene I wrote that was originally set in a car and set it in a guest bathroom during a party. The actors suddenly had way more pressure on them than I gave them and the scene sparkled to life in a whole new way.
What can you do to put your characters someplace where what they’re doing matters in a new way? What’s going on just outside or just off screen of where your characters are? If it is a scene with coworkers, are they at an awkward team-building event instead of the break room? Stuck in a long elevator ride? Locked out on the balcony of an office they weren’t supposed to be in? Participating in a fire drill?
And once you get away from typical locations, you can have even more fun. Are they backstage at a play that has alternately loud and soft scenes? Maybe they’re hired killers practicing at a firing range on the same day that a soccer mom meetup is there? Breaking up during a hot air balloon ride?
These things should not be done at the expense of your story. If your character needs to be in a typical location with typical features, leave her there. Chances are, however, you can take a few chances with location details and make your story even more memorable.