Sunday, October 9, 2011

Five Ways To Think About Your Screenplay’s Arena

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of when and where a story is set, but arena is an integral part of every screenplay.

Here’s what set me thinking about this: I wrote a short screenplay, which I hope to get up and running with my director brother Jonathan (check out his impressive showreel here). He read the script, liked it, had a few notes and then said, deadpan, “I’d like to set it in the 1970s, that would be visually really cool!” I swear, the first thing that came to my mind was: how is this relevant to the story? The second thing was, budget. Then all the beats with mobile phones and other 21st century tech stuff flashed in front of my eyes. Then I realized, okay, my brother’s used to directing big commercials, with budgets you could shoot three indie features for. But I’m a struggling screenwriter, happy if something of mine is shot for nothing, so I’m used to weighing every detail very carefully. One such ‘detail’ is arena.

Era As Arena
The time in which a story is set, determines a lot more than just wardrobe and props. Just think of the difference in attitudes to sex, authority, or religion in, say, 1550, 1850 and 1950. It’s not just impossible to ignore these differences in values, it’s a real waste! Using the arena to add a layer of meaning to a story can be really effective. For example, imagine a story about an unintended pregnancy, like Knocked Up or Juno, set in the 1950s. The story would be much more about the taboo and shame of pregnancy out of wedlock, rather than about the difficult personal choices facing the main characters. A story is set in a particular era for a reason, both to comment on that era and as a way of reflecting the personal dilemmas of the main characters in the social events of that time.

Geographical Location As Arena
Similarly, where a story is situated determines a lot more than the palette and soundtrack of a film. The local culture (which can even differ within a single city) is the context within which a story plays out. It has values and social conflicts which offer specific potential for conflict, metaphor, action, etc., which if related to what the story is about, can infuse a screenplay with more meaning. Plus, contrasting locations within a story can emphasize thematic or narrative developments in the story, too. A classical contrast is city-countryside, in which the urban environment represents modern values and the rural setting represents traditional values. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, the emphasis depends on what argument the film is trying to make. Similarly, the nature of the terrain can be very expressive too. There’s a big difference between action set in a isolated, physically demanding location such as a desert or a mountain, and action set in a luxurious tourist resort or a crowded slum.

Fantasy World As Arena
Science fiction and animation (or a combination of both) offer the opportunity to specifically design a story world to explore a particular thematic issue, or philosophical question. By stepping outside normal reality, the film can explore big questions in a very focused way. Questions about ethics, free will, about artificial intelligence, life on other planets, and so on. What would it be like if the police could see a future crime happening and still have time to prevent it (Minority Report)? Or: what would it be like if humans were raised like livestock to harvest their organs (Never Let Me Go)?

Limited Physical Location As Arena
Setting a story in one building, or on a ship, or some other location with clear boundaries and a specific character, is a great way to create a microcosm in which differing world views battle it out. A classic example is Twelve Angry Men, in which almost the entire film plays out in one room, where a jury sweats over a case they’ve heard. But a limited location can also be a source of great suspense, like in films such as Die Hard, Titanic, Alien, and plenty more, where the viewer is constantly aware that “there’s no way out.” But it’s not just a source of cinematic tension, it’s also a metaphor for life’s limitations, for our awareness of our own mortality and how we deal with that.

Organization As Arena
Whether the story is set within an official institute (e.g., a prison, a psychiatric hospital, the army, a school), an informal organization (e.g., the mafia), a small or large business, a sports team, or even a family, all of these groupings represent certain values. All types of organizations suggest some degree of required conformity to the system and its values, so there’s an inherent potential for conflict there. The story might be about a conflict between an individual within the organization trying to get out, an outsider trying to get in, a faction trying to bring about change from the inside, or some other variation. Whatever the specifics of the conflict, the organization itself offers a great opportunity to establish a clear set of values as a backdrop for the narrative. There are countless examples of prison, mafia, army, sports and family drama movies that use this kind of construct.

I’m sure there are plenty of additional ways to think about arena, but what’s clear is that arena is an integral part of what a film is about. It expresses something about the challenges the main characters face, both in terms of the concrete goal they have to achieve and the underlying, internal flaw they have to confront. Sometimes, a thought experiment in which you change the arena of your story, can be a great way to prize out what the story is about. Kind of similar to imagining the story being told from the point of view of a different character. Even if you decide not to change the arena, just imagining the change can reveal aspects of the story or characters you were missing. You quickly see whether the change would add a layer to the story or just distract from what it’s really about.

And my short? All the 1970s historical circumstances that I came up with were interesting, but essentially distracting. So for the time being, anyway, the short is still set in the present.

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