Locations, Part 2

Picking up where I left off, location does matter somewhat when it comes to being a professional screenwriter. But great writing trumps all other “rules” or concerns. The system is designed to cull the weak and the lazy from the herd. Your job is to be creative enough to overcome whatever obstacles are put in front of you. That’s what real writers do.

Getting back to the controversial blog post by a former TV staff writer/contest judge that ignited a slew of heated threads on message boards, she made another location-related statement that even produced screenwriters scoffed at: she said writers should set their stories in major metro areas like San Francisco… where, coincidentally, my finalist script from the contest she judged last year was set. I don’t have the exact quote handy from her post, but I think she was advising against using obscure places that audiences wouldn’t relate to, or would increase production costs if you had to shoot on location.

Which raises a good point, regardless of whether you agree or not: the setting you choose can make or break a story. It can serve as inspiration for you when you hit the wall and need to go deeper. You can research that locale, mentally wander the backstreets and alleys until you find your “aha!” moment for a scene or plot twist. But there are practical considerations as well that you must address. For instance, the aforementioned script of mine set in San Francisco, was actually based on a true life murder of a Japanese fortune teller in a luxury Honolulu skyrise. The original version — which was a finalist in the Austin Film Festival and quarterfinalist in the Nicholl Fellowships — was set in Hawaii and featured mostly local Asian-Hawaiian-chop suey mix characters…

And that was a problem for agents/producers. While the exotic island backdrop was a plus in screenwriting contests, the lack of “American” roles (white people) immediately became a negative for Hollywood readers. Sure, if you cast the right A-list actor or actress, you might be able to overcome that objection if your cast is predominately non-white. But it’s awfully tough. The other reason I changed the location to S.F. was  that I was unable to get any prominent producers or talent from Hawaii to even look at the script. It seemed that once I changed the locale to the mainland, I got more reads and interest.

Locations can play an integral role in TV series too. I’m still kicking myself for missing an opportunity to cash in on Las Vegas. Back around 1994, way before CSI or other series set in Sin City were on the air, I got a call from a music producer friend who was living with one of the Pointer Sisters in her Beverly Hills mansion. They wanted to go into TV, so we spit-balled ideas. I came up with Vegas Dreams. The concept was the sisters were an “older” musical act still trying to break into show biz, keeping their dream alive by singing in seedy Vegas dives and lounges. During the day, they worked in a Vegas pawn shop, where people who were worse off than them came out of desperation. Of course, the kind-hearted sisters would get involved with the hard luck stories, and that would dovetail into their ongoing quest to headline a big casino show.

The reason I chose Vegas was I could see what was happening there — bigger and more fantastic mega-resorts were springing up left and right, while just a few blocks away you could see that for many of the residents who lived and worked there, life was harsh. It was the classic illusions versus reality conflict that could make for interesting drama and comedy. But my friend and the Pointer Sisters didn’t respond to the pitch, and preferred another idea I had (which went nowhere).  Back then, Vegas was still sort of a joke to most Hollywood people. People from Hawaii love gambling, however, and my wife and I got hooked on going to Vegas on low-cost package trips before it became the hot place it is now.

What I failed to see is the possibility of doing a reality-based series set in Sin City. Around the same time, I was doing research on pawn shops because a guy I knew was working part-time in one and it sounded pretty interesting. I saw all kinds of potential for TV stories involving the objects that were being pawned, and why the characters were forced to pawn their most treasured possessions. When the Pointer Sisters passed on Vegas Dreams though, I shelved the idea.

Flash forward, and CSI comes along in the year 2000. They tap into the illusion versus gritty reality theme, high rollers and lowlifes rubbing elbows or rubbing each other out. Three years later, the series Las Vegas debuts (never watched it). But the one that really gave me a sick feeling in my gut was when Pawn Stars started airing last year… sheesh, why didn’t I think of scrapping my fictional Vegas Dreams plot, and going with a reality approach? Sigh.

Now I’m working on a new reality TV series concept. Set on a cruise ship that travels to exotic destinations… with a dating show angle, pitting computer match services versus human match-makers. Stay tuned for more details in future posts!

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