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Locale as Character

June 23, 2011

With more shows failing to make it beyond their first season, the television industry is looking for a new hook.  Customary cops and doctors are out; stewardesses and Playboy bunnies are in.  Conventional genres are fading; parallel lives and time traveling are coming into their own.  With everyone still seeking out the next Lost-level phenomenon and searching for a little Mad Men chic, perhaps it is finally time for producers to weigh the value of locale.

Feeling just a little too cheery the other day, I decided to indulge in a Wallander marathon.  This is the British police drama based on a hugely popular Swedish series of books.  While the downbeat stories weren’t exactly my speed, the look and feel of the show were among the best I’ve ever experienced.  The key: their decision to treat Sweden as a central character and shoot on location in Ystad.

I don’t know all the sacrifices they made in order to keep the cast and crew away from home for four months and still stay within their 12 million dollar budget.  Whatever the bargaining and the trade-offs, the outcome was worth it.  The light and (more impressively) the dark are exquisite.  You can’t fake Scandinavian midsummer.  The natural surroundings are both brilliant and threatening.  There’s a field of rape that practically steals the opening sequence and a strip of coastline that has some explaining to do.  Being in an unfamiliar place also gave the design team tremendous freedom.  The dated decor and unusual spaces supported the heavy weight of the mysteries being explored.

There are a few examples of American series that have embraced locale with inspired results.  The events of Friday Night Lights are defined by the authentic small town backdrop made possible by shooting on location in Austin and Pflugerville, Texas.  The eye popping color of Miami gives Burn Notice extra heat.  Contrast these with The Killing, in which the producer appeared to be trying to recreate the neighborhood communities, rivers, forests, and fields of Seattle by having it rain every other block in Vancouver.  The lack of honesty in the setting made the entire production feel even more like a con than the disappointing story structure.

Bringing in locale as a character has one more creative advantage.  You can shoot in any direction and everything still looks fitting.  How often have you seen a program with incongruent architecture or landscape that takes you out of the mood?  You may be able to fake it for a block or two, but you can only go 360° when you’re surrounded with the real deal.

While I hope many of the companies behind the upcoming season will weigh the importance of where they shoot, I am particularly interested in attracting the attention of J. J. Abrams.  His new project picked up by FOX for midseason is centered on Alcatraz Prison.  At the risk of pointing out the obvious, Alcatraz is here in San Francisco.  I could walk there if it wasn’t for the water.  And nothing looks like it or like the surrounding area.  Not Los Angeles.  Not Michigan.  And definitely NOT Vancouver.  And there can be no arguing that the locale is a character.  Heck, it’s the title character for goodness sake.  So please, come up, talk to the production community here and make this your home base.  Take a lesson from the achievements of Wallandar and your own iconic Lost, which would not have worked as well away from an island setting.  Follow your own advice given just last week on The Daily Show and listen to your material.  I promise it won’t be enough to mix a cable car bell into your soundtrack.

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