Independent films love to set scenes in coffee shops. Coffee shops are easy to scout, cheap to shoot in, and they lend themselves to long-winded discussions. They’re also terrible locations for any scene. If you love your characters, let them play basketball, dig a ditch, or try out a pastry class. They need something to do with their hands. Giving characters stuff to do accomplishes so much:
- First of all, it gives each character a secondary goal beyond “I need to have a conversation.” This physical goal can become an obstacle to having this conversation or a reason to get out of there or an excuse to linger where they’re not wanted, all of which will amplify conflict.
- It also gives you a way to accidentally express hidden emotions. You can simply have the characters say that they have mixed feelings, but it’s a much better solution to have your characters say one thing and then betray a different emotion through their actions. The more objects you put in their hands, the easier it is to do that.
- The characters can use body language instead of dialogue. Bodies don’t have much language when you’re sitting in a coffee shop. You can only play with the sugar cubes for so long.
For the same reason, kitchens are better than bedrooms. There’s only one thing to grab onto in a bedroom, and you can’t even do that in a PG-13 story. In the kitchen, characters always have things in their hands: That’s a lot of body language. Bonus: These are frequently dangerous objects. If characters are upset with themselves, they can accidentally cut themselves, so that internal emotion suddenly becomes external. If they’re upset with someone else, they can accidentally set that person on fire.
In a coffee shop, of course, you can throw a cup of coffee in someone’s face, but that takes a lot of rage. The character has to have a huge emotion and totally own up to it. It has to be on the surface. In a kitchen, you can allow suppressed emotions to express themselves violently in unintentional ways. That allows nonviolent people to accidentally show violent emotions.
You should not only choose locations that keep your characters on their feet but search for locations that emotionally heighten scenes as well. Every scene will become much more interesting if you can set it in a place that your heroes either long or loathe to go rather than in a neutral place they have no feelings about. Either way, you’ll make it tougher on them.
If your heroine has to say something to her now-married crush, and he ushers her into another room to have the conversation, have it be his bedroom and not his living room. Every time she takes a step closer or farther from that bed, she’ll feel it.
The bank-heist movie The Town had a lot of limp scene work. Ben Affleck plays a bank robber who realizes that one of the tellers may know too much, so he decides to talk her out of calling the cops by romancing her. Luckily, he already knows all about her, so he’s able to drop in on her in all sorts of neutral locations: He strikes up a conversation at her laundromat, then they meet at a Dunkin’ Donuts, then they visit a community garden, etc.
But what if he didn’t know where she did her laundry, or even her name? What if the only thing he knew about her was that she worked at that bank? In that case, his only option would be to go back to the bank to hit on her. Even though he was wearing a mask during his previous visit, that’s still a very uncomfortable location for him. It will constantly remind him and the audience of the essential danger of this relationship, both literally and symbolically.
Instead, those Dunkin’ Donuts scenes are low-stakes, low-conflict moments, so Affleck (as writer/director) had to balance them out with a lot of additional scenes where the other gang members keep visiting to remind him about how dangerous this relationship is. These repetitive scenes would not have been necessary if we’d been more acutely aware of that danger in the courtship scenes themselves.
This is your world. If you create a setting with subtextual meaning, then that’s one less thing you need to cram into the text. You take the burden off the dialogue. Don’t make your characters keep saying what they’re worried about; put what they’re worried about in the room, between them and their goal, and force them to physically go over, under, or through it to get what they want.
Don’t get embarrassed. The audience is far more accepting of melodramatic locations than of melodramatic dialogue. If you give your characters a lot to react to, then they get to underreact. If you make them churn up all the drama through dialogue, then they have to overreact. Make it easy for them by choosing a location that is as extreme as you can get away with.
Look at the Indiana Jones movies: Don’t just lower your archaeologist into an ancient crypt. Make it an ancient crypt filled with snakes (after you’ve preloaded the scene by making it clear that he really hates snakes). Don’t just toss him into a Nazi rally. Put him face-to-face with Hitler! Now you’ve got a memorable scene.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
Andy goes home with a drunk woman from a Bachelorette party.
After the deaths of Kane, Brett and Dallas, Ripley becomes captain, so she has a meeting with the other survivors, Ash, Parker, and Lambert, to decide what to do next.
Jenny is amazed as David gets permission from her parents to take her on a weekend trip to Oxford by claiming to know C.S. Lewis.
Amelia chases her son Sam down to the basement, where he knocks her out, ties her up, and drives the Babadook out of her, temporarily.
Bart arrives in town, then takes himself hostage to save himself from hostile townspeople
Jeffrey spies on Dorothy and Frank, then Dorothy catches Jeffrey in her apartment and has sex with him at knifepoint.
The Bourne Identity
Jason and Marie are attacked at her family’s farm by the assassin known as The Professor. Jason blows up a propane tank to distract him and kills him, but as the Professor dies he convinces Jason to come back.
Annie is driving angry after feuding with Helen when she gets pulled over by a cute cop, who gives her his number under the pretense of recommending a place to get her tail light fixed.
Sketchy crook Ugarte asks cool club owner Rick to hold onto the letters of transit for him.
Jake confronts Noah Cross with the glasses
Lefty seeks to go behind Sonny Black’s back to set up his own meeting in Florida with Trifficante. He has Donnie borrow a boat for this purpose, but Sonny Black knows everything, and he crashes the party. Lefty bitterly assumes that Donnie has betrayed him, and shuns him. Sonny takes Donnie aside and elevates him above Lefty.
Do the Right Thing
Buggin’ Out notices that there are no brothers on the wall of Sal’s Pizzeria and decides to organize a boycott.
Billi finds out about Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her parents.
Micky and Charlene confront Micky’s family about his career.
Anna confront Elsa in her ice palace
Gerard confronts Kimble atop a dam, but Kimble leaps off.
Chris sneaks out for a smoke in the night, has creepy encounters with Georgina and Walter, then finds Missy drinking tea. She implores him to sit down, he repeats that he doesn’t want to be hypnotized, but she does it anyway with her teacup. She gets him to admit the facts of his mother’s death, then sends him to a “sunken place” in his mind.
Phil takes Rita to a cafe and tries to convince her that he’s living the same day over and over. He convinces her by predicting what Larry will say.
How to Train Your Dragon
Hiccup and his students are in an arena competing to defeat a dragon, but Hiccup is quizzing their instructor to find out how to better commune with his own dragon, Toothless. Along the way, he uses what he learned from Toothless to peacefully subdue the dragon they’re fighting, infuriating the others.
In a Lonely Place
Laurel has made secret plans to leave town, but Dix makes her go to his favorite restaurant to celebrate their engagement with his agent, his alcoholic friend, and others.
Tony has built a better chest-device to keep shrapnel out of his heart, so he calls Pepper in to reach into his chest and replace the old one with a new one.
Lady Bird flirts with Kyle in the parking lot.
During Hi and Ed’s first night with Junior, brothers Gale and Evelle show up having just escaped from jail, and begin to suspect the truth.
Max introduces himself to Ms. Cross on the bleachers.
King meets with Johnson in the Oval Office to try to get him to commit to a new Voting Rights Act
Jack finally takes a drink from the ghosts in the ballroom. A waiter spills a drink on him, and takes him to the bathroom to clean it off. While he does so, Jack realizes that the waiter is actually Grady, the former caretaker that killed his family. Grady encourages him to do the same, but Jack is uncertain.
Miles has struck out with Maya, but Jack comes back to the motel after a wild night with Steph, intending to go back out. Miles tries to get Jack to stay by forcing him to call his fiancé, but she doesn’t answer and Jack takes off with Steph after getting Miles to return his unused condom from the night before.
The Silence of the Lambs
Clarice first meets Lecter in his cell, under the pretense of getting him to fill out a questionnaire, but he quickly figures out that it’s really about Buffalo Bill, and that Clarice is hiding other things as well.
The gang takes over the Death Star command office.
Joe discovers Norma, who assumes that he’s there to plan her monkey’s funeral, but when he explains that he’s a screenwriter, she hires him to rewrite her screenplay for Salome instead.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES, he’s in a car with a drunk driver.
Somewhat: it’s a meeting table, which doesn’t usually intimidate people or keep them active, but it’s also now a war-room and it’s the first visit to the captain’s domain since he died.
Somewhat. The liquor is out, which it never is. He’s in his enemy’s lair.
YES. Very much so: it’s the basement where they keep the dad’s stuff, and he’s got it filled with weapons.
YES. Very much so. Everybody is armed, and there’s a grandstand to naviagate.
YES. he’s hiding and spying in a stranger’s apartment.
The Bourne Identity
YES. it’s snowing, has an explosive tank, has innocents inside, etc.
YES. It’s a traffic stop, which is inherently scary, it’s on the side of the road, which is unsafe, and he’s making her walk the line.
YES. It is for Ugarte, who knows he isn’t welcome. Rick is very comfortable…until he realizes that the letters have made his beloved bar into an unsafe space.
YES. They’re right by the murder site.
YES. They’re stuck on a boat out at sea, Donnie can only be exiled as far as the bough. People are there to have a party, but it’s deadly serious.
Do the Right Thing
YES. It is now.
YES. She’s just said to her mom, “Mom, if you’re going to give me shit every time I come home, I’m not coming home anymore,” so she feels intimidated there.
YES. This is the mom’s bear cave and everybody is scared of her there. Also having seven angry sisters there.
YES. it’s an ice palace in which Anna can’t even stand up straight, and Elsa can summon creatures to defend herself.
YES. Very much so.
YES. He’s at his in-laws’ house, and they’ve been acting weird about him being black. He’s just run into Georgina and Walter acting vaguely menacing to him.
YES. Not intimidating, but yes, it keeps characters active.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. Very much so, they’re in a collapsing arena with a deadly dragon.
In a Lonely Place
YES. his ex walks in, he’s been warned there about his behavior before, etc.
YES. Somewhat, she’s been told she’s not welcome there before.
YES. She’s a little intimidated, because all of these kids are cooler than she is, and she’s definitely discombobulated to find out that the Deuce is just a parking lot.
YES. All sorts of clues in the room give away their lies.
YES. He’s hitting on a teacher on school grounds, and has to seem to keep his distance.
YES. What could be more intimidating than than the oval office? They do end up sitting down, but they get up a lot for various reasons.
YES. it’s a bar and he’s a recovering alcoholic. It’s also intimidating because we know it’s not real, and it’s active because they’re there to get the stain out.
YES. There are messages waiting and phones ringing, and Jack is literally running in and out.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Very intimidating. It would seem that they would be still, but he chooses to stand, so she does too, then he forces her to approach to an unsafe distance. (close enough for him to see on her badge that she’s a trainee, close enough for him to smell her perfume and judge her on it)
YES. They’re surrounded with people trying to kill them.
YES. it’s a glamorous woman’s bedroom with a mysterious corpse under a blanket.