Welcome to week four of AFF at Home! For those of you just joining us – AFF at Home is Austin Film Festival’s way of promoting a sense of community, engagement, and creativity even in a time of distance and restrictions. Each week we’ll guide you through content and stories in the hopes to inspire and motivate you to take your next creative step.
We want to hear from you! Where are you in your storytelling journey? Has AFF at Home sparked your inspiration? Have you finished a writing project?
Or what else can we do to help?
Let us know – AFFatHome@AustinFilmFestival.com
This week we’re focusing on Setting. How do you successfully select a place or time for your story to live? What research is required to make it authentic? How do these choices affect the tone of your project?
Just like last week, we have five actions to help give your story a backdrop. We encourage you to go at your own pace and keep us updated on Twitter with #AFFatHome.
– Colin Hyer, Creative Director
Whenever and wherever your story takes place, a well-developed setting is crucial to writing a compelling narrative. This panel from 2019’s Austin Film Festival features Dave Kajganich (creator The Terror), Ayanna Floyd Davis (showrunner The Chi), Virgil Williams (co-writer Mudbound), and Jeffrey Lieber (co-creator Lost) for a discussion on different landscapes and settings in film and television and how space and time can influence the tone of your story.
Watch raw video from this 2005 panel on setting from On Story Archive at the Wittliff Collections:
- Writing Settings and Descriptions Pt. 1 (2005) with Buck Henry (The Graduate), Bill Wittliff (Lonesome Dove), and Bud Shrake (Tom Horn)
- Writing Settings and Descriptions Pt. 2 (2005) with Buck Henry (The Graduate), Bill Wittliff (Lonesome Dove), and Bud Shrake (Tom Horn)
- Writing Settings and Descriptions Pt. 3 (2005) with Buck Henry (The Graduate), Bill Wittliff (Lonesome Dove), and Bud Shrake (Tom Horn)
CONNECT WITH US
How will you apply this advice on setting to your writing this week? Tell us on Twitter using #AFFatHome or in the forum below.
Q&A with Chris Sparling
At what point do you start to consider the location of your story? How do you master a story that takes place in one location? Ask screenwriter Chris Sparling (writer Buried)! Submit your questions about writing a time and place here or on Twitter using #AFFatHome by Thursday 4/16 by 10am. On Monday, April 20th we’ll release a brand-new interview with Chris all about writing locations and include select questions!
MORE ABOUT CHRIS SPARLING
Chris Sparling wrote the 2010 film Buried starring Ryan Reynolds, for which he won “Best Original Screenplay” from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. The Sea of Trees, which he wrote and produced — starring Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, and directed by Gus Van Sant — was nominated for the Palm d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and was released by A24. After adapting the novel Down a Dark Hall for Lionsgate Films, Chris is now adapting the Stephen King novel The Talisman for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. His film Mercy, which he wrote and directed for Netflix, was released in 2016, and Greenland — a thriller he wrote, starring Gerard Butler — is scheduled to be released in 2020.
Submissions are now closed! Watch the Virtual Q&A with Chris Sparling:
Virtual Roundtable – Writing for Videogames: Worldbuilding
Tuesday, April 21 (7pm – 8:15pm CST)
When it comes to storytelling, worlds matter. From the faraway galaxy of Star Wars to the wizarding school of Harry Potter to the dystopia of The Matrix, stories need worlds in order to come to life. How do writers create those worlds – especially in the videogame industry, where worlds can go on and on – seemingly forever? Join award-winning game writer Susan O’Connor (BioShock, Tomb Raider, Far Cry) for a conversation on the worldbuilding process game studios use to draw players in and keep them playing, year after year.
Space is limited so RSVP now. People that have RSVP’d will receive information on how to access the Zoom roundtable session.
MORE ABOUT SUSAN O'CONNOR
Story Consultant, Netflix; Lead Writer, Torn (PlayStation VR); Story Consultant, Batman (Telltale); Lead Writer, Star Wars 1313 (LucasArts); Story Consultant, Dishonored 2 (Bethesda); Writer, Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics); Lead Writer, Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft); Writer, BioShock (2K)
Susan O’Connor tells stories for a living. Award-winning titles in her portfolio (including BioShock, Far Cry 2, and Tomb Raider) have sold over 30 million copies and generated over half a billion dollars in sales. She also teaches a course in interactive storytelling at UT Austin, where she is helping the next generation of writers learn how to tell stories in the digital age. She is repped by United Talent Agency. You can find her online at susanoconnorwriter.com
RSVPs are now closed. If you would still like to attend the event, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for the link to this event.
Student Screenwriting Corner
In screenwriting, “setting” means more than just the literal place in which your story occurs. A script’s setting shapes the context in which your story exists, and as a result, shapes the message or theme you communicate to your audience.
Use the attached worksheet to brainstorm how your setting shapes your story. Then, watch Tim Reckart’s Grand Opening, to see how his setting not only established the framework for his short script, but helped to communicate theme.
ON STORY SHORTS: TIM RECKART - GRAND OPENING
We want to hear from you!
Where does your story take place? Let us know using #AFFatHOME.
“The constant refrain around AFF is the mirror-shattering trumpeting of writing and storytelling. Through AFF at Home we intend to showcase every extension of what Austin Film Festival aims to champion in its community, including our vaunted film competition alumni. We are delighted to represent the legacy of our alumni base through the WATCH section of the AFF at Home campaign; by curating incredible titles that are now available to stream in your living room, shower, wherever. Come join us in celebrating some festival competition favorites, and marquee film titles from our Writers Conference heavyweights.”
-Casey Baron, Senior Film Program Director
AFF FEATURE Now Streaming Pick:
Hand-picked past competition films from the AFF film department
Don’t Talk to Irene (2018)
Our selection for this week’s AFF at Home WATCH section is the delightful 2017 Comedy Vanguard selection Don’t Talk to Irene. The feature film written and directed by Pat Mills has had a long relationship with AFF as it won our 2013 Comedy Screenplay Award, and below the jump you can read a bit more from him. But first let’s talk setting. Think of moments in your life with high emotional impact on the overall scope of your life experience. Whether it be your dream wedding (or perhaps just short of dream status), epic 16th birthday party, or that breathtaking World Premiere at a certain October film festival in the heart of Texas. I’d bet that all these moments, while jam-packed with family, friends, and the like, are also placed against a backdrop of settings memorable enough to put the Lord of the Rings trilogy to shame (we’re just kidding, Peter Jackson. We love you)! This all leads to a rather inevitable idea; the concept and physical manifestation of place impacts life more than we care to admit. Even more so within the confines of a film, setting sets up the purview through which we engage with and come to understand the experiences or perspectives of characters, the nature of a particular story’s world/universe, and the overall thematic choices made by the screenwriter or author at hand. That’s all merely scratching the surface of the importance of this week’s AFF at Home literary element. AFF24’s Jury and Audience Award winner Don’t Talk to Irene showcases the imperative need for utilizing this storytelling element with incredible success. From otherworldly setting surprises featuring a beloved actress, to character development practically jumping off the walls of the permanent retirement home fixture, DTTI delivers in spades. We’re delighted to welcome back another friend and alumnus of the festival, writer/director Pat Mills to answer some questions regarding how he worked with the element of setting in this raucous coming-of-age comedy.
– Casey Baron, Senior Film Program Director
A CONVERSATION WITH "DON'T TALK TO IRENE" WRITER, PAT MILLS
Before we jump into the topic of the week and business as it were, how are you doing cooped up at home in this time and trying to keep the creative workflow going?
Being cooped up for so long, I’m starting to feel like Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson. I’m currently in post-production on two projects (a digital series and a horror feature). Editing while tuning out the rest of the world wasn’t easy before a global pandemic! Working over skype obviously presents a bit of a hurdle. The only good thing is that I can stay in bed all day, but I miss being in the room with a creative ally. I also miss fresh air. But I’m thankful I have a safe home during all of this and I realize how lucky I am.
So jumping into the topic of setting; one of the things that struck me regarding DTTI is how essential the sense of place feels. Can you speak to that and the process you went through to nail that distinct feel of place?
Interesting you ask because the idea for the film first came when I visited a small Canadian city, North Bay, Ontario, over ten years ago. There was a distinct feel to that town – five hours north of Toronto, a city that felt forgotten. It’s changed a lot since then – but I remember just a decade ago, the downtown strip felt abandoned. It was such an attractive city but as a visitor, it didn’t seem like it had anything going for it. We shot the movie in Hamilton, which is an hour west of Toronto. Hamilton is a beautiful city, but it’s in transition. A street can feel like hipster paradise, but turn a corner and it can look run-down and depressing. It was the perfect place for the fictional Parc (an anagram for Crap), Ontario.
There’s a unique sense of world building here, from Irene’s moments with star actress Geena Davis to the youthful spirit she releases through the retirement home and beyond. Was that always the scope you had in mind?
The very first draft was way darker in tone. Dawn Weiner is my spirit animal, so I’ve always loved Welcome to the Dollhouse – but while I was writing the script, I realized how much of a softie I am and began to feel protective of Irene. I couldn’t bring myself to commit to the cruelty of the dark comedy tone, so as we developed the script, that youthful optimism took over and Irene’s character came to be. Even in the edit, we brought in more of a warm, feel-good tone with picture edit decisions and music.
And this is a bit of a chicken or the egg idea, but how dependent was the narrative or plot on the choice of setting made for the film?
The idea for the film was inspired by that weekend away in North Bay. Over that weekend, I kept seeing this girl dressed head to toe in pink, biking around the town. I couldn’t stop imagining what life was like for her, what her dreams were, while potentially being trapped in a city she was desperate to escape from.
Did the scouting process prove challenging or surprising in any way as you tried to find the perfect retirement home for the film?
It was a challenge. So many of the retirement homes were in operation or certain locations were too small. The location we settled on was a retirement residence in operation, but they were renovating, so we shot in a wing of the building that wasn’t being used. The residents, however, were curious about what we were doing, and would walk onto set, but they blended in. We didn’t always know who was an extra or a resident. Some were more chatty than others, and a few actually ended up in the film as accidental extras.
This question sort of dovetails from the last, but were there considerations, if any particular or specific came up, regarding working in the retirement home?
Since it was an active retirement home, we ran into a few problems. Sometimes the cast/crew couldn’t tell which seniors were actors or residents. But the greatest thing about shooting in a residence with so many empty rooms, our senior cast members could sneak off and have a nap in the privacy of their very own bedrooms.
Are there symbolic functions any particular setting or prop in a setting serve that may be fun or insightful for viewers of the film?
Nothing that immediately comes to mind – but I will say we shot the opening maggot moment on three separate occasions – as we couldn’t quite get it right. Sometimes the maggots wouldn’t move, or we would run out of time. I will say that in the spirit of the movie, we let all of the maggots go after each long shooting day. So if you came across a pile of live maggots on a patch of grass in Glendale, California – sorry, that was me. I just couldn’t bring myself to flush them down the toilet.
Were there certain camera movements or lighting decisions you made to better serve the setting? Can you walk us through one of those decision-making moments?
Irene’s home was mainly shot hand-held to show the turbulence in the home vs. dolly shots/steadicam in the retirement home where Irene began to succeed. This fluidity in terms of camera style influenced the hero dance number in the parking lot as well.
Let’s have a bit of fun here. There’s a really exciting dance number which takes place in an unusual locale, a strip mall parking lot, what went into that decision from a setting perspective, but also building that scene?
In an earlier draft, Irene and the dancers made it to the audition, only to be interrupted by her mother. But since that would have been above our budget, I had to get creative. Since it was established in the opening montage that this town was the ‘shitty plaza capital of the world’, it made sense for Irene and her crew to add a bit of excitement to these depressing small town strip malls by putting on a ‘show must go on’ dance number.
Not to spoil anything for anyone, but there’s a very special moment with the aforementioned Geena Davis that takes place in a particular setting. How did that come to be and what was the narrative impetus behind it?
I wanted to have the Geena Davis moment feel special and unreal as if it could be a dream. This was the only scene in the film shot in a studio. I was inspired by music videos from the 80s, the purgatory landscape in The Rapture, and the drug trip scene in The Big Lebowski.
Last question to close us out, and one that’s hopefully fun and different from the rest. You get to pull Irene out of this setting / world and drop her in a famous setting in film canon. What’s your pick, and how do you see her arc or character shifting?
An 80s slasher! Irene Willis would be the ultimate horror film protagonist. She’s all about survival and she’s stronger than anyone gives her credit for. I can see her kicking ass in this genre. She would be the best final girl of all time. An added bonus: Horror movie choreographed dance numbers!
Irene wants nothing more than to be a cheerleader. Her idol, Geena Davis, convinces her to risk it all and try out. This leads to an unexpected situation that lands her a suspension and a two-week community service stint at a retirement home. Tapping into her passion for cheerleading, Irene secretly signs up the senior residents to audition for a talent-search reality show to prove that you don’t need to be physically ‘perfect’ to be perfectly AWESOME.
AFF Short Pick:
Hand-picked past competition films from the AFF film department
Taking Flight (2016 AFF Short)
Often a story’s setting is a current place or time, but it could be whatever you make of it. What if your story took place in the jungle? What about the moon? Embrace your inner child and explore setting through this week’s short, Taking Flight.
On Story Movie Night Pick:
Screening with a postshow On Story conversation
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
In this week’s podcast episode, we learned that setting plays a crucial role in every aspect of your story. Your characters are shaped by the environment they exist in. It informs who they are as people, how they talk, and the choices they make. This week check out John Singleton’s (AFF 2015 Extraordinary Contribution to Film recipient) debut feature Boyz n the Hood. After the film, watch Singleton’s 2015 On Story interview to learn about how the film got made and how South Central Los Angeles shaped the story.
On Story: John Singleton's Classic Influences
On Story Television Season 10 is now streaming! In our premiere episode, Craig Mazin, Emmy Award-winning creator of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, discusses the creative process behind his faithful account of the 1986 nuclear accident that led to one of the worst human disasters in history and how setting impacted the events that unfolded.
CONNECT WITH US
Which movie or show did you watch? Did it inspire your writing? Spark the conversation on Twitter using #AFFatHome.
Effectively immersing the reader into your world early on is a tough but necessary act to pull off. Not only can this quickly ground the reader in the environment, but it can also reveal a lot about how your characters think, act, and feel. The reader will begin guessing what might happen to them and where the plot is going sooner, which, in-turn, provides a stronger hook to keep them reading.
The first ten pages is enough runway to provide a vivid tunnel into your world. This weekend, focus on the first ten pages of your script and assess how immersive your descriptions of setting are. As you review this, consider these questions:
- How do your characters interact with the environment around them? Do we get a clear picture of them existing with their surroundings?
- Are there better adjectives that can be used to help the reader visualize what’s happening?
- How effective are the slug lines for each scene? Do these accurately show us where we are?
- Are there any pieces of the environment we’re missing?
- If you have a lot of descriptive text about setting, how can this be condensed down to be more efficient?
- By the end of page ten, is there a clear sense where we are?
It helps to think of setting as a major character in your story. Does it feel alive, real, engaging? While a vivid setting in the first ten pages can sustain a reader’s imagination well throughout the script, it does help to assess each scene to see how the setting informs the overall story.
– Sage Kosiorek, Script Competitions Director
Finished with your script? Now’s your chance to submit!
The deadline to enter our screenplay competition for the 27th Austin Film Festival & Writers Conference is THIS FRIDAY.
Writing in the Time of the Bluebonnet Plague
We’ve come to the end of week 4 of AFF at Home. Hopefully, this time has reignited your spark for writing. But we recognize that this writing challenge was created due to our current situation with a worldwide pandemic. A time when many are isolated – a familiar territory for writers. But as Anne Rapp explains below, “this particular isolation… is a whole different ballgame”. Read on to learn how a familiar sight helped Anne put things in perspective during this uncertain time.
"Writing in the Time of the Bluebonnet Plague" by Anne Rapp
I’m a writer and I’m in isolation. Damn, wouldn’t you know it, my very first sentence is redundant. Writers are always in isolation. Except for those who write at Starbucks, or in television writers’ rooms, neither of which I know anything about. I was never one to write in groups or in coffee shops, although you might find me hanging out in, say, some small-tow greasy spoon called Bucks. But I’d be laptopless, sipping dollar coffee and stalking the local patrons, eavesdropping and filling up my story tanks. Then I’d wander back home to my lonely quarters and use all I soaked up to create my own stories.
Speaking of redundancy, and isolated writers, I discovered a new word today – tautology. My online dictionary defined it as “an expression or phrase that says the same thing twice, just in a different way. For this reason, tautology is considered undesirable, as it can make you sound wordier than you need to be.” I love how that word sounds and its meaning, but must admit I disregarded the second comment. Writers actually create by starting out as wordy as they need to be, then they start whittling those words down to perfectly stealth sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters. Michaelangelo started with a giant rock, Einstein started with a blackboard the size of Rhode Island, and writers taut. (Hey, I just invented a new verb! One that’s not in the dictionary — as a verb anyway. To taut. You’re welcome, Webster. My pleasure.)
Running across the word tautology made me think of examples of it. Like, when people say, “In my opinion, I think that’s correct.” Or, “Don’t over-exaggerate.” When I wrote for Robert Altman back in the day, I would turn in pages to him and he’d read them, then look up at me with that rascally grin of his and say, “Thanks Anne, that’s adequate enough.” Wish I’d known the word tautology back then. I could’ve made a really good sarcastic comeback, and he
would’ve eaten it up. Altman loved a word battle. We were both full of them. But he hired me because I had the patience to arrange them, gargle them, juggle them, rearrange them, and fine-tune them to make a little something out of them, and he didn’t. He just had the patience to let me do all that, then take what I created and make a movie out of it. The wonders of show business. We are all familiar with one of the most famous examples of tautology, the classic one Yogi Berra blessed us with — deja vu all over again. And tautology can also be downright poetic. Think Shakespeare. To be or not to be. Tautology at its finest. It can also be tragically comic when it comes from the mouth of a politician. Dan Quayle was famous for it. “If we do not succeed, we run the risk of failure.” Genius! Well, at least genius fodder for Johnny Carson, who ran with that one like Herschel Walker. (If you’re too young to know who those people are, google them. At least two of them are worth knowing! Actually all three of them, if you’re a writer.)
Which brings me back to writers and isolation – in particular this current brand of isolation. Writers are used to being alone, feeling lonely and experiencing loneliness (and that’s not redundant, any psychologist will tell you those are three totally different things). But this home confinement due to the pandemic is a whole different ballgame. I’ve talked to a lot of writer friends and we all agree, our muses have gone on strike. Like Goldie Hawn said in Private Benjamin— “This isn’t the army I joined! I joined the army where you can live in a condo and go to lunch!” In pre-virus times, when the sun went down and our work was done, we had places to go and things to do. Out in the world. And our muses went with us. Didn’t matter whether we had produced one sentence that day or spit out a full chapter the length of a CVS receipt, we had options, activities that included other people, different scenery. But now, in this confining and confusing time of house arrest, our muses are hiding in the closet and pouting like teenagers who’ve been grounded. They are refusing to help us create anything, except maybe a lemon meringue pie. (I don’t know about you, but that’s something my muse can’t resist.)
This isn’t a dilemma that just affects writers though. The same thing is happening to artists, musicians, anybody out there in a creative field of work. Everybody’s muses seem frozen. But why? Most artists I know are desperate to produce something, anything right now, but we’re stuck in the mud. Part of it, I think, is because of the aforementioned dilemma — our reward at the end of the day has been taken away. It’s supposed to be Miller time. And Miller time was never supposed to mean drinking at home alone while listening to grim news on CNN. Miller time is not even about the beer, it’s about relaxing with friends after a good day’s work. It’s something to look forward to. Clinking wine glasses on a computer screen is not the same as sitting next to that person on a bar stool. Or walking into a movie theater with them. Nothing replaces in-the-flesh connections. When you say goodbye to your friend in the parking lot, you walk away smiling. You say goodbye to the same friend on a computer screen, there’s a sadness to it.
But maybe the bigger reason for the AWOL muse predicament is the mood this pandemic isolation has left us in. Are our muses more active and brilliant when we’re in a good mood as opposed to a bad mood? Debatable. Many would choose to differ. Consider the term “brooding artist.” Or, “That’s what jukeboxes are for.” Some people need misery and pain to create. But as a rule, that misery and pain is real. It’s the uncertainty of this whole virus thing that undermines us. The not knowing. A musician friend of mine recently told me she was having trouble creating music during this eerie time, and she added, “This must be grief.” Maybe so. Same as that sadness that sets in after a happy hour zoom. We know we’ve lost something. And we’re not even sure what it is.
A few days ago I wandered out into my back yard for some fresh air. It’s glorious back there — like a spring meadow covered in clover and grasses and native wildflowers. I also have a luscious crop of bluebonnets. (For non-Texan readers, that’s our state flower.) I was standing over those bluebonnets, marveling at their cheerfulness, and pondering the irony of this beautiful spring bursting out around us, yet at the same time, this cloud of gloom and fear hanging over us. And I suddenly invented a name for that force that is stifling us as artists — or maybe my muse invented it – it’s the Bluebonnet Plague. Sometimes just giving something a name is the first step in kicking its ass. Thanks, muse. Now please get your own ass in gear and give me a little support here. You ate a whole lemon meringue pie, for God’s sake.
Nobody has a clue how long this virus is going to stick around, or how long our world is going to be upside down. Or how it’s going to change us. But this I know: Everything I create right now – whether it’s a book or a script or a drawing, or even a new recipe — someday down the line I will say to myself, “I did that one during the Bluebonnet Plague.” And it will carry a special
significance. Regardless of whether it ends up being my best work or not, I’ll remember how tough it was to find the will and the reason to do it. And how far down inside myself I had to reach, to grab ahold of it. And that alone will make it worthy of existence. Or, as Altman might say, “adequate enough.”