Being There….From Here: Remote Location Research

August 28, 2009

Once further funding is in place, I’m hoping to do a story research trip to Trinidad and Tobago, which is where we will likely be shooting the entire movie. But while I’m creating this story from my home office in LA, I already need a strong sense of the geography, culture, and environment to help me make the story more realistic and to take full advantage of the rich diversity of that land.

From LA? How do you do that?

There are a few things helping me to have a leg up in envisioning the locale while my legs are still down here in California:

  1. Personal experience
    In the ’90s, I traveled and worked in Trinidad three times, and also lived there with my family for nearly 10 months. I find that there is no better way than being there to pick up on many things that can influence the story and how you shoot the movie. For example, while I was living there, producer G. Anthony Joseph (Trinidadian by birth) took me to a pan yard. This is a behind-the-scenes Carnival experience that the average Carnival tourist would not even know about, and it impressed me as a fantastic location for a movie scene. A pan yard is essentially a rehearsal area set up weeks or months in advance of Carnival by the large orchestras of steel drum musicians that compete around that time. This particular pan yard was a dimly lit open area behind a dilapidated cinderblock truck repair shop in a light industrial district, surrounded by rusty, corrugated steel fencing. What an experiential contrast to what then transpired there! The aural sensation of being directly in the middle of one of these 80-plus member percussion bands is indescribably exhilarating, and the simple yet precisely choreographed rhythmic movement of the musicians is hypnotizing to watch. Whether such a steel drum rehearsal is just a creative backdrop to a scene or becomes central to the drama of the scene itself, it would be an intriguing and memorable experience for the viewer — one that I would never have dreamed up had I not been there to experience it. I could give you a dozen more examples of culturally specific dialogue, locations, and events that ended up in Men of Gray and Flight of the Ibis (both shot entirely in Trinidad and Tobago) because I was influenced by things I experienced while living there before shooting began.
  2. Book and newspaper research
    This movie will be seasoned with many historical and cultural references that will make the story more personal and meaningful for viewers from that region. To make the references appropriate and relevent, I’ve been absorbing just about any book I can get my hands on related to the history, politics, culture, dialects, and geography of Trinidad and Tobago, using that input to enrich my understanding of the land and people.  
  3. Online resources
    I’ve got a list of great sites I can give you that would be useful for anyone doing geographic research on locations worldwide. And there are several other sites specific to Trinidad and Tobago that I turn to regularly to immerse myself as much as possible in the hot local issues regarding the economy, politics, social infrastructure, and crime situation. As the list of reference links would be rather long — and yet very interesting — I’ll devote a post or page to this in the future.
  4. Map-oholism
    One blog reader asked about the maps that they’ve seen on the wall in the story structuring board photos I posted here. Yes, they are part of my story process. In fact, what you could not see in those pictures is that the walls of my office are almost completely covered in maps of Trinidad and Tobago — one way of immersing myself in the geography while I’m creating a story. It started off with just a couple of smaller maps like these…Map-1
    … which were helpful, but didn’t have nearly enough detail to give me more than a geographic overview. So, I added a couple of larger maps, one that details the terrain and this one below, which is large enough (about 3′ x 4′) to list just about every town in the country and identifies the major roads:Map-2
    But, since much of this movie will take place in specific areas or along specific streets in the northernmost third of Trinidad, I really needed a street level understanding so that, if someone in this story is, let’s say, following a suspect into a neighborhood, I’ll have real street names to draw from in appropriate neighborhoods with the right kind of topographical features. For that, I’ve started building out a gigantic map of the primary population areas in which I needed that level of detail. I keep expanding the map as the story develops.  As you can see here, it’s presently about 8 feet wide and 4 feet high …Map-big
    …and displays as far West as Chaguaramas, as far North as the north coast, as far South as Chaguanas (I’ll eventually extend it to San Fernando), and it goes as far East as … well, as far as I could go before my window got in the way, which is just short of Sangre Grande.  As you can imagine, this detailed map has been useful in plotting out very specific locations. So, for instance, if I’m envisioning a car chase that would start downtown and end up on on Saut D’ eau Road a couple kilometers north of Saddle Road …Map-big-XCU…I can know exactly what the terrain is and what possible escape routes the suspects might take.  Thanks to satellite imagery available online, I can even identify houses, pastures, patches of woodland, etc. that I can employ in my vision of where the scene might occur:

    It may not turn out to be the location in which the scene gets shot, but having a real location in my mind from which to model the geography of a scene helps me to design a richer, more dimensional and plausible moment.  And it’s a fun way to decorate a wall.  😉

None of this is an adequate substitute for the immersive experience of actually being there for story research in person and in the current year, but all these research activities are valid and useful things that I might have done anyway, even if I’d already done the field research.