Understanding Screenplay Atmosphere
Screenplay atmosphere is difficult. At the bottom of the poster for THEY CAME TOGETHER, a spoof of rom-coms, there’s a disclaimer:
Please note: New York City plays such a central role in this story, it is almost like another character in the movie.
Although intended as a compliment, this has become a familiar film critic cliche.
The logic underlying it is that setting is just not that important most of the time.
In order to praise it, it has to be “elevated” to the status of a character.
Screenplay atmosphere and dialogue
Writers sometimes overlook the power of description and setting. Writers like Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet are (rightly) praised for their distinctive dialogue.
After all, it’s in dialogue that the writer has the greatest chance of getting their words conveyed verbatim on screen.
Writers working outside the fantasy and sci-fi genres often overlook the importance of setting and world-building. There’s the assumption that, unless specified otherwise, every story is set in the real world.
However, this is not the case. The first experience of a script is reading it. The first version of the film is the one the reader imagines in their head. Description and setting are essential for establishing the right atmosphere for the story.
These writers – Tarantino, Sorkin, and Mamet – are also excellent at creating atmosphere. Dialogue is one component of this, but not the only one.
The wooden lodge full of poisonous characters and surrounded by snow in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. The suffocating elitism and isolation at Harvard in THE SOCIAL NETWORK. The smoky poker backroom in HOUSE OF GAMES. All powerful atmospheres that fuel their respective stories.
Paying off atmosphere-building
Chekhov’s gun is a well-known principle at this stage, but it’s worth reiterating.
Put simply, if a writer introduces a gun hanging on the wall in the first chapter, they should fire in a later chapter. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be there.
There’s a difference between props and set. Props are anything an actor interacts with. Chekhov’s gun goes from part of the set to an important prop.
A contemporary example would be the deer head in Jordan Peele‘s horror film GET OUT (produced by Jason Blum). When he first arrives at Rose’s parents’ house, Chris sees a deer head on the wall. A hunting trophy. It puts him at unease.
Chris later uses this deer head in order to escape. An atmosphere-building part of the scenery becomes part of the plot.
Feelings over information
Ultimately, unlike Chekhov’s gun, atmosphere is about evoking a feeling rather than conveying information. This feeling depends on genre.
A comedy writer might highlight outlandish aspects of their settings. A thriller writer might concentrate on the gloominess and violence. Both might be writing about the same place.
Despite this lack of specific information, both create a specific feeling for the reader and audience.
SEVEN’s city streets are dirty and crime-ridden, in moral and physical decay. They are the perfect stomping ground for a would-be morally avenging serial killer.
Sanitised and shiny high-rise cubicle offices from the ’90s tech boom dominate the skyline in THE MATRIX. These indicate Neo’s hollow existence long before he discovers the reality of his situation.
Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real?
For example, here’s the Wachowskis’ description of Neo’s office:
The entire floor looks like a human honeycomb, with a labyrinth of cubicles structured around a core of elevators.
The honeycomb metaphor indicates a dehumanising atmosphere, one that treats individuals as replaceable, just one of a large network of workers. There’s no escape.
This is how Andrew Kevin Walker describes the city in SEVEN. Detective Somerset’s train ride into the city is full of portent:
He still stares out the window, but his face is tense. The train is passing an ugly, swampy field. The sun has gone under.
Though it seems impossible it ever could have gotten there, a car’s burnt-out skeleton sits rusting in the bracken.
Ahead, the city waits. The sky is full of smokestacks and huge industrial cranes.
The train is passing urban streets below. Slums and smashed cars. People stand in groups in the corners. Bleak.
The train passes from the peaceful countryside into a violent and disturbed urban environment where people don’t know each other and motivations are suspect. (Who are those people? Why are they standing in groups in corners?)
The burnt-out car in the middle of the wilderness indicates that this sickness is leaking out of the city.
THE BIG SICK, written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, is a rom-com. This is a far less heightened genre. The script is fairly simple, focusing mostly on dialogue. Still, the writing creates plenty of atmosphere:
Kumail and Emily walk in. It’s typical bachelor pad boy house. Milk crates for furniture, mess everywhere, no art on the walls. Chris is sitting on the couch watching TV.
And when they enter Kumail’s room:
Kumail’s bed is an inflatable air mattress. There are clothes everywhere.
These few small details (milk crates, air mattress) create an indelible atmosphere of immaturity. Kumail’s journey over the course of the story is to rise above this immaturity.
Atmosphere is essential
This is why reading screenplays as they were originally written, rather than relying on transcripts or just watching films and TV shows, is so important. You get a sense of what atmosphere the writer creates on the page.
Screenplay description is not simply a dry reciting of facts. Script form is one of maximum efficiency. Every piece of information, every word of description, should be conveying a feeling and creating an atmosphere for the reader.