Ask yourself this: what is a setting? Really think about it. Is it just a backdrop on which to stage the events of your story? A static playground, conveying only time and place? Or can it be something more? Where is the screenplay electricity?
Sometimes the best settings reveal something about a character, or force a character to do something they otherwise wouldn’t have. In other cases, settings function as characters in their own right, with personalities, desires, and even enemies.
Take a look at 14 of the best and smartest uses of setting as a character in film and TV:
SETTING: MINNESOTA/ NORTH DAKOTA
The iconic setting lends itself to some incredible imagery: long stretches of endless white, splatters of blood on virgin snow; but what is most interesting is what the setting does for the film’s dialogue and characters.
Famous for it’s popularisation of the ‘Minnesota nice’ attitude, FARGO’s (mostly) warm and friendly cast of characters serve almost as a contradiction to the film’s barren, snowy setting, creating an environment that is simultaneously welcoming and alien. The result is a setting full of character, and a film that one couldn’t imagine taking place anywhere else.
“So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. For what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”
Take a look at the scene below: a simple conversation between Mr. Mohra and Officer Olson. In any other film, the scene would be just that, but in FARGO, it becomes infinitely more memorable as a result of the setting.
For more darkly comedic capers in the snow, check out FX’s award-winning FARGO, a television show based loosely on the Coen Brother’s crime classic.
SETTING: UNNAMED AMERICAN CITY
David Fincher’s SE7EN is a dark, brutal film, from the first frame to the last. It follows two detectives, Somerset and Mills, tasked with tracking down a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi.
Early on in the film, Somerset joins Detective Mills and his wife, Tracey, for dinner at their apartment. By this point, we’re already aware that the young couple are unhappy with their lives here; though this is visually reinforced when, much to Somerset’s surprise, a passing subway train causes the apartment to violently shake.
“A soothing, relaxing, vibrating home.”
But the apartment is merely a microcosm; the city itself is the problem. Later, in a secret meeting with Somerset, Tracey reveals she is pregnant, though she is determined not to raise the child here. She explains that the conditions of the schools are horrible, and, given what we’ve seen of the city, we believe her.
“David and I are gonna have a baby…”
“Tracey, I don’t think I’m the one to talk to about this.”
“…I hate this city.”
The unnamed American city of SE7EN is a dark and unforgiving place, and almost every aspect of the film (pathetic fallacy included) exists to further this notion. It is a character without whom the film simply would not work.
3. BREAKING BAD
SETTING: NEW MEXICO DESERT
The location of countless drug deals, cook sessions, murders, and one fugue state, the New Mexico desert is a key setting in one of television’s most revered shows. But why?
The desert of the American Southwest is a barren place; something which BREAKING BAD’s signature ultra-wide shots make especially clear. In other words, there’s nothing to hide behind — it’s just you, and whoever you’re with — so the desert is often the place where characters are forced to confront one another, whether they’d like to or not.
The scene below is a stellar example of this, taken from episode 11 of BREAKING BAD’s fifth and final season. Here, while meeting with Saul Goodman in the New Mexico desert, Walt advises Jesse to start over in the hope of having a better life, but Jesse sees through this and instead chooses to confront him.
One can imagine the sweltering heat of the desert contributing to the characters being pushed to their breaking points. Out here, the setting literally ‘turns up the heat’ on time-sensitive tasks, like cooking meth or fleeing from the cartel. By adding pressure to already pressurised situations, the desert serves almost as an antagonist in itself.
SETTING: SAN FRANCISCO
The themes of Alfred Hitchcock’s films are often summarised by their opening title sequences, and VERTIGO is no different. While the film encompasses many ideas, it is mostly about falling — falling in love, falling into madness — and so spirals are a clever recurring motif.
Check out VERTIGO’s spiral-tastic title sequence in the video below, designed by John Whitney in collaboration with Hitchcock-regular Saul Bass:
But what do spirals have to do with San Francisco?
The San Francisco Bay Area is famous for its steep hills, tall buildings, and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge, making it the perfect setting for the story of John “Scottie” Fergusson, a character with acrophobia (a fear of heights) and vertigo (a false sense of rotational movement). Spirals are our way of seeing the city as he does.
Whether it’s Gavin Elster’s cranes extending out of the fog, or the colossal redwood trees of Muir Wood, everything in the film’s setting exists to further this sense of falling. Notice that whenever a character is seen driving, they are almost always heading down the steep San Franciscan streets.
The San Francisco setting is, therefore, a way of further depicting Scottie’s descent into obsession and madness.
5. THE SHINING
SETTING: THE OVERLOOK HOTEL
Part of what makes THE SHINING so terrifying is the complex, maze-like layout of the Overlook Hotel. At times, the building’s design abandons logic altogether: featuring windows that shouldn’t exist and doors that couldn’t possibly lead anywhere. Stanley Kubrick is, of course, famous for her meticulousness, so what happened?
Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and Executive Producer of THE SHINING, explains the reasoning behind the spacial anomalies and inconsistencies of the Overlook Hotel as follows:
“[Stanley] wanted more ambiguity. If he was going to make a film about ghosts, he wanted it to be ghostly from the very first to the very last. The set was very deliberately built to be offbeat and off the track, so that the huge ballroom would never actually fit inside. The audience is deliberately made to not know where they’re going. People say The Shining doesn’t make sense. Well spotted! It’s a ghost movie. It’s not supposed to make sense.”
The Overlook Hotel’s ghostly character only becomes more apparent as the film progresses. One of its most memorable scenes takes place in the bright red bathroom; a space which bears no resemblance to any other room in the building. Instead, it appears as a projection of Jack Torrance’s violent mind; one of many hints that Jack and the Overlook Hotel are one and the same.
6. THE DESCENT
SETTING: THE CAVE
British filmmaker Neil Marshall’s THE DESCENT follows six female cave-explorers who, after becoming trapped in an unmapped cave somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains, find themselves being hunted by flesh-eating homonids.
Like many one-location horrors (HOUSEBOUND, TRIANGLE, REC), the cave is integral to the film’s scares. Stalactites and stalagmites are often the focus of our attention, as if to remind us that the characters could so easily be impaled. At other times, emphasis is given to the black depths of the cave, as if forcing us to imagine what’s lurking below.
“They’re totally blind. And judging from what we’ve seen, I’d say they use sound to hunt with. Like a bat. They’ve evolved perfectly to live down here in the dark.”
Typically in the survival horror genre, the environment is presented as an indifferent space, but in THE DESCENT, the cave is almost like an ally to the creatures. As a result of evolution, they are better adapted to living in its dark, cavernous spaces, and so the cave stacks even greater odds against our protagonists.
What’s Han Solo without the Millennium Falcon? Captain Kirk without the USS Enterprise? A captain is nothing without his ship, and FIREFLY’S Malcolm Reynolds is certainly no exception.
Created by Joss Whedon, the short-running television show follows Captain Mal and his crew as they struggle to survive in the depths of space. Their home is their ship — or “boat”, as they affectionately refer to her— a Firefly-class spaceship called the Serenity.
“You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.”
The ship is frequently anthropomorphised by the show’s characters, with the most notable example being in FIREFLY’s fourteenth and final episode, OBJECTS IN SPACE. Here, the psychic River Tam saves the crew by convincing a deadly bounty hunter aboard their ship that Serenity is alive, and that she has become a part of it.
If you need any more convincing, one of the special features on the FIREFLY Blu-Ray disc is titled ‘Serenity: The Tenth Character’.
In film and television, Toronto’s chameleonic skyline often serves as a double for cities like New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago. However, in ENEMY, Denis Villeneuve’s Kafka-esque thriller about a man who becomes obsessed with his physical doppelgänger, the Canadian city owns the screen as one of the film’s main characters.
Grey, anonymous buildings loom in the background of nearly every frame, with streetcar wires dangling between them like giant spiderwebs (a terrifying image, given the film’s recurring eight-legged motif). Frequently, the camera flies above the city, embellishing the maze-like qualities of the jagged concrete buildings.
Along with the sickly brown colour palette, Toronto appears as some kind of faceless nightmare, making it the perfect place for the story of a character reluctantly delving into his subconscious. The poster even features the city’s blocky skyline rising out from his head.
9. LOST IN TRANSLATION
The film’s narrative is relatively simple: Bob Harris, an ageing movie star, meets Charlotte, a young, recently-married graduate, at a hotel one night while staying in Japan’s capital.
What’s important here is that the setting is entirely alien to these two Americans, therefore instantly providing them with common ground. Were the same film set in America, it is clear that Bob and Charlotte would never have met.
“Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.”
Unlike the largely antagonistic settings we’ve seen in THE SHINING and THE DESCENT, Tokyo is like a mutual friend to Bob and Charlotte. It is depicted as an almost otherworldly metropolis, providing the only catalyst the film needs to set its story in motion.
10. FALLING DOWN
SETTING: LOS ANGELES
“Listen fellows, I’ve had a really rare morning…”
FALLING DOWN stars Michael Douglas as Will Foster, a divorced, unemployed former defence engineer, who begins a violent rampage across the streets of Los Angeles after becoming frustrated with his place in society. It is the story of Will against the city.
Take a look at the film’s opening scene below, which serves both as our introduction to Will Foster, and to the heightened portrayal of Los Angeles in the world of the film.
Seeing the city as he does is absolutely imperative to our to our willingness to follow his psychotic journey; and, like the desert of BREAKING BAD, you can practically feel the heat radiating from the screen as Will sweats in his car.
Following this, Will enters a Korean convenience store to get change for the payphone, where the heat is turned up even further. Here, the droplets of sweat on characters’ faces are exaggerated to the point of absurdity, but it all contributes to the depiction of Los Angeles that is so necessary for our understanding of Will.
11. THE THING (1982)
SETTING: ANTARCTIC RESEARCH STATION
“Reach anybody? We’re a thousand miles from nowhere, man, and it’s gonna get a hell of a lot worse before it gets any better!”
Atmosphere is one of the most important aspects of any film’s setting, especially in horror, and John Carpenter’s THE THING is certainly a testament to that. Set in a research station deep in the Antarctic, the film follows twelve men who must defend themselves against an alien with the ability to consume organisms and take on their shape.
We are introduced to the setting in the film’s opening scene, as a Norwegian helicopter chases a dog through the barren, snowy tundra. Here, the chopper often appears only as a black spec against a sea of white, showing us just how expansive this nothingness is.
The remote Antarctic setting is a clever way to complicate the alien problem. While the isolation and freezing temperatures make the crew’s survival more difficult, it’s more than that. The harsh environment becomes another enemy, forcing the characters to stay together, even after they’ve stopped trusting one another.
SETTING: THE HIGH-RISE
The high-rise is a brutalist concrete structure, a vertical city belonging both to the 1970s and some strange future world. Here, the upper echelons of society live in penthouses on the top floors, while poorer families reside in council house-esque apartments nearer the bottom; similar to the eponymous train in Bong Joon-ho’s SNOWPIERCER.
Speaking in an interview about the “triangular buttress shape” supports seen almost everywhere in the building, Wheatley anthropomorphises the high-rise as follows:
“[…] it also gave this feeling of impinging on the space of the people, so everything was really oppressive and pushing down on them the whole time. That had come from the idea that the building itself didn’t care about the people inside it.”
In his novel, Ballard also describes the tower block as having a consciousness of its own:
“Like a huge and aggressive malefactor, the high-rise was determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon them.”
Check out this clever trailer for HIGH-RISE below, made in the style of a promotional advert for the fictitious building:
While the iconic creature is undoubtedly the film’s scariest element, the Nostromo isn’t far behind. As the film progresses, the ship becomes almost like a haunted house: a cold, unsympathetic labyrinth of technology, where nowhere is safe.
Take the scene where Brett searches the ship’s cargo hold for the crew’s cat, Jones, after they realise he’s interfering with their motion-tracking technology. Here, the metal chains dangling from the ceiling almost perfectly mimic the movement of the alien creature’s long tail, filling us with dread even before it makes an appearance.
Later, Ripley discovers that Mother, Nostromo’s artificially intelligent computer, has been secretly tasked with safely returning the alien creature to the crew’s employers. The crew are expendable in this scenario, and the setting becomes another enemy to the them.
“Mother? I’ve turned the cooling unit back on. Mother?!”
“The ship will automatically destruct in T-minus 5 minutes.”
14. CITY OF GOD
SETTING: RIO DE JANIERO
Characters change, so why can’t settings change, too? Dubbed “the Brazilian GOODFELLAS”, CITY OF GOD’s epic narrative spans almost three decades, allowing us to view a setting as it morphs through time.
We begin in the 1960s, with the Cidade de Deus suburb of Rio de Janeiro in its infancy. Here, the favela is a newly-built housing project with little access to electricity and water. This is the backdrop against which many of the film’s central characters first become involved in Rio’s criminal underworld. But things are just getting started…
In the 1970s, the favelas become more urban, and gang-related crime worsens. Here, the corrugated iron houses and dirt tracks of the 1960s have been replaced with buildings and roads. Next, we jump to the 1980s, where the city has become a maze; a labyrinth of zig-zagging streets, enveloped in concrete.
With each jump in time, CITY OF GOD’s setting closer resembles a city… and a prison. The idea is, of course, that the characters are increasingly unable to escape the violence and corruption of the Cidade de Deus, even should they want to. In other words, the setting is just as much of an antagonist as the criminals themselves.
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