a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Friday, April 21, 2006

Down the Wrong Alley

I'm currently reading the second script of the week that relies fairly heavily on recurring scenes taking place in Manhattan alleys.

What many writers don't realize is this -- there really aren't any alleys in Manhattan. Certainly not in the midtown area.

And anything remotely resembling an alley (like a space behind a building where there are dumpsters and such) is inevitably fenced off.

Just a recurring thing that, as a guy who lived in Manhattan for a decade, routinely makes me roll my eyes.

One of the scripts even had a scene that takes place in a phone booth. There haven't been phone booths in Manhattan in a long, long time.

I won't go as far to say that you should actually visit the city that you are setting your script in. But it certainly helps....


At 10:53 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Except for that *one* phone booth left that Colin Farrell got trapped in in Phone Booth.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Yeah, I think they had to bus it in from Hoboken.

At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Chris P. said...

When people think of the alleys they've seen in previous movies set in New York, they're actually thinking of Toronto's alleys... Of which there are many. :)

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Brett said...

Houston also has alleys-- complete with dump;sters, loading palettes, the works-- but no phone booths.

Well, OK, I do recall ONE phone booth, but it's one of those cool old English style red ones with lots of little window panes, and it's tucked off in a hard-to-find yuppie enclave where you need a credit app just to drive through.

And the whole "no phone booths in New York" goes back to AT LEAST 1979, when Christopher Reeve's SUPERMAN had that throwaway gag where The Man Of Steel looks at one of those open-air phones with disgust before ducking into... well, one of those apparently non-existent alleys.


At 12:02 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Law & Order shoots a lot of "alley" scenes. I don't know what they really are, probably, a single alley they use over and over. I've got a script with a few brief scenes in Jamaica -- going in a few weeks. Nothing like using a vacation to get some work done.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger William said...

Scott, where did you live in Manhattan? Midtown? No, no real alleys in midtown. Downtown, below 14th and more so below Houston, you can find a lot of unique spaces. Alleys do exist. Whenever I go through Chinatown I always think of how an entire universe is living in the bowels of that neighborhood. Lower Manhhattan is like a puzzle.

The phone booth thing is just ridiculous.

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Milehimama said...

Maybe I'm just too young, but I don't recall seeing an actual phone booth, EVER, anywhere. Not even in the little cow town I call home, here in the Mile Hi city.

We do have alleys though, and interestingly, every single one of them seems to contain a mattress that the ol' Sanitation Engineers refuse to touch. Must be a civil code, must have mattress in alley; must be a union thing, will pick up all manner of trash, remnants, discards, and unusable dinner scraps, but WILL...NOT... TOUCH... bedding. Not in their contract I suppose.

At 3:22 PM, Anonymous kullervo said...

Just got back from a research trip to Las Vegas. Research is a good excuse for a road trip, but it sure saved me some nasty mistakes in the new script. And it was cheaper than last year's research trip to Italy.

At 6:51 AM, Anonymous Lucy said...

What about sacrificing facts for drama though Scott? After all, the Brits have always been the US' allies (WW2 onwards, anyway), yet we're continually cast as villains in Hollywood movies, presumably because (an american friend says) we have "scary accents".

Or was it really not neccessary to be in an alley or a phone booth?

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I can't think of that many movies with British villains, unless of course they deal with the Revolutionary War (what you Brits call "The Unpleasantness Across the Ocean").

Mostly Brits in movies are just sort of stiffs, or gay twits, or charming rogues played by Hugh Grant.

And I think most Americans find the accent very sexy, as long as it is coming from someone with all their teeth.

But Brits definitely don't hang out in Manhattan alleys. That would be a red flag right there.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

In a script I'm working on, I have one of my characters in a phone booth in a sleazy Mexican town. I figured they'd HAVE to have some crappy old phone booths, but I WON'T go to a sleazy town in Mexico to find out, either.

At 1:33 PM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

Here's the wierd thing that will piss off people who are sticklers for fact.

It doesn't matter that it's true. It matters that it rings true for the audience.

How many people have actually heard a gunshot? Not that many, but almost everyone thinks they know what a gun sounds like because they've heard it a million times in movies, TV, and video games. The sound of a gunshot is almost always massaged to the point where if a person heard one in real life they'd be a little disappointed.

There may not be an alley in Manhattan, but if the populace at large believes that Manhattan has alleys, it is automatically permissable to put it in there.

Heresy? Maybe.

These things are only an issue if the audience have intimate knowledge of the subject. An audience in NYC will roll their eyes while an audience in Boise will nod knowingly.

Firemen will roll their eyes at Backdraft, but the rest of us will buy certain "facts" because they fit our idea of what it may be like. (this is not an endorsement of Backdraft)

I'm all for accuracy, but I also acknowledge that if the audience believes it, it is real.

At 2:06 PM, Blogger Tom said...

I remember a chase scene in The Cowboy Way where they were racing up Broadway, hung a left and instantly were in Long Island City, one borough over in the opposite direction. I'm guessing someone who didn't know New York from New Guinea wouldn't know the difference, but it was the only laugh I had in the whole damn movie.

One more wrong direction transition: Natalie Portman taking the Roosevelt Island tram to New Jersey. Yes, Besson couldn't resist the 'flight' visual gag, but I saw the movie about three blocks from the tram and the whole theater burst into laughter.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Brett said...

When it comes to movies, I bet very few cities are handled correctly in terms of specific actual geography. I know that I've seen several movies set and filmed in Houston where it's hilarious to see the "route" some characters travel between destinations.

"Look! They're on the Pierce Elevated!! Now their on the Katy Freeway! Now they're by the Ship Channel! Now he's pulling into West U!"

Remember the old Houston Knights TV show featuring Michael Paré as a New York cop forced to do duty in Houston? No? Well, that's alright-- nobody does.

Except me. And the reason i remember it is a specific scene where we see a long shot of "Houston" complete with crystal blue waters in the foreground (cough) and snowcapped mountains behind (cough cough), and we hear Paré explain in voice-over how he and his partner followed a tip down to "Houston Harbor."

Dr Pepper through the sinuses is not fun.

At 3:32 PM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

Rocky's run through the streets of Philadelphia would be accurate only if he was in training for a marathon.

At 10:03 PM, Blogger Random Brandon said...

A writer friend of mine that lives in L.A. told me there are alot of driving direction errors in Collateral. I don't know L.A. well enough to know the difference, so it didn't effect me.

I live in Minneapolis and I noticed some reality stretches in Drop Dead Gorgeous. In the movie they stay at a Howard Johnson near the airport. In reality, they weren't near the airport, they were in south St. Paul. The hotel wasn't even a Howard Johnson. There aren't any HoJo's in Minnesota. Or New Hampshire. Or Hawaii. Funny what useless info one can find on the internet.

At 10:50 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

12 Monkeys had a funny bit where they were driving somewhere in PA that ended up being on the Ben Franklin Bridge (in connects NJ & Philly). But someone in Mumblefuck County, Kansas, wouldn't care. I just chuckled.

Also funny - in Harold & Kumar, where they hang glide over to White Castle. Off a cliff? In Cherry Hill, NJ? I live 5 min from Cherry Hill, and there ain't a cliff in sight (we do have mountains in NJ, plenty of them, just WAY FAR North). That, too, had the theater chuckling.

At 1:56 AM, Blogger Lucy said...

Well maybe lots of Brit actors are in Hollywood movies with really bad accents then...

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

Well, William already mentioned it, but I do also remember a number of alleys in downtown Manhattan. Hell, I can even remember one that had a NAME (I only remember it from the Spin Doctors song named after it, but it is real): Shinbone Alley.

I will also say that there used to be an ACTUAL phone booth on West End Avenue and 91st St on the UWS. Don't know if ti is still there. There was another one about 10 blocks further up on West End as well.

Lastly, echoing Tom, I once read a script in which chartacters ran out of the Manhattan Mall (33rd St - Herald Square) and into Central Park (starting on 59th St). 2.25 miles covered in a split second!

At 7:23 AM, Blogger The Moviequill said...

it is all relevant, maybe I don't see phone booths per se but there are telephone boxes on poles everywhere, look at a 7-11 next time you pass one, I counted 5 the other day. Couldn't the continuity experts just film it at a call box instead?... same with alleys, if you open up the back door of any business or restaurant in Manhattan, wouldn't that little area still be called an alley?

At 11:05 AM, Anonymous Joshua said...

umm, while there are not a LOT of alleyways in midtown manhattan, they do certainly exist, particularly in the vicinity of parking garages - I only know from my days as a guardian angel. And I'm in midtown right this moment (45 and 9th) and I know of at least two alleys within walking distance. So I beg to differ, only somewhat.

But there are no phone booths, that's for certain.

At 6:11 AM, Blogger Robin Kelly said...

No, I've noticed the limey baddie thing as well. It makes sense that it's been used so often as it's an obvious quick way of saying to the audience: "he doesn't speak like us, he is an outsider, he is bad". It's a sort of white hats-black hats thing.


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