Arbitrary cities: why setting should be more important in films

Sunday, September 13, 2020 - 6:03pm

.

Design by Taylor Schott

When I tell people around here that I’m from Seattle, we often end up talking about one of the following: Microsoft or Amazon (or people they know that work there), rain or “Grey’s Anatomy.” No one seems to know anything about Seattle beyond the basics. And over time, as I’ve watched films that are set in Seattle, it feels the same — like no one really knows what they’re talking about. It never feels quite right, no matter how many Seattle sports references or aerial shots of the skyline they include.

I’ve never understood why anyone wouldn’t want to use Seattle as a setting — Are the trees too green? Is the water too blue? Are the mountains too beautiful? — but the reality is that, compared to cities like New York, Chicago and L.A., there are few mainstream films set in Seattle. Most of them didn’t start getting made until the 1990s, when grunge and Nirvana got the rest of the country’s attention and people started to realize that Seattle is a pretty cool place. Still, they’re often not quite right. We’re happy to claim these movies — “Sleepless in Seattle,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Say Anything” and more — but it’s also difficult not to notice, at the same time, when a city layout that you know intimately is being shifted for the film’s purposes.

Setting is crucial in film. It establishes essential character traits, external and internal alike. But with many films, including many of the Seattle-based films I’ve seen, it feels like the writers picked the film’s location out of a hat. They pepper in major tourist landmarks and design their costumes for the area’s general climate, but the story could really be anywhere. For Seattle-based films, this means establishing location by showing a few of the landmarks that people actually know: the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, the Washington State ferries, the Space Needle again, the stadiums and skyscrapers downtown, the Puget Sound waterfront and the Space Needle one more time for good measure.

To be fair, there are complications to filming in Seattle proper: It can be difficult and very expensive, which is why many Seattle movies opt to film in California or Vancouver, BC instead. Still, it feels lazy. The unfortunate thing is that people don’t usually notice the difference; anyone who isn’t from the area has no way of knowing that those two neighborhoods aren’t anywhere near each other, or that the weather is way too nice for May in Seattle. 

There are a few exceptions to this: “Sleepless in Seattle,” for example. Seattle natives love “Sleepless” for the most part — it’s one of the few Seattle-based movies that are actually filmed in the city, and its use of a houseboat means that the film is filled with lovely images of Lake Union and downtown. Another is “10 Things I Hate About You,” which prominently features places like Kerry Park, Gas Works Park and the Fremont Troll — places that Seattle natives know very well even if outsiders might not recognize them.

But these films aren’t perfect either. A good chunk of “10 Things” is actually filmed in Tacoma (a city just south of Seattle, about twice the size of Ann Arbor), and some of what’s filmed on site is actually compilations of multiple locations. Not to mention the notoriously inaccurate scene in “Sleepless” where Tom Hanks’s character and his son inexplicably take a rowboat from Lake Union to Alki Beach while Meg Ryan’s character follows them in her car — a geographically impossible scenario, especially in the short amount of time that it appears to take. This scene, and its blatant disregard for the city’s geographic reality, has been mocked by Seattleites for almost three decades.

Part of the disconnect stems from the fact that these filmmakers are rarely from the area at all. They don’t have the same respect for the city’s structure and layout; to them, it’s just a place where their movie is set rather than a city that has been in existence for 150 years. For example, Cameron Crowe made the choice in “Say Anything” to illogically place a “Welcome to Seattle” sign on the Lakeview Boulevard overpass — a bridge right in the middle of the city, far from city limits. In his mind, he could do that — clearly, he saw the city as a world whose reality he could shape for his own purposes.

The reality is that people don’t know enough about Seattle as a city to appreciate it. Most people I talk to think that rain in Seattle is like most other places in the US: torrential downpours and thunderstorms. It isn’t. Anyone who has lived in the Seattle area knows that Seattle rain is common, but gentle. And in the 17+ years that I’ve lived there, I’ve only witnessed one thunderstorm. It’s a strange double standard: people who aren’t from New York or L.A. somehow seem to know enough about it to carry on a conversation with someone who’s from there. Yet when I mention Seattle I get those same responses: Microsoft, Amazon, rain, “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The ways that film and place are intertwined warrants more attention and precision. In an ideal world, the city where a film is set should be seen as a place that the story molds to fit, rather than the opposite. Other films about other cities use it as a setting that is so inextricable from the story and the characters that it becomes like its own character. And yet films about Seattle, and other cities that are discussed less often, are not given the same treatment.

If you’ve never lived in Seattle, or even been there, these films probably won’t make much difference to you either way. But to me, it’s a reflection of the places that I’ve known for most of my life. You might see an image of the Space Needle; I see going to Seattle Center with my family, or the summer I spent working at the Pacific Science Center. You see the Pike Place Market sign; I see first-grade field trips, or forays into the city with my friends. You see an iconic green-and-white ferry; I see trips to Bainbridge Island to visit my aunt. You see a highway with the Seattle skyline above it; I see I-5 North, where I’ve driven and been driven hundreds of times. Any images of Seattle in films are going to be arbitrary, because you don’t know my city the way that I do, just as I don’t know yours.

But I think the tides are starting to change. People are paying more attention to Seattle — I’ve had a number of people mention that they would love to live there if given the chance. Hopefully soon I’ll get to see more films that show Seattle the way I know it, beyond that one stock image of the Space Needle rising over the waterfront. Maybe then, when I mention where I’m from, people will have more to say.

Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at kariand@umich.edu.