On The Spirit of Place: Writing that is Inspired by a Location

I’ve just been browsing through some photographs of my home town of Port Talbot in South Wales.  This is the place where I was born, and where my family still live; it’s also the location for a movie I’m currently producing which might, just might, actually get made some day soon. 

The movie is called Inferno; and it’s a film noir in the James M. Cain tradition.  In other words, there’s a guy, a girl, torrid sex, and a murder.  And it’s also a film that’s very much inspired by landscape.  Port Talbot is a steel town, and the vast Abbey Steel Works is as large as many villages. When you drive past it at night on the motorway, it looms up like something from Dante’s Inferno (hence the film’s title) – with chimneys spouting flame, and clouds of smoke eclipsing the stars.  Here are a couple of photos to illustrate:

I can still remember the original inspiration for the movie; it was an article I read in Empire Magazine which said that Ridley Scott’s inspiration for the opening cityscape sequence in Blade Runner was the Port Talbot Steel Works; he was driving past it one night on his way to West Wales and was awed at the kind of images I’ve shown above.  And so I thought – well, why not use this great location in a movie that’s actually set there.

In real life, I have to admit, Port Talbot is a grey industrial town without much glamour or magic.  Here’s what it really looks like:

These would be the moodboard images for the Ken Loach movie set in Port Talbot; but I wanted to write something about a place that was beautiful and cinematic.  The town as it OUGHT to be, not as it actually is.  It’s what the Americans do so well in their movies – they mythologise places, by focusing on the iconic and the extraordinary.  So my movie Port Talbot bears only a glancing relationship with the real place. 

This gulf between reality and fantasy was brought home to me vividly a while back, when I taken on a tour of the Port Talbot Steel Works and Harbour by my uncle Tony who used to work there.  It was a great day out – and a chance to hear some amazing stories from my uncle, who had worked as a boatman in the Harbour for many years and knew all the great characters of those days.  But at the end of the day, I realised I was drowning in images of the real place.  Grey chimneys, rusty pipes, dismal factory buildings  that’s what I saw in real life. But a few weeks later I started work on the script again – and I re-discovered the mythological town that only really exists in my my imagination.  It’s a place of beauty and ugliness; with the steel works looming over the river, and the green mountains of Wales stretching beyond.  This mythological town DOES exist in reality; but only sometimes, in certain lights.  Like this:

This is the beach where I used to play as a kid – not much of a beach, with heavy industry on one side and coal on the sand.  But at certain times…it’s an enchanted place.  Oh, and here’s the field where I used to play rugby and cricket, in Little Warren.  It’s just a field!  A patch of grass with goal posts. But one day I saw this:

It’s not beautiful – but it IS sublime. 

All this fascinates me.   And I continue to be inspired by places when I write.  I’ve just been commissioned to write a low budget movie set in Reading, and I spent a day on Friday with the producer walking around all the locations where we might film.  There’s a lovely little park area near the station which would a great place for someone to be trapped in by bad guys.  And there’s a rundown area near the Hexagon Theatre which would be a GREAT location for a night-time chase, with our hero being pursued by guys with guns.  And so, by looking at places with a view to how we could film there, Reading was no longer a dull commuter city but instead was the setting for an atmospheric noir thriller.  

And I remember going on a trip to Glasgow a while back which reacquainted me with the glorious black-stoned architecture of that city, with thin church spires looming high and Victorian architecture at its best at every turn.  There is a ‘spirit of the place’ in Glasgow – a city I already knew from my time working as a development executive on the great Scottish TV crime series Taggart (‘There’s been a murrrrrder’  was the show’s legendary catch-phrase.)  And the spirit of that place was channeled by me into the city of Bompasso, aka Lawless City, on Belladonna – as featured in Version 43.  Lawless City IS Glasgow, but without the Scottish accents. 

All these musings come out of looking at photographs of a place where I was born; which is now in my head a movie location. 

Inferno now has a great cast attached and an  inspired and brilliant director, though is not yet fully financed;  but if all goes well I’ll have a chance to see the familiar locations of my childhood transformed by the magic of cinema into a place of wonder and visual magnificence.  (Unless of course we end up shooting in Prague because it’s cheaper! You just never know in this business…)   And assuming all goes well I’ll be blogging quite a bit more about the process of getting Inferno out of my brain and on to the screen.

But remember: it all started with the location…

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