Most movie buffs will admit that our whole perspective on life comes from cinema. Like Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail, we use quotes from The Godfather in reference to just about everything, from business to sports. Similarly, our romantic ideals come from cinema. We remember the iconic images — Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr on top of the Empire State Building in An Affair to Remember; the Hawaiian kiss on the beach in From Here to Eternity; Jack and Rose at the front of the Titanic — and many of us long for a moment similar to these in our own lives; though most of us have to settle for McDonald’s or a really well decorated junkyard.
Cinematic romance is an undeniable appeal of the Hollywood fantasy, and it’s so often set in locales much nicer than our own.
Great screenwriters understand the importance of location when it comes to storytelling. Could the piano-playing scene in Big happen anywhere but F.A.O. Schwartz (R.I.P., big piano)? Would the bus jump in Speed be the same if it was a tiny footbridge? It’s the same thing with romance movies. Love in the movies depends on location. From Romancing the Stone to that one part of The Fault in Our Stars I really didn’t care for, mainstream Hollywood cinema has always placed its notions of love in beautiful, foreign locales.
CASABLANCA — Set in Casablanca
A cinematic classic, period. Michael Curtiz’s 1942 masterpiece was written by no less than four writers. Yes, four (if you think that’s too many, remember that Catwoman had a total of 28 writers!). Yet the movie is perfect, and has barely aged. It’s a timeless piece of storytelling; a tale of romance in war-torn French Morocco. Yet not a single frame was filmed outside of California.
Why? Because it’s a movie!
Also, the real Casablanca is nothing like what is portrayed. With all respect to the people of Casablanca, it’s a much less pristine city than the movie would have you believe (as is just about every city in the world). But like any good romance movie, Casablanca amplifies the beautiful elements of the location — the architecture of the bar; the dustiness of the city — to compliment the romance between the characters.
After all, Casablanca is a fairy tale, not a documentary!
Most, if not all, romantic movies do this. Real life is hard, and often unpleasant. Everyone knows that the streets in New York or London are not perfectly manicured 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Often, they’re covered in empty coffee cups or old garbage. But that doesn’t really fly in a mainstream Hollywood romance.
Hollywood romance is fantasy, through and through. Audiences want beautiful people in beautiful places. They don’t want Julia Roberts hit in the face by a rogue burger wrapper. Of course, since Casablanca is also a war movie, the unpleasant aspects of life are covered by the wartime elements and darkness. Thus, the writers know they can (and must) play up the romance of Morocco to balance the darkness.
If your romantic location isn’t beautiful, find the beauty.
Audiences don’t see Romance movies to see Paris streets littered with trash. They want the idealized, romantic version.
ROMAN HOLIDAY — Set in Rome
I love this movie. It’s Audrey Hepburn’s debut screen role, and it was written by a screenwriter every writer should know: Dalton Trumbo. It was also the first American movie to be shot entirely in Italy — a precondition set by director William Wyler, who refused to shoot it in Hollywood. Trumbo’s screenplay so emphasized the beauty of Rome that Wyler was adamant no set could ever replicate the beauty of the city. The story? A simple, modern twist on the Cinderella story: a young princess runs away from her handlers and experiences the world on her own, falling in love with a newspaper man.
Like Casablanca, Roman Holiday is a fairy tale of a romance. And any good fairy tale has a kingdom, right? Rome’s picturesque imagery is not unlike the awesome beauty that comes with many literary kingdoms. It’s grand, it’s clean and it’s gloriously colorful — even in black and white, you can feel the vibrancy. But most importantly, it’s bright.
The city of Casablanca is very dark, with threats seemingly around ever corner.
Roman Holiday is the opposite.
The city is alive, light, fun. If you write a light romantic comedy set in Toronto, but then make the city unbelievably threatening, you’re stuck with an internal conflict that cannot be resolved. 50 First Dates would be unbearable if Hawaii kept getting struck by hurricanes and tsunamis.
Dark romance dramas have bleak locations; light romantic comedies have lush, bright ones. The location mirrors the tone of the story.
THE BEFORE TRILOGY — Set in Vienna/Paris/Athens
I saw Before Sunrise and Before Sunset as a double feature in a college class about cinematography. I had never seen anything like it. There’s no real plot; just a series of discussions between a couple in beautiful cities. Yet it’s one of the most emotionally engaging cinema experiences I’ve ever had. The third, Before Midnight, completed the trilogy in an unexpectedly perfect, explosive way.
To sum it up, the trilogy starts with Jesse and Céline, a pair of romantic souls that meet on a train in Vienna and spend the whole night walking through the city and talking before they go their separate ways. The trilogy continues in real time as they get married and have children over a period of years, always continuing their conversations in a new city.
It’s an incredibly simple plot; based on an incident in writer/director Richard Linklater’s life. But for screenwriters, the lesson to learn is why these movies are set outside of North America. Theoretically, the movies could be set in Michigan and still work.
But Linklater explains himself:
"when you're traveling, you're much more open to experiences outside your usual realm”.
Romance is two people choosing to take a risk; romance cinema is two people taking a lot of risks. Foreign countries are, literally, alien landscapes to us. We have no idea of the culture, of the landscape, of the locations. It’s all brand new. Are you seeing the link here? When we meet other humans, we don’t know anything about them. Thus, characters in a foreign land are finding a whole new life both physically, and emotionally.
New countries or foreign lands suggest an abandonment of old ways or an exploration of new ground. Like the characters, the land is fertile ground for brand new relationships.
LOVE IN THE OLD WORLD
This isn’t to say that a light romance movie set in Monaco will be better than a dark romantic drama set in Toronto. Love is love, no matter where it is. But there’s a certain charm in finding love on foreign soil, don’t you think? Whether it’s the cynical bar-owner and his former lover; a runaway princess and her journalist lover; or a pair of romantics on a train. These worlds are clean; tonally consistent and allow the characters to find themselves.
These worlds are beautiful, and love is everywhere if you look hard enough.