The Cinema Justifies the Means?
by Sam Hutchins
Working with Wong Kar Wai was taxing physically and emotionally. He liked it that way, and often created artificial tension as a means of controlling people. Just as often it was unintentional; either situation had the same net effect. That morning being a perfect example. Our new producer was well below Kar Wai on the organizational chart. Everyone involved with the project was; it really was all centered around him. A single word from him would have ended the silliness about requiring me to stop scouting and submit a budget. He always got what he wanted, no questions asked. Nonetheless he allowed it to happen. I did not know then and never will know what his take on the situation was. He may have been taking the opportunity to beat me down a little. Who knows, maybe I was full of hubris and he thought it was for the best long term to do so. He could just as easily have been oblivious and allowed it to happen without much consideration. Inscrutable, indeed.
Richard Burton made a fascinating film about the composer Richard Wagner for the BBC a while back. Nine hours long, it used his music to great effect in the telling of his life story. At least from Burton’s perspective Wagner was a monstrous genius. Possessing unimaginable talent, he was unfortunately all too aware that he did. At an early age he began believing that his talent was so significant that the only moral choice was to feed it by any means necessary. Wagner could turn on the charm and convince his benefactors that enabling his work was the most noble endeavor to be made. He would caress and cajole them right to the point of ruin, only then discarding them for a new patron. Fortunes were squandered and lives ruined. Historically, however, we are left with an amazing body of work. The personal ruination is lost to the sands of time.
I’m not suggesting that Kar Wai takes it to this extent, but there are certainly common elements to be found in his methods. My Blueberry Nights was the first film in quite some time that was not being photographed by Chris Doyle. The two men had been seemingly inseparable, having made eight films together. His cinematography is highly regarded and an integral part of Kar Wai’s films. The story of his life is as good an example of straddling the line between comedy and tragedy as can be found. Legendary for his drinking and carousing, the extent to which he did so was unclear until you heard Kar Wai describe it. According to Kar Wai, Chris didn’t even maintain an apartment of his own. Instead he took residence in a series of brothels. After long filming days he would be dropped in some smoky Chinese whorehouse where he would consume copious quantities of booze and God knows what drugs while being tended to by a flock of hookers. This was how he lived throughout the making of eight films over the course of two decades. As amusing as it is on the surface, a closer look paints a different picture. Two people cannot work together for such an extended period of time without some mutual affection existing. How can a person stand by and watch a friend kill themselves like this? Apparently as long as the results contribute to the creation of great cinema Kar Wai was OK with it.
I was aware of all this and all right with it myself. Having bought the ticket I was taking the ride. I knew that I could put up with anything for the length of the job, and abusive as it may have been at times I would endure. Frankly, as low as the lows were the heights to which you could soar made it all worthwhile. That evening being a perfect example. Although we had been ready to murder one another yesterday, spending time apart wore heavily on all of us. When the guys came in from scouting there were embraces all around. We prepared for a celebratory reunion dinner.
When eating Chinese cuisine dinner with Kar Wai was a chore. He took on a professorial air and worked to educate us about what we were eating. While it was indeed interesting to hear the history of a dish, the symbolism of eating it, and the supposed physical benefits of doing so, at the end of the night you were still eating chicken feet. Or yak penis, shark fin, pig snouts or some other form of offal. I’ll take delicious over educational any time. When eating other types of food, however, Kar Wai was quite the gourmand. That night in Los Angeles he took us to an amazing Korean barbecue restaurant. He ordered platter after platter of the finest cuts of meat for us, which we washed down with copious amounts of chilled shoju. We gorged ourselves while flirting with waitresses and trading stories late into the night. It was abundantly clear that on this particular evening the most important thing in his world was our pleasure, and he made sure we enjoyed ourselves as much as humanly possible. You learn to take the good with the bad in life, and meals like that make up for a lot of sins.
STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.
Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.