At the End of the Country, Coney Island
by Sam Hutchins
We wound up making many scouting trips to Coney Island, and indeed did our first day of filming there. Makes sense if you know the Wong Kar Wai’s work. It really is his type of place. His movies feature locations that are older and a little beat up. Places with history. I wouldn’t necessarily say he believes in ghosts, but he does believe that places are imbued with the spirits of those who passed through them. Coney Island is all that and more. You have the wide-open ocean buttressed by the remnants of New York City’s playground. A playground of yesteryear, now gone to seed. The rides, games and food stands are all dated and barely hanging on. The only recent addition is the freak show, which feels like a good fit in Kar Wai’s world.
This particular night, however, was Kar Wai’s first time seeing Coney Island. It was early evening in the offseason, so most of it was shuttered up and battened down. Nathan’s was the only place that showed signs of life. For my part, I was getting accustomed to Kar Wai’s scouting process. It was indeed unique, like everything else about him. Every director has his own way. You learn to feel them out and find your comfort zone. Some want you to take the lead and give them an in-depth guided tour of whatever place you happen to be. Others prefer you fade into the background and only re-emerge when questions arise.
Kar Wai was both cerebral and mercurial. There were many extended periods of silence and lots and lots of movement. Stephane and I mostly trailed close behind and snapped pictures of whatever he seemed to be looking at. The man is tall and completely caught up in his own head. He would stop and stand silently for long stretches of time, his gaze focused on nothing discernable. Then in a flash those long legs would be pumping and he’d be tearing off down the boardwalk without a look back. I can only wonder what thoughts were bouncing around inside his head; he clearly had a lot going on in there. In any case, it was clearly incumbent on us to keep up with him. As absorbed in his thoughts as he was he could have walked in one side of a burning building and out the other without smelling the smoke.
We circled the area several times, to the point where both Stephane and I were breathing a little heavily. Not Kar Wai, though. The guy is a machine. Once he sufficiently had the lay of the land he turned his attention to us. He indicated several food stands he would like to see open, possible places for Norah’s character to work.
“So you think she might work out here as opposed to a place in the city?”
“I don’t know. I want to consider both.”
“Are there specific features of either location that you prefer?”
“In the city I like the idea of her being in a small space, surrounded by structures. Maybe a diner under the raised subway tracks. I like the feeling of her being trapped in a corner. Out here I like the wide-open space over the ocean, and the fact that it is the very end of the country. If she starts here there is only one direction for her to go.”
All right then. I should scout for a place that was claustrophobic or wide-open, deep in the city or out on the shore. It’s actually entirely common for a director to be all over the ice like this early in the process. There is much more to locations work than just the literal. One of our most important functions is to help the director focus his vision, and at the beginning of a project they are often pulled in vastly divergent directions. Most directors have already made the film in their minds before they hired me. When I start taking them out they have to reconcile their vision with what’s really out there. This often takes them to entirely different concepts than the one with which they started. Kar Wai only had the bare bones of a story, but every story begins someplace and that was what we were looking for.
Clearly we were in the right neighborhood. Kar Wai loved the rickety old rides, the once-bright but now faded colors, the whole milieu. There were some very shady looking hotels that piqued his interest. I would need a little time to talk my way into those places. They were either SRO’s filled with old drunks or hot-sheet hotels used for prostitution; either way it would take some finesse to gain entry. There were a few food stands on the boardwalk that were of interest. He was fascinated by the “shoot the freak” attraction, where you pay for the privilege of shooting paint balls at a kid made up as a mongoloid. We found a shot on a side street with the famous Cyclone roller coaster framed up in the background.
“We need to get that lit up at night.” He said and kept moving.
We circled the area again and again. I was starting to get the hang of his method. Kar Wai is a man of very few words, which makes it difficult. The temptation is to fill the silence with words in an attempt to draw him out. After a few questions were completely ignored it became clear that I needed to wait him out. He wasn’t being rude by not replying to me; he was simply lost in his own mind. I was learning that the best gauge of his interest in a place was how much time he spent standing silently in front of it.
One place he kept returning to was a food stand called “Greg and Paul’s” that sat on the boardwalk directly adjacent Astroland amusement park. I didn’t entirely understand what made it better than the rest, but it was certainly worth taking a look at.
“Can we look inside?”
“I’ll have to track down the owner. Hopefully we can open it up.”
By this time it was pushing midnight. It was January and we were in Coney Island. The wind was whipping down the boardwalk and we had not seen another person for several hours.
“No, I’m going to need a few days.”
“Okay, we come back tomorrow and look at it. This is very good. Also, the hotel.”
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.