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Go Where the Character Takes You

May 20, 2009

by Sam Hutchins

Mott Street, Chinatown, New York City

Mott Street, Chinatown, New York City

We started the next day early… with a late lunch (an early scout for Kar Wai meant starting in the mid-afternoon). Don’t get the idea that he was lazy, though; nothing could be farther from the truth.  James Brown used to be called “The hardest working man in show business,” but only because he hadn’t met Wong Kar Wai. If we started our work day with a lunch in the mid-afternoon it meant we were scouting until the middle of the night, if not all the way to dawn.  Kar Wai would then return to his hotel and write for several hours. He is one of those people who only need a few hours of sleep a night, filling the remaining hours with productive time. No single person could hope to maintain the pace he does, thus he had learned to break his days into shifts, exhausting those who scouted with him before starting anew with his writing team.

No live shrimp or other exotica for this lunch, thank heavens. We did eat in Chinatown, though, as would prove true for most of our meals. We all know someone who likes to brag about going to “real” Chinese restaurants where they were “the only white guy”.  Well I got to be that guy, and it wasn’t such a great thing. I’m unapologetically American; it’s the culture I was raised in and who I am. “Real” Chinese food means none of the fried, sweet, or otherwise tasty stuff we know as Chinese cuisine in this country. Authentic Chinese food is healthier, simpler and much more subtle than the stuff we order in. It also sometimes features animal organs, chicken feet, or, you know, live shrimp. Wherever we ate, Kar Wai would order for me, which he liked to do. On my part, however, it was a good day if I was fed something that didn’t unsettle me. A great meal was one where the food was somewhat tasty.

Working as we did also took some adjustment on my part. A commonly used phrase in the film business is “having had”.  As in, you show up for work already having had your breakfast, coffee, what have you. “My Blueberry Nights” was scouted in a much more European fashion. Meals, shopping and other errands were incorporated into the work day. It was filmmaking as an all-encompassing lifestyle, not a job you did before going home to your personal life. It wound up being the best way to make the film we were trying to make; particularly due to the way Kar Wai’s work gradually evolves. The most apt description is that he gives birth to a film. It does not spring to life fully formed from his head but instead requires nourishment and stimulation to become the thing that it is. We were living as filmmakers, not working as them. Not the easiest thing for an analytical, task-oriented person to come to terms with.

It was a very productive lunch, however, as information started to emerge about what story we were telling. Perhaps it was because of his increased comfort level, but for whatever the reason, Kar Wai began to really discuss the film, or at least as much as he had worked out of it so far.

“You know Norah Jones, the singer? She is a waitress. This is her story.”

Well, that certainly caught me off guard. Of course I was aware of Norah, but not overly conversant with her music. To the best of my knowledge she had never acted before. A little research later on indicated that no: she had not.

“I thought about making the film all in New York but they tell me it is too expensive. Then I thought maybe New Orleans but I am not sure. They said you know New Orleans?”

“Yes, I have worked and lived there. I very much love that town.  Lots of great places to shoot and stories to tell there.”

“Stephane does not like New Orleans.”

Wow, I had no idea he had so much influence on the project. I had learned that they had never worked together before, which surprised me a great deal given the apparent scope of his involvement in the film.  Kar Wai had referred to him as the “creative producer,” which seemed to be a combination of sounding board, model, advice-giver, and general muse. Sucks that he doesn’t care for New Orleans, though. Not only would I love to return there to work, what amazing material there is for a story there.

“New Orleans is a place of death and decay, it is not for lovers,” Stephane added.

It took a while for me to adjust to the French flair for the dramatic. I did come to appreciate it, though.
“Some day I’ll make a New Orleans movie, but not right for this time. Once I realized it was not New York and not New Orleans I figured, ‘why not make it a journey?’ That is what any story is anyway, so why not find her story as she does, and make her discovery our discovery as well.”

I still was working in a pretty deep fog, but at least I was catching the occasional fleeting glimpse of a shoreline in the distance. Kar Wai’s process was certainly an interesting one. Typically, when my phone rings, it is a call from someone with a story to tell, and my job is to help them tell it. That might mean jumping on a plane to New Orleans, or Philadelphia, Rhode Island, New Mexico, wherever the best place to work might be. You go where the story takes you. This time we weren’t even starting with a story, but only a character. We were all going to find her story together. It was a little intimidating. After all, this was Wong Kar Wai — he’s a genius. I sat entranced, unable to look away when I first watched Chungking Express. Each successive film he made improved upon the last, and he started out doing amazing work. As strange and uncertain a process it was so far, I gladly signed on for the ride.

It was late afternoon as we emerged onto Mott Street and left for Coney Island.  I hadn’t the slightest idea why we were going there, but I was not concerned. Every journey starts someplace.



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.

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