Plate o’ Shrimp with Wong Kar Wai
by Sam Hutchins
When you work on a studio film things are pretty straightforward. There are staff accountants, lawyers, and executives with whom to consult. There are policies and procedures to follow. It’s still a lot more loose than working in traditional industries, but at least there is some semblance of normalcy. Not so when making an independent film. You have to be careful with the independents because things can get really strange.
Earlier in my career I walked away from certain gigs that just got a little too weird. One colleague did a film with Able Ferrara where he was told on the first day that the only office rule was “no shooting up in the bathroom.” Apparently someone overdosed while locked in there on the last film and caused a lot of difficulty. The solution they worked out was to allow people to do drugs openly at their desks. That is an extreme, of course, but how normal is it to interview for a job in a downtown loft at ten o’clock at night? I knew going in that working for Wong Kar Wai was going to be a unique experience.
That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear from Kar Wai’s people the next day. I was admittedly anxious for the call. It was exciting, and I woke up early. Waited all day with no word. As the evening came and went I realized they would be calling late. I was in bed by the time the call came. It was eleven o’clock at night. Jackie, the Chinese woman I had met the night before, was on the line. She summoned me back to the loft in Tribeca.
I arrived to find them waiting on the street for me: Jackie, Wong Kar Wai, and a short, goofy looking Frenchman named Stephane. They handed me keys to a car and told me to drive them to Flushing. Cool. Flushing is the real Chinatown in New York, out in Central Queens. I hadn’t been there in years but knew how to get there. We drove out in relative silence. They directed me to one of the hundreds of Chinese restaurants just off Main Street. As we walked into the restaurant Jackie squealed with delight.
“Jackie’s favorite, Hong Kong hot pot. You like hot pot?” Kar Wai asked me.
“Never tried it.”
“You like Chinese food?”
“Yes, the American kind. I’m eager to have some authentic stuff with you.”
“You will like.”
At first glance Kar Wai seemed like a nice enough guy. His English was much better than Jackie’s, and he was making an effort to engage me. We sat at a table with a burner built in to it. Kar Wai ordered in Chinese, of course, and things started happening rapidly. A waiter placed a pot of water on the burner to heat up. Plates of various ingredients appeared on the table in front of us. Nothing I could identify at all. While we waited for the water to boil, we went to a weird little rolling cart containing various liquids and spices. Jackie helped guide me through the process of creating my own sauce. The only thing I could identify was sesame oil.
“Do you like shrimp?” Kar Wai asked.
“I love shrimp.”
Kar Wai pointed with his chopsticks at two plates. One piled high with shrimp, the second on top of the first to keep the shrimp from escaping — they were still alive. Wow, never saw that before. I knew the entire meal was an extension of the job interview, so I went for it. Forgoing the chopsticks, I snatched a shrimp and tossed it in my mouth. I’ve never felt anything as unpleasant as a live shrimp trying to crawl out of my mouth. I chewed on it to stop it from moving and felt its shell crunching between my teeth. It was really hard to keep down, but I managed by chasing it with a big swallow of Tsingtao beer. At least we were drinking.
The table cracked up as I washed the shrimp down. What the hell? Were they making fun of me? Kar Wai gently put his hand on my arm.
“No, do like this.” He plucked a wriggling shrimp with his chopsticks and dropped it in the boiling water. How embarrassing. They laughed again at the look on my face, but in a good natured way. They added a few more shrimp to the pot, then some unidentifiable sliced vegetables and spices. So that’s how you do it. Unfortunately, the cooked shrimp still had the shell on it and wasn’t much different than the live specimen, other than the absence of twitching antennae in my mouth.
What little conversation there was centered around the food and how to eat it. We drank a lot of beer. Stephane was an enthusiastic eater, but I definitely got the impression that he was eating more to please them than out of enjoyment of the food. No judgment from me, though — I was doing the same thing, just with less vigor.
The plates kept coming. Other than some small peppers, I could not identify what was on any of them. No matter. We cooked them in the hot pot and tossed them back. After an extended back and forth with the waiter, a plate was brought out containing some sort of thinly sliced organ meat. Kar Wai insisted it was a rare delicacy that I must try. In for a penny, in for a pound, right? I threw it in my mouth. Not bad, but spongy and very chewy. I couldn’t break it apart and had to choke it down whole.
“How you like?”
“Not bad. What was it?”
He surprised me by flinching and pushing back from the table quickly. It took a minute for me to realize that I had clenched my fist and drew it back. It was an unconscious reaction on my part. I would never have actually hit the man; he was my idol. Nevertheless, I did have the impulse, and it played right into the cowboy image a lot of the world has of Americans. Fortunately, Jackie broke the tension.
“More beer.” She smiled and filled my glass. Kar Wai moved back to the table. In my entire acquaintance with him it was the only time I saw him uncomfortable.
“Very good to eat. Makes you horny.” He put away a few slices of boiled yak cock himself before barking at the waiter to make the dishes vanish.
We drank a substantial amount of beer before settling up and driving back to Manhattan. Still hadn’t talked about the film at all, but I was pretty confident I had passed their tests. I got my real answer when we got back to their loft. After parking the car, we prepared to go our separate ways. Jackie took me by the arm.
“Tomorrow we go scout?”
Okaaaaay, sure. Still no idea what the story was about or where it took place, but I could roll with the punches as well as anyone. As I started to leave Jackie leaned in and gave me a quick kiss. On the lips. Slipped me the tongue. Whoa, didn’t see that one coming. Nothing serious, just a quick flash of wetness, but it was no accident. This really was going to be an interesting job.
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.