REEL 13
A Scouting Life
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  • June 16, 2010

    Mystery Man at the Farewell Meal

    by Sam Hutchins

    Humans have an amazing ability to recover. We can be almost like dogs that way; give us a little positive stimulus and we happily live in the moment. Forget about the misery you were just experiencing, here’s a candy bar. We’re easy like that, myself as much as anyone. The storm darkened sky, pre-downpour humidity and stressful drive had created the impression that it was much later than it actually was. I sat down and gave myself a stern talking to. That, a coffee, a smoke, and a long hot shower put me back at the top of my game. I felt electric with excitement when I hit the lobby. There was no bar, so I passed the time thinking about all the people I know in L.A., friends present and past. Even the inevitable twenty minute wait past the appointed meeting time did not temper my enthusiasm.

    By the time we eventually did depart it was a perfect West Coast evening. The humidity had vanished with the rain and the desert grit had washed down our respective shower drains. Saltwater breezes carried our truck out and onto the highway, headed for Chinatown. It occurred to me that we had begun our story over a late night meal in a Chinese restaurant in Flushing, Queens.

    “Kar Wai, what type of restaurant are we going to?”

    “Hot pot. Like we went to before. Your favorite kind.”

    It was almost like I knew what he was going to say before he answered. I know how important symmetry and symbols are in his culture. He was bookmarking the end of our scout in the same way he began it.

    “So we finish just like we started, with hot pot. Does this mean we return to New York tomorrow?

    He answered with silence and a smile. I wasn’t letting it go just yet. After months spent in the dark I think I might have gotten a step ahead of him at last. For just this one brief moment, about this simple thing, I had figured him out. I was in tune with the master. My excitement was hard to contain.

    “Our special guest, is it Jackie Pang?”

    After all, she had been the highlight of our initial hot pot dinner. It would have fit perfectly, exact symmetry. He smiled even wider.

    “No, it is not.”

    Damn it, maybe I hadn’t figured him out after all. At least I knew how to make him happy, which was simply a matter of not understanding him. That clearly gave him great pleasure.

    Moments like the one where we emerged from the hotel, feeling the warm ocean breeze and seeing the palm fronds moving in the wind made me wonder why I had never moved to L.A. The forty-five minute drive to the restaurant answered my question. The place was in a strip mall that was composed entirely of Chinese businesses. At one time not so long ago I would be thrown by the concept of the Chinese part of town being in a strip mall. My first experience in a Chinatown was San Francisco, most of the rest were in New York. I knew them as neighborhoods of narrow streets, bright colors and dark alleys. It wasn’t until this trip that I understood Chinatown as a state of mind more than a physical place. I learned this by experiencing the far-flung diaspora through Kar Wai’s introductions; seeing the varied ways and places that the community existed in every part of America.

    Our big surprise guest was a letdown at first. He was a young, very thin and somewhat nerdy Chinese-American fellow named John. After the buildup by Kar Wai I had expected someone more exciting. As was the norm, no detailed introductions or explanations were made. He was simply presented without embroidery. Seemed nice enough, though, and certainly expressed an interest in learning about my craft. Just like our mutual friend he was elusive when questioned, but it soon became apparent that he was an aspiring screenwriter of some sort. After an appropriate bit of attention was paid to our guest I shifted focus to my French friends and, more importantly, the many bottles of Tsingtao we were quaffing.

    The food came in waves, and was absolutely delicious. No one complained as I dumped plenty of hot peppers into the broth, and we took turns plucking aromatic chunks of meat out and popping them in our mouths. John and Kar Wai were pretty intently catching up with one another and despite paying them scant attention I noticed something strange happening. Every so often a person or a few people together would approach our table and take a long look at us. Usually women, and mostly of a certain age. Initially I believed they were fans of Kar Wai’s, but it became clear that they were checking out our new pal John. A few even grabbed quick pictures before giggling and scampering off. I needed to know what the deal was with this kid.

    “Excuse me, sorry for asking, but are you famous, John?”

    He flushed a little and looked away.

    “What, are you a movie star in China?”

    “No, no. I’m not a movie star. I did a little acting when I was younger but not for a long time now.”

    The more I looked, the more familiar he seemed but I could not place it for the life of me. Kar Wai interjected.

    “John is being modest. He was a child actor and is in a couple of very big movies.”

    He shrank a little deeper into his chair. Something else struck me. Throughout the evening he had referred to someone named “Steven” repeatedly and with great respect. I had mentally filed it in the way one does when gathering contextual clues about a recent acquaintance. Now it repeated in my mind. Steven, Steven, a guy named Steven and a young Chinese boy actor. Wait, no, it couldn’t be…

    “Short Round! You’re Short effing Round from Temple of Doom, aren’t you!”

    If he was slouching before, now he was nearly beneath the table. Probably didn’t help that I had absolutely bellowed this last bit, my discretion a casualty of beer and excitement.

    “Yes.”

    Gears turned and clicked in my head.

    “So that means you are also Data, from The Goonies!”

    “Yes.”

    “Holy crap, man. You were a big part of my childhood. I love you. “

    “Why thank you.”

    “Holy shit, Short Round. Go figure. So, wait, hang on a second. You complained earlier that you can’t meet any women.”

    “Yes, I am lonely sometimes.”

    “Dude. Dude. Dude, you are frigging Data, man! We can walk into any bar in town, let the girls know who you are and you’ll be fighting them off. Trust me.”

    “No, no, that’s not true. No one cares about that.”

    “It is so true. Even if you weren’t Data we could get you laid just by saying you were him. Man, you’ve got gold and you’re hiding it. Don’t keep your lantern under a bushel, man, shine your light so the world can see!”

    At this point Kar Wai was laughing so hard he was in tears. The rest of the table was enjoying it all as well. That’s how it was with Kar Wai, the best times were as good as life gets. Fun company, copious amounts of food and drink, talking about creative ideas and potential new projects. Most of all, though, we enjoyed the very Fellini-esque atmosphere that surrounded him and swept up whoever he was with. We laughed our way through the rest of the meal, one hilarious moment after another. Truly good times. My only regret was my inability to get John to throw me a line from one of his films, but he would not be moved on this.

    Finally Kar Wai cleared his throat and gave us all a serious look as he raised his glass.

    “Thank you all for the hard work on this scouting journey. We have traveled a long way and seen many good things. I now have what I need for a story. Finish your drinks and we leave. Tomorrow morning we fly back to New York early. When we get to New York we should go look at the choices we like for a location there. Time to make decision.”

    Just like that you go from high to low. The trip ending was both relief and a letdown. The idea of sleeping in my own bed and getting a proper night’s rest was diminished by the knowledge that we would leave directly from the airport and scout NYC without time to even drop our belongings at home or rest up. Also, by now it was after 2 A.M. in the city. I’d be in the air all the next day and somehow still have to arrange a scout that starts as soon as we land. It never does get any easier.

    After making our goodbyes we shambled across the parking lot towards the truck. Kar Wai’s toast had taken the momentum out of the night, and exhaustion was overtaking us. We still faced a long commute to the hotel, followed by a very brief bit of sleep, and a cross-country flight. As we were climbing in the truck the repeated bleating of a horn finally caught our attention. We all turned to see John leaning out of his window.

    “Hey, Sammy! Sammy!”

    “John! What is it?”

    “No time for love now, Dr. Jones!”

    He laughed manically as he sped away into the night.

    ….

    At this point we moved from scouting into preproduction, and this seems like as good a place to break off the tale as any.  I want to thank everyone who has been reading this blog.  Hopefully you enjoyed it as much as I did.  I also want to thank the good people at Reel 13 for hosting me.  They have some new and exciting things happening here, so keep checking back.  You can keep up with me at my new photo blog.  It is simply one photo I take each day, whatever I come across in my travels.  You can find it at: http://nyrightnow.tumblr.com/

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  • June 9, 2010

    Hard Rain

    by Sam Hutchins

    The rain came, and came hard. By the time I pulled around to the coffee shop the sky had turned black and vision was limited to about twenty feet. I got as close to the door as I could and signaled to the guys with the horn and headlights. Despite the short distance they traveled to the truck they were all soaked when they joined me. Even Kar Wai, who tends to dance between the raindrops, got wet in this downpour. It was damn near biblical.

    So far California had offered us mostly wetness and traffic. That night, doubly so. We sped back to L.A. through driving sheets of rain, curtains of water so thick the truck seemed to slow from the impact. One thing about California, though, it’s not a state that allows plague-level weather to slow it down. The stereotype of the laid-back West Coast type could be seen rapidly disappearing in the rear view if it weren’t for the guy tailgating me and flashing his high-beams whenever I dropped below 80 mph. While the roads themselves were generally flat and broad, the occasional dip would form a natural ravine that we hydroplaned over. I came to anticipate them and clench my jaw when they came. No one was given quarter on this road, so the best solution was to hunker down and power right through. A lot like life, really.

    In the midst of all this tension at least Darius remained true to form. Leaning forward, he threw the climate controls across from warmish to ice cold. Of course the reason he wasn’t feeling the cold air he desired was because the system was working hard to keep the windshield from fogging; his action resulted in cold air blasting across it and instantly blinding me. The only thing that prevented an immediate crash was the fact that we were packed in a tight formation as we sped along. I was able to follow the taillights mere feet in front of me. Breathing deeply and fighting to remain calm I restored the defroster to a working temperature. Then, both to equalize the temperature in the truck as well as out of pure spite, I opened my driver’s side window all the way. A wall of wet slammed into the backseat, absolutely soaking my passengers. Also, the windshield quickly cleared of fog.

    Closing the window without averting my eyes from traffic in the slightest I bit off my words.

    “Do not touch the AC without asking me. Please. I’d rather not plunge off the road and die in a fiery crash. Thank you.”

    Ah, good to be back with the guys again. We continued on in silence. Soaked with sweat mingling with rain, streaked with grime from the desert. Rigid with tension from driving in such awful conditions and tired from the trip. Nothing in the world sounded better than a hot bath and the best steak room service could deliver. The vision dancing in my head helped me ignore the ridiculously dangerous circumstances I drove in. Of course even this small relief could not last.

    “So tonight we eat in Chinatown.” Kar Wai proclaimed.

    “Chinatown? Really? We’ll pass it on the way to the hotel but we need to clean up first.”

    “Yes, we’ll go back to the hotel, clean up, then return to Chinatown.”

    I felt my spine tighten up, right at the base. We had at least another hour in this weather before we got to Chinatown. The plan was to drive right past it and continue another 45 minutes to our lodging. Clean up, get dressed, and another 45 minutes back to Chinatown for dinner? Oh lord, please let me avoid this.

    “Lots of great restaurants in Santa Monica, you know.”

    “Yes, but we have a special guest meeting us in Chinatown.”

    “Someone I know?”

    “No, but you consider him a friend.”

    Jesu Christo, man, enough with the riddles. This guy makes the Sphinx seem direct and straightforward. One last try to dodge this one.

    “You sure, Kar Wai? Seems like we’re going pretty far out of our way to do that. It’s going to be late by the time we get there.”

    “You are right. I shall rest a little bit.”

    With that he leaned back and closed his eyes. I gripped the wheel so tightly I thought it might snap off in my hands. Hunkering down, I drove.

    ….

    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.

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  • June 3, 2010

    Mojave

    by Sam Hutchins

    I awoke the next morning in a room I didn’t recognize, with a hangover and no idea how I got there. The same could be said for a good part of my adult life. Some mornings were of course much harder than others. Waking up in Vegas is always the worst. Partly because the nights in Vegas are crazier than most places, but also because those nights don’t always begin in Vegas, or with the intent to get there. The blackout curtains that all the hotels use compound the disoriented feeling. Helpful though they may well be, they completely shut out any sense of place upon gaining consciousness. Still, I’m mostly glad the casinos have them.

    This particular morning I was aided by contextual clues. The breeze was salty and warm, and I eventually realized that the sound I heard was waves crashing on shore. Salt air, sea breeze, Los Angeles. More specifically, Santa Monica. Huzzah! The pieces gradually fell into place. I worked my way backwards through the night and was relieved to find that I didn’t recall doing anything spectacularly embarrassing, nor were there significant gaps in my memory. Copious amounts of soju had not led to tragedy. Good deal. The clock read 8:00AM, and the note I had helpfully left propped on the nightstand indicated that I was due in the lobby at 9. Another fine morning.

    We all enjoyed a nice breakfast, and I certainly wasn’t the only one hoping we were going to enjoy a lazy day on the boardwalk. Kar Wai did not share this viewpoint unfortunately, and his was the only vote that counted. He expressed a desire to scout in the desert. The thinking was that we might be able to find a replacement for Roy’s Gas Station, our chosen location for the third act of the film. While I profess no particular local expertise, I don’t leave my house without thorough preparation. Before scouting the desert outside of Los Angeles I had consulted with several colleagues conversant with the area. Top men in the field (and one woman). The consensus was that Roy’s was the perfect spot for us. That being said, I learned a long time ago that to be the best you need to work both the smartest and the hardest. The smart part of me had done the research and found Roy’s. The hard-working part of me knew the right thing to do was to go out and hit the ground in person to make sure we had the absolutely best possible location.

    So we went. Though we had only spent a day apart, it was enough to set the reset button on our relationships. The little quirks and peccadilloes of my partners had come to be intolerable at some point. Now they seemed almost charming. I had missed Kar Wai’s protracted silences and mysterious pronouncements. Seeing Darius wander distractedly into harm’s way no longer angered me. Instead I gently took him by the elbow and steered him out from in front of a moving car while he fiddled with his camera. When Stephane interrupted a conversation relevant to our scout to demonstrate his ability to balance a bottle on his head I could only smile. Hopefully they were equally tolerant of my faults.

    Also, though unspoken, we all understood that the end of the road was near. It’s hard to believe, but this months-long scout that took us across the country and back had begun with a phone call. Shortly thereafter I was in a truck with two, and then three, strangers setting out in search of an American story. We never knew from one day to the next where we were headed. Whenever we assumed something Kar Wai threw a monkey wrench into the plans. It was still entirely possible that Kar Wai would tell us to push through the desert and continue driving east. I didn’t think that would happen, though. It felt like this part of our journey was coming to a close.

    We wound up in a place called Ludlow, California. It was essentially a wide spot in the road amidst the Mojave Desert. There was a small coffee shop, a few gas stations, a motel, and an ice cream stand. The coffee shop was somewhat interesting in a very eclectic way, but nothing overly special. Darius was admonished by the waitress when he began shooting pictures. Apparently the ownership didn’t care for that. In his fumbling way Darius attempted to make it better by explaining that we were location scouting. This made the staff even crazier as filming was forbidden for some reason. After this they watched us like hawks.

    As reliably as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, telling a filmmaker that something is off-limits drives them insane with the need to possess it. It really wasn’t all that great as a location. Had nothing been said we would have snapped a few shots and been on our way. Instead it was now imperative that we must clear this place. I pointed out to my companions the fact that we were close enough to L.A. that the proprietors must be familiar with the business and want no part of it. Besides, we already had a vastly superior alternative that we liked and that was ready and expecting us. My final plea was to point out the ugly storm clouds rolling in. All for naught, of course. I left the guys with their pie and tea while I got to know the locals.

    A quick bit of digging revealed that the entire town was owned by one family. They simply had no use for the film business, having been approached countless times and most likely done wrong at some point along the line. I learned this, met the family, and concluded their lack of interest as being sincere and intractable in short order. They were polite about it but unmovable. Still, returning too quickly after leaving with such reluctance was bad form. It didn’t matter that I knew it was not happening as a location, the others needed to know I had made the greatest effort possible to clear it. So I found myself reclining in the truck listening to some music while parked out of sight of the diner. As The Clash played “Straight to Hell,” I cranked up the AC and watched the skies darken. Fat raindrops ended their lives as splatters on my windshield. As their frequency increased to a steady drumming I raised my seat and put it in gear. Time to leave the desert behind and get back to the ocean.

    ….

    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.

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  • May 25, 2010

    The Cinema Justifies the Means?

    by Sam Hutchins

    Wong Kar Wai in Las Vegas

    Wong Kar Wai in Las Vegas

    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.

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  • May 18, 2010

    A Wasted Day

    by Sam Hutchins

    The film business has undergone major changes in the time I have been part of it. It has always been just that, a business, of course. Still, it started out as much more of a creative, maverick endeavor, at least as compared to traditional corporate environments. People working in it often liken it to running away and joining the circus, although I think perhaps an oil wildcatter is a more apt comparison. In any case, it used to be the wild west. Things have changed drastically. By the time I was working in film the studios had been absorbed into major corporations and were slowly being brought more in line with traditional business standards and practices. During my tenure, the corporations became units of multinational conglomerates. Any illusion that a film was more than a line on someone’s balance sheet has long since been dispelled. The current state of the industry may be more comforting to someone counting pennies in a glass tower somewhere but the practical implications are borne by people like myself.

    I worked my first feature in 1989. At the time a film required a two-person accounting department. The lead accountant handled the budget and tracking all expenditures for the film. The assistant handled payroll and petty cash. This system worked fine for years. Slowly, however, accountant creep began. Larger films started adding an additional assistant. Increasing corporate oversight required more and more detailed record keeping. Today it is not uncommon to see as many as a dozen accountants working on a single film production. Each individual department may be assigned a dedicated accountant. The end result is that the people who are hired to actually make the film spend most of their time justifying their expenditures.

    Contracts have also evolved to the point of being burdensome. They used to be one letter-size page boilerplate contracts. You had a couple of blanks to fill in, such as filming dates, rate per day, etc. How I long for those simpler times. Currently, best case is five pages of legalese to wade through, worst is as many as fourteen pages long. Where we used to be able to grab a quick shot with a handshake and a hundred dollar bill we now require a few weeks notice and the skills of a paralegal. Liability concerns have killed spontaneity. The lawyers and accountants have taken over and it’s a damned shame.

    Still, I generally prefer working on features made by the major studios. One big reason is money, both what I make and what I have to spend making the film. Both are significantly better with the studios. Another is the quality of people you work with. The farther down the ladder you get budget-wise, the commensurately less skilled your co-workers are. The exception to this is when you work on a low-budget film with a talented director like Kar Wai. His artistry is such that the name alone attracts the type of talent that normally works on much more healthily-budgeted films. Another advantage of working on independents is that the atmosphere is much less corporate and regimented than that of studio films. I certainly had enjoyed the lessened oversight and resulting freedom to go out and just make the damned film this far. Unfortunately the producer who had hired me had left for another job. Her replacement had no experience with independent films and lacked the capability to understand the difference. Frankly, she was a moron.

    The first manifestation of this gross incompetence came immediately. We had checked into a hotel in Santa Monica at around two in the morning, and it was three before I closed my eyes. My phone began ringing incessantly at 7:00 AM. Eventually I had no choice but to answer. It was the new producer, who opened the conversation by haranguing me for not being tougher on Kar Wai and insisting he only scout places that were easy to film. Well fuck me. I’m the one who is going to pull it all together in order to get us up and running in a location, I’m not going to put us someplace I cannot make work. Only someone lacking the most fundamental understanding of Kar Wai’s method would say something along those lines, which appeared to be the case. A few quick questions indicated that no, the new producer had no idea who Kar Wai was or how he went about making films.

    The producer’s second action concerning my department wasn’t something I was aware of until later, but was even worse. She called all the scouts I had hired and instructed them to report directly to her, bypassing me. I suppose it was her way of trying to assert control, but it was flat-out stupid. None of these scouts had any relationship with her, so they had no reason to oblige the demand. Besides, it made no sense. It was near-impossible for those of us working directly with Kar Wai to figure out what he needed. Interjecting some insecure, disconnected producer back in NYC who had never even met the man couldn’t help in any way, shape or form.

    The most immediate problem caused by the new producer, however, was the demand for a detailed budget from me. Immediately. Budgeting location work for films is an incredibly difficult thing. You work from a script and a schedule, breaking it all down to the smallest elements and building from the ground up. Months before filming you need to anticipate any potential problems or needs and the financial implications that result. It’s a skill refined only by years of experience, and something I pride myself on being very good at doing. It takes time.

    Take police officers, for instance. One of dozens of different elements that fall within my purview on any given location. Do we need them on set? We may, depending on the nature of the scenes we are filming. The town we are filming in may require a certain amount. What is their base hourly pay, and how much do their fringe benefits run? Are there a minimum number of hours you need to hire them for? How many officers can you have before you need to hire a sergeant as well? What does the sergeant make? Are their shifts restricted to a certain number of hours before you need to bring in replacements? Do they get meal money? And so on. You get the picture. I can extrapolate all these costs by investigating them with the different towns we plan to film in and making some educated guesses, but it’s not something that happens instantly.

    Working with Kar Wai complicated matters exponentially. If you ask him what he wants for lunch you may hear a story about how he went to the racetrack with his favorite uncle when he was young. I knew we planned to shoot in several different states, and multiple towns within those states. What those precise locations were, however was still an unanswered question to Kar Wai himself. We lacked even the outline of a script, and a schedule was an even greater mystery. His last film had been budgeted for a relatively long 12 week shoot. It took five years to complete. Given that, the idea of an accurate line-by-line budget was science fiction. I tried suggesting a reasonable solution, something I had done in other situations with similar unquantifiable expenses. The best way to handle it was for me to come up with an average daily operating cost. This would still require a bit of thought on my part but was at least possible. Examining all the known elements would allow me to come up with a fairly accurate number once you averaged it out over the course of the shooting period. Even this concept, however, was too difficult for the new producer to wrap her head around. No, she demanded a detailed budget before I did anything else.

    I explained all of this to my companions over breakfast. Kar Wai is not the confrontational type, so he was willing to allow it. The others were okay with it as they were fully confident in their ability to do my job. Therefore they set out without any adult supervision to scout Los Angeles on their own. I stayed behind and beat my head on my desk attempting to come up with some budget projections. After hours of frustration I called New York and in slightly more polite terms told them to fuck off. While I was occupied with this the guys ran around town scouting. I attached several pictures they shot that day, some look like quite interesting places to film. Unfortunately none of which came with contact information, addresses, or even a broad hint as to where in Los Angeles they may have been taken. In other words, useless information. A waste of a day all around.

    ….

    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.

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  • May 13, 2010

    Pacific Coast Hellway

    by Sam Hutchins

    The last sunlight was creeping below the horizon, off to warm the distant Pacific islands. I was excited for a night in Carmel. It’s such a lovely little town, and I knew a few great restaurants there. A good meal and a warm bed would cap off what had been a tough day nicely.

    “So, we go to L.A.?” Kar Wai asked.

    “L.A. is pretty far away yet. I thought we’d crash in Carmel.”

    “No. We go to L.A.”

    Shit damn, this was going to be the longest day ever. Eyeballing the map showed that it was at least a five or six hour drive south to get there. Worse yet, we were on Highway 1. Beautiful as it is, it can be a hair-raising ride even in the best conditions. Driving it at night, in the rain, was a daunting idea. Mountains to one side and cliffs to the other, a sheer drop down to the sea. All blind curves and nary a streetlight to be seen. Yeah, this was going to be fun.

    It was hard to see the map in the dark, but it looked like we had something like 75 miles on Highway 1 before a turnoff to the main highway. It was a dreadful ride. The wind whipped our truck hard enough to push it around on the road, and every moment carried the possibility of breaking through a guardrail and plunging into the ocean. I could feel the muscles in my shoulders knotting up with tension as I leaned forward and stared through the windshield. With the steady rain, even the high-beams were of limited usefulness.

    We were looking for the turnoff at State Route 46, which would carry us over the mountains before connecting with Highway 101. The map showed that we could continue on Rte 1 and it would eventually intersect directly with 101, but I was eager to get off of 1 as soon as possible. Clearly we had another few hours before we hit the turnoff, but that didn’t stop one or the other of my companions from pointing out every single road running off to our left. Some were park entrances, others private driveways. There were gravel logging roads and dirt paths. What they clearly were not, however, were state highways. After the first few times the guys excitedly pointed out a dirt road and asked if it were our turnoff I just gave up and quit answering. At one point, Stephane started to insist that we should take a shot on one of the side roads anyway. His logic was that it would eventually hit the highway. I gave him a long, hard look in the rearview mirror.

    “Do you really want to tell me how to navigate?”

    That ended that. Eventually we hit the main highway. The cluster of gas stations surrounding the on-ramp were the first signs of humanity we had seen in hours. Interesting how circumstances can dictate a preference for the fluorescent glow of a service station over the unspoiled natural beauty of a place like Big Sur. That’s exactly where my head was at that particular moment, however. Lord, give me a paved and well-lit road. I stopped to gas up and grab some coffee to fuel the late-night run into L.A. It wasn’t until I stood up that I realized I had damn near sweat through my shirt.

    “Rough drive, huh? You did a great job.”

    I was startled by Darius’ voice behind me at the pumps. Almost invariably the guys stayed in the truck while I fueled and serviced her. Not sure if it’s a French thing or what, but the effect is to make you feel like the hired help.

    “If you want, I can take us the rest of the way. I’m well rested and have made this drive before.”

    If ever I wanted to hug another man it was then. What a lifesaver Darius was that night. I settled in to the back seat and completely spaced out. I couldn’t fall asleep as I was still much too amped-up from the arduous driving conditions earlier. Darius piloted us onto the highway and pointed us south. He got on the phone with his wife and spoke sweetly to her in French all the way to Santa Monica. Once again I curled up in the back seat like a little kid on the way to Disney World.

    ….

    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.

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  • May 11, 2010

    To the Sea

    by Sam Hutchins

    So I sat back and pouted like a petulant child. Aside from flinching a bit when I threw the map at Stephane, it was as though Kar Wai was unaware of what was happening. Such a tough egg to crack, that fellow. Obviously he saw what was going on in the car. Two of his people just had a violent argument in front of him. A word or two from him would have gone a long way to defuse the situation, and to do so would have behooved him. Feuding like this certainly did not help his film get better, after all. But he chose to disengage, once again retreating inside himself.

    So we wandered. After a while Stephane started working his way back up to full conversational speed.

    “You know, eet ess dangerous to throw things at the driver.”

    Fuck him, I wasn’t going to engage. I pulled my own personal Wong Kar Wai and stared off into the middle distance.

    “In France the passengers defer to the driver.”

    I remained silent.

    “You should have said something earlier.”

    “I don’t need a map. I just have to keep going west.” Tapping the dashboard compass and snorting a laugh as he said this last bit. So we went, with Stephane furrowing his brow and making turn after turn in an attempt to keep the digital readout reading “W.” To my great delight, we wound up in a subdivision, snaking around cookie-cutter houses until we wound up at the end of a cul-de-sac. The compass still read “W” but the nose of the truck faced a steel barrier backed by open green fields. I couldn’t resist.

    “So, Stephane, you still going to keep going west?”

    “Fine, fine, I’m sorry. Can you please tell me how to get to the ocean?”

    “Depends. You going to actually listen and follow my directions?”

    “Yes, yes, yes. Now please tell me how to get out of here.”

    With a shaky truce declared I picked up the map and studied it for a moment. Soon enough we were back on course and headed south.

    I only wish there was some excuse to explore the area more. It truly is amazing, this valley running north-south over roughly two-thirds of the state of California. It’s Steinbeck country, flat and green, surrounded by mountains, the heart of agricultural America. Truly the land of milk and honey. I cannot even imagine the effect it had on the pioneers to first lay eyes on this place. Having crossed the plains, deserts and mountains and discovered land so fertile it was unimaginable. They must have thought it was the Garden of Eden. Alas, there was no place for the Central Valley in our film.

    We rode south for a while before cutting over towards Salinas. The skies remained gray and a light Tule fog clung to the land. It was the very tail end of the rainy season, which seemed entirely appropriate to our situation. Aren’t we all just trying to get through the rain to the sunshine on the other side of the mountains? Passing through Salinas I offered a silent prayer for James Dean, patron saint of unfulfilled potential. From there it was a quick jog to the coast and the northern terminus of 17 Mile Drive. Turns out it was too late in the day to enter the drive. I had forgotten that the Pebble Beach Corporation owned the road, and no amount of cajoling or bribery could convince the guard manning the gate to make an exception.

    We cut back to Rte. 1 and began making our way south. If you’ve never driven that road I strongly urge you to. Easily the most beautiful road in America. And there it was, at long last, the Pacific. We pulled over at first opportunity and got out to savor the moment. Like Balboa long before us, we stood and took in her majesty. The wind blew hard as the waves crashed on the shore under the darkening sky. The elements took their best shot at a Cypress tree but it held its own against them, unbowed. Stephane and I gave each other a long look. All was forgiven. There was nothing for any of us to say. Our petty arguments and differences washed away in the salt spray. None of that mattered. We had at long last made it.

    ….

    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.

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  • May 4, 2010

    An Ugly Silence

    by Sam Hutchins

    The journey was taking its toll on all of us, but it was perhaps wearing hardest on Stephane. Kar Wai very consciously sets his jobs up as cults of personality. In his quiet way he knows his best interests are served when people are jockeying for his attention and seeking his favor. As much as I loved my companions, and I truly had come to love them in a familial way, this was one behavior that irked the hell out of me. Either Darius or Stephane would gladly throw me under the bus given the slightest chance of making themselves look better in Kar Wai’s eyes. I’m talking about the small betrayals, but even the minor ones build up over time. Also, you are much more attenuated to slights when in close proximity and isolated from the rest of the world for such an extended period.

    For my part, I diligently attempted to avoid such actions. In the first place, I don’t want to benefit at the cost of someone else. More importantly, I have a certain comfort level that comes from being good at my job. Of course I wanted Kar Wai’s approval as much as the other two. I, however, knew that I could attain it by doing my job and doing it well. We were at the tail end of months of scouting all across the country, and it had been a wildly successful journey. The man asked me to show him America and I had. We found locations that provided the backbone of the story he would tell. The entire scout was impromptu yet we had never been lost or in doubt. My charges always felt safe and well provided for. They had been properly handled. Kar Wai could have found a Location Manager as good as me, but he could not have found one who was better.

    For Stephane the journey was much more difficult. He had been away from home longer than anyone else, having been sent ahead by Kar Wai to arrange things in America. Worse, Stephane had a wife and young son who he loved dearly back in Paris. Darius was in Paris right before we began the scout, months after Stephane had left. Also, Darius’s children were much older. For my part, all I left behind in New York were some women I called occasionally but nothing steady. Stephane’s job description was part of the problem as well. I had never before or since worked on a job with someone designated as “Creative Producer.” It laid a heavy burden on him. In order to do his job he had to be “on” at all times.

    I see these things in retrospect, but at the time it was simply a matter of Stephane turning into a pain in the ass. It didn’t help that Kar Wai had been increasingly cold and distant to him. So somewhere outside of Sacramento Stephane had insisted on taking the wheel. He had been incredibly helpful with this over the course of the trip, doing a few hours of late night driving at the times I was too exhausted to safely continue. That was not the case here, though. He insisted that he drive in the afternoon merely to demonstrate his utility to Kar Wai. Although annoying, that alone would have been tolerable. The real problem was that Kar Wai had him all wound up. Stephane not only wanted to drive but also wanted to engage Kar Wai and entertain him. As a result we were hurtling through traffic while Stephane kept up a non-stop monologue, weaving in and out of lanes as he chatted and paid scant attention to the actual act of driving. It was sporadically raining and traffic was heavy, so safety was becoming an issue.

    “Stephane, pay attention!”

    It was probably the third or fourth time I had snapped at him, but I was going to keep doing so as long as he continued to veer out of our lane and cause other cars to swerve just because he had turned to Kar Wai to emphasize another point in whatever story he was telling. Did no one else notice the dangerous conditions?

    “Hey man, take it easy. We’ll be fine,” said Darius before going back to his magazine.

    I guess not. I tried to hold my tongue and not worry so much about dying in a fiery wreck. To distract myself I opened up the map and began plotting the best route. We were rapidly approaching Sacramento. I would have rather avoided it but there was no logical detour. From there the most direct route to the coast was through Oakland and San Francisco. A quick question confirmed that we had no need to see either city so I decided to navigate us south on Interstate 5 to bypass them. This had the added benefit of routing us through part of the Central Valley, one of the most fertile places on earth. After a short run there we could cut over to the coast and pick up 17 Mile Drive, one of my favorite roads anywhere. This was shaping up nicely.

    “Okay Stephane, in approximately four miles we’re going to get off the exit that takes us to Rte. 5 South.”

    He ignored me and continued the monologue.

    “Okay Stephane, in approximately three miles we’re going to exit this freeway.”

    He ignored me again. We were in the far left lane and traffic was stacking up heavily. I was getting concerned about our ability to merge sagely to the right to make our exit.

    “Stephane, you want to get over to the right.”

    “Don’t tell me how to drive man.”

    Monologue resumes. A little while later, after seeing several signs for Interstate 5, we were still speeding along in the left lane.

    “Stephane, there’s the exit, on the right!”

    He swerved hard, almost taking out a couple cars in the way, but still shot right past the exit. I was right on the edge of losing control, which is incredibly rare for me.

    “You missed it, you fucking frog asshole!”

    “Why didn’t you tell me it was coming up. You cannot just yell at me at the last minute like that. It ees dangerous.”

    I lost it. I threw the map at the back of his head. It grazed him before hitting the windshield and winding up at his feet. Not the smartest move when speeding along at 80 mph amongst heavy traffic in the rain. Still, it was all I could do not to punch him. Were he in any position to fight back I certainly would have.

    “Fine, motherfucker. Navigate yourself, I’m done with you.”

    An ugly silence settled over the car as I folded my arms and sulked in the back. Worst of all, the gray skies and rain were really making the green colors of the fields pop. We should have pulled over to take pictures, instead we were wasting time arguing. But I’d be damned if I was letting him off the hook that easily.

    ….

    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.

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  • April 29, 2010

    Guided by the Sphinx

    by Sam Hutchins

    We made it off the mountain with much tension but no further incident. A quick inspection showed that we were indeed low on all fluids. I was feeling particularly prickly as I topped everything off. We all were.

    “You know, I think Ely is right,” Kar Wai announced.

    “Really, you want to lock into it?”

    “No, but we don’t need to look for casinos any more.”

    God forbid the man ever give a definitive answer. Slippery bastard.

    “Okay then, where to?”

    “Let’s go to the ocean.”

    Keep in mind, we’re taking direction from a man who named his son “Whale” because of a dream he had. There was always a certain degree of interpretation brought to bear when deciphering his desires. It was like having the Sphinx as your navigator. At one point on the journey we found ourselves in Memphis. We were outside of Sun Studios late at night, taking pictures. A certain reflection in the window caught Kar Wai’s attention and sparked a memory.

    “Let’s go to the place with the light in the window.”

    “Can you be a little more specific, Kar Wai?”

    “Yes, it was a red light. In a window.”

    The look on his face indicated that I really should know what he was referring to. As we were in the middle of crisscrossing the country several times, I needed a little more help than that. I worked on drawing it out of him.

    “Help me. Was it close to anything you remember?”

    He furrowed his brow and thought it over.

    “Hmmmm, yes. It was by the place with the hamburgers.”

    “The place with the hamburgers and the fried pickles? The Hollywood Café, down in Mississipi?”

    “No, the place where they did not come on rolls.”

    Eventually it came to me.

    “You mean Rotier’s, in Nashville?”

    He just smiled at me.

    “You do realize that’s a few hours away from here, right?”

    He still just smiled at me. So we piled in the truck and drove to Nashville. Parking in front of Rotier’s, Kar Wai crossed the street to a strip mall. He walked up to a jewelry store window, took a quick picture, got back in the truck and buckled his seatbelt.

    “Is that it?”

    “Yes, let’s go.”

    And so we left Nashville again. It was at that point that Darius figured out we had just backtracked several hours to take a single picture, and not a particularly notable or useful one at that.

    “Sam, what are you doeeng? That was far out of our way.”

    I alternated between stoic acceptance and silent fury in moments like those.

    ****

    Anyway, we were now on 80 headed west. We took it over some more mountains and through the Tahoe National Forest. The highway was surprisingly busy. We’d been on the road so long without rest I lost track of the days. A quick check showed that it was a Sunday afternoon. Apparently this was a big weekend route for people from San Francisco and Sacramento, much like the drives from LA to Vegas or New York to the Hamptons. All these people were returning from their hideaways to regular life. To quote the film Repo Man: “Ordinary fucking people. I hate them.” How dare these cars get in the way of my completely random, unplanned scouting.

    I needed sleep desperately.

    ….

    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.

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  • April 27, 2010

    Something Burning

    by Sam Hutchins

    We picked up Rte 431 south of Reno and headed towards Lake Tahoe. Usually by midday I had some clue as to where we were heading. This time it wasn’t about where we were going, it was about what we were leaving behind. Reno was full of bad vibes and we wanted nothing to do with it. The high point of our time there was our discovery of the National Bowling Stadium. Even that was better as idea than reality. Seeing the sign and considering the idea of such a place was amusing; seeing that it was just a giant tattered bowling alley was sad. None of us ever needed to set foot in that town again.

    Living on the East Coast you don’t know mountains. The elevations in the West are wildly more dramatic. A series of sharp switchbacks carried us higher and higher. The truck seemed to strain as we climbed the sharp grades. Even though this was the only road from Reno to Tahoe it occurred to me that it must close in inclement weather. Sure enough, road signs confirmed this, as well as carrying warnings of rock slides and wildlife crossings. The West is still wild, in its own way.

    Crossing through the pass and into California was like entering a different country. You leave behind a dusty, high plain desert and descend to a pristine blue lake. Reno is full of sad, gray gamblers and the ghosts of thousands of divorces. Tahoe is like Crested Butte or any number of small Colorado towns where everyone is young and active. Pickup trucks and dogs are mandatory and you are as likely to bump into a pal climbing a rock face as at the supermarket. I don’t think you could buy a used car without a ski or bike rack on it.

    It became apparent that the truck was laboring pretty heavily. I could feel it in the steering wheel first. Then the burning smell started. It wasn’t overly troubling to me. Most likely we were just low on fluids. I hadn’t given a thought to checking the oil, power steering fluid, radiator levels or anything more than the gas tank. To be fair, it was a new rental with very few miles on it when we started. Also, I had so many other things to worry about. Still, I had dropped the ball on this one. Normally it would only be a matter of hitting an auto supply store and topping things off. The fact that we were currently in heavy traffic on a steep downgrade with no turnoffs to be seen made it a bit more worrisome. I didn’t think the brakes were the source of the traces of smoke but if they were we were screwed.

    I’m by nature a calm guy, and am at my best in moments of stress. Panic serves no one’s best interests. My M.O. in a situation like that is to keep quiet about it first and foremost. The situation was tense enough without the added burden of passengers freaking out. You hold on and do your best to keep the wheel steady. Think about all the different ways things could break. Look for an exit strategy. Feel the adrenaline rush and use it for the positive. One’s body gets so torqued up in situations like this that it’s like doing great drugs. Perverse as it sounds, I was actually enjoying the tension.

    Darius, being the intensely creative type, spent much of the trip oblivious to his surroundings. He was similar to Kar Wai in this respect, though not as extreme. Darius would not notice you had stopped to resupply. You would get off the highway, find a gas station, fill the tank, go inside to pay and buy a sack of drinks and snacks and he would not register it. Only when you were buckling up and pulling out would he tell you to stop so he could run in for a bottle of water. Kar Wai would wait til you were a half hour down the road before realizing you had stopped. Unfortunately Darius chose this moment to engage with reality.

    “Sam, something is burning.”

    “Yes, Darius, I smell that.”

    “What is causing it?”

    “I think it’s just the oil. We’ll be fine.”

    He was on the verge of panic, and the distraction wasn’t helping me.

    “We should pull over. You must take this seriously. It could be dangerous.”

    We were driving down a steep decline with rock wall on our right and cliffs plunging down to the lake on our left.

    “Tell you what, pal, if you see a safe place to pull over that I don’t, feel free to point it out, alright?”

    Then of course his feelings were hurt. So now in addition to a rapidly failing truck on a dangerous road I was dealing with a sullen and scared passenger. Stephane and I had grown close like brothers, but also learned to torture each other as siblings do. He proceeded to tweak me.

    “Darius is right, you should pull over.”

    Thank God for Kar Wai, who just sat there grinning and screwing around with the iPod. At least we had good music going. Norah’s character was to end her journey at the Pacific Ocean; we couldn’t get there soon enough.

    ….

    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.

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  • April 22, 2010

    Establishing Shots

    by Sam Hutchins

    Reno seemed promising at first. We got an early jump and began making our way into town. It had a good approach. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is when scouting with a director. When watching a film, you will notice what is called an “establishing shot.” It is just that: the opening shot of a scene that establishes the location in which a scene is set. An establishing shot needs to impart exactly where you are, and do so quickly. You don’t want to confuse the audience or waste too much time on it, just inform the audience and move on. When I was scouting nightclub exteriors with Garry Marshall we ran up against the reality-film reality issue. The reality is that most nightclubs in Manhattan don’t look like much from the street, just an anonymous door with a velvet rope, doorman, and line of people waiting to get in. Garry kept rejecting these, eventually explaining to me that “If I shoot a nightclub exterior, I want a big bright sign outside that says ‘Nightclub tonight’ out front. You and I may know that’s not how real nightclubs work, but my audience is middle America and we need to tell them that it is a nightclub, not just show them a door. Give me a shot that imparts the information quickly and clearly.” Of course he was right.

    The same goes for scouting with directors. When taking them to a location you need to take the correct approach. The way to go is the route that presents the location from the best possible angle. A good example is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. It is an absolutely beautiful building. One of the largest Cathedrals in the world, construction began in 1892 and continues to this day. The Cathedral sits on Amsterdam Avenue between 111th and 113th Streets. 112th Street dead-ends at the front steps of the Cathedral. The most direct route is to drive uptown on Amsterdam, stop in front of the building, get out and have a look at it. A really good location manager, however, will take a longer route. The smart ones go around the block, turning onto Broadway then onto 112th Street. When you make the turn you are faced with a classic Upper West Side block, only the Cathedral looms over the far end. The further you get down the block the more it dominates your eyeline, and when you emerge onto Amsterdam it opens up beautifully in front of you. If you are about to make the turn onto 112th and the director is on the phone or otherwise distracted, pull over and wait until you have their full attention. Don’t waste the “reveal” as first impressions are critical for the director as well as for the audience.

    Back to Reno, a city I had not set foot in before that moment. By happy accident, however, we stumbled onto a great approach to the city. We had crashed just outside town in Sparks, Nevada. Once we were coffeed up we began making our way into town. Driving on St. Lawrence Avenue, the establishing shot found us. A series of low buildings dominated the foreground; better yet they contained tattoo parlors, pawn shops, liquor stores and cheap restaurants. Eventually they gave way to some large casinos, looming over us in the background. Just perfect shots to present the city to our audience. The location establishes desperation, aspiration and longing. We pulled over and shot the deserted streets for a while.

    The difficulty with working there didn’t become clear until we made our way into the heart of the city. Put simply, it was a ghost town. I assumed the streets were deserted where we first stopped due to the early hour, but humanity remained scarce as the day wore on. Worse, the casinos were often no longer casinos. More than once we walked into what appeared to be one only to find it either gutted and deserted or in some early stage of being converted to a residential building. Times have been tough for the gaming industry, but this was a little surprising. Many of the casinos here had gone belly-up.

    The thing that Reno did offer in abundance was motels with great old signs. Every block seemed to have one. Clearly Reno had once been the low-budget honeymoon capital of the West. I thought the abundance of great signage would be enough to interest Kar Wai but like the empty casinos we had seen from afar, this too proved to be misleading. What we found was that the hotels themselves were all broken down and converted to either SRO’s or hot sheet operations. Many were simply boarded up and abandoned. After our third or fourth nervous conversation with a pimp, Kar Wai had seen enough. We popped into one of the few still-operating casinos in search of a little lunch.

    Throughout our journey we had established a custom of testing our luck every time the opportunity presented itself. Kar Wai would tap my shoulder and silently hand me a hundred dollar bill, I would add one of my own, and then take the first available seat at a blackjack table. Throwing down the two bills, I would play one hand only and see what came of it. We had done this every time we entered a casino, which was maybe a dozen times now. This was the first time on our journey where it didn’t happen. Seeing the tables I turned with my hand out only to find Kar Wai wandering away staring into the distance. I didn’t know if it was something about Reno, or us all being tired, or just tired of each other. All I knew was that we had seen enough of Reno. Time to move on.

    ….

    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.

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  • April 13, 2010

    Overtime

    by Sam Hutchins

    One gets accustomed to working long hours when making a film. Your average shooting day is between 12-14 hours, although they can easily go as long as 18 hours or more. You have no control over it, everyone stays until the day’s work is done. That’s just the “shooting” day from the time the crew is called in until the camera is wrapped for the day. Working in locations you are there before and after the shooting crew so your day is commensurately longer. My longest “day” on set was 27.5 hours. I am no stranger to hard work, and I do not shy away from it.

    There’s a pretty standard way that films are made, with the scouting/preproduction days being much less demanding to start out. Prepping a film is still difficult but compared to the actual shooting period it’s like having a “normal” job. The intensity steadily builds, with the pressure being greatest just before filming begins. Once you hit the first day of shooting it’s more a slog to get through it than anything else. After a film wraps things quickly deflate as you clean up all the messes you left behind and prepare to turn over the film to the postproduction team. Essentially an extended bell curve.

    Not with Wong Kar Wai, however. We started out working extremely hard and never let up. Our scouting days often ran 15-16 hours and he did not believe in weekends. As hard as I have worked in the past, nothing compared to this. Filmmaking is an industrial art, combining creativity and commerce almost equally. The compensation can be very good, but no one does this exclusively for the money. If that’s your motivation you are better served working in finance. No, you have to really love film to do this sort of work.

    When I took the job I was excited by the opportunity to work with Wong Kar Wai. He was and still is one of my cinematic heroes. The films he makes are truly amazing things. As universally acclaimed as the stuff is, that doesn’t necessarily mean he has much of a budget to work with. I knew it would be a low-paying gig going in. I cut my normal rate to do the film and did so happily. The bigger sacrifice I made was making a seven day deal. This is highly unusual for good reasons. Normally my pay is based on a five day work week, with overtime rates rising sharply after that. By agreeing to work as needed I gave up all my overtime, which can be a significant sum.

    Overtime is put in place to keep Producers from exploiting the people making the film too egregiously. The normal process of making a movie almost demands that people are abused a little bit, the hope is to minimize the need for this. When I made the serious financial concessions that I had in order to work with Kar Wai, the tacit agreement was that efforts would be made not to take advantage of me. Like they say, an unwritten agreement is worth the paper it’s written on. Simply put, I was busting my ass.

    From our initial meeting months back I had worked seven days a week, a bare minimum of twelve hours a day and usually longer. I never slept in the same bed twice. No idea where the next meal would come from, or where I would be in the next hour. Dozens of states, cars, airports. Thousands of miles. Tens of thousands of miles. Months since I’d had time to myself, most of that period spent packed in a truck with Stephane, Darius and Kar Wai. Every choice was a group decision, and my group included a legendarily mysterious Chinaman and a couple of Frenchmen who loved arguing just for the sake of disagreement. A weaker person would have snapped long ago. As it was I was perhaps too weary to explode. I was beat. We all were. Except for Kar Wai.

    I have worked with some crazy people. The business attracts them. Many a time have I sneaked into a production office early on a Saturday to get some quiet time at a desk and found the place full of people doing the same. All of us have crashed under desks, in cars, in campers or on any random floor just to grab a few winks before getting back to work. I’ve seen writers not leave an office for a week straight, and I know one particular producer who hasn’t slept since 1982. Still, no one comes close to working as hard as Kar Wai does. After scouting all day he would spend the time we used for sleep to get some writing done. There is simply no quit in him. It was scary.

    The sheer magnitude of the exhaustion hit me as I sat in a cheap motel outside Reno. I had just woken up and was making the usual preparations for the day. Check us out of the hotel; gas up the truck and clean it out a bit; look at the maps and try to outguess Kar Wai as to which direction he wanted to go; locate the nearest Starbucks and skim the local papers for any interesting happenings. Having done this I thought through the state of the job. It was gradually taking shape.

    We knew Norah’s character was starting in NYC. I had a scout looking at cafes there, and I knew we might do something in Coney Island. From there we would either head to Cleveland or Detroit. We had scouted both cities and had a good idea of what we would shoot there. Then Memphis, Vegas, Ely, the California Dessert and likely ending on the Santa Monica Pier. Unless of course we found something else that interested us on the way. I had tentative verbal agreements with a dozen establishments across the country. Scouts were working in several cities. I was trying to organize all the information and keep everything together while also keeping our current scout headed in the right direction.

    Kar Wai occasionally gave us pages he had written. Not a script per se, but short stories, poems, fragments. One was about an ultra-marathoner whom Norah would see running in various spots throughout her journey. I had initiated conversations with the New York Road Runners Club about shooting one of their races. Another was about her meeting a guy who pushed all of his possessions in a shopping cart and slept with her in the desert. One involved a drunken cop killing himself over love and another would feature Natalie Portman as a gambler. The more I thought about the vast amount of work yet to be done to make this film happen the more my head hurt. Eight in the morning on the outskirts of Reno, my day was just starting, and I passed out from exhaustion in the truck waiting for the others to join me. At that point even ten or fifteen minutes of sleep came as a sweet relief.

    ….

    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.

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