REEL 13
A Scouting Life
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  • February 23, 2010

    Out of the Past

    by Sam Hutchins

    The four of us returned to the car wordlessly. Sharing that sunset was one of those unforgettable moments in life, and the raw emotion of Darius’s statement settled over us. I learned long ago that you don’t have to like someone to love them, and this is as illustrative example as any I could provide. We each had a litany of complaints regarding the travel habits and petty selfishness of the rest of us yet there were no others I’d rather be with at that moment.

    I took the wheel and blasted through the darkness. In a rare lack of foresight, I’d lost track of the next move. Usually I had mapped out each possible choice and done my best to be prepared for whatever decision we came to. Fixated as I was on making the sunset at White Sands I hadn’t been able to see past it. Now it was dark and we were in the wilderness, screaming westward down the roadway. At least our direction was decided, as the options were to continue west or cross into Mexico.

    My choice would have been to drive until we were exhausted, then find a fleabag motel to crash in. Hell, given my druthers I’d have us pitching tents and camping in the desert. Had we done that we would not only make better time, we would have so much more memorable a trip. The closer you are to the ground the better you can tell the story. I’m reasonable, and could see us alternating between camping and sleeping indoors so as to keep the truck from stinking too awfully. But my companions would not dream of such a move. They required a certain comfort level, and wanted to stop and figure our accommodations out.

    So against my objections we looked around Las Cruces for a place to grab some coffee. Not seeing a Starbucks by the time we reached the far edge of town, we pulled into a small strip mall. Light from a small storefront café beckoned to us. The sign read “Atomic Diner” and had the symbol for the Atom on it. What an odd thing to take pride in and a name from.

    Maybe it was all the time spent with my companions, but the place seemed so utterly and inexorably foreign to me, for lack of a better word. I felt like I was in a David Lynch film, only with brighter lighting. The place was stark white, bright, and completely spotless. Its owner was aggressively friendly and slightly effeminate, a Mexican-American fellow with plucked eyebrows and what appeared to be traces of eye makeup on. He grinned like an idiot the entire time we were there and insisted that we try the pie. We lied and told him it was good. It wasn’t. All of it felt like a fever dream and I was eager to put some distance between us and the weirdness of the place. It was decided that we would press on to Phoenix even though it meant arriving late at night. I surrendered my objections in order to facilitate as quick a departure from the place as possible. I wasn’t sure if the proprietor was about to hack us up with a knife or perform an elaborate lip-synch number to Leslie Gore but I knew the next scene in that particular movie was grotesque.

    Though I’d been driving hard all day I continued behind the wheel. Feeling energized by events I had no problem pushing us west on I-10. No one played any music, no one spoke. Our soundtrack was the wind buffeting the truck as we sped into the inky black night. Then, from nowhere, Kar Wai opened up.

    “I lived in Shanghai when I was young. Very good childhood. My parents were very good to me. Dad was distant, but that is normal for our culture. My mother made up for it by loving me very, very much. My sister and I were very close, but my older brother was my hero. He was the coolest guy I’ve ever known.”

    I was shocked by the words pouring out of him. Glancing at the rearview mirror I could see that Darius was as fixated as I was. So much so that he didn’t even meet my eyes but instead had his gaze locked on Kar Wai. I couldn’t see Stephane but could only hope he was hearing this as well.

    “My Brother was very fashionable. He wore tailored suits wherever he went. He always had the prettiest girlfriends and all the guys worshipped him. He had the greatest, thickest hair. A pompadour, like Elvis. I wanted to be him when I grew up. Then the Cultural Revolution came.
    “I was young, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. My parents tried to comfort me but I was very afraid. Suddenly it was dangerous to be noticed and everyone had to be quiet. The thing that scared me most was when I saw my brother did not wear his suits any more. I knew something bad was going on.”

    Kar Wai was staring off in the distance and letting the words fall out of him as if by gravity. He often went into his little fugues, but never spoke and always smiled when in one. He wasn’t smiling now, but he sure was talking.

    “One day they came to our house. They were there for my sister. Every family had to sacrifice for the common good, and they needed her. It was not uncommon. My brother fought them, though. He refused to let her go, even though my father was allowing it. Finally, and I don’t know how he did this, my brother convinced them to take him instead. He left with them and my sister and I got to stay.”

    “What became of him?”

    “I never saw him again. Just a picture, once. Years later someone who had survived the camps smuggled out a picture. It was taken a year after he left Shanghai and went to the countryside. His hair was all gone, he was bald. That’s the thing that really upset me. No more suit, he was naked from the waist up, bent over working in a rice paddy. His face had aged twenty years and all the laughter had left his eyes. That’s the last I ever saw or heard of him. Shortly after that my Mother and I moved to Hong Kong.”

    Now openly staring at him, I was completely overcome with emotion. A few sniffles emanated from the back seat. What an absolutely soul-crushing experience. I couldn’t imagine living through something like he had. Yet his visage remained stoic, and he stared impassively into the darkness as we pressed on. Ultimately that’s all you can do, right? Just keep going, if you can.

    We went.

    ….

    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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  • February 18, 2010

    Brothers of the Road

    by Sam Hutchins

    By the time the guys returned to the truck I was itching to go.  The idea of Roswell had amused me but the reality was depressing.  We loaded up and headed west on Main Street.  As we neared the end of the main run things opened up and turned into a more traditional new American town.  The old storefronts gave way to strip malls and Aliens lost out to Applebees and Dunkin Donuts.  We passed Roswell High School.  How odd it must be to grow up in a place that attracts UFO tourists.  I was a little surprised by the scope of the sprawl.  Roswell was a much bigger town than I realized.  Soon we saw a Starbucks and I didn’t need to be told, but pulled in and parked.

    The Starbucks fixation was a funny thing.  Stephane and Darius were hung up on authenticity and local, unique experiences.  Yet when it came to coffee they were happy to embrace a homogenized national chain like this.  When I teased them about it Darius curtly replied that they made good coffee.  I could tell he was philosophically uncomfortable with his coffee choice, so of course I continued mentioning it every so often.  Kar Wai couldn’t care less; he was a tea man all the way.  He never had a Starbucks tea, but instead purchased cups of hot water that he used to brew his own.  He carried a briefcase neatly organized with dozens of different teas, each with its own purpose.  One extremely hung-over morning he prepared a special brew that he insisted I drink.  It tasted like tree bark and left me with the intensely irritating sensation of having my throat coated with dirt.  If the thought was to make me miserable enough otherwise to distract from the hangover then mission: accomplished.

    Waiting in line for coffee I had one a weird, transportive moment.  As usual, it involved a woman – a young woman, a very cute blonde who had one of those smiles that just blinds you with its happiness.  She was with friends, laughing sweetly, and never even noticed me.  I got lost in that smile.  Saw myself approaching her, politely interrupting and saying hello.  From there we chatted, she showed me around, and the conversation never stopped.  I discovered her world and told her all about mine.  Her family had some of the nicest people you could hope to meet, and I wound up going to work for her father.  The job was good and we saved for our marriage, kids and house.  It was that sweet of a smile that I could see all of this reflected in it.  So many different possible lives out there to be led.  As sweet as the vision was, I wasn’t nearly ready to get off the road yet.  I took my coffee to go and left a little piece of myself behind.

    We banged down the road west-southwest.  The land started to get really lovely, and I loved the rhythm of the town names.  Ruidoso just rolls off the tongue, as does Mescalero, Alomogordo, La Luz.  It wasn’t my scene, but the natural beauty around here was so great that I could see the attraction I suppose.  We made good time on the largely empty back roads, Kar Wai going into another of his wordless reveries.  Seeing that White Sands National Monument was just within striking distance I made it my mission to get there while some daylight was left.  I quietly pushed it pretty hard.  As usual Kar Wai and Darius were too lost in their own heads to notice but Stephane caught on.  Catching my eye, he silently looked at the speedometer and back at me while raising an eyebrow.  I smiled, looked away, and pushed a little harder topping 95 mph.  The truck was well built and cooperated without so much as a rattle or shimmy.

    The sun was low in the sky when we reached the entrance to White Sands.  The blissful ignorance of my companions which had so frustrated me initially had reached the point of absurd comedy, as manifested in Darius response to arriving at the Monument.

    “Oh, hey, White Sands.  We should look around.”

    That right there is the trip in a nutshell.  Hours ago I had noticed White Sands on a map and decided to check it out.  I had set course and navigated there without help from my three passengers, nearly doubling the speed limit most of the way. I resisted a few stops the others had suggested making in order to arrive in time.  Now that we were actually pulling past the ranger station Darius noticed the sign and decided we should have a look.  Thanks for the suggestion, pal, we’re already here.  As Mr. McManus says, I used to be disgusted; now I’m just amused.

    One other car passed us on the way out as we went in.  Otherwise the place was empty.  We climbed up on the most beautiful dunes I’ve seen outside of St. Bart’s and watched as the sun made its descent.  Darius and I simultaneously pulled out bottles of whiskey and we passed them amongst us as we watched.  It was an almost holy moment, it was so beautiful.  Maybe I should appreciate New Mexico a little more.  No matter what you have been through, a sunset as lovely as this will put a lot of pain behind you.  Taking a long belt Darius turned and addressed us.

    “My friends, we began this journey as four strangers.  We have been through so much together now, this can never be taken away from us.  We have a bond.  For the rest of our lives we shall share these memories.  We are brothers now, brothers of the road.”

    Okay, fine, maybe I teared up a little.  It was such a beautiful and unexpected statement.  We stood in the dunes and silently sipped whiskey as the sun kissed us goodbye for the night.

    ….

    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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  • February 16, 2010

    Roswell, NM

    by Sam Hutchins

    New Mexico is a very odd place.  It has some of the earliest Indian settlements we know of in the States.  The Anaszi people were living there as early as the 1500’s.  This brings only one thought to mind: why?  There are certainly some lovely natural features, but it’s hard to make dinner out of turquoise and quartz.  The landscape is frightfully harsh and barren, and even the best times there must have been hardscrabble.  Still the Indian (or First Nations, if you will) presence remains significant to this day.

    There’s also a significant Hispanic population in the state.  To be fair, the territory didn’t always carry the prefix “New.”  Before we swiped it from Mexico it was not heavily settled and remained largely unpopulated frontier territory.  Much of the current Hispanic populace can be directly attributed to economic hardships south of the border.  Sadly enough a line in the sand can represent the difference between prosperity and hardship.  Understandably many Mexican citizens made the move northward into New Mexico, doing their utmost to become former Mexican citizens.

    The question that vexes one is why the European Americans would migrate there.  The best answer I have is that many were just too weird to fit in comfortably anyplace else.  New Mexico seems to be a magnet for new age mystics, nutjobs who think they can assimilate themselves into the First Nations culture through the creation of bad artwork, and others who favor a hideous stone like turquoise.  It’s an ugly, garish, milky stone yet some people become fixated on it.  Odder still are the UFO fanatics.  Setting a southeasterly course, we headed straight for their Mecca.

    As we pulled into Roswell I could see that it had indeed been overrun by aliens.  The entire town was alien-themed.  What I saw was perhaps stranger than an actual extraterrestrial landing.  Roswell was once a charming old American town.  The Main Street there was as classic as one will find anywhere.  One and two story stone buildings line the blocks, fronted by old-fashioned streetlights.  Close your eyes and you can see what it once was.  Clearly there was once here a Woolworth’s, a soda fountain, a Szabo shoe store, etc.  Now, however it had been forever altered by alien life forms.  Without exception the storefronts had been converted to tourist traps catering to the UFO-whackjob crowd.  (Some more earnest than others, but all con artists in the end.)  Even the streetlights had alien features affixed to them.

    We wandered into a store and bought some gear like good tourists.  I got a shirt with a drawing of an alien on it for my sister.  She enjoys science fiction, but is smart enough not to take this crap too seriously.  Stephane bought an “I believe” t-shirt and put it on immediately.  He was getting much too much pleasure out of these people.  For my part I was just horrified.  People really buy into this garbage?  But I knew they did before ever getting to Roswell.

    A few years earlier I had been home in Cleveland for the holidays.  I made the acquaintance of a young woman and brought her home for the night.  Breakfast was a wee bit awkward as I was staying at my father’s house.  It quickly moved from awkward to painfully uncomfortable when my new friend told us, quite earnestly, of the time she had been visited by aliens.  It was clear that she absolutely believed that it had happened to her.  My father is the nicest guy in the world, but he couldn’t resist a few good-natured jokes at her expense.  She got angry, things got ugly, and I was mercifully able to get her out of the house and my life.

    Now we had found the place where all of these lunatics converged.  Somehow I found the place incredibly depressing.   Stephane led Darius and Kar Wai off to meet flakey Americans that they could feel superior to.   Splitting off, I wandered around until I found a liquor store.  Had a quick belt of whiskey and stashed the bottle in my bag.  Getting back to the truck I realized that one of the guys had the keys and I was locked out.  I sat on the curb drinking whiskey, taking pictures of the flies smashed on the license plate, and growling at anyone who got too close to me.  I wanted out of this city and this state.

    ….

    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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  • February 11, 2010

    Suffering a Fool

    by Sam Hutchins

    As we put Albequerque behind us we found ourselves stopping frequently to take pictures.  Nothing that was particularly relevant to the film, but great subject material still.  Strange stuff, too.  What possesses someone to live in a trailer next to the railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere?  Perhaps the trailers inhabitants would ask the same about my life in New York City, but I know that answer.  For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how someone would end up out here unless they were running from something.  Metaphorically we are all putting something behind us I suppose.  Be it a bad relationship, lost potential, or what have you, we all have a past.  This was a literal manifestation of it though, and the wind carried it like a warning.

    Eventually we made our way to the edge of Vaughn.  The Ranch View was just as great looking as we remembered it.  We shot it extensively now that it was open.  Odd that it looked borderline derelict last time we were here but was now open and serving breakfast.  Function of its surroundings I guess, and it’s precisely that environment I hoped to catch on film.  The whole scene had a palpable “In Cold Blood” vibe to it.

    The owner, Pete, seemed a little shady, making him consistent with his surroundings.  He spent most of the time we were there shooting the location trying to big time us.  The impulse is understandable.  It’s only natural to want to impress the people you meet, particularly when being visited in a small town.  Still, did he think the director who has a Palme D’or cared that he is able to close up his diner and go skiing whenever he pleases?  He went on the point where it was tiresome.  In these situations it is incumbent on me to steer the person away from the director.  That’s one aspect of my job that I dislike intensely.  I’m not one to suffer fools gladly in my own life and it pains me to be professionally obligated to do so.

    As we prepared to leave I asked him about the adjacent motel, also called the Ranch View.

    “Oh no, you don’t want to go there.”

    “Actually, yes, I do.”

    “No, it’s closed.  No one there.”

    “Then whose car is parked by the office?”

    He was at a loss for words, and looked to be a bit anguished.  I took him by the arm and sat him in a booth.

    “Look man, we’re going over there.  I have to.  It’s my job.  So unless you give me a real good reason to tell my boss,” I nodded towards Kar Wai, “Then I’m going to check it out.”

    “No, no, it’s cool.  But whatever you work out with them, my deal is separate.  And you can’t tell them that you’re paying me.”

    Heh, looks like Mr. Big Time here doesn’t even own the damn diner.  What a putz.  No matter, even with our smallish budget I knew we could take care of this guy as well as the actual owners.

    “Don’t sweat it, bro, I’ll take good care of you.”

    After all the agita it turned out to be a waste of time anyway.  The hotel, which looked wonderfully dilapidated from a distance, was unfortunately tidy inside.  After bidding good day to the 300 lb woman who was pretty obviously Pete’s mother we pressed on.  Everyone has his or her little dramas in life.  I’m not there to get involved; I just want to do my job.

    Vaughn proper was full of false promise.  There was lots of great old signage in front of weathered facades, but nothing had been maintained.  What appeared to be promising inevitably wound up being completely derelict.  Overall it was a bit of a letdown.  Should we decide to shoot at the Ranch View we would be a little short on other pieces to put with it locally.  I did still like the look of the Ranch View but the dearth of additional locations combined with the vague menace it carried were probably reason enough to blow it off.  That was kind of a drag as we had gone well out of our way to scout the place.  C’est la vie.  I unfolded the map to figure out our next move while we all had a smoke.  There was only one road west, and nothing remotely interesting was in that direction.  Scanning to the south a name on the map caught my eye. Turning to my companions with a big grin I asked them:

    “Hey.  You guys ever hear of a town called Roswell?”


    ….

    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.

    • comments (0)
  • February 9, 2010

    Go West, Young Man

    by Sam Hutchins

    It was time to head out west. So far our film had some good elements lining up. We knew Norah’s character would start in New York, work west to either Cleveland or Detroit, then down to Memphis. These were all good, distinct locations. Each offered a very different look and feel. Each had enough resonance to provide ample opportunity for stories to grow out of them. From Memphis (and northern Mississippi, possibly) the next logical step was west. This is true not only geographically, but in terms of plot development as well. As the story progressed the character’s world needs to open up. It felt right.

    On our earlier trip we had discovered a great diner in New Mexico, the Ranch View. It was deserted, and we had not been able to gain access. The place wasn’t totally derelict, though, so we were hoping to get in. Some telephone sleuthery had turned up an owner who sounded a little flaky, but then so does everyone in New Mexico. I can’t be sure, but I think the words “antisocial loner” can be found in the state motto.

    Aside from having a great, desert bleached look to the diner itself, it sat in a very favorable layout for photography. The building was on the very edge of Vaughn, New Mexico, separating the town from the high desert. If you photographed it looking away from town it appeared to be completely isolated, but we still had some close by infrastructure to rely on that would be hidden from camera. Even on a smaller film like this you need to house, feed and entertain the crew. There was also a small motel behind the diner that could make a good filming location or work as crew lodging in a pinch.

    Vaughn was a decent sized town, at least by “town in the middle of the desert” standards. In places like that a population of 600 is considered the big city. Vaughn was initially created as a settlement to support a Southern Pacific railroad depot. When the Eastern Railroad of New Mexico expanded and crossed the Southern Pacific in Vaughn the city topped out its population at just under 1,000 people. That was in the early 1920’s, but it had steadily held its current size for a few decades. It sits a bit southeast of Albuquerque.

    Throughout our scouting trips our M.O. had been to drive everywhere. We didn’t always know exactly what we were looking for, and time on the open road provides opportunity for unexpected discoveries. Faced with the prospect of crossing Texas again, however, we chose to change our methods. To a man we hated that fucking state, and decided to break form and hop a flight to bypass it. Life is too short to spend any more of it in that hellhole.

    I hate that a hotel in Albuquerque can be familiar, but it was the third time I’d stayed in this one on this film alone. We had a pretty awful, overpriced meal in the old part of town. Awful as the meal was, it did take place in one of the old mission buildings from the original settlement that grew into Albuquerque. What balls it must have taken to push that far into the unknown. I don’t think anything in modern life can really compare to the experience. The frontier is long gone. The adventurous ones amongst us still find ways to test themselves but nothing comes close to the leap of faith the pioneers made.

    We spent an hour in the morning exploring the city but there was not much to recommend it. After a second hour (much to my annoyance) searching for a Starbucks we hit the open road. I’ve seen it before, but it’s still revelatory every time I leave a city out west. Civilization vanishes so abruptly that you are in the wilderness before you know it. I wonder what it’s like to be that guy living in the last house on the edge of town. Do you prefer the more comforting view, looking back in at the lights of downtown, or do you look out the other window at the wide-open spaces? What happens when someone builds a house on the open side of your lot? Are you sad that you lose the view, or relieved that the Coyotes have someplace else to scavenge before getting to your place? Of course one’s mind only works like this under a big open sky. As the land opened up around us, we would soon start having deep conversations and revealing our souls to one another.

    ….

    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.

    • comments (0)
  • February 4, 2010

    Cross Road Blues

    by Sam Hutchins

    Clarksdale, Mississippi was easy enough to find.  It sat just a short drive further south on Highway 61.  We pulled over at the famous crossroads, where Highway 49 crosses Highway 61.  I related the story of Robert Johnson to my companions and they were impressed by the significance of the site.  Our enthusiasm was only slightly dampened by the fact that the place is commemorated by a marker bolted to the side of a tire repair shop.

    We made our way to Ground Zero and it turned out to be even better looking than the place we had just left, The Hollywood Café.  Housed in an old cotton warehouse hard up by the railroad tracks, the place just dripped character.  My only regret is that we were there in the daytime.  What amazing music must have been made in that room.  The manager was a stunning blonde woman who quite graciously gave us the run of the place.  We went crazy shooting pictures.  There weren’t many places you could point your camera that didn’t look great.

    Eventually Kar Wai came to me with a rare smile and even rarer compliment.

    “Good work today, Sam.”

    He waved the manager over.

    “Please get this man some whiskey.”

    I appreciated the words and the whiskey both.  Pulling up a barstool I sat to make some notes.  As I collected my thoughts I was struck by my surroundings.  So many people hate their jobs and toil away in a cubicle counting the minutes as they pass.  At that moment I looked down at the bar and realized that this was my office.  I felt like I had achieved total consciousness.  Truly one of those moments in life that you will always remember.  I sat there and savored the moment.

    Eventually we finished our work and moved on.  Clarksdale was too great a town to skip so we spent the balance of the afternoon exploring.  The streets were mostly deserted but the buildings were perfect.  Lots of character wherever you looked.  There was a defunct but perfectly preserved art deco Greyhound station.  The only thing it lacked in terms of locations was a good seedy motel.  Even so, we could definitely find plenty to shoot there and had successfully added a few more elements for Kar Wai to mull over.

    We took one last drive around to make sure we had seen everything, and it seemed that we had.  Sitting at a red light I reached for my iPod.

    “Wait, hang on.  Do you hear that?”

    Darius, who was typically somewhat oblivious, had picked up on something.  Rolling down our windows we strained to hear the faintest sound of music off in the distance.  Driving slowly we worked our way through the streets.  In time we located the source, a wailing blues guitar coming out of a derelict old movie theatre.  We parked the truck and went in.

    The interior of the theatre was musty and fairly trashed.  Down where the screen had been stood a longhaired white guy in his late thirties.  He continued making magic with his guitar, completely lost in the music.  We stood awestruck for quite some time.  When he eventually stopped we couldn’t help applauding.  It was the first time he even noticed we were in the room.

    “Aw, hey, thanks y’all.  Glad you liked it.”

    I went down the block and bought some cold beers as the fellas started chatting with the guy.  Turned out his name was Daddy Rich.  He gratefully accepted a cold one but was not as eager to accept our compliments.

    “Nah, I aint really that good.  You go to Ground Zero and listen sometime, that’s where you hear some really good blues music.  Me?  I aint lived the blues enough to be that good, and if you aint livin the blues you aint playin the blues.”

    The French contingent loved hearing this, as it very much spoke to their beliefs on the need for authenticity of experience.

    “Funny, aint it?” Daddy Rich continued with a grim smile, “The thing that would make me happiest in life is sadness.”

    He didn’t wait for an answer but instead cranked up his axe again.  Daddy Rich wouldn’t let any of us take his picture, insisting that he wasn’t worthy and that we needed to go to Ground Zero and shoot some real bluesmen.  He wouldn’t accept any money for it, but did swap us his CD for another six-pack before we left.  Listening to his stuff as I write this I’ll admit that he’s not great.  But he is very good.  And on that afternoon, in Clarksdale, in that old theatre?  He was as great as anyone could be.


    ….

    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.

    • comments (0)
  • February 2, 2010

    The Hollywood Café

    by Sam Hutchins

    “We need to find a casino.”

    “Okay, you want to do some gambling?  I could probably find a poker game here in Memphis, or you want to go to Vegas?”

    With Kar Wai it’s hard to know what the motivation is at times; partially due to cultural and language barriers, and partially because the guy is just a complete wild card.  After events at the motel yesterday I figured we were through the looking glass.  At this point very little would have surprised me.

    “No, for the movie.  Some place old and dirty.  Natalie is going to play a gambler.”

    “Natalie?”

    He looked at me like I had been sleeping in class.  Kar Wai’s mind moves so fast he sometimes forgets that he hasn’t shared information, and then gets a little impatient when everyone’s not on the same page.

    “Natalie Portman.  She plays the gambler.”

    “Oh.  Okay.  There are some casinos a little south of here, in Tunica, Mississippi.  I’ve never been but they may be worth checking out.”

    He gave me that silent stare which I knew by now translates to “what are you waiting for,” so I fetched the truck.

    Tunica looked to be a little over an hour southwest of Memphis on Highway 61.  I dialed up some of the blues recordings Alan Lomax had taped at Angola Prison Farm.  They were a perfect soundtrack to carry us down the blues highway.  Passing through south Memphis, the ghetto soon turned to industrial areas.  Those gave way pretty rapidly to the countryside until we found ourselves passing through straight-up farmland.  Later on research indicated that these were some of the largest industrial soybean farms in the country.  At the time all we knew was that the land was flat and fertilized as far as the eye could see.  Every so often a massive automated irrigator passed over the fields in the distance.  So this is what life on the moon feels like.

    In time we saw a sign indicating the turnoff for the casinos.  We went that direction and eventually came to a crossroads where we stopped to gas up.  The casino buildings sat on the distant horizon like mirages.  I could only wonder what in God’s name possessed someone to build in that remote spot.  I had to assume it was some combination of demographic research, cheap land, and political dirty dealing that conspired to make it so.

    The strip consisted of half a dozen fairly generic casinos well spaced out in a line.  A quick pass up and down offered little promise.  They were all modern construction, all built by known companies like Bally’s, except for one, which appeared to be an independently owned and operated joint.  It looked as unlikely a spot for us as the rest but was the best shot we had so we took it.

    Entering the casino we saw that it indeed offered nothing of interest to us.  A large glass atrium funneled into the gaming floor.  None of it was any more visually appealing than what you would find in Atlantic City.  I was ready to suggest we leave when Kar Wai tapped me on the shoulder.  Wordlessly he held out a hundred dollar bill.  I smiled, peeled off a matching bill from my roll and hit a blackjack table.  As in the past, dropping two hundy on the line and betting it as cash drew plenty of attention.  A move like that wouldn’t cause Vegas to bat an eye, but in these precincts was a story that would be told for a while.  I drew to 20 and felt pretty good until the dealer hit 21.  Easy come, easy go.

    Leaving the casino we cruised the few streets that made up Tunica in hopes of finding a better-looking Casino or card room.  There really wasn’t much there, just a few gas stations and convenience stores.  We found one half-deserted strip mall where the only open business was a storefront school that trained dealers for the casinos.  I didn’t have much hope but popped my head in anyway.  Sure enough it was an ugly dry-wall-and-dropped-ceiling room with a few tables set up.  I spoke to the manager and asked about any sort of places with character in the vicinity.

    “Nope, nothing like that, and I lived here my whole life.”

    Good enough, then, time to move on.  We got a little turned around getting back to Rte 61, so I had to make a semi-legal move across some grass and cut down a side road to get where we wanted to be.  Halfway down the block-long road we saw it: a perfect location.  Sitting on the roadside in a 100 year old building was an establishment called The Hollywood Café.  Brilliant.  Finding it reinforced my belief that you should always ask the locals for assistance but never trust them.

    Stepping inside, it was indeed a great looking place.  The entire room was open, with a kitchen in the back.  The walls were ancient brick flecked with plaster and the floorboards were broad and worn.  The owner was a great big, ruddy, garrulous southerner who seemed born to be on camera.  He gave us the tour, showing us a great dusty old hidden back room that would be a great place to stage a card game.  He also confirmed my belief that no place is truly obscure in this world anymore when he told us that John Grisham considered it his favorite restaurant and ate there weekly.

    Sitting for lunch, we feasted on hamburgers, fried pickles, and big old mugs of sweet tea.  Of course the guys had to remind me that they were French by insisting we were served the hamburgers exactly the way they came normally, with no deviation whatsoever.  I am not one to believe that any authenticity of the experience would be lost by removing the onions from my burger but I was too tired to fight it out.  Onions notwithstanding, it was indeed a delicious lunch.  As we finished up and prepared to leave the owner called me over.

    “So I imagine y’all heading over to Morgan’s place next?”

    “What’s that?”

    “Morgan.  Morgan Freeman, the actor?  He has a juke joint over Clarksdale way.  Right by the crossroads where that boy Robert Johnson sold hisself to the devil.”

    It always pays to get to know people.  Even though one local had been clueless when a great spot like this was right around the corner, the next guy I spoke to was hipping me to what sounded like a very promising possibility.  He even drew me a map on a napkin while I finished off the last of my sweet tea.
    ….

    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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  • January 28, 2010

    Crimes and Misdemeanors on Elvis Presley Boulevard

    by Sam Hutchins

    We drove up and down Elvis Presley Boulevard several times without seeing anything we really liked. The motels were plentiful enough but not distinct in any way. The edge of a hangover and a gray sky had me in a dark mood. Things only got grimmer as a light rain started to fall. I found myself quoting Travis Bickle in my ongoing internal dialogue. What a depressing environment. Even Graceland looked pretty low-rent from the avenue. Countless notes and keepsakes had been affixed to the fence and left there to wither and die.

    We passed one place several times before it caught our eye. A gravel driveway zig-zagged up a hill, ending in a patchwork fence. The roadway was lined by the stumps of what must have been a dozen pretty substantial trees, and the scraggly tufts of grass were dying in the wet mud. It looked like a toxic waste dump more than anything else. There was no sign but if there were I imagine it would read “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” We pulled in and made our way up to the fence more out of morbid curiosity than anything else. Pulling around the bend we found ourselves in a courtyard of what was indeed some sort of motel. Several ramshackle buildings formed a ring around the small lot, with a sign indicating that one of them was the office. Kar Wai smiled.

    “This is good. See if we can get in a room.”

    Hopping out of the truck I found myself grateful for the rain. At least it kept the rank smell down a bit. The scent was a mixture of mildew and despair. I made my way over to the battered screen door and knocked for a while. Eventually an emaciated looking Indian fellow opened up and motioned me in. He was cooking something that smelled beyond awful on a small hot plate and watching “I Love Lucy” on a black-and-white television. I started on in my standard spiel and got pretty far into it before I realized the smile on his face was one of total incomprehension. The phrase “grinning like an idiot” comes to mind.

    “Do you speak English?”

    Nothing. I held up my camera.

    “We take pictures. Photographs. Okay?”

    I pantomimed shooting pictures with the camera. Still nothing. Screw this, I couldn’t take the smell of the room any more. Dipping into my jacket pocket I fished out my police badge (how I acquired that is another story entirely).

    “Police. I’m going to need to take a look at one of your rooms.”

    Reaching past him I removed a numbered key from one of the hooks on the wall. He smiled even harder, if that was possible, and continued staring at me. I cleared out to head for the truck. Stepping into the lot I saw someone had gotten there before me.

    A tall, very skinny white woman dressed in a plaid schoolgirl type miniskirt was leaning in the window chatting with Darius. As I got closer it became clear that she was no stranger to meth. Christ, I can’t leave these guys alone for a second. I strode purposefully to her.

    “Beat it Sister, we don’t want any.”

    She took her time turning and giving me as nasty a look as I remember receiving before ambling away and back into her room.

    “What does thees mean, ‘Do I want a date?’” Darius asked through the open window. Between the rain and all the rest I was well out of patience.

    “It means she will let you stick your dick in her if you pay her money. She’s a hooker.”

    I felt bad when I saw that all three looked legitimately surprised, both at the tone and content of my statement. Trying to recover I held up the key.

    “C’mon, you want to see a room?”

    I found the shack that corresponded to the number on the key fob and let them in. The interior was just as nasty as the outside appearance would suggest. Of course Kar Wai loved it. As disgusting as the place was, I did appreciate him digging it, in a perverse way. The man certainly marches to his own drummer. And this was one of those so-ugly-it’s-almost-beautiful situations, sort of like Mimi Rogers. Kar Wai had Stephane pose in various positions while he photographed the room.

    “Something is missing here. Sam, can you get that woman back? I want her to model for me.”

    “The hooker? Really? Not sure she’ll go for it.”

    Blank stare.

    “She’ll want money.”

    “Fine, pay her.”

    I wondered just how the accounting department would feel about a receipt for the services of a meth-addled whore doing some stand-in work. Have to worry about that later. I went to fetch her.

    Stepping back out into the rain I realized I had no idea which room she had gone into. Orienting myself based on the truck’s position, I had a general idea but was not at all certain. There were four rooms in the direction she had gone. I took my best guess and went to the door. Leaning in I could hear a television blaring inside. Maybe I had it right. I banged away for quite some time before the door opened a crack. But it wasn’t the woman. Far from it, actually. Instead I was faced with a very big, very black, and very unhappy man. What the hell, might as well go for it.

    “Sorry to bother you pal. I’m looking for the woman who was just out here talking to us. Tall, thin gal, in a plaid skirt?”

    I put on my corniest smile when I spoke. He maintained his angry glare and said nothing. Absolute silence from him. At least he didn’t shut the door on me. I rolled right on with it, too late to stop now.

    “I work for a very famous filmmaker. Name’s Wong Kar Wai. Chinese fellow. We want to take some pictures of her. We’d be happy to pay her for her time.”

    I flashed a little green. This time he did shut the door on me. Slammed it, actually. I figured it was in my best interest not to pursue the matter any further. Still not sure if I was at the right room or not. It certainly wasn’t the woman who answered the door but he may well have been her business manager. In any case I’m simply not a dedicated enough employee to have bothered trying the other rooms. I returned to the guys and told them she wasn’t interested. Kar Wai and Darius seemed genuinely disappointed.

    “Will it help if I speak to her?” Darius helpfully volunteered.

    I was tempted for just a moment to send Darius to the door I had just knocked on. The comedy potential was there, but the possibility of him being shot several times also existed. I really like the man and that would be a terrible career move.

    “Noooo, she definitely is not interested.”

    We finished up in the room and packed our gear up. As we walked to the car another Indian gentleman approached me. This guy was both better dressed and fed than the guy I took the key from. He spoke passable English.

    “Excuse me, officer, is everything OK? I am the manager of the motel.”

    Heh, I’d forgotten what I’d done to get us access.

    “Yes, it’s fine. You passed inspection. You’ll receive a letter soon. Nice place you have here.”

    He beamed.

    “Why thank you, nice to hear. My employee is good to you?”

    “Yes, he was exceptionally helpful. Good man you have there.”

    “Thanks. His English is not so well but he will be learning.”

    As I got into the truck I couldn’t resist one last question. Waving my arm at the stumps that once were a dozen mighty oaks I put it to him.

    “What happened to the trees?”

    “Ah, leaves everywhere. And they blocked the view from the road. Much better without them.”

    I nodded my agreement and we went on our way.

    ….

    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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  • January 25, 2010

    Goose

    by Sam Hutchins

    The next day we got a relatively late start. For once even I wasn’t complaining about taking our time leaving the hotel. After a healthy start in the afternoon Darius and I wound up drinking in the hotel bar pretty late into the evening. That man is just the kind of troublemaker I love but should not be around. He worked his charms to put us at a table with a pair of rather attractive blondes, one mid forties and the other in her early twenties. Being in my cups as I was it took a bit of time for me to figure out that they were mother and daughter, the former in town on business and the latter attending university locally. It got a little strange as the mother made a pretty open play for me. Even though the daughter seemed fine with it I was a little uncomfortable. I defused the situation by walking her outside and around the corner before politely making my excuses. In retrospect I definitely made the right call, with memories of a sweet bit of making out in the rain preferable to a walk of shame from her hotel to mine the morning after.

    We loaded up the truck to head back to the Blues City Cafe for some better photos. They usually turn out a little better in the light of day and before you’ve put away a dozen drinks. Also, buzzed as I was I had somehow managed to get the manager of the place on the phone the night before. I’m professional like that. Goose was a very nice and welcoming fellow but I had my concerns. As gracious and laid-back a good old boy as he seemed, you don’t run a joint right on the main strip like that without being pretty sharp. I’d been taken in by the cornpone, aw-shucks attitude before so I wanted to meet in person and take the measure of the man.

    Goose turned out to be a nice guy, and did his damndest to buy us breakfast. Big charred hunks of sirloin are the best thing possible late at night and the last thing you want in the early morning. Amazing the difference a few hours makes. I accepted a cup of coffee and pulled him aside for a very frank talk. I laid my cards right on the table, letting him know we liked the place, had very little money, but still wanted to work there. He clearly was a sharp man behind his good ole boy persona, sharp enough to see that I was leveling with him. One of the toughest parts of the job is gauging whether someone will do an honest deal with you or instead lead you down the path and jack up the rate at the last moment. My best tactic is impressing upon someone that I can be a very serious man and Goose got the message. I felt confident we could come to terms.

    Moving on, Kar Wai expressed an interest in seeing some seedy motels. We had already seen a fair amount of the poorer neighborhoods in Memphis and they were too impoverished even to support any sort of lodging. My gut was to head towards Graceland. It seemed like a logical place for that sort of location and failing that we’d at least get to take the tour. Turns out the instinct was a good one.

    Heading north out of Memphis, Rte. 51 is named after Danny Thomas. South of town it turns into Elvis Presley Boulevard. The strip leading up to Graceland is wall-to-wall souvenir shops, greasy restaurants, and sleazy motels. The body of work suggests that Kar Wai has an affinity for the louche life, and some of my experiences to date had born this out. What happened this particular afternoon, however, was much further out there than I ever could have guessed.

    ….

    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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  • January 21, 2010

    Blues City Cafe

    by Sam Hutchins

    I’ve never thought of the Chinese as a drinking culture. The Japanese certainly drink. Two of my favorite spots are the Japanese whiskey bar where my wife and I went on our first date and a basement sake den where I’ve ended a few nights face down on the floor. The English and Irish don’t even need explanation. I’ve frequented a Bulgarian bar and Les Mykyta at the Ukranian National Home, both of which offered cold vodka and friendly immigrant women. Once had a Rastafarian pass me moonshine in the hills of Dominica. The Koreans have their shoju. Despite my interest in expanding my cultural knowledge through booze sodden explorations, I hadn’t had any luck drinking with the Chinese. The closest I came was the night I wound up in a karaoke bar hidden deep in a warren of shops in Chinatown. Turned out the patrons really were there to sing, and only seemed to drink enough to justify a shot at the mic.

    Kar Wai turned me around on this. The man appreciates a good cocktail. Interesting, as he is very quietly a bit of a control freak. Still he allows himself some quality drinking time. Better yet, he’s a whiskey man. He didn’t seem to drink that often but when he was ready he would put the time and effort into it. His m.o. is to order good whiskey and sip it slowly, having quite a few over the course of a long evening. His Producer Jackie is even more of a drinker. She’s always challenging people to chug, ordering another round for the table and generally keeping it going. At some point in the evening she typically winds up snogging with some lucky victim. In other words, a perfect drinking companion.

    After inadvertently discovering the National Civil Rights Museum it was time for a stiff belt. Kar Wai’s suggestion that we do such was entirely welcome. I mentioned that we were close to Beale Street and suggested that we have a look for a good spot there. Beale Street is Memphis’ main nightlife district. I had been told this by one of the cute waitresses at the Arcade Restaurant right before she very politely shot down my pickup attempt. Needing a bit of liquid therapy we decided to heed her advice and set out in that direction.

    The relevant part of Beale Street runs about four blocks and is wall-to-wall bars, music venues and restaurants. Arriving there on a weekday afternoon, things were pretty quiet, but the bars were open. To be honest it wasn’t really our sort of place. I’m clearly all for enjoying myself, but it felt a little manufactured there. If the street you are drinking on has a Hard Rock Café, you are drinking on the wrong street. Even worse was a joint we wandered into called Silky O’Sullivans. You want a good drinking environment you can usually count on the Irish, no? Not in this place. Turns out they serve Hurricanes and other silly drinks and insist on celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day every day of the year. Considering that it is a holiday that brings out every yahoo who can’t hold his liquor and claims Irish heritage it’s a pretty hellacious experience for a guy like me, who can hold his booze and is of Irish heritage. The place felt like a bad Monty Python sketch. As my very wise Uncle Terry once said, “If there is a hell it’s an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day.”

    We bounced around for a few hours, failing to find a place that really felt right. Awful as each spot was, we still threw down a quick one at each stop. At least it successfully got our minds off of the Lorraine Motel. Nothing distracts quite like an easy subject for mockery, and we had no shortage. As evening came on we needed to put a little food in our stomachs. Looking around, nothing seemed particularly promising. Admittedly, our standards were high as Memphis is such a great food town. Making a few passes up and down the strip and not finding a good-looking spot, we began making our way back to the truck. Just before we got to it, however, a place caught Kar Wai’s eye.

    “Let’s go there,” he said, indicating a place called the Blues City Cafe.

    It was a slightly odd place. Felt a little like the other places on the strip with the forced attempt at creating an atmosphere. This place was a little rougher around the edges, though, and seemed more like a local, homegrown effort. Not completely terrible I suppose. They specialized in serving steaks by the pound, so we ordered up a four-pound sirloin to split amongst us. It wasn’t half bad, and I have pretty high standards when it comes to meat. Then Kar Wai caught me off-guard once again.

    “We should take pictures. I like this more than the other place.”

    Better than The Arcade? How odd. The Arcade was the real thing, a great old place that had earned its character the honest way. Blues City Cafe had some nicely battered old bones to it, but those were overlaid with cheesy faux roadhouse type signs like you see in chain restaurants. The only saving grace was that they clearly didn’t have the bankroll to completely fuck it up. Blues City did have its advantages, though, once I took a measured look at it. More room to work in, for starters. Kar Wai continually said it wasn’t important but all my experience says otherwise. This new place also sat on a corner and had great windows. The kitchen was open, giving you another interior space to work with. Also, it had lots and lots of neon. Ultimately what it came down to was that Blues City had one particular table that Kar Wai loved. With the economy of his shooting style one small corner of a place was all he claimed to need. I did have real concerns about our ability to afford a place on a main drag like this, but I am a solid negotiator and enjoy a challenge. We finished our beers, shot some pictures and moved 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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  • January 19, 2010

    The Lorraine Motel

    by Sam Hutchins

    We cruised around the immediate vicinity of the Arcade looking for other possible locations. Kar Wai seemed to like the restaurant, and his process is fairly improvisational. If we could find someplace interesting to shoot close by he would incorporate it into the writing process. This is a highly unusual way to make a film but a refreshing and inspiring one. Playing such a significant role in shaping the story felt good.

    Turning a corner we saw a great motel. Seriously retro, it looked like it hadn’t been touched since the 1960’s. Seemed to be a pretty unusual find as low-rent places like that are rarely preserved so well. Kar Wai had added cheap motels to our list of locations to scout and this was a perfect example of one. I pulled out my journal to scratch down the name and address as Kar Wai, Darius and Stephane climbed out of the car.

    It struck me as I wrote down the name. The Lorraine Motel. Wasn’t that where… holy shit, it was, wasn’t it? This is where they murdered him, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was completely overwhelmed by sadness in such a deep way that it caught me off guard. I jumped out of the car to stop the guys.

    “Hey, we can’t scout this place.”

    “Why not?” asked Stephane.

    “This is the Lorraine Motel. It’s where Martin Luther King was assassinated.”

    “Oh no.”

    It’s interesting to watch sadness just wash across someone’s face like that. I imagine it’s what I looked like just a moment ago. The sorrow of the place was absolutely palpable. Even Kar Wai’s stoic visage changed a bit. Then Darius spoke.

    “Can’t we try anyway?” waving his arm at the motel. “This place is perfect.”

    My initial reaction was an almost physical sense of revulsion. The truth is, however, that Darius was being professional. I hate that the film business does that to you, but it does. The idea is to make the best film possible, and the place did have an ideal look. From a strictly visual perspective it was indeed a great location. Darius is an incredibly talented cinematographer, and he got that way by pushing hard to get the best looking places on film. As a Location Manager, however, I need to factor in all of the variables. Setting aside my humanity for a second, even if we were able to film there it would be a mistake to do so. It would be impossible for the actors to deliver any sort of decent performance working in such a place, or for the crew to function well. In any case we weren’t going to find out. Barely controlling my anger, I bit off my words.

    “We are not going to film here. We are not going to scout here. I will not allow it.” I meant it. I was prepared to prevent it physically, if need be.

    In a rare display of humanity, Kar Wai reached out and gently laid a hand on my shoulder.

    “Sam is right. This is a place of sadness. We are not filming here. I would like to take a look around though.” He looked to me as if for permission. I nodded my head in assent.

    I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Darius is a really good person, and one of the most empathetic men I’ve ever met. I’m sure that given a few minutes he would have come to his senses. His initial reaction was purely objective and mine was very much not. I can’t entirely explain it, as it’s not that I ever felt any particular connection to Dr. King. Yes, he was a great man, but I hadn’t ever given him much thought. Not until that moment, at least. I do have a great sense of history, though, and being confronted with the reality of what had happened he suddenly was of great import to me.

    As we toured what turned out to be part of The National Civil Rights Museum it was all I could do to keep the tears from flowing. Historically important as the place is, I’m still not sure I’d ever go back. The Lorraine Motel is preserved just as it was the day of the assassination. Statues have been built recreating the famous photo taken moments after the shot rang out, where Dr. King is sprawled on the balcony and the men with him point in the direction it came from. I couldn’t even bring myself to take any pictures, it was all just a bit too much.

    As we finished up the tour Kar Wai broke the silence.

    “Let’s go get a drink.”

    ….

    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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  • January 15, 2010

    Living History in Memphis

    by Sam Hutchins

    I’d like to tell you we stayed in the Peabody Hotel but we did not.  It’s my favorite type of lodging: a grand old dowager of a place.  Lovely bones but just slightly tattered by now.  It’s also legendary for the family of ducks that live there.  Every morning a bellman brings the ducks down to the lobby in an elevator and marches them through it to the central fountain where they hang out.  Alas, the freight was too high.  Instead at least we checked into the Doubletree, which was fine and had the benefit of being across the street from the Peabody.  I was at least able to take my coffee in the lobby of the Peabody in the mornings and watch the ducks waddle.  I like watching ducks waddle.

    It felt good to be back in Memphis, and right for our film.  When we initially scouted the town without Kar Wai we had seen some intriguing possibilities for shooting.  Stephane and Darius loved the idea of shooting in Sun Recording Studios.  The original Sun Studio was just a small storefront with nothing particularly visual to recommend it.  Eventually it expanded to take over the soda fountain next door, and that is the section that currently holds the gift shop and museum entrance.  The guys were looking at the remaining elements of the soda fountain and contemplating restoring it to its earlier condition.

    I knew that was wildly unrealistic given the budget we were working with, and was a little surprised that Stephane didn’t see that as well.  He is a guy who generally understands the practicalities of budgetary limitations.  On the other hand he was very much Kar Wai’s muse and I could see the temptation to try making it work.  Darius is a brilliant artist but one of the least practically-minded people I know so him thinking it possible almost made sense.  Still I didn’t disabuse them of the notion for my own selfish reasons.  It allowed me to meet the owner and all the people who worked there.  For a guy who got physical chills the first time he went there thinking about walking in Jonny Cash’s footsteps that was just fine.  So we returned to Sun Studios.

    Kar Wai loved the place, but loved it for the right reasons.  His creative process is wildly impractical, and he’ll spend whatever it takes to get his movies right.  At the same time he is aware of how unaware he is.  Knowing how loose his process is he picks his spots, and he’d rather choose a location that works without too much expensive prep so he can afford additional time actually filming there.  He did appreciate the art that had been born there, though, and we all indulged ourselves with some time well spent hanging out.

    The staff at Sun is amazing.  Our tour guide was an absolutely lovely woman named Amy LaVere.  Aside from working at Sun she’s an incredibly talented singer and bass player, who also played Wanda Jackson in the film “Walk the Line”.  Pretty cool creds, if you ask me.  The guy working the snack bar there was Mike, who directs his own no budget horror films.  They are disgustingly bloody yet still funny in the way that early Troma films were.  It’s refreshing to be in a creative environment like that, and it definitely charged all of us up a little.  We all dumped a fortune in the gift shop, where I picked up all sorts of rare recordings that I treasure to this day, as well as the aforementioned Amy LaVere’s stuff.  Sometimes scouting isn’t exclusively about finding locations and this was one of those times.

    We moved on from Sun and took Kar Wai to the place I knew we were actually going to film.  That was the Arcade Restaurant.  I knew it was a great location for him the first time I laid eyes on it.   I believe it is Memphis’ oldest restaurant, and it looks like it came out of a time capsule.  So many things about it were right for us.  Still has the great neon sign out front, for starters.  The interior was ancient but well-maintained enough, and wasn’t treated like a museum but as an operating, busy diner.  It sits on a corner, which is always a plus because it provides better shooting angles than a normal, flush facade offers.  An entire wall was windows, allowing opportunity to shoot from outside in.  The cherry on the sundae is that the streetcar line runs outside.  Brilliant.

    Kar Wai agreed, and we photographed the hell out of the place.  My only concern was that they were proud of having been filmed before, several times.  Directors have varied takes on locations that were included in other films.  Some consider that reason enough to pass on a place, others could care less.  It speaks volumes about how hard Kar Wai is to figure out that months into the process with him I had no idea how he would feel on the matter.  Fortunately he was fine with it, and it even seemed to add cachet in his eyes that Jim Jarmusch had set significant parts of “Mystery Train” there.  His methods are much too deliberate to sign off on it right away but the ghost of a smile on his face was as good a sign of approval as Kar Wai is wont to give.

    ….

    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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