A Scouting Life
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  • January 11, 2010

    3 iPods, 1 Soundtrack

    by Sam Hutchins

    When you are on the road with the same people for so long the petty grievances build up. It’s simply unavoidable. I previously mentioned the difficulties we had agreeing on what music to listen to, and this remained a bone of contention. Darius, Stephane and I each had our own iPod full of music. I’d be willing to bet that of the tens of thousands of songs amongst them there wasn’t a single one that appeared on all three. Our tastes in music were incredibly divergent.

    Stephane’s was surprisingly parochial. He liked European club music. Not house, techno or anything awful like that, thank God. More like acid jazz/triphop type of stuff. Not bad, really, I’ll admit I even enjoyed a bit of it. However it was the only genre of music he seemed to have. From speaking to him I knew he liked the Ramones, but there was nary a trace of them on his iPod. His selection seemed to be a slave to fashion, as the stuff he listened to was very much au courant. When he happened upon a southeast asian bhanjee/techno mix on my hard drive he commented that it had been all the rage two summers earlier. I’d bet anything that four years prior his iPod would have been almost exclusively the Gypsy Kings, and that I would have murdered him before going a hundred miles. Enjoyable as the current stuff was, it’s really only appropriate after dark. I don’t need to hear a sax playing over a DJ as we drive through the Midwest at ten in the morning in a cold winter light.

    Darius’ taste was all over the map. I have eclectic tastes but his was almost completely random. It took forever to figure out a defining theme of any sort but finally I put it together. Darius chose his library song-by-song. If he liked it, he had it. What he liked, however, was pretty specific. It had to be obscure as hell. Whatever song it was had to be something he could talk about as the very best song the particular artist had ever recorded and tell you why you could never find the song. For instance he had a version of Lee Marvin singing the western classic “Wandering Star”. I happen to love the song and have versions of it recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Shane MacGowan. I’d heard the Lee Marvin version in the film but never since, yet there it was on Darius iPod. And it was the only country song he had. Listening to music with him was like having an oenophile order you wine by the glass.

    For my own part, my taste was immersive in a wide variety of genres. A very wide variety. Having been a punk early on, for instance, I had everything worth owning by The Clash, Ramones, Dead Kennedy’s, Black Flag, Agnostic Front, GBH, 7 Seconds, Cro-Mags, JFA, The Exploited, etc. I had similarly deep rosters of artists in genres of all types, including but not limited to Reggae (traditional, dancehall and dub), Country (cowboy, outlaw, alt-country), etc. My tendency would be to tailor our soundtrack to wherever we were travelling at the moment but my plans were continually thwarted by my companions. I’d be floating through west Texas on the wings of Chris LeDoux when Stephane would without warning switch to some Portishead.

    So thank God for Kar Wai. Once he started travelling with us he took over the music selection. He got a particular kick out of sorting through our respective iPods and playing fairly random songs. He would then usually ask us something about the song. Where we first heard it, what it meant to us, etc. This was a very interesting way of getting better acquainted with us, and I must admit I lifted the technique from him for use in my personal life since. The downside of this was that Kar Wai is prone to drift off into his own mental space. Every time we played this little game he would eventually fade out. A song would end, silence would ensue, and he would be staring off at some point in the middle distance again.

    He had drifted away like that once more as we began approaching Memphis. The first few times it happened I had tried to break through with no success. Speaking loudly, grabbing his arm, pulling the car over, nothing seemed to bring him back to us. It was, frankly, a little scary. This time, however, I was more concerned with the music. I’m a serious Johnny Cash fan, to the point that I actually believe he was a holy man or prophet of sorts. Memphis means Elvis to many, Al Green to others, even Stax Records to a few. For me it’s all about Johnny, and I’ll be damned if I was driving into town without hearing his voice. While still driving I reached across and gently took my iPod from his hand. Spinning the dial I pulled up the Bear Records 1954-58 collection and turned up the volume. Kar Wai didn’t flinch and no complaint came from the back seat. We pulled into Memphis accompanied by the Man in Black, as it should be.



    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.

  • January 7, 2010

    Missed Opportunities in St. Louis

    by Sam Hutchins

    We wound up making a few more fruitless stops on the way, so it was late when we hit St. Louis.  Once again Stephane took the wheel late and got us home.  As it was an unexpected stop in a town I’d never been in our office booked the hotel.  Much to my amusement it was one of those awful round towers built in the late 60’s-early 70’s, similar to the Capitol records building in Hollywood.

    St. Louis

    St. Louis

    Once you are in production on a job you receive per diem when on location.  Per diem is great.  It is a daily allotment of cash you are given to cover expenses, tax free up to a certain amount.  You can generally live pretty well on it and still pocket part of it.  You’re supposed to be paid it whenever you are on location, but companies generally screw you out of it as long as possible, telling you to submit receipts instead.  As this was the case on this job, and I went without per diem for the first several months, I did what I could to even up.   Stopping at the lobby bar on the way to the elevators, I ordered four glasses of Jameson and signed them and a generous tip to my room.

    I was pleasantly surprised to find that my room was on a high floor and overlooked Busch Stadium.  I’m a big baseball fan and would love to catch a game there sometime.  As it was late and we had been focused on finding the hotel I wasn’t at all aware of its proximity.  Being February at the time it was offseason.  Still, the stadium was all lit up and sat like a green gem just across the river.  Regrettably I didn’t think to take pictures until after I had a few in me.  Four glasses of whiskey with no tripod and low light equals a series of blurry photos.  Still it was a lovely sight to nod off to.

    We were up and out early the next morning.  Found the closest Starbucks for fuel and started exploring.  As per our custom I found the train station and bus station and we explored them.  We had no specific use for them yet but knowing our character was travelling throughout the film we scouted them wherever we wound up for possible use as transition shots.  Union Station was pretty great.
    Similar to the grand train terminals I’ve seen in Washington, New York and Philadelphia but on a smaller scale, and much more beat up and dingy.  In other words, good for Kar Wai.

    Both stations were on the south side, and as usual the bus station was in a particularly poor part of town.  If you need to find the ghetto in any city just look for the Greyhound Station.  Actually all of St. Louis was surprisingly poor, but it had great bones — lots of well-built old brick houses and apartments suffering neglect.  Coming from New York City where everything is ridiculously expensive I’m always shocked when I see buildings like that.  The idea that I could buy a great old townhouse in the center of a city for 25K or so and fix it up boggles the mind.  Of course, then you’d be in St. Louis.  No knock on the city; I just wouldn’t know what to do there.

    Falstaff Brewery

    Falstaff Brewery

    We came across an old Falstaff Brewery, which of course brought New Orleans to mind.  Why doesn’t someone buy that name and start brewing a new Falstaff?  What a great name for a beer.  Turning the corner I caught site of a charming looking candy store.  I tried to motivate the group in that direction but no one was interested.  Years later I saw Crown Candy featured on The Food Network as a place with amazing ice cream and regretted not making more of an effort.  Still, it was very cold and I love Memphis so I was glad to hear the guys were ready to get going.  Next stop, Tennessee.

    Crown Candy

    Crown Candy



    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.

  • January 5, 2010

    Back on the Road to Memphis

    by Sam Hutchins

    One of the earlier things Kar Wai had said to me was that in order to get someplace it’s best to go in the opposite direction. Turns out this was true not only for the story he was telling, but in the story of his life as well. In order to scout Memphis we flew to Chicago. I’m not sure if that was the easiest place to meet Darius, who was flying in from Paris, or if there was another reason. Kar Wai seemed very fond of Chinatown in Chicago, maybe that was part of the attraction? Whatever his reason, I had long ago stopped trying to figure him out. He moved like a force of nature and all I could do was try to keep up.

    Merely trying to keep up was a new way of doing the job for me. In my work you need to stay a step ahead of the director. For instance, once we were in the hotel I pored over my maps, reacquainting myself with the immediate area. I determined the best route from the hotel to the highway, and what was the best route to Memphis. Also, the best way to get to any of the locations we had liked on our last trip there. I was mentally rehearsing the various possibilities when we met in the morning, and as usual I was surprised.

    “Let’s go to Chinatown. There is a good place for breakfast there.”

    Very well, it was a trip to the Congee Palace for us. Of course while we were driving I got a call from Darius, who was in a cab at the airport. He insisted I give his driver, a Chicago cabbie, directions from the airport to Chinatown. Needless to say the cabbie knew the route better than I did but spending a few moments on the phone with him at least calmed Darius down. Both he and his four suitcases made it to the restaurant intact, and we all sat over bowls of Congee and caught up with each other.

    If you’ve never had congee, by the way, good for you. If you’ve seen The Matrix, there is a scene where the crew sits around the table eating bowls of wet slop that vaguely resembles mucus. That’s pretty much what congee is. Unlike in The Matrix, however, in real life it is spiced up with whatever manner of offal the chef feels like tossing in that morning. I was glad to be back out scouting with the guys but had not missed some of these meals. Breakfast finished, we hit the medicinal store for a fresh supply of herbs and teas before heading south. I lucked out and found the right highway without too much confusion and we were off.

    We often meandered on local roads, taking the scenic route. Asking around, there seemed to be no interest in seeing anything on the way to Memphis, so I took the highway. It was already late morning so it looked like it was going to be a long haul to make Memphis before the middle of the night. I bore down and drove fast, and was just starting to get back in the groove when Kar Wai snapped out of his usual reverie and pointed out the window.

    “Let’s go there.”

    As usual, I had to pull a pretty ugly move to get to where he wanted to be. Screeching across three lanes and off the exit ramp, I saw what he was interested in.

    “Kar Wai, I think that’s a prison.”

    “Oh. Can we go in?”

    “Sure, we just need to stick up a gas station.”

    Alas, it seems humor is the first thing that gets lost in translation. After an interminably long blank stare I clarified.

    “I doubt we can without having made prior arrangements.”

    “Oh. We should keep going then.”

    Of course I was already off the highway and outside the prison walls. We appeared to be somewhere in Joliet, Illinois. I started meandering around, trying to find our way back onto the highway, when something else caught his eye.

    “Let’s go there.”

    I couldn’t believe it. He had us stop in at a faux-old drive-in restaurant. One of those places meant to evoke the whole American Graffiti/Happy Days carhop experiences. However this place was done about as badly as you could imagine. Horrible posters of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe everywhere, it was possibly the least authentic location in America. Worse, the walls were all gleaming white and basically impossible to shoot decently. Looking around quickly I assumed he would come to his senses. No such luck.

    “Can we take pictures?”


    “Let me ask.”

    Of course the place was packed, and I had to wait in line for a while before getting to a small window I had to yell through to be heard. The teenage countergirl looked absolutely perplexed at my spiel, and only after much talking, brandishing of business cards and even a little pantomime did she deign to go get the manager. The manager wanted to know exactly what date we wanted to film there and for how long before allowing us to take scouting photos. Exasperated by trying to explain it to her I eventually gave in and simply made up an imaginary date. I then waited for her to amble back to her office to check her calendar.

    “Sorry, hun, but June 14th is no good. That’s when we have a big rally of all the antique cars here. We’d be much too busy to let you have the place.”


    “Okay, then, how about June 15th. That could work for us also.”

    Another slow amble back to her office. This time she had good news.

    “The 15th is good. So go ahead and take your pictures if you want. Maybe you could put some of the cars in your movie.”

    “Thank you very much, ma’am. We’ll consider it.”

    “No problem. But remember, you can’t be here on the 14th.”

    Considering that I had no intention of ever setting foot in the place again in my life, I assented. Easily twenty minutes had passed by the time I got back to the guys and gave them the okay to shoot the place. Darius looked up from the magazine he was reading, scratched his head and looked around.

    “I don’t think we should bother. This place won’t photograph well. The walls are all white.”

    Ugh. It turned out that getting on the highway again was complicated, so we drove down the old Route 66 for a while. We started passing a few old tourist traps, giant plastic statues and the like. They were real Americana, unlike the faux-50’s drive in we had just left. I kept waiting for Kar Wai to react to one of them, but nothing. The more time I spent with the man the less I understood him.



    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.

  • December 17, 2009

    A Piece of the Story

    by Sam Hutchins

    I opened up the script with the highest of expectations. To my surprise, it wasn’t a script at all. Instead I had been given a short story. The cultural dissonance was so great with the Chinese that I wasn’t quite sure where the disconnect was. Kar Wai famously does not shoot with scripts. Does he shoot based on short stories? Asking him would be useless as I knew in response all I would get was a smile and silence. So I plunged ahead with my reading assignment.

    It was a very strange story. I recognized the character of the Waitress, who would be played by Norah. This particular segment must be meant to fall roughly in the middle of the film, as it takes place somewhere in the West. Kar Wai must have been working off of our photos of the wide-open desert spaces we had provided, as he had never been there himself. The story concerned Norah waiting tables in an attempt to save enough cash to buy a car. She meets a customer who arrives on foot, pushing a baby carriage full of his belongings. He is very wise and even more mysterious. Ultimately he helps her understand a car is not the important thing, and that she should focus on what is truly important to her. They sleep together, which she regrets. He then disappears in the night having taught her an important lesson. The whole thing was highly existential and dreamlike.

    I hadn’t the slightest idea where to begin with my critique. The dialogue was indeed unnatural, however so was everything else about the tale. Rewriting it to make the characters sound more natural or realistic would contradict the tone and meaning of the story. I wrestled with it for days and ultimately made very minor changes. I primarily worried about grammar, proper tenses and the like, leaving the content alone in all other ways. My advice to any filmmaker would have been to throw the whole story out and start anew. Any filmmaker but Wong Kar Wai, that is. As wrong as the whole thing read on paper in his hands it would most likely work well. My only concern was whether or not his unique style of storytelling would work when set in America.

    I met with Kar Wai and Stephane to discuss my notes. They accepted them gratefully. It was clear that we had a middle chapter to our story but we needed a bridge to get us there.

    “What city made the greatest impact on you?” Kar Wai wanted to know.

    To my great surprise Stephane and I finally agreed on something.


    We pulled our photos of Memphis and reviewed them with Kar Wai. There was rich territory to be mined there. It was a city with plenty of soul. It took very little convincing for Kar Wai to agree. Very well, then, we began making plans to return to Memphis. Darius was in Paris but would meet us on the road. I approached our Production Supervisor and told her we needed to make some travel arrangements.

    “Memphis? Seriously? I though this film was shutting down? I already laid off my staff.”

    I told her that I had been under the same impression, but apparently had been wrong. Patty went in to speak with Kar Wai and returned shortly.

    “He wants me to book you tickets to Chicago.”

    Now it was my turn to be puzzled. I went back to speak to Kar Wai.

    “I thought we were going to Memphis.”

    “We are.”

    “Patty thinks we are going to Chicago.”

    “We are.”

    I stood for a painfully long time awaiting further explanation but got none. I’m pretty sure he forgot I was in his office.

    “So what do I do?” Patty wanted to know.

    “Book us flights to Chicago. I guess we’ll start there and drive to Memphis.”

    I still really hadn’t figured this guy out, but at least working with him was always interesting.



    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.

  • December 10, 2009

    A Surprise Request

    by Sam Hutchins

    I took my time getting to the office the next morning. Work had been a seven-day-a-week affair for the last couple months, so I figured I could ease up a little. Anyway, the project was clearly falling apart. Why continue beating myself up if I didn’t have to. Instead I savored the feeling of waking up in my own bed, in my city, home again at last.

    The office was indeed quiet. Many years in the business had conditioned me to be up and at it very early in the day. The Chinese contingent worked extremely hard, harder than most I have known. They started later in the day, however, usually appearing around ten in the morning while in New York. I had grown accustomed to having the office to myself for the first few hours. This first day back the office was still quiet as lunchtime crept up on me.

    There was certainly no lack of work to be done so I went right at it. I had thousands of photos to edit and file, notebooks to transcribe, etc. This was happening just before mobile GPS units came to be commonly used, so I had done it all the old fashioned way. Navigation had been by paper map and logs had been handwritten in a notebook, usually while driving 90 mph as Darius fiddled with the iPod and Stephane found some new way to bother me from the back seat. I had plenty of organizing to do.

    In time my friend Carol, the UPM who had brought me on to the project, arrived and asked to speak to me. She confirmed my suspicions that the project was indeed floundering. She also told me that she was leaving to start something else, a film that had its financing firmly in place. I expressed my regrets but knew it was for the best. She is extremely talented, and part of her job as a production manager is to be very practical about making the film. Every aspect of how we were making this movie was ass-backwards and she had never been fully comfortable with their process. She was pretty much convinced that these guys were all bullshit artists of the first magnitude and gladly left the project.

    I could see her point to an extent. Typically on a film you avoid spending money as long as possible while working out the details. The closer you are to having a locked script, budget and schedule the better off you are. We had nothing of the sort. Hell, we had no more than the vaguest idea as to the story we were telling. Nonetheless we had spent a six-figure sum travelling cross-country while Kar Wai wrapped his head around it all. We were not approaching this with any sort of logic or reason. Kar Wai makes movies much like John Coltrane performs his compositions. A thrilling journey to be sure, but not one everyone cares to take.

    The quiet lasted for several days. I was largely alone in the office, organizing the wreckage. I saw almost nothing of Kar Wai during this time. He was sequestered in his hotel, still writing by all accounts. Every so often he would appear in the office for a meeting with a potential financier. These meetings were all held behind closed doors and in great secrecy so I was in the dark. Darius was back in Paris visiting his family, and Stephane’s rare visits to the office were my only connection to the inner circle surrounding Kar Wai.

    I was packing to leave one evening when Stephane called me over to his desk.

    “Sam, Kar Wai wants a favor from you.”

    “Of course, what can I do?”

    “No one can know this, but he has a script he has written for this. He would like you to look it over and give your opinion. He mainly wants to know if the dialogue sounds right, but you should give any other notes you have on the story as well.”

    Interesting on so many levels. First of all, a script? What the hell? Kar Wai legendarily does not use scripts, so that was a shock. Also, it appears we are moving forward. I had been convinced the axe was going to fall any day and we were abandoning the project, so this was news as well. Most of all, though, I was beyond flattered to be asked for notes. My hero wanted my creative input? Very little could have happened that would make me happier. I sat down at my laptop to see what he had written with great anticipation.



    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.

  • December 8, 2009

    The Date from a Bad Movie

    by Sam Hutchins

    The three of us ducked across the street to grab a steak at Morton’s. The place was empty aside from our table. I couldn’t really get too involved in dinner as I was waiting for the waitress to call. Darius and Kar Wai seemed giddy with the prospects the evening presented. How perverse.

    “So where will you take her?”

    “Probably the Harbor Inn. We saw it earlier, over by the shipyard.”

    “Okay, how long til you get back? When should we go to your room?”

    “I don’t know, an hour?”

    “Good. Leave a key at the desk in my name, then make lots of noise when you bring her back so we have time to hide.”

    “Yeah, sure, OK.”

    They really meant to go through with this. Creepy. Thankfully it wasn’t long before she called and told me to meet her on a corner a few blocks away. I made my exit with promises to leave a room key at the front desk. Of course I did nothing of the sort. I went around the hotel instead of through it, heading directly to her car.

    As soon as I got in I realized what a dreadful mistake I had made. The car was piled with fast food wrappers, dirty clothes, empty beer bottles and all manner of garbage. She apologized and we gathered the detritus and shoved it into the back seat together. As we did I noticed the child seat in back. This was just getting better and better.

    “Sorry, hon, the heat doesn’t work too well. Bundle up.”

    Ugh. We drove down to the Harbor Inn but it was closed, locked up tighter than a drum. We could see a brightly lit faux-Irish bar down the block so we drove over to it. At this point I wanted nothing more than to go back to my bed. Alone. I shivered as she pulled up in front of the pub. What the hell, it can’t get any worse, why not? Leaning over I turned her face to me and went in for the kiss. She pushed me away.

    “I’m not that type of girl. We just met. Let’s have a beer and get to know each other. But you should know that we’re definitely not screwing around tonight.”

    And I had thought it couldn’t get any worse. We sat through a couple pints as she prattled on endlessly about her ex-husband who was in and out of jail as she struggled to raise her son. Apparently his greatest act as a father had been to buy the little tyke a motorcycle jacket. If the sometime convict had walked in on us drinking and shot me dead in a jealous rage it would have been a mercy killing. She wasn’t a bad person, just terribly uninteresting and overly self-involved. The disconnect between fantasy and reality can be jarring at times like this. Darius and Kar Wai were the lucky ones. They got to stay back in their warm hotel beds imagining the wild sexy hijinks I was up to. I instead sat in a cold, deserted bar listening to an unending monologue consisting of day care schedules, gripes about work as a cocktail waitress and longing for the convict father of her child. This really had nothing to do with making movies.

    Over breakfast the next morning Darius and Kar Wai pressed me for details. The more I insisted nothing had happened the bigger their grins grew.

    “Yes, a gentleman does not tell,” said Darius “But was she kinky?”

    They convinced themselves some wild evening had taken place and no amount of denial on my part was going to change that. At least it gave us a few laughs over breakfast. The distraction was welcome, as I was pretty sure the film was dead and we were just cleaning up the mess. Based on a favorable forecast we made our way back to New York City.

    Eight hours of driving in near silence. Kar Wai did as was his wont, gazing off at a point in the distance and disappearing in his own thoughts. Darius mainly slept. I was just getting accustomed to Kar Wai’s odd ways and wanted more time travelling with him. He would initiate conversations, ask you a detailed question, then something would catch his attention and he would just check out. It happened several times like that. Mid sentence you would realize he wasn’t hearing a word you were saying to him. An hour or a day later he would resume the conversation exactly where you left off, as though not a moment had passed. I wondered what was going on behind those glasses and wanted to find out.

    Returning home was an odd feeling; it seemed so abrupt. After all those wide-open spaces and infinite possibilities I was suddenly fighting traffic by Ground Zero and planning to wrap up the job. I dropped the guys off at their hotel with brusque goodbyes and drove to Hertz. I had to explain how a car we were supposed to return in Phoenix a month ago wound up in Greenwich Village with me at that moment. I still wasn’t quite sure myself.



    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.

  • December 4, 2009

    A Private Movie

    by Sam Hutchins

    We woke up the next morning to find Cleveland absolutely buried in snow. We returned to the flats, exploring some more of the areas immediately around the old factories. Kar Wai really did love the visuals the area offered us. This made me quite happy, as we were returning to the site of many of my youthful indiscretions. Kar Wai has elements of the instigator, voyeur and provocateur in him as most film directors do. He clearly enjoyed hearing stories of my misbehavior and I had plenty to share. I pointed out a few of the punk clubs where I had spent my adolescence drinking underage and attempting to get over on goth chicks.

    The snow was fairly heavy on the ground and we were moving slow. Tuning in to the forecast we heard that a front was coming in rapidly and driving out of town that evening would be difficult. For the first time we really suffered for Stephane’s absence. For all his difficulties he was at heart a good guy, and the one voice that Kar Wai always listened to. Stephane was typically the one who decided when to stick around and when to leave. As our journey had no real plan I would typically provide a few options for our next destination, Stephane would advocate one and Kar Wai would agree. Without him it became a true group discussion.

    Ultimately we decided to ride the storm out in Cleveland. We all liked the hotel, I knew my way around, and there was no need to drive through a blizzard. We made the decision over dim sum in one of my stepmother’s favorite restaurants. Kar Wai very graciously asked me to invite my parents but by the time I reached them Dad was already out fishing so the three of us went it alone. Despite eating Chinese a little too frequently for my liking, eating it with Kar Wai was a unique experience. We wound up massively over-ordering every bun, dumpling and noodle in the place as Kar Wai got rather expansive. Followed up the dim sum with a whole steamed bass and some beers as he opened up about his family. He told of the joy in having his son, who he named “Whale” after having a dream about one the night before his birth.

    The day slipped into an odd feeling of limbo. No one was discussing whatever problem it was that had taken Stephane from us but it was obviously financial in nature. Normally we ate rapidly and resumed scouting, but this day we lingered. The storm was moving in quickly and the world in and around us felt a little empty. It seemed our long journey may be coming to an end, and that it may have been for naught. We returned to the Renaissance instead of scouting further and settled in to while away the afternoon in the lobby bar. Earlier in the trip Darius and Stephane had gone to great pains to point out that the journey itself was as important as the destination. That evening in the bar certainly made their point. The three of us had the bar to ourselves. We sat and slowly drank the day away, watching the snow fall on downtown Cleveland. We talked movies, books, love and life.

    Both Kar Wai and Darius are happily married and have children. That doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate a pretty woman, however. The waitress was exactly that. A buxom redhead, she caught all of our eyes as she passed back and forth serving the few other customers out in the lobby. It wasn’t long before Kar Wai started egging me on, challenging me to try picking her up. He really was devilish at times. I wasn’t rising to the bait until Darius chimed in, stating that he didn’t believe I could do it anyway. The two of them began discussing the terms of a possible bet. I was so very, very tired from the trip and slightly uncomfortable with the direction things were going. I decided to put an end to this the most direct way. Catching the waitresses attention, I waved her over to my side.

    “Excuse me, miss, but I’ve been on the road with these two guys for weeks scouting a movie. It’s been a long time since I spent any time with a pretty woman. Any chance you and I could grab a quiet drink somewhere when your shift is over? I just want to have a nice chat. I’d enjoy your company.”

    “Sure, that would be great. Only thing is we aren’t allowed to date customers. Slip me your number and I’ll call you when I’m done. Should be about an hour.”

    I turned back to my companions. Darius was still proposing possible bets but Kar Wai had seen what just happened.

    “Nice work, Sam,” smiled Kar Wai.

    “What did you say? What did she say?” asked Darius. So indicative of the man he is. Darius is like that funny uncle who is always a step behind. “What are you going to do?”

    “We’ll just grab a drink somewhere.”

    “You know what you should do? Just take her to your room. We’ll hide in the closet and watch.”

    Darius was kidding, but not really.

    “Yes, that would be funny. We could take pictures.”

    Wow, Kar Wai, too?

    They went back and forth with it for a while, and I really think they were serious. They started laying out elaborate plans to watch, and even photograph us, secretly. Some combination of the booze, the weather, the job seemingly collapsing and no small measure of inherent perversity was taking things in a very strange direction. I did my best to treat it all as a joke but I wasn’t getting off the hook that easily. What to do? I sipped my whiskey as two brilliant filmmakers discussed the logistics of me and the waitress starring in a private movie.



    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.

  • November 30, 2009

    Emotional Resonance

    by Sam Hutchins

    Shortly thereafter Darius and Kar Wai exited the hotel and hopped in the truck. I was relieved to see them both emerge sans suitcases. Clearly there were problems getting the picture off the ground. Most of my experience was working for the major studios; what I did know about independent films was that financing was often an issue. I loved Kar Wai’s work but I was not putting up the money to finance it. I can’t imagine committing large sums of money to a director who works without a script or a clearly defined story, yet Kar Wai refuses to do it any other way. I wouldn’t be surprised if this thing fell apart at any time. For now, however, it appeared that we were still moving forward.

    “Everything OK guys? What happened to Stephane?”

    “He went back to New York.”

    Remind me never to play poker with Wong Kar Wai. We started out cruising the near West Side. It was in some ways harder to scout a town I knew so well than a strange city. Too much emotional resonance involved. As I struggled with what I ought to show him, Kar Wai pointed and told me to stop. We were at a great old dive, a 24-hour hot dog stand in a shitty neighborhood called Steve’s. I had ended many late nights of drinking in the spot but honestly never would have thought to take him there specifically. In retrospect it was a perfect location for him. We entered and sat at the counter.

    “What would you usually have here?”

    “A couple chili dogs with cheese, onions and mustard.”

    “OK, I’ll have that.”

    “Kar Wai, we don’t usually eat these at ten on a Sunday morning.”

    As usual I received that blank stare in return, so I ordered up for both of us. Darius, who appreciated the finer things in life, looked at us like we were pissing on the carpet. He settled for a cup of black coffee. We sat and enjoyed our breakfast alongside a couple guys from the Coast Guard and a middle-aged heavyset woman from the adjoining housing projects. Kar Wai smiled the entire time. As we left he turned to me.

    “A place that feels like this is good. This is the feeling we should look for.”

    My God, I’ll never be able to figure this guy out. Directors give you many different clues when you scout. Phillip Noyce tells you what lens he’s shooting and where he wants to put the camera. Donald Petrie looks for the best place to play the comedy. Mike Nichols cares about the appropriate class level. Those are tangible, measureable things. Scouting based on the proper emotional resonance of a place is a different matter entirely. As soon as I thought I had a handle on Kar Wai he would say something that just lost me.

    Leaving Steve’s we headed down to The Flats, which is the industrial area bordering the Cuyahoga River on the edge of downtown Cleveland. It was one of the rare times I knew I was showing him something he would like and I was right. The towering highway overpasses, the dirty gray factories and various detritus left behind by the steel industry framing the downtown skyline were ideally suited to his work. My only concern was that there was no actual restaurant or bar to set scenes in. After thoroughly exploring the area he chose a spot on the side of the road that he liked.

    “Kar Wai, what kind of scene would we set here?”

    “Those trucks that pull up and serve food, would one ever park here?”

    “Sure, they park in places like this to feed the guys who work at the mill.”

    “Can we get one of those?”

    “Yeah, we can rent one and put it here.”

    “Good. Very good.”

    As we were shooting the area a local Sherriff’s Deputy pulled over and checked us out. 9/11 and the advent of homeland security really had changed things. Fortunately I carry enough PBA cards and know the right things to say. As he pulled out another car pulled in, this one driven by what seemed to be a steelworker or possibly security from the steel mill.

    “What you guys doing?”

    “Sorry, sir, we’re just scouting for a film…”

    “I can see that. Who is the director?” Not what I expected to hear.

    “You wouldn’t know him, he’s a Chinese…”

    “Holy shit, is that Wong Kar Wai?” Definitely not what I expected to hear. The guy hopped out and we all had a nice chat. The world really is a small place sometimes. Standing under an overpass hard by the steel mills on a Sunday morning we meet someone conversant with Kar Wai’s work. Go figure. As we finished our chat and our photography the snow began to come down hard. Time to head back to the hotel.



    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.

  • November 24, 2009

    Homecoming, then Bad News

    by Sam Hutchins

    We finished the day in Detroit seeing the rest of what it had to offer us. I had hoped to spend another night there and spend the next day scouting the countryside as we headed east, but I was overridden on that. Kar Wai had no interest in anything rural, but a great deal of it in looking at more of the gray, industrial cities of the upper Midwest. So on we pressed to my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Once more Stephane deserves credit for getting us there. I was exhausted but wouldn’t say so. He picked up on it anyway and took the wheel, guiding us through the night and increasingly heavy snow to get us home.

    As he drove I set us up in one of my favorite hotels, the Renaissance. It is part of the Terminal Tower, built in the 1920’s and the tallest building in North America outside of New York City until the early 1960’s. It sits atop the old Union Terminal train station and features some magnificent interior spaces. The Hotel itself was a grand old dame, with a massive sitting area in the lobby where you can drink cocktails under the vaulted ceiling. It also has one of the best bars in Cleveland just off the lobby. The place was just slightly tattered and dowdy now but retained enough of its original glamour to be perfect for us.

    With Kar Wai’s blessing I arranged to have my parents meet us for a drink at the hotel. Pulling up to the valet station around ten pm we saw them arriving at the same time. Whoever said you cannot go home again was simply wrong. When you are as worn-out and road weary I was, getting a few minutes with your loved ones can make all the difference in the world. We checked in, quickly washed up, and reconvened in the lobby.

    Everyone has a different relationship with their parents. Mine happens to be excellent. Not only do I love them, I’m proud of them. Not everyone could hold their own with the accomplished crew I brought with me but my folks certainly can. Dad is an accomplished photographer and quickly fell into deep conversation with Darius about related subjects. My stepmother is an incredibly sophisticated Korean woman and easily matched wits with Kar Wai. She is very direct and pulls no punches. In an hour together she got more out of him than the rest of us had in a month. For his part Kar Wai was incredibly complimentary towards me, which greatly pleased her. Simply a lovely evening and one I’ll always treasure.

    We said our goodbyes eventually and headed out for a late-night sushi feast. The Cleveland I grew up in shut down at night and on the weekends but things had changed. The streets of the warehouse district were crowded and we got one of the few remaining tables. Turns out that Kar Wai had a masterful knowledge of Japanese cuisine as well. While generally impressed by the meal we had he pointed out subtle things I never would have noticed, such as a certain piece of fish was cut incorrectly, slightly against the grain. A great deal of sake was consumed and good times were had by all.

    Waking early the next morning I went through the usual routine of plotting out our day’s scouting, getting the cameras ready and working on the vehicle. Retrieving it from the valet I took it to get gassed up and washed then returned to wait for the guys outside of the hotel. It was a beautiful, crisp winter morning. The snow had stopped and a weak sun cast its light on me.

    It did feel like a magical morning. Sitting in the truck, I could look across at the bus stop where I used to transfer to get home from high school. I also saw the Old Stone Church, where my sister married her husband Ben, and the 55 building, which is where my dad first worked as a photographer. I busied myself for a while taking pictures as I waited. And waited and waited. The minutes turned into an hour and more. The snow started falling again while I sat there. I was nearly ready to go in and check up on the guys when Stephane exited the hotel, toting his suitcase. That confused me, as we hadn’t planned on checking out.

    “Stephane, should I pack up my stuff?” I asked as I hopped out of the car.

    “No, you stay here, we just had a bad phone call and I have to go back to New York. The guys will be down in a minute.”

    And with that he hopped in a cab and was gone. I was left to sit and wonder if we were still scouting or packing up and heading home to sift through the remains of a failed attempt at a film.



    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.

  • November 20, 2009

    Peaks and Valleys

    by Sam Hutchins

    After we finished at the pizzeria we pushed a little further out of downtown Detroit. We really were in some impoverished areas. I felt a great sense of responsibility for my companions. Everywhere they went was someplace I took them and they were the farthest thing from safety-conscious. Typically I would pull the truck over and Kar Wai would spring out of it and start rapidly striding off. He could go in any direction and easily get lost. As he was the real artist and the reason we were there I felt most responsible for him.

    While he moved quickly, however, Stephane and Darius took forever getting in motion. Kar Wai could be damn near a mile away before they found their hats and gloves, stretched, checked their cameras, chatted a bit, grabbed a piece of fruit, and finally left the vehicle. I was constantly trailing Kar Wai but holding back, waiting for them to leave the vehicle so I could lock it. God forbid either of them ever pay the slightest bit of attention to practical matters. Were I not on top of it those two would wander off with the car doors ajar in even the worst neighborhood. It may seem petty but when you spend months travelling with people and are the only responsible party the resentments do build up.

    I trailed Kar Wai down a side street but it turned out to be a dead end. As we returned to the truck we saw Darius shooting an extremely run-down restaurant. It was a pretty ghetto Chinese joint. As we approached he called out to me.

    “Sam, can you see if I can take pictures inside?”

    I had just started to move when Kar Wai placed a hand on my shoulder to stop me. I can’t say he looked angry but it’s the closest I’ve ever seen him to being so.

    “No Chinese. Not in this movie.”

    Darius and I made eye contact and held it for a moment. We wordlessly agreed to discuss that one privately.

    Moving on, we saw a fairly interesting spot called the Hygrade Deli. In addition to being a potential location it had neon signs advertising hot corned beef. Even though Kar Wai didn’t want Chinese in his film every possible meal we ate was Chinese food. If I had a shot at a nice corned beef sandwich I was taking it.

    Inexplicably the doors were locked. Odd, as it was around lunchtime and the place was lit up like it was Christmas. After knocking for a while an older fellow came to the door. He was convinced we were there to rob him. Who knows, perhaps there had been a string of burglaries committed by an American, a Chinese, a Frenchman and an Iranian guy recently. It took a good ten minutes of speaking through a locked door to convince him to open up and let us in. Even when we did he would only let us just inside the door. Clearly I wasn’t getting that sandwich. Things must really be rough in Detroit.

    In another of those wildly frustrating moments, Kar Wai took a few steps inside, looked around, shook his head no and strode wordlessly out the door. It’s understandable that a Director needs to have a look at a place before knowing if it is of interest to them. Of course they do. The thing is, the façade of the Hygrade was all glass. There was not a thing about the place that couldn’t be seen from outside. Yet Kar Wai had been rather insistent that I get him in. So I tapdanced for ten minutes, finally convincing some scared old fellow to open up and let us inside, only to have Kar Wai bail immediately. Now my director was legging it quickly down the block and I was stuck making our excuses. How do you quickly and politely explain why you are leaving so quickly after badgering the guy so hard and so long to open up for us.? Harder still when I don’t actually know why.

    Peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys. Just when they knock you down they build you back up. In the car again Kar Wai addressed me.

    “Sam, if you were not doing this, what would you do?”

    “I don’t know. I like to write.”

    “No, you would be a detective. You would make a great detective.”

    “Why do you say that?”

    “You talk to people, all kinds of people, and find out what you want to. And you can handle yourself in any situation. This is very good.”

    What a wonderful compliment to receive; especially from someone I admired as much as him. Peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys.



    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.

  • November 12, 2009

    Espzz’s Pizzeria

    by Sam Hutchins

    Any proper journey will leave you a different person than the one you were when it began. That was certainly the case with this trip. And as the hippies liked to say, what a long, strange trip it had been. I had left New York on short notice with two rather odd, foreign strangers and spent weeks on end working long hours with them as we saw every bit of the country we could. Every morning I awoke in a new bed in a new place. I had gotten in the habit of writing down exactly where we were on a pad and leaving it on the bedside table. That helped me re-orient in the morning. Now we had left an extremely odd hotel and set out in the late morning light to explore downtown Detroit. Perhaps it was the journey or else the ongoing sleep deprivation but life was feeling pretty surreal.

    Downtown Detroit was deserted. I mean, emptier than empty. Every store was closed and not another car was in sight. You could lie down in the middle of the street and watch the clouds go by if you cared to. The snow was coming down a little harder and the streets were wearing a light dusting of it. The four of us sat in the truck idling in front of the Fox Theatre, waiting for Mark to arrive. Mark was the younger brother of a good friend who lives in Detroit and works for GM. I had enlisted his assistance, as I had no knowledge of the city whatsoever. Also, I knew he could hook me up with some good pot.

    Honestly, I smoke on occasion, but would easily go without for the length of the journey. One of my companions had a big appetite for the stuff, though, and sought out my assistance. Though by no means a part of my job I admit to getting a perverse pleasure from the ease with which I scored for him. This was the fifth pickup I had made in a different city on our journey. Mark did not disappoint when he arrived shortly thereafter. He was also helpful in easing my mind about the empty city when he pointed out that it was Saturday morning.

    That may be a strange concept to New Yorkers, where the city is always hopping. On the weekends we simply trade out the office workers for tourists and the streets are just as busy. Having grown up in Cleveland, however, I got it. Things shut down on the weekends as everyone was comfortably home in the suburbs. Even The Cleve isn’t this bad, though. This place was dead. Mark explained to me that during the just-concluded All-Star Game festivities the NBA and the City of Detroit had teamed up to create temporary nightclubs out of vacant properties. Otherwise there simply wasn’t enough to do after dark.

    Desolate and gray, but also somehow beautiful in a way that struck Kar Wai’s fancy. He and Darius looked truly excited. I suspect that it was partially due to circumstance. The grand old buildings, the empty streets, the gunmetal sky and the fat snowflakes did add up to something special. There was nothing if not atmosphere to spare. The two men wandered off, getting deep into conversation as they shot pictures. I trailed behind, only getting involved to usher them out of the street to safety when the odd car did come along. Part of the job is just putting people in the right circumstances and letting the magic happen. This was the first time I had seen Kar Wai really engage anyone in conversation, so I was staying out of the way.

    It was apparent that we were in love with the general aesthetic of the city. We reloaded the truck and began cruising as the snowfall increased. With a little prodding Kar Wai indicated that we needed a cheap motel and a restaurant for Norah’s character to work in. And so we looked.

    The restaurant was the first priority, and the heart of downtown Detroit was clearly not the place to find it. With Mark’s assistance we explored the neighborhood around Wayne State University. We talked our way into a combination bowling alley/music venue that had some potential. Whether it was right for us or not it was close enough to be considered. Whenever you can broaden the spectrum of choices and give the director some different ways of looking at a location you are doing the job well. We also saw some great flophouse hotels in the area. These were pretty scary looking places, and we were rebuffed each and every time we approached one. I tried to explain to Kar Wai that we weren’t getting into any of these places as a group but that I knew I could come back alone and work my way into them. In return I got that long blank stare that told me everything and nothing at all.

    We also had some success in the area immediately adjacent to the old Tiger Stadium (now gone). There were still a few operating businesses in the area as well as the bones of some defunct ones that showed promise. Much to my surprise, Kar Wai fell in love with a place called Espzz’s Pizzeria. I didn’t get it at first, as it seemed pretty nondescript. Later I crossed the street to get a wide shot and realized that it sat on a corner with an abandoned factory in the background. I see what he saw, but even so I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wide establishing shot in one of his movies so I was still wrapping my head around it.

    Old man Espzz was a character. He was into the idea and had such a great look we could well wind up casting him in the film. Isn’t every pizzeria proprietor a short man with wild tufts of hair and a big brushy moustache? Guy looked like he was straight from Central Casting. He even let us come behind the counter and make our own pizza pie. Standing back there I had one of those purely transcendent moments. The realization struck me that my two generations back my family fought their way out of the coal mines and into the steel mills, now here I am helping shape a movie with one of my heroes. Plus, we get pizza! Life is good.



    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.

  • November 9, 2009

    Under the Bridge

    by Sam Hutchins

    We left Chicago and started making our way East to Detroit. Kar Wai liked a lot that he had seen in the Second City, which was a relief. There was still only a vague plotline for us to work with, and we were scouting based on hints and rumors. We knew Norah Jones was going to play a heartbroken waitress travelling cross-country, but the rest was a work in progress. Occasionally, however, some new element would slip out, making it clear that Kar Wai had a more developed story than he was letting on to us.

    Back in Chicago, for instance, we had passed through a nasty, rusty old underpass beneath the train tracks. When he saw something that caught his attention, Kar Wai would get even more focused and unaware of the world outside his head than normal. Noticing the underpass, he told me to pull over and started reaching for the door handle as he said it. Unfortunately we were hemmed in by fast-moving traffic. If I hadn’t caught his arm and kept him in the truck Kar Wai might well have stepped out of a quickly moving vehicle. He really did get that absorbed in his process.

    As soon as I could safely pull over he was springing out and quickly striding back to the bridge. We then spent a few hours photographing it. Kar Wai was like a man on a mission. He walked back and forth beneath the bridge several times while Darius, Stephane and I tried to shoot every inch of it. Occasionally he would point out a specific shot he wanted one of us to get, or else just took a camera from one of us and shot it himself. After some time he turned to address me.

    “Can we close this?”

    “Close what, the road?”


    Again, this is a city I had never worked in. I took a quick look around, and it appeared that you could easily set up detours on either side of the underpass, so I made an educated guess.

    “I believe so, but it probably has to be on a weekend. Any idea what sort of scene we would shoot here?”

    “Yes, this would be the auto accident.”

    “The accident?”

    “Yes, where the cop dies.”

    Looking to Darius and Stephane it was clear that they had no idea what he was talking about either. And so it went.

    Now we made our way to Detroit, taking the old blue-line roads that served as highways before the interstate freeway system was built. The beauty of the countryside was a bit of a surprise. Gently rolling fields lay fallow for the winter, tamped down by a hard frost. The houses and barns were widely scattered and all appeared to be in good repair. I saw a great looking gas station and pulled in. It was older, homemade and weathered, nothing at all resembling a modern service station. This was more like a small bungalow with a few pumps out front. Yet it was clearly well built and would be there at least as long as it had already been. I thought it had potential as a location and suggested as much. Kar Wai just looked at me with that blank expression. Impossible to figure out what he wanted.

    We took our time and arrived in Detroit late. Speaking with my office in New York, we had a hard time figuring out where to stay. They kept suggesting hotels in the suburbs, which was not what we wanted. Finally at my suggestion they booked us into the Renaissance Center. I had never set foot in Detroit but knew of it from several acquaintances who grew up locally. What a strange place it was. Certainly a different environment from the lovely farmland we had been in just hours earlier.

    As our difficulty finding accommodations suggests, there’s not a lot going on in downtown Detroit. Large tracts of the city are deserted. Located right in the heart of the city, the Ren Center nonetheless sits surrounded by broad vacant swaths of land. It’s multiple polished glass and steel towers contain offices, a hotel and convention center. Inside you find that it’s built around a central core filled with shops and stores. All soaring, open spaces that somehow feel confined, possibly due to every surface being poured concrete. It was that weird, bad modern architecture that feels oppressive, what I always think of as “Classic Fascist” design.

    Odder still was my experience the next morning. I arose after a very short sleep desperate for sustenance. Checking in post-midnight the desk clerk had laughed at my inquiries about getting some food. Now I was up and in search of coffee and some breakfast. The vast interior spaces that had been so hauntingly deserted upon arrival just hours before were now packed with people. Not just people, but young people, all roughly junior high school age. All of them also smiled incessantly and were polite to the point of being bothersome. Eventually I learned that it was the National Young Catholic Convention. It was like being surrounded by Stepford Children, and it was not doing good things to my mindset.

    Thankfully the others did not keep me waiting long. The morning air braced us as we waited for the valet to bring the truck around. Stephane noticed a group of soldiers in uniform waiting for a van to pick them up and commented that it made him uncomfortable. That, of course, was the type of thing I could not leave alone.

    “Stephane, instead of griping you really should go thank those men.”

    “Why ees that?”

    “Because you’re not speaking fucking German.”

    With that we set out to see what we could discover in Detroit. As we pulled out some plump white snowflakes began lazily drifting down on us. We eased into our scouting day as they eased their way towards the earth.



    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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