REEL 13
A Scouting Life
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  • November 4, 2009

    Close Call at the Pool Hall

    by Sam Hutchins

    There are many elements that make you a good location manager. You need to have a knowledge of history and architecture, an eye for composition, a great sense of direction, and the ability to gain people’s confidence easily, among other things. That last one goes both for the random people you encounter and need access from as well as those who hire you. The better you are at the job the more convinced your employers become of your ability to pull just about anything off. With good reason at times. I’ve closed bridges, driven tanks down New York City streets, and landed helicopters on the West Side Highway. The upshot being that you are often casually asked to do very hard things.

    Leaving the hotel in Chicago one morning I asked Kar Wai what else he would like to see. We had already scouted the city for a few days and I was at a bit of a loss as to where to take them.

    “Let’s go to the pool hall,” he said.

    “Pool hall? Any one in particular?”

    “Yes. They shot ‘The Hustler’ here. I’d like to see that place.”

    Oooo-kay. I haven’t seen the film in years. Not the slightest idea where it was shot.

    “I’m not sure exactly where that is.”

    He just looked at me without the slightest change of expression.

    “But I can find out. I’m sure they’re not open this early. Anything else you want to see in the meantime?”

    “What else can you show us?”

    “There’s a great tradition of modern architecture in this city. Would you like to see some of that?”

    “Show me.”

    And with that Kar Wai resumed his normal position, which was to lean back and stare off into the middle distance, lost in his own head. It was a great relief that he was interested in seeing some modern stuff. I had guessed he might based on his body of work. Good thing as I was out of ideas otherwise. I piloted our group towards the South Side. Not only had I wanted to see Mies van der Rohe’s work at the Illinois Architecture Institute for some time, it had the added advantage of being far away thus buying me time to find the damned pool hall. I called my assistant location manager in New York, Chris Coyne, and got him digging for the location from ‘The Hustler.’ In the meantime I worked on getting us someplace I’ve never been in a city I didn’t know well.

    The Institute did not disappoint. We all loved the campus overall, and Kar Wai was particularly smitten with the on-campus El station designed by Rem Koolhaus. So much so that he graced us with one of his rare smiles.

    “This is good. Very good. We will shoot here if we film in Chicago.”

    Nicely done. I was still sweating the pool hall but Chris called back just as I was at my most nervous.

    “Good news, bad news, boss. Bad news is that ‘The Hustler’ was filmed in New York.”

    “What the shit?”

    “Good news is that it was based on a joint in Chicago called Bensinger’s. Ready to take down the address?”

    A Location Manager is only as good as the people helping him or her. Bensinger’s turned out to be way the hell on the other side of town, up in the farthest corner of Northwest Chicago. We started making our way there. It took us a long time to arrive, accounting of course for our inevitable detour to Chinatown for lunch and my mistake in taking surface streets and not the expressway.

    Bensinger’s was on the second story of an otherwise nondescript old building and marked only by a small hanging sign. We got out of the car and stretched after the long drive before making our way in. It was immediately apparent that it was worth the trip. The place was the prototypical dingy old pool hall, just bursting with character. Speaking of characters, several of them were spread throughout the room racking them up in the fading grey light of the late winter afternoon.

    I approached the old couple working the desk and laid out my regular spiel. As sometimes happens, I was met with cold, dead stares and no words. They just weren’t into it, completely nonreactive to my pitch. Fortunately by this point in our journey Darius and I had developed an excellent rapport. Our eyes met and I gave him just the slightest nod. He understood and began quietly snapping photos while I continued to make my pitch.

    When we first set out Darius would have snapped away without concern. Having bumped into some pretty strenuous objections he had learned to follow my lead. Making a quick assessment of the room I didn’t see any real trouble there, at least none that I couldn’t handle. I also sensed that there was no way that we were going to get permission to properly scout the location. So now I wasn’t really trying to convince the proprietors as much as distracting them while Darius got what he needed.

    Things were cool for a minute but they sure didn’t stay that way. Some loud, angry words came from across the room. Darius was backpedaling and holding his hands up. He was being harangued by a short, stout Chinese fellow in a porkpie hat. Somewhat amusingly, he spoke in a very thick Chicago accent.

    “You don’t just take someone’s picture, man!” he barked, holding his cue up like he was ready to go. “How do you know who I am? Maybe I don’t want my picture taken!”

    Darius was twice the guy’s size but I honestly didn’t like his chances. I got over next to them quickly. The guy was getting louder, not quieter.

    “How do I know who the fuck you are, man? I got a big problem with that!”

    I drew myself up to full height and jabbed a finger at him.

    “Hey! He FUCKING apologized. We’re done. You got a problem with that?”

    There was one of those long moments where it could have broken either way. Some part of me actually wanted him to make a move. I could have taken care of him in a hot minute, and it would be pretty funny to get Kar Wai into a poolroom brawl. C’mon, I thought, say it. Give me an excuse. Instead he backed down like the putz he was.

    “Sorry, man, but that just ain’t right,” he said much softer as he looked away. I threw him a bone in return.

    “You’re right, man, and we apologize. We were just leaving anyway.”

    We made our way outside and loaded up into the car. I couldn’t help notice that Kar Wai had the ghost of a smile on his lips as we drove off.

    ….

    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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  • October 27, 2009

    Wong Kar Wai in the Windy City

    by Sam Hutchins

    Kar Wai caught an early flight out of New York. It was all I could do to wrangle the Frenchmen into the truck in time to meet his flight. Hopefully having the boss around would light a fire under some asses. Time would have to tell on that one.

    As we waited for him to emerge from the airport I realized just how little I knew the man personally. I was intimately familiar with his body of work. Yes, everyone knew 2046 and Chungking Express, but I had loved those so much I had also sought out his earlier work such as Days of Being Wild and the historical epic Ashes of Time. I knew as much as there is to know about his films and development as a storyteller but the man himself was largely an enigma. This was certainly a bit of a cultivated pose on his part, he didn’t do a lot of press and what he had done wasn’t very revealing. Watching him emerge from the darkened concourse area with his sunglasses and his smile I had very little read on him. He sure didn’t give you much to work with.

    I also lacked a working knowledge of the city of Chicago. I had passed through a few times over the years so I had a very vague familiarity with the layout but beyond that I was lost. Tough gig, working in a town you don’t know with a director who doesn’t know what he wants to find. In an attempt to prepare myself as well as possible I had been up late the night before studying. I committed as much of the map to memory as possible, wrapping my head around the area. By spending some time with it I was able to figure out the general layout of the neighborhoods, the main through routes, and the better ways to get around. I did some online searching for classic diners and restaurants with character. Worked up a little cheat sheet with promising names and addresses and made mental note of where they sat on the map and how I could make my way to them.

    Good thing I did, because Kar Wai hopped in the car and said, “Let’s Go.” It was seemingly assumed that I had the place all doped out and knew just where to go. We started by cruising the perimeter of the city, finding some promising spots right away. The man has a pretty well-defined aesthetic at this point in his career and I was able to steer him to places that fit within it. Although he had little to say we were all relieved by the volume of pictures he took at the places we stopped. As good an indication that he was as happy as he was likely to get.

    After a few stops we wound up at a place called Lawrence Fisheries. It was a seafood restaurant hard on the banks of a river on the near south side of Chicago. Perfect location for one of Kar Wai’s films. The exterior photographs nicely as it sits alone in a parking lot surrounded by factories, the river and a bridge over it. The Sears Tower and the skyline framed up beautifully in the background. One shot and you would know exactly how close you were to the heart of the big city but also how far outside of it you were. The interior was ugly enough that I would never show it to any other director, but of course he loved it. The owner was a lovely fellow whose main concern was that we didn’t want to film anytime close to Lent, which was his busiest season. A big part of the job is finding a connection with people quickly so you can gain their trust. The Catholic thing is an easy one for me and shortly we were speaking with the familiarity of old friends.

    As we wrapped up our scout of the place the owner turned to me. Nodding in Kar Wai’s direction he asked: “So did you find this place because it’s next to Chinatown?”

    “No, we were just cruising around and saw it.” But it was too late; Kar Wai’s ears had perked up. Amazing thing about the man, he could seem so far lost in his own thoughts at times but still nothing got past him.

    “We are close to Chinatown?”

    “Yes, just cross under that overpass and make your next left and you’re there.”

    So off to lunch we went.

    We barely stepped out of the car when a young Chinese woman approached us. She recognized Kar Wai and he was quite gracious about speaking with her. This would happen often in our travels; he was frequently recognized in the Asian neighborhoods. We spent a great deal of time in them as Kar Wai always preferred to eat Chinese food. Bummed me out a little in Chicago as it’s such a great eating city. Chicago style hot dogs, deep dish pizza, Italian Beef sandwiches were not for me this time around. Instead it was congee for breakfast and fried rice for lunch. All part of the deal. We did some quick shopping while we were there as well. Kar Wai picked up a case of ramen, some teas, and some weird dried roots that tasted like dirty black licorice. He kept insisting that I eat them, so I did. I bought some DVD’s of kung fu comedies featuring Sammo Hung and Darius scored some sort of virility powder.

    We spent a few days scouting the city with seemingly promising results. Late in the afternoon one day there we seemed to be running out of steam. We spent a couple hours screwing around in Lincoln Park, mainly at record stores. Kar Wai showed a surprising knowledge of American independent music and revealed to us that he planned to use the artist Cat Power as inspiration for the film. He went on to reveal that all of his films have a soundtrack that he uses as a sort of creative metronome while filming them, even though the music never actually winds up in the films. Fascinating stuff, the likes of which I’d never heard from another director. I tried to engage him in a discussion about what specific pieces he had used for his earlier films but it must have been a little too intimate of a question. As was his wont, he reacted by smiling silently behind those dark sunglasses and going silent.

    ….

    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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  • October 22, 2009

    Highway 61 Visited

    by Sam Hutchins

    The next week was spent slowly making our way up Highway 61.  Traditionally it was known as the blues highway, the road leading from the plantations of the South to new life and opportunity in Chicago and the northern cities.  Much like the ghosts of the musicians whose paths we followed we carried the blues with us.  Unlike us they at least had a goal and a purpose to their journey.  We were in full drifting mode, surrendering more and more to the malaise of the road.

    By now we had been scouting cross-country for a month.  As much as I love being out on the road shooting it only works if it is leading somewhere.  Our limited contact with Kar Wai had seemingly ended altogether.  It was as though we were forgotten.  Every day we drove hundreds of miles and took countless pictures.  We explored every story possibility along the way and submitted our work with nary a word in response.  With no feedback or critique eventually you’re not so much scouting as you are just driving around taking pictures like a tourist.

    Compounding the issue was the endless list of petty resentments we were building against one another.  That much time in close quarters can turn even the most amiable types against each other.  Every inch of space in the truck becomes a battleground; every statement a potential provocation.  For example, Darius was making me insane with the music.  He would control the iPod for hours on end, playing the same songs over and over at high volume.  When I would manage to wrest control of the music he went totally passive-aggressive on me.  It would start with him asking what the song was, complimenting my taste, and then asking if he could turn it down just a little bit.  He would then proceed to lower the volume gradually until it was just barely audible.  He did this every time I tried to play music that I favored, and it was completely maddening.  I’d shortly give up and turn the music completely off.  Minutes later he would play something he liked and crank the volume all the way back up.  In retrospect, he honestly might not have realized what he was doing, but at the time I wanted to bash his face into the windshield.

    Stephane was equally annoying.  He would fiddle around on the computer in the backseat all day long.  If Darius or I saw something of potential interest to us we would point it out to him.  Invariably he would ignore us, engrossed in the screen as he was. Once we were past whatever-it-was Stephane would see it out the rear window and yell for us to pull over.  Usually when we were barreling down a one-lane highway with a truck hard on our ass.  Had I heeded his direction every time he yelled for us to stop we would have died a dozen times.  He yelled for me to stop in the passing lane of the interstate highway, mid-span on bridges, in every perilous situation imaginable.

    Surely I was an annoyance to them as well.  I was weary.  Doing all the driving was arduous enough.  Driving twelve hours a day while navigating, attempting to scout, maintaining the truck, finding nice enough lodging and restaurants to satisfy those two on top of everything else was brutal.  Also, any time we did stop to scout a potential location I had to jump out and do my spiel.  No matter how exhausted I may be I was the initial public face of the company.  It takes energy to approach random people and explain who we were and what we were up to.  Virtually no one we approached had any dealings with being filmed before so it was never a short conversation.  Frequently one of my companions noticed something and yelled for me to pull over, only to face something that I knew wasn’t worth wasting our time on.  Nonetheless it’s my job and I was obligated.  Even facing a location that I considered unfilmable or useless to us I had to haul my weary ass out of the driver’s seat and talk our way in.  More often than not I would be well into the conversation when the boys would realize as I had that it wasn’t worth the effort and yell for me not to bother with it.  I’d grit my teeth, smile and make my exit as quickly and politely as possible leaving a befuddled stranger in my wake.

    We had been going like this seven days a week and were all on the edge when the call came.  Stephane wandered around speaking excitedly on the phone while Darius and I watched from the truck.

    “What do you think, we shutting down?”

    “I almost wish we would. “ Darius replied, “I’ve never worked like this before.  The director really should be here.  We don’t know what to look for.”

    I had to agree.  It just felt all wrong.  Stephane hopped back into the car and we prepared for the bad news.  What we heard instead rather surprised us.

    “Kar Wai loves the stuff we are sending him.  He is able to join us. We’ll meet him in Chicago.”

    Fantastic. We were actually just outside the city in Skokie, Illinois.  We took our time getting into the city and ate at a wonderful old steakhouse there called Gene and Georgetti’s.  After a good night’s sleep we would be picking Kar Wai up at the airport.

    ….

    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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  • October 7, 2009

    So Long, New Orleans

    by Sam Hutchins

    I’ve always thought of New Orleans as a whore you could take to Church.  It’s a dirty old city that gladly seduces the willing. She’ll take you as dark and deep as you’re predisposed to go.  There’s also a deep strain of faith present.  There was many a Sunday that I barely scrubbed the stink of the night off of me before attending old-rights Latin mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  At more than one mass I laid eyes on men who were fine upstanding pillars of the community in their Sunday best; men who I had seen hours earlier wearing a dress and doing lines off of someone’s ass.  It’s that kind of town.  My night out with Darius and Stephane ran late.  Having crashed at the hotel for what seemed like minutes I was up and at ‘em and ready to scout early the next morning.

    The many story possibilities New Orleans offered had me excited to do some scouting.  What an appropriate milieu for a Wong Kar Wai film.  Its history is such a rich tapestry, one that likely has its share of stains and cigarette burns.  The old buildings stand unbowed in the French Quarter.  Much as modern life has tried to impose its will on them, their past can never be erased.  Each layer has its own stories to tell.  And what a past it is.  So many different cultures and traditions intermingling as can only happen in a port city, a transient, itinerant city.  A place shaped and formed by all those who have passed through.  It seemed to me as good a city as could be hoped for to do what we wanted.  After all, isn’t that the world Kar Wai inhabits?  His characters populate the margins and that is a marginal city if there ever was one.

    The place that came to mind first as a location was the Clover Grille.  The Clover was an Edward Hopper painting come to life.  Wedged into a 17th Century row house on Lower Bourbon Street it was open 24 hours and saw more business after dark than it ever did in the daylight.  The stainless-steel 50’s vintage interior somehow fit naturally within the ancient hand-plastered superstructure.  The Clover was far enough downtown on Bourbon that it was well clear of the raucous, 4-for-1 drink special stretch of the street.  It was even beyond the brief gay-friendly patch of the boulevard.  You only wound up there because you wanted to, not because it was convenient.  It’s a place that attracts strangers and outcasts and makes them feel at home.  Put the camera across the street and point it towards the picture window.  The people passing in and out will tell the story for you.

    As perfect as it might be, I also ransacked my mental files to find other possible locations in town.  I imagined Camelia Grill, or the Half-Moon, or Miss Mae’s or any number of others might provide great options for our director.  Regrettably it was not to be.

    “So we should check out and get on our way, yes?” was how Stephane greeted me in the morning.

    “Check out, really?  I figured we should spend at least one more night here, there’s a lot of scouting to do locally.”

    “No, no, we cannot shoot here.  I hate this town, it is so dirty.”

    Ummmm, wow.  We had polished off a bottle of whiskey last night while planning our great crescent city adventure.  Now suddenly the rug was being yanked out from under me.

    “Dirty?  Really?  There are so many amazing stories to tell here.”

    “It is not for Kar Wai.  I have discussed this with him and he is not interested in filming here.”

    I’d like to say that I respectfully disagreed but that would be overstating my estimation.  Before I could dig my heels in Darius came rumbling into the lobby rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

    “My friends, are we going on the tour?”

    Huh?

    “What tour would that be, we going to see the alligators in the swamp?” I bit off the words.

    “Swamp?  What ees thees swamp?  I want to see the damage from the hurricane.  You know, how do you say, the Banlieue?” fortunately (or not) Stephane was able to translate.

    “The ghetto, Sammy, where the black people live and the hurricane hit.  You promised last night we would get to see the damage.”

    Now that absolutely did not strike a bell.  No part of me at all remembered promising such a tour.  That being said, I have made plenty of drunken promises in my time.  If held to them I’d be married five times over and four of my wives would be strippers.  With my history I was not inclined to argue the point.  A tour they had apparently been promised so a tour they would get.

    Much later I spoke to Kar Wai about the city, and all the reasons it was a perfect place for him to work.  He indicated that it was too rich a subject for just one segment of a film, and that he would love to make an entire film based there.  I was willing to accept that and even a little excited at the prospect of doing a full show with him there.  In the meantime we had a nice look at the wreckage that used to be people’s lives and moved along.  My disappointment was tempered by the fact that we were heading north on the blues trail.  Highway 61 re-revisited.  Time to follow Robert Johnson up to Mississippi and look for the devil himself.

    ….

    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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  • September 28, 2009

    New Orleans After Dark

    by Same Hutchins

    My disappointment at bailing early on Cajun Country was tempered by the anticipation of a night out in New Orleans.  Stephane took the wheel and put it on the floor headed east on Highway 10.  My companions didn’t do a lot of driving, but when needed Stephane was great at taking the stick and piloting us home.  I’m an excellent driver and therefore pretty particular about whom I’ll ride with when I’m not in control; I had no issue with ceding the truck to Stephane.

    Good thing, too, as I needed to get on the phone and set us up in the city.  My job can be social in many ways, and it was time to work the phone.  We were unexpectedly headed to New Orleans for a night of relaxation and enjoyment followed by a day of scouting, it was early evening already and I had a couple hours of highway driving time to make arrangements.

    As well connected as I am in that town, it was only five months post-Katrina.  I had not been down since the tragedies connected with it.  Having been involved a bit in some relief efforts I knew who was back in town and who was still stranded elsewhere as part of the diaspora that had been created.  Still, one couldn’t be sure how our visit would go.  It worked out, though, and soon we were set up in the Renaissance Hotel in the Warehouse District.  A truly great Hotel and definitely the right place for a comfortable night.  A few more calls and we had plans for drinks and dinner, and someone was waiting in the lobby for us with some excellent pot.  New Orleans here we come.

    The Katrina effect was apparent as soon as we wheeled into town.  Five months later and most of the traffic signals on Poydras Street weren’t functioning.  No police working the intersections, it was fend for yourself time.  Trees down everywhere and not many people to be seen.  It felt so odd overall.  This was going to take a little getting used to.  At least the valet stand at the hotel was manned, but even there we were told that they didn’t have anyone to cover the late shift.  They would be shutting down at 10.

    “Don’t worry sir, I’ll leave your car right out front and the keys will be at the front desk,” I was reassured.  “But you want to be careful going out too late, things are still a little sketchy at night here.”

    The hotel may have been half-empty and down to a skeleton staff, but my guy was still working and greeted me with a big hug and a smile.  As we made the exchange he held me at arm’s length.

    “Thanks for coming back, man, we appreciate it.  The city needs your support.  Bring the film here.  Tell everyone we’re back and to come see us again.”  Yes, it’s the kind of city where even the drug dealers are civic boosters.  You don’t find that everywhere.  Says something about a city.

    After settling into our luxury rooms with 600 count Frette sheets and steam showers we re-convened in the lobby.  My companions were truly pleased by the accommodations for the first time since we left New York.  In short order we were burning a joint as we drove slowly up Magazine Street.  It all came back to me in a rush, how much I love the city.  Amidst the damage the bungalows still lined the street, their weathered stoutness hidden beneath riotous bursts of color.  I found myself tearing up with joy and love for my surroundings.  My God I love New Orleans.  It is a city of music and magic.

    We picked up my friend Mario in one of the many low-key bars that would instantly be the coolest place in most cities I’ve been in but was just another gin mill there.  A few drinks later we were in Jacques-Imo’s.  If you are reading this and have not been there you should turn off your computer, fly to New Orleans, and have a meal there before finishing these words.  It’s that good.  Nothing I write can quite convey the full experience but I’ll try with an illustrative story.

    My first visit there many years ago found the place three deep at the bar.  I somehow found an empty stool and squeezed my way into a glass of Stoli.  Johnny Cash was singing “Ring of Fire” in the background.  A drunken mess of a man next to me dug his elbow into my side.

    “Hey man, you know this song?”

    “Yes.”

    “Bet you didn’t know he wrote it about Jimmy Carter.”

    “Are you an idiot?  He wrote it about June Carter.  His wife.”

    “Oh.  Really?  Huh, I guess that makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it?”

    Having a hard time believing anyone could be that big of a drunken fool I turned to get a look at the guy, and what a sight.  He was a short, bearded guy wearing chef’s whites, boxer shorts and sandals.  He was guzzling a good Bordeaux right out of the bottle.  Extending his hand, he said:

    “Hi, I’m Jack.  This is my restaurant.”

    Common sense would have taken me right out the door, but sometimes a lack of such is your best asset.  Now, years later I returned to see Jack and brought my new friends.  Even though the rest of New Orleans was a ghost town his joint was hopping.  He greeted us with big hugs; made sure we had drinks and whisked us to a table.  Dishes started magically appearing on our table.  Fried oysters, spinach salad, alligator cheesecake, chicken livers on toast points, steamed mussels, etoufee, each more delicious than the last and those were just the appetizers.  Jack grabbed a bottle of wine off of someone else’s table and filled our glasses.  It would have been an even more memorable meal with a few less bottles of wine, as it stands I know we had a great time even if the details are a bit fuzzy.

    We wound up in Mario’s bar, the now-defunct King Bolden.  The drive there from Jacques-Imo’s was a little sobering as we saw how banged-up the rest of the city still was.  We hatched our plans over a late-night bottle of whiskey.  Mario and I both pushed New Orleans as a location for our film.  Katrina or not, there are so many stories to tell there.  We went late into the evening toasting one another and kicking around ideas for our film.  Stephane and Darius were starting to fade a bit when Mario pulled out an illustrated highway of Route 61, the blues highway.  We ended the evening with a drive through the deserted streets while excitedly discussing Robert Johnson and the deep south.  Good times and great material were at hand.

    ….

    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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  • September 14, 2009

    Bayou Bound

    by Sam Hutchins

    D.I.'s restaurant

    D.I.'s restaurant

    A few weeks earlier I had sat in my office and worked out an itinerary.  Not a particularly easy task as our goals were so unclear.  Kar Wai had attempted to explain what he wanted us to find for him without success.  Truth be told, he clearly was still working story ideas out for himself.  He knew that he wanted to make a road movie; he knew that he wanted to follow Norah Jones as she travelled cross-country.  Beyond that he was looking for our assistance.  I was happy to provide it.

    My original plan was set up to see as many different parts of the country in as short a time as possible.  I set up a complicated itinerary that had us starting in LA and heading east.  Every three days or so we would dump our rental truck at an airport, fly to a different region of the country, and start another leg of the trip.  I thought it was the smart way to go about it.  Darius and Stephane had braced me the other night and expressed their unwillingness to continue on the route I had laid out.  I had mixed emotions but didn’t fight too hard.  Though I had spent weeks arranging the ideal routes through America they had a foolproof counter-argument.  Simply, we had a great truck and were well-settled into it.  They were right, too.  The Armada was holding up well and we had all staked out our space.  Everyone’s IPod, cigarettes, sunglasses and camera had their established nook; starting over would have caused innumerable arguments.  Distance grants perspective, of course, but at the time not having to fight about which cup holder was mine was more than enough reason to keep driving.

    Prior to this trip I spent nearly a year working in New Orleans and have that city dialed up as well as anyone.  I took weekend trips out west into Cajun country; I was wired in for a hundred mile radius.  I was the next thing to a local.  Still you know what I didn’t know?  Louisiana borders Texas.  Wow, embarrassing, I know.  Thing is, western Louisiana goes pretty far west.  I had no occasion to explore it when I was based in New Orleans.  I had no reason to study the maps as my itinerary had us ending in Dallas and flying to Denver to spend some time in the high desert.  Once our plans were discarded, however, it was the three of us and a map and due east of us was Louisiana.  So we rolled on, putting miles behind us as quickly as possible.

    The landscape changes pretty dramatically as you cross from Texas into Louisiana.  As you move east the foliage becomes increasingly full and lush.  The last of the desert falls off behind you and starts feeling more like low country.  The Gulf of Mexico and its swamplands and estuaries factor into the equation.  Humanity is less and less apparent as you move away from Houston but are still far away from approaching a city of any size.  More than anything it felt as though we were transitioning from the southwest to the south.  I was glad of it.  I felt optimistic about our chance to find someplace worth scouting.  The back roads snaked through the edge of the swamps, punctuated by the occasional paper mill and not much else.

    I had run through my rolodex the day before, calling everyone I knew in the area looking for leads.  One of my contacts came through and called me with information about a place called D.I.’s.  Apparently D.I. was a crawfish farmer who ran a restaurant out of his ancient weathered barn in the middle of the swamp.  Everything about it sounded great.  Supposedly it was the real thing, not a tourist trap of any sort.  I loved the idea of it, feeling it provided a vastly different milieu from anything else we had seen.  Better yet, the directions my friend PJ gave me indicated that it was just off Gator road. Exciting.

    We pushed hard through the swamps, feeling better and better about where we were headed.  Travelling with people in such close quarters everything becomes infectious, more so when you are hungry to find something good.  Every clue we saw led us in the right direction.

    “Look at that old farmhouse!”

    “These trees look great with the Spanish moss; we can do driving shots here!”

    “Maybe we can shoot something with her in the swamps!”

    By the time we actually crossed Gator Road we were like kids on Christmas morning.  We turned a corner and there it was, D.I.’s authentic Cajun Restaurant.  It sat almost perfectly amidst the landscape, set off on its own in the midst of vast fields carved out of the low swamp.  One problem, however.  Instead of the old weathered barn we were expecting we were looking at a large, recently built aluminum sided monstrosity.  The place was a perfect example of recent, cheap construction.  One would be hard pressed to find something uglier or less interesting to film.  A subsequent conversation with D.I. himself revealed this gem:

    “Oh, no, you would have hated the old place.  Beat up, ramshackle barn.  Needed a paint job.  Nothing but an open kitchen and a bunch of old picnic tables.  My nice new place is so much better for your movie.”

    Stephane at D.I.'s

    Stephane at D.I.'s

    In other words, exactly what we were looking for.  To compound matters, we got stuck taking the extended tour.  D.I. and his wife were as nice as you could hope for but I was disappointed and eager to get back to our search of Cajun Country.  After laboring through en extended family history and being pressured into buying a CD of his grandson, Briggs the Wee Cajun accordion player, we were back on the road.

    “What ees the plan for tonight?” Stephane wanted to know.

    “We should spend as much time as possible scouring this area and wind up in Lafayette for the night.”

    Lafayette was close by, and I figured staying there would give us plenty of local scouting time.  D.I.’s might not have been the right place but I was sure we would find an old gas station or general store just around the next curve in the road, or the one after that.

    “Lafayette?  Non, we must go to New Orleans.  We need a nice night out for a change.” Darius piped in.

    “But we’re hours away.  Driving there means we have to quit scouting here and head east.  That’ll take us right out of this area.”

    Once again I was outvoted.  It’s not often I’ll argue against a night on the town in New Orleans, but I really wanted to scour western Louisiana for locations.  Once the decision was made, however, I bought into it fully.  I let Stephane take the wheel and push us eastward while I got on the phone and planned a night of recreation in one of my favorite cities.
    ….

    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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  • September 1, 2009

    Escape from Texas

    by Sam Hutchins

    On the road to Houston

    On the road to Houston

    We finally could see the light at the end of Texas when we got to Houston. Arrived late, checked into the Doubletree Hotel downtown and crashed hard. We must have been quite a sight as we were road-weary from a couple hard days blasting through dust, sagebrush and ignorance. We encountered what was becoming a running joke at the registration desk with Stephane’s name. The clerk kept referring to him as “Stephanie” and insisting that he had been expected to be a woman. It only got funnier as he became more frustrated and insisted on the correct pronunciation of his name. Watching Stephane argue about the pronunciation of his name in his thick French accent all across the South provided endless amusement for myself and Darius.

    Same old song and dance the next morning. I rose early, checked all three of us out, settled the room charges, brought the truck around, gassed it up and then sat and waited impatiently for my companions to materialize. I was desperate to get out of Texas but I sat there waiting. Eventually I pulled out a map and started to daydream. That’s a big part of what I love about scouting; I love maps, I love looking at them and imagining what they represent. I have well-developed instincts and a vivid imagination and scouting allows me to exercise both. Looking at the map of southeast Texas I saw lots of oceanfront land and places I knew to be rich in mineral resources. My mind ran to images of places much like Blade Runner just more industrial. I pictured nights full of vast oil fields, lonely roads snaking through brightly and colorfully lit landscapes. Constant rain and mist beneath towering metal derricks both onshore and off. I was probably far off from the reality but I imagined a lonely café hugging the roadside in such a place just waiting for us to find it.

    Darius & Stephane

    Darius & Stephane

    Of course reality intrudes. Stephane and Darius appeared and insisted we scout Houston proper. I fought to bail immediately and drive towards Galveston where my waking daydream led me but I lost the argument. The fact that Galveston was at the end of a long one-way road sealed the deal. I tried to BS them on that one but they knew me well enough to insist on seeing a map before agreeing to anything. Amazing how intimately you know someone after even a week in such close proximity. I’d gladly fib a little in service of what my gut told me was the right choice; they already knew that about me. It was set, then. We would explore Houston before driving east. I braced the concierge for assistance.

    “Excuse me, I’m looking for the ‘hip’ neighborhood.”

    “Huh?”

    Allow me to point out that we were in a relatively nice hotel and the concierge ought to be expected to have a decent working knowledge of the city.

    “You know, an interesting part of the city. Someplace where people walk around, go to cafes, antique stores, bookshops?”

    Blank stare.

    “Maybe by a university? Someplace with thrift stores? Older buildings? There must be a college district? Used bookstores? Record stores?”

    Blank stare. I was getting impatient and becoming the stereotypical New Yorker America loves to hate.

    “Where the hell do people go when they want to walk around and shop?”

    The concierge’s features brightened.

    “Oh, you mean the Galleria! It’s…”

    I cut him off at the pass.

    “Fuck that, no not the fucking galleria. Where’s the bus station?”

    I might as well have pissed on his shoes given the look on his face but I couldn’t care less. He then made a big show of acting superior to me. After all, I was either travelling by bus or at least consorting with those who would deign to do so.

    “I wouldn’t know, sir, but I assure you I can find out.”

    He opened a yellow pages and verrrrry slowly went about locating the information for me. What a stunning disconnect. We stood a foot apart but there were miles between us. Perhaps it was me. Surely it was. New Yorkers are obnoxious, right? I was being obnoxious, yes, I was. At the same time some under-educated, over-moussed douche is judging me for my interest in the bus station. I’m no runaway teenager or sad salesman, Jack. I’m looking for filmable locations for an international genius filmmaker, and I represent his vision. I’m the tip of the spear and you’re just flesh in my way.

    Clearly I needed to get the hell out of Texas. Fuck the bus station. I put the pedal on the floor and we were Louisiana-bound. No one tried to stop me.

    ….

    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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  • August 28, 2009

    Guest Post: I Paid for Woodstock

    by Susan Silas

    This weekend, Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock opens in theaters. Before you see the film, read this guest post about what it was like to be at Woodstock by one of blogger Sam Hutchins’ colleagues, fellow location scout Susan Silas.

    “Governor Nelson Rockefeller declares Woodstock a national disaster area.”  Woodstock was on the front page of the New York Times for days.  My mother, who had allowed her barely 16 year old daughter to go to this rock concert, was appalled.  But to her it wasn’t the lack of amenities that was horrifying, it was the sight of her daughter dressed in a blue work shirt and blue bell bottom jeans, surrounded by half-a-million other young people attired in the same fashion that ran a chill down her spine; it reminded her of something more sinister and repugnant, though in her day they wore brown.   In our matching uniforms of blue, armed with tents and sleeping bags, and with the help of an endless downpour, we were about to turn the green upstate fields on Yasgur’s Farm into a mire.

    In the pelting rain the pasture turned pigsty  — a vast expanse of boot sucking mud and oozing offal.  With only 40,000 tickets sold and 500,000 people present the concession stand ran out of cokes about the time the Porto-Sans overflowed.  These outhouses sat on a small ridge at the edge of the crowd their doors hanging partially open with streams of toilet paper escaping to the outdoors fluttering in the breeze like wind socks at an airport and giving warning every time the wind shifted carrying the acrid smell of excrement through the crowd, causing even the most steadfast stoner to swoon.  Occasionally an observer would call out with a groan just before the stench washed over us.

    The concession stand must have been staked into the ground at the outset.  Two cheery kids danced along to its movements trying to keep up with the crowd in front of them.  It had become unmoored in all that rain and I remember finding myself walking sideways to keep abreast of the cash register while a thick crunch of ambitious customers teetered back and forth in an attempt to stay with the stand and get the last of the Coca-Cola.  On my way back through the crowd with my small tray of Cokes I received a round of applause for my efforts. It seemed that even the smallest local event (local meaning within earshot) could trigger applause from one’s neighbors. After the first day, I never saw the concession stand again.  Out of merchandise and unattended it must have drifted off in the sea of mud.

    On the second day a group of about 1,000 people lined up to try to use the bathroom at a small local bar that was accustomed to the hunting crowd as its clientele.  My stepfather, an Eastern European disenfranchised aristocrat who saw himself as the great white hunter was quick to recognize my description of the place.  The toilets were labeled “Pointers” and “Setters” and I had two dizzy girls ask me “Which one is ours?”  The owner came to the front door and looked out at the gathering mass of hopeful faces; none he knew would spend a dime in his establishment. He yelled out “No men will be allowed to use the restrooms here – go piss in the woods.”  From then on the matter of the “Pointers” and the “Setters” was moot but even with two bathrooms the wait was very long.

    On the first day, things were a bit unorganized and it was actually possible to walk up to the stage and ask to have a friend paged.  I remember making my way up there and asking them to page my cousin.  I knew she was out there somewhere in that crowd and a few minutes later her name rang out on the PA system and 10 minutes later we were standing together up front.  What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t necessary to page anyone.  Even among 500,000 people and license plates in the fields from as far away as Alaska, I seemed to run into everyone I knew who had come.

    “Wow, you went to Woodstock.”  I’ve often had that reaction from younger people if I choose to admit I was there.  It creates awe but also gives away my age.  I don’t remember everyone I saw play.  The music went on 24 hours a day and I barely slept, I was wet and cold and covered with mud and I made the mistake of going with someone I didn’t like that much because I had a fight with my best friend John two days before and I needed a ride.  I do remember waiting endlessly for Sly and the Family Stone to get on the stage.  They had a lot of electronic equipment and refused to come on until the rain let up. I remember that poor Tim Hardin was the only artist capable of stimulating ire in the most good natured crowd I’ve ever been in. He was booed off the stage.  Hardin was a serious drug user and he was nodding out in the middle of his performance. Word went out in the crowd that the needle was still stuck in his arm onstage  –  a rumor I had no way to verify then or now.

    The night before it began we had shut down Route 17.  We – a bunch of kids.  The highway was so crowded with cars that the State Police, incapable of any solution to the largest and longest traffic jam ever seen on a New York roadway shut the Thruway down and began diverting traffic.  It might have been described as the largest tailgate party ever seen, but this was not a football kind of crowd.  Perhaps it was more akin to a drive-in movie parking lot in which the projectionist failed to show.  We got out on the roadway and wandered from car to car – music blaring from each and every one and said “hey man”, smoked pot, and handed along little sheets of paper covered in blotter acid.  A cloud of smoke rose and mingled with the stars and car headlights illuminated dust particles that transmogrified into butterflies and flew off in the evening haze.  By morning Yasgur’s Farm was overrun.

    Occasionally there were gaps between performances as we waited for a new act to arrive.  We all knew the highway had  been shut down, and it was the whirr of helicopter blades that signaled that a band was about to arrive or depart.  It was during those pauses between performances that some poor fool had to stand up in front of the mic and keep the vaguely restless crowd amused.  One of the more inspired moments came at night during a lull in the rain.  The guy at the mic asked everyone to take out a match or a cigarette lighter.  In that crowd anyone who didn’t smoke cigarettes smoked pot so I’d have to guess that all 500,000 people had matches.  Everyone in the audience was to light their match at the count of three.  And for a flicker of instant – it was daylight.

    Someone was run over by a tractor in a field of high grass, a baby was born, people were kind to other people, a lot of people were stoned, everyone was filled with a sense of euphoria.  It’s hard to know why everyone knew to come.  All over the country young people packed their cars, got on airplanes, hitchhiked.  Before I set out I had no idea that the urgency I felt about going – I had to go – was being felt by tens of thousands of other kids in big cities and small towns all across the United States.  There would never be anything like it again. We weren’t just the baby boom generation.  There wouldn’t be a “counter culture” in the same sense again.  It would be possible in the future to stand on the sidewalk at Columbus Circle in New York City next to a pimply-faced boy who couldn’t have be more than 16 years of age and see a “Young Republicans for Ronald Reagan” button on his chest.  Up until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to be young and be a Republican.

    On my way home from upstate in a deli 100 miles from Woodstock I stopped to buy a pack of smokes.  It was easy to spot a fellow traveler; his jeans were caked with mud to the mid-thigh just like my own. For a moment we recognized one another.  We had shared something that created a sense of intimacy between us.  We both smiled.

    One outcome of the unexpected half-a-million strong audience was that no one had the presence of mind to collect the 40,000 tickets that had been sold.  I was one of the 40,000 suckers who paid for Woodstock.  I did take a brief look around to see where we were supposed to show our tickets but there was no evidence of a ticket booth.  Perhaps, it was never set up or maybe it was trampled beyond recognition. I still had my ticket in my mud sodden blue jeans when I got home.  Now it is forty, I am fifty-six and my daughter is exactly the same age I was when I set out with Dale in that gold Dodge Dart headed upstate.

    ….

    Susan Silas is a dual American and Hungarian national who has built a diverse career as an artist and writer over the past two decades. She completed her graduate studies at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles in 1983 and returned to New York to live and work. She has exhibited her work throughout the United States and in Europe. Her recent projects include Helmbrechts Walk, 1998-2003, which documents her 225 mile walk through Germany and the Czech Republic, retracing the steps of an historical death march at the close of the Second World War. This work will be on view at Hebrew Union College Museum in New York from September 2009 – June 2010. Recent publications include the essay ‘For David Foster Wallace with Love and Squalus’ published in the online literary magazine Exquisite Corpse, and the short story ‘Found Bird,’ published in the online literary magazine Podium. Her artwork and writings are available for viewing at: www.susansilas.com. Susan has also worked as a location scout for major motion pictures. Recent films include: Whatever Works, directed by Woody Allen, Burn After Reading, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Michael Clayton, directed by Tony Gilroy, The Good Shepherd, directed by Robert De Niro and The Devil Wears Prada, directed by David Frankel.

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  • August 26, 2009

    Thanks for nothing, Texas

    by Sam Hutchins

    Okay, I’ll say this in the nicest way possible: f*ck Texas. F*ck that entire godforsaken excuse for a state. If it weren’t for the abundant natural resources I would mount a one man campaign to give it back to Mexico. Actually, Mexico probably should still govern Texas were all right and just in the world. If Mexico were in possession of the territory they could capitalize on the natural gas and oil fields and our economic imbalance would be lessened. The Battle of the Alamo would stand as an earlier, lessened version of Vietnam, potentially forestalling future military misadventures. On that note, no Texas means no Bush family dynasty and no Iraq war.

    This may seem a lot to extrapolate from the mere act of scouting locations in the state but you didn’t experience what I did there. The entire matter was simply awful. To begin with, we were in the early stages of our national excursion in Iraq and I was in the company of two Frenchmen. As much as I tried to avoid politics it inevitably came up. Being rather patriotic, I felt the need to at least attempt to argue the American perspective. Further, I believed then and do now that the French objection to our invasion had more to do with their unhappiness at not being consulted in the matter than anything else. They are an argumentative people by nature and we were foolish enough to give them good reason to object. So yes, part of my antipathy towards Texas is based in the fact that I was obligated to at least attempt to argue a pro-invasion perspective unwillingly simply due to being in the state.

    Even worse, it is by and large an ugly and desolate state. We were in the depths of our misery at not finding anything remotely interesting to photograph or scout. Driving back roads in Texas means you are really on back roads. Even the average rancher commutes by small plane in that corner of the world; we blew across the horribly ugly landscape at 110 miles per hour for days on end without seeing a single interesting thing. It was flat, ugly, and went on forever. At least the other drivers were courteous. On the rare occasion we overtook someone they invariably pulled over and drove on the shoulder of the road. That was nice of them, however I have to suspect it was a byproduct of driving in such a heavily armed state.

    Another in my long list of grievances about Texas involves the Super Bowl. The night the game was played we were busting ass across west Texas looking for the remotest sign of civilization. Even my pampered French pals would have crashed in a dumpy roadside motel. We couldn’t even find that; there was nothing but sagebrush and stars. This was the first Superbowl I didn’t watch since I was six years old. I had bet a bundle on the Steelers laying six and a half when we passed through Vegas and had a vested interest in the outcome. I wound up frantically searching the airwaves, finding and then losing station after station carrying the game feed. No shortage at all of apocalyptic preachers raving about the democratic menace though. The NFL is so media savvy you can probably catch a radio broadcast of the Super Bowl on the moon, but not in west Texas.

    One of the smarter things I did before setting out cross-country was researching great roadside restaurants. Not to scout, mind you, but to eat in. If I could find someplace that served amazing barbecue I was going to get us there. This was a once in a lifetime experience; when else are you going to get to a legendary rib joint in Prairie View, Texas? So we did, and the food was worth it. The day after the Super Bowl I was celebrating a nice payday and insisted on detouring out of our way to a barbecue shack I had read about. The ribs were indeed spectacular, but holy God I wish we had never had the conversation we did with the waitress. Generations of Frenchmen will be told of this talk and scoff at America for having heard it.

    Our waitress was a cute girl, maybe 17 years old at best. A pale-skinned, freckled west Texas gal. The confusion began when Stephane decided to order a corn dog.

    “What ees thees, ees eet corn?”

    “No, silly, it’s a hot dog battered and deep-fried. I don’t know if there’s any corn in it. You talk funny, where y’all from?”

    “We are both French, we come from Parees.”

    She sucked her breath in sharply.

    “Oh my, I am so proud of you for coming to America. Was it hard to escape from there?”

    “Escape, what do you mean escape? We are allowed to travel freely.”

    “Well I know that is not the fact. They taught us in school that foreigners are held captive, like in Iran and Korea, and that only the lucky ones escape and make it to America. Was it hard getting here?”

    “No, we got on a plane.”

    At this point I was sinking progressively lower in the booth. I’d like to tell you that the waitress was an idiot but she was not. She was well-spoken and alert, she was also a frightening example of what is happening in America. I was able to steer the conversation back to the menu and we ordered, but she could not stay away. Shortly after putting in our order she drifted back to our table.

    “Is it true that they make you have abortions if you have a little baby girl?”

    Darius responded this time.

    “No one forces you to have abortions, you are free to have one anytime you need to.”

    He may as well have slapped her.

    “What? That is a sin. Babies are innocent and killing them is wrong, you go to hell for that.”

    Fortunately, for once, he backpedaled.

    “I have never had one.”

    A look of relief crossed her face and she meandered away. Shortly thereafter she brought our food and it was indeed amazing barbecue. Unfortunately she stuck around for some more chit-chat.

    “I met another foreigner once, he was from Jamaica. Is that close to Paris, France? He said it was always hot there. I think he was a drug dealer. Is it hot in Paris, France?”

    The conversation went on a bit longer but it’s too painful to even relate. Even now, reading the words on the page, it’s hard to believe the sheer level of ignorance we encountered but it’s all true. I sat and wailed at the cosmos, finally understanding just how creationism had become a mandatory science class. We needed to get out of that state. Even the most amazing barbecue wasn’t worth this.

    ….

    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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  • August 11, 2009

    A bar packed with heavily armed, paranoid, and seriously drunk men

    by Sam Hutchins

    Our first few days were exciting and fruitful, but soon afterwards things slowed down. That’s the thing with scouting: you have good days and bad days. I’ve been through the bad days and know that you just have to keep grinding it out. Darius and Stephane had not experienced them before and didn’t understand. Typically a producer and cinematographer start scouting after I have been out on my own for a while and come up with several selections. They aren’t scouting per se; they are looking at locations I have already scouted. This was their first experience going out cold and seeking locations. This country is a big place, and we spent the next few days ambling around the southwest without seeing anything interesting.

    I should clarify that we actually saw lots of interesting things, just not the locations we were seeking. We did get to see endless open desert landscapes and roads stretching to the horizon, and we took pictures of it all. I ate the best chicken fried steak I’ll ever have. We drove through west Texas towns that were empty because everyone was at the rodeo. I impressed one of my companions by scoring some pot from a desk clerk at a motel in El Paso. We saw sunrises and sunsets, beautifully decrepit trailers, mesas, cacti, and packs of appaloosa horses running on the plains. Just not any good locations.

    We also started to get on each other’s nerves. Darius was only happy if he got to choose the music. Whenever I plugged in my iPod he would gradually turn the volume down lower and lower until it wasn’t worth listening to. Stephane started griping about Kar Wai not being with us. I snored too loud when I caught the infrequent nap in the back seat. We all smoked way too many cigarettes. The tension in the car was becoming palpable.

    We were in our third straight day without seeing anything even remotely right as a location. It was starting on late afternoon and breakfast was the last time we’d seen any signs of human life. The beauty of the landscape kept it from feeling overly ominous but not by much. Beautiful red stone mesas and rock formations were strewn about, breaking up the chaparral of the high desert. The empty road stretched to the horizon.

    When you live your life surrounded by humanity the absence of people can be a little frightening. Spend enough time in such barren landscapes and you start wondering if the apocalypse happened and no one remembered to tell you. The complete lack of any sign of humanity gets downright worrisome. We were somewhere on the Arizona/New Mexico border and we were very alone. Darkness was creeping up on us quickly. I’ve spent a few nights camped in the desert but my companions had not and certainly weren’t going to start now. Sometimes you start to wonder if the road might just run out. Silence was ruling the day in our truck.

    Coming to a T intersection in the road, we had a choice to make. Even with the detailed topo maps I had acquired, we were lost. The roads we were on were so isolated they weren’t on any map. The right thing to do would have been to ask Darius and Stephane which path they thought we should take. I had waited on their indecisiveness often enough already that I was in no mood to do the right thing. Hauling the wheel over suddenly I took the turn with the tires squealing. I had hoped a quick decision would forestall any debate. Not likely.

    “You sure this is the right way to go?” Stephane asked.

    Unless you have spent a lot of time in a car with someone it’s hard to understand how the little annoyances can build up. Part of it was cultural as well. I love so much about the French. These are the people who gave us Flaubert and Rimbaud. What is better in life than sitting at a café in Paris having good Bordeaux, some oysters, and a nice little salad? They gave us absinthe. I challenge you to stand in front of a Monet and say something negative about Gaul. However, until you have listened to a pair of Frenchmen spend 13 straight hours in an SUV arguing whether it is a one day drive from Paris to the Mediterranean or better done in two you do not know what frustration is. As a race they live to discuss, debate, and disagree. Fortunately, I didn’t have to argue in support of my decision as we saw a building on the side of the road with a few trucks out front.

    The Witches Well looked like a roadhouse anywhere else in the country, only in Arizona style. Food, a drink or two and a little local guidance sounded like a great thing to me. We had found an oasis, or so I thought. It turned out to be one of those times where you realize you made a mistake the second you walk in the door. I actually stopped and was about to bail when I saw what was going on inside. Unfortunately my two companions were hard on my heels. They pushed right past me, jabbering away in French as they headed straight for the bathroom.

    Although there had only been a few vehicles outside the place was pretty crowded. There wasn’t an empty stool in the place, and every one was filled with a heavily armed American Indian. They wore western dress, although a few had small feathers or other tribal accents on them. Without fail they wore side arms and a number of them had rifles slung over their backs. The room had dropped into utter silence when we entered, and although no one had turned to look I could still feel every eye in the place on me. Definitely not cool, not cool at all. The smart move would have been to smile, apologize and slowly back out the door. I couldn’t leave my friends behind, though.

    “Now just who the hell would you be and what do you want?” The bartender asked. He was the only one in the room who didn’t appear to be wearing a sidearm. Instead, his pistol sat right on the bar back next to the cash register. A double barrel shotgun leaned against the wall next to it.

    I carefully explained that I was there to scout a movie and would like to talk to him about it. Now a few heads turned to take a look.

    “Bullshit. Who really sent you?”

    Oh my. This was serious. What the hell had we just walked into here? There was a vast empty desert outside to dump corpses in and I was all too aware of that. My companions chose this moment to emerge from the bathroom, still arguing loudly in French. They stopped short when they saw the situation. Thank God for small favors.

    I wasn’t afraid as much as I was aware of every molecule in the room. I had already processed the fact that this might be it for us. Every dust mote hanging in a beam of sunlight stood out individually to me. No matter how you play it, when your reality involves a bar packed with heavily armed, paranoid, and seriously drunk men the resolution can be problematic.

    “Tell him we’re scouting a movie.” Stephane said in his heavily accented English. I wouldn’t have been completely surprised if someone had just shot him on the spot. Had I been armed I might have considered it myself. I turned back to the bartender to do some serious selling.

    “I’m telling the truth. We’re driving cross country from LA to New York scouting locations for a movie we’re making. I’ve made movies for twenty years, this is what I do. I can prove it. I don’t know what your deal is here but if you aren’t interested we can walk out the door right now, no hard feelings. I don’t want to cause any trouble.”

    As I spoke some of the men at the bar started muttering under their breath. I didn’t catch any specifics but I didn’t get the sense they were saying anything very friendly. Time to really pour it on.

    “The thing is, we’re looking for a bar exactly like this to film in. We pay lots of money when we do that. You aren’t interested, we can move along. We’ll find someplace else. It’s up to you.”

    “What’s up with your friends over there? What kind of shit language they talking?”

    “They’re okay,” I lied. “I’ve known them for years. They’re just French. They’re producing the movie, its French money. The French love America. They love the west. They love this place.”

    This brought the house down. Everyone at the bar laughed. Even the bartender. It was that “laughing at you” laughter, not the “laughing with you” kind.

    “You’re damn lucky Billy isn’t here. He hates the fucking French.” The guys at the bar nodded in agreement and chuckled. It seemed the moment had passed and the tension broke slightly. I did know that I didn’t want to meet Billy, though.
    “Give me some ID.” I handed over my driver’s license. He looked it over carefully. I gave him a business card and told him he could call and check me out with the New York City Mayor’s Office. He ignored that suggestion.

    “Okay if my friends take some pictures?” He gave it a long moment before giving me the OK. This caused some more grumbling from the crowd at the bar. I looked over at Stephane and Darius. Normally they would be chomping at the bit to shoot the place but for the moment neither of them had moved a muscle. I was scared that if they didn’t start shooting it would seem suspicious.

    “Okay guys,” I said in my most casual voice, “let’s get some pictures. Probably better if we avoid this area, though,” I broadly indicated the area where all the customers sat. Basically most of the bar.

    There was a connecting room with a pool table in it. Suffice it to say that they went to the farthest corner of that room and shot an extensive photographic record of the far wall, facing away from the bar. I really would have loved to have shot some good pictures of the interior myself but my attentions were better focused on the bartender.

    “You have to excuse us for being a little careful.” He opened up, “We get it from both sides here. The Feds hate us and look for any reason to take my license. Those bastards from the American Indian Movement been trying to shut us down for years. We’re the closest bar to the reservation and they got a problem with what we do here. Matter of fact just last month they got their courage up and loaded up a couple cars full of braves. Drove right up the road there. I didn’t want no trouble but my sons weren’t having it. They got up on the roof and put a dozen bullets in each car.” He chuckled at the memory. “You betcha they figured out how to put those jalopies in reverse real damn fast. Good shots, my boys. Youngest one is only thirteen and he can put a bullet through a nickel.”

    I told him I wanted to buy a round for the bar. At this point all the customers had turned back to their whiskey but it was clear plenty of attention was still quietly being paid to us. Stephane and Darius were done pretending to shoot photos and were trying to look small in the corner of the room.

    “They won’t drink with you. If you buy a bottle and leave it on the bar they’ll have it after you leave.”

    “Fine with me. I’ll buy one for them and why don’t you give me a bottle of Jack Daniels to take with us.”

    As he rang me up I finally noticed all of the bullet holes in the walls. I guess I was too nervous to really see before but they were everywhere. I had to ask.

    “Are those bullet holes? Was that from the AIM guys?”

    “Nah, those pussies never got a round off. No, you come back later tonight and someone in here will get mad and throw a couple shots around. If it gets too wild I fire a few in the ceiling and things calm down. “A quick glance up confirmed that he was telling the truth.

    “You’d best be on your way. Some of my customers still don’t like you.” I didn’t need to be told twice. The three of us went right for the door. As I left I heard over my shoulder.

    “Filming a movie, huh? Bullshit.” I didn’t stay to argue the point.

    The really funny thing is that a few months later, after I returned to New York, the phone calls started. Every few weeks I’d get a drunken voice mail from the guy at the Witches Well asking when we were coming to film there.

    ….

    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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  • July 29, 2009

    Terror Suspects

    by Sam Hutchins

    Hoover Dam

    Hoover Dam

    As much as I loved Vegas, leaving it always left me feeling empty. Going there is a conscious choice to avoid reality; departing is a forced reconciliation with it. This time was different, however, as we had forged such a bond the night before. We arrived as three individuals and left as a group. A much nicer departure than before.

    Driving east from Vegas, you have two choices: northeast or southeast. Utah or Arizona, not great options either way. I have no love for either state, nor did I see great potential for the type of people and places Kar Wai needed in either place. We headed towards Phoenix simply as it would keep us in the southern latitudes and wasn’t Utah. The road takes you past Lake Powell and the Hoover Dam, both of which are at least interesting for a student of American history.

    Not much to report on this leg as even the two-lane back road we took was crowded with RV’s and pickup trucks towing boats. Nothing more banal than that. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the surroundings and newly formed bonds of friendship. So much so that I allowed myself to make a mistake at the Hoover Dam.

    Approaching the dam there are signs everywhere stating what you cannot do. No parking, no pulling over, no videotaping here, no photography there. It was the work of a control freak gone wild. Even though it was recently enough post 9/11 that security concerns were still reasonable, this was a bit much. As I was processing all this, Darius suddenly grabbed my shoulder.

    “Here, here, pull over.” I knew better but I did so anyway. We eased into a little turnoff right at the edge of the dam. Electrical transformers and towers loomed over us, silently harnessing the might of Mother Nature. We parked directly under a sign that forbade cars from stopping.
    “I’m not sure this is a good place for us to stop.”

    “Pfft. You Americans are so uptight. Let Darius get some shots,” chimed in Stephane. I acquiesced. Admittedly, I started snapping away as well. The sky was a stunning shade of blue and we were amidst the majesty of man and nature both. It was quite seductive. Even so, I should have seen the Fed coming.

    “Freeze! Put the cameras down and keep your hands where I can see them!”

    He wasn’t kidding. Son of a bitch hadn’t actually drawn his gun, but his hand was on it and he was ready to. I immediately set my Leica on the pavement and grabbed some sky. Stephane lowered his camera and looked at the National Park Policeman with a nasty sneer. Darius kept rolling tape of the dam in that amazingly oblivious way of his, not reacting in the slightest.

    “Hey, I’m serious!” he started towards my cameraman. I could only see this ending with Darius being maced and beaten. Stephane spoke sharply to him in French, which was both good and bad. Good as it caught Darius attention and caused him to lower his camera; bad as it immediately fixed us as dangerous foreign terrorists in the eyes of this officious little prick of a cop.

    Mind you, I am a friend of law enforcement. Enough so that I dislike the bad ones all that much more, and we had found one. I carry a badge myself and can usually flash it and walk away from situations like this one with no hassle. Not this time, my friend. All my police connections were trumped by my companion’s foreign passports and accents, particularly Darius’ recent visa stamp from his trip to Iran.

    As proud as I can be of my country, this was a shameful episode. I suppose it is a function of living in New York City, but it is easy to forget how unsophisticated the better part of this nation can be. It boggles the mind that in the twenty-first century the act of being a Frenchman taking pictures is cause for suspicion and detainment. Hasn’t this guy heard of the Louisiana Purchase? General Lafayette? The Statue of frigging Liberty? We spent a few hours being checked out, questioned and suspected. After a great deal of explaining on my part we were set free.

    The encounter gave the three of us a great deal to talk about. We debated the American character, the balance between obeying rules and taking risks in the attempt to get great pictures, and the prevalence of guns in our country. My French friends were horrified by them. It wasn’t even lunch and we had already had an adventure. As the conversation flowed, so did the road. Past the dam we encountered wide-open landscapes and soon met even more gun-toting Americans.

    ….

    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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  • July 19, 2009

    A Healthy Appetite for Debauchery

    by Sam Hutchins

    Being a longtime bachelor (at the time) with a bit of money and a healthy appetite for debauchery, I have spent a lot of time in Vegas. Not only does it offer all the pleasure you like, it’s an incredibly easy weekend getaway. Two phone calls are all it takes. One to JetBlue for a ticket on flight 197 and one to Caesars’ for a room. Make the calls and the hotel will have a limo waiting for me at the airport, room is comped and it’s post time. That is pleasure, however, and this was work. I was heading to Las Vegas with no intentions of misbehaving. Felt sort of odd.

    In retrospect I clearly should have used my rating at Caesars to get the three of us a nice suite. I didn’t, however, as Kar Wai had made it quite clear that he wasn’t interested in scouting the strip. He was much more interested in the seamy underbelly of the town, so I had us staying downtown at the Golden Nugget. The rooms were booked before I got to know the fashion in which Darius and Stephane liked travelling. They were horrified by Fremont Street and downtown Vegas. The hotel was dingy, loud and offered terrible service. I looked at it as a compromise between the really sketchy places where Kar Wai wanted to be and the nicer accommodations available elsewhere. They looked at it as an awful dump of a hotel. They made no secret of their feelings about staying there.

    Wanting to compensate for the misstep, I took them to one of my favorite spots for dinner: The Palm steakhouse at Caesars’. We had a truly spectacular meal of oysters, shrimp, crab, salads, creamed spinach, fried potatoes and onions, huge slabs of prime beef and copious amounts of wine. One benefit to working with the French is the quality of wine you drink. Darius ordered the bottles and he really knows his grapes. We dropped close to a grand on dinner for the three of us, and it was worth every cent for the bonding we did around the table. Particularly as we charged it to the film.

    After many glasses of wine we really opened up and got to know one another, bragging of our victories, mourning our losses and reminiscing lost loves. The only part that got a little weird was our toasts. I was lectured on the etiquette of raising a glass with one’s confreres the proper French way. Darius insisted, and Stephane confirmed, that it is a grave insult to drink with someone without looking them directly in the eye. Darius is very seductive in the way only a Parisian can be and locking gazes with him like that made me uneasy. I felt like the cat that Pepe le Pew used to chase. I’ll take my cocktails without the intense stare, thank you.

    After dinner we made our way to Cleopatra’s Barge for some more drinks. Nothing says class like a gaudy floating bar replete with strobe lights, dry ice fog and the whitest black man in America covering Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” I’ve had some truly epic evenings in that joint. I taught my new best buddies the game “Guess which one is a hooker,” which is a rigged contest because at Cleopatra’s Barge they pretty much all are. The guys were fascinated by the concept and kept pressing me for details as to how I knew a girl was working. Darius didn’t entirely believe me; he’s innocently charming like that. As we were leaving one particularly innocuous looking young woman approached us and asked if we wanted to party with her, helping prove my point. All in all a very nice night and a big help in getting to know each other better.

    Arriving back at the Golden Nugget, I turned to my companions and made the effort once again.

    “Meet in the lobby at eight tomorrow morning?”

    I barely got the words out of my mouth before I was told it would be nine-thirty at the earliest. As we got to our rooms Stephane pulled me aside for a private word.
    “You know, Sam, I have a great location scout in Paris that I use all the time. Best location man in all Europe. When we work together he comes by my room in the morning with a nice cappuccino and maybe a little fruit and water.”

    “We have an expression for that sort of thing in America, Stephane.”

    “What ees that?”

    “Go fuck yourself.”

    My friend and mentor Jonathan taught me long ago that you can say anything at all to someone as long as you keep the tone light and smile when you say it. Turns out he was right.

    ….

    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.

    Photo courtesy H20man

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