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?”
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.