REEL 13
A Scouting Life
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  • July 7, 2009

    On the Edge of Vegas

    by Sam Hutchins

    Roy's Motel Cafe, south of Las Vegas

    Roy's Motel Cafe, south of Las Vegas

    That same first day we saw Roy’s, a spectacular old half-abandoned gas station in the desert.  It’s the place my friend Jesse had hipped me to, and he was right: it was a great location.  Roy’s had a googie-style sign and an attached café.  Only one bullet hole in the window and in pretty good shape for what it was and where it was. I couldn’t possibly imagine finding a more perfect place for Kar Wai to tell a story in and my instincts are pretty solid.  After rooting around and taking pictures there for a while we moved on to find even more fruits of the desert.

    There were small clusters of buildings every hundred miles or so, clinging close to the desert floor.  We found one such settlement labeled Amboy and another called Essex.  They each consisted of a few buildings like a post office, a gas station and a café with a few out buildings.  The structures were in good condition albeit weathered, and looked like they could easily have been open for business.  Yet they weren’t, and there was not a soul around.  So this is what America will look like after the Plague.  These places were eminently photographable but we could not spend too much time with them.  Given our druthers we each would have been happy to spend hours shooting, but they were not practical for our film.  Roy’s was a perfect location, almost as though it had been built, operated, shut down, abandoned and left to suffer the elements just so we could find it and film it.

    Abandoned settlements

    Abandoned settlements

    The first time we came upon one of these clusters of buildings we were half a mile beyond it by the time I had stopped the truck.  In part due to the way the buildings were built so close to the earth and surrounded by scrub brush but more so because of the speed at which we were travelling.  You see, I love to drive, especially under the right conditions.  We were on two-lane highways in the middle of the desert.  The roads were dry and in decent condition, consisting of long straightaways broken up by gently sloping curves that could be seen from miles away.  Better yet, we only saw another vehicle every few hours or so.  I was definitely testing the limits of our vehicle.  It accelerated quickly for such a big SUV and cruised comfortably at speed.  Stephane and Darius were happy to let me do the driving and were pretty caught up with themselves.  Neither one paid any attention to what I was up to behind the wheel.  Also, you quickly become acclimated to speed when in a moving vehicle for so long.  I gradually took us up to 90, 100, eventually 110 mph.  I held it there for a while, feeling my adrenaline rise and my nerves tingle from the speed.  I pushed it a little harder, nudging the needle towards 115.  The truck started to vibrate noticeably at that point so I backed off and pegged it at a steady 110.

    The desert blows past you at that speed, and it was fast enough to keep me focused on the road.  I wasn’t particularly worried about law enforcement where we were travelling.  If there was an incident that far out you’re easily waiting a few hours for a response to 911.  Plus, I am a friend to the police.  In my job you work pretty closely with cops, and I genuinely like most of them I’ve met.  Enough so that a few have actually become friends of mine.  Over time I have acquired an extensive collection of PBA cards and badges.  For those who don’t know, a PBA card is something police are issued to hand out to friends and family.  It’s pretty much a get out of jail free card up to a point.  They’ll generally get you out of speeding tickets and similar petty offenses.  Having one won’t help you out of a real jackpot but it doesn’t hurt to let whoever has pulled you over know that you are considered trustworthy by other members of the law enforcement community.  I was carrying almost a dozen such cards from various agencies and jurisdictions as well as a few actual badges, but those are stories for another day.  For now all that matters is that I was able to speed with impunity and enjoyed the hell out of doing so.

    Eventually we hooked up with old state route 95 and shot straight north towards Vegas.  It is a more commercial route and the driving turned from pleasure to chore.  I went from driving as I pleased on an empty road to being hemmed in by an endless succession of trucks doing 90.  The road began climbing up out of the desert floor and through rising foothills.  It was definitely time to be aware, just as I was getting a little road-weary and the light was starting to fade.  I wanted to press straight through to Vegas but lost the vote, so we stopped.

    It turned out to be a good decision.  We pulled off at a truck stop-diner-casino just over the mountain from the outskirts of Vegas.  It was nice to have a cup of coffee, and my companions were completely taken by the fact that the diner had so many slot machines.  I’ve been to Vegas dozens of times, so I’m used to the prevalence of gaming opportunities, but Stephane and Darius were seeing it for the first time.  They were thinking profound thoughts about the death of the American Dream; I was fuelling up on caffeine.  We met an unbelievably sweet waitress who was a little fond of Stephane.  After initial confusion based on his accent and generally scattered manner she started flirting with him pretty hard.  It ended the best way possible, with the three of us eating free slices of apple pie al a mode.

    As we stretched and scratched our way back to the ride it occurred to me that I had never driven into Vegas before.  Surprising, really, as I used to spend a lot of time out there.  As a single guy it made for a great long weekend destination.  Warm, sunny, easy to get to and as much trouble as one wanted to find.  Many of my friends live in Los Angeles. Vegas had been a great place to hook up with them.  Takes only two calls to arrange, one to JetBlue and one to Caesars Palace.  But I had never driven any farther than from McCarren Airport.  Arriving after a long day in the desert was a different thing entirely.

    Before we embarked on the final run into town I quietly switched the cord over to use my iPod as the music source.  Stephane had done a decent job of picking tunes all day but now it was my turn.  I put on the Joe Strummer/Johnny Cash cover of “Redemption Song” and put it in gear.  It was as perfect as I expected.  The light was almost gone and night was coming on strong.  We soared over the mountains and faced the golden flashing lights of Vegas as my two favorite musicians guided our journey.  Darius insisted we listen to the song several times in a row as it brought us home.   For the first time that day the three of us were completely in tune with one another and the universe.  Not a bad first day at all.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • June 26, 2009

    A Sense of Menace in the Desert

    by Sam Hutchins

    Outside Twentynine Palms, Mojave Desert, California

    Outside Twentynine Palms, Mojave Desert, California

    Continuing on, we passed through Twentynine Palms. Seeing signs for the Joshua Tree National Park, we briefly considered a detour, but it was already getting on into the afternoon so we skipped it. From the look of the map it looked like we were heading into the desert soon, and we did. Twentynine Palms is actually a decent size town, fueled largely by a massive Marine Corps base just outside city limits. It’s also one of those western towns that just ends. Never ceases to amaze me when I see that. You’re on the main drag, with seemingly countless gas stations, bars and gun stores. Turning onto a side road you travel a few similar blocks, pass some houses, and then the city just stops. You’re in the wilderness. Makes me wonder what it’s like to live in that last house on the edge of town. Don’t know that I could handle it. Sure, the view would be great, but how do you sleep at night knowing you’re the closest food source for any wildlife that requires such? Then again, whoever that guy living in the last house in town is he probably would think I was crazy for living in New York City.

    Just a few miles out of town we saw an adobe roadhouse. I didn’t particularly like the looks of the joint but it was likely our last shot at lunch for quite some time. Unsurprisingly there were several meth-head types and other sorts of scary frontier types sucking down dollar-fifty beers at the bar. I gave my standard spiel about scouting and introduced myself around, playing the role of hail-fellow-well-met. Quite unusually no one really seemed to give a shit. We were free to shoot pictures as we pleased. The place was sort of interesting-looking but not great. Snooping around the place it appeared to be a pretty heavy biker bar and I was happy we had not stopped there in the evening. The place carried a tangible sense of menace.

    The bartender was one of those women who look like they are 38 going on 60, definitely some rough living there. She seemed fairly annoyed that we wanted hamburgers and had to be talked into making us some. When she reluctantly agreed, she came out from behind the bar and walked out the door. We sat and watched as she crossed the yard to a nasty old trailer and banged on the side with her open hand. She did so until a gorgeous young blonde emerged, stretching and pretty clearly just rolling out of bed for the first time that day. They returned to the bar with the younger of them shuffling wordlessly into the kitchen to make us some lunch. It took a few moments to figure out but eventually the resemblance between the two women registered. They were mother and daughter. That lithe young thing was going to become the used-up bartender with the hacking cough now pouring us cokes and cracking dirty jokes in due time. I wanted to tell her to run, get out while she could, but I didn’t suspect the sentiment would be well-received.

    At first, my road buddies Stephane and Darius seemed oblivious to the bad vibes I was getting but eventually it registered with them as well. For such sensitive guys they can be a little oblivious at times. By the time our food came we were all eager to finish fast and get on our way. I’m not sure if living in the extreme conditions of the desert warps people, or if previously warped people are drawn to live in harsh conditions like that but there is an unquestionable edge of strangeness to most people we met living out there. Until you’ve travelled in similar places the film “Near Dark” doesn’t make much sense. Once you have, it feels more like a documentary.

    The old mine.

    Deposits from the old mine.

    Pressing on, we hit the gold mine. Literally and figuratively. We found a stretch of desert road running through land owned by a mining operation. The waste of the extraction process left what appeared to be a crust of salts and other minerals baked into the desert floor and piled along the roadside. It was quite striking visually and we spent a good deal of time shooting pictures. It would prove to be attractive to Kar Wai as well, and we revisited it with him later on. Certainly toxic to some degree, it nonetheless was such an odd-looking spot on the earth that it begged to be filmed. Between the wind farm in the morning and the mineral flats in the desert it was a productive day so far. If we could keep this pace, finding two good locations for Kar Wai each day, we would have an abundance of riches to return with. I took down the mining company’s information so I could contact them for permission to film there later and we moved on down the road.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • June 24, 2009

    Venturing into the American West

    by Sam Hutchins

    Darius Khondji taking stills.

    Darius Khondji taking stills.

    We made it to LA without incident, and the flight was actually rather pleasant. One very nice thing about my business is flying first class. There is simply no way you can go back to coach once you get used to a seat that reclines into a bed, not to mention the unlimited free whiskey. Given those circumstances I actually hate to land. Another good thing about being in the air was not worrying about either of my companions wandering off and getting lost. Safely confined in the plane, I didn’t have to worry about losing them, as would clearly be the case when earthbound.

    After collecting our ridiculous cache of luggage we trammed it to hertz and picked up a great big SUV. We were making a low budget film, so of course the initial thought had been to cram us into some sort of sedan. All three of us had rebelled at this, and I actually tried to get us the biggest truck possible. Knowing what the road is like there is great advantage to travelling in a Ford Expedition or something similar. I love the environment as much as anyone, but not to the point of travelling thousands of miles shoehorned into a small car. Ultimately we compromised on a Nissan Armada, which appeared to be the most spacious option without going up to one of the real monster size rides. Good thing we held out. Once our luggage was loaded we three were a snug fit.

    It was late so we checked into a hotel near LAX and got ourselves settled. Darius and Stephane were meeting a potential production designer, but I was not needed, so I chose to grab some sleep. In retrospect, it is rather funny that this fellow’s interview was as unusual as mine, meeting two weird Frenchmen in the bar of an airport hotel close to midnight. For my part, I found it hard to sleep as excited as I was. The thrill of starting an epic journey kept me up for quite a while, with me eventually falling asleep to the late rerun of Sportscenter.

    Just before parting company with my travel companions, I made a valiant effort at starting out bright and early.

    “What do you say, guys, meet in the lobby at eight am, checked out and having had?”

    “Aving ad? What does this mean?” asked Stephane in that goofy accent.

    “It means having had breakfast. At eight tomorrow morning we should meet here in the lobby having already eaten breakfast and turned in your room key, ready to travel. We have lots to see.”

    From the look on their faces I might as well have just kicked their dogs and insulted their wives. Obviously this was an uphill battle. In the end we compromised on a 9AM leave time. At a quarter after nine the next morning they ambled into the lobby and insisted we eat breakfast before leaving. For me, a scouting breakfast is a bagel and a coffee scarfed down while driving. For them apparently it was more like a casually eaten bowl of fresh fruit, yogurt and granola. I suppose there are worse problems to have in life than meandering through a lengthy breakfast, but I was already wondering how anything gets done in France.

    My spirits soared once we were on the road, though. Navigating due east out of LA there was nothing but open road and the entire country laid out before us. We took the 10 east through a few hours of suburban LA sprawl as we started getting to know each other better. My only issue was their occasional lapses into speaking French, but that was an understandable thing. For the most part it was a pleasant bit of fast highway driving under a sunny blue sky. Although quite well-traveled, I am born and raised in the northeast. It’s easy to forget the beauty and majesty of the American West. Jumping off the highway at Palm Springs I was struck by the surrounding vista. Driving the desert road with massive mountains rising on the horizon sent my soul soaring. What an amazing sight to behold.

    Turning north towards Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, we encountered the first wind farm I had ever seen. Enormous windmills rose like aliens from the desert floor. Ignoring the many “no trespassing” signs posted, we did our first bit of off-road four-wheeling. Damn good thing we had the SUV after all. No regular sedan would have made those moves. We pulled over and got out to shoot some pictures. It quickly became apparent that shooting video was a pain in the ass. We had brought a professional grade camera and it was rather cumbersome. Darius shot a few clips using Stephane as an actor but soon packed up the video rig for the last time on the trip. We instead shot lots of stills, taking in the amazing views. Not bad for our first pullover, definitely an amazing and otherworldly spot. If our trip proved this easily bountiful we were going to have some amazing stuff.

    Darius and Stephane

    Darius and Stephane

    I had given a lot of thought to how Kar Wai’s films would play in an environment like this. His work is so urban and confined, and he loves industrial decay layered with streaks of electric neon colors. Frankly I just couldn’t see it until this very moment. Standing on the burnished sand of the desert floor, mountains obscured by the haze under these giant looming alien-looking machines it all clicked for me. I could see one of the loners he so loves portraying looking lost in their surroundings as the blades of the windmills slowly whomp-whomp-whomped away overhead. Yeah, man, this was it. This felt 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.

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  • June 9, 2009

    The Importance of Being Punctual

    by Sam Hutchins

    JFK International Airport

    JFK International Airport

    The die was cast; we were set to embark. An ambitious, detailed itinerary had been built. Darius, Stephane and I would depart for LAX and begin making our way back to New York City over the course of the next month. Kar Wai would join us at some point along the way, and Jackie might as well. We planned to drive mainly on blue line highways, the primary route of auto transit prior to the interstate highway system. They should take us to the out-of-the-way, forgotten spots that Kar Wai favored so. It was a great adventure that we were setting out on. Honestly, if I could create a dream job this would probably be it.

    My concerns were legion, of course. Scouting even in areas you know can be hit-or-miss. No one can know the entire country, no matter how good you are. I had done my homework and prepared us as well as anyone could. I even had a trick up my sleeve, having pre-scouted a few promising sounding locations outside of LA over the phone. My good pal Jesse Lehrman is one of the top still photo/fashion scouts on the west coast. Jesse hipped me to a known desert gas station called Roy’s that lies between LA and Vegas. The photos he sent me looked great. Apparently there are other rundown cantinas in the area as well, scattered around the desert outside Twentynine Palms.

    My biggest concern was actually my travelling companions. I was about to spend a whole lot of time in a car with two guys I hardly knew. First impression is that they were, well, French. Don’t get me wrong: the French are a magnificent people. They have a long and storied history. The foods, wines, literature are all as good as can be found anywhere. I have so many things that I love about them. That being said, they can also be massive pains in the ass. The French are by nature an argumentative people, and at that particular point in history, they were awfully down on America. Probably with good reason, but that’s a story for another blog. For all of Stephane’s impishness and Darius’ passion they were ultimately unknown quantities as travelling companions.

    I had a fair amount of equipment to tote along. In addition to my 20 lbs of topo maps covering a good part of the country, I had my laptop, cameras, cell phone, iPod, and all the requisite cords and cables. There was also the matter of clothing. We were planning to cover the country from roughly the Southwest up to the Northeast in winter, so we intended to pass through a wide range of climates. I managed to fit everything in a standard airline carry-on, my computer case, and one tote bag. The colder climes were covered by the heavy leather jacket I carried on my back. My companions, however, were not so good at packing light.

    When we met at the office prior to departing I was shocked at all they brought. Stephane wasn’t as bad; he only brought a battered leather suitcase, a large duffel bag, a laptop case and a couple camera cases. Half my size and twice the baggage. Darius, however, might as well have been in the turn of the century boarding an ocean liner for a round the world tour. He had so much luggage we had to hire a second car to get us all to JFK. To be fair, he had no plans to return to Paris, so he was carrying his wardrobe for roughly the next six months. That being said, I suggested he winnow things out a bit and store the extra luggage at the production office. He was having none of it, insisting that he needed everything at hand. I was not pleased at the thought of hauling all that stuff cross-country with us. We had a tight schedule with numerous airport connections and that load wasn’t going to make it easy.

    Our two-car caravan left for JFK, one car for us and another for the luggage. Didn’t leave on time, of course, as my two companions were dawdling around the office well past the appointed departure. One thing to know about me is that I am punctual to a fault. Actually that’s not true; I’m early. Especially when it comes to work and travel. When travelling for work I’m even worse, it gets borderline obsessive. I have surprised directors I was due to pick up at 9 for a scout by being out front when they walked their dog at 7:30. Just part of who I am and how I do the job. I have ended relationships with otherwise lovely women due to their constant lateness; it is not something I can abide. Faced with coworkers who rank higher than me on the organizational chart I have little recourse.

    It got worse at the airport. In addition to helping the guys with their extensive baggage, they did everything possible to avoid going to the gate. I did have a little chuckle at the desk when the clerk kept referring to Stephane as Stephanie. I saw how it bothered him and filed that away for future use. Another wrinkle was Darius’ passport with dozens of international destinations stamped in it. In a recently post-9/11 world, stamps indicating you were just visiting Iran are not particularly helpful. Once the bulk of the luggage was checked in I started race-walking to the gate. Not my boys, though. Stephane was browsing magazines and Darius was in a Brookstone having an in-depth discussion as to the merits of various gadgets that charge your electronics. I was as polite as possible about moving them along but they exhibited a distinct lack of concern.

    Ultimately I left them. Time was short and I did not want to miss the plane. I made sure they both knew the gate we were assigned and busted my hump to get there. Darius started to say something about being patient but I pretended not to hear him so as to avoid additional delay. I arrived at the gate and checked in as they were making the final boarding call.

    At least we were flying business class. Travel is difficult enough. Flying cross-country in coach is a drag. I tried to relax in my comfy half-bed, half-seat but was too anxious about my partners making the flight. I was already trying to plan for their delayed arrival at LAX when they both ambled onto the plane. They hadn’t even found their seats when the stewardess sealed the door and started bugging them about getting settled.

    “You see,” said Stephane, “We had plenty of time. I think you worry too much.”

    “Thank God you found me,” replied Darius, “I had no idea what gate we were in. Sam, you really need to make sure I get to these places. I could have missed the plane.”

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • June 5, 2009

    Plotting the Journey across America

    by Sam Hutchins

    Darius Khondji (Director of Photography) & Wong Kari Wai

    Darius Khondji (Director of Photography) & Wong Kari Wai

    Wong Kar Wai seemed to be wrapping his head around the story. I would have to hope so, as we had been putting in lots of time. We mainly worked nights, driving all over the city. Travis Bickle had nothing on me. We drove mostly city streets adjacent to elevated subway tracks. Every once in a while Kar Wai would come to life and excitedly tell me to stop so we could pull over and talk our way into a late night dive. For the most part, though, I just drove – drove and drove and drove, all night long. We would go for hours of silence together, Kar Wai with his head tilted back, staring somewhere in the distance. He was seeing but not looking, if that makes sense. I often peeked to make sure he wasn’t napping behind those sunglasses, but he never was. Just finding the thread. He snapped out of it one late night somewhere around College Point.

    “Coney Island. We need to go back to Coney Island.”

    Eventually I’d get used to his sudden changes of direction, but this was the first time I was seeing it. He really did lose himself in his thoughts to the point that he didn’t know what state he was in. He’d start thinking the story through, something would occur to him, and he would immediately want to go someplace I had shown him. Unfortunately the directives often came in the form of “Go to that window, the one with the orange light”. With the right questions you might eventually figure out that he was talking about the strip mall across from Rotier’s Hamburgers in Nashville where you parked your car before dinner the night before. Even if you were in Memphis by then, you turn around and get back to Nashville so he can work things through. This first time, however, he only wanted to take a drive down the Van Wyck.

    Back to Coney Island we went. I was still hoping to convince Kar Wai and crew to work in New Orleans. It has such characters, such history, and such decadence. Kar Wai loves outcasts and the dissolute. The tired hooker, the junkie musician, and the compromised housewife really live there. They were his type of people. However, it seemed like we may never leave New York. Coney Island it was, then.

    A window where Norah Jones' character spots her lover with another woman.

    A window where Norah Jones' character spots her lover with another woman.

    The car had barely stopped before Kar Wai leapt out and strode down Surf Avenue. Darius Khondj (the DP), Stephane, and I hurried to catch up. Kar Wai stopped and pointed at a second floor window.
    “Norah is here on the street. She looks up there and sees her lover with another woman. She has a decision to make. She feels the best way to get someplace is to walk in the opposite direction sometimes.”

    Wow. The fan in me appreciates it. I see it as a good point of departure, but what does it mean? All three of us decided we liked the premise and told him so. Then, of course, the pragmatist in me kicks in.

    “So where does she go from here?”

    “She has to go west. She can’t go east,” he said as he waved his hand toward the ocean. Fair enough. Still leaves a lot of choices. “You guys should go out and find a restaurant where she works. Find a few. I think probably she ends up in Los Angeles.”

    And that was it. The end of our night rides. We started meeting in the office during the days and trying to get our heads around the plan. Kar Wai and Darius had lengthy technical discussions about how to shoot the film. Kar Wai had an impressive knowledge of even arcane cameras and ways to use them. I was only on the fringe of those conversations, and many took place without me present, but I loved every bit to which I was privy. Here were two master filmmakers practicing their craft. Despite Darius’ impressive body of work, he gladly embraced the lessons he was receiving and brought much of his own to the table. For his part, Stephane vanished to the hotel where he spent long hours working through story concepts with Kar Wai. I was doing my best to come up with a plan for the trip.

    Darius, Kar Wai, and Jackie testing cameras at the lover's window.

    Darius, Kar Wai, and Jackie testing cameras.

    As much as I like to be a key part of the process, I wasn’t getting a lot of time with Kar Wai. I get it; we all have a role to fill. One has to keep ego out of it, and this was a very different method of filmmaking. This was typically the point in the process where I work closest with the director, but Kar Wai had other priorities. He was deep into it with Darius and Stephane both. The little guidance I was able to get was secondhand through Stephane. This came in the form of statements like, “We should go to Memphis.” To be honest, I didn’t entirely trust Stephane. I had no doubt that any suggestions Kar Wai gave that didn’t jibe with Stephane would not make it to me. One day Stephane came in excitedly waving a book, telling me he had the answer to my questions. He had been given a book by Kar Wai that had photographs of exactly what he wanted us to scout for him. It was a nice, high-quality photo book from Rizzoli. The book contained gorgeous pictures of plates of food from diners all across the country. Close-ups, pictures of pieces of pie and western omelets from unidentified restaurants.

    Sometimes I spin my wheels a bit as a job starts. If I flattered myself I’d say it’s my own version of the reverie Kar Wai goes through, but I can’t honestly give myself that much credit. This was as bad as it gets. No guidance whatsoever. I spent several days staring at the wall trying to wrap my head around the task. I did some preliminary work, such as going to the Hagstrom Store and buying detailed topo maps of about half the states, favoring the South as that was my gut at the time. I browsed several travel bookstores, seeking out a wide range of volumes, including Frommers city guides, rough guides, the Sterns guide to great obscure road foods, books on the great roads to drive in America, and the others even more obscure. Still, it took a while to click for me. As always, I woke up one morning and felt the fear. It always happens like that. As soon as I was worried I dove into it to an obsessive level.

    I get a little OCD when I’m in the zone, to the point where I cannot eat or sleep until I solve the problem. I was there, and I went at it hammer and tongs. I skimmed every book, did extensive web research, and called everyone I knew across the country. I was a man obsessed. Within a week I had plotted a course leaving New York and taking us in multiple segments cross the country. I had us driving blue line highways a few days at a time, ending at an airport where I knew things got boring and jumping a flight to the next interesting piece of land. It gave us about five short flights zigzagging the land over three weeks. The itinerary mixed it up between interesting geographic areas, promising restaurants, and cities with character. I was incredibly proud of the work until I showed it to Kar Wai and he responded, “No. Start in California and come back.” I went back to work on a west-to-east itinerary.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

    • comments (0)
  • June 1, 2009

    A Cast of Characters Converges

    by Sam Hutchins

    Darius Khondi, Jackie, and Wong Kar Wai.

    Darius Khondji (DP), Jackie (Producer), and Wong Kar Wai.

    There is a tradition of great artists treating every aspect of their lives as a part of their work – people who are so driven by the creative urge that the individual and the work become one and the same. It can lead to personal tragedy, as in the case of Yukio Mishima. He was so consumed by his story that it ended with him eviscerating himself; ultimately it was the statement he needed to make. More likely it can wreak havoc on the lives of those around the artist, as happened with Wagner. His was a life spent taking advantage of his patrons to the point of financial ruin in the service of his compositions. I doubt he ever felt guilt or remorse. The consequences did not matter as long as he was able to make his music. His operas are still performed and appreciated across the globe and no one remembers or cares that people went bankrupt and lives were ruined to finance his lifestyle. A more current (and less tragic) example is Fellini. Much as Fellini had done, Kar Wai surrounds himself with a rotating cast of characters who service his creative impulse in varying fashions. It was my pleasure and sometimes punishment to serve as a character in his life story for a time. His world is populated by colorful individuals, each of whom serves some purpose in his process.

    I’ve already written about Jackie. She is a very petite Chinese woman who seems very much like a Dr. Seuss character. Perpetually smiling, she has a head of hair that resembles a cross between cotton candy and pulled taffy, with tufts sticking out every which way. Her wardrobe consists of brightly colored sweat suits and oversized children’s sneakers. In time I would learn that she was highly intelligent and a bit ruthless behind that cartoonish façade; her family had shadowy holdings in the Macao casinos and other somewhat suspect industries. She is one of Kar Wai’s longest collaborators: she is his producer. Jackie has a penchant for organizing big dinners and late night drinking binges. It wasn’t unheard of for her to wind up slipping you a little tongue at some point in the evening but she was also razor sharp and no one to be trifled with.

    Both Kar Wai and Jackie made frequent references to William. His arrival was long anticipated and much remarked upon. I was able to discern that he was Kar Wai’s production designer and his editor. Not a combination of roles I had ever heard of. With time I would come to know him as Kar Wai’s most trusted creative ally. He was very quiet with a gentle, easy smile. The two were almost like brothers, with William playing the more passive, reflective role. At this stage in the story, however, he was just a rumor whose arrival was delayed while he finished other vague projects Kar Wai had started in Hong Kong.

    I’ve mentioned Stephane previously. He was a bit of a cartoon character himself. Short, rumpled, he dressed as sort of a cross between an intellectual and a French rock and roller. One of those guys who perpetually wears five days of stubble. He speaks with a heavy accent and is full of energy and whimsy. I was rather shocked to discover that he had two sons and a wife in Paris. He gave the impression he had lived on the road his whole life. He initially comes across as a bit of a goof but late at night when a steady hand is needed on the wheel he steps up every time and takes it home. Stephane was such a key part of the process that it was shocking to discover that his acquaintance with Kar Wai was fairly recent in nature. His official title was Creative Producer. It may as well have been imp, muse, or alter ego.

    Chris Doyle cast a lengthy shadow over the group. Anyone conversant with Kar Wai’s work knows the legend. A dissolute Aussie and legendary drinker, he had worked his way across Southeast Asia before settling in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong. He had photographed most of Wong Kar Wai’s movies prior to some sort of violent falling out on 2046. Kar Wai smiles all the time but his smiles have many meanings. When he spoke of Chris his smile was one of genuine love. Apparently Chris didn’t even keep an apartment that anyone knew of. He worked long hours on set then retired to any of a number of shithole back-alley bars or brothels where he drank himself into oblivion. Someone was sent to drag his sodden form back to set so they could shoot again the next day. Kar Wai is an instigator and a guy like Chris is his ideal companion. Highly talented and able to shoot incredibly lovely pictures, he is also a hell raiser, troublemaker and source of conflict and entertainment. He was quoted as describing the making of 2046 thusly: “It feels like… it’s like a hairball in a dog’s stomach.” I think he broke Kar Wai’s heart even though the master gave no indication that was the case.

    Chris was replaced by Darius Khondji. A tall Iranian expat now settled in as a Parisian, he was just as much a character as the rest. Rather handsome in an exotic way, he is the true definition of a lover. Everything about him is driven by emotion and heart. He is easily distracted, fascinated by everyone he meets and everything he sees. Darius can get in a passionate, heated argument over the relative quality of an oyster. And quality was certainly of import to him. He is accustomed to a certain lifestyle and unwilling to compromise in that area. The man knows what he likes and insists on it. He has an incredibly good eye and a hunger for life. A fine replacement in every respect.

    Darius arrived in New York and really set the wheels in motion. He joined us in scouting the origins of Norah’s character in New York. We looked in every imaginable corner of the city and surrounding area for a location in which to start her story. It was a strange and interesting time. Scouting is not the most traditional job to begin with but we pushed it to extremes. Instead of working in a cubicle I found myself hopping fences to shoot photos on active train tracks as the sun rose over the polluted Meadowlands swamps overlooking New York. Explaining the presence of myself, a few Hong Kong nationals, a Frenchman, an Iranian and several cameras to a highly dubious railroad policeman became a matter of course to me. All this and we hadn’t even started cross-country yet.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • May 26, 2009

    The Dangerous Hours

    by Sam Hutchins

    Jackson Heights, Queens

    Jackson Heights, Queens

    As we were getting in the car a subway pulled out of the station and passed over our heads on the tracks.

    “Where does that go?” Wong Kar Wai asked.

    “Through south Brooklyn and into Manhattan eventually,” I answered.

    “We should follow it. Let’s look at places under the tracks.”

    Not surprising. Directors are often drawn to elevated subway lines. Understandably so: they are a great visual. The problem invariably is the sound. It’s not an issue if you are shooting a short scene, but I had no idea what we were going to shoot in whatever restaurant we did find. Nor did anyone else for that matter. When I brought up possible sound concerns I once again got that Cheshire cat smile of his.

    “You’ve seen my films. Don’t worry about sound. I like the noise the trains make.”

    Even knowing his work as well as I did it was hard to dismiss lessons that have been ingrained so deeply over the years. Scouting with him really was unique in every way. Not just regarding sound, either. It’s incredibly rare that you spend the kind of time with a director that I did with Kar Wai. Typically you bring directors photographs of several location choices, they pick a few, and then you go look at them together. Driving around searching for possible locations is something I do alone. In this case it was helpful for us to drive together for many different reasons. Kar Wai wasn’t just looking for locations; he was looking for a story. He was also familiarizing himself with the culture. I cannot imagine going to China and making a film intended for a Chinese audience, yet he was fearlessly working in our culture.

    Still, I suggested that I come back and do the driving alone. Kar Wai was not having it. I also pointed out that lots of restaurants were closed; after all it was pushing midnight. He countered that he needed to scout at night to really get the essence of a place, which does make sense. His films largely take place at night, in the types of places that are open in the dangerous hours. The man is a poet of the floating world. So we drove.

    Eventually we wound up in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood where differing South and Central American cultures coexist in close quarters. Even late, street life was still hopping there. Kar Wai had been slipping into a bit of a reverie but perked up at the vibe the area was putting out. Soon enough he made us pull over.

    The place that caught his eye was a Dominican restaurant under the train on Roosevelt Avenue. It was a long, narrow space with lots of windows. Truly ugly fluorescent light poured out of the windows onto the sidewalk. The place was filthy. Disgustingly so. The walls were dirty, and trash lined the sidewalk. The windows were streaked with layers of grease. Now I’m no shrinking violet, not by a long stretch. I’ve shot in bowery flophouses without batting an eye, but this place made even me pause.

    “You sure?”

    “Look at it. It’s perfect.”

    And it was, for him. I left the others outside and went in to do my thing. There were a couple of old timers eating late, a woman behind the counter, and what looked to be some sort of she male-in-progress chatting with her. Great. I approached the woman working there.

    “Excuse me, miss, I…”

    “She doesn’t speak English,” said the transsexual.

    “Oh. Maybe you can help me.” I went into my normal spiel about wanting to take some pictures and consider using the place in a film. It’s not uncommon for people to disbelieve me when I first approach them. This was a rare situation where I was the one having trouble accepting what was happening.

    Anyone who labors under the illusion that the film business is glamorous needs to walk in my shoes for a mile. Standing in a grease pit of a Dominican restaurant late at night while an overweight and extremely unconvincing tranny helps you communicate with the owner is probably not what most people think of when they envision the filmmaking process. While my new friend was chatting rapidly with the counter woman in Spanish, Kar Wai came inside. He took one look at the scene in front of him and got a huge smile on his face. He loves that stuff. He held up his camera and I nodded assent for him to start shooting pictures.

    “She’s not the owner. Come back during the day and you can talk to him,” the tranny said.

    “Fantastic. I really appreciate your help,” I said.

    “No problem. Here, take my number, I’ll help you speak to the owner, too.”

    “Thanks, that’s very nice, but I have a scout who speaks Spanish, I’ll have him come back here,” I lied.

    “Okay, but take it anyway, you know, if you want to call me for anything else.”

    “Take her number, Sam, she can help us,” Kar Wai said. Wow. He was turning out to be some sort of instigator. I took the number and we moved on. Kar Wai and Stephane laughed about it the whole way home.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • May 22, 2009

    At the End of the Country, Coney Island

    by Sam Hutchins

    Nathan's, Coney Island

    Nathan's, Coney Island

    We wound up making many scouting trips to Coney Island, and indeed did our first day of filming there. Makes sense if you know the Wong Kar Wai’s work. It really is his type of place. His movies feature locations that are older and a little beat up. Places with history. I wouldn’t necessarily say he believes in ghosts, but he does believe that places are imbued with the spirits of those who passed through them. Coney Island is all that and more. You have the wide-open ocean buttressed by the remnants of New York City’s playground. A playground of yesteryear, now gone to seed. The rides, games and food stands are all dated and barely hanging on. The only recent addition is the freak show, which feels like a good fit in Kar Wai’s world.

    This particular night, however, was Kar Wai’s first time seeing Coney Island. It was early evening in the offseason, so most of it was shuttered up and battened down. Nathan’s was the only place that showed signs of life. For my part, I was getting accustomed to Kar Wai’s scouting process. It was indeed unique, like everything else about him. Every director has his own way. You learn to feel them out and find your comfort zone. Some want you to take the lead and give them an in-depth guided tour of whatever place you happen to be. Others prefer you fade into the background and only re-emerge when questions arise.

    Kar Wai was both cerebral and mercurial. There were many extended periods of silence and lots and lots of movement. Stephane and I mostly trailed close behind and snapped pictures of whatever he seemed to be looking at. The man is tall and completely caught up in his own head. He would stop and stand silently for long stretches of time, his gaze focused on nothing discernable. Then in a flash those long legs would be pumping and he’d be tearing off down the boardwalk without a look back. I can only wonder what thoughts were bouncing around inside his head; he clearly had a lot going on in there. In any case, it was clearly incumbent on us to keep up with him. As absorbed in his thoughts as he was he could have walked in one side of a burning building and out the other without smelling the smoke.
    We circled the area several times, to the point where both Stephane and I were breathing a little heavily. Not Kar Wai, though. The guy is a machine. Once he sufficiently had the lay of the land he turned his attention to us. He indicated several food stands he would like to see open, possible places for Norah’s character to work.

    “So you think she might work out here as opposed to a place in the city?”

    “I don’t know. I want to consider both.”

    “Are there specific features of either location that you prefer?”

    “In the city I like the idea of her being in a small space, surrounded by structures. Maybe a diner under the raised subway tracks. I like the feeling of her being trapped in a corner. Out here I like the wide-open space over the ocean, and the fact that it is the very end of the country. If she starts here there is only one direction for her to go.”

    All right then. I should scout for a place that was claustrophobic or wide-open, deep in the city or out on the shore. It’s actually entirely common for a director to be all over the ice like this early in the process. There is much more to locations work than just the literal. One of our most important functions is to help the director focus his vision, and at the beginning of a project they are often pulled in vastly divergent directions. Most directors have already made the film in their minds before they hired me. When I start taking them out they have to reconcile their vision with what’s really out there. This often takes them to entirely different concepts than the one with which they started. Kar Wai only had the bare bones of a story, but every story begins someplace and that was what we were looking for.
    Clearly we were in the right neighborhood. Kar Wai loved the rickety old rides, the once-bright but now faded colors, the whole milieu. There were some very shady looking hotels that piqued his interest. I would need a little time to talk my way into those places. They were either SRO’s filled with old drunks or hot-sheet hotels used for prostitution; either way it would take some finesse to gain entry. There were a few food stands on the boardwalk that were of interest. He was fascinated by the “shoot the freak” attraction, where you pay for the privilege of shooting paint balls at a kid made up as a mongoloid. We found a shot on a side street with the famous Cyclone roller coaster framed up in the background.

    “We need to get that lit up at night.” He said and kept moving.

    We circled the area again and again. I was starting to get the hang of his method. Kar Wai is a man of very few words, which makes it difficult. The temptation is to fill the silence with words in an attempt to draw him out. After a few questions were completely ignored it became clear that I needed to wait him out. He wasn’t being rude by not replying to me; he was simply lost in his own mind. I was learning that the best gauge of his interest in a place was how much time he spent standing silently in front of it.

    Gregory & Pauls, Coney Island

    Gregory & Pauls, Coney Island

    One place he kept returning to was a food stand called “Greg and Paul’s” that sat on the boardwalk directly adjacent Astroland amusement park. I didn’t entirely understand what made it better than the rest, but it was certainly worth taking a look at.

    “Can we look inside?”

    “I’ll have to track down the owner. Hopefully we can open it up.”

    “Tonight?”

    By this time it was pushing midnight. It was January and we were in Coney Island. The wind was whipping down the boardwalk and we had not seen another person for several hours.

    “No, I’m going to need a few days.”

    “Okay, we come back tomorrow and look at it. This is very good. Also, the hotel.”

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • May 20, 2009

    Go Where the Character Takes You

    by Sam Hutchins

    Mott Street, Chinatown, New York City

    Mott Street, Chinatown, New York City

    We started the next day early… with a late lunch (an early scout for Kar Wai meant starting in the mid-afternoon). Don’t get the idea that he was lazy, though; nothing could be farther from the truth.  James Brown used to be called “The hardest working man in show business,” but only because he hadn’t met Wong Kar Wai. If we started our work day with a lunch in the mid-afternoon it meant we were scouting until the middle of the night, if not all the way to dawn.  Kar Wai would then return to his hotel and write for several hours. He is one of those people who only need a few hours of sleep a night, filling the remaining hours with productive time. No single person could hope to maintain the pace he does, thus he had learned to break his days into shifts, exhausting those who scouted with him before starting anew with his writing team.

    No live shrimp or other exotica for this lunch, thank heavens. We did eat in Chinatown, though, as would prove true for most of our meals. We all know someone who likes to brag about going to “real” Chinese restaurants where they were “the only white guy”.  Well I got to be that guy, and it wasn’t such a great thing. I’m unapologetically American; it’s the culture I was raised in and who I am. “Real” Chinese food means none of the fried, sweet, or otherwise tasty stuff we know as Chinese cuisine in this country. Authentic Chinese food is healthier, simpler and much more subtle than the stuff we order in. It also sometimes features animal organs, chicken feet, or, you know, live shrimp. Wherever we ate, Kar Wai would order for me, which he liked to do. On my part, however, it was a good day if I was fed something that didn’t unsettle me. A great meal was one where the food was somewhat tasty.

    Working as we did also took some adjustment on my part. A commonly used phrase in the film business is “having had”.  As in, you show up for work already having had your breakfast, coffee, what have you. “My Blueberry Nights” was scouted in a much more European fashion. Meals, shopping and other errands were incorporated into the work day. It was filmmaking as an all-encompassing lifestyle, not a job you did before going home to your personal life. It wound up being the best way to make the film we were trying to make; particularly due to the way Kar Wai’s work gradually evolves. The most apt description is that he gives birth to a film. It does not spring to life fully formed from his head but instead requires nourishment and stimulation to become the thing that it is. We were living as filmmakers, not working as them. Not the easiest thing for an analytical, task-oriented person to come to terms with.

    It was a very productive lunch, however, as information started to emerge about what story we were telling. Perhaps it was because of his increased comfort level, but for whatever the reason, Kar Wai began to really discuss the film, or at least as much as he had worked out of it so far.

    “You know Norah Jones, the singer? She is a waitress. This is her story.”

    Well, that certainly caught me off guard. Of course I was aware of Norah, but not overly conversant with her music. To the best of my knowledge she had never acted before. A little research later on indicated that no: she had not.

    “I thought about making the film all in New York but they tell me it is too expensive. Then I thought maybe New Orleans but I am not sure. They said you know New Orleans?”

    “Yes, I have worked and lived there. I very much love that town.  Lots of great places to shoot and stories to tell there.”

    “Stephane does not like New Orleans.”

    Wow, I had no idea he had so much influence on the project. I had learned that they had never worked together before, which surprised me a great deal given the apparent scope of his involvement in the film.  Kar Wai had referred to him as the “creative producer,” which seemed to be a combination of sounding board, model, advice-giver, and general muse. Sucks that he doesn’t care for New Orleans, though. Not only would I love to return there to work, what amazing material there is for a story there.

    “New Orleans is a place of death and decay, it is not for lovers,” Stephane added.

    It took a while for me to adjust to the French flair for the dramatic. I did come to appreciate it, though.
    “Some day I’ll make a New Orleans movie, but not right for this time. Once I realized it was not New York and not New Orleans I figured, ‘why not make it a journey?’ That is what any story is anyway, so why not find her story as she does, and make her discovery our discovery as well.”

    I still was working in a pretty deep fog, but at least I was catching the occasional fleeting glimpse of a shoreline in the distance. Kar Wai’s process was certainly an interesting one. Typically, when my phone rings, it is a call from someone with a story to tell, and my job is to help them tell it. That might mean jumping on a plane to New Orleans, or Philadelphia, Rhode Island, New Mexico, wherever the best place to work might be. You go where the story takes you. This time we weren’t even starting with a story, but only a character. We were all going to find her story together. It was a little intimidating. After all, this was Wong Kar Wai — he’s a genius. I sat entranced, unable to look away when I first watched Chungking Express. Each successive film he made improved upon the last, and he started out doing amazing work. As strange and uncertain a process it was so far, I gladly signed on for the ride.

    It was late afternoon as we emerged onto Mott Street and left for Coney Island.  I hadn’t the slightest idea why we were going there, but I was not concerned. Every journey starts someplace.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • May 18, 2009

    Diners

    by Sam Hutchins

    B and H Diner, Lower East Side, New York City

    B & H Diner, Lower East Side, New York City

    While it varies from picture to picture, Location Managing at its best is intensely collaborative and creative work. This was clearly going to be the case working with Kar Wai. Location is everything in his films. He doesn’t shoot on soundstages; it’s all about the verisimilitude with him. This was something he has in common with another director I have worked with: Woody Allen. They are both of a mindset that it is better to shoot practical locations whenever possible, which runs counter to the traditional thinking among filmmakers. Generally, a director prefers the controlled environment of a stage to the potential chaos and unpredictability of shooting on the streets. For both Kar Wai and Woody the opposite is true. They prefer the working environment created by shooting amidst real life.

    Knowing a director’s aesthetic is critical; it’s the first thing a location manager must figure out. Usually you have a script to create a dialogue around. Not so with Kar Wai. He does not work with one, and on My Blueberry Nights, we didn’t just lack a script to work with, we lacked even the outlines of a story. It was still fermenting in Kar Wai’s mind, and it was my task to draw as much of it from him as possible so we could start scouting in earnest. Adding to the difficulty were our cultural differences. My facility with the Chinese language was nonexistent, but his English was quite good. That wasn’t it; it was more about the vast differences in the western and eastern mindsets. I didn’t understand that at first, and struggled a little with my failure to connect. It became apparent over time that we came from vastly different environments. I wanted a fixed destination to get to; he wanted to wander a bit and let the path find him.

    “Diners” is what Kar Wai said the following afternoon when I picked him and Stephane up. Jackie apparently was not going to be directly involved in the scouting process. I still had no idea what her role in the process was — or Stephane’s for that matter. This was going to be a process of building from the ground up. At least “diners” gave me a starting point.

    “I assume you mean more traditional, weathered, ‘character’ type diners as opposed to newer, kitschy, retro types?” I was met with a blank stare. Okay, this was going to be difficult. We were on the west side, so I swung by the Empire Diner, a classic silver prefab that has been cleaned up a bit.

    “No, not this.” Okay, then. I then took them to a few similar diners, some cleaner and some more weathered, but all diners in the classic sense. Not even the slightest sign of interest on his part.

    “Do you mean ‘diner’ in the classic sense, you know, like these stainless steel buildings, or maybe just any small restaurant?”

    “Any place with a good window. Small is okay, I don’t care how small. I can squeeze a camera in anywhere or shoot the whole thing from outside, don’t worry about too small.”

    Baby steps. At least we were making some progress. I may not have a script, or the slightest idea of the story he wanted to tell, but at least I now knew we were looking at small restaurants that opened up to street life. What I was discovering was that he didn’t know what he wanted to say yet. We drove all over town with Kar Wai mainly remaining silent. He was just beginning to write in his head as we went along. This was both fascinating and frustrating. I had never worked in anything remotely like this fashion.

    We spent several hours driving around looking at restaurants. Kar Wai spent much of the time in deep contemplation, lost in his own thoughts. Whenever I saw a place I thought might be suitable I pulled over and waited for him to acknowledge it and comment one way or another. Sometimes it took as long as ten minutes for him to notice that the car had stopped moving, and then he’d emerge from his reverie. Invariably, he would look, consider, and then shake his head “no” before leaning back and checking back into his mental space. I was getting a little impatient when he startled me by suddenly calling out.

    “There, that’s it! Pull over please.” We were actually in my neighborhood, on Second Avenue just below St. Mark’s Place. The place he was interested in was B and H Dairy, one of my favorite places to have borscht and challah bread. But small, so impossibly small. I know he said that small was okay, but even so, I could not imagine how we could shoot in there.

    We had a good look at the place and snapped some pictures. Apparently, Stephane was along as some sort of model as Kar Wai had him pose for pictures in front of the place. Odd, but no more so than anything else so far. After thoroughly shooting the place, and Kar Wai reassuring me that it was physically possible to film there, we moved on.

    “Like that place. Not exactly like it, but somewhere that feels like that place. It should be emotionally similar. Maybe close to an elevated train. Someplace like that.”

    I was working with my idol, one of the most talented and creative living filmmakers, but what an enigma he was. In my career I had never before been tasked with scouting a location based on its emotional resonance. I was still wrapping my mind around that one when I got the next curveball.

    “Tomorrow we should go to Coney Island.”

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • May 15, 2009

    Plate o’ Shrimp with Wong Kar Wai

    by Sam Hutchins

    When you work on a studio film things are pretty straightforward. There are staff accountants, lawyers, and executives with whom to consult. There are policies and procedures to follow. It’s still a lot more loose than working in traditional industries, but at least there is some semblance of normalcy. Not so when making an independent film. You have to be careful with the independents because things can get really strange.

    Earlier in my career I walked away from certain gigs that just got a little too weird. One colleague did a film with Able Ferrara where he was told on the first day that the only office rule was “no shooting up in the bathroom.” Apparently someone overdosed while locked in there on the last film and caused a lot of difficulty. The solution they worked out was to allow people to do drugs openly at their desks. That is an extreme, of course, but how normal is it to interview for a job in a downtown loft at ten o’clock at night? I knew going in that working for Wong Kar Wai was going to be a unique experience.

    That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear from Kar Wai’s people the next day. I was admittedly anxious for the call. It was exciting, and I woke up early. Waited all day with no word. As the evening came and went I realized they would be calling late. I was in bed by the time the call came. It was eleven o’clock at night. Jackie, the Chinese woman I had met the night before, was on the line. She summoned me back to the loft in Tribeca.

    I arrived to find them waiting on the street for me: Jackie, Wong Kar Wai, and a short, goofy looking Frenchman named Stephane. They handed me keys to a car and told me to drive them to Flushing. Cool. Flushing is the real Chinatown in New York, out in Central Queens. I hadn’t been there in years but knew how to get there. We drove out in relative silence. They directed me to one of the hundreds of Chinese restaurants just off Main Street. As we walked into the restaurant Jackie squealed with delight.

    “Jackie’s favorite, Hong Kong hot pot. You like hot pot?” Kar Wai asked me.

    “Never tried it.”

    “You like Chinese food?”

    “Yes, the American kind. I’m eager to have some authentic stuff with you.”

    “You will like.”

    At first glance Kar Wai seemed like a nice enough guy. His English was much better than Jackie’s, and he was making an effort to engage me. We sat at a table with a burner built in to it. Kar Wai ordered in Chinese, of course, and things started happening rapidly. A waiter placed a pot of water on the burner to heat up.  Plates of various ingredients appeared on the table in front of us. Nothing I could identify at all. While we waited for the water to boil, we went to a weird little rolling cart containing various liquids and spices.  Jackie helped guide me through the process of creating my own sauce.  The only thing I could identify was sesame oil.

    “Do you like shrimp?” Kar Wai asked.

    “I love shrimp.”

    Kar Wai pointed with his chopsticks at two plates. One piled high with shrimp, the second on top of the first to keep the shrimp from escaping — they were still alive.  Wow, never saw that before. I knew the entire meal was an extension of the job interview, so I went for it. Forgoing the chopsticks, I snatched a shrimp and tossed it in my mouth. I’ve never felt anything as unpleasant as a live shrimp trying to crawl out of my mouth. I chewed on it to stop it from moving and felt its shell crunching between my teeth. It was really hard to keep down, but I managed by chasing it with a big swallow of Tsingtao beer. At least we were drinking.

    The table cracked up as I washed the shrimp down. What the hell? Were they making fun of me? Kar Wai gently put his hand on my arm.

    “No, do like this.” He plucked a wriggling shrimp with his chopsticks and dropped it in the boiling water. How embarrassing. They laughed again at the look on my face, but in a good natured way. They added a few more shrimp to the pot, then some unidentifiable sliced vegetables and spices. So that’s how you do it. Unfortunately, the cooked shrimp still had the shell on it and wasn’t much different than the live specimen, other than the absence of twitching antennae in my mouth.

    What little conversation there was centered around the food and how to eat it. We drank a lot of beer. Stephane was an enthusiastic eater, but I definitely got the impression that he was eating more to please them than out of enjoyment of the food. No judgment from me, though — I was doing the same thing, just with less vigor.

    The plates kept coming. Other than some small peppers, I could not identify what was on any of them. No matter. We cooked them in the hot pot and tossed them back. After an extended back and forth with the waiter, a plate was brought out containing some sort of thinly sliced organ meat. Kar Wai insisted it was a rare delicacy that I must try. In for a penny, in for a pound, right? I threw it in my mouth. Not bad, but spongy and very chewy. I couldn’t break it apart and had to choke it down whole.

    “How you like?”

    “Not bad. What was it?”

    “Yak penis.”

    He surprised me by flinching and pushing back from the table quickly. It took a minute for me to realize that I had clenched my fist and drew it back. It was an unconscious reaction on my part. I would never have actually hit the man; he was my idol. Nevertheless, I did have the impulse, and it played right into the cowboy image a lot of the world has of Americans. Fortunately, Jackie broke the tension.

    “More beer.” She smiled and filled my glass. Kar Wai moved back to the table. In my entire acquaintance with him it was the only time I saw him uncomfortable.

    “Very good to eat. Makes you horny.” He put away a few slices of boiled yak cock himself before barking at the waiter to make the dishes vanish.

    We drank a substantial amount of beer before settling up and driving back to Manhattan. Still hadn’t talked about the film at all, but I was pretty confident I had passed their tests. I got my real answer when we got back to their loft. After parking the car, we prepared to go our separate ways. Jackie took me by the arm.

    “Tomorrow we go scout?”

    Okaaaaay, sure. Still no idea what the story was about or where it took place, but I could roll with the punches as well as anyone. As I started to leave Jackie leaned in and gave me a quick kiss. On the lips. Slipped me the tongue. Whoa, didn’t see that one coming. Nothing serious, just a quick flash of wetness, but it was no accident. This really was going to be an interesting job.

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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  • May 13, 2009

    Sam Hutchins’ Blueberry Nights

    by Sam Hutchins

    Wong Kar Wai, Director

    Wong Kar Wai, Director

    Working as a movie location manager can be arduous, but there are days when I can’t believe I get paid to do what I do. The job allows me creative input in the production process and provides a front row seat to the making of some wonderful films.

    A few years ago, however, I had fallen into a rut. For most of my career I alternated between interesting low-budget independents and well-paying studio gigs. Then money became more of a priority, and I got used to having it. I left the smaller films behind and did a long stretch of studio pictures. I did several romantic comedies in a row.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with romantic comedies. Just like food, though, a steady diet of the same meal becomes tiresome after a while. When for the fourth time I found myself scouting for a movie about a plucky young woman who worked in fashion/magazines/television for a demanding/glamorous boss and had to rely on her charm to get into the trendy restaurant/exclusive concert/championship game to win her man, I began to question my existence. It was all the same. I needed a break from the perfect romantic worlds I helped create.

    One day, while lamenting my state of ennui with a production manager friend of mine, I got more of a break than I could have imagined.

    “I might have something interesting for you,” my friend said, “But I really don’t think you’ll work for the money they have.”

    “Try me. You might be surprised.”

    “It’s a Chinese director making his first American film. Let me see. I have his name here somewhere. Yeah. It’s a guy called Wong Kar Wai.”

    What? Seriously? Wong Kar Wai? I could not believe what I was hearing. I had a shot at working with the most talented, enigmatic filmmaker alive?

    “I’ll do it.”

    “Wait, Sam, there’s no money involved.”

    “I don’t care. I’ll do whatever it takes to make it work. How do I get the job?”

    My friend gave Wong Kar Wai’s people my resume and strongly recommended me. The thought of it made me giddy. This was exactly what I needed and then some. I have worked with incredibly talented filmmakers over the years, but here was a chance to work with the man whose work I respected most.

    I didn’t wait long. That same evening my friend called.

    “They want to meet you. I know it’s rather late, but can you get down to Tribeca tonight?”

    “They want to meet now? It’s ten o’clock at night.”

    “I’ll set something up for tomorrow then.”

    “No, I’ll do it. Where do I go?”

    I was sent to a loft downtown. Unusual as the film business is, interviewing for a job this late was strange even for me. A very fat and jolly Frenchman greeted me. “Hallo. I am Jean Louis. You are Sam, oui?” Jean Louis didn’t wait for an answer. He turned and left me standing there. He entered a kitchen on the far side of the loft where several people were speaking in mixed French, Chinese and an occasional bit of English.

    Not knowing what else to do, I stood and waited. After a while a tall Chinese man came over.  He wore sunglasses indoors… at night. Somehow he pulled off the look. He also wore a welcoming smile. I recognized him from photos.

    “I am Kar Wai. I understand you want to work with us?”

    “I very much want to. I think your films are amazing.”

    “You know my work?”

    “I’ve seen almost everything you have done. I love your films and would be honored to be a part of one.”

    He stood and looked me over for a painfully long time. Finally he flashed a mysterious smile and returned to the kitchen. What the hell just happened? It was the shortest and strangest interview I ever had. I figured I blew it. What an incredible let down. I turned and signaled for the elevator. As I waited, I sensed someone at my side. I turned to see a short Chinese woman wearing a tracksuit. Her wild hair stood up all over her head. She looked like a Dr. Seuss character. When she spoke, it was in heavily accented English.

    “Dinner tomorrow. I call you.”

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF ‘A SCOUTING LIFE.’

    Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

    • comments (0)
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