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  • May 25, 2010

    A Scouting Life: The Cinema Justifies the Means?

    by Sam Hutchins

    Wong Kar Wai in Las Vegas

    Wong Kar Wai in Las Vegas

    Working with Wong Kar Wai was taxing physically and emotionally. He liked it that way, and often created artificial tension as a means of controlling people. Just as often it was unintentional; either situation had the same net effect. That morning being a perfect example. Our new producer was well below Kar Wai on the organizational chart. Everyone involved with the project was; it really was all centered around him. A single word from him would have ended the silliness about requiring me to stop scouting and submit a budget. He always got what he wanted, no questions asked. Nonetheless he allowed it to happen. I did not know then and never will know what his take on the situation was. He may have been taking the opportunity to beat me down a little. Who knows, maybe I was full of hubris and he thought it was for the best long term to do so. He could just as easily have been oblivious and allowed it to happen without much consideration. Inscrutable, indeed.

    Richard Burton made a fascinating film about the composer Richard Wagner for the BBC a while back. Nine hours long, it used his music to great effect in the telling of his life story. At least from Burton’s perspective Wagner was a monstrous genius. Possessing unimaginable talent, he was unfortunately all too aware that he did. At an early age he began believing that his talent was so significant that the only moral choice was to feed it by any means necessary. Wagner could turn on the charm and convince his benefactors that enabling his work was the most noble endeavor to be made. He would caress and cajole them right to the point of ruin, only then discarding them for a new patron. Fortunes were squandered and lives ruined. Historically, however, we are left with an amazing body of work. The personal ruination is lost to the sands of time.

    I’m not suggesting that Kar Wai takes it to this extent, but there are certainly common elements to be found in his methods. My Blueberry Nights was the first film in quite some time that was not being photographed by Chris Doyle. The two men had been seemingly inseparable, having made eight films together. His cinematography is highly regarded and an integral part of Kar Wai’s films. The story of his life is as good an example of straddling the line between comedy and tragedy as can be found. Legendary for his drinking and carousing, the extent to which he did so was unclear until you heard Kar Wai describe it. According to Kar Wai, Chris didn’t even maintain an apartment of his own. Instead he took residence in a series of brothels. After long filming days he would be dropped in some smoky Chinese whorehouse where he would consume copious quantities of booze and God knows what drugs while being tended to by a flock of hookers. This was how he lived throughout the making of eight films over the course of two decades. As amusing as it is on the surface, a closer look paints a different picture. Two people cannot work together for such an extended period of time without some mutual affection existing. How can a person stand by and watch a friend kill themselves like this? Apparently as long as the results contribute to the creation of great cinema Kar Wai was OK with it.

    I was aware of all this and all right with it myself. Having bought the ticket I was taking the ride. I knew that I could put up with anything for the length of the job, and abusive as it may have been at times I would endure. Frankly, as low as the lows were the heights to which you could soar made it all worthwhile. That evening being a perfect example. Although we had been ready to murder one another yesterday, spending time apart wore heavily on all of us. When the guys came in from scouting there were embraces all around. We prepared for a celebratory reunion dinner.

    When eating Chinese cuisine dinner with Kar Wai was a chore. He took on a professorial air and worked to educate us about what we were eating. While it was indeed interesting to hear the history of a dish, the symbolism of eating it, and the supposed physical benefits of doing so, at the end of the night you were still eating chicken feet. Or yak penis, shark fin, pig snouts or some other form of offal. I’ll take delicious over educational any time. When eating other types of food, however, Kar Wai was quite the gourmand. That night in Los Angeles he took us to an amazing Korean barbecue restaurant. He ordered platter after platter of the finest cuts of meat for us, which we washed down with copious amounts of chilled shoju. We gorged ourselves while flirting with waitresses and trading stories late into the night. It was abundantly clear that on this particular evening the most important thing in his world was our pleasure, and he made sure we enjoyed ourselves as much as humanly possible. You learn to take the good with the bad in life, and meals like that make up for a lot of sins.

    ….

    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 24, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: The Screwball

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed My Man Godfrey, you might also enjoy these classic screwball comedies.


    Libeled Lady (1936)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    The ever-smooth Powell plays Bill Chandler, a freelance journalist hired by his old newspaper to squelch a libel suit brought by society heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). To do this, Bill must make Connie fall in love with him and then place her in a compromising position. Ultimately, he melts her icy exterior, but ends up falling in love himself. What’s a smitten newspaperman to do?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1936, Jack Conway’s underexposed screwball comedy is a raucous farce buzzing with zany humor, thanks to a flurry of impeccable one-liners delivered by Powell and Loy, reunited from their pairing in “The Thin Man.” Playing Haggerty, the newspaper’s frantic editor, and Gladys, his continually jilted fiancée, Tracy and Harlow round out a stellar foursome in this fast-paced, ingenious laugh-fest.


    The Awful Truth (1937)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Grant and Dunne play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a wealthy young couple who temporarily drift apart and initiate divorce proceedings. Both are unwilling to admit the obvious fact that they’re still in love. Their rapprochement is one delightful, hilarious dance.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Leo McCarey was a genius with comedy, and this consistently sharp, side-splitting picture proves it. The film cemented the reputations of both Grant and Dunne as much more than pretty faces, but in fact, gifted comic players with superb timing. A delightful, sophisticated screwball comedy.


    Bringing Up Baby (1938)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) leads a quiet, studious life, and is engaged to a proper, like-minded young woman. Then, quite by accident he runs into daffy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), who immediately takes a shine to the handsome, bespectacled scientist. Used to getting just what she wants, Susan simply won’t let David go. Before long, Huxley’s life gets turned upside down, as Susan kidnaps him to her starchy aunt’s Connecticut estate, along with her explorer brother’s recently arrived present, a tame leopard called “Baby”. The comic mayhem escalates from there.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Howard Hawks’s quintessential screwball outing remains one of our most riotous and inspired screen comedies. Grant and Hepburn (who’d do “The Philadelphia Story” two years later) are in fabulous form, with Grant wholly convincing as the nerdy, befuddled victim, and Kate on fire as a flaky but determined lass who’s finally found true love, and intends to hold on, come what may. This Sublime, classic film is fun, fast and oh-so-funny.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • May 18, 2010

    A Scouting Life: A Wasted Day

    by Sam Hutchins

    The film business has undergone major changes in the time I have been part of it. It has always been just that, a business, of course. Still, it started out as much more of a creative, maverick endeavor, at least as compared to traditional corporate environments. People working in it often liken it to running away and joining the circus, although I think perhaps an oil wildcatter is a more apt comparison. In any case, it used to be the wild west. Things have changed drastically. By the time I was working in film the studios had been absorbed into major corporations and were slowly being brought more in line with traditional business standards and practices. During my tenure, the corporations became units of multinational conglomerates. Any illusion that a film was more than a line on someone’s balance sheet has long since been dispelled. The current state of the industry may be more comforting to someone counting pennies in a glass tower somewhere but the practical implications are borne by people like myself.

    I worked my first feature in 1989. At the time a film required a two-person accounting department. The lead accountant handled the budget and tracking all expenditures for the film. The assistant handled payroll and petty cash. This system worked fine for years. Slowly, however, accountant creep began. Larger films started adding an additional assistant. Increasing corporate oversight required more and more detailed record keeping. Today it is not uncommon to see as many as a dozen accountants working on a single film production. Each individual department may be assigned a dedicated accountant. The end result is that the people who are hired to actually make the film spend most of their time justifying their expenditures.

    Contracts have also evolved to the point of being burdensome. They used to be one letter-size page boilerplate contracts. You had a couple of blanks to fill in, such as filming dates, rate per day, etc. How I long for those simpler times. Currently, best case is five pages of legalese to wade through, worst is as many as fourteen pages long. Where we used to be able to grab a quick shot with a handshake and a hundred dollar bill we now require a few weeks notice and the skills of a paralegal. Liability concerns have killed spontaneity. The lawyers and accountants have taken over and it’s a damned shame.

    Still, I generally prefer working on features made by the major studios. One big reason is money, both what I make and what I have to spend making the film. Both are significantly better with the studios. Another is the quality of people you work with. The farther down the ladder you get budget-wise, the commensurately less skilled your co-workers are. The exception to this is when you work on a low-budget film with a talented director like Kar Wai. His artistry is such that the name alone attracts the type of talent that normally works on much more healthily-budgeted films. Another advantage of working on independents is that the atmosphere is much less corporate and regimented than that of studio films. I certainly had enjoyed the lessened oversight and resulting freedom to go out and just make the damned film this far. Unfortunately the producer who had hired me had left for another job. Her replacement had no experience with independent films and lacked the capability to understand the difference. Frankly, she was a moron.

    The first manifestation of this gross incompetence came immediately. We had checked into a hotel in Santa Monica at around two in the morning, and it was three before I closed my eyes. My phone began ringing incessantly at 7:00 AM. Eventually I had no choice but to answer. It was the new producer, who opened the conversation by haranguing me for not being tougher on Kar Wai and insisting he only scout places that were easy to film. Well fuck me. I’m the one who is going to pull it all together in order to get us up and running in a location, I’m not going to put us someplace I cannot make work. Only someone lacking the most fundamental understanding of Kar Wai’s method would say something along those lines, which appeared to be the case. A few quick questions indicated that no, the new producer had no idea who Kar Wai was or how he went about making films.

    The producer’s second action concerning my department wasn’t something I was aware of until later, but was even worse. She called all the scouts I had hired and instructed them to report directly to her, bypassing me. I suppose it was her way of trying to assert control, but it was flat-out stupid. None of these scouts had any relationship with her, so they had no reason to oblige the demand. Besides, it made no sense. It was near-impossible for those of us working directly with Kar Wai to figure out what he needed. Interjecting some insecure, disconnected producer back in NYC who had never even met the man couldn’t help in any way, shape or form.

    The most immediate problem caused by the new producer, however, was the demand for a detailed budget from me. Immediately. Budgeting location work for films is an incredibly difficult thing. You work from a script and a schedule, breaking it all down to the smallest elements and building from the ground up. Months before filming you need to anticipate any potential problems or needs and the financial implications that result. It’s a skill refined only by years of experience, and something I pride myself on being very good at doing. It takes time.

    Take police officers, for instance. One of dozens of different elements that fall within my purview on any given location. Do we need them on set? We may, depending on the nature of the scenes we are filming. The town we are filming in may require a certain amount. What is their base hourly pay, and how much do their fringe benefits run? Are there a minimum number of hours you need to hire them for? How many officers can you have before you need to hire a sergeant as well? What does the sergeant make? Are their shifts restricted to a certain number of hours before you need to bring in replacements? Do they get meal money? And so on. You get the picture. I can extrapolate all these costs by investigating them with the different towns we plan to film in and making some educated guesses, but it’s not something that happens instantly.

    Working with Kar Wai complicated matters exponentially. If you ask him what he wants for lunch you may hear a story about how he went to the racetrack with his favorite uncle when he was young. I knew we planned to shoot in several different states, and multiple towns within those states. What those precise locations were, however was still an unanswered question to Kar Wai himself. We lacked even the outline of a script, and a schedule was an even greater mystery. His last film had been budgeted for a relatively long 12 week shoot. It took five years to complete. Given that, the idea of an accurate line-by-line budget was science fiction. I tried suggesting a reasonable solution, something I had done in other situations with similar unquantifiable expenses. The best way to handle it was for me to come up with an average daily operating cost. This would still require a bit of thought on my part but was at least possible. Examining all the known elements would allow me to come up with a fairly accurate number once you averaged it out over the course of the shooting period. Even this concept, however, was too difficult for the new producer to wrap her head around. No, she demanded a detailed budget before I did anything else.

    I explained all of this to my companions over breakfast. Kar Wai is not the confrontational type, so he was willing to allow it. The others were okay with it as they were fully confident in their ability to do my job. Therefore they set out without any adult supervision to scout Los Angeles on their own. I stayed behind and beat my head on my desk attempting to come up with some budget projections. After hours of frustration I called New York and in slightly more polite terms told them to fuck off. While I was occupied with this the guys ran around town scouting. I attached several pictures they shot that day, some look like quite interesting places to film. Unfortunately none of which came with contact information, addresses, or even a broad hint as to where in Los Angeles they may have been taken. In other words, useless information. A waste of a day all around.

    ….

    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 17, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Glamorous Gene Tierney

    by John Farr

    John Farr pays tribute to the sad life of one of noir’s forgotten stars.


    Heaven Can Wait (1943)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    On the day of his death, assured that he’ll be rebuffed in Paradise, aristocratic New Yorker Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) pays a visit to His Excellency (Laird Cregar), a highly courteous Lucifer who agrees to listen to Van Cleve’s life story and determine whether he’s right for Hell-a place people had often “told him to go.” Thus begins this playboy’s tale of life-long philandering, and the effect it had on his lovely wife Martha (Gene Tierney), a woman he truly adored at first sight.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A deft, subtly brilliant romantic comedy by the great Lubitsch, “Heaven” examines a privileged man whose boyish love of courtship colors his devotion to his wife, making his life “one continuous misdemeanor.” Penned by the gifted Samson Raphaelson and shot in lavish Technicolor, “Heaven” marries urbane wit and bittersweet themes about youth and aging, folly and regret. Ameche and Tierney make a handsome, appealing pair from their first meeting in a bookshop, while Charles Coburn (as scampish Grandpa Hugo) and Allyn Joslyn (as Henry’s strait-laced cousin Albert) round out a fabulous supporting cast. Delicate, charming, and almost effortlessly moving.


    Laura (1944)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Assigned to investigate the gruesome murder of lovely Laura (Gene Tierney), hard-boiled homicide detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) cross-examines those who may have had a motive: besotted columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), wealthy playboy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), and his lover, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson)-Laura’s aunt. Strangely drawn to Laura himself, now present only in the form of an oil portrait, Mark can’t help falling in love with the dead girl. Then, late one night, in walks the beauty herself!

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Preminger’s impeccable murder-mystery is in many ways the standard against which all other noirs tend to be judged. Eerie and smart, with lots of deliciously twisted feints and counter-feints around the central questions of murder, blackmail, and poisonous passion, “Laura” is a marvel of confounding revelations. Add to that a superb cast: Tierney, enchanting as always, as the lust object; Andrews as a cop with a weakness for beauty; Price as an effeminate rogue; Webb as a prissy critic with a viper’s tongue; and Anderson as Laura’s scheming, jealous aunt. Preminger’s stylish touch and confident direction earned this clever, mesmerizing whodunit five Oscar nods-and movie lovers’ eternal admiration.


    The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Wanting to flee the oppressive orbit of her in-laws, headstrong young widow Lucy Muir (Tierney) decides to move to the English seaside with her young daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and faithful maid Martha (Edna Best). Despite the warnings of real-estate agent Mr. Combe (Robert Coote), Lucy rents a house haunted by its deceased former owner, crusty Captain Daniel Gregg (Harrison). The seaman is hardly welcoming, but over time, Lucy and the handsome, bearded spirit develop an unusually close friendship.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The ever-talented Mankiewicz’s deeply romantic “Mrs. Muir” is pure Hollywood fantasy, driven by the entrancing presence of its two fabulous co-stars. While a love story between a gruff dead seaman given to salty turns of phrase and a gorgeous grieving mother might sound a bit hokey, the chemistry between Tierney (radiant as ever) and Harrison (quite dashing as an unapologetic man’s man) is not only credible but winning. Worlds better than its “70s TV spinoff and heartier than latter-day imitations like 1990′s “Ghost,” this is one cinematic haunted house you should be sure to visit.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • May 13, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Pacific Coast Hellway

    by Sam Hutchins

    The last sunlight was creeping below the horizon, off to warm the distant Pacific islands. I was excited for a night in Carmel. It’s such a lovely little town, and I knew a few great restaurants there. A good meal and a warm bed would cap off what had been a tough day nicely.

    “So, we go to L.A.?” Kar Wai asked.

    “L.A. is pretty far away yet. I thought we’d crash in Carmel.”

    “No. We go to L.A.”

    Shit damn, this was going to be the longest day ever. Eyeballing the map showed that it was at least a five or six hour drive south to get there. Worse yet, we were on Highway 1. Beautiful as it is, it can be a hair-raising ride even in the best conditions. Driving it at night, in the rain, was a daunting idea. Mountains to one side and cliffs to the other, a sheer drop down to the sea. All blind curves and nary a streetlight to be seen. Yeah, this was going to be fun.

    It was hard to see the map in the dark, but it looked like we had something like 75 miles on Highway 1 before a turnoff to the main highway. It was a dreadful ride. The wind whipped our truck hard enough to push it around on the road, and every moment carried the possibility of breaking through a guardrail and plunging into the ocean. I could feel the muscles in my shoulders knotting up with tension as I leaned forward and stared through the windshield. With the steady rain, even the high-beams were of limited usefulness.

    We were looking for the turnoff at State Route 46, which would carry us over the mountains before connecting with Highway 101. The map showed that we could continue on Rte 1 and it would eventually intersect directly with 101, but I was eager to get off of 1 as soon as possible. Clearly we had another few hours before we hit the turnoff, but that didn’t stop one or the other of my companions from pointing out every single road running off to our left. Some were park entrances, others private driveways. There were gravel logging roads and dirt paths. What they clearly were not, however, were state highways. After the first few times the guys excitedly pointed out a dirt road and asked if it were our turnoff I just gave up and quit answering. At one point, Stephane started to insist that we should take a shot on one of the side roads anyway. His logic was that it would eventually hit the highway. I gave him a long, hard look in the rearview mirror.

    “Do you really want to tell me how to navigate?”

    That ended that. Eventually we hit the main highway. The cluster of gas stations surrounding the on-ramp were the first signs of humanity we had seen in hours. Interesting how circumstances can dictate a preference for the fluorescent glow of a service station over the unspoiled natural beauty of a place like Big Sur. That’s exactly where my head was at that particular moment, however. Lord, give me a paved and well-lit road. I stopped to gas up and grab some coffee to fuel the late-night run into L.A. It wasn’t until I stood up that I realized I had damn near sweat through my shirt.

    “Rough drive, huh? You did a great job.”

    I was startled by Darius’ voice behind me at the pumps. Almost invariably the guys stayed in the truck while I fueled and serviced her. Not sure if it’s a French thing or what, but the effect is to make you feel like the hired help.

    “If you want, I can take us the rest of the way. I’m well rested and have made this drive before.”

    If ever I wanted to hug another man it was then. What a lifesaver Darius was that night. I settled in to the back seat and completely spaced out. I couldn’t fall asleep as I was still much too amped-up from the arduous driving conditions earlier. Darius piloted us onto the highway and pointed us south. He got on the phone with his wife and spoke sweetly to her in French all the way to Santa Monica. Once again I curled up in the back seat like a little kid on the way to Disney World.

    ….

    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)
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