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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.

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  • May 11, 2010

    A Scouting Life: To the Sea

    by Sam Hutchins

    So I sat back and pouted like a petulant child. Aside from flinching a bit when I threw the map at Stephane, it was as though Kar Wai was unaware of what was happening. Such a tough egg to crack, that fellow. Obviously he saw what was going on in the car. Two of his people just had a violent argument in front of him. A word or two from him would have gone a long way to defuse the situation, and to do so would have behooved him. Feuding like this certainly did not help his film get better, after all. But he chose to disengage, once again retreating inside himself.

    So we wandered. After a while Stephane started working his way back up to full conversational speed.

    “You know, eet ess dangerous to throw things at the driver.”

    Fuck him, I wasn’t going to engage. I pulled my own personal Wong Kar Wai and stared off into the middle distance.

    “In France the passengers defer to the driver.”

    I remained silent.

    “You should have said something earlier.”

    “I don’t need a map. I just have to keep going west.” Tapping the dashboard compass and snorting a laugh as he said this last bit. So we went, with Stephane furrowing his brow and making turn after turn in an attempt to keep the digital readout reading “W.” To my great delight, we wound up in a subdivision, snaking around cookie-cutter houses until we wound up at the end of a cul-de-sac. The compass still read “W” but the nose of the truck faced a steel barrier backed by open green fields. I couldn’t resist.

    “So, Stephane, you still going to keep going west?”

    “Fine, fine, I’m sorry. Can you please tell me how to get to the ocean?”

    “Depends. You going to actually listen and follow my directions?”

    “Yes, yes, yes. Now please tell me how to get out of here.”

    With a shaky truce declared I picked up the map and studied it for a moment. Soon enough we were back on course and headed south.

    I only wish there was some excuse to explore the area more. It truly is amazing, this valley running north-south over roughly two-thirds of the state of California. It’s Steinbeck country, flat and green, surrounded by mountains, the heart of agricultural America. Truly the land of milk and honey. I cannot even imagine the effect it had on the pioneers to first lay eyes on this place. Having crossed the plains, deserts and mountains and discovered land so fertile it was unimaginable. They must have thought it was the Garden of Eden. Alas, there was no place for the Central Valley in our film.

    We rode south for a while before cutting over towards Salinas. The skies remained gray and a light Tule fog clung to the land. It was the very tail end of the rainy season, which seemed entirely appropriate to our situation. Aren’t we all just trying to get through the rain to the sunshine on the other side of the mountains? Passing through Salinas I offered a silent prayer for James Dean, patron saint of unfulfilled potential. From there it was a quick jog to the coast and the northern terminus of 17 Mile Drive. Turns out it was too late in the day to enter the drive. I had forgotten that the Pebble Beach Corporation owned the road, and no amount of cajoling or bribery could convince the guard manning the gate to make an exception.

    We cut back to Rte. 1 and began making our way south. If you’ve never driven that road I strongly urge you to. Easily the most beautiful road in America. And there it was, at long last, the Pacific. We pulled over at first opportunity and got out to savor the moment. Like Balboa long before us, we stood and took in her majesty. The wind blew hard as the waves crashed on the shore under the darkening sky. The elements took their best shot at a Cypress tree but it held its own against them, unbowed. Stephane and I gave each other a long look. All was forgiven. There was nothing for any of us to say. Our petty arguments and differences washed away in the salt spray. None of that mattered. We had at long last made it.

    ….

    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 10, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Penned & Produced by Arthur Freed

    by John Farr

    Three films from legendary lyricist and producer Arthur Freed.


    Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    It’s 1903, and the World’s Fair is coming to St. Louis, causing great excitement for the Smiths and their four young daughters. Then, Mr. Smith is offered a position in New York City, causing some emotional complications. Daughter Esther (Judy Garland) experiences some unfamiliar emotions of her own as she develops her first crush on the boy next door.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A lyrical, nostalgic Valentine to our country at the turn of the century, Director Minnelli brings his flair for color, costumes and setting to create a sumptuous visual treat. Film is extremely nice on the ears too, as young Judy (never more luminous) sings “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and more. A timeless treat for the whole family.


    Annie Get Your Gun (1950)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    George Sidney brings to gorgeous big-screen life the rowdy career of backwoods sharp-shooter Annie Oakley (Betty Hutton), who soared to fame in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and tamed the heart and holster of rival Frank Butler (Howard Keel).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Irving Berlin’s immortal musical had a sensational run on Broadway in the ’40s, but MGM’s lavish full-color production, originally slated for Judy Garland, remains memorable thanks to Hutton’s fiery, sparkling turn as Oakley. Keel is great, too, playing the pistol-packing ladykiller and unrepentant chauvinist whom Annie challenges to a shooting match. “There’s No Business Like Show Business” is the film’s signature theme, but the witty wordplay of Berlin numbers like “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” and the cheeky “Anything I Can Do” are every bit as pleasing. Fire up “Annie”!


    Silk Stockings (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Suave American producer Steve Canfield (Fred Astaire) wants to use a prestigious Russian composer on his latest film, and must use all his wiles to prevent Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse), a determined female Russian official, from taking his talent back to Moscow. Seemingly impervious to love, capitalism and vintage champagne, Ninotchka is a hard nut to crack, but Canfield’s charms soon work their magic.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A witty and warm Cold War romance, “Stockings” re-shapes Garbo’s famous MGM comedy “Ninotchka” into a delightful music and dance-fest. Thanks to the romance of a Paris setting and a buttery Cole Porter score, détente between stars Astaire and Charisse develops quickly, followed by marvelous dancing routines. At age 57, Astaire is still a dazzling, graceful performer, while Charisse ably fills Garbo’s shoes. Peter Lorre, in a rare comic turn, even vamps his way through the rollicking “Siberia.” Irresistible entertainment.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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