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  • April 27, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Something Burning

    by Sam Hutchins

    We picked up Rte 431 south of Reno and headed towards Lake Tahoe. Usually by midday I had some clue as to where we were heading. This time it wasn’t about where we were going, it was about what we were leaving behind. Reno was full of bad vibes and we wanted nothing to do with it. The high point of our time there was our discovery of the National Bowling Stadium. Even that was better as idea than reality. Seeing the sign and considering the idea of such a place was amusing; seeing that it was just a giant tattered bowling alley was sad. None of us ever needed to set foot in that town again.

    Living on the East Coast you don’t know mountains. The elevations in the West are wildly more dramatic. A series of sharp switchbacks carried us higher and higher. The truck seemed to strain as we climbed the sharp grades. Even though this was the only road from Reno to Tahoe it occurred to me that it must close in inclement weather. Sure enough, road signs confirmed this, as well as carrying warnings of rock slides and wildlife crossings. The West is still wild, in its own way.

    Crossing through the pass and into California was like entering a different country. You leave behind a dusty, high plain desert and descend to a pristine blue lake. Reno is full of sad, gray gamblers and the ghosts of thousands of divorces. Tahoe is like Crested Butte or any number of small Colorado towns where everyone is young and active. Pickup trucks and dogs are mandatory and you are as likely to bump into a pal climbing a rock face as at the supermarket. I don’t think you could buy a used car without a ski or bike rack on it.

    It became apparent that the truck was laboring pretty heavily. I could feel it in the steering wheel first. Then the burning smell started. It wasn’t overly troubling to me. Most likely we were just low on fluids. I hadn’t given a thought to checking the oil, power steering fluid, radiator levels or anything more than the gas tank. To be fair, it was a new rental with very few miles on it when we started. Also, I had so many other things to worry about. Still, I had dropped the ball on this one. Normally it would only be a matter of hitting an auto supply store and topping things off. The fact that we were currently in heavy traffic on a steep downgrade with no turnoffs to be seen made it a bit more worrisome. I didn’t think the brakes were the source of the traces of smoke but if they were we were screwed.

    I’m by nature a calm guy, and am at my best in moments of stress. Panic serves no one’s best interests. My M.O. in a situation like that is to keep quiet about it first and foremost. The situation was tense enough without the added burden of passengers freaking out. You hold on and do your best to keep the wheel steady. Think about all the different ways things could break. Look for an exit strategy. Feel the adrenaline rush and use it for the positive. One’s body gets so torqued up in situations like this that it’s like doing great drugs. Perverse as it sounds, I was actually enjoying the tension.

    Darius, being the intensely creative type, spent much of the trip oblivious to his surroundings. He was similar to Kar Wai in this respect, though not as extreme. Darius would not notice you had stopped to resupply. You would get off the highway, find a gas station, fill the tank, go inside to pay and buy a sack of drinks and snacks and he would not register it. Only when you were buckling up and pulling out would he tell you to stop so he could run in for a bottle of water. Kar Wai would wait til you were a half hour down the road before realizing you had stopped. Unfortunately Darius chose this moment to engage with reality.

    “Sam, something is burning.”

    “Yes, Darius, I smell that.”

    “What is causing it?”

    “I think it’s just the oil. We’ll be fine.”

    He was on the verge of panic, and the distraction wasn’t helping me.

    “We should pull over. You must take this seriously. It could be dangerous.”

    We were driving down a steep decline with rock wall on our right and cliffs plunging down to the lake on our left.

    “Tell you what, pal, if you see a safe place to pull over that I don’t, feel free to point it out, alright?”

    Then of course his feelings were hurt. So now in addition to a rapidly failing truck on a dangerous road I was dealing with a sullen and scared passenger. Stephane and I had grown close like brothers, but also learned to torture each other as siblings do. He proceeded to tweak me.

    “Darius is right, you should pull over.”

    Thank God for Kar Wai, who just sat there grinning and screwing around with the iPod. At least we had good music going. Norah’s character was to end her journey at the Pacific Ocean; we couldn’t get there soon enough.

    ….

    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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  • April 26, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Parade Movies

    by John Farr

    John Farr joins the parade.


    The Music Man (1962)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Traveling charlatan “Professor” Harold Hill convinces the citizens of River City, Iowa, that they should have a marching band to help guard youth against moral corruption. Charming the socks off everyone, including the mayor’s wife (Hermione Gingold), with his plan to teach the town’s kids how to play using his deliciously absurd “Think System”, Hill’s a homey kind of huckster. His only obstacle is to win over local librarian Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones), who believes he’s a fraud.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This exuberant, energetic adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s hit Broadway musical is a bona fide marvel thanks to Robert Preston’s virtuosic turn as the ultra-charming swindler. Homing in on small-town America in 1912, “Music Man” mixes nostalgic sentiment with real-world woes, memorably in the person of Ron Howard, who plays Marian’s sullen younger brother Winthrop. Comedian Buddy Hackett adds levity as Hill’s goofy sidekick, while Jones is a perfectly prim counterweight to Preston’s engaging rogue. And let’s not forget the songs: “Till There Was You” and the rollicking “76 Trombones” will leave you humming long after the lights go up.


    Animal House (1978)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    At Pennsylvania’s Faber College, stiff-shirted Dean Wormer (John Vernon) is fed up with the raucous antics of Delta House, an anarchic, thoroughly debauched fraternity with no sense of decency, decorum or, apparently, brains. So he hatches a plan to strip the Deltas, who are led by a group of seniors including Otter (Tim Matheson) and John “Bluto” Blutarsky (John Belushi), of their credentials, enlisting the help of their hated, upper-crusty rivals at Omega House.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The original “party animal” teen movie (despite its “R” rating), Landis’s outrageous feature-length prank has enough gross-out humor, slapstick yucks, and all-night beer chugging to put a drunken smile on anyone’s face. Matheson and co-stars James Widdoes, Peter Riegert, and Bruce McGill bring sheer lunacy to their roles as leaders of a riotous frat house for rejects, losers, and academic failures. But it’s Belushi’s gonzo portrayal of Bluto that remains iconic, and helped make the former “SNL” cast member a bigtime comic star. Irreverent, subversive, and totally inappropriate, “Animal House” depicts the college experience most of us never had, but kind of wish we did. Watch for Kevin Bacon in a small early role as a young pledge.


    The Fugitive (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Andrew Davis’s adaptation of the 60′s TV series involves Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), a prominent Chicago doctor accused of murdering his wife. The jury doesn’t buy Kimble’s story about confronting a one-armed man in his apartment the night his wife was killed, and he is convicted. When Kimble escapes custody, he hunts the real culprit, and ace U.S Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) gets assigned to track him down. Will Gerard get to Kimble before the doctor can clear himself?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A textbook example of a first-rate thriller, buoyed by Davis’s breathless pacing and a picture-stealing performance from Jones, who won an Oscar. Drawing from his Indiana Jones days, Ford is just right as the besieged hero always one step ahead of disaster, but Jones’s Gerard, whose drive is offset by a wry, folksy humor, is intensely charismatic as the intrepid hound-dog on Kimble’s trail. Over ten years after its initial release, it’s worth another peek if you haven’t seen it since. First-timers should definitely plunge.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • April 22, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Establishing Shots

    by Sam Hutchins

    Reno seemed promising at first. We got an early jump and began making our way into town. It had a good approach. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is when scouting with a director. When watching a film, you will notice what is called an “establishing shot.” It is just that: the opening shot of a scene that establishes the location in which a scene is set. An establishing shot needs to impart exactly where you are, and do so quickly. You don’t want to confuse the audience or waste too much time on it, just inform the audience and move on. When I was scouting nightclub exteriors with Garry Marshall we ran up against the reality-film reality issue. The reality is that most nightclubs in Manhattan don’t look like much from the street, just an anonymous door with a velvet rope, doorman, and line of people waiting to get in. Garry kept rejecting these, eventually explaining to me that “If I shoot a nightclub exterior, I want a big bright sign outside that says ‘Nightclub tonight’ out front. You and I may know that’s not how real nightclubs work, but my audience is middle America and we need to tell them that it is a nightclub, not just show them a door. Give me a shot that imparts the information quickly and clearly.” Of course he was right.

    The same goes for scouting with directors. When taking them to a location you need to take the correct approach. The way to go is the route that presents the location from the best possible angle. A good example is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. It is an absolutely beautiful building. One of the largest Cathedrals in the world, construction began in 1892 and continues to this day. The Cathedral sits on Amsterdam Avenue between 111th and 113th Streets. 112th Street dead-ends at the front steps of the Cathedral. The most direct route is to drive uptown on Amsterdam, stop in front of the building, get out and have a look at it. A really good location manager, however, will take a longer route. The smart ones go around the block, turning onto Broadway then onto 112th Street. When you make the turn you are faced with a classic Upper West Side block, only the Cathedral looms over the far end. The further you get down the block the more it dominates your eyeline, and when you emerge onto Amsterdam it opens up beautifully in front of you. If you are about to make the turn onto 112th and the director is on the phone or otherwise distracted, pull over and wait until you have their full attention. Don’t waste the “reveal” as first impressions are critical for the director as well as for the audience.

    Back to Reno, a city I had not set foot in before that moment. By happy accident, however, we stumbled onto a great approach to the city. We had crashed just outside town in Sparks, Nevada. Once we were coffeed up we began making our way into town. Driving on St. Lawrence Avenue, the establishing shot found us. A series of low buildings dominated the foreground; better yet they contained tattoo parlors, pawn shops, liquor stores and cheap restaurants. Eventually they gave way to some large casinos, looming over us in the background. Just perfect shots to present the city to our audience. The location establishes desperation, aspiration and longing. We pulled over and shot the deserted streets for a while.

    The difficulty with working there didn’t become clear until we made our way into the heart of the city. Put simply, it was a ghost town. I assumed the streets were deserted where we first stopped due to the early hour, but humanity remained scarce as the day wore on. Worse, the casinos were often no longer casinos. More than once we walked into what appeared to be one only to find it either gutted and deserted or in some early stage of being converted to a residential building. Times have been tough for the gaming industry, but this was a little surprising. Many of the casinos here had gone belly-up.

    The thing that Reno did offer in abundance was motels with great old signs. Every block seemed to have one. Clearly Reno had once been the low-budget honeymoon capital of the West. I thought the abundance of great signage would be enough to interest Kar Wai but like the empty casinos we had seen from afar, this too proved to be misleading. What we found was that the hotels themselves were all broken down and converted to either SRO’s or hot sheet operations. Many were simply boarded up and abandoned. After our third or fourth nervous conversation with a pimp, Kar Wai had seen enough. We popped into one of the few still-operating casinos in search of a little lunch.

    Throughout our journey we had established a custom of testing our luck every time the opportunity presented itself. Kar Wai would tap my shoulder and silently hand me a hundred dollar bill, I would add one of my own, and then take the first available seat at a blackjack table. Throwing down the two bills, I would play one hand only and see what came of it. We had done this every time we entered a casino, which was maybe a dozen times now. This was the first time on our journey where it didn’t happen. Seeing the tables I turned with my hand out only to find Kar Wai wandering away staring into the distance. I didn’t know if it was something about Reno, or us all being tired, or just tired of each other. All I knew was that we had seen enough of Reno. Time to move on.

    ….

    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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  • April 19, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Neglected Bogart

    by John Farr

    Three of the great Humphrey Bogart’s lesser-known films.


    High Sierra (1941)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Weary, aging gangster Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is enlisted in a hotel-robbery scheme after mobster friend Big Mac (Donald MacBride) springs him from prison. On his way to a rendezvous point, he meets and falls for club-footed farmer’s daughter Velma (Joan Leslie). Meanwhile, Marie (Ida Lupino), his colleague’s tough-as-nails girlfriend, develops a soft spot for Earle. Once the heist goes down, however, the attachments he’s formed with the two women could bring about his downfall.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Though the forties saw a waning in gangster pictures, early on Bogart was given a juicy breakout role in Walsh’s “High Sierra”, as a killer with a compassionate side. Bogart’s “Mad Dog” Earle is more Dillinger than Capone, more sympathetic and human, but when threatened, still a scary individual. Young Lupino stands out as Earle’s loyal protector who can’t win his love. Co-written by a young John Huston, “High Sierra” is a solid, flavorful entry for “Bogie-as-bad-guy” fans, boasting a slam-bang finish.


    Sahara (1943)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In the Second War, after the fall of Tobruk in Libya, Sgt. Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) and his remaining men, including soldiers Jimmy Doyle (Dan Duryea) and Waco Hoyt (Bruce Bennett), retreat in their tank across the blistering desert, picking up more straggling allies and two POWs along the way. Finally, they reach a fortress which holds a limited quantity of that most crucial substance: water. When a superior German force arrives, the enemy is desperate enough to offer an exchange of food for water. Gunn’s challenge is to hold them off until British reinforcements arrive.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Director Korda’s gritty, gutsy WWII actioner vividly evokes the particular risks and hazards of desert warfare, while showcasing Bogie in his prime, on the front lines of battle. Duryea is solid as usual as Jimmy, and character actor J. Carroll Naish lends poignancy as a good-hearted Italian prisoner caught in a war not of his own making. Suspenseful and smart , “Sahara” is a distinctive, sadly overlooked war film that makes you thirsty for more of the same.


    Dark Passage (1947)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Wrongfully accused of murdering his wife, Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) escapes San Quentin prison and hides out in the apartment of Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), a lovely socialite convinced of his innocence. After undergoing plastic surgery to radically alter his face, a now unrecognizable Vincent devotes his efforts to seeking out the actual killer.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Filmed on location in San Francisco, this inventive noir is the third of the legendary Bogart-Bacall pairings, and hinges on the unusual face-transformation plot point: For the first part of the film, Daves presents the action using a point-of-view camera shot, in which we see everything through Vincent’s eyes. Once his bandages are removed, the objective perspective is restored, and Bogart appears for the first time. This visual gimmick and the sexual chemistry between the two leads is half the fun of watching “Passage” and then there’s Agnes Moorehead, who vamps it up as a shrewish deviant named Madge. For a first-rate mystery-thriller, “Dark Passage” leads the way.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • April 13, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Overtime

    by Sam Hutchins

    One gets accustomed to working long hours when making a film. Your average shooting day is between 12-14 hours, although they can easily go as long as 18 hours or more. You have no control over it, everyone stays until the day’s work is done. That’s just the “shooting” day from the time the crew is called in until the camera is wrapped for the day. Working in locations you are there before and after the shooting crew so your day is commensurately longer. My longest “day” on set was 27.5 hours. I am no stranger to hard work, and I do not shy away from it.

    There’s a pretty standard way that films are made, with the scouting/preproduction days being much less demanding to start out. Prepping a film is still difficult but compared to the actual shooting period it’s like having a “normal” job. The intensity steadily builds, with the pressure being greatest just before filming begins. Once you hit the first day of shooting it’s more a slog to get through it than anything else. After a film wraps things quickly deflate as you clean up all the messes you left behind and prepare to turn over the film to the postproduction team. Essentially an extended bell curve.

    Not with Wong Kar Wai, however. We started out working extremely hard and never let up. Our scouting days often ran 15-16 hours and he did not believe in weekends. As hard as I have worked in the past, nothing compared to this. Filmmaking is an industrial art, combining creativity and commerce almost equally. The compensation can be very good, but no one does this exclusively for the money. If that’s your motivation you are better served working in finance. No, you have to really love film to do this sort of work.

    When I took the job I was excited by the opportunity to work with Wong Kar Wai. He was and still is one of my cinematic heroes. The films he makes are truly amazing things. As universally acclaimed as the stuff is, that doesn’t necessarily mean he has much of a budget to work with. I knew it would be a low-paying gig going in. I cut my normal rate to do the film and did so happily. The bigger sacrifice I made was making a seven day deal. This is highly unusual for good reasons. Normally my pay is based on a five day work week, with overtime rates rising sharply after that. By agreeing to work as needed I gave up all my overtime, which can be a significant sum.

    Overtime is put in place to keep Producers from exploiting the people making the film too egregiously. The normal process of making a movie almost demands that people are abused a little bit, the hope is to minimize the need for this. When I made the serious financial concessions that I had in order to work with Kar Wai, the tacit agreement was that efforts would be made not to take advantage of me. Like they say, an unwritten agreement is worth the paper it’s written on. Simply put, I was busting my ass.

    From our initial meeting months back I had worked seven days a week, a bare minimum of twelve hours a day and usually longer. I never slept in the same bed twice. No idea where the next meal would come from, or where I would be in the next hour. Dozens of states, cars, airports. Thousands of miles. Tens of thousands of miles. Months since I’d had time to myself, most of that period spent packed in a truck with Stephane, Darius and Kar Wai. Every choice was a group decision, and my group included a legendarily mysterious Chinaman and a couple of Frenchmen who loved arguing just for the sake of disagreement. A weaker person would have snapped long ago. As it was I was perhaps too weary to explode. I was beat. We all were. Except for Kar Wai.

    I have worked with some crazy people. The business attracts them. Many a time have I sneaked into a production office early on a Saturday to get some quiet time at a desk and found the place full of people doing the same. All of us have crashed under desks, in cars, in campers or on any random floor just to grab a few winks before getting back to work. I’ve seen writers not leave an office for a week straight, and I know one particular producer who hasn’t slept since 1982. Still, no one comes close to working as hard as Kar Wai does. After scouting all day he would spend the time we used for sleep to get some writing done. There is simply no quit in him. It was scary.

    The sheer magnitude of the exhaustion hit me as I sat in a cheap motel outside Reno. I had just woken up and was making the usual preparations for the day. Check us out of the hotel; gas up the truck and clean it out a bit; look at the maps and try to outguess Kar Wai as to which direction he wanted to go; locate the nearest Starbucks and skim the local papers for any interesting happenings. Having done this I thought through the state of the job. It was gradually taking shape.

    We knew Norah’s character was starting in NYC. I had a scout looking at cafes there, and I knew we might do something in Coney Island. From there we would either head to Cleveland or Detroit. We had scouted both cities and had a good idea of what we would shoot there. Then Memphis, Vegas, Ely, the California Dessert and likely ending on the Santa Monica Pier. Unless of course we found something else that interested us on the way. I had tentative verbal agreements with a dozen establishments across the country. Scouts were working in several cities. I was trying to organize all the information and keep everything together while also keeping our current scout headed in the right direction.

    Kar Wai occasionally gave us pages he had written. Not a script per se, but short stories, poems, fragments. One was about an ultra-marathoner whom Norah would see running in various spots throughout her journey. I had initiated conversations with the New York Road Runners Club about shooting one of their races. Another was about her meeting a guy who pushed all of his possessions in a shopping cart and slept with her in the desert. One involved a drunken cop killing himself over love and another would feature Natalie Portman as a gambler. The more I thought about the vast amount of work yet to be done to make this film happen the more my head hurt. Eight in the morning on the outskirts of Reno, my day was just starting, and I passed out from exhaustion in the truck waiting for the others to join me. At that point even ten or fifteen minutes of sleep came as a sweet relief.

    ….

    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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