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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.

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  • April 12, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Marx x 5

    by John Farr

    Revisit five of the Marx Brothers’ Depression-era Paramount masterpieces.


    The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Edition (1930-1933)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    The best way to enjoy the nutty antics of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo is to indulge yourself in this boxed set of five early Paramount classics. A struggling Miami hotel is the scene of The Coconuts, based on the hit Broadway play and starring Groucho as a penurious manager. Animal Crackers tracks the efforts of a certain Captain Spaulding to crack an art-theft case, while the wacky Monkey Business finds the Marx Brothers stowing away on a luxury ship. Horse Feathers follows the demented siblings’ efforts to engineer a comeback for a college-football team, and in Duck Soup they try to govern the unruly nation of Freedonia.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Still one of the funniest vaudeville acts ever to grace stage, television, or silver screen, The Marx Brothers pioneered an antic, anarchic style of gut-busting entertainment that left audiences of the 1930s howling with delight. Even today, the hilarious mix of song-and-dance routines like “The Monkey Doodle-Do” and “Shirt Song”-accompanied, of course, by Harpo’s harp, Groucho’s guitar, and Chico’s expert ivory-tinkling-combined with the sheer nuthouse fervor of their adventures simply dazzle. In fact, “Duck Soup” was a political farce so extreme that Mussolini banned it . This “Silver Screen” set collects the Brothers’ early, outré Paramount outings, the only films where all four funnymen appeared together. Will social satire ever be this goofy again?


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • April 8, 2010

    A Scouting Life: A Cruel Joke

    by Sam Hutchins

    We rolled on and on. Beautiful, desolate country. Hours of nothing but the landscape. It was hard to tell from the map, but I feared we might wind up driving pretty deep into the night before we found a place to crash. We were all getting rather hungry too, lunch having been mostly beef jerky. Just as the sun was setting we saw evidence of humanity beginning to appear. First a beat-up old trailer, then an ancient roadhouse. As we pulled up to the first place we had seen in several hours, Darius spoke up. “Are you sure this is the best place to eat?” he said.

    I slowly scanned the vast, empty horizon before answering as evenly as possible. “I think this is going to be our best bet.”

    Kar Wai smiled, but then again he always does and no one ever knows what it means.

    We were at a spot called Middlegate station. Built as a stagecoach stop in the 1850’s, it later served as a stop on the Pony Express. It was the next stop after Major’s Station, actually. Hard to believe, but what had been a relatively long day of driving for us was once done on a galloping horse. Those riders must have been tough sons-of-bitches. At least they didn’t have to put up with the emotional tension that was slowly building in the truck.

    The place was full. Modern cowboys crowded the bar, drinking, eating and watching a large television. A pair of blueberry pies sat cooling on a wire rack. I pointed them out to Kar Wai, but he wasn’t interested. Rightly so, I suppose. Although slightly more interesting than Major’s Station, Middlegate was too isolated. At least Major’s had the resources of nearby Ely to support us while filming there. It did beg the question of where the cowboys filling Middlegate came from. The next town was still another 50 miles to the west. It was like “Cheers” but for Unabomber-types.

    We found a table in back and sat for another in a series of increasingly unpleasant meals. Stephane, for all his faults, was a good guy. He had been hired for what was basically a dream job. Working as a producer of documentaries and commercials in Paris, he had somehow caught Wong Kar Wai’s attention. For unknown reasons, Kar Wai had taken him on as inspiration and muse. Kar Wai made a point of referring to him as the “Creative Producer.” He served as a stand-in for our pictures, which is odd considering he is just over five feet tall. He helped Kar Wai with his English dialogue, which is odd, as he had a limited command of the language. The two mens’ sensibilities seemed to be almost directly opposite: Kar Wai’s zen calm compared to Stephane’s wacky anarchic energy. Perhaps this contrast was what had appealed to Kar Wai initially, but he seemed to be having second thoughts. He was treating Stephane terribly.

    “We will all sit here. Except Stephane. Why don’t you eat in the car.”

    A harmless enough joke it would seem, but everyone was competing for the master’s attentions so it was actually quite cruel in a quiet way. The hurt flashed across Stephane’s face as Kar Wai turned his attentions to Darius. Those two were getting quite close. Hurtful as that may have been to Stephane, it was ultimately more important for the film that the director and DP get along. Still, it could have been handled so much better. We ate quickly and in relative silence before getting back on the road.

    Stephane took a shift behind the wheel, expressing his mortification and anger by testing the limits of the truck and his luck at avoiding police. Fine with me. He’s a good driver when he pays attention and it was a long way to Reno. Also it allowed me time to attend to my work. Piloting this scout was pretty much a full-time job to begin with, but I had a number of other responsibilities. I had found and hired good local scouts in Memphis, Detroit, Vegas and Los Angeles, and was supervising their work, and also had a small staff scouting and preparing to start filming back in New York. Cell service was still nonexistent, but I was able to lose myself in the hundreds of scouting photographs I had yet to review. I looked through them, deciding which were worthy of being shown to Kar Wai. It was tricky work sorting them out given his mercurial nature and unpredictable taste. Soon darkness enveloped us as we sped along, the glow of my laptop illuminating the interior of the truck.

    ….

    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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