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  • April 6, 2010

    A Scouting Life: The Loneliest Road in America

    by Sam Hutchins

    We couldn’t leave Ely fast enough the next morning. The place had a certain malevolence tucked just beneath the surface, and our presence there was enough to awaken it. Nothing that couldn’t be handled, but the time to deal with the hustlers, grifters and flakes was later. For now we were just passing through and taking some pictures. Definitely time for us to get on down that road.

    As had happened in the past, circumstances dictated our route. We had thoroughly scouted southern Nevada, then covered the eastern part of the state right up to the Utah border. North and west were our only remaining options. A quick glance at the map indicated that our choice was to take Highway 50 out of Ely. A long stretch of it would get us into Reno. Although Ely seemed to fill our “dingy card room in a desolate, menacing town” quota, it behooved us to see what iterations of such were available between there and Reno, if not in Reno proper.

    Rte. 50 rises sharply through the mountains west of town. We passed multiple rough gravel turnoffs that led to mining operations past and present. I’d had some fun spelunking abandoned mines outside of Phoenix before, but that was not meant for this trip. Now it was time to drive, and so I did. Over and through the first range and across another high desert plain. And another. And another.

    Although the land was lovely, it was desolate. We lost cell service as soon as we left Ely and had not seen any sign of life since. No other cars passing, no telephone poles stretched along the roadside. No mailboxes or lonely houses isolated off in the distance. Even with our early start it was nearly lunchtime by the time we saw another person.

    Rounding a bend we encountered the town of Eureka. Eureka, Nevada is a town of 300, which represents the last vestiges of another former booming mine town. It reminded me of nothing more that the ruins I had seen of the Anaszi people in southern Colorado. The town seemed like it was both part of the mountain and also being swallowed by it. Houses clutched precariously to the cliffs on either side of the road. It could just as easily have been abandoned as populated by the looks of it.

    The only open business was a combination gas station/convenience store, the retail part of the operation occupying what appeared to be someone’s living room. After gassing up we had a brief chat with the proprietor. Turns out the stretch of road we had just traveled was the “busy” part of Rte. 50. West of Eureka it had been labeled, “The loneliest road in America.” My friends were a little dismayed to learn that lunch would consist of homemade beef jerky and Dr. Pepper. We ate as we drove.

    It was out there, on the vast open road, that I truly began to fear the Chinese people. Kar Wai had already proved to be fairly inconsiderate of other people’s needs. That can easily be attributed to working as a film director, though. Regrettably it comes with the job. But somewhere on that lonely drive we wound up discussing politics, specifically the election that was taking place in France soon. At one point I used the word “communist” pejoratively and received a sharp reprimand from Kar Wai for doing so.

    I was speechless. Here was a man whose family had been violently torn apart by the Communists. They had killed his brother and forced his mother to flee to Hong Kong with him. Yet when I spoke ill of the philosophy he was quick to point out that the good of the whole was more important than the needs of a few. My fears were later proved true by another even more frightening incident, proving the sincerity of his beliefs.

    A few months after this particular day a group of us were back scouting in New York. It was an exceptionally warm summer night, and the end of a very long day. Work was seven days a week with these people, they never took a day off. Further, the days themselves were generally 14-15 hours in length. So there we were, marching down the smelly, sweaty back streets of the Meatpacking District when one of our producers, a woman named Alice, simply collapsed from exhaustion. She stumbled and went face down on the greasy sidewalk. Neither Kar Wai nor any of the rest of the Chinese missed a step. They kept right on going, leaving her there. Looking around in shock, I ran and caught Kar Wai by the arm.

    “Alice has collapsed. We should take her to the hospital.”

    He gave me a long, blank stare before replying.

    “Put her in the van. She’ll be fine. Just tired.”

    He turned on his heel and went right on scouting. I threw Alice over my shoulders and carried her back to our van where she could at least get some air conditioning and water. After making sure she was not critical, I had to turn and run back to catch up with the scout.

    But that was later. This particular day in the mountains I was just figuring out how cold Kar Wai could be. Silence settled in over the truck as I tested its limits by driving as quickly as I could. I no longer wanted to be out in the desert at night with these guys.

    ….

    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 5, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Multimedia Bing Crosby

    by John Farr

    Bing Crosby, the first multimedia star of radio, film, and television.


    Holiday Inn (1942)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After a painful bust-up with his girlfriend, song-and-dance man Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) decides he’s had it with the big city and retires to a farm in New England, which he converts into an inn, complete with floor shows, but open only on public holidays. Friend and co-headliner Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) wants to make a film about the inn, but things get complicated when he tangles with Hardy over lovely leading lady Linda Mason (Debbie Reynolds).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Conceived from an idea by composer Irving Berlin, Mark Sandrich’s “Holiday Inn” is a humorous, festive Crosby/Astaire musical that finds both performers in tip-top crooning and toe-tapping form. Famous for introducing “White Christmas,” the best-selling single of all time and an instant favorite with troops overseas, “Inn” is consistently tuneful and entertaining, with a sublime Irving Berlin score that covers not just Christmas, but all major holidays. Watch for the July 4th rave-up “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers,” one of many musical highlights.


    Going My Way (1944)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When easy-going, young Catholic priest Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arrives at St. Dominic’s, a rundown church heavily in debt, he faces a disillusioned congregation and the downbeat attitude of its elder curate, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). Through the miracle of song, however, O’Malley raises spirits all around and ultimately rescues the beleaguered parish.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Though not focused on Christmas, Leo McCarey’s “Going My Way” exudes holiday spirit and was a smashing box-office success. Bing Crosby, a staunch Catholic himself, is pure gold as Father O’Malley, a young priest who injects hope and purpose into a fading congregation and a group of neighborhood kids, while Barry Fitzgerald is perfectly winning as his crusty superior. Both actors won Oscars, as did the film, thanks to writer-director McCarey’s eloquent direction. Moving rather than maudlin, “Going My Way” is a sentimental favorite.


    The Country Girl (1954)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When bigshot Broadway director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) loses his lead for a musical set to open in three weeks, he takes a chance on washed-up alcoholic singer Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby). Even though Dodd is committed to boosting his shaky leading man’s confidence with a combination of pep talks and tough love, he feels constantly thwarted by Elgin’s cold, cynical wife, Georgie (Grace Kelly), whose manipulations threaten to deep-six his production.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted from the Clifford Odets play, Seaton’s searing, melodramatic story of a twisted menage à trois boasts three superb performances: Crosby as the self-loathing, destructive crooner, Kelly as his morose, long-suffering wife, and Holden as the strapping, misogynistic director who slowly learns the truth about both of them. Crosby rightly earned an Oscar nod for his convincing turn as a sad-sack boozer, but it was Kelly who took home a statue for her radically unglamorous role as Georgie. “Girl” is a poignant backstage drama that remains true to its tortured heart.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • March 31, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Ex-Cons

    by John Farr

    John Farr examines films about ex-cons who have abandoned their crooked ways.


    Sling Blade (1996)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Released from an Alabama psychiatric institution 25 years after he murdered his mother and her lover, 37-year-old Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) takes a job as a fix-it man in his old hometown. Despite his violent past, the mildly retarded Childers is a gentle soul who befriends a needy young boy, Frank (Lucas Black), and his widowed mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), who offers to take him in. But Karl’s delicate re-entry into society is disturbed by Linda’s no-good boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), a cruel, abusive drunk who treats him with utter contempt.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Alternately haunting and sweetly affecting, “Sling Blade” is a beautifully accomplished debut by actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, who conceived, wrote, directed and starred in this absorbing drama. (He won an Oscar for his original screenplay.) Thornton’s cathartic, humane portrayal of Childers–a mild-mannered simpleton who quietly protects and cares for Frank and his mom but is haunted by the past–stirs our deepest sympathies. In a nuanced turn, the late John Ritter excels as Linda’s gay friend Vaughan, but the real surprise is country singer Yoakam, whose hateful, hard-drinking Doyle guides the film’s tragic final act.


    Spring Forward (1999)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Paul (Liev Schreiber) is fresh out of jail, working to re-build his life even as past mistakes and unresolved issues threaten to undo his progress. Enter Murph (Ned Beatty), Paul’s older, wiser groundskeeper colleague, who subtly mentors the conflicted younger man. In time, they form a special bond, sharing their ambitions, regrets, and hopes for the future.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A simply told yet provocative story about the gift of friendship, “Spring Forward” is an exquisitely handled character piece fueled by a perceptive script and the considerable skill of the two leads. Shooting in sequence over the course of a year, director Gilroy follows the nuances and little epiphanies of this unlikely friendship through four seasons with nary a misstep, giving us the sense we’re watching it all unfold in real time. Touching and true, “Spring Forward” is a quiet triumph.


    Boy A (2007)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    With the support of his caring, avuncular social worker (Peter Mullan), a young man (Andrew Garfield) is released from prison with a new identity to ease his transition back into society. “Jack” lands a good delivery job and then embarks on a tentative romance with co-worker Michelle (Katie Lyons). But he remains tortured over his childhood role in a headline-making murder, a fact that threatens to disrupt his new life.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on a novel by Jonathan Trigell, John Crowley’s gutsy, hard-hitting drama tackles the question of whether we are prepared to forgive our youngest offenders. Mullan’s character believes in Jack and supports him even as the relationship with his own estranged son takes a tragic turn. Garfield carries the film, though, playing Jack as a fragile, vulnerable, good-natured soul who desperately wants to believe that his past is behind him. Poignant and provocative as it flashes back to Jack’s childhood crime, Crowley’s “Boy A” keeps the tension high from the gripping opening scene.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • March 31, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Not Just Little Caesar

    by John Farr

    John Farr’s salute to the surprisingly versatile Edward G. Robinson.


    Double Indemnity (1944)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Gorgeous schemer Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) enlists a besotted insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), to draw up a life-insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge – and then kill him. The murder goes as planned, but the two lovers lose faith in each other’s motives when they face suspicious claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose queries trigger a fatal game of cat and mouse.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the quintessential noir films, Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” is a masterpiece of stark atmosphere and carefully stylized suspense. The talented Barbara Stanwyck, a familiar face in the 1940s noir universe, assumes her role with feline deviousness, while “My Three Sons” TV dad Fred MacMurray – narrating the film via flashback – brilliantly plays against type. Raymond Chandler’s screenplay sizzles with hard-boiled repartee and the great Edward G. Robinson is aces as always as the dogged investigator hot on the lovers’ trail. Sinister, tense, and cynical, Wilder’s “Indemnity” is riveting film suspense.


    The Stranger (1946)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Unbeknownst to his comely young bride Mary (Loretta Young), East Coast prep-school teacher Charles Rankin (Orson Welles) is actually Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal in hiding. When a German visitor to their sleepy Connecticut town turns up dead, federal gumshoe Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) begins poking around, threatening to bring Rankin’s crimes out of the closet.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The conventional wisdom is that Welles made “Stranger” to prove he could churn out a Hollywood studio picture on time and with little fuss. That he certainly does. And while the director himself was no big fan of his 1946 Nazi noir thriller, he underestimated his efforts here, as he coaxes fine performances from his stellar cast, especially Robinson (playing against type as a war-crimes investigator), Young, and Konstantin Shayne as the ill-fated visitor. If for no other reason, see this for the final scene at a clock tower, a well-engineered climax that will really leave you hanging!


    Key Largo (1948)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    One of the brink of a huge storm, WWII vet Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) visits a disheveled hotel in the titular island town to pay his respects to Nora (Lauren Bacall), the widow of a deceased war buddy. Run by Nora’s father James (John Barrymore), the hotel is playing host to some pretty seedy urban types, and Frank soon discovers why: infamous mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his men have slinked back into the country and temporarily seized control of the establishment.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on Maxwell Anderson’s play, Huston’s “Key Largo” is a classic 1940s noir featuring taut direction and indelible performances from Bogart and Robinson as the menacing Rocco. In a cast that also boasts Bacall, Oscar-winner Claire Trevor as Rocco’s drunken mistress, and Lionel Barrymore as the cantankerous hotelier, it’s Rocco’s sadistic, savage power that occupies center stage. Bogie is comfortably in star mode as the taciturn good guy who comes through in the clinch. Don’t miss that ending.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • March 30, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Brothels and Blackjack

    by Sam Hutchins

    We got back to the Hotel Nevada just in time to wash up and have a nice dinner. The rooms were smallish, as could be expected of such an old hotel, and the furnishings looked like they came from your grandmother’s garage sale. Everything was mismatched and cheaply made. All I generally require is a slightly comfortable bed, and the bed was indeed slightly comfortable. I’m sure the rest of my traveling party was horrified, however.

    The best part of the room was definitely the shower. Or, should I say, the plaque affixed to the wall just outside the shower. It read:

    WARNING: This is an old hotel, with old pipes. They are somewhat unpredictable. The shower has a tendency to suddenly cut off the hot water and get extremely cold. This only happens briefly, and at random times. If it happens please just wait until the hot water comes back on and resume your shower. Do not call the front desk to complain, they cannot do anything about it. Also, please do not flush the toilet while showering, this only makes the problem worse.

    What a lovely feature for a hotel to have. Even though I did not experience a blast of ice cold water while cleaning up, I was tense with the fear of it happening the entire time I was in. Once I dried off I could hear water flowing through the pipes to the neighboring rooms. I flushed the toilet repeatedly and listened closely but alas, I did not hear any screaming.

    Cleaned up and ready for a night on the town, the four of us stepped out into the gathering darkness of Main Street. I must say, the Hotel did present itself to the street in a lovely way. The retro-looking signs lit up the area nicely and would surely look wonderful on screen. Once we stepped away from the doors, however, the rest of the town sat in relative darkness. A quick stroll around showed that nothing was open other than a few bars. We popped in and out of a half dozen of them, mostly deserted, and none serving food. Eventually we resigned ourselves to the fact that the only dinner to be had was back in the Hotel Nevada.

    What a dinner it was that we ate. All the finest over-processed food that can be delivered in a box on a Sysco truck. I know we were in the middle of the high desert, but this was a particularly unpleasant experience. We ate what we could but that wasn’t much, and I’m not a remotely picky eater. Finer food can be had out of a microwave in a 7-11.

    That, however, wasn’t even the worst thing about the experience. Our waitress asked us several times if we planned to go to either the Big 4 or the Green Lantern. It was clear that the others did not get the reference, but I knew that she was referring to the local whorehouses. Every time she mentioned it the others didn’t understand and I pretended not to hear. It was a little unsettling.

    Far be it from me to judge anyone. I actually went to a brothel once when I was much younger. It was in Nashville, and I was in town for a week scouting. I had found everything I needed already and had a day to kill. Being the diligent location scout that I am, I spent my remaining time driving all over town getting my bearings. Were we to wind up filming there I wanted to be prepared. By late afternoon I felt comfortably conversant with the town’s layout and was preparing to head back to my hotel.

    At that point I was driving north out of town on Highway 41. It was a pretty industrial stretch of road, and getting turned around was difficult as traffic had gotten a little heavy. As we crept along I saw a light just ahead and got ready to make the right turn and get oriented back towards downtown Nashville. Off on the side of the road was a low, nondescript brick building. It only had one small window, which had an illuminated red neon heart in it. While I waited I saw a pair of very attractive women dressed as though heading to a nightclub enter the building. I wasn’t sure what was happening there but clearly some sort of trouble was going on. Of course I had to check it out.

    I made the turn and passed the lot, parking a short distance up the street. Whatever was happening inside, I was prepared to make a quick exit. Entering the front door I found myself facing a heavy steel door and a small window covered in plexiglass. A woman’s voice asked me how long I needed. I inquired about prices, and she recited a sliding scale ranging from 15 minutes to two hours. The fees were relatively inexpensive and I was on per diem so I sprung for the full two hours, still having no idea what that bought me other than time. The woman buzzed me in.

    The room I stepped into was dark, and the sign on the wall indicated that I was in “Sally’s Hot Tub Club.” Go figure. I was presented with a lineup of women, some quite attractive, and told to choose. I did so, and a lovely young woman led me into a room. She directed me to a bench in the corner and told me to get comfortable. I did, and waited for her return. Apparently she was a little surprised when she saw me again.

    “Honey, by get comfortable I meant you should get undressed.”

    “Oh. Okay. I was confused because there is no water in the hot tub.”

    I nodded to indicate the bone-dry tub in the corner. She laughed sweetly.

    “We don’t actually go in the hot tub, you see…” she went on to explain just what happened there. Ah. Got it. So I did what people do in such situations. Once business was concluded I still had an hour and a half to kill, so we had a very pleasant talk.

    I mention this to give some context. When faced with the opportunity, yes, I certainly obliged. It was random, semi-accidental and quite nice. However I could not imagine consciously seeking out such a situation. Somehow it felt even creepier where it was legal to do so. It wasn’t just our waitress who kept suggesting we visit one of the local establishments, but something that was suggested by everyone we met in Ely. An entire town full of pimps. Also, the women in Nashville were generally quite gorgeous. I had yet to see a woman in Ely who interested me, or even came close.

    Finishing our meal, I retired to the blackjack tables. Darius, Stephane, and Kar Wai all made their excuses and went back to their rooms. I was certain one or more of them was going to sneak off to the brothels, so I took a seat with a view of the door. To my great surprise, none of them showed again that evening. Perhaps I had misjudged them, more likely they were just exhausted.

    While I am far from what they consider a “whale,” I do know my way around a casino. Usually I spend my time at Caesars playing $50 hands of blackjack. The table limit at the Hotel Nevada was only $5, so playing there felt like I was betting Monopoly money. The game was played with a single deck and the dealer was a little clumsy, so even with my rudimentary counting skills I was soon beating the hell out of the house. In an attempt to even up the odds a little I started tossing back double vodkas. The Manager stopped by the table and apologetically informed me that they could only comp well vodka, but for a double Stoli I would have to pay full price, which was all of four dollars. I told him it was fine and to keep them coming.

    After a while I simply got bored. I was up over two hundred dollars on five dollar hands, and couldn’t throw the drinks back fast enough to get even a little drunk. The whorehouses didn’t interest me and I had no interest in finding any drugs. Cowboys may dream about gaming tables, cold drinks and available women but it did nothing for me. All I wanted was to be back home, sleeping in my own bed, alone. I said my goodnights, cashed my chips, and retired to my cold lonely bed.

    ….

    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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