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  • March 25, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Basin and Range

    by Sam Hutchins

    Kar Wai had been reaching out to his network of contacts, asking for any ideas on smaller, down-at-the-heels casinos. I was in no position to discourage him, but in my experience getting tips from anyone other than a fellow location scout/manager is a waste of your time. There are so many factors that go into making a location work that you invariably wind up being sent someplace useless. Not to say you should not always keep an open an inquisitive mind, of course, but know going in not to expect much. This is all the more true for ideas you get from the producer and/or director’s acquaintances. It’s always the director’s best friend who insists you scout Lincoln Center when the script calls for an intimate jazz club. You are obligated to follow through, however, so it’s only after wasting half a scouting day that you can report that the location fee is $100,000 and the first availability is sometime in October of 2025.

    In this spirit we lit out for the Nevada-Utah Border. Someone in Kar Wai’s circle had sworn that there was an amazing casino straddling the line between the two states. I was highly doubtful, but what the hell. Why not have a look? We already had our accommodations for the night arranged in the historic Hotel Nevada when we loaded up the truck and headed out.

    I must admit that we traveled through some of the most beautiful land I have seen in this country. The trip was through the mountains, essentially moving from one high desert basin to another. Being at such an altitude, I started to feel like I was closer to God. Whether it was the clouds, the majestic stone, or just the thin oxygen-deprived air, it was a tangible feeling I could not shake. I wanted nothing more than to wander out alone in the scrub brush and have a chat with the Man upstairs. Maybe strip naked and confess my sins. Alas, the closest I came were the multiple stops we made to photograph the landscape.

    I was also excited at the prospect of Kar Wai working in such wide open spaces. While his stories cover a very broad range, his aesthetic is rather narrowly defined. He shoots urban decay. His locations are old, cramped spaces in the rotting hearts of cities. His colors are electric and washed in neon. The closest I came to matching his standard look was in Brooklyn at midnight. Now we were in the middle of nowhere, nothing but nature as far as the eye could see. We were surrounded by primary tones. Everything here was some shade of tan. How would he film the landscape? What relationship will his characters have with their surroundings? The questions thrilled me.

    At one point when planning the scout I researched filming in Monument Valley. What a coup it would be to bring Kar Wai to the scene of John Ford’s greatest work. After extensive digging I discovered that getting to the really good parts took extraordinary measures. You had to track down one of a small handful of Native American guides who knew the area and do a day’s hike just to get to where the good locations begin. As great a thing it would have been to make happen, this was not the crowd to take that walk. Now, however, it seemed like we might have found areas that were quite beautiful in their own right to shoot. Valley after valley opened before us, with massive herds of antelope charging across the plains to greet us. Truly a lovely spot on the earth.

    It was easy to find the casino we were looking for. It sat far off in the distance, the first sign of humanity we had seen in hours. As advertised, it did sit on its own with nothing else as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately it was also criminally ugly. Such a wasted opportunity. Nothing but a series of connected pre-fab buildings and outlying trailers. Once inside, we found it even less appealing. Formica, suspended ceilings, and slot machines ruled the day. We shot a few pictures before taking our leave.

    Back in the parking lot, Kar Wai had Stephane, Darius and I pose for a series of pictures. The whole thing was done so unexpectedly and casually that I was surprised to find later that they are some of my favorite pictures of myself. The sky got a little dark and cloudy as we drove back towards Ely and the Hotel Nevada, but broke nicely just as the sun set. At the start of the journey my French friends had insisted that the journey was just as important as the destination and it seems that they were right about that.

    ….

    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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  • March 23, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Hotel Nevada

    by Sam Hutchins

    The process always plays out differently no matter how long you do it. Each film is a living, breathing entity that has its own quirks and wrinkles. This is true of every show you are on, but even more so with a creatively chaotic fellow like Kar Wai guiding the enterprise. The more I got to know him, the less predictable he became. Places that seemed to fit perfectly into his aesthetic were summarily rejected while other times he surprised me with his interest. Not so with the Hotel Nevada. As as soon as we crossed the street to take a closer look at it I began thinking about where we would park the trucks. It was exactly what we were looking for.

    Opening in 1929, things got off to a rocky start when the stock market crashed shortly thereafter. Prohibition was in effect as well and was not a friend to the entertainment or hospitality industries. Nonetheless, illegal booze and gambling were readily available from the first day the place was open. The Hotel Nevada was always shrewdly-run, pioneering the concept of offering free bus service to and from Salt Lake City. The booze and gambling, as well as the town’s multiple whorehouses, proved a effective lure to the residents of Utah, and the hotel has always done well for itself. Amazing considering it was only one of three casinos in a small town in the middle of nowhere. If working with Kar Wai was a search for the hidden histories and the tales of the louche life, we had found what we were looking for.

    The hotel was wonderful about welcoming us with open arms. It’s that kind of place. Although the owner was not in town, the manager set us up with a housekeeper who “was perfect for you, because she loves movies.” Without wanting to sound mean or ungrateful, I’m about to be mean and ungrateful. Even though people take time out of their day to help us scout, their presence can so frequently be burdensome. All we really require is access to the rooms. Give us a set of keys and let us wander around. Instead you are often guided by the person most eager to spend time with you, the local film buff. Such was the case here. While trying to take pictures and get a sense of the hotel I braced myself for another boring lecture.

    I will admit that the cleaning lady knew her stuff. When she met Kar Wai she point blanked him with, “Yeah, your stuff is good. No one around here cares, though. They just want to see action movies.” This definitely caught us off guard and was good for a chuckle. Unfortunately, the monologue was non-stop from there, going into great detail about every movie that had ever exposed a foot of film in the surrounding 200 miles. As we looked at basic rooms she kept building us up for the suites. Apparently they were, at her insistence, all movie themed. After the big lead-up, we were shown the first of them, the Ray Milland Suite. My hopes for something out of The Lost Weekend were dashed when I discovered that the only distinguishing characteristic of it was a still photo of Mr. Milland sitting on a bed stand. To think, I still had the Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Wayne Newton, Anne Rutherford, Mickey Rooney, Ken Maynard and Wallace Beery suites to tour.

    Turning around to leave the room, I discovered I was alone with the Housekeeper. The rest of my crew had snuck out to explore on their own. Those bastards. I continued the tour for a few more of the suites, but upon discovering they were all essentially the same room with different photos, I begged off from seeing the rest. What was in reality only an hour or so of my life had felt like a year in purgatory. Returning to the lobby I discovered my companions chuckling at the slot machines.

    “How is your girlfriend?” asked Kar Wai.

    “Thanks for ditching me.”

    “You seemed like you had plenty to talk about.”

    “Ugh. What did you think of the place?”

    “I like it. Book us rooms here tonight. We’ll explore the area, then come back and sleep here.”

    And so it was.

    ….

    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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  • March 22, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Under Surveillance

    by John Farr

    Three films about voyeurism and suspicion.


    The Conversation (1974)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Detached and distrustful of others, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a deeply private, virtually friendless man whose life is consumed by his special brand of freelance intelligence work. Hired by corporate director Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to monitor the conversation of a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), Caul is troubled by the fragments of talk he illicitly captures on tape and begins obsessively piecing them together, suspecting a murder is in the works.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Made before he began work on “The Godfather II,” Coppola’s prescient, haunting drama is a brilliant character study set in a pungent atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy. Hackman is the dark heart of the film, playing a profoundly solitary man tortured by guilt, complicity, and his own inability to trust anyone, including girlfriend Amy, sweetly played by Garr. Coppola’s most artful film, “The Conversation” is dark, brooding, and mysterious, but absorbing nonetheless.


    Caché (2005)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Television interviewer Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche), live a comfortably placid bourgeois life in a Paris condominium, along with their 12-year-old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). But when someone begins to terrorize them by leaving voyeuristic videotapes on their doorstep, along with gruesome stick-figure drawings that appear meaningless yet menacing, their lives are irrevocably disrupted. Who’s watching, and what do they want?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Austrian director and arch provocateur Michael Haneke crafts a compelling, suspenseful thriller in Caché, deftly suggesting the menace of global terrorism by locating it in the troubled domestic experience of an iconic nuclear family. Auteuil and Binoche are both superb as the couple ripped apart by a long-dormant secret that slowly bubbles to the surface when Georges confronts a horrific incident in his early childhood. Haneke really notches up the tension, relieving it (momentarily) in a kitchen scene that will literally steal your breath away. Intelligent, enigmatic, and shocking, Caché is can’t-miss cinema.


    The Lives of Others (2006)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After seeing a stage drama by celebrated East German playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), Stasi agent Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Uhlrich Muhe) decides to place the writer under surveillance at the suggestion of a government minister (Thomas Thieme) who privately lusts after Dreymans lover, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler quickly learns that Dreyman is ultra-patriotic, but as the GDR begins to crack down on his artist friends, his loyalties begin to shiftand so do Wieslers.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2006, this brisk yet elegantly plotted political thriller concerns a highly disciplined agent of the East German secret police who becomes emotionally involved in the life of one of his suspected dissident targets-though they never meet. In a stoic, tight-lipped performance, Ulrich Muhe is terrific as the cold, unhappy policeman who experiences a personal catharsis after monitoring Dreyman. Koch and Gedeck are wonderful, too, as the lovers doomed to suffer at the hands of abusive officials. Suspenseful and moving, “Others” is an aching tribute to the spirit of love and guarantee of individual rights we too often take for granted.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • March 22, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

    by John Farr

    A salute to three of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s great ones.


    Oklahoma! (1955)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Fox introduced the new singing team of MacRae and Jones in this buoyant musical, adapted from the hit play that launched Rodgers and Hammerstein as a songwriting team .The movie follows the round-about romance of a young couple in the rough frontier days of the early 1900s. Cowboy Curly (Gordon MacRae) has eyes for Oklahoma farm girl Laurey (Shirley Jones), but so does brutish farmhand Jud Frye (Rod Steiger). When Curly rescues Laurey from Jud’s ungentlemanly advances at a social, he also wins her hand, but Jud hasn’t sung his last tune just yet.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Though the film is long and contains a fairly high corn factor, it’s also visually stunning, and truly soars whenever the music and dancing starts, with peerless renditions of “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “The Surrey With The Fringe On The Top,” and the immortal title tune. The dance numbers, choreographed by Agnes de Mille, are original and exuberant, while Steiger and Gloria Grahame turn in fine performances, respectively playing the dastardly Jud and the naively amorous Ado Annie, “the girl who can’t say no.”


    The King and I (1956)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In the mid-1860′s, The King of Siam (Yul Brynner) finds himself with many children to educate and care for, so he hires Anna (Deborah Kerr), an English governess, for the position. What he does not count on is her firm and independent approach to the job, which creates interesting interaction between lady and monarch.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A triumphant screen adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway play turned Yul Brynner into a star. Sets and costumes are breathtaking, the story touching and each song in the lilting score still enchants. Deborah Kerr makes a perfect Anna (with help from Marni Nixon, who dubbed her singing voice), a woman strong enough to stand up to– and perhaps love — a king. This movie will sparkle eternally.


    The Sound of Music (1965)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Joyous, honey-voiced Austrian nun Maria (Julie Andrews) becomes governess to seven children at the outset of World War II and eventually falls for their handsome widower father, Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). The Nazis are on the move, however, and force the Von Trapps to flee. Will the happy new family survive?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Shot in pristine color on location near Salzburg-and featuring that dizzying opening shot of Maria belting out the title tune from a verdant hilltop-”Music” fully deserves its reputation as one of the most popular films of all time. The daisy-fresh Andrews is simply terrific, whether she’s acting or singing, and the songs-”Do Re Mi,” “Climb Every Mountain,” and “My Favorite Things”-have become part of our cultural heritage. Adapted from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway play, the film might be a bit schmaltzy at moments, but in all, it remains utterly irresistible. The hills are still alive-and your singing pipes will be too-with the wondrous “Sound of Music.”


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • March 18, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Marlboro Man at the Liberty Club

    by Sam Hutchins

    Ely, Nevada Pop. 4,041

    Ely, Nevada is a town of roughly 4,000 people in White Pine County, close to the geographic center of the state of Nevada. It exists largely due to the now-defunct Kennecot Copper Mine, once a major source of the metal in this country. Tourists visit for the abundant hunting and outdoor activities in Great Basin National Park, as well as the Railroad Museum. Ely has three casinos, dozens of bars, and two whorehouses. Its population was now temporarily increased by four.

    Main Street laid out nicely, framed by the mountains as it was. There were a few architectural gems there amidst a lot of ugliness. Had it been preserved a little better it might have potential for us, but initially I didn’t see any attraction. More tragedy than victory in the buildings, as far as I was concerned. Some sort of civic boosterism had paid for a series of criminally awful murals depicting the town’s history. Generally it just felt a little sad. Part of Kar Wai’s genius is seeing beauty where others don’t, however, and he seemed to be a little captivated by this town.

    The place that initially caught his attention was a dive bar called the Liberty Club. It was a pretty great little dive with a hundred years or so of history to it. We stumbled upon and into it right around lunchtime. The bar was manned by a grizzled old lady bartender who would have looked just as comfortable in any 8th Avenue joint in New York as she did at The Liberty. The sole customer was a cowboy sitting at the bar enjoying a beer.

    By cowboy, I mean the real deal, an honest-to-God horse-riding, calf-roping Marlboro man-type cowhand from the Rio Grande. Men can have all sorts of issues dealing with other men at times, and this is a perfect example of such. I like to think I’m a pretty tough guy, I’ll admit. Been through all sorts of tussles and scrapes and always come out all right. Drop me on any street in any city and I’ll clock the action in front of and behind the scenes right away. I can score drugs in a dozen countries, throw and take a good punch, tell you which guys in a bar are strapped and instinctively know who can be pushed and who can’t. Put me in a room with a guy like this, however, and I’m flummoxed.

    How do you define your masculinity when you’re dealing with a guy who really works the land? City tough isn’t the same as country tough in the end. Also, I pride myself on my ability to relate to almost anyone but was at a total loss due to the utter foreignness of his vocation. I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what to converse about. Hey, how you like the new Ford pickup? Feels weird for me to be at a total loss like that. Doesn’t help that guys like that are usually reticent to begin with, either.

    We took some pictures but didn’t get far with the social game. The bartender was drunk and a little crazy and the cowboy was quiet. Kar Wai was also curious about him and eager to get some local color from the fellow but failed even more spectacularly than I had. Taking a page from my playbook he offered to buy a round for the bar. The bartender had hers inside her practically before he finished speaking. I reluctantly put my whiskey back. The cowboy refused the offer. The whole scene felt a little awkward and weird so we soon took our leave. I could now see how Kar Wai was fascinated with this place. There were stories here that we needed to know so we could improve them and make them our own.

    While there were very few restaurants there was no shortage of bars. We popped in and out of most of them that early afternoon. Outside of the Liberty they were all awful. Nothing you couldn’t find in a strip mall in Phoenix. That first whiskey had not treated me overly well given the previous night so I made an effort to avoid any more as we scouted. Though I didn’t see anyone obviously tweaking, the town seemed to give off a pretty strong meth vibe. All things considered, I was ready to get the hell out of Dodge, unheard stories notwithstanding. Kar Wai held firm however, so we went on exploring.

    ….

    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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