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  • March 16, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Ma Ma

    by Sam Hutchins

    The liquor store looked like a possible Kar Wai location. It was a gas station built for the original blue line highways that predated the interstate system. Better, it had been sloppily and gaudily repurposed with no historical regard, and even had its own fleabag motel out back. Perhaps the perfect Kar Wai honeypot.

    Walking in, we were engulfed by the hurricane that was Ma Ma. She was a Korean woman of a certain age. Of what age I am not certain, but let’s say 60 would be a conservative guess. A guess which would be the last acquaintance we would have with the concept of “conservative” that morning. She wore a tightly fit black velvet top over leopard skin stretch pants. Chunky black Cha-Cha heels and a yellow silk scarf completed the look. Her personality was even more outgoing than her garb.

    “Hey, what you doing here, Chinese man? You want some tea? Hahaha.”

    Kar wai warmed up to her like he very rarely does with a person.

    “I would, thank you very much. Actually, if you just have some hot water, I would like to serve you a special tea I brought from Hong Kong.”

    “Yee-haa, that sounds good! Tell you what, you do that and I’ll make you some noodles I have special from Korea.”

    “Oh, very good. I have not had breakfast yet.”

    “Come, come. I make for you. No charge! Hahahaha!”

    Everything she said was enunciated as a borderline yell, particularly this last bit. It was punctuated by her cackling laughter, as was every other sentence or so that came out of her mouth. She nodded at me.

    “None for him, though. He too fat!”

    “Don’t worry, he hates Asian food,” Kar Wai said of me. How did he get that idea?

    “He should eat some noodles, maybe not be so fat. Hahahahaha!”

    “I would like some, if that ees okay,” Darius chimed in.

    “No noodles for you. Only noodles for handsome here.” She nodded at Kar Wai.

    I started to ask her about taking pictures but Kar Wai cut me off and discreetly shook his head no. I suppose the interior wasn’t that great. White pegboard covered the walls and it was overly bright. Still, it seemed like his sort of place. I wandered outside and took pictures of the mountains, but the view was largely blocked by scattered ugly buildings. A billiard hall, a dusty furniture store, that sort of thing. Nothing with the slightest bit of character aside from Ma Ma’s liquor store.

    When I stepped back in, Ma Ma had Kar Wai cornered. She was haranguing him about filming in her place. He had gone from warm to obviously uncomfortable. I did my duty and stepped in.

    “We can’t shoot here, Ma Ma. You’re too sexy, you’ll make the starlets jealous.”

    “Hahaha, you bullshit me. I no sexy, I no want to be in movie. I want you to film here, pay me lots of money, hahahaha!”

    “Okay, the place looks great, but we have other places to see. Besides, we really don’t have much money.”

    “Make me offer, hahaha!”

    She really had Kar Wai pinned in the corner. I had to take her arm and pull her away so he could slip past. As soon as he had a clear path to the door he stepped quickly towards it. He called over his shoulder as he left.

    “Thanks for the noodles, Ma Ma, they were very tasty. See you soon.”

    She wasn’t done yet.

    “Anything you want, I can get you.” She winked lustily. “Anything.”

    My God. Even as we pulled away in the truck she stood on the sidewalk yelling and cackling at us.

    “When you come back hahaha? I be here waiting hahaha! Plenty more noodles for you! Make you a good deal!”

    I checked the rear view to make sure she wasn’t running down the street after us. Seeing our escape was successful I put the big question to Kar Wai.

    “So, we filming there?”

    “Location is great, but she is too much too handle.” He gave it a long pause. “Maybe when we film there we say Stephane is the Director.”

    We all had a nice laugh and that broke the tension between Stephane and Kar Wai.

    I love history, and read it voraciously. A few years ago while reading one of Ambrose’s oral histories of World War II I came across an absolutely amazing story. In the mop-up operations after D-Day American soldiers were registering German prisoners. I forget which beach it was, but it was someplace where Hitler had been certain would not be a landing site. The soldiers there were the dregs of the Wermacht. Amongst them were a few Korean men who did not speak a word of German, let alone English. Subsequent investigation revealed that they had fought the Japanese, been captured and impressed to fight for the Emperor. As Japanese conscripts they fought the Russians, were captured, and agreed to fight the Germans. The Germans captured them and shipped them all the way west were they wound up in a pillbox defending the Continent. I imagined Ma Ma had arrived here by some equally strange chain of events. She was clearly a survivor. What forces of history had washed her up on this mountain where we found her? I pondered this as we descended into the mountain basin where Ely proper sat.

    ….

    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 15, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Diner Movies

    by John Farr

    Movies set in diners.


    The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) rolls into a roadside diner and meets portly, good-natured owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), who offers him a job as a fix-it man. Frank’s not too interested until he gets a look at Nick’s white-hot wife, Cora (Lana Turner), a smoldering beauty trapped in a dead-end existence. Almost immediately, they become passionate, obsessive lovers, and matter-of-factly hatch a plan to get rid of Nick-for good.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Tay Garnett’s sizzling “Postman,” adapted from the pulp novel by James M. Cain, concerns fate, temptation, and the kind of irrational urges that drive people to murder. A gorgeous Lana Turner bewitches as the femme fatale, and enigmatic, underrated actor John Garfield plays the regular Joe who falls into her clutches. Garnett’s direction is solid and tantalizingly suggestive, as when Frank spots a lipstick rolling across the floor moments before he lays eyes on Cora. Garnett’s “Postman” delivers the goods.


    Five Easy Pieces (1970)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Disaffected, hard-drinking oil rigger Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is not what he appears at first sight: Born into a patrician clan from Puget Sound, Bobby has turned his back on bourgeois comforts and a promising career as a classical pianist for life on the road with dim-witted girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). Bobby’s drawn back into the family fold, however, when he learns his father Nicholas (William Challee) is dying.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the definitive, highly acclaimed films of the early-70′s New American Cinema, Bob Rafelson’s edgy, deep character study features complex and courageous performances from both Nicholson and Black. As an existentially pained outcast of upper-middle-class breeding, Jack’s pent-up Bobby is especially absorbing to watch, as he denigrates Rayette’s crass singing efforts or spars with a waitress over the vagaries of a chicken-salad sandwich. A moody portrait of alienation and unresolved pain, Rafelson’s Oscar-nominated “Pieces” will stick with you.


    Diner (1982)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Levinson’s break-through movie takes us back to Baltimore, 1959, and into the lives of several high-school pals adjusting to young adulthood. The group includes Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), nervous about an upcoming marriage, Shrevie and Beth (Daniel Stern and Ellen Barkin), who’ve taken the plunge and are having a rough patch, Tim, a boozing rich kid (Kevin Bacon), and Boogie (Mickey Rourke), a sweet-natured guy with a gambling problem. The diner is their mainstay, the place they convene to break bread and discuss the issues of the day. Around this sanctuary we track their individual struggles, and with them, take comfort that whatever happens, there’s always the diner.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Levinson’s vivid, heartfelt ensemble comedy provided an outstanding showcase for up-and-comers Rourke, Stern, Guttenberg, Barkin, and Bacon. The script is funny and knowing, and the natural, often overlapping flow of dialogue gives off the authentic feel of improvisation. Levinson recreates the city of his youth with loving detail. A rich human comedy with a big heart.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • March 11, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Wrong Way

    by Sam Hutchins

    We wrapped things up at Majors Station with the promise of returning. I knew that we would. It was too great and weird a place not too. The owner had pointed us in the direction of Ely, a town further up the road. Apparently it featured the oldest full service hotel in Nevada as well as a few casinos. Sounded exactly like what we were searching for. Although still before nine in the morning, I had recovered enough to get behind the wheel again. The high elevation and cold mountain air proved a remarkable restorative. As we prepared to load up, Darius surprised us all.

    “Eef you do not mind, I would like to drive now.”

    How odd. Tens of thousands of miles into the trip he suddenly asked to drive for the first time. No one took issue with it, so he took a turn piloting the truck.

    Majors Station sits at the far end of a broad basin high in the mountains. The road rises behind it, ascending sharply up and over the next ridge. Darius kicked up gravel getting out of the lot and muscled the truck up the road. We were halfway through second gear and starting to gain speed when Kar Wai commanded him to stop not 100 yards up the road so we could get additional shots of the location from above. I greatly enjoyed Darius frustration at this. Pictures taken, we set out again. The road was a series of sharp switchbacks and S-curves, blind turns and sheer cliffs often unprotected by guardrails. With no exaggeration, a wrong move could mean a fiery death for all of us. Darius reacted by driving like he was on the Autobahn and running late for dinner.

    Adrenaline and sheer terror quickly elbowed the last remaining vestiges of my hangover aside. Glancing over quickly, I saw that even Stephane was not his typically oblivious self. We were both clutching the armrests and looking terrified. Only Kar Wai maintained his composure. As we burned around another corner with the tires squealing and narrowly missed sideswiping a truck loaded with hogs Kar Wai calmly spoke.

    “Darius, we are in no hurry, you know.”

    “Don’t worry, I am a good driver. Besides, you are supposed to accelerate through the turns. It gives you more control.”

    Fortunately we topped the range and came out on a long straightaway running through another high desert plateau. A distant highway crossing was staked down by a very modern gas station/convenience store/taco shop combination. Approaching it, Kar Wai asked that we stop so he could make some tea. Exiting the car, he gently removed the keys from Darius’ hand and passed them off to Stephane. They tracked down some hot water and brewed tea while I scarfed down a giant extra-spicy breakfast burrito. If I’m going to stare down death I’m doing it on a stomach full of greasy, delicious food.

    I attempted to look at the map with Stephane but he wasn’t interested.

    “The lady said it ees these way, so these way is the way to go.”

    Stephane is a great guy, but also quite stubborn at times. Something about Vegas really turned him ugly. Working in film situations can get pretty intense and heated, and it is not uncommon for tempers to flare. The key to being successful is learning how to forget. You yell at someone, they yell at you. You have to put the yelling behind you because in the next moment another problem will arise that requires collaboration to solve it. There’s no room for the holding of grudges. Seems he had not learned the lesson, though, as his anger held.

    He was clearly upset as we continued up the road. Turning right where we should have gone left, I held my tongue. We passed a few recently built structures and soon were in the open desert again. Had we gone left we would be in Ely, but Stephane didn’t want to hear it so I wasn’t telling him again. Eventually Kar Wai spoke up.

    “Stephane, you went the wrong way. Turn around.”

    “This is the right way. I think Ely is just ahead.”

    “No, it’s not. Turn around.”

    Ignoring him, Stephane continued driving. We continued seeing nothing but wide-open spaces. It became increasingly obvious that we really were going the wrong direction. Kar Wai tried again

    “Stephane–“

    Stephane violently jerked the wheel over and screeched to a halt in a cloud of dust. Springing from the driver’s seat, he stomped off down the roadside kicking at the dirt and cursing in French. We all exchanged glances before I volunteered to chase him down. Kar Wai insisted on doing it himself, though, and set out after him. They stopped twenty yards or so down the road and proceeded to have a loud and very ugly argument. I couldn’t make out most of it but it wasn’t pretty. No kid likes to hear his parents get upset. After a lengthy exchange Darius turned to me in the truck.

    “I think Stephane might be angry about something.”

    My God, what a beautiful thing, to go through life so blissfully unaware. I almost envied him. Eventually we all were back in the truck, and I turned us around and headed for Ely as Stephane quietly brooded in the back. It was still early and we’d already had an eventful day.

    Passing the crossroads where we had made the wrong turn, we rounded a bend and saw a great looking combination liquor store and motel. There were a few defunct gas pumps out front, and the building’s structure suggested that it had begun life as a gas station many years ago. It was built exactly like the old one-pump structures we had seen on Rte. 66. The road we were on was called Old Highway 50 , which only reinforced my hunch. Stepping into the place we met a character none of us will ever forget.

    ….

    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 9, 2010

    A Scouting Life: The Hangover

    by Sam Hutchins

    I’m sure being stabbed in the head is uncomfortable, but it can’t feel much worse than I did when my alarm went off at five.  I sprung out of bed, caught my leg in the sheets and fell face first on the floor.  Thrashing my way out of the tangle, I scrambled across the floor in a panic.  Springing to my feet, I tensed up in a karate attack pose, which would probably be more helpful if I knew karate.   I stopped and forced myself to hold still, take a deep breath and assess the situation.  No immediate threat is apparent.  I’m alone in a hotel room.  It is dark, it is Vegas.  That’s right, I’m in the Luxor.  It’s all coming together for me.  Unable to properly focus my eyes.  My God, I’m still drunk.  Then the panic hits.  Shit, I’m late, need to go.  Need to get out of here.  Can’t be late.  Drinking cannot prevent me from doing my job.

    Turning up the lights in the room didn’t help my eyes focus, it only made everything bright and blurry.  Dimming them to a slightly less painful level, I felt my way around the place, shoving everything that wasn’t bolted down into my suitcase.  Dunking my face in a sink full of water didn’t help the stink of booze come off me, but I didn’t know if I’d survive a shower.  Maintaining a standing posture seemed unlikely at best.  Can’t risk it.  Despite a careful idiot check, I wound up leaving several critical cords and chargers behind.  So be it.

    I really, really didn’t want to be late.  Although I was ambushed with the early call time, I still had a job to do.  When at work I’m more dependable than the U.S. Mail.  My slogan might swap out something about booze for rain or snow, but I’ll retain the “dark of night” bit.  Hustling down the endless corridors, I saw they were littered with the detritus of other people’s long nights.  Disgusting.  Caesars would never allow a mess like this in the halls.  By the time I got to the front door I had a light sweat working.  I don’t imagine I smelled very pleasant.

    Being Vegas, the valet didn’t bat an eye when a wild-eyed guy reeking of booze handed him a ticket and told him to hurry the hell up with the truck.  I greased him generously for his discretion.  After popping the hatch and loading my gear I realized I was the only one there.  The hell?  Where were my partners?  Feeling too unsteady to navigate the hotel again I shrugged my shoulders and climbed behind the wheel.  Cranking up the AC to maximum I reclined the seat and closed my eyes.

    When I was young we once drove to Disney World as a family.  We had stopped for gas in West Virginia in the middle of the night.  I remember waking, Sissy and I snuggled in the back of the station wagon, and feeling comforted by the vibrations of the car.  As I drifted back towards sleep, “Under the Boardwalk” played on the radio.  We started heading south again and all was right in my world.  Something about being in the truck brought this to mind, and the world was fuzzy and soft around the edges as I drifted off with the engine running once again.  The guys found me passed out in the truck and eased me into the backseat where I gladly returned to my dreams.

    A few hours later I woke up in a small town called Caliente, Nevada.  We were parked at a western diner and Stephane was shaking me awake.

    “Would you like some coffee, man?”

    “Huh?  Where are we?  What the hell?”

    “We had to wake you, man.  You were snoring like a big bear.”

    Darius joined in, laughing.

    “Ooh, look, the bear is out of his cave.”

    “Seriously man, you were snoring like an animal.  We thought you were hibernating.”

    Heading inside, I was terrified at the thought we might want to scout the place.  I was in no shape to pitch anyone at the moment.  Mercifully, Kar Wai was not interested.  Taking my dopp kit, I went into the bathroom, filled the sink and took a whore’s bath.  Feeling just refreshed enough to pass out again, I headed back to the truck.  Kar Wai was giggling and plugging quarters into a slot machine as I passed.  He might have gone around the bend, but I couldn’t worry about it just yet.  Climbing in the back seat I drifted off.

    When I woke again I was confronted by the bones of a thousand dead animals.  I heard the gravel crunch under the tires as the truck pulled to a stop.  We were parked in front of a large cabin of sorts.  The land behind it was fenced in, and every inch of the enclosure was topped by the bleached-out bones of game successfully brought down.  I was too disoriented to be scared, but a little disgust did manage to creep in.  A very parochially urban outlook on the situation to be sure, but like Popeye or the scorpion I am what I am.

    Climbing out of the truck and stretching, I felt at least half-human again.  The cold, crisp air helped.  Looking around, I tried to get my bearings.  Although still a little bleary and worse for wear, I could see we were on a plateau pretty high in the mountains.  According to the sign on the cabin we were someplace called Majors Place.  Kar Wai asked me to see if they were open.

    The place was locked up and there were no hours posted on the door, so I rattled it for a while.  Eventually an older woman came and opened up.  It seemed like she was expecting us.

    “Come in, come in, I just put on a pot of coffee.  It’ll just be a minute.  Unless you want something stronger?”

    We assured her that just the coffee would be fine.  I started explaining who we were and what we were up to while the guys poked around.  The place seemed to have a bit of everything.  There was a pool table, a few slot machines, and a table for card games.  Whiskey bottles lined the back bar and a basic food menu was thumbtacked to the wall.  Taxidermied animal heads and more bleached bones kept the general “death” theme consistent with what we saw outside.  She reacted as though she was approached by film scouts from Hollywood all the time; that is without the slightest surprise or excitement.

    As it turns out, she was one in a long line of proprietors who were used to unusual visitors to Majors Station.  It was the site of one of the earliest trading posts in the state, eventually being used as a Pony Express stop.  The name came from a fellow named Alexander Majors, who was the main architect of the Northern route of the Pony Express, which ran from St. Joseph to San Francisco.  This place had been host to oddballs dropping in for over a hundred and fifty years now, which explained her lack of surprise.  We were just another group of travelers passing through.

    Once again I marveled at what I do for a living.  My current office was a cup of coffee on a bar in an old pony express stop.  I snapped a picture of the scene in front of me before taking my coffee out to the front porch.  The air was damned cold but it didn’t bother me.  I sat, sipped my coffee, and enjoyed the view.  Saying a short prayer for the animals whose bones lay before me, I hoped that their deaths had served a good purpose and their spirits had been honored properly.
    ….

    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)
  • March 8, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Isolation

    by John Farr

    Three films on loneliness and isolation.


    Umberto D. (1952)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    An aging pensioner struggling to make ends meet in inflationary post-war Italy, Umberto D. (Carlo Battisti) is a despairing man who faces an uncertain future. Receiving threats of eviction from his cold, uncaring landlady and desperately seeking to raise the needed money to no avail, he can only rely on his one remaining friend, a small dog named Flike.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Portraying the plight of the elderly dispossessed in an acknowledged masterpiece of the neorealist style, De Sica’s “Umberto D.” may surpass his own “Bicycle Thief” for heartbreaking poignancy. What in less skillful hands could have been treacly melodrama becomes instead a wrenchingly honest tale about a forgotten human being searching in vain for some shred of human kindness. Half a century later, “Umberto D.” remains a monumental achievement of simple, eloquent storytelling.


    The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Left on his own when a close friend is institutionalized, deaf-mute John Singer (Alan Arkin) moves to a small town in the Deep South, where he soon befriends a troubled adolescent girl, Mick (Locke), and a colorful cast of misfits, including an alcoholic ne’er-do-well (Stacy Keach) and an embittered black doctor (Percy Rodriguez). Spilling their secrets to the equable Singer, the townsfolk take for granted this saintly mute’s presence in their lives-until it’s too late.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on Carson McCullers’s bittersweet novel, and gorgeously lensed by famed cinematographer James Wong Howe, Miller’s “Hunter” is the affecting tale of a man who enriches the lives of everyone around him without (quite literally) asking for anything in return. The interactions between Oscar nominees Arkin and Locke (just 20 at the time) are particularly touching (they bond over classical music), but the film is also notable for fine early performances by Keach and Cicely Tyson, playing Rodriguez’s estranged daughter. Delicately grappling with poverty and all forms of intolerance, this “Hunter” has got a lot of heart.


    Taxi Driver (1976)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Vietnam vet turned Manhattan cabbie, is an angry, forgotten man, and he’s about to break. His work takes him into the cesspool of the city, in contact with various lowlifes, including a pimp named Sport (Keitel), who protects child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), whom Travis befriends. He then takes one last stab at a better life, courting lovely campaign aide Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). But it’s soon clear he doesn’t belong in her world, and Bickle’s final disintegration is at hand.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Scorsese’s dark vision of human alienation in an urban wasteland captures the seaminess of pre-Giuliani Manhattan, and De Niro’s career-making performance as Bickle is haunting, recalling those real-life outcasts who have used violent crime to tell an oblivious world: “I was here!”. Stunningly directed and acted, this picture is every bit as disturbing now as when released.Brilliant, but not for the faint of heart.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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