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  • June 16, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Mystery Man at the Farewell Meal

    by Sam Hutchins

    Humans have an amazing ability to recover. We can be almost like dogs that way; give us a little positive stimulus and we happily live in the moment. Forget about the misery you were just experiencing, here’s a candy bar. We’re easy like that, myself as much as anyone. The storm darkened sky, pre-downpour humidity and stressful drive had created the impression that it was much later than it actually was. I sat down and gave myself a stern talking to. That, a coffee, a smoke, and a long hot shower put me back at the top of my game. I felt electric with excitement when I hit the lobby. There was no bar, so I passed the time thinking about all the people I know in L.A., friends present and past. Even the inevitable twenty minute wait past the appointed meeting time did not temper my enthusiasm.

    By the time we eventually did depart it was a perfect West Coast evening. The humidity had vanished with the rain and the desert grit had washed down our respective shower drains. Saltwater breezes carried our truck out and onto the highway, headed for Chinatown. It occurred to me that we had begun our story over a late night meal in a Chinese restaurant in Flushing, Queens.

    “Kar Wai, what type of restaurant are we going to?”

    “Hot pot. Like we went to before. Your favorite kind.”

    It was almost like I knew what he was going to say before he answered. I know how important symmetry and symbols are in his culture. He was bookmarking the end of our scout in the same way he began it.

    “So we finish just like we started, with hot pot. Does this mean we return to New York tomorrow?

    He answered with silence and a smile. I wasn’t letting it go just yet. After months spent in the dark I think I might have gotten a step ahead of him at last. For just this one brief moment, about this simple thing, I had figured him out. I was in tune with the master. My excitement was hard to contain.

    “Our special guest, is it Jackie Pang?”

    After all, she had been the highlight of our initial hot pot dinner. It would have fit perfectly, exact symmetry. He smiled even wider.

    “No, it is not.”

    Damn it, maybe I hadn’t figured him out after all. At least I knew how to make him happy, which was simply a matter of not understanding him. That clearly gave him great pleasure.

    Moments like the one where we emerged from the hotel, feeling the warm ocean breeze and seeing the palm fronds moving in the wind made me wonder why I had never moved to L.A. The forty-five minute drive to the restaurant answered my question. The place was in a strip mall that was composed entirely of Chinese businesses. At one time not so long ago I would be thrown by the concept of the Chinese part of town being in a strip mall. My first experience in a Chinatown was San Francisco, most of the rest were in New York. I knew them as neighborhoods of narrow streets, bright colors and dark alleys. It wasn’t until this trip that I understood Chinatown as a state of mind more than a physical place. I learned this by experiencing the far-flung diaspora through Kar Wai’s introductions; seeing the varied ways and places that the community existed in every part of America.

    Our big surprise guest was a letdown at first. He was a young, very thin and somewhat nerdy Chinese-American fellow named John. After the buildup by Kar Wai I had expected someone more exciting. As was the norm, no detailed introductions or explanations were made. He was simply presented without embroidery. Seemed nice enough, though, and certainly expressed an interest in learning about my craft. Just like our mutual friend he was elusive when questioned, but it soon became apparent that he was an aspiring screenwriter of some sort. After an appropriate bit of attention was paid to our guest I shifted focus to my French friends and, more importantly, the many bottles of Tsingtao we were quaffing.

    The food came in waves, and was absolutely delicious. No one complained as I dumped plenty of hot peppers into the broth, and we took turns plucking aromatic chunks of meat out and popping them in our mouths. John and Kar Wai were pretty intently catching up with one another and despite paying them scant attention I noticed something strange happening. Every so often a person or a few people together would approach our table and take a long look at us. Usually women, and mostly of a certain age. Initially I believed they were fans of Kar Wai’s, but it became clear that they were checking out our new pal John. A few even grabbed quick pictures before giggling and scampering off. I needed to know what the deal was with this kid.

    “Excuse me, sorry for asking, but are you famous, John?”

    He flushed a little and looked away.

    “What, are you a movie star in China?”

    “No, no. I’m not a movie star. I did a little acting when I was younger but not for a long time now.”

    The more I looked, the more familiar he seemed but I could not place it for the life of me. Kar Wai interjected.

    “John is being modest. He was a child actor and is in a couple of very big movies.”

    He shrank a little deeper into his chair. Something else struck me. Throughout the evening he had referred to someone named “Steven” repeatedly and with great respect. I had mentally filed it in the way one does when gathering contextual clues about a recent acquaintance. Now it repeated in my mind. Steven, Steven, a guy named Steven and a young Chinese boy actor. Wait, no, it couldn’t be…

    “Short Round! You’re Short effing Round from Temple of Doom, aren’t you!”

    If he was slouching before, now he was nearly beneath the table. Probably didn’t help that I had absolutely bellowed this last bit, my discretion a casualty of beer and excitement.


    Gears turned and clicked in my head.

    “So that means you are also Data, from The Goonies!”


    “Holy crap, man. You were a big part of my childhood. I love you. “

    “Why thank you.”

    “Holy shit, Short Round. Go figure. So, wait, hang on a second. You complained earlier that you can’t meet any women.”

    “Yes, I am lonely sometimes.”

    “Dude. Dude. Dude, you are frigging Data, man! We can walk into any bar in town, let the girls know who you are and you’ll be fighting them off. Trust me.”

    “No, no, that’s not true. No one cares about that.”

    “It is so true. Even if you weren’t Data we could get you laid just by saying you were him. Man, you’ve got gold and you’re hiding it. Don’t keep your lantern under a bushel, man, shine your light so the world can see!”

    At this point Kar Wai was laughing so hard he was in tears. The rest of the table was enjoying it all as well. That’s how it was with Kar Wai, the best times were as good as life gets. Fun company, copious amounts of food and drink, talking about creative ideas and potential new projects. Most of all, though, we enjoyed the very Fellini-esque atmosphere that surrounded him and swept up whoever he was with. We laughed our way through the rest of the meal, one hilarious moment after another. Truly good times. My only regret was my inability to get John to throw me a line from one of his films, but he would not be moved on this.

    Finally Kar Wai cleared his throat and gave us all a serious look as he raised his glass.

    “Thank you all for the hard work on this scouting journey. We have traveled a long way and seen many good things. I now have what I need for a story. Finish your drinks and we leave. Tomorrow morning we fly back to New York early. When we get to New York we should go look at the choices we like for a location there. Time to make decision.”

    Just like that you go from high to low. The trip ending was both relief and a letdown. The idea of sleeping in my own bed and getting a proper night’s rest was diminished by the knowledge that we would leave directly from the airport and scout NYC without time to even drop our belongings at home or rest up. Also, by now it was after 2 A.M. in the city. I’d be in the air all the next day and somehow still have to arrange a scout that starts as soon as we land. It never does get any easier.

    After making our goodbyes we shambled across the parking lot towards the truck. Kar Wai’s toast had taken the momentum out of the night, and exhaustion was overtaking us. We still faced a long commute to the hotel, followed by a very brief bit of sleep, and a cross-country flight. As we were climbing in the truck the repeated bleating of a horn finally caught our attention. We all turned to see John leaning out of his window.

    “Hey, Sammy! Sammy!”

    “John! What is it?”

    “No time for love now, Dr. Jones!”

    He laughed manically as he sped away into the night.


    At this point we moved from scouting into preproduction, and this seems like as good a place to break off the tale as any.  I want to thank everyone who has been reading this blog.  Hopefully you enjoyed it as much as I did.  I also want to thank the good people at Reel 13 for hosting me.  They have some new and exciting things happening here, so keep checking back.  You can keep up with me at my new photo blog.  It is simply one photo I take each day, whatever I come across in my travels.  You can find it at:

  • June 9, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Hard Rain

    by Sam Hutchins

    The rain came, and came hard. By the time I pulled around to the coffee shop the sky had turned black and vision was limited to about twenty feet. I got as close to the door as I could and signaled to the guys with the horn and headlights. Despite the short distance they traveled to the truck they were all soaked when they joined me. Even Kar Wai, who tends to dance between the raindrops, got wet in this downpour. It was damn near biblical.

    So far California had offered us mostly wetness and traffic. That night, doubly so. We sped back to L.A. through driving sheets of rain, curtains of water so thick the truck seemed to slow from the impact. One thing about California, though, it’s not a state that allows plague-level weather to slow it down. The stereotype of the laid-back West Coast type could be seen rapidly disappearing in the rear view if it weren’t for the guy tailgating me and flashing his high-beams whenever I dropped below 80 mph. While the roads themselves were generally flat and broad, the occasional dip would form a natural ravine that we hydroplaned over. I came to anticipate them and clench my jaw when they came. No one was given quarter on this road, so the best solution was to hunker down and power right through. A lot like life, really.

    In the midst of all this tension at least Darius remained true to form. Leaning forward, he threw the climate controls across from warmish to ice cold. Of course the reason he wasn’t feeling the cold air he desired was because the system was working hard to keep the windshield from fogging; his action resulted in cold air blasting across it and instantly blinding me. The only thing that prevented an immediate crash was the fact that we were packed in a tight formation as we sped along. I was able to follow the taillights mere feet in front of me. Breathing deeply and fighting to remain calm I restored the defroster to a working temperature. Then, both to equalize the temperature in the truck as well as out of pure spite, I opened my driver’s side window all the way. A wall of wet slammed into the backseat, absolutely soaking my passengers. Also, the windshield quickly cleared of fog.

    Closing the window without averting my eyes from traffic in the slightest I bit off my words.

    “Do not touch the AC without asking me. Please. I’d rather not plunge off the road and die in a fiery crash. Thank you.”

    Ah, good to be back with the guys again. We continued on in silence. Soaked with sweat mingling with rain, streaked with grime from the desert. Rigid with tension from driving in such awful conditions and tired from the trip. Nothing in the world sounded better than a hot bath and the best steak room service could deliver. The vision dancing in my head helped me ignore the ridiculously dangerous circumstances I drove in. Of course even this small relief could not last.

    “So tonight we eat in Chinatown.” Kar Wai proclaimed.

    “Chinatown? Really? We’ll pass it on the way to the hotel but we need to clean up first.”

    “Yes, we’ll go back to the hotel, clean up, then return to Chinatown.”

    I felt my spine tighten up, right at the base. We had at least another hour in this weather before we got to Chinatown. The plan was to drive right past it and continue another 45 minutes to our lodging. Clean up, get dressed, and another 45 minutes back to Chinatown for dinner? Oh lord, please let me avoid this.

    “Lots of great restaurants in Santa Monica, you know.”

    “Yes, but we have a special guest meeting us in Chinatown.”

    “Someone I know?”

    “No, but you consider him a friend.”

    Jesu Christo, man, enough with the riddles. This guy makes the Sphinx seem direct and straightforward. One last try to dodge this one.

    “You sure, Kar Wai? Seems like we’re going pretty far out of our way to do that. It’s going to be late by the time we get there.”

    “You are right. I shall rest a little bit.”

    With that he leaned back and closed his eyes. I gripped the wheel so tightly I thought it might snap off in my hands. Hunkering down, I drove.



    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.

  • June 3, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Mojave

    by Sam Hutchins

    I awoke the next morning in a room I didn’t recognize, with a hangover and no idea how I got there. The same could be said for a good part of my adult life. Some mornings were of course much harder than others. Waking up in Vegas is always the worst. Partly because the nights in Vegas are crazier than most places, but also because those nights don’t always begin in Vegas, or with the intent to get there. The blackout curtains that all the hotels use compound the disoriented feeling. Helpful though they may well be, they completely shut out any sense of place upon gaining consciousness. Still, I’m mostly glad the casinos have them.

    This particular morning I was aided by contextual clues. The breeze was salty and warm, and I eventually realized that the sound I heard was waves crashing on shore. Salt air, sea breeze, Los Angeles. More specifically, Santa Monica. Huzzah! The pieces gradually fell into place. I worked my way backwards through the night and was relieved to find that I didn’t recall doing anything spectacularly embarrassing, nor were there significant gaps in my memory. Copious amounts of soju had not led to tragedy. Good deal. The clock read 8:00AM, and the note I had helpfully left propped on the nightstand indicated that I was due in the lobby at 9. Another fine morning.

    We all enjoyed a nice breakfast, and I certainly wasn’t the only one hoping we were going to enjoy a lazy day on the boardwalk. Kar Wai did not share this viewpoint unfortunately, and his was the only vote that counted. He expressed a desire to scout in the desert. The thinking was that we might be able to find a replacement for Roy’s Gas Station, our chosen location for the third act of the film. While I profess no particular local expertise, I don’t leave my house without thorough preparation. Before scouting the desert outside of Los Angeles I had consulted with several colleagues conversant with the area. Top men in the field (and one woman). The consensus was that Roy’s was the perfect spot for us. That being said, I learned a long time ago that to be the best you need to work both the smartest and the hardest. The smart part of me had done the research and found Roy’s. The hard-working part of me knew the right thing to do was to go out and hit the ground in person to make sure we had the absolutely best possible location.

    So we went. Though we had only spent a day apart, it was enough to set the reset button on our relationships. The little quirks and peccadilloes of my partners had come to be intolerable at some point. Now they seemed almost charming. I had missed Kar Wai’s protracted silences and mysterious pronouncements. Seeing Darius wander distractedly into harm’s way no longer angered me. Instead I gently took him by the elbow and steered him out from in front of a moving car while he fiddled with his camera. When Stephane interrupted a conversation relevant to our scout to demonstrate his ability to balance a bottle on his head I could only smile. Hopefully they were equally tolerant of my faults.

    Also, though unspoken, we all understood that the end of the road was near. It’s hard to believe, but this months-long scout that took us across the country and back had begun with a phone call. Shortly thereafter I was in a truck with two, and then three, strangers setting out in search of an American story. We never knew from one day to the next where we were headed. Whenever we assumed something Kar Wai threw a monkey wrench into the plans. It was still entirely possible that Kar Wai would tell us to push through the desert and continue driving east. I didn’t think that would happen, though. It felt like this part of our journey was coming to a close.

    We wound up in a place called Ludlow, California. It was essentially a wide spot in the road amidst the Mojave Desert. There was a small coffee shop, a few gas stations, a motel, and an ice cream stand. The coffee shop was somewhat interesting in a very eclectic way, but nothing overly special. Darius was admonished by the waitress when he began shooting pictures. Apparently the ownership didn’t care for that. In his fumbling way Darius attempted to make it better by explaining that we were location scouting. This made the staff even crazier as filming was forbidden for some reason. After this they watched us like hawks.

    As reliably as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, telling a filmmaker that something is off-limits drives them insane with the need to possess it. It really wasn’t all that great as a location. Had nothing been said we would have snapped a few shots and been on our way. Instead it was now imperative that we must clear this place. I pointed out to my companions the fact that we were close enough to L.A. that the proprietors must be familiar with the business and want no part of it. Besides, we already had a vastly superior alternative that we liked and that was ready and expecting us. My final plea was to point out the ugly storm clouds rolling in. All for naught, of course. I left the guys with their pie and tea while I got to know the locals.

    A quick bit of digging revealed that the entire town was owned by one family. They simply had no use for the film business, having been approached countless times and most likely done wrong at some point along the line. I learned this, met the family, and concluded their lack of interest as being sincere and intractable in short order. They were polite about it but unmovable. Still, returning too quickly after leaving with such reluctance was bad form. It didn’t matter that I knew it was not happening as a location, the others needed to know I had made the greatest effort possible to clear it. So I found myself reclining in the truck listening to some music while parked out of sight of the diner. As The Clash played “Straight to Hell,” I cranked up the AC and watched the skies darken. Fat raindrops ended their lives as splatters on my windshield. As their frequency increased to a steady drumming I raised my seat and put it in gear. Time to leave the desert behind and get back to the ocean.



    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.

  • May 31, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Working-Class London

    by John Farr

    A glimpse of London’s less-glamorous side.

    Alfie (1966)


    Self-styled English playboy Alfie (Michael Caine) is crazy about women and guiltlessly indulges himself without an ounce of shame or sense of responsibility. Upbeat but completely lacking in self-awareness, Alfie behaves like a cad when he learns his live-in girlfriend, Gilda (Julia Foster), is pregnant, and selfishly pursues other birds, including Lily (Vivien Merchant), a married woman. But Alfie’s carefree, happy-go-lucky days can’t last forever can they?


    Based on the play by screenwriter Bill Naughton, director Lewis Gilbert’s “Alfie” is a black comedy of mores and manners about a naïve womanizer who wonders, as in the title song, “What’s it all about?” Caine, in a star-making role, is sensational as the charming but emotionally clotted Alfie, whose hilarious asides to the camera leaven the film’s heavier moments. Just as good is a brassy Shelley Winters as Ruby, a seductive vixen who turns Alfie inside out. Even today, Gilbert’s unsparing riff on the emptiness of sexual conquest still resonates, and the film also benefits from the palpable electricity of London in the swinging sixties.

    Dance with a Stranger (1985)


    In Mike Newell’s recounting of the crime that shook England, Ruth Ellis (Miranda Richardson) is a club hostess with the bad fortune to meet and fall for the wealthy, careless David Blakely (Rupert Everett), a young playboy whose attentions toward Ruth eventually turn sporadic. Ruth truly loves David, so his inconstancy wreaks havoc with her already delicate mental state. Ruth’s loyal friend Desmond (Ian Holm) tries to steer her off this destructive course, but fails. This tortured romance is bound to end in tragedy.


    Beautifully rendered, superbly acted film recreates events leading up to one of England’s most famous crimes of passion. Newell painstakingly revives the look and feel of 1950’s London, using this sordid affair to examine the ingrained class differences that doomed the couple from the start. Richardson, Everett, and Holm are marvels to watch, and the film’s shattering climax is worth waiting for. Catch this chilling romantic thriller.

    Naked (1993)


    After sexually assaulting a woman in London, acid-tongued ne’er-do-well Johnny (David Thewlis) flees to Manchester and looks up his ex-girlfriend, Louise (Lesley Sharp). Johnny seduces her drug-addled roommate, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), but soon grows irritable and ventures out for a midnight jaunt, regaling every stranger he meets with his nihilistic worldview.


    Leigh created his most disturbing and loathsome character in the garrulous drifter Johnny, but his brilliance is in making us empathize with this viciously sociopathic personality. Thewlis gives a virtuosic performance as Johnny, spewing abrasive, apocalyptic vitriol about women, God, and bourgeois society, when he isn’t simply humiliating those in his immediate vicinity, like Louise and Sophie. Dreary settings and encounters with a variety of sad characters transform Johnny’s bleak rants into an indictment of sorts against England’s rotting welfare state. Not for all tastes, “Naked” is raw, fierce, and unforgettable.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • May 25, 2010

    A Scouting Life: The Cinema Justifies the Means?

    by Sam Hutchins

    Wong Kar Wai in Las Vegas

    Wong Kar Wai in Las Vegas

    Working with Wong Kar Wai was taxing physically and emotionally. He liked it that way, and often created artificial tension as a means of controlling people. Just as often it was unintentional; either situation had the same net effect. That morning being a perfect example. Our new producer was well below Kar Wai on the organizational chart. Everyone involved with the project was; it really was all centered around him. A single word from him would have ended the silliness about requiring me to stop scouting and submit a budget. He always got what he wanted, no questions asked. Nonetheless he allowed it to happen. I did not know then and never will know what his take on the situation was. He may have been taking the opportunity to beat me down a little. Who knows, maybe I was full of hubris and he thought it was for the best long term to do so. He could just as easily have been oblivious and allowed it to happen without much consideration. Inscrutable, indeed.

    Richard Burton made a fascinating film about the composer Richard Wagner for the BBC a while back. Nine hours long, it used his music to great effect in the telling of his life story. At least from Burton’s perspective Wagner was a monstrous genius. Possessing unimaginable talent, he was unfortunately all too aware that he did. At an early age he began believing that his talent was so significant that the only moral choice was to feed it by any means necessary. Wagner could turn on the charm and convince his benefactors that enabling his work was the most noble endeavor to be made. He would caress and cajole them right to the point of ruin, only then discarding them for a new patron. Fortunes were squandered and lives ruined. Historically, however, we are left with an amazing body of work. The personal ruination is lost to the sands of time.

    I’m not suggesting that Kar Wai takes it to this extent, but there are certainly common elements to be found in his methods. My Blueberry Nights was the first film in quite some time that was not being photographed by Chris Doyle. The two men had been seemingly inseparable, having made eight films together. His cinematography is highly regarded and an integral part of Kar Wai’s films. The story of his life is as good an example of straddling the line between comedy and tragedy as can be found. Legendary for his drinking and carousing, the extent to which he did so was unclear until you heard Kar Wai describe it. According to Kar Wai, Chris didn’t even maintain an apartment of his own. Instead he took residence in a series of brothels. After long filming days he would be dropped in some smoky Chinese whorehouse where he would consume copious quantities of booze and God knows what drugs while being tended to by a flock of hookers. This was how he lived throughout the making of eight films over the course of two decades. As amusing as it is on the surface, a closer look paints a different picture. Two people cannot work together for such an extended period of time without some mutual affection existing. How can a person stand by and watch a friend kill themselves like this? Apparently as long as the results contribute to the creation of great cinema Kar Wai was OK with it.

    I was aware of all this and all right with it myself. Having bought the ticket I was taking the ride. I knew that I could put up with anything for the length of the job, and abusive as it may have been at times I would endure. Frankly, as low as the lows were the heights to which you could soar made it all worthwhile. That evening being a perfect example. Although we had been ready to murder one another yesterday, spending time apart wore heavily on all of us. When the guys came in from scouting there were embraces all around. We prepared for a celebratory reunion dinner.

    When eating Chinese cuisine dinner with Kar Wai was a chore. He took on a professorial air and worked to educate us about what we were eating. While it was indeed interesting to hear the history of a dish, the symbolism of eating it, and the supposed physical benefits of doing so, at the end of the night you were still eating chicken feet. Or yak penis, shark fin, pig snouts or some other form of offal. I’ll take delicious over educational any time. When eating other types of food, however, Kar Wai was quite the gourmand. That night in Los Angeles he took us to an amazing Korean barbecue restaurant. He ordered platter after platter of the finest cuts of meat for us, which we washed down with copious amounts of chilled shoju. We gorged ourselves while flirting with waitresses and trading stories late into the night. It was abundantly clear that on this particular evening the most important thing in his world was our pleasure, and he made sure we enjoyed ourselves as much as humanly possible. You learn to take the good with the bad in life, and meals like that make up for a lot of sins.



    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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