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  • February 25, 2010

    A Scouting Life: By the Time They Left Phoenix

    by Sam Hutchins

    We limped into Phoenix after midnight. Little was said in the time since Kar Wai made the revelations about his past. Even if we were comfortable enough to speak out, when he was in that state it was useless. And if we could get through to him, what to say? Sorry Chairman Mao’s thugs tore your family apart? Don’t think Hallmark makes the appropriate card for that one.

    It’s probably for the best that there was no bar in the hotel. Or across the street, around the corner, or on any of the surrounding blocks, for that matter. After my brief, fruitless search I returned to the hotel and my room. Still, even absent the booze, I felt hungover in the morning. Perhaps an emotional hangover? We were all getting road-weary and the last few days had been pretty intense.

    Kar Wai appeared and was just as lost as when we last saw him. No smiles, no greetings, no breakfast. He went to the truck wordlessly, sat down and buckled in. Darius, Stephane and I all had the same intent, which was to do our best to bring him back to a good place mentally. For once, their solution was to work harder. While I felt them, my experience teaches me that scouting smart is more effective than scouting angry. They wanted to explore Phoenix. I’ve spent time there and didn’t think it had much to offer us. My solution was to bust ass straight to Vegas and have a good time, blow off some steam then get back at it fresh. My faith in the healing power of debauchery remained unshaken. As I lost the vote, we began grid-searching the town.

    A couple hours worth of strip malls, mini-marts, blinding sunlight and disappointment later, they agreed with me. Time to get the hell out of Dodge. Darius and Stephane bemoaned the lack of “there” there while I drove the car and held my tongue. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to love about Phoenix. I’ve done some

    lovely camping in the deserts and mountains outside town. One of the best days of my life was spent in and out of a cool mountain spring that flows through the red rocks of Sedona. My first successful bar crawl using a fake ID took place in Tempe. However, our film stood nothing to gain from the area, and I was glad to put it behind us.

    We pulled into Vegas in the early afternoon. By then Kar Wai had at least partially checked back in. The four of us had scouted Vegas on an earlier trip and found some things there to our liking. A couple of the seedy motels and casinos downtown were promising, and Kar Wai inexplicably loved a seriously run-down convenience store deep in the North Vegas ghetto. He had no interest in revisiting them but was not ready for the hotel, either, so we rolled around a bit. The man had gotten very interested in poker and was hoping we could find an appropriately dingy card room to scout. The big casinos had pretty successfully taken over all the action on poker, though, and it makes sense. Why do you need an underground game when gambling is legal?

    ****

    Kar Wai and I had hit a mob-run poker game before we left New York. Our “poker consultant”, a former WSOP finalist, had hipped us to it. The three of us met in a Soho bar one night for a martini before making our way to a nondescript building on the edge of Little Italy. Stopping outside, the consultant got a little jumpy. Fair enough, as he didn’t know me and was trusting Kar Wai on reputation alone.

    “There’s no messing around in there. These guys are serious,” he warned us.

    “Don’t worry, I know these guys. If not, I know people they know,” I reassured him. He gave me a long look before making up his mind, then pushed the buzzer. The normal looking front entrance opened into a tight vestibule facing a reinforced steel door. We three squeezed in together and raised our faces to let the security camera have a good look at us. After an uncomfortably long pause we were buzzed inside.

    Half a dozen tables filled the room, which appeared to be a hastily converted woodworking shop. Low level wiseguys played with slick-looking Chinese and an occasional asshole white guy with a doofy fedora or wraparound sunglasses. An entire room full of stereotypes. A platter of cold cuts sat unmolested on a sideboard. The house used a rolling locked tool chest as a bank. My eyes were drawn to a ridiculously hot blond broad who sat behind a large and growing stack of chips. As a younger man I would have been all over that, but having lived through that movie and its resultant misery a wiser me took her measure and put her out of my mind.

    Our guide couldn’t play, which I understood. His rep at the tables was serious enough that sitting down was laying out a challenge that would have been met. Kar Wai is more about observing than participating, so it fell on my shoulders. Taking an open seat, I laid five hundred on the table and joined the game. Once again I found myself wondering what sort of receipt I could submit for this if I lost. Have to worry about that later and concentrate on the cards now, my game isn’t that sharp. Fortunately, I managed to tread water for an hour or so. Eventually Kar Wai leaned in and tapped me on the shoulder between hands.

    “I’ve seen enough. We can go now.”

    We gave each other a long look.

    “Are you going to scout anyplace else…?”

    He didn’t let me finish, but smiled widely.

    “Yes, you can stay. I’ll see you tomorrow. Good luck.”

    ****

    Now it was months later and we were on the streets of Vegas. Kar Wai turned to me and I was pleased to see the return of that smile.

    “Enough work. I think you need to show me how to have a good time in Vegas.”

    My smile easily equaled his. Yes, my friend, you have come to the right place and you are with the right guy.

    ….

    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.

  • February 23, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Out of the Past

    by Sam Hutchins

    The four of us returned to the car wordlessly. Sharing that sunset was one of those unforgettable moments in life, and the raw emotion of Darius’s statement settled over us. I learned long ago that you don’t have to like someone to love them, and this is as illustrative example as any I could provide. We each had a litany of complaints regarding the travel habits and petty selfishness of the rest of us yet there were no others I’d rather be with at that moment.

    I took the wheel and blasted through the darkness. In a rare lack of foresight, I’d lost track of the next move. Usually I had mapped out each possible choice and done my best to be prepared for whatever decision we came to. Fixated as I was on making the sunset at White Sands I hadn’t been able to see past it. Now it was dark and we were in the wilderness, screaming westward down the roadway. At least our direction was decided, as the options were to continue west or cross into Mexico.

    My choice would have been to drive until we were exhausted, then find a fleabag motel to crash in. Hell, given my druthers I’d have us pitching tents and camping in the desert. Had we done that we would not only make better time, we would have so much more memorable a trip. The closer you are to the ground the better you can tell the story. I’m reasonable, and could see us alternating between camping and sleeping indoors so as to keep the truck from stinking too awfully. But my companions would not dream of such a move. They required a certain comfort level, and wanted to stop and figure our accommodations out.

    So against my objections we looked around Las Cruces for a place to grab some coffee. Not seeing a Starbucks by the time we reached the far edge of town, we pulled into a small strip mall. Light from a small storefront café beckoned to us. The sign read “Atomic Diner” and had the symbol for the Atom on it. What an odd thing to take pride in and a name from.

    Maybe it was all the time spent with my companions, but the place seemed so utterly and inexorably foreign to me, for lack of a better word. I felt like I was in a David Lynch film, only with brighter lighting. The place was stark white, bright, and completely spotless. Its owner was aggressively friendly and slightly effeminate, a Mexican-American fellow with plucked eyebrows and what appeared to be traces of eye makeup on. He grinned like an idiot the entire time we were there and insisted that we try the pie. We lied and told him it was good. It wasn’t. All of it felt like a fever dream and I was eager to put some distance between us and the weirdness of the place. It was decided that we would press on to Phoenix even though it meant arriving late at night. I surrendered my objections in order to facilitate as quick a departure from the place as possible. I wasn’t sure if the proprietor was about to hack us up with a knife or perform an elaborate lip-synch number to Leslie Gore but I knew the next scene in that particular movie was grotesque.

    Though I’d been driving hard all day I continued behind the wheel. Feeling energized by events I had no problem pushing us west on I-10. No one played any music, no one spoke. Our soundtrack was the wind buffeting the truck as we sped into the inky black night. Then, from nowhere, Kar Wai opened up.

    “I lived in Shanghai when I was young. Very good childhood. My parents were very good to me. Dad was distant, but that is normal for our culture. My mother made up for it by loving me very, very much. My sister and I were very close, but my older brother was my hero. He was the coolest guy I’ve ever known.”

    I was shocked by the words pouring out of him. Glancing at the rearview mirror I could see that Darius was as fixated as I was. So much so that he didn’t even meet my eyes but instead had his gaze locked on Kar Wai. I couldn’t see Stephane but could only hope he was hearing this as well.

    “My Brother was very fashionable. He wore tailored suits wherever he went. He always had the prettiest girlfriends and all the guys worshipped him. He had the greatest, thickest hair. A pompadour, like Elvis. I wanted to be him when I grew up. Then the Cultural Revolution came.
    “I was young, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. My parents tried to comfort me but I was very afraid. Suddenly it was dangerous to be noticed and everyone had to be quiet. The thing that scared me most was when I saw my brother did not wear his suits any more. I knew something bad was going on.”

    Kar Wai was staring off in the distance and letting the words fall out of him as if by gravity. He often went into his little fugues, but never spoke and always smiled when in one. He wasn’t smiling now, but he sure was talking.

    “One day they came to our house. They were there for my sister. Every family had to sacrifice for the common good, and they needed her. It was not uncommon. My brother fought them, though. He refused to let her go, even though my father was allowing it. Finally, and I don’t know how he did this, my brother convinced them to take him instead. He left with them and my sister and I got to stay.”

    “What became of him?”

    “I never saw him again. Just a picture, once. Years later someone who had survived the camps smuggled out a picture. It was taken a year after he left Shanghai and went to the countryside. His hair was all gone, he was bald. That’s the thing that really upset me. No more suit, he was naked from the waist up, bent over working in a rice paddy. His face had aged twenty years and all the laughter had left his eyes. That’s the last I ever saw or heard of him. Shortly after that my Mother and I moved to Hong Kong.”

    Now openly staring at him, I was completely overcome with emotion. A few sniffles emanated from the back seat. What an absolutely soul-crushing experience. I couldn’t imagine living through something like he had. Yet his visage remained stoic, and he stared impassively into the darkness as we pressed on. Ultimately that’s all you can do, right? Just keep going, if you can.

    We went.

    ….

    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.

  • February 22, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Culture Clash

    by John Farr

    Guess who’s coming to dinner?


    Hester Street (1975)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After emigrating from Russia in the late 1800s, Jewish immigrant Jake (Steven Keats) has shed all the outer signs of his heritage, including side locks and traditional clothing, and settled into a bustling, profitable life on New York’s Lower East Side. So he is less than thrilled when his wife Giti (Carol Kane) joins him five years later, and seems unwilling to relinquish her Old World values. She, in turn, is dismayed by the profound change that has taken place in Jake.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A low-key, moving story about the conflict between tradition and modernity as it is played out in the confines of a marriage, Silver’s “Hester Street” is a lovely period piece that earned newcomer Kane an Oscar nomination for her sensitive portrayal of Giti, who must cope not only with Jake’s cultural transformation, but the fact of his new lover as well. Silver went on to become a busy movie director, but her authentic evocation of a woman’s struggles in turn-of-the-century New York in this quietly assured debut remains her finest work to date. Made on a modest budget, “Hester Street” has a homemade feel that perfectly suits its subject.


    The Namesake (2007)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After an arranged marriage in 1970s Calcutta, Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) moves with his bride Ashima (Tabu) to New York City in hopes of a bright future as an engineer. The adjustment is hard on Ashima, a homesick Hindi speaker only barely fluent in English, but they persevere. Years later, their Americanized teenage children Sonia (Sahira Nair) and eldest son Gogol (Kal Penn) present a wholly new challenge, as they resent their parents’ conservative values and seem disconnected from their Indian heritage. But family ties prove hard to break.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, Nair’s chronicle of the Indian-American immigrant experience is sensitive, intelligent, and surprisingly true-to-life, especially as it focuses on the rebellious Gogol’s conflicted relationship with Ashoke, whom he neither respects nor seems willing to understand. When he acquires a perky WASP girlfriend at Yale, Gogol finds himself poised between the world he wants to dissociate from (old India) and the one he feels he belongs to (mainstream America). Wisdom arrives, as it often does, in the form of a crisis, and Nair makes sure we earn the catharsis her excellent young actor eventually undergoes.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • February 22, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Feminist Films

    by John Farr

    John’s salute to empowered women characters.


    Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Young widow Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is left to make a new life for herself and her young son, with no prospects and precious little money. With Alice harboring vague hopes of becoming a singer, she and her boy take an eventful road-trip west. Watching their challenging but colorful journey unfold is as satisfying as the hopeful outcome they ultimately achieve.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Here Martin Scorsese branches out into fresh cinematic territory, a world away from the gritty, urban, ethnic male preserves of “Mean Streets”. Yet the personal, heartfelt quality of “Alice” helps the director score a bulls-eye. The gifted Burstyn, noble yet far from glamorous, seems to personify every average woman forced to face a new life chapter on her own, while singer/actor Kristofferson helps spark some divine chemistry as Alice’s new, no- nonsense boyfriend. But Diane Ladd (Laura Dern’s real-life Ma) nearly steals the picture playing Alice’s hard-edged waitress colleague, Flo. Also look for a young, predictably precocious Jodie Foster in a small role.


    The Goodbye Girl (1977)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Dancer/divorcee Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) is raising a precocious daughter on her own, and suddenly learns that her recently departed actor boyfriend has leased their apartment right out from under her to yet another actor, one Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss). After some predictable conflict on Elliot’s unexpected arrival, Paula and the new thespian in her life form an uneasy truce and start sharing the apartment. Cupid takes care of the rest.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Beyond Neil Simon’s sharp, knowing script, both Dreyfuss and Mason shine in the central comic roles-in fact, Dreyfuss even took home the Oscar that year. The adorable Quinn Cummings more than holds her own as Mason’s wisecracking daughter. Funny and touching, “Goodbye” is an ideal feel good movie. Appropriate for older kids.


    Norma Rae (1979)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After hearing union organizer Reuben (Ron Leibman) deliver a speech at the textile mill where she works, Norma Rae (Sally Field) joins the effort to organize workers. Butting heads with management, and alienating husband Sonny (Bridges) with her new activism, Norma Rae perseveres and becomes a confident, courageous fighter.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The diminutive but plucky Field, who got her start playing Gidget on television, achieved breakout movie stardom with her assured, Oscar-winning performance as Norma Rae, who evolves from pliant employee to impassioned agitator for workers’ rights. The interplay between Norma Rae and unlikely ally Reuben (Leibman) is interesting to watch, but ultimately it’s the emergence of Norma Rae’s righteous fire that’s most memorable, reminding us that in this country, fighting for the fair treatment of working people is both a right and necessity.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • February 18, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Brothers of the Road

    by Sam Hutchins

    By the time the guys returned to the truck I was itching to go.  The idea of Roswell had amused me but the reality was depressing.  We loaded up and headed west on Main Street.  As we neared the end of the main run things opened up and turned into a more traditional new American town.  The old storefronts gave way to strip malls and Aliens lost out to Applebees and Dunkin Donuts.  We passed Roswell High School.  How odd it must be to grow up in a place that attracts UFO tourists.  I was a little surprised by the scope of the sprawl.  Roswell was a much bigger town than I realized.  Soon we saw a Starbucks and I didn’t need to be told, but pulled in and parked.

    The Starbucks fixation was a funny thing.  Stephane and Darius were hung up on authenticity and local, unique experiences.  Yet when it came to coffee they were happy to embrace a homogenized national chain like this.  When I teased them about it Darius curtly replied that they made good coffee.  I could tell he was philosophically uncomfortable with his coffee choice, so of course I continued mentioning it every so often.  Kar Wai couldn’t care less; he was a tea man all the way.  He never had a Starbucks tea, but instead purchased cups of hot water that he used to brew his own.  He carried a briefcase neatly organized with dozens of different teas, each with its own purpose.  One extremely hung-over morning he prepared a special brew that he insisted I drink.  It tasted like tree bark and left me with the intensely irritating sensation of having my throat coated with dirt.  If the thought was to make me miserable enough otherwise to distract from the hangover then mission: accomplished.

    Waiting in line for coffee I had one a weird, transportive moment.  As usual, it involved a woman – a young woman, a very cute blonde who had one of those smiles that just blinds you with its happiness.  She was with friends, laughing sweetly, and never even noticed me.  I got lost in that smile.  Saw myself approaching her, politely interrupting and saying hello.  From there we chatted, she showed me around, and the conversation never stopped.  I discovered her world and told her all about mine.  Her family had some of the nicest people you could hope to meet, and I wound up going to work for her father.  The job was good and we saved for our marriage, kids and house.  It was that sweet of a smile that I could see all of this reflected in it.  So many different possible lives out there to be led.  As sweet as the vision was, I wasn’t nearly ready to get off the road yet.  I took my coffee to go and left a little piece of myself behind.

    We banged down the road west-southwest.  The land started to get really lovely, and I loved the rhythm of the town names.  Ruidoso just rolls off the tongue, as does Mescalero, Alomogordo, La Luz.  It wasn’t my scene, but the natural beauty around here was so great that I could see the attraction I suppose.  We made good time on the largely empty back roads, Kar Wai going into another of his wordless reveries.  Seeing that White Sands National Monument was just within striking distance I made it my mission to get there while some daylight was left.  I quietly pushed it pretty hard.  As usual Kar Wai and Darius were too lost in their own heads to notice but Stephane caught on.  Catching my eye, he silently looked at the speedometer and back at me while raising an eyebrow.  I smiled, looked away, and pushed a little harder topping 95 mph.  The truck was well built and cooperated without so much as a rattle or shimmy.

    The sun was low in the sky when we reached the entrance to White Sands.  The blissful ignorance of my companions which had so frustrated me initially had reached the point of absurd comedy, as manifested in Darius response to arriving at the Monument.

    “Oh, hey, White Sands.  We should look around.”

    That right there is the trip in a nutshell.  Hours ago I had noticed White Sands on a map and decided to check it out.  I had set course and navigated there without help from my three passengers, nearly doubling the speed limit most of the way. I resisted a few stops the others had suggested making in order to arrive in time.  Now that we were actually pulling past the ranger station Darius noticed the sign and decided we should have a look.  Thanks for the suggestion, pal, we’re already here.  As Mr. McManus says, I used to be disgusted; now I’m just amused.

    One other car passed us on the way out as we went in.  Otherwise the place was empty.  We climbed up on the most beautiful dunes I’ve seen outside of St. Bart’s and watched as the sun made its descent.  Darius and I simultaneously pulled out bottles of whiskey and we passed them amongst us as we watched.  It was an almost holy moment, it was so beautiful.  Maybe I should appreciate New Mexico a little more.  No matter what you have been through, a sunset as lovely as this will put a lot of pain behind you.  Taking a long belt Darius turned and addressed us.

    “My friends, we began this journey as four strangers.  We have been through so much together now, this can never be taken away from us.  We have a bond.  For the rest of our lives we shall share these memories.  We are brothers now, brothers of the road.”

    Okay, fine, maybe I teared up a little.  It was such a beautiful and unexpected statement.  We stood in the dunes and silently sipped whiskey as the sun kissed us goodbye for the night.

    ….

    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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