by Sam Hutchins
I’d like to tell you we stayed in the Peabody Hotel but we did not. It’s my favorite type of lodging: a grand old dowager of a place. Lovely bones but just slightly tattered by now. It’s also legendary for the family of ducks that live there. Every morning a bellman brings the ducks down to the lobby in an elevator and marches them through it to the central fountain where they hang out. Alas, the freight was too high. Instead at least we checked into the Doubletree, which was fine and had the benefit of being across the street from the Peabody. I was at least able to take my coffee in the lobby of the Peabody in the mornings and watch the ducks waddle. I like watching ducks waddle.
It felt good to be back in Memphis, and right for our film. When we initially scouted the town without Kar Wai we had seen some intriguing possibilities for shooting. Stephane and Darius loved the idea of shooting in Sun Recording Studios. The original Sun Studio was just a small storefront with nothing particularly visual to recommend it. Eventually it expanded to take over the soda fountain next door, and that is the section that currently holds the gift shop and museum entrance. The guys were looking at the remaining elements of the soda fountain and contemplating restoring it to its earlier condition.
I knew that was wildly unrealistic given the budget we were working with, and was a little surprised that Stephane didn’t see that as well. He is a guy who generally understands the practicalities of budgetary limitations. On the other hand he was very much Kar Wai’s muse and I could see the temptation to try making it work. Darius is a brilliant artist but one of the least practically-minded people I know so him thinking it possible almost made sense. Still I didn’t disabuse them of the notion for my own selfish reasons. It allowed me to meet the owner and all the people who worked there. For a guy who got physical chills the first time he went there thinking about walking in Jonny Cash’s footsteps that was just fine. So we returned to Sun Studios.
Kar Wai loved the place, but loved it for the right reasons. His creative process is wildly impractical, and he’ll spend whatever it takes to get his movies right. At the same time he is aware of how unaware he is. Knowing how loose his process is he picks his spots, and he’d rather choose a location that works without too much expensive prep so he can afford additional time actually filming there. He did appreciate the art that had been born there, though, and we all indulged ourselves with some time well spent hanging out.
The staff at Sun is amazing. Our tour guide was an absolutely lovely woman named Amy LaVere. Aside from working at Sun she’s an incredibly talented singer and bass player, who also played Wanda Jackson in the film “Walk the Line”. Pretty cool creds, if you ask me. The guy working the snack bar there was Mike, who directs his own no budget horror films. They are disgustingly bloody yet still funny in the way that early Troma films were. It’s refreshing to be in a creative environment like that, and it definitely charged all of us up a little. We all dumped a fortune in the gift shop, where I picked up all sorts of rare recordings that I treasure to this day, as well as the aforementioned Amy LaVere’s stuff. Sometimes scouting isn’t exclusively about finding locations and this was one of those times.
We moved on from Sun and took Kar Wai to the place I knew we were actually going to film. That was the Arcade Restaurant. I knew it was a great location for him the first time I laid eyes on it. I believe it is Memphis’ oldest restaurant, and it looks like it came out of a time capsule. So many things about it were right for us. Still has the great neon sign out front, for starters. The interior was ancient but well-maintained enough, and wasn’t treated like a museum but as an operating, busy diner. It sits on a corner, which is always a plus because it provides better shooting angles than a normal, flush facade offers. An entire wall was windows, allowing opportunity to shoot from outside in. The cherry on the sundae is that the streetcar line runs outside. Brilliant.
Kar Wai agreed, and we photographed the hell out of the place. My only concern was that they were proud of having been filmed before, several times. Directors have varied takes on locations that were included in other films. Some consider that reason enough to pass on a place, others could care less. It speaks volumes about how hard Kar Wai is to figure out that months into the process with him I had no idea how he would feel on the matter. Fortunately he was fine with it, and it even seemed to add cachet in his eyes that Jim Jarmusch had set significant parts of “Mystery Train” there. His methods are much too deliberate to sign off on it right away but the ghost of a smile on his face was as good a sign of approval as Kar Wai is wont to give.
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.