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  • January 15, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Living History in Memphis

    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.

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  • January 12, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Based in the Big Easy

    by John Farr

    Three essential films set in New Orleans.


    A Street Car Named Desire (1951)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Frayed Southern belle Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) arrives in a seedy quarter of New Orleans, where she’s arranged to stay with her pregnant sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and coarse, hulking brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Right from the start, Blanche and Stanley are at odds, as he sees through her high-mannered facade to the neurotic, vulnerable woman beneath. Tensions soon escalate, as Stanley sets out to confront Blanche about money and her unseemly past.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Brando’s force-of-nature performance in Kazan’s “Streetcar” – an electrifying mix of brute physicality and smoldering sexuality – made Stanley Kowalski’s infamous bellow a permanent part of pop culture and Brando a household name. But the undeniable strength of this film, adapted from the smash Broadway play by Tennessee Williams, is driven as much by the witty, vivid dialogue and ensemble acting as it is the lead actor’s Method work. Leigh, Hunter, Karl Malden, Ruby Bond, and Nick Dennis are all terrific, and Alex North’s atmospheric jazz score enhances the tense, combustible interplay. Winner of five Oscars, this “Streetcar” offers an incredible ride.


    Dead Man Walking (1995)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a Catholic nun and anti-death-penalty activist, receives a letter from Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), soon to be executed for the rape and murder of two teenage girls, she resolves to pay him a visit. Though Matthew is far from sympathetic, Sister Helen agrees to be his spiritual advisor and advocate, and lobbies for a new hearing on Matthew’s sentence.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted from Sister Helen Prejean’s non-fiction book by actor/director Tim Robbins, “Dead Man Walking” is an intense, harrowing account of one woman’s dogged attempt to assure spiritual (if not earthly) redemption for a condemned killer. Penn is ideally cast as the convict, but Susan Sarandon’s stripped-down performance as his spiritual guide is courageous, gut-wrenching work, fully meriting that year’s Oscar. Unavoidably depressing, “Dead Man Walking” is also very real, shedding light into spaces we could easily ignore, but shouldn’t.


    When the Levees Broke (2006)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    One year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, director Spike Lee returned to make this definitive account of the tragedy and its aftermath, as well as the egregious failures of government officials who were slow to respond to the catastrophe. Told in the words of those who lived through the calamity, this film offers a devastating look at the ravaging of Crescent City by a monster storm, and the shocking indifference that caused impoverished, mostly African-American residents of the Ninth Ward to suffer the greatest indignities.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Originally aired on HBO, Lee’s marathon “Requiem in Four Acts” covers in grim, engrossing detail the storm, the surge over the levees and resultant flood, the looting, the mass flight to the Superdome, the interminable waiting for help, FEMA’s slow, infuriatingly feeble response, and finally the efforts underway to rebuild this historic city. It is very much an emotional portrait, not a dry recitation of facts, and to that end the film is built around punchy interviews with survivors, local politicians, and celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Wynton Marsalis, Douglas Brinkley, and others with a deep connection to New Orleans. With its lyrical imagery and bluesy vibe, “Levees” is a film to contemplate, both for its
    justifiable outrage and its profound sense of lament.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • January 12, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Southern Fried Films

    by John Farr

    John Farr ventures south for three of the finest films about the region.


    Inherit the Wind (1960)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this courtroom drama based on the landmark Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s, defense lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and fundamentalist prosecutor Matthew Brady (March) face off when schoolteacher Bertram Cates (Dick York), is put in jail for teaching evolution in tiny Hillsboro, Tennessee, with the arrest instigated by his girlfriend’s disapproving father, Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Kramer’s spellbinding film features a deft performance by Tracy as the rumpled, deceptively plain-spoken Drummond (modeled on Clarence Darrow), matched by March’s larger than life, virtuoso turn as Matthew Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan). Just sit back, pretend you’re sitting in that humid courtroom, and watch two old pros at work. You’ll re-live history. Also look for Gene Kelly in one of his only serious, non-dancing roles as a cynical journalist based on H.L. Mencken.


    In the Heat of the Night (1967)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Black San Francisco police Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) ends up in wrong place at wrong time – the Deep South, where a murder has just been committed. Set up against a bigoted, wily sheriff (Rod Steiger), Tibbs must unravel the mystery and clear himself, watching his back in hostile territory.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Intense action drama boasts a tight script and a pair of explosive lead performances by Poitier and Steiger. “Heat” netted Oscars in most top categories that year – Picture, Actor (Steiger), Screenplay and Editing. And though Steiger won the award, it’s just as much Poitier’s movie. Director Jewison makes palpable the racial ignorance and poverty long ingrained in the Deep South.


    Mississippi Burning (1988)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Alan Parker’s film recreates the true story of three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and takes some dramatic license in doing so. Agents Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) arrive down South to investigate the disappearance of the three men (two white, one black), and their warm welcome comes in the form of a burning KKK cross. Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, Gailard Sartain and Michael Rooker make up this unsavory welcome party, and Frances McDormand is Dourif’s neglected wife. The FBI team must break through a small town’s wall of silence to solve the mystery, while trying to control violent retribution against the local black population.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Though detractors claim the movie inaccurately depicts a white FBI coming in to rescue helpless blacks, I disagree: the film features some extremely courageous black characters, and at the outset, the FBI seems more muddled than heroic. Regardless of debates on historical accuracy, the movie is breathlessly exciting and extremely well-played. Though McDormand was Oscar-nominated for the small but pivotal role of Mrs. Pell, the movie is Hackman’s, as he turns in his most explosive performance since “The French Connection”(and he also got an Oscar nod).


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • January 11, 2010

    A Scouting Life: 3 iPods, 1 Soundtrack

    by Sam Hutchins

    When you are on the road with the same people for so long the petty grievances build up. It’s simply unavoidable. I previously mentioned the difficulties we had agreeing on what music to listen to, and this remained a bone of contention. Darius, Stephane and I each had our own iPod full of music. I’d be willing to bet that of the tens of thousands of songs amongst them there wasn’t a single one that appeared on all three. Our tastes in music were incredibly divergent.

    Stephane’s was surprisingly parochial. He liked European club music. Not house, techno or anything awful like that, thank God. More like acid jazz/triphop type of stuff. Not bad, really, I’ll admit I even enjoyed a bit of it. However it was the only genre of music he seemed to have. From speaking to him I knew he liked the Ramones, but there was nary a trace of them on his iPod. His selection seemed to be a slave to fashion, as the stuff he listened to was very much au courant. When he happened upon a southeast asian bhanjee/techno mix on my hard drive he commented that it had been all the rage two summers earlier. I’d bet anything that four years prior his iPod would have been almost exclusively the Gypsy Kings, and that I would have murdered him before going a hundred miles. Enjoyable as the current stuff was, it’s really only appropriate after dark. I don’t need to hear a sax playing over a DJ as we drive through the Midwest at ten in the morning in a cold winter light.

    Darius’ taste was all over the map. I have eclectic tastes but his was almost completely random. It took forever to figure out a defining theme of any sort but finally I put it together. Darius chose his library song-by-song. If he liked it, he had it. What he liked, however, was pretty specific. It had to be obscure as hell. Whatever song it was had to be something he could talk about as the very best song the particular artist had ever recorded and tell you why you could never find the song. For instance he had a version of Lee Marvin singing the western classic “Wandering Star”. I happen to love the song and have versions of it recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Shane MacGowan. I’d heard the Lee Marvin version in the film but never since, yet there it was on Darius iPod. And it was the only country song he had. Listening to music with him was like having an oenophile order you wine by the glass.

    For my own part, my taste was immersive in a wide variety of genres. A very wide variety. Having been a punk early on, for instance, I had everything worth owning by The Clash, Ramones, Dead Kennedy’s, Black Flag, Agnostic Front, GBH, 7 Seconds, Cro-Mags, JFA, The Exploited, etc. I had similarly deep rosters of artists in genres of all types, including but not limited to Reggae (traditional, dancehall and dub), Country (cowboy, outlaw, alt-country), etc. My tendency would be to tailor our soundtrack to wherever we were travelling at the moment but my plans were continually thwarted by my companions. I’d be floating through west Texas on the wings of Chris LeDoux when Stephane would without warning switch to some Portishead.

    So thank God for Kar Wai. Once he started travelling with us he took over the music selection. He got a particular kick out of sorting through our respective iPods and playing fairly random songs. He would then usually ask us something about the song. Where we first heard it, what it meant to us, etc. This was a very interesting way of getting better acquainted with us, and I must admit I lifted the technique from him for use in my personal life since. The downside of this was that Kar Wai is prone to drift off into his own mental space. Every time we played this little game he would eventually fade out. A song would end, silence would ensue, and he would be staring off at some point in the middle distance again.

    He had drifted away like that once more as we began approaching Memphis. The first few times it happened I had tried to break through with no success. Speaking loudly, grabbing his arm, pulling the car over, nothing seemed to bring him back to us. It was, frankly, a little scary. This time, however, I was more concerned with the music. I’m a serious Johnny Cash fan, to the point that I actually believe he was a holy man or prophet of sorts. Memphis means Elvis to many, Al Green to others, even Stax Records to a few. For me it’s all about Johnny, and I’ll be damned if I was driving into town without hearing his voice. While still driving I reached across and gently took my iPod from his hand. Spinning the dial I pulled up the Bear Records 1954-58 collection and turned up the volume. Kar Wai didn’t flinch and no complaint came from the back seat. We pulled into Memphis accompanied by the Man in Black, as it should be.

    ….

    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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  • January 7, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Missed Opportunities in St. Louis

    by Sam Hutchins

    We wound up making a few more fruitless stops on the way, so it was late when we hit St. Louis.  Once again Stephane took the wheel late and got us home.  As it was an unexpected stop in a town I’d never been in our office booked the hotel.  Much to my amusement it was one of those awful round towers built in the late 60’s-early 70’s, similar to the Capitol records building in Hollywood.

    St. Louis

    St. Louis

    Once you are in production on a job you receive per diem when on location.  Per diem is great.  It is a daily allotment of cash you are given to cover expenses, tax free up to a certain amount.  You can generally live pretty well on it and still pocket part of it.  You’re supposed to be paid it whenever you are on location, but companies generally screw you out of it as long as possible, telling you to submit receipts instead.  As this was the case on this job, and I went without per diem for the first several months, I did what I could to even up.   Stopping at the lobby bar on the way to the elevators, I ordered four glasses of Jameson and signed them and a generous tip to my room.

    I was pleasantly surprised to find that my room was on a high floor and overlooked Busch Stadium.  I’m a big baseball fan and would love to catch a game there sometime.  As it was late and we had been focused on finding the hotel I wasn’t at all aware of its proximity.  Being February at the time it was offseason.  Still, the stadium was all lit up and sat like a green gem just across the river.  Regrettably I didn’t think to take pictures until after I had a few in me.  Four glasses of whiskey with no tripod and low light equals a series of blurry photos.  Still it was a lovely sight to nod off to.

    We were up and out early the next morning.  Found the closest Starbucks for fuel and started exploring.  As per our custom I found the train station and bus station and we explored them.  We had no specific use for them yet but knowing our character was travelling throughout the film we scouted them wherever we wound up for possible use as transition shots.  Union Station was pretty great.
    Similar to the grand train terminals I’ve seen in Washington, New York and Philadelphia but on a smaller scale, and much more beat up and dingy.  In other words, good for Kar Wai.

    Both stations were on the south side, and as usual the bus station was in a particularly poor part of town.  If you need to find the ghetto in any city just look for the Greyhound Station.  Actually all of St. Louis was surprisingly poor, but it had great bones — lots of well-built old brick houses and apartments suffering neglect.  Coming from New York City where everything is ridiculously expensive I’m always shocked when I see buildings like that.  The idea that I could buy a great old townhouse in the center of a city for 25K or so and fix it up boggles the mind.  Of course, then you’d be in St. Louis.  No knock on the city; I just wouldn’t know what to do there.

    Falstaff Brewery

    Falstaff Brewery

    We came across an old Falstaff Brewery, which of course brought New Orleans to mind.  Why doesn’t someone buy that name and start brewing a new Falstaff?  What a great name for a beer.  Turning the corner I caught site of a charming looking candy store.  I tried to motivate the group in that direction but no one was interested.  Years later I saw Crown Candy featured on The Food Network as a place with amazing ice cream and regretted not making more of an effort.  Still, it was very cold and I love Memphis so I was glad to hear the guys were ready to get going.  Next stop, Tennessee.

    Crown Candy

    Crown Candy

    ….

    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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