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  • February 11, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Suffering a Fool

    by Sam Hutchins

    As we put Albequerque behind us we found ourselves stopping frequently to take pictures.  Nothing that was particularly relevant to the film, but great subject material still.  Strange stuff, too.  What possesses someone to live in a trailer next to the railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere?  Perhaps the trailers inhabitants would ask the same about my life in New York City, but I know that answer.  For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how someone would end up out here unless they were running from something.  Metaphorically we are all putting something behind us I suppose.  Be it a bad relationship, lost potential, or what have you, we all have a past.  This was a literal manifestation of it though, and the wind carried it like a warning.

    Eventually we made our way to the edge of Vaughn.  The Ranch View was just as great looking as we remembered it.  We shot it extensively now that it was open.  Odd that it looked borderline derelict last time we were here but was now open and serving breakfast.  Function of its surroundings I guess, and it’s precisely that environment I hoped to catch on film.  The whole scene had a palpable “In Cold Blood” vibe to it.

    The owner, Pete, seemed a little shady, making him consistent with his surroundings.  He spent most of the time we were there shooting the location trying to big time us.  The impulse is understandable.  It’s only natural to want to impress the people you meet, particularly when being visited in a small town.  Still, did he think the director who has a Palme D’or cared that he is able to close up his diner and go skiing whenever he pleases?  He went on the point where it was tiresome.  In these situations it is incumbent on me to steer the person away from the director.  That’s one aspect of my job that I dislike intensely.  I’m not one to suffer fools gladly in my own life and it pains me to be professionally obligated to do so.

    As we prepared to leave I asked him about the adjacent motel, also called the Ranch View.

    “Oh no, you don’t want to go there.”

    “Actually, yes, I do.”

    “No, it’s closed.  No one there.”

    “Then whose car is parked by the office?”

    He was at a loss for words, and looked to be a bit anguished.  I took him by the arm and sat him in a booth.

    “Look man, we’re going over there.  I have to.  It’s my job.  So unless you give me a real good reason to tell my boss,” I nodded towards Kar Wai, “Then I’m going to check it out.”

    “No, no, it’s cool.  But whatever you work out with them, my deal is separate.  And you can’t tell them that you’re paying me.”

    Heh, looks like Mr. Big Time here doesn’t even own the damn diner.  What a putz.  No matter, even with our smallish budget I knew we could take care of this guy as well as the actual owners.

    “Don’t sweat it, bro, I’ll take good care of you.”

    After all the agita it turned out to be a waste of time anyway.  The hotel, which looked wonderfully dilapidated from a distance, was unfortunately tidy inside.  After bidding good day to the 300 lb woman who was pretty obviously Pete’s mother we pressed on.  Everyone has his or her little dramas in life.  I’m not there to get involved; I just want to do my job.

    Vaughn proper was full of false promise.  There was lots of great old signage in front of weathered facades, but nothing had been maintained.  What appeared to be promising inevitably wound up being completely derelict.  Overall it was a bit of a letdown.  Should we decide to shoot at the Ranch View we would be a little short on other pieces to put with it locally.  I did still like the look of the Ranch View but the dearth of additional locations combined with the vague menace it carried were probably reason enough to blow it off.  That was kind of a drag as we had gone well out of our way to scout the place.  C’est la vie.  I unfolded the map to figure out our next move while we all had a smoke.  There was only one road west, and nothing remotely interesting was in that direction.  Scanning to the south a name on the map caught my eye. Turning to my companions with a big grin I asked them:

    “Hey.  You guys ever hear of a town called Roswell?”


    ….

    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 9, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Go West, Young Man

    by Sam Hutchins

    It was time to head out west. So far our film had some good elements lining up. We knew Norah’s character would start in New York, work west to either Cleveland or Detroit, then down to Memphis. These were all good, distinct locations. Each offered a very different look and feel. Each had enough resonance to provide ample opportunity for stories to grow out of them. From Memphis (and northern Mississippi, possibly) the next logical step was west. This is true not only geographically, but in terms of plot development as well. As the story progressed the character’s world needs to open up. It felt right.

    On our earlier trip we had discovered a great diner in New Mexico, the Ranch View. It was deserted, and we had not been able to gain access. The place wasn’t totally derelict, though, so we were hoping to get in. Some telephone sleuthery had turned up an owner who sounded a little flaky, but then so does everyone in New Mexico. I can’t be sure, but I think the words “antisocial loner” can be found in the state motto.

    Aside from having a great, desert bleached look to the diner itself, it sat in a very favorable layout for photography. The building was on the very edge of Vaughn, New Mexico, separating the town from the high desert. If you photographed it looking away from town it appeared to be completely isolated, but we still had some close by infrastructure to rely on that would be hidden from camera. Even on a smaller film like this you need to house, feed and entertain the crew. There was also a small motel behind the diner that could make a good filming location or work as crew lodging in a pinch.

    Vaughn was a decent sized town, at least by “town in the middle of the desert” standards. In places like that a population of 600 is considered the big city. Vaughn was initially created as a settlement to support a Southern Pacific railroad depot. When the Eastern Railroad of New Mexico expanded and crossed the Southern Pacific in Vaughn the city topped out its population at just under 1,000 people. That was in the early 1920’s, but it had steadily held its current size for a few decades. It sits a bit southeast of Albuquerque.

    Throughout our scouting trips our M.O. had been to drive everywhere. We didn’t always know exactly what we were looking for, and time on the open road provides opportunity for unexpected discoveries. Faced with the prospect of crossing Texas again, however, we chose to change our methods. To a man we hated that fucking state, and decided to break form and hop a flight to bypass it. Life is too short to spend any more of it in that hellhole.

    I hate that a hotel in Albuquerque can be familiar, but it was the third time I’d stayed in this one on this film alone. We had a pretty awful, overpriced meal in the old part of town. Awful as the meal was, it did take place in one of the old mission buildings from the original settlement that grew into Albuquerque. What balls it must have taken to push that far into the unknown. I don’t think anything in modern life can really compare to the experience. The frontier is long gone. The adventurous ones amongst us still find ways to test themselves but nothing comes close to the leap of faith the pioneers made.

    We spent an hour in the morning exploring the city but there was not much to recommend it. After a second hour (much to my annoyance) searching for a Starbucks we hit the open road. I’ve seen it before, but it’s still revelatory every time I leave a city out west. Civilization vanishes so abruptly that you are in the wilderness before you know it. I wonder what it’s like to be that guy living in the last house on the edge of town. Do you prefer the more comforting view, looking back in at the lights of downtown, or do you look out the other window at the wide-open spaces? What happens when someone builds a house on the open side of your lot? Are you sad that you lose the view, or relieved that the Coyotes have someplace else to scavenge before getting to your place? Of course one’s mind only works like this under a big open sky. As the land opened up around us, we would soon start having deep conversations and revealing our souls to one another.

    ….

    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 8, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Valentines Viewing

    by John Farr

    Be John’s Valentine and revisit his great date picks.


    The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) uses her wily sales technique to impress Hugo (Frank Morgan), a Budapest gift-store owner, she is hired to work alongside clerk Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), but the two don’t hit it off. No matter: Alfred is secretly hoping to meet a woman with whom he’s had a promising written correspondence via the personals. Klara, meanwhile, begins to fall for an anonymous man she’s been writing to as well. So it’s a big surprise-to them, not us-when they discover the true identities of their respective pen-pals.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    They don’t make romantic comedies like they used to, and no one made them quite like director Ernst Lubitsch, whose famed “touch” lights this wry, poignant, perennially charming film. Veteran players Stewart and Sullavan are a perfect match as comically antagonistic lonelyhearts, conveying their characters’ vulnerabilities with a delicacy too often missing from the tepid Hanks-Ryan remake, “You’ve Got Mail”. Rich subplots involving the wonderful Frank Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut, who plays a scheming, boastful employee, let Lubitsch impart further nuance to this modest but wholly pleasing tale. A delight from start to finish, this is one “Shop” you’ll want to dally in.


    Harold and Maude (1971)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    A comedy about the unlikeliest of May-December romances: Harold (Bud Cort) is a bright, eccentric nineteen year old fixated on death, Maude a 79 year old free spirit whose singular obsession remains the wonder of life and living. This movie traces how these two unlikely characters connect and form a loving relationship.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A warm and quirky comic gem that’s built a sizable cult following over the years. Director Hal Ashby’s second feature boasts inspired casting, with veteran stage actress Ruth Gordon irresistible as Maude and Bud Cort so ideal for Harold that the young actor was forever typecast as a weirdo, as mentor Robert Altman had sagely predicted. Fabulous soundtrack from Cat Stevens.


    Pulp Fiction (1994)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Ground-breaking film tracks various Los Angeles lowlifes-including two hit men, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson)-whose fates are entwined with fading boxer Butch (Bruce Willis), underworld boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames), and his wife Mia (Uma Thurman), a gorgeous moll with a nose for trouble.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A genre-twisting, savagely funny tour de force, with vignettes of bantering hit-men, crooked boxers, petty thieves, and an alluring gangster’s wife, all cutting back and forth in time. With its exhilarating, entertaining stew of pop-culture references courtesy of director/screenwriter Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary, “Pulp” earns its status as one of the most influential films of the ’90s. For those able to tolerate its blend of pitch-black comedy and brutal violence (it’s not for everyone), it’s a must-see film. Famous as John Travolta’s comeback vehicle.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • February 8, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Frears’s Films

    by John Farr

    Two sleepers and a hit from British director Stephen Frears.


    My Beautiful Laundrette (1986)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Omar (Gordon Warnecke) is a young Pakistani Londoner who gets a shot at living the capitalist dream when his mob-connected Uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) asks him to manage a ramshackle laundromat-and turn a profit. Soon after taking over, Omar runs into old school chum Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), now a working-class thug affiliated with the fascist National Front. Omar hires him despite his odious ideology, and the two become partners, and lovers.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Originally made for the BBC, and scripted by half-Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi, Frears’s endearing, intelligent “Laundrette” is a dramatic and often humorous study of bigotry, sexuality, and social mobility in Thatcher-era Britain. Warnecke and Day-Lewis are convincing as distinct social types in eighties London-the striving immigrant under pressure to acculturate on one hand and marry a family acquaintance on the other; and the skinhead who turns on his mates to pursue a friendship with a loathsome “Paki.” Coaxing fine support from his multiracial cast, Frears handles it all with tenderness, insight, and unpredictable tonal shifts.


    The Snapper (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When unmarried 20-year-old Irish gal Sharon (Tina Kellegher) informs her parents that she’s pregnant, and even refuses to name the irresponsible seed man, the unexpected happens: The large, closely knit family takes it all in stride and tries to be supportive, especially her proud, big-hearted father Dessie (Colm Meaney). But when the neighborhood gossips start wagging their tongues, it all gets too personal for Dessie, and Sharon begins to wonder if moving out isn’t the best thing for everyone.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Written by Roddy Doyle (“The Commitments”), who adapted the script from his own Tarrytown novel, Frears’s “Snapper” lets us cozy up with an eccentric bunch. Like any big family, the Curleys are constantly bickering at each other, but Frears quickly establishes just how tight everyone is, too—especially Dessie and Sharon, who talk turkey while sharing pints at the pub. “Snapper” zeroes in on the special nature of this father-daughter relationship, with Meaney in excellent form as a kindly, slightly overprotective dad, and Kellegher equally good at uproarious girl chatter, deep mortification, and even late-night anxiety. A lovely and bittersweet slice of Irish life.


    The Queen (2006)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In 1997, after the tragic death of Princess Diana, emotionally reserved Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and the Windsor family struggle with growing pressure from newly elected PM Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and a grief-stricken public to offer some official display of mourning.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Frears’s wry, compelling docu-drama follows Blair’s strenuous efforts to help the hapless Windsors avert a major PR disaster in the wake of Diana’s fatal car accident. Oscar winner Mirren, whose uncanny channeling of Elizabeth’s stiff-upper-lip airs is one of recent cinema’s grandest performances, flawlessly captures the Queen’s eerie old-world reticence. But she also makes her a sympathetic, even intriguing figure. By turns tense and touching, and consistently engrossing, by all means bow down to “The Queen”.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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