by Sam Hutchins
We drove up and down Elvis Presley Boulevard several times without seeing anything we really liked. The motels were plentiful enough but not distinct in any way. The edge of a hangover and a gray sky had me in a dark mood. Things only got grimmer as a light rain started to fall. I found myself quoting Travis Bickle in my ongoing internal dialogue. What a depressing environment. Even Graceland looked pretty low-rent from the avenue. Countless notes and keepsakes had been affixed to the fence and left there to wither and die.
We passed one place several times before it caught our eye. A gravel driveway zig-zagged up a hill, ending in a patchwork fence. The roadway was lined by the stumps of what must have been a dozen pretty substantial trees, and the scraggly tufts of grass were dying in the wet mud. It looked like a toxic waste dump more than anything else. There was no sign but if there were I imagine it would read “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” We pulled in and made our way up to the fence more out of morbid curiosity than anything else. Pulling around the bend we found ourselves in a courtyard of what was indeed some sort of motel. Several ramshackle buildings formed a ring around the small lot, with a sign indicating that one of them was the office. Kar Wai smiled.
“This is good. See if we can get in a room.”
Hopping out of the truck I found myself grateful for the rain. At least it kept the rank smell down a bit. The scent was a mixture of mildew and despair. I made my way over to the battered screen door and knocked for a while. Eventually an emaciated looking Indian fellow opened up and motioned me in. He was cooking something that smelled beyond awful on a small hot plate and watching “I Love Lucy” on a black-and-white television. I started on in my standard spiel and got pretty far into it before I realized the smile on his face was one of total incomprehension. The phrase “grinning like an idiot” comes to mind.
“Do you speak English?”
Nothing. I held up my camera.
“We take pictures. Photographs. Okay?”
I pantomimed shooting pictures with the camera. Still nothing. Screw this, I couldn’t take the smell of the room any more. Dipping into my jacket pocket I fished out my police badge (how I acquired that is another story entirely).
“Police. I’m going to need to take a look at one of your rooms.”
Reaching past him I removed a numbered key from one of the hooks on the wall. He smiled even harder, if that was possible, and continued staring at me. I cleared out to head for the truck. Stepping into the lot I saw someone had gotten there before me.
A tall, very skinny white woman dressed in a plaid schoolgirl type miniskirt was leaning in the window chatting with Darius. As I got closer it became clear that she was no stranger to meth. Christ, I can’t leave these guys alone for a second. I strode purposefully to her.
“Beat it Sister, we don’t want any.”
She took her time turning and giving me as nasty a look as I remember receiving before ambling away and back into her room.
“What does thees mean, ‘Do I want a date?’” Darius asked through the open window. Between the rain and all the rest I was well out of patience.
“It means she will let you stick your dick in her if you pay her money. She’s a hooker.”
I felt bad when I saw that all three looked legitimately surprised, both at the tone and content of my statement. Trying to recover I held up the key.
“C’mon, you want to see a room?”
I found the shack that corresponded to the number on the key fob and let them in. The interior was just as nasty as the outside appearance would suggest. Of course Kar Wai loved it. As disgusting as the place was, I did appreciate him digging it, in a perverse way. The man certainly marches to his own drummer. And this was one of those so-ugly-it’s-almost-beautiful situations, sort of like Mimi Rogers. Kar Wai had Stephane pose in various positions while he photographed the room.
“Something is missing here. Sam, can you get that woman back? I want her to model for me.”
“The hooker? Really? Not sure she’ll go for it.”
“She’ll want money.”
“Fine, pay her.”
I wondered just how the accounting department would feel about a receipt for the services of a meth-addled whore doing some stand-in work. Have to worry about that later. I went to fetch her.
Stepping back out into the rain I realized I had no idea which room she had gone into. Orienting myself based on the truck’s position, I had a general idea but was not at all certain. There were four rooms in the direction she had gone. I took my best guess and went to the door. Leaning in I could hear a television blaring inside. Maybe I had it right. I banged away for quite some time before the door opened a crack. But it wasn’t the woman. Far from it, actually. Instead I was faced with a very big, very black, and very unhappy man. What the hell, might as well go for it.
“Sorry to bother you pal. I’m looking for the woman who was just out here talking to us. Tall, thin gal, in a plaid skirt?”
I put on my corniest smile when I spoke. He maintained his angry glare and said nothing. Absolute silence from him. At least he didn’t shut the door on me. I rolled right on with it, too late to stop now.
“I work for a very famous filmmaker. Name’s Wong Kar Wai. Chinese fellow. We want to take some pictures of her. We’d be happy to pay her for her time.”
I flashed a little green. This time he did shut the door on me. Slammed it, actually. I figured it was in my best interest not to pursue the matter any further. Still not sure if I was at the right room or not. It certainly wasn’t the woman who answered the door but he may well have been her business manager. In any case I’m simply not a dedicated enough employee to have bothered trying the other rooms. I returned to the guys and told them she wasn’t interested. Kar Wai and Darius seemed genuinely disappointed.
“Will it help if I speak to her?” Darius helpfully volunteered.
I was tempted for just a moment to send Darius to the door I had just knocked on. The comedy potential was there, but the possibility of him being shot several times also existed. I really like the man and that would be a terrible career move.
“Noooo, she definitely is not interested.”
We finished up in the room and packed our gear up. As we walked to the car another Indian gentleman approached me. This guy was both better dressed and fed than the guy I took the key from. He spoke passable English.
“Excuse me, officer, is everything OK? I am the manager of the motel.”
Heh, I’d forgotten what I’d done to get us access.
“Yes, it’s fine. You passed inspection. You’ll receive a letter soon. Nice place you have here.”
“Why thank you, nice to hear. My employee is good to you?”
“Yes, he was exceptionally helpful. Good man you have there.”
“Thanks. His English is not so well but he will be learning.”
As I got into the truck I couldn’t resist one last question. Waving my arm at the stumps that once were a dozen mighty oaks I put it to him.
“What happened to the trees?”
“Ah, leaves everywhere. And they blocked the view from the road. Much better without them.”
I nodded my agreement and we went on our way.
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.