by Sam Hutchins
I opened up the script with the highest of expectations. To my surprise, it wasn’t a script at all. Instead I had been given a short story. The cultural dissonance was so great with the Chinese that I wasn’t quite sure where the disconnect was. Kar Wai famously does not shoot with scripts. Does he shoot based on short stories? Asking him would be useless as I knew in response all I would get was a smile and silence. So I plunged ahead with my reading assignment.
It was a very strange story. I recognized the character of the Waitress, who would be played by Norah. This particular segment must be meant to fall roughly in the middle of the film, as it takes place somewhere in the West. Kar Wai must have been working off of our photos of the wide-open desert spaces we had provided, as he had never been there himself. The story concerned Norah waiting tables in an attempt to save enough cash to buy a car. She meets a customer who arrives on foot, pushing a baby carriage full of his belongings. He is very wise and even more mysterious. Ultimately he helps her understand a car is not the important thing, and that she should focus on what is truly important to her. They sleep together, which she regrets. He then disappears in the night having taught her an important lesson. The whole thing was highly existential and dreamlike.
I hadn’t the slightest idea where to begin with my critique. The dialogue was indeed unnatural, however so was everything else about the tale. Rewriting it to make the characters sound more natural or realistic would contradict the tone and meaning of the story. I wrestled with it for days and ultimately made very minor changes. I primarily worried about grammar, proper tenses and the like, leaving the content alone in all other ways. My advice to any filmmaker would have been to throw the whole story out and start anew. Any filmmaker but Wong Kar Wai, that is. As wrong as the whole thing read on paper in his hands it would most likely work well. My only concern was whether or not his unique style of storytelling would work when set in America.
I met with Kar Wai and Stephane to discuss my notes. They accepted them gratefully. It was clear that we had a middle chapter to our story but we needed a bridge to get us there.
“What city made the greatest impact on you?” Kar Wai wanted to know.
To my great surprise Stephane and I finally agreed on something.
We pulled our photos of Memphis and reviewed them with Kar Wai. There was rich territory to be mined there. It was a city with plenty of soul. It took very little convincing for Kar Wai to agree. Very well, then, we began making plans to return to Memphis. Darius was in Paris but would meet us on the road. I approached our Production Supervisor and told her we needed to make some travel arrangements.
“Memphis? Seriously? I though this film was shutting down? I already laid off my staff.”
I told her that I had been under the same impression, but apparently had been wrong. Patty went in to speak with Kar Wai and returned shortly.
“He wants me to book you tickets to Chicago.”
Now it was my turn to be puzzled. I went back to speak to Kar Wai.
“I thought we were going to Memphis.”
“Patty thinks we are going to Chicago.”
I stood for a painfully long time awaiting further explanation but got none. I’m pretty sure he forgot I was in his office.
“So what do I do?” Patty wanted to know.
“Book us flights to Chicago. I guess we’ll start there and drive to Memphis.”
I still really hadn’t figured this guy out, but at least working with him was always interesting.
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.