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  • February 4, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Cross Road Blues

    by Sam Hutchins

    Clarksdale, Mississippi was easy enough to find.  It sat just a short drive further south on Highway 61.  We pulled over at the famous crossroads, where Highway 49 crosses Highway 61.  I related the story of Robert Johnson to my companions and they were impressed by the significance of the site.  Our enthusiasm was only slightly dampened by the fact that the place is commemorated by a marker bolted to the side of a tire repair shop.

    We made our way to Ground Zero and it turned out to be even better looking than the place we had just left, The Hollywood Café.  Housed in an old cotton warehouse hard up by the railroad tracks, the place just dripped character.  My only regret is that we were there in the daytime.  What amazing music must have been made in that room.  The manager was a stunning blonde woman who quite graciously gave us the run of the place.  We went crazy shooting pictures.  There weren’t many places you could point your camera that didn’t look great.

    Eventually Kar Wai came to me with a rare smile and even rarer compliment.

    “Good work today, Sam.”

    He waved the manager over.

    “Please get this man some whiskey.”

    I appreciated the words and the whiskey both.  Pulling up a barstool I sat to make some notes.  As I collected my thoughts I was struck by my surroundings.  So many people hate their jobs and toil away in a cubicle counting the minutes as they pass.  At that moment I looked down at the bar and realized that this was my office.  I felt like I had achieved total consciousness.  Truly one of those moments in life that you will always remember.  I sat there and savored the moment.

    Eventually we finished our work and moved on.  Clarksdale was too great a town to skip so we spent the balance of the afternoon exploring.  The streets were mostly deserted but the buildings were perfect.  Lots of character wherever you looked.  There was a defunct but perfectly preserved art deco Greyhound station.  The only thing it lacked in terms of locations was a good seedy motel.  Even so, we could definitely find plenty to shoot there and had successfully added a few more elements for Kar Wai to mull over.

    We took one last drive around to make sure we had seen everything, and it seemed that we had.  Sitting at a red light I reached for my iPod.

    “Wait, hang on.  Do you hear that?”

    Darius, who was typically somewhat oblivious, had picked up on something.  Rolling down our windows we strained to hear the faintest sound of music off in the distance.  Driving slowly we worked our way through the streets.  In time we located the source, a wailing blues guitar coming out of a derelict old movie theatre.  We parked the truck and went in.

    The interior of the theatre was musty and fairly trashed.  Down where the screen had been stood a longhaired white guy in his late thirties.  He continued making magic with his guitar, completely lost in the music.  We stood awestruck for quite some time.  When he eventually stopped we couldn’t help applauding.  It was the first time he even noticed we were in the room.

    “Aw, hey, thanks y’all.  Glad you liked it.”

    I went down the block and bought some cold beers as the fellas started chatting with the guy.  Turned out his name was Daddy Rich.  He gratefully accepted a cold one but was not as eager to accept our compliments.

    “Nah, I aint really that good.  You go to Ground Zero and listen sometime, that’s where you hear some really good blues music.  Me?  I aint lived the blues enough to be that good, and if you aint livin the blues you aint playin the blues.”

    The French contingent loved hearing this, as it very much spoke to their beliefs on the need for authenticity of experience.

    “Funny, aint it?” Daddy Rich continued with a grim smile, “The thing that would make me happiest in life is sadness.”

    He didn’t wait for an answer but instead cranked up his axe again.  Daddy Rich wouldn’t let any of us take his picture, insisting that he wasn’t worthy and that we needed to go to Ground Zero and shoot some real bluesmen.  He wouldn’t accept any money for it, but did swap us his CD for another six-pack before we left.  Listening to his stuff as I write this I’ll admit that he’s not great.  But he is very good.  And on that afternoon, in Clarksdale, in that old theatre?  He was as great as anyone could 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.

  • February 2, 2010

    A Scouting Life: The Hollywood Café

    by Sam Hutchins

    “We need to find a casino.”

    “Okay, you want to do some gambling?  I could probably find a poker game here in Memphis, or you want to go to Vegas?”

    With Kar Wai it’s hard to know what the motivation is at times; partially due to cultural and language barriers, and partially because the guy is just a complete wild card.  After events at the motel yesterday I figured we were through the looking glass.  At this point very little would have surprised me.

    “No, for the movie.  Some place old and dirty.  Natalie is going to play a gambler.”

    “Natalie?”

    He looked at me like I had been sleeping in class.  Kar Wai’s mind moves so fast he sometimes forgets that he hasn’t shared information, and then gets a little impatient when everyone’s not on the same page.

    “Natalie Portman.  She plays the gambler.”

    “Oh.  Okay.  There are some casinos a little south of here, in Tunica, Mississippi.  I’ve never been but they may be worth checking out.”

    He gave me that silent stare which I knew by now translates to “what are you waiting for,” so I fetched the truck.

    Tunica looked to be a little over an hour southwest of Memphis on Highway 61.  I dialed up some of the blues recordings Alan Lomax had taped at Angola Prison Farm.  They were a perfect soundtrack to carry us down the blues highway.  Passing through south Memphis, the ghetto soon turned to industrial areas.  Those gave way pretty rapidly to the countryside until we found ourselves passing through straight-up farmland.  Later on research indicated that these were some of the largest industrial soybean farms in the country.  At the time all we knew was that the land was flat and fertilized as far as the eye could see.  Every so often a massive automated irrigator passed over the fields in the distance.  So this is what life on the moon feels like.

    In time we saw a sign indicating the turnoff for the casinos.  We went that direction and eventually came to a crossroads where we stopped to gas up.  The casino buildings sat on the distant horizon like mirages.  I could only wonder what in God’s name possessed someone to build in that remote spot.  I had to assume it was some combination of demographic research, cheap land, and political dirty dealing that conspired to make it so.

    The strip consisted of half a dozen fairly generic casinos well spaced out in a line.  A quick pass up and down offered little promise.  They were all modern construction, all built by known companies like Bally’s, except for one, which appeared to be an independently owned and operated joint.  It looked as unlikely a spot for us as the rest but was the best shot we had so we took it.

    Entering the casino we saw that it indeed offered nothing of interest to us.  A large glass atrium funneled into the gaming floor.  None of it was any more visually appealing than what you would find in Atlantic City.  I was ready to suggest we leave when Kar Wai tapped me on the shoulder.  Wordlessly he held out a hundred dollar bill.  I smiled, peeled off a matching bill from my roll and hit a blackjack table.  As in the past, dropping two hundy on the line and betting it as cash drew plenty of attention.  A move like that wouldn’t cause Vegas to bat an eye, but in these precincts was a story that would be told for a while.  I drew to 20 and felt pretty good until the dealer hit 21.  Easy come, easy go.

    Leaving the casino we cruised the few streets that made up Tunica in hopes of finding a better-looking Casino or card room.  There really wasn’t much there, just a few gas stations and convenience stores.  We found one half-deserted strip mall where the only open business was a storefront school that trained dealers for the casinos.  I didn’t have much hope but popped my head in anyway.  Sure enough it was an ugly dry-wall-and-dropped-ceiling room with a few tables set up.  I spoke to the manager and asked about any sort of places with character in the vicinity.

    “Nope, nothing like that, and I lived here my whole life.”

    Good enough, then, time to move on.  We got a little turned around getting back to Rte 61, so I had to make a semi-legal move across some grass and cut down a side road to get where we wanted to be.  Halfway down the block-long road we saw it: a perfect location.  Sitting on the roadside in a 100 year old building was an establishment called The Hollywood Café.  Brilliant.  Finding it reinforced my belief that you should always ask the locals for assistance but never trust them.

    Stepping inside, it was indeed a great looking place.  The entire room was open, with a kitchen in the back.  The walls were ancient brick flecked with plaster and the floorboards were broad and worn.  The owner was a great big, ruddy, garrulous southerner who seemed born to be on camera.  He gave us the tour, showing us a great dusty old hidden back room that would be a great place to stage a card game.  He also confirmed my belief that no place is truly obscure in this world anymore when he told us that John Grisham considered it his favorite restaurant and ate there weekly.

    Sitting for lunch, we feasted on hamburgers, fried pickles, and big old mugs of sweet tea.  Of course the guys had to remind me that they were French by insisting we were served the hamburgers exactly the way they came normally, with no deviation whatsoever.  I am not one to believe that any authenticity of the experience would be lost by removing the onions from my burger but I was too tired to fight it out.  Onions notwithstanding, it was indeed a delicious lunch.  As we finished up and prepared to leave the owner called me over.

    “So I imagine y’all heading over to Morgan’s place next?”

    “What’s that?”

    “Morgan.  Morgan Freeman, the actor?  He has a juke joint over Clarksdale way.  Right by the crossroads where that boy Robert Johnson sold hisself to the devil.”

    It always pays to get to know people.  Even though one local had been clueless when a great spot like this was right around the corner, the next guy I spoke to was hipping me to what sounded like a very promising possibility.  He even drew me a map on a napkin while I finished off the last of my sweet tea.
    ….

    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 1, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Freeman’s Finest

    by John Farr

    A look at Morgan Freeman’s most memorable movies.


    Glory (1985)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    True story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), son of Massachusetts abolitionists, who’s appointed to lead the first black regiment for the Union in the Civil War. Before this group is able to prove their mettle in battle, Shaw must fight injustice within the Union hierarchy, as superior officers doubt the regiment’s ability to fight and seem unwilling (at first) to even equip them properly. Ultimately, Shaw’s faith in his men is borne out heroically.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Edward Zwick’s vivid Civil War epic boasts terrific battle sequences, but aside from the story’s inherent fascination, what sets this movie apart are the incredible performances glimpsed in between the gunfire. Broderick brings to Shaw a nuanced mix of determination and vulnerability, but Denzel Washington virtually steals the picture as a defiant enlisted man. (He won an Oscar for this.) Morgan Freeman also shines as a wise, seasoned regimental sergeant. Both great entertainment and history lesson.


    Unforgiven (1992)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    A nasty customer in the western town of Big Whisky cuts up a prostitute. Unsatisfied with the local sheriff’s progress in the case, her colleagues offer a bounty for the culprit. Learning this, retired gunslinger Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) picks up his weapon once again, and old colleague Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) goes along for the ride.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The craggy, mellowing Eastwood directs himself admirably in this first-class oater. It’s scenic, true to the period and includes excellent support from Freeman, Hackman and the late Richard Harris in a particularly showy role. With the dark and atmospheric “Unforgiven,” Eastwood carries on the western film tradition in winning style.


    The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife, former banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) keeps to himself at Shawshank Penitentiary, but that doesn’t always help protect him from the molestations of other inmates. Andy befriends fellow lifer Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), a man who knows how to procure forbidden items, and even begins to manage the warden’s finances in exchange for certain privileges. But as the years pass, Red discovers that Andy has something else on his mind besides comfort behind bars.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Adapted from a Stephen King story, Darabont’s “Redemption” reinvigorates the prison-drama genre with a robust, deeply touching story about courage, friendship, and the persistence of hope amid the regimentation of life in the Big House. Robbins gives a masterful performance as the aloof, enigmatic inmate whom everyone-including the bulls-comes to respect. And Freeman brings his own Southern gentility to the role of Red, the wizened con whose bond with Andy takes him to a very unexpected place: the outside world.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • February 1, 2010

    Best Movies by Farr: Train Wrecks

    by John Farr

    No, John’s not recommending terrible films; these films all feature horrific train wrecks.


    The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), a spit-and-polish British officer, endures a humiliating confinement in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, and is forced to lead the building of a bridge for the movement of Japanese materiel, a task which slowly begins to consume him, blurring his sense of allegiance. All the while we watch the relationship between him and the formal but civilized camp commandant (Sessue Hayakawa) evolve from outright hostility to something close to mutual respect. Ultimately, an American officer (William Holden) who knew Nicholson in the camp but has since escaped, is assigned to return and blow up the bridge.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Based on a true story, this riveting war film, shot in Sri Lanka, represented a new career peak for director David Lean, who’d go on to shoot the monumental “Lawrence Of Arabia”. Top-notch acting (Guinness won an Oscar after initially turning down the role), authentic atmosphere and a brilliant script add up to grand adventure and powerful human drama. The whole ensemble cast is superb, notably Holden, Hayakawa, and the late, great Jack Hawkins.


    The Train (1964)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Cold-blooded Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) wants to remove a a cache of priceless art from France by train in the waning days of the Nazi occupation. With the help of some gallant friends in the Resistance, railroad worker Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster) takes on the dangerous task of derailing this mission.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    John Frankenheimer’s pulse-pounding war film is lean and riveting, as Lancaster’s character works intrepidly to foil Von Waldheim’s exacting plans. Lancaster is restrained and no-nonsense as Labiche- thankfully he doesn’t even attempt a French accent, while Scofield is icy perfection as the ruthless Von Waldheim. This is one of my personal favorites from the sixties and ranks among the talented Frankenheimer’s best work.


    The Fugitive (1993)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Andrew Davis’s adaptation of the 60’s TV series involves Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), a prominent Chicago doctor accused of murdering his wife. The jury doesn’t buy Kimble’s story about confronting a one-armed man in his apartment the night his wife was killed, and he is convicted. When Kimble escapes custody, he hunts the real culprit, and ace U.S Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) gets assigned to track him down. Will Gerard get to Kimble before the doctor can clear himself?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A textbook example of a first-rate thriller, buoyed by Davis’s breathless pacing and a picture-stealing performance from Jones, who won an Oscar. Drawing from his Indiana Jones days, Ford is just right as the besieged hero always one step ahead of disaster, but Jones’s Gerard, whose drive is offset by a wry, folksy humor, is intensely charismatic as the intrepid hound-dog on Kimble’s trail. Over ten years after its initial release, it’s worth another peek if you haven’t seen it since. First-timers should definitely plunge.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • January 28, 2010

    A Scouting Life: Crimes and Misdemeanors on Elvis Presley Boulevard

    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.”

    Blank stare.

    “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.”

    He beamed.

    “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.

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