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.