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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.

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