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.”
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?”
“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.