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  • November 4, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Close Call at the Pool Hall

    by Sam Hutchins

    There are many elements that make you a good location manager. You need to have a knowledge of history and architecture, an eye for composition, a great sense of direction, and the ability to gain people’s confidence easily, among other things. That last one goes both for the random people you encounter and need access from as well as those who hire you. The better you are at the job the more convinced your employers become of your ability to pull just about anything off. With good reason at times. I’ve closed bridges, driven tanks down New York City streets, and landed helicopters on the West Side Highway. The upshot being that you are often casually asked to do very hard things.

    Leaving the hotel in Chicago one morning I asked Kar Wai what else he would like to see. We had already scouted the city for a few days and I was at a bit of a loss as to where to take them.

    “Let’s go to the pool hall,” he said.

    “Pool hall? Any one in particular?”

    “Yes. They shot ‘The Hustler’ here. I’d like to see that place.”

    Oooo-kay. I haven’t seen the film in years. Not the slightest idea where it was shot.

    “I’m not sure exactly where that is.”

    He just looked at me without the slightest change of expression.

    “But I can find out. I’m sure they’re not open this early. Anything else you want to see in the meantime?”

    “What else can you show us?”

    “There’s a great tradition of modern architecture in this city. Would you like to see some of that?”

    “Show me.”

    And with that Kar Wai resumed his normal position, which was to lean back and stare off into the middle distance, lost in his own head. It was a great relief that he was interested in seeing some modern stuff. I had guessed he might based on his body of work. Good thing as I was out of ideas otherwise. I piloted our group towards the South Side. Not only had I wanted to see Mies van der Rohe’s work at the Illinois Architecture Institute for some time, it had the added advantage of being far away thus buying me time to find the damned pool hall. I called my assistant location manager in New York, Chris Coyne, and got him digging for the location from ‘The Hustler.’ In the meantime I worked on getting us someplace I’ve never been in a city I didn’t know well.

    The Institute did not disappoint. We all loved the campus overall, and Kar Wai was particularly smitten with the on-campus El station designed by Rem Koolhaus. So much so that he graced us with one of his rare smiles.

    “This is good. Very good. We will shoot here if we film in Chicago.”

    Nicely done. I was still sweating the pool hall but Chris called back just as I was at my most nervous.

    “Good news, bad news, boss. Bad news is that ‘The Hustler’ was filmed in New York.”

    “What the shit?”

    “Good news is that it was based on a joint in Chicago called Bensinger’s. Ready to take down the address?”

    A Location Manager is only as good as the people helping him or her. Bensinger’s turned out to be way the hell on the other side of town, up in the farthest corner of Northwest Chicago. We started making our way there. It took us a long time to arrive, accounting of course for our inevitable detour to Chinatown for lunch and my mistake in taking surface streets and not the expressway.

    Bensinger’s was on the second story of an otherwise nondescript old building and marked only by a small hanging sign. We got out of the car and stretched after the long drive before making our way in. It was immediately apparent that it was worth the trip. The place was the prototypical dingy old pool hall, just bursting with character. Speaking of characters, several of them were spread throughout the room racking them up in the fading grey light of the late winter afternoon.

    I approached the old couple working the desk and laid out my regular spiel. As sometimes happens, I was met with cold, dead stares and no words. They just weren’t into it, completely nonreactive to my pitch. Fortunately by this point in our journey Darius and I had developed an excellent rapport. Our eyes met and I gave him just the slightest nod. He understood and began quietly snapping photos while I continued to make my pitch.

    When we first set out Darius would have snapped away without concern. Having bumped into some pretty strenuous objections he had learned to follow my lead. Making a quick assessment of the room I didn’t see any real trouble there, at least none that I couldn’t handle. I also sensed that there was no way that we were going to get permission to properly scout the location. So now I wasn’t really trying to convince the proprietors as much as distracting them while Darius got what he needed.

    Things were cool for a minute but they sure didn’t stay that way. Some loud, angry words came from across the room. Darius was backpedaling and holding his hands up. He was being harangued by a short, stout Chinese fellow in a porkpie hat. Somewhat amusingly, he spoke in a very thick Chicago accent.

    “You don’t just take someone’s picture, man!” he barked, holding his cue up like he was ready to go. “How do you know who I am? Maybe I don’t want my picture taken!”

    Darius was twice the guy’s size but I honestly didn’t like his chances. I got over next to them quickly. The guy was getting louder, not quieter.

    “How do I know who the fuck you are, man? I got a big problem with that!”

    I drew myself up to full height and jabbed a finger at him.

    “Hey! He FUCKING apologized. We’re done. You got a problem with that?”

    There was one of those long moments where it could have broken either way. Some part of me actually wanted him to make a move. I could have taken care of him in a hot minute, and it would be pretty funny to get Kar Wai into a poolroom brawl. C’mon, I thought, say it. Give me an excuse. Instead he backed down like the putz he was.

    “Sorry, man, but that just ain’t right,” he said much softer as he looked away. I threw him a bone in return.

    “You’re right, man, and we apologize. We were just leaving anyway.”

    We made our way outside and loaded up into the car. I couldn’t help notice that Kar Wai had the ghost of a smile on his lips as we drove off.

    ….

    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.

  • October 27, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Wong Kar Wai in the Windy City

    by Sam Hutchins

    Kar Wai caught an early flight out of New York. It was all I could do to wrangle the Frenchmen into the truck in time to meet his flight. Hopefully having the boss around would light a fire under some asses. Time would have to tell on that one.

    As we waited for him to emerge from the airport I realized just how little I knew the man personally. I was intimately familiar with his body of work. Yes, everyone knew 2046 and Chungking Express, but I had loved those so much I had also sought out his earlier work such as Days of Being Wild and the historical epic Ashes of Time. I knew as much as there is to know about his films and development as a storyteller but the man himself was largely an enigma. This was certainly a bit of a cultivated pose on his part, he didn’t do a lot of press and what he had done wasn’t very revealing. Watching him emerge from the darkened concourse area with his sunglasses and his smile I had very little read on him. He sure didn’t give you much to work with.

    I also lacked a working knowledge of the city of Chicago. I had passed through a few times over the years so I had a very vague familiarity with the layout but beyond that I was lost. Tough gig, working in a town you don’t know with a director who doesn’t know what he wants to find. In an attempt to prepare myself as well as possible I had been up late the night before studying. I committed as much of the map to memory as possible, wrapping my head around the area. By spending some time with it I was able to figure out the general layout of the neighborhoods, the main through routes, and the better ways to get around. I did some online searching for classic diners and restaurants with character. Worked up a little cheat sheet with promising names and addresses and made mental note of where they sat on the map and how I could make my way to them.

    Good thing I did, because Kar Wai hopped in the car and said, “Let’s Go.” It was seemingly assumed that I had the place all doped out and knew just where to go. We started by cruising the perimeter of the city, finding some promising spots right away. The man has a pretty well-defined aesthetic at this point in his career and I was able to steer him to places that fit within it. Although he had little to say we were all relieved by the volume of pictures he took at the places we stopped. As good an indication that he was as happy as he was likely to get.

    After a few stops we wound up at a place called Lawrence Fisheries. It was a seafood restaurant hard on the banks of a river on the near south side of Chicago. Perfect location for one of Kar Wai’s films. The exterior photographs nicely as it sits alone in a parking lot surrounded by factories, the river and a bridge over it. The Sears Tower and the skyline framed up beautifully in the background. One shot and you would know exactly how close you were to the heart of the big city but also how far outside of it you were. The interior was ugly enough that I would never show it to any other director, but of course he loved it. The owner was a lovely fellow whose main concern was that we didn’t want to film anytime close to Lent, which was his busiest season. A big part of the job is finding a connection with people quickly so you can gain their trust. The Catholic thing is an easy one for me and shortly we were speaking with the familiarity of old friends.

    As we wrapped up our scout of the place the owner turned to me. Nodding in Kar Wai’s direction he asked: “So did you find this place because it’s next to Chinatown?”

    “No, we were just cruising around and saw it.” But it was too late; Kar Wai’s ears had perked up. Amazing thing about the man, he could seem so far lost in his own thoughts at times but still nothing got past him.

    “We are close to Chinatown?”

    “Yes, just cross under that overpass and make your next left and you’re there.”

    So off to lunch we went.

    We barely stepped out of the car when a young Chinese woman approached us. She recognized Kar Wai and he was quite gracious about speaking with her. This would happen often in our travels; he was frequently recognized in the Asian neighborhoods. We spent a great deal of time in them as Kar Wai always preferred to eat Chinese food. Bummed me out a little in Chicago as it’s such a great eating city. Chicago style hot dogs, deep dish pizza, Italian Beef sandwiches were not for me this time around. Instead it was congee for breakfast and fried rice for lunch. All part of the deal. We did some quick shopping while we were there as well. Kar Wai picked up a case of ramen, some teas, and some weird dried roots that tasted like dirty black licorice. He kept insisting that I eat them, so I did. I bought some DVD’s of kung fu comedies featuring Sammo Hung and Darius scored some sort of virility powder.

    We spent a few days scouting the city with seemingly promising results. Late in the afternoon one day there we seemed to be running out of steam. We spent a couple hours screwing around in Lincoln Park, mainly at record stores. Kar Wai showed a surprising knowledge of American independent music and revealed to us that he planned to use the artist Cat Power as inspiration for the film. He went on to reveal that all of his films have a soundtrack that he uses as a sort of creative metronome while filming them, even though the music never actually winds up in the films. Fascinating stuff, the likes of which I’d never heard from another director. I tried to engage him in a discussion about what specific pieces he had used for his earlier films but it must have been a little too intimate of a question. As was his wont, he reacted by smiling silently behind those dark sunglasses and going silent.

    ….

    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.

  • October 22, 2009

    Halloween-a-Thon

    Airs Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 9pm on THIRTEEN

    Night of the Living Dead (1968)

    Chaos descends upon the world as the brains of the recently deceased become inexplicably reanimated, causing the dead to rise and feed on human flesh. Speculation rests on a radiation-covered NASA satellite returning from Venus, but it only remains a speculation. Anyone who dies during the crisis of causes unrelated to brain trauma will return as a flesh-eating zombie, including anyone who has been bitten by a zombie. The only way to destroy the zombies is to destroy the brain. As the catastrophe unfolds, a young woman visiting her father’s grave takes refuge in a nearby farmhouse, where she is met by a man who protects her and barricades them inside. They both later discover people hiding in the basement, and they each attempt to cope with the situation. Their only hope rests on getting some gasoline from a nearby pump into a truck that is running on empty, but this requires braving the hordes of ravenous walking corpses outside. When they finally put their plans into action, panic and personal tensions only add to the terror as they try to survive.

    Directed by George Romero

    The Vampire Bat (1933)

    In the small village of Kleinshloss, the locals are scared with a serial killer that is draining the blood of his victims, and the Burgomaster Gustave Schoen is convinced that a vampire is responsible for the deaths. The skeptical police inspector Karl Brettschneider is reluctant to accept the existence of vampires, but the local doctor Otto Von Newman shows literature about cases of vampirism inclusive in Amazon. When the apple street vendor Martha Mueller is murdered, the prime suspect becomes the slow Herman Gleib, a man with a mind of child that loves bats. The group of vigilantes chases Herman, while Dr. Von Newman’s housemaid Georgiana is attacked by the killer.

    Directed by Frank R. Strayer

    The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

    After surviving a shipwreck in reefs not signalized in the maritime charts, the famous hunter Robert “Bob” Rainsford is lodged by the Russian hunter Count Zaroff in his castle in an isolated island. Bob meets Eve Trowbridge and her brother Martin Trowbridge, also survivors of another wrecked vessel and hosted by Zaroff. Soon, Bob and Eve find that they are part of a hunting game plotted by the insane Zarof where they are the prey, and they have to escape and survive until the next morning to Zaroff and his hounds.

    Directed by Irving Pichel & Ernest B. Schoedsack

    Dementia 13 (1963)

    John Haloran has a fatal heart attack, but his wife Louise won’t get any of the inheritance when Lady Haloran (his mother) dies if John is also dead. Louise forges a letter from John to convince the rest of his family he’s been called to New York on important business, and goes to his Irish ancestral home, Castle Haloran, to meet the family and look for a way to ensure a cut of the loot. Seven years earlier John’s sister Kathleen was drowned in the pond, and the Halorans enact a morbid ritual in remembrance. Secrets shroud the sister’s demise, and soon the family and guests begin experiencing an attrition problem.

    Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

    The Terror (1963)

    France, 18th century. Lieutenant Andre Duvalier has been accidentally separated from his regiment. He is wandering near the coast when he sees a young woman. He asks the road to Coldon, where he hopes to rejoin his regiment. But the woman doesn’t answer, doesn’t even greet him and walks away. Eventually she takes him to the sea, where she disappears in rough water. Andre loses conscience when he is trying to following her, and is attacked by a bird. He awakes in a house with an old woman and a numb man. She claims to never have seen the woman. After he leaves, he sees her again and when trying to follow her is saved by a man from certain death. He learns that to help the girl, he must go to castle of Baron Van Leppe. When he arrives, Andre sees the woman looking from a window. Baron Van Leppe is old and seems reluctant to let André in however. He claims there’s no woman in the castle, but shows André a painting which does indeed portray her. Andre learns that she is the baroness, who died twenty years ago. What is the baron’s secret?

    Directed by Roger Corman

    Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

    Seymour, an orphan and a nerd, is taken in and given a job by Mr. Mushnik, the owner of a run-down florist in the seedy part of town. Seymour spends his time doing menial tasks and dreaming of the shop assistant, Audrey. One day, just after an eclipse of the sun, Seymour discovers a strange plant. He buys it and names is Audrey II. While caring for Audrey II, Seymour discovers the plant’s rather unique appetite. The plant grows and grows, as does Seymour’s infatuation for Audrey, but who will get her first? FEED ME!

    Directed by Roger Corman

  • October 22, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Flick-or-Treat

    by John Farr

    John Farr goes flick-or-treating for Halloween’s most haunting flicks.


    Freaks (1932)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In a traveling circus, beautiful but treacherous trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) learns that fellow worker Hans (Harry Earles), a midget, has money, and plots to marry him, then bump him off to get it. She doesn’t count on the fact that Hans is part of a very tight circle of side-show performers, and that they always protect their own kind.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Reviled and in some places banned on release, Tod Browning’s horror classic is like nothing else you’ll ever see – bizarre, bold, and altogether brilliant. A standard soap opera premise is elevated by the conceit of “normal” people as villains, “freaks” as heroes. Browning gets the most out of his unusual cast, mostly non-actors, and creates an eerie, chill-inducing atmosphere throughout. Don’t miss that knockout climax.


    The Haunting (1963)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), a professor of the paranormal, sets out to discover whether the infamous Hill House is truly haunted or not, with the help of several human guinea pigs. What happens to the group “in the night, in the dark” leaves no doubt as to the answer.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Among a stellar cast, Julie Harris stands out as a spellbinding spinster whom the ghosts of Hill House single out for special attention. A sexually ambiguous Claire Bloom also registers as the clairvoyant Regina. Veteran director Robert Wise masterfully orchestrates tools of the trade to create perhaps the quintessential filmed ghost story, applying a degree of restraint and subtlety generally absent from more modern horror entries. Remade but never equalled.


    The Descent (2006)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Still reeling from a deadly car crash the year before, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) travels to the U.S. with her friend Beth (Alex Reid) to participate in a spelunking expedition organized by her jocky pal Juno (Natalie Mendoza), with whom she has some post- traumatic personal issues. Along with three other female friends, the group descends into an uncharted cave system expecting a weekend of adventure. But tensions rise after a cave-in, when they discover that not only are they profoundly lost in the primordial darkness, but they are not alone.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Not the feeble-minded breasts-and-beasts horror flick that’s virtually defined the genre since the ’80s, Marshall’s “Descent” is smart, psychologically tense, and scary as hell. Yes, there’s a lot of gruesome goings-on in this claustrophobic hellhole, but part of the fun of watching it (if you’re into this kind of thing) is figuring out exactly what’s stalking the poor lasses. One or many? And is the cavern breathing or is that my imagination? Solid direction, imaginative editing, and eerie production design take “Descent” even further into nail-biting realms of pure terror.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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