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  • November 9, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: All You Can View: Busby Berkeley

    by John Farr

    Five films featuring epic set pieces and choreography.


    The Busby Berkeley Collection Volume 1

    What It’s About

    The plots of these five early “backstage” musicals are all variations on a theme: in tough times, the (musical) show must go on, even if the leading lady falls ill, or the funding isn’t there, or one of the stars turns out to be a high society type whose family doesn’t approve of show people. And thankfully, with all the intrigues and anxieties of putting on a revue, not to mention the inevitable romantic complications, the show always does go on, and it’s there we see the genius of choreographer Berkeley, whose grand, stunningly kaleidoscopic dance sequences still take our breath away.

    Why I Love It

    Warner’s hit musical “42nd Street” spawned a wildly successful franchise of glittering follow-ups, with the common ingredients Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler (except for the last picture), and the spectacular staging and choreography of Busby Berkeley. Guests include James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Hugh Herbert, and Adolphe Menjou, among others. And those songs: “We’re In The Money”, “Lullaby of Broadway”, “Shuffle Off To Buffalo”, and “I Only Have Eyes For You” are highlights. Need I say more?


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • November 9, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Under the Bridge

    by Sam Hutchins

    We left Chicago and started making our way East to Detroit. Kar Wai liked a lot that he had seen in the Second City, which was a relief. There was still only a vague plotline for us to work with, and we were scouting based on hints and rumors. We knew Norah Jones was going to play a heartbroken waitress travelling cross-country, but the rest was a work in progress. Occasionally, however, some new element would slip out, making it clear that Kar Wai had a more developed story than he was letting on to us.

    Back in Chicago, for instance, we had passed through a nasty, rusty old underpass beneath the train tracks. When he saw something that caught his attention, Kar Wai would get even more focused and unaware of the world outside his head than normal. Noticing the underpass, he told me to pull over and started reaching for the door handle as he said it. Unfortunately we were hemmed in by fast-moving traffic. If I hadn’t caught his arm and kept him in the truck Kar Wai might well have stepped out of a quickly moving vehicle. He really did get that absorbed in his process.

    As soon as I could safely pull over he was springing out and quickly striding back to the bridge. We then spent a few hours photographing it. Kar Wai was like a man on a mission. He walked back and forth beneath the bridge several times while Darius, Stephane and I tried to shoot every inch of it. Occasionally he would point out a specific shot he wanted one of us to get, or else just took a camera from one of us and shot it himself. After some time he turned to address me.

    “Can we close this?”

    “Close what, the road?”

    “Yes.”

    Again, this is a city I had never worked in. I took a quick look around, and it appeared that you could easily set up detours on either side of the underpass, so I made an educated guess.

    “I believe so, but it probably has to be on a weekend. Any idea what sort of scene we would shoot here?”

    “Yes, this would be the auto accident.”

    “The accident?”

    “Yes, where the cop dies.”

    Looking to Darius and Stephane it was clear that they had no idea what he was talking about either. And so it went.

    Now we made our way to Detroit, taking the old blue-line roads that served as highways before the interstate freeway system was built. The beauty of the countryside was a bit of a surprise. Gently rolling fields lay fallow for the winter, tamped down by a hard frost. The houses and barns were widely scattered and all appeared to be in good repair. I saw a great looking gas station and pulled in. It was older, homemade and weathered, nothing at all resembling a modern service station. This was more like a small bungalow with a few pumps out front. Yet it was clearly well built and would be there at least as long as it had already been. I thought it had potential as a location and suggested as much. Kar Wai just looked at me with that blank expression. Impossible to figure out what he wanted.

    We took our time and arrived in Detroit late. Speaking with my office in New York, we had a hard time figuring out where to stay. They kept suggesting hotels in the suburbs, which was not what we wanted. Finally at my suggestion they booked us into the Renaissance Center. I had never set foot in Detroit but knew of it from several acquaintances who grew up locally. What a strange place it was. Certainly a different environment from the lovely farmland we had been in just hours earlier.

    As our difficulty finding accommodations suggests, there’s not a lot going on in downtown Detroit. Large tracts of the city are deserted. Located right in the heart of the city, the Ren Center nonetheless sits surrounded by broad vacant swaths of land. It’s multiple polished glass and steel towers contain offices, a hotel and convention center. Inside you find that it’s built around a central core filled with shops and stores. All soaring, open spaces that somehow feel confined, possibly due to every surface being poured concrete. It was that weird, bad modern architecture that feels oppressive, what I always think of as “Classic Fascist” design.

    Odder still was my experience the next morning. I arose after a very short sleep desperate for sustenance. Checking in post-midnight the desk clerk had laughed at my inquiries about getting some food. Now I was up and in search of coffee and some breakfast. The vast interior spaces that had been so hauntingly deserted upon arrival just hours before were now packed with people. Not just people, but young people, all roughly junior high school age. All of them also smiled incessantly and were polite to the point of being bothersome. Eventually I learned that it was the National Young Catholic Convention. It was like being surrounded by Stepford Children, and it was not doing good things to my mindset.

    Thankfully the others did not keep me waiting long. The morning air braced us as we waited for the valet to bring the truck around. Stephane noticed a group of soldiers in uniform waiting for a van to pick them up and commented that it made him uncomfortable. That, of course, was the type of thing I could not leave alone.

    “Stephane, instead of griping you really should go thank those men.”

    “Why ees that?”

    “Because you’re not speaking fucking German.”

    With that we set out to see what we could discover in Detroit. As we pulled out some plump white snowflakes began lazily drifting down on us. We eased into our scouting day as they eased their way towards the earth.

    ….

    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.

  • 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.

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