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  • November 20, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Peaks and Valleys

    by Sam Hutchins

    After we finished at the pizzeria we pushed a little further out of downtown Detroit. We really were in some impoverished areas. I felt a great sense of responsibility for my companions. Everywhere they went was someplace I took them and they were the farthest thing from safety-conscious. Typically I would pull the truck over and Kar Wai would spring out of it and start rapidly striding off. He could go in any direction and easily get lost. As he was the real artist and the reason we were there I felt most responsible for him.

    While he moved quickly, however, Stephane and Darius took forever getting in motion. Kar Wai could be damn near a mile away before they found their hats and gloves, stretched, checked their cameras, chatted a bit, grabbed a piece of fruit, and finally left the vehicle. I was constantly trailing Kar Wai but holding back, waiting for them to leave the vehicle so I could lock it. God forbid either of them ever pay the slightest bit of attention to practical matters. Were I not on top of it those two would wander off with the car doors ajar in even the worst neighborhood. It may seem petty but when you spend months travelling with people and are the only responsible party the resentments do build up.

    I trailed Kar Wai down a side street but it turned out to be a dead end. As we returned to the truck we saw Darius shooting an extremely run-down restaurant. It was a pretty ghetto Chinese joint. As we approached he called out to me.

    “Sam, can you see if I can take pictures inside?”

    I had just started to move when Kar Wai placed a hand on my shoulder to stop me. I can’t say he looked angry but it’s the closest I’ve ever seen him to being so.

    “No Chinese. Not in this movie.”

    Darius and I made eye contact and held it for a moment. We wordlessly agreed to discuss that one privately.

    Moving on, we saw a fairly interesting spot called the Hygrade Deli. In addition to being a potential location it had neon signs advertising hot corned beef. Even though Kar Wai didn’t want Chinese in his film every possible meal we ate was Chinese food. If I had a shot at a nice corned beef sandwich I was taking it.

    Inexplicably the doors were locked. Odd, as it was around lunchtime and the place was lit up like it was Christmas. After knocking for a while an older fellow came to the door. He was convinced we were there to rob him. Who knows, perhaps there had been a string of burglaries committed by an American, a Chinese, a Frenchman and an Iranian guy recently. It took a good ten minutes of speaking through a locked door to convince him to open up and let us in. Even when we did he would only let us just inside the door. Clearly I wasn’t getting that sandwich. Things must really be rough in Detroit.

    In another of those wildly frustrating moments, Kar Wai took a few steps inside, looked around, shook his head no and strode wordlessly out the door. It’s understandable that a Director needs to have a look at a place before knowing if it is of interest to them. Of course they do. The thing is, the façade of the Hygrade was all glass. There was not a thing about the place that couldn’t be seen from outside. Yet Kar Wai had been rather insistent that I get him in. So I tapdanced for ten minutes, finally convincing some scared old fellow to open up and let us inside, only to have Kar Wai bail immediately. Now my director was legging it quickly down the block and I was stuck making our excuses. How do you quickly and politely explain why you are leaving so quickly after badgering the guy so hard and so long to open up for us.? Harder still when I don’t actually know why.

    Peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys. Just when they knock you down they build you back up. In the car again Kar Wai addressed me.

    “Sam, if you were not doing this, what would you do?”

    “I don’t know. I like to write.”

    “No, you would be a detective. You would make a great detective.”

    “Why do you say that?”

    “You talk to people, all kinds of people, and find out what you want to. And you can handle yourself in any situation. This is very good.”

    What a wonderful compliment to receive; especially from someone I admired as much as him. Peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys.

    ….

    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 16, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Brilliant Brenda Blethyn

    by John Farr

    One of John Farr’s favorite actresses in three British films.


    Grown Ups (1980)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Working-class newlyweds Dick (Philip Davis) and Mandy (Lesley Manville) move into their threadbare new row house in Canterbury with humble plans to perk it up but little motivation to do anything but smoke fags and have a pint at the local pub. Next door live stern, callous schoolteacher Mr. Butcher (Sam Kelly) and his good-natured but unhappy wife, Christine (Lindsay Duncan). Both couples’ lives are turned inside out with the arrival of Mandy’s desperately needy sister, Gloria (Brenda Blethyn), a fussy frump who longs to make herself indispensable to everyone.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This superbly acted film by English director Mike Leigh (“Naked”) is a bleakly funny slice-of-life tale about two couples mired in somewhat depressing routines. Manville and Davis are delightfully dour as a bickering couple trying to decide whether or not to have a baby, while Kelly and Duncan’s moribund, dysfunctional relationship is alternately hilarious and gut-wrenching to observe. But the film’s greatest asset is Blethyn, whose showstopping meltdown on the Butchers’ staircase is the work of a champion actress – one fully in touch with the depths of despair. “Grown Ups” is a sweetly madcap gem for the feeble-minded fussbudget in all of us.


    Secrets and Lies (1996)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    After the death of her adoptive parents, soft-spoken West Indian optometrist Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) sets out to find her birth motherwho shes surprised to learn is a white woman named Cynthia Purley (Brenda Blethyn), a sad-sack factory worker with an embittered, street-sweeper daughter (Claire Rishbrook). After meeting for tea, the two eventually develop a bond, with Hortense guiding Cynthia onto a path to reconciliation with her estranged family.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Leigh’s bittersweet family drama “Secrets and Lies” showcases the superb acting talents of British veteran Blethyn, who picked up a Best Actress nomination for her (mostly improvised) work alongside co-star Jean-Baptiste. Leigh’s long, static shots-especially of the first confused meeting between Cynthia and Hortense at a London teashop-are admirable feats that give you the sense you’ve known these characters for years. Kudos also to Timothy Spall, playing the bearish brother Cynthia longs to reconnect with. For an emotionally enriching film that deals intelligently with class, race, and family conflict, check out “Secrets and Lies.”


    Little Voice (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Little Voice (Jane Horrocks) is a shy young woman with an extraordinary singing voice, though no one knows it except her mother, Mari (Brenda Blethyn). One night, Mari meets smarmy talent agent Ray (Caine) at a bar, and brings him home, where he hears LV warble a perfect rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Smelling a sensation in the making, Ray sets out to arrange for her public debut, but the road to stardom is pockmarked with jealousy, anger, and more than a few complications.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Mark Herman’s utterly winning “Little Voice” was an indie sensation in Britain, where it charmed the socks off audiences. Blethyn’s hilariously histrionic turn as LV’s overbearing mum won her an Oscar nod for best supporting actress, and Caine’s own performance as a venal manager with a thing for Roy Orbison has a humorous bite. But the star is Horrocks herself, who gives a tour de force performance as the introvert with golden pipes (just wait for her showstopping debut). “Little Voice” might be a modest film, but it has a whole lot of heart.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • November 16, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Tony Richardson Times Three

    by John Farr

    Three early 60s gems from director Tony Richardson.


    The Entertainer (1960)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Fading vaudeville comic Archie Rice (Laurence Olivier) plays to virtually empty music halls in Britain’s seaside provinces, limping through the same stale routines in garish make-up, but side-steps his failure through pathetic flings with younger women. Selfish, arrogant, and insensitive to those around him, especially alcoholic wife Phoebe (Brenda De Banzie), Archie ultimately damages the lives of everyone in his family, including doting daughter Jean (Joan Plowright).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Ironically the foremost symbol of traditional English theatre, Olivier showed off his astounding range with an anti-heroic, tour-de-force turn in Tony Richardson’s 1960 drama, adapted from John Osborne’s play. Reprising his celebrated stage role, Sir Larry has a field-day playing Rice, a somewhat ghoulish has-been who personifies his own nation’s decay, and the effort earned him an Oscar nomination. De Banzie and newcomer Plowright (who’d go on to marry Olivier) excel in supporting roles.


    The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Sentenced to a boys reformatory for robbing a bakery, rebellious English punk Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay) soon attracts the interest of the schools Governor (Michael Redgrave) for his athletic prowess. Hoping to groom Colin for a cross-country race against a public school, the Governor endows him with special privileges. But is the embittered Colin willing to be house-trained?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the best of Britain’s Angry Young Man films, Richardson’s expressive drama hinges on the complex psychology of Colin, an uneducated but cunning youth still smarting from the recent death of his father. Richardson builds tension by cutting between the restrictions and tensions of reform-school life and Colin’s recollection of events leading up to his arrest and detention. Courtenay (“of “Billy Liar” fame) gives a haunting performance in the title role, and Redgrave is masterful playing a cold rehabilitator obsessed with winning a trophy. For a powerful expression of working-class disaffection, go the distance with “Runner.”


    Tom Jones (1963)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Based on Henry Fielding’s book, Tom (Albert Finney) is a fortunate orphan adopted by a wealthy squire in eighteenth century Britain. In young adulthood, Tom’s good looks and lusty nature fuel an irresistible attraction to the opposite sex . With various parties set against him due to his humble birth and shaky morality, our hero can’t win the approval of Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) to marry beautiful daughter Sophie (Susannah York). Soon Tom must leave home to seek his fortune, and a host of bawdy adventures ensue. Will Tom ever be found worthy of his beloved Sophie?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Tony Richardson’s rousing film has all vital elements in proper alignment: a brilliant screenplay by playwright John Osborne, swift pacing fueled by John Addison’s zippy harpsichord score, and colorful performances from a powerhouse cast including Griffith, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, Edith Evans, and a young David Warner as the priggish Mr. Blifil. York is the epitome of fair English beauty, and Finney carries off the central role with gusto. Sumptuous color photography is another bonus. Don’t miss the famous Finney/Cilento eating scene.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • November 12, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Espzz’s Pizzeria

    by Sam Hutchins

    Any proper journey will leave you a different person than the one you were when it began. That was certainly the case with this trip. And as the hippies liked to say, what a long, strange trip it had been. I had left New York on short notice with two rather odd, foreign strangers and spent weeks on end working long hours with them as we saw every bit of the country we could. Every morning I awoke in a new bed in a new place. I had gotten in the habit of writing down exactly where we were on a pad and leaving it on the bedside table. That helped me re-orient in the morning. Now we had left an extremely odd hotel and set out in the late morning light to explore downtown Detroit. Perhaps it was the journey or else the ongoing sleep deprivation but life was feeling pretty surreal.

    Downtown Detroit was deserted. I mean, emptier than empty. Every store was closed and not another car was in sight. You could lie down in the middle of the street and watch the clouds go by if you cared to. The snow was coming down a little harder and the streets were wearing a light dusting of it. The four of us sat in the truck idling in front of the Fox Theatre, waiting for Mark to arrive. Mark was the younger brother of a good friend who lives in Detroit and works for GM. I had enlisted his assistance, as I had no knowledge of the city whatsoever. Also, I knew he could hook me up with some good pot.

    Honestly, I smoke on occasion, but would easily go without for the length of the journey. One of my companions had a big appetite for the stuff, though, and sought out my assistance. Though by no means a part of my job I admit to getting a perverse pleasure from the ease with which I scored for him. This was the fifth pickup I had made in a different city on our journey. Mark did not disappoint when he arrived shortly thereafter. He was also helpful in easing my mind about the empty city when he pointed out that it was Saturday morning.

    That may be a strange concept to New Yorkers, where the city is always hopping. On the weekends we simply trade out the office workers for tourists and the streets are just as busy. Having grown up in Cleveland, however, I got it. Things shut down on the weekends as everyone was comfortably home in the suburbs. Even The Cleve isn’t this bad, though. This place was dead. Mark explained to me that during the just-concluded All-Star Game festivities the NBA and the City of Detroit had teamed up to create temporary nightclubs out of vacant properties. Otherwise there simply wasn’t enough to do after dark.

    Desolate and gray, but also somehow beautiful in a way that struck Kar Wai’s fancy. He and Darius looked truly excited. I suspect that it was partially due to circumstance. The grand old buildings, the empty streets, the gunmetal sky and the fat snowflakes did add up to something special. There was nothing if not atmosphere to spare. The two men wandered off, getting deep into conversation as they shot pictures. I trailed behind, only getting involved to usher them out of the street to safety when the odd car did come along. Part of the job is just putting people in the right circumstances and letting the magic happen. This was the first time I had seen Kar Wai really engage anyone in conversation, so I was staying out of the way.

    It was apparent that we were in love with the general aesthetic of the city. We reloaded the truck and began cruising as the snowfall increased. With a little prodding Kar Wai indicated that we needed a cheap motel and a restaurant for Norah’s character to work in. And so we looked.

    The restaurant was the first priority, and the heart of downtown Detroit was clearly not the place to find it. With Mark’s assistance we explored the neighborhood around Wayne State University. We talked our way into a combination bowling alley/music venue that had some potential. Whether it was right for us or not it was close enough to be considered. Whenever you can broaden the spectrum of choices and give the director some different ways of looking at a location you are doing the job well. We also saw some great flophouse hotels in the area. These were pretty scary looking places, and we were rebuffed each and every time we approached one. I tried to explain to Kar Wai that we weren’t getting into any of these places as a group but that I knew I could come back alone and work my way into them. In return I got that long blank stare that told me everything and nothing at all.

    We also had some success in the area immediately adjacent to the old Tiger Stadium (now gone). There were still a few operating businesses in the area as well as the bones of some defunct ones that showed promise. Much to my surprise, Kar Wai fell in love with a place called Espzz’s Pizzeria. I didn’t get it at first, as it seemed pretty nondescript. Later I crossed the street to get a wide shot and realized that it sat on a corner with an abandoned factory in the background. I see what he saw, but even so I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wide establishing shot in one of his movies so I was still wrapping my head around it.

    Old man Espzz was a character. He was into the idea and had such a great look we could well wind up casting him in the film. Isn’t every pizzeria proprietor a short man with wild tufts of hair and a big brushy moustache? Guy looked like he was straight from Central Casting. He even let us come behind the counter and make our own pizza pie. Standing back there I had one of those purely transcendent moments. The realization struck me that my two generations back my family fought their way out of the coal mines and into the steel mills, now here I am helping shape a movie with one of my heroes. Plus, we get pizza! Life is good.

    ….

    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 10, 2009

    A day in the life of a NYC location scout

    This week, THIRTEEN’s original profile series, New York on the Clock, explores the world of scouting for narrative film. Meet Laura Berning, one of Sam Hutchins’ scouting buddies, and location slueth for major motion pictures like Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco, and Spider-Man 2.

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