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  • 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.

  • November 9, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Tougher Tony

    by John Farr

    Tony Leung Chu Wai often portrays broken-hearted loners… but not in these roles.


    Hard-Boiled (1992)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Renegade Hong Kong cop Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) is relentless in his pursuit of a brutal gang of gun smugglers, but he has a softer side, too, especially for co-worker Teresa. When his partner is killed in a shoot-out at a restaurant, Tequila is forced to team up with Tony (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a mysterious undercover cop embedded deep in the mobs killer-for-hire network.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Before he became a well-regarded Hollywood action director, John Woo (“Face/Off”) made this superb police thriller, the most energetic and hyped-up of his many Hong Kong ventures. Known as the Chinese De Niro, Chow Yun-Fat is by turns aggressive and cool in the role of Tequila, a cop who thinks nothing of unloading a hailstorm of bullets in a teashop but who nurses an odd fondness for his enigmatic counterpart, played with stone-faced rigor by Chiu Wai. With his trademark guns-blazing style and fluid, slow-motion theatrics, Woo stacks one ballet-of-blood on top of another, with a body count to rival any Scorsese film. But it’s the audacious finale-a shootout set in a maternity ward-that makes this “Hard-Boiled” cop story an absolute must-see.


    Infernal Affairs (2002)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang) has planted young gangster Ming (Lau) in the Hong Kong police department to track the authorities anti-mob activities. At the same time, Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) has hand-picked police-academy recruit Yan (Wai) to work undercover in Sams gang. As the two moles work diligently at cross-purposes, they each begin to lose a sense of their real identity, while their respective bosses wage a war of nerves that will eventually place Ming and Yan on a collision course.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Remade by Martin Scorsese as “The Departed,” Lau and Mak’s superior “Affairs” is the kind of clever, suspenseful, genre-twisting epic Hong Kong cinema has been famous for in recent years. The directors examine the meaning of loyalty and honor while blurring the line between good and evil, and the result is a wrenching psychological cop thriller with a pace all its own. Asian star Lau is marvelous playing opposite the equally charismatic Wai, and the film gets an extra boost from its superb visuals. “Affairs” is thrilling, intelligent, and easy to love.


    Lust, Caution (2007)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    With Japan occupying China during WWII, gorgeous young actress Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is recruited by student dramatist Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom) to seduce a bigwig collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chu Wai), who’s been targeted for assassination. At first, things go according to script, but unexpected turns put Wong in grave danger.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Ang Lee is best known to American audiences for his Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain.” But he returned to Hong Kong to make this ravishing political thriller, and included lovemaking scenes so graphic (i.e. so hot) he got slapped with an NC-17. Regardless, Lee knows how to direct actors in any language, and here he draws on the great talents of Leung, Chen, and smoldering newcomer Wei, mashing up intrigue and romance with an enthralling story of national identity. Proceed with “Caution”!


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • 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.

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