by Sam Hutchins
Our first few days were exciting and fruitful, but soon afterwards things slowed down. That’s the thing with scouting: you have good days and bad days. I’ve been through the bad days and know that you just have to keep grinding it out. Darius and Stephane had not experienced them before and didn’t understand. Typically a producer and cinematographer start scouting after I have been out on my own for a while and come up with several selections. They aren’t scouting per se; they are looking at locations I have already scouted. This was their first experience going out cold and seeking locations. This country is a big place, and we spent the next few days ambling around the southwest without seeing anything interesting.
I should clarify that we actually saw lots of interesting things, just not the locations we were seeking. We did get to see endless open desert landscapes and roads stretching to the horizon, and we took pictures of it all. I ate the best chicken fried steak I’ll ever have. We drove through west Texas towns that were empty because everyone was at the rodeo. I impressed one of my companions by scoring some pot from a desk clerk at a motel in El Paso. We saw sunrises and sunsets, beautifully decrepit trailers, mesas, cacti, and packs of appaloosa horses running on the plains. Just not any good locations.
We also started to get on each other’s nerves. Darius was only happy if he got to choose the music. Whenever I plugged in my iPod he would gradually turn the volume down lower and lower until it wasn’t worth listening to. Stephane started griping about Kar Wai not being with us. I snored too loud when I caught the infrequent nap in the back seat. We all smoked way too many cigarettes. The tension in the car was becoming palpable.
We were in our third straight day without seeing anything even remotely right as a location. It was starting on late afternoon and breakfast was the last time we’d seen any signs of human life. The beauty of the landscape kept it from feeling overly ominous but not by much. Beautiful red stone mesas and rock formations were strewn about, breaking up the chaparral of the high desert. The empty road stretched to the horizon.
When you live your life surrounded by humanity the absence of people can be a little frightening. Spend enough time in such barren landscapes and you start wondering if the apocalypse happened and no one remembered to tell you. The complete lack of any sign of humanity gets downright worrisome. We were somewhere on the Arizona/New Mexico border and we were very alone. Darkness was creeping up on us quickly. I’ve spent a few nights camped in the desert but my companions had not and certainly weren’t going to start now. Sometimes you start to wonder if the road might just run out. Silence was ruling the day in our truck.
Coming to a T intersection in the road, we had a choice to make. Even with the detailed topo maps I had acquired, we were lost. The roads we were on were so isolated they weren’t on any map. The right thing to do would have been to ask Darius and Stephane which path they thought we should take. I had waited on their indecisiveness often enough already that I was in no mood to do the right thing. Hauling the wheel over suddenly I took the turn with the tires squealing. I had hoped a quick decision would forestall any debate. Not likely.
“You sure this is the right way to go?” Stephane asked.
Unless you have spent a lot of time in a car with someone it’s hard to understand how the little annoyances can build up. Part of it was cultural as well. I love so much about the French. These are the people who gave us Flaubert and Rimbaud. What is better in life than sitting at a café in Paris having good Bordeaux, some oysters, and a nice little salad? They gave us absinthe. I challenge you to stand in front of a Monet and say something negative about Gaul. However, until you have listened to a pair of Frenchmen spend 13 straight hours in an SUV arguing whether it is a one day drive from Paris to the Mediterranean or better done in two you do not know what frustration is. As a race they live to discuss, debate, and disagree. Fortunately, I didn’t have to argue in support of my decision as we saw a building on the side of the road with a few trucks out front.
The Witches Well looked like a roadhouse anywhere else in the country, only in Arizona style. Food, a drink or two and a little local guidance sounded like a great thing to me. We had found an oasis, or so I thought. It turned out to be one of those times where you realize you made a mistake the second you walk in the door. I actually stopped and was about to bail when I saw what was going on inside. Unfortunately my two companions were hard on my heels. They pushed right past me, jabbering away in French as they headed straight for the bathroom.
Although there had only been a few vehicles outside the place was pretty crowded. There wasn’t an empty stool in the place, and every one was filled with a heavily armed American Indian. They wore western dress, although a few had small feathers or other tribal accents on them. Without fail they wore side arms and a number of them had rifles slung over their backs. The room had dropped into utter silence when we entered, and although no one had turned to look I could still feel every eye in the place on me. Definitely not cool, not cool at all. The smart move would have been to smile, apologize and slowly back out the door. I couldn’t leave my friends behind, though.
“Now just who the hell would you be and what do you want?” The bartender asked. He was the only one in the room who didn’t appear to be wearing a sidearm. Instead, his pistol sat right on the bar back next to the cash register. A double barrel shotgun leaned against the wall next to it.
I carefully explained that I was there to scout a movie and would like to talk to him about it. Now a few heads turned to take a look.
“Bullshit. Who really sent you?”
Oh my. This was serious. What the hell had we just walked into here? There was a vast empty desert outside to dump corpses in and I was all too aware of that. My companions chose this moment to emerge from the bathroom, still arguing loudly in French. They stopped short when they saw the situation. Thank God for small favors.
I wasn’t afraid as much as I was aware of every molecule in the room. I had already processed the fact that this might be it for us. Every dust mote hanging in a beam of sunlight stood out individually to me. No matter how you play it, when your reality involves a bar packed with heavily armed, paranoid, and seriously drunk men the resolution can be problematic.
“Tell him we’re scouting a movie.” Stephane said in his heavily accented English. I wouldn’t have been completely surprised if someone had just shot him on the spot. Had I been armed I might have considered it myself. I turned back to the bartender to do some serious selling.
“I’m telling the truth. We’re driving cross country from LA to New York scouting locations for a movie we’re making. I’ve made movies for twenty years, this is what I do. I can prove it. I don’t know what your deal is here but if you aren’t interested we can walk out the door right now, no hard feelings. I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
As I spoke some of the men at the bar started muttering under their breath. I didn’t catch any specifics but I didn’t get the sense they were saying anything very friendly. Time to really pour it on.
“The thing is, we’re looking for a bar exactly like this to film in. We pay lots of money when we do that. You aren’t interested, we can move along. We’ll find someplace else. It’s up to you.”
“What’s up with your friends over there? What kind of shit language they talking?”
“They’re okay,” I lied. “I’ve known them for years. They’re just French. They’re producing the movie, its French money. The French love America. They love the west. They love this place.”
This brought the house down. Everyone at the bar laughed. Even the bartender. It was that “laughing at you” laughter, not the “laughing with you” kind.
“You’re damn lucky Billy isn’t here. He hates the fucking French.” The guys at the bar nodded in agreement and chuckled. It seemed the moment had passed and the tension broke slightly. I did know that I didn’t want to meet Billy, though.
“Give me some ID.” I handed over my driver’s license. He looked it over carefully. I gave him a business card and told him he could call and check me out with the New York City Mayor’s Office. He ignored that suggestion.
“Okay if my friends take some pictures?” He gave it a long moment before giving me the OK. This caused some more grumbling from the crowd at the bar. I looked over at Stephane and Darius. Normally they would be chomping at the bit to shoot the place but for the moment neither of them had moved a muscle. I was scared that if they didn’t start shooting it would seem suspicious.
“Okay guys,” I said in my most casual voice, “let’s get some pictures. Probably better if we avoid this area, though,” I broadly indicated the area where all the customers sat. Basically most of the bar.
There was a connecting room with a pool table in it. Suffice it to say that they went to the farthest corner of that room and shot an extensive photographic record of the far wall, facing away from the bar. I really would have loved to have shot some good pictures of the interior myself but my attentions were better focused on the bartender.
“You have to excuse us for being a little careful.” He opened up, “We get it from both sides here. The Feds hate us and look for any reason to take my license. Those bastards from the American Indian Movement been trying to shut us down for years. We’re the closest bar to the reservation and they got a problem with what we do here. Matter of fact just last month they got their courage up and loaded up a couple cars full of braves. Drove right up the road there. I didn’t want no trouble but my sons weren’t having it. They got up on the roof and put a dozen bullets in each car.” He chuckled at the memory. “You betcha they figured out how to put those jalopies in reverse real damn fast. Good shots, my boys. Youngest one is only thirteen and he can put a bullet through a nickel.”
I told him I wanted to buy a round for the bar. At this point all the customers had turned back to their whiskey but it was clear plenty of attention was still quietly being paid to us. Stephane and Darius were done pretending to shoot photos and were trying to look small in the corner of the room.
“They won’t drink with you. If you buy a bottle and leave it on the bar they’ll have it after you leave.”
“Fine with me. I’ll buy one for them and why don’t you give me a bottle of Jack Daniels to take with us.”
As he rang me up I finally noticed all of the bullet holes in the walls. I guess I was too nervous to really see before but they were everywhere. I had to ask.
“Are those bullet holes? Was that from the AIM guys?”
“Nah, those pussies never got a round off. No, you come back later tonight and someone in here will get mad and throw a couple shots around. If it gets too wild I fire a few in the ceiling and things calm down. “A quick glance up confirmed that he was telling the truth.
“You’d best be on your way. Some of my customers still don’t like you.” I didn’t need to be told twice. The three of us went right for the door. As I left I heard over my shoulder.
“Filming a movie, huh? Bullshit.” I didn’t stay to argue the point.
The really funny thing is that a few months later, after I returned to New York, the phone calls started. Every few weeks I’d get a drunken voice mail from the guy at the Witches Well asking when we were coming to film there.
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.