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.