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.