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  • October 27, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Wong Kar Wai in the Windy City

    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.

  • October 22, 2009

    Halloween-a-Thon

    Airs Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 9pm on THIRTEEN

    Night of the Living Dead (1968)

    Chaos descends upon the world as the brains of the recently deceased become inexplicably reanimated, causing the dead to rise and feed on human flesh. Speculation rests on a radiation-covered NASA satellite returning from Venus, but it only remains a speculation. Anyone who dies during the crisis of causes unrelated to brain trauma will return as a flesh-eating zombie, including anyone who has been bitten by a zombie. The only way to destroy the zombies is to destroy the brain. As the catastrophe unfolds, a young woman visiting her father’s grave takes refuge in a nearby farmhouse, where she is met by a man who protects her and barricades them inside. They both later discover people hiding in the basement, and they each attempt to cope with the situation. Their only hope rests on getting some gasoline from a nearby pump into a truck that is running on empty, but this requires braving the hordes of ravenous walking corpses outside. When they finally put their plans into action, panic and personal tensions only add to the terror as they try to survive.

    Directed by George Romero

    The Vampire Bat (1933)

    In the small village of Kleinshloss, the locals are scared with a serial killer that is draining the blood of his victims, and the Burgomaster Gustave Schoen is convinced that a vampire is responsible for the deaths. The skeptical police inspector Karl Brettschneider is reluctant to accept the existence of vampires, but the local doctor Otto Von Newman shows literature about cases of vampirism inclusive in Amazon. When the apple street vendor Martha Mueller is murdered, the prime suspect becomes the slow Herman Gleib, a man with a mind of child that loves bats. The group of vigilantes chases Herman, while Dr. Von Newman’s housemaid Georgiana is attacked by the killer.

    Directed by Frank R. Strayer

    The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

    After surviving a shipwreck in reefs not signalized in the maritime charts, the famous hunter Robert “Bob” Rainsford is lodged by the Russian hunter Count Zaroff in his castle in an isolated island. Bob meets Eve Trowbridge and her brother Martin Trowbridge, also survivors of another wrecked vessel and hosted by Zaroff. Soon, Bob and Eve find that they are part of a hunting game plotted by the insane Zarof where they are the prey, and they have to escape and survive until the next morning to Zaroff and his hounds.

    Directed by Irving Pichel & Ernest B. Schoedsack

    Dementia 13 (1963)

    John Haloran has a fatal heart attack, but his wife Louise won’t get any of the inheritance when Lady Haloran (his mother) dies if John is also dead. Louise forges a letter from John to convince the rest of his family he’s been called to New York on important business, and goes to his Irish ancestral home, Castle Haloran, to meet the family and look for a way to ensure a cut of the loot. Seven years earlier John’s sister Kathleen was drowned in the pond, and the Halorans enact a morbid ritual in remembrance. Secrets shroud the sister’s demise, and soon the family and guests begin experiencing an attrition problem.

    Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

    The Terror (1963)

    France, 18th century. Lieutenant Andre Duvalier has been accidentally separated from his regiment. He is wandering near the coast when he sees a young woman. He asks the road to Coldon, where he hopes to rejoin his regiment. But the woman doesn’t answer, doesn’t even greet him and walks away. Eventually she takes him to the sea, where she disappears in rough water. Andre loses conscience when he is trying to following her, and is attacked by a bird. He awakes in a house with an old woman and a numb man. She claims to never have seen the woman. After he leaves, he sees her again and when trying to follow her is saved by a man from certain death. He learns that to help the girl, he must go to castle of Baron Van Leppe. When he arrives, Andre sees the woman looking from a window. Baron Van Leppe is old and seems reluctant to let André in however. He claims there’s no woman in the castle, but shows André a painting which does indeed portray her. Andre learns that she is the baroness, who died twenty years ago. What is the baron’s secret?

    Directed by Roger Corman

    Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

    Seymour, an orphan and a nerd, is taken in and given a job by Mr. Mushnik, the owner of a run-down florist in the seedy part of town. Seymour spends his time doing menial tasks and dreaming of the shop assistant, Audrey. One day, just after an eclipse of the sun, Seymour discovers a strange plant. He buys it and names is Audrey II. While caring for Audrey II, Seymour discovers the plant’s rather unique appetite. The plant grows and grows, as does Seymour’s infatuation for Audrey, but who will get her first? FEED ME!

    Directed by Roger Corman

  • October 22, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Flick-or-Treat

    by John Farr

    John Farr goes flick-or-treating for Halloween’s most haunting flicks.


    Freaks (1932)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In a traveling circus, beautiful but treacherous trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) learns that fellow worker Hans (Harry Earles), a midget, has money, and plots to marry him, then bump him off to get it. She doesn’t count on the fact that Hans is part of a very tight circle of side-show performers, and that they always protect their own kind.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Reviled and in some places banned on release, Tod Browning’s horror classic is like nothing else you’ll ever see – bizarre, bold, and altogether brilliant. A standard soap opera premise is elevated by the conceit of “normal” people as villains, “freaks” as heroes. Browning gets the most out of his unusual cast, mostly non-actors, and creates an eerie, chill-inducing atmosphere throughout. Don’t miss that knockout climax.


    The Haunting (1963)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), a professor of the paranormal, sets out to discover whether the infamous Hill House is truly haunted or not, with the help of several human guinea pigs. What happens to the group “in the night, in the dark” leaves no doubt as to the answer.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Among a stellar cast, Julie Harris stands out as a spellbinding spinster whom the ghosts of Hill House single out for special attention. A sexually ambiguous Claire Bloom also registers as the clairvoyant Regina. Veteran director Robert Wise masterfully orchestrates tools of the trade to create perhaps the quintessential filmed ghost story, applying a degree of restraint and subtlety generally absent from more modern horror entries. Remade but never equalled.


    The Descent (2006)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Still reeling from a deadly car crash the year before, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) travels to the U.S. with her friend Beth (Alex Reid) to participate in a spelunking expedition organized by her jocky pal Juno (Natalie Mendoza), with whom she has some post- traumatic personal issues. Along with three other female friends, the group descends into an uncharted cave system expecting a weekend of adventure. But tensions rise after a cave-in, when they discover that not only are they profoundly lost in the primordial darkness, but they are not alone.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Not the feeble-minded breasts-and-beasts horror flick that’s virtually defined the genre since the ’80s, Marshall’s “Descent” is smart, psychologically tense, and scary as hell. Yes, there’s a lot of gruesome goings-on in this claustrophobic hellhole, but part of the fun of watching it (if you’re into this kind of thing) is figuring out exactly what’s stalking the poor lasses. One or many? And is the cavern breathing or is that my imagination? Solid direction, imaginative editing, and eerie production design take “Descent” even further into nail-biting realms of pure terror.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • October 22, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Highway 61 Visited

    by Sam Hutchins

    The next week was spent slowly making our way up Highway 61.  Traditionally it was known as the blues highway, the road leading from the plantations of the South to new life and opportunity in Chicago and the northern cities.  Much like the ghosts of the musicians whose paths we followed we carried the blues with us.  Unlike us they at least had a goal and a purpose to their journey.  We were in full drifting mode, surrendering more and more to the malaise of the road.

    By now we had been scouting cross-country for a month.  As much as I love being out on the road shooting it only works if it is leading somewhere.  Our limited contact with Kar Wai had seemingly ended altogether.  It was as though we were forgotten.  Every day we drove hundreds of miles and took countless pictures.  We explored every story possibility along the way and submitted our work with nary a word in response.  With no feedback or critique eventually you’re not so much scouting as you are just driving around taking pictures like a tourist.

    Compounding the issue was the endless list of petty resentments we were building against one another.  That much time in close quarters can turn even the most amiable types against each other.  Every inch of space in the truck becomes a battleground; every statement a potential provocation.  For example, Darius was making me insane with the music.  He would control the iPod for hours on end, playing the same songs over and over at high volume.  When I would manage to wrest control of the music he went totally passive-aggressive on me.  It would start with him asking what the song was, complimenting my taste, and then asking if he could turn it down just a little bit.  He would then proceed to lower the volume gradually until it was just barely audible.  He did this every time I tried to play music that I favored, and it was completely maddening.  I’d shortly give up and turn the music completely off.  Minutes later he would play something he liked and crank the volume all the way back up.  In retrospect, he honestly might not have realized what he was doing, but at the time I wanted to bash his face into the windshield.

    Stephane was equally annoying.  He would fiddle around on the computer in the backseat all day long.  If Darius or I saw something of potential interest to us we would point it out to him.  Invariably he would ignore us, engrossed in the screen as he was. Once we were past whatever-it-was Stephane would see it out the rear window and yell for us to pull over.  Usually when we were barreling down a one-lane highway with a truck hard on our ass.  Had I heeded his direction every time he yelled for us to stop we would have died a dozen times.  He yelled for me to stop in the passing lane of the interstate highway, mid-span on bridges, in every perilous situation imaginable.

    Surely I was an annoyance to them as well.  I was weary.  Doing all the driving was arduous enough.  Driving twelve hours a day while navigating, attempting to scout, maintaining the truck, finding nice enough lodging and restaurants to satisfy those two on top of everything else was brutal.  Also, any time we did stop to scout a potential location I had to jump out and do my spiel.  No matter how exhausted I may be I was the initial public face of the company.  It takes energy to approach random people and explain who we were and what we were up to.  Virtually no one we approached had any dealings with being filmed before so it was never a short conversation.  Frequently one of my companions noticed something and yelled for me to pull over, only to face something that I knew wasn’t worth wasting our time on.  Nonetheless it’s my job and I was obligated.  Even facing a location that I considered unfilmable or useless to us I had to haul my weary ass out of the driver’s seat and talk our way in.  More often than not I would be well into the conversation when the boys would realize as I had that it wasn’t worth the effort and yell for me not to bother with it.  I’d grit my teeth, smile and make my exit as quickly and politely as possible leaving a befuddled stranger in my wake.

    We had been going like this seven days a week and were all on the edge when the call came.  Stephane wandered around speaking excitedly on the phone while Darius and I watched from the truck.

    “What do you think, we shutting down?”

    “I almost wish we would. “ Darius replied, “I’ve never worked like this before.  The director really should be here.  We don’t know what to look for.”

    I had to agree.  It just felt all wrong.  Stephane hopped back into the car and we prepared for the bad news.  What we heard instead rather surprised us.

    “Kar Wai loves the stuff we are sending him.  He is able to join us. We’ll meet him in Chicago.”

    Fantastic. We were actually just outside the city in Skokie, Illinois.  We took our time getting into the city and ate at a wonderful old steakhouse there called Gene and Georgetti’s.  After a good night’s sleep we would be picking Kar Wai up at the airport.

    ….

    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.

  • October 19, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Can’t Get Enough Astaire

    by John Farr

    Fred Astaire made films you can watch over and over again.


    Easter Parade (1948)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Dumped on Easter by longstanding dance partner Nadine (Ann Miller), Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) rashly wagers he can still draw crowds even teamed with the greenest of chorus girls. Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) is his pick, and Don begins grooming her for stardom.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    In this joyous musical romp, MGM producer Arthur Freed paired Garland with the recently “retired” Astaire after original lead Gene Kelly injured his ankle. Combining Astaire’s moves and Garland’s pipes with a phenomenal Irving Berlin score adapted by Johnny Green and Roger Edens, highlights include the vaudevillian duet “We’re a Couple of Swells” and Astaire’s excellent solo to “Steppin’ Out With My Baby”. The movie was a big success in 1948, and no wonder! By all means, step out with this title.


    The Band Wagon (1955)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Astaire does a semi-autobiographical turn as Tony Hunter, a fading movie star who looks to the New York stage to revive his stalled career, and meets exquisite ballerina, Gabrielle (Cyd Charisse) in the process, along with a host of other colorful Broadway characters. While Tony and Gabrielle don’t hit it off right away, they eventually dance together, which thaws relations.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This film has everything you would expect from an Astaire/ Minnelli collaboration – a first-rate score, color, inventive dance numbers, and overall lots of energy, style and class. Hunter’s film career may be on the wane, but nothing in his dancing indicate why. The smoldering Charisse sets off more sparks than Ginger Rogers ever did, as the athletic, sensual Gabriella. And veteran English song-and-dance man Jack Buchanan is a hoot.


    Funny Face (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Fashion photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) transforms Paris bookstore clerk Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) into a modeling sensation. It’s all a souffle-light pretext for breathtaking sets, music and dancing.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Combine the moves of Fred Astaire, the grace of Audrey Hepburn and the talents of Director Stanley Donen with the city of Paris and a Gershwin soundtrack, and what have you got? Movie paradise. Prepare to be delighted: this 50th Anniversary edition is “Swonderful, Smarvelous!” Look for Eloise-creator Kay Thompson playing a fashion editor modeled on Diana Vreeland.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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