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  • October 7, 2009

    A Scouting Life: So Long, New Orleans

    by Sam Hutchins

    I’ve always thought of New Orleans as a whore you could take to Church.  It’s a dirty old city that gladly seduces the willing. She’ll take you as dark and deep as you’re predisposed to go.  There’s also a deep strain of faith present.  There was many a Sunday that I barely scrubbed the stink of the night off of me before attending old-rights Latin mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  At more than one mass I laid eyes on men who were fine upstanding pillars of the community in their Sunday best; men who I had seen hours earlier wearing a dress and doing lines off of someone’s ass.  It’s that kind of town.  My night out with Darius and Stephane ran late.  Having crashed at the hotel for what seemed like minutes I was up and at ‘em and ready to scout early the next morning.

    The many story possibilities New Orleans offered had me excited to do some scouting.  What an appropriate milieu for a Wong Kar Wai film.  Its history is such a rich tapestry, one that likely has its share of stains and cigarette burns.  The old buildings stand unbowed in the French Quarter.  Much as modern life has tried to impose its will on them, their past can never be erased.  Each layer has its own stories to tell.  And what a past it is.  So many different cultures and traditions intermingling as can only happen in a port city, a transient, itinerant city.  A place shaped and formed by all those who have passed through.  It seemed to me as good a city as could be hoped for to do what we wanted.  After all, isn’t that the world Kar Wai inhabits?  His characters populate the margins and that is a marginal city if there ever was one.

    The place that came to mind first as a location was the Clover Grille.  The Clover was an Edward Hopper painting come to life.  Wedged into a 17th Century row house on Lower Bourbon Street it was open 24 hours and saw more business after dark than it ever did in the daylight.  The stainless-steel 50’s vintage interior somehow fit naturally within the ancient hand-plastered superstructure.  The Clover was far enough downtown on Bourbon that it was well clear of the raucous, 4-for-1 drink special stretch of the street.  It was even beyond the brief gay-friendly patch of the boulevard.  You only wound up there because you wanted to, not because it was convenient.  It’s a place that attracts strangers and outcasts and makes them feel at home.  Put the camera across the street and point it towards the picture window.  The people passing in and out will tell the story for you.

    As perfect as it might be, I also ransacked my mental files to find other possible locations in town.  I imagined Camelia Grill, or the Half-Moon, or Miss Mae’s or any number of others might provide great options for our director.  Regrettably it was not to be.

    “So we should check out and get on our way, yes?” was how Stephane greeted me in the morning.

    “Check out, really?  I figured we should spend at least one more night here, there’s a lot of scouting to do locally.”

    “No, no, we cannot shoot here.  I hate this town, it is so dirty.”

    Ummmm, wow.  We had polished off a bottle of whiskey last night while planning our great crescent city adventure.  Now suddenly the rug was being yanked out from under me.

    “Dirty?  Really?  There are so many amazing stories to tell here.”

    “It is not for Kar Wai.  I have discussed this with him and he is not interested in filming here.”

    I’d like to say that I respectfully disagreed but that would be overstating my estimation.  Before I could dig my heels in Darius came rumbling into the lobby rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

    “My friends, are we going on the tour?”

    Huh?

    “What tour would that be, we going to see the alligators in the swamp?” I bit off the words.

    “Swamp?  What ees thees swamp?  I want to see the damage from the hurricane.  You know, how do you say, the Banlieue?” fortunately (or not) Stephane was able to translate.

    “The ghetto, Sammy, where the black people live and the hurricane hit.  You promised last night we would get to see the damage.”

    Now that absolutely did not strike a bell.  No part of me at all remembered promising such a tour.  That being said, I have made plenty of drunken promises in my time.  If held to them I’d be married five times over and four of my wives would be strippers.  With my history I was not inclined to argue the point.  A tour they had apparently been promised so a tour they would get.

    Much later I spoke to Kar Wai about the city, and all the reasons it was a perfect place for him to work.  He indicated that it was too rich a subject for just one segment of a film, and that he would love to make an entire film based there.  I was willing to accept that and even a little excited at the prospect of doing a full show with him there.  In the meantime we had a nice look at the wreckage that used to be people’s lives and moved along.  My disappointment was tempered by the fact that we were heading north on the blues trail.  Highway 61 re-revisited.  Time to follow Robert Johnson up to Mississippi and look for the devil himself.

    ….

    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.

  • September 28, 2009

    A Scouting Life: New Orleans After Dark

    by Same Hutchins

    My disappointment at bailing early on Cajun Country was tempered by the anticipation of a night out in New Orleans.  Stephane took the wheel and put it on the floor headed east on Highway 10.  My companions didn’t do a lot of driving, but when needed Stephane was great at taking the stick and piloting us home.  I’m an excellent driver and therefore pretty particular about whom I’ll ride with when I’m not in control; I had no issue with ceding the truck to Stephane.

    Good thing, too, as I needed to get on the phone and set us up in the city.  My job can be social in many ways, and it was time to work the phone.  We were unexpectedly headed to New Orleans for a night of relaxation and enjoyment followed by a day of scouting, it was early evening already and I had a couple hours of highway driving time to make arrangements.

    As well connected as I am in that town, it was only five months post-Katrina.  I had not been down since the tragedies connected with it.  Having been involved a bit in some relief efforts I knew who was back in town and who was still stranded elsewhere as part of the diaspora that had been created.  Still, one couldn’t be sure how our visit would go.  It worked out, though, and soon we were set up in the Renaissance Hotel in the Warehouse District.  A truly great Hotel and definitely the right place for a comfortable night.  A few more calls and we had plans for drinks and dinner, and someone was waiting in the lobby for us with some excellent pot.  New Orleans here we come.

    The Katrina effect was apparent as soon as we wheeled into town.  Five months later and most of the traffic signals on Poydras Street weren’t functioning.  No police working the intersections, it was fend for yourself time.  Trees down everywhere and not many people to be seen.  It felt so odd overall.  This was going to take a little getting used to.  At least the valet stand at the hotel was manned, but even there we were told that they didn’t have anyone to cover the late shift.  They would be shutting down at 10.

    “Don’t worry sir, I’ll leave your car right out front and the keys will be at the front desk,” I was reassured.  “But you want to be careful going out too late, things are still a little sketchy at night here.”

    The hotel may have been half-empty and down to a skeleton staff, but my guy was still working and greeted me with a big hug and a smile.  As we made the exchange he held me at arm’s length.

    “Thanks for coming back, man, we appreciate it.  The city needs your support.  Bring the film here.  Tell everyone we’re back and to come see us again.”  Yes, it’s the kind of city where even the drug dealers are civic boosters.  You don’t find that everywhere.  Says something about a city.

    After settling into our luxury rooms with 600 count Frette sheets and steam showers we re-convened in the lobby.  My companions were truly pleased by the accommodations for the first time since we left New York.  In short order we were burning a joint as we drove slowly up Magazine Street.  It all came back to me in a rush, how much I love the city.  Amidst the damage the bungalows still lined the street, their weathered stoutness hidden beneath riotous bursts of color.  I found myself tearing up with joy and love for my surroundings.  My God I love New Orleans.  It is a city of music and magic.

    We picked up my friend Mario in one of the many low-key bars that would instantly be the coolest place in most cities I’ve been in but was just another gin mill there.  A few drinks later we were in Jacques-Imo’s.  If you are reading this and have not been there you should turn off your computer, fly to New Orleans, and have a meal there before finishing these words.  It’s that good.  Nothing I write can quite convey the full experience but I’ll try with an illustrative story.

    My first visit there many years ago found the place three deep at the bar.  I somehow found an empty stool and squeezed my way into a glass of Stoli.  Johnny Cash was singing “Ring of Fire” in the background.  A drunken mess of a man next to me dug his elbow into my side.

    “Hey man, you know this song?”

    “Yes.”

    “Bet you didn’t know he wrote it about Jimmy Carter.”

    “Are you an idiot?  He wrote it about June Carter.  His wife.”

    “Oh.  Really?  Huh, I guess that makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it?”

    Having a hard time believing anyone could be that big of a drunken fool I turned to get a look at the guy, and what a sight.  He was a short, bearded guy wearing chef’s whites, boxer shorts and sandals.  He was guzzling a good Bordeaux right out of the bottle.  Extending his hand, he said:

    “Hi, I’m Jack.  This is my restaurant.”

    Common sense would have taken me right out the door, but sometimes a lack of such is your best asset.  Now, years later I returned to see Jack and brought my new friends.  Even though the rest of New Orleans was a ghost town his joint was hopping.  He greeted us with big hugs; made sure we had drinks and whisked us to a table.  Dishes started magically appearing on our table.  Fried oysters, spinach salad, alligator cheesecake, chicken livers on toast points, steamed mussels, etoufee, each more delicious than the last and those were just the appetizers.  Jack grabbed a bottle of wine off of someone else’s table and filled our glasses.  It would have been an even more memorable meal with a few less bottles of wine, as it stands I know we had a great time even if the details are a bit fuzzy.

    We wound up in Mario’s bar, the now-defunct King Bolden.  The drive there from Jacques-Imo’s was a little sobering as we saw how banged-up the rest of the city still was.  We hatched our plans over a late-night bottle of whiskey.  Mario and I both pushed New Orleans as a location for our film.  Katrina or not, there are so many stories to tell there.  We went late into the evening toasting one another and kicking around ideas for our film.  Stephane and Darius were starting to fade a bit when Mario pulled out an illustrated highway of Route 61, the blues highway.  We ended the evening with a drive through the deserted streets while excitedly discussing Robert Johnson and the deep south.  Good times and great material were at hand.

    ….

    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.

  • September 23, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Prime Kazan

    by John Farr

    John Farr on one of the greats, director Elia Kazan, and three of his less-celebrated pictures.


    Panic in the Streets (1950)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Early Elia Kazan suspenser centers around an increasingly desperate search for two criminals on the lam in New Orleans (played by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel), who, unbeknownst to them, have been infested with Bubonic plague. If health inspector Dr. Clint Reed (Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) don’t nab their quarry fast, this killer plague will spread and put the whole country at risk.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Breathlessly exciting film is one of the best manhunt pictures ever made, with the plague twist adding an extra jolt of tension. Kazan’s peerless on-location shooting never obscures the terrific acting from the four central characters, comprising both hunters and hunted. Palance is positively magnetic. Don’t miss this one.


    A Face in the Crowd (1957)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Local radio interviewer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) decides to interview transients at the local jail for a human interest story. There, she spots a drunken Arkansas hayseed named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), whom she discovers has rare gift for gab and song. Before long, due to Marcia’s initial boosting, “Lonesome” becomes a wildly popular network TV star. Little does she know she’s creating a monster.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This engrossing and sobering tale about the precarious and poisonous nature of fame in our mass-media age seems even more timely today. Budd Schulberg’s script (who also wrote “On The Waterfront”) literally sizzles, and Neal is superb. As to Andy, this role made him, but he sure is a long way from Mayberry! An impossibly cute, young Remick (as Betty Lou, Lonesome’s baton twirling, clueless child bride Betty Lou, and Franciosa as a slimeball talent agent do fine work; the legendary Matthau is also on hand in a subtle, sad-sack turn as a wise but weary network executive. This is one “Face” you’ll never forget.


    Splendor in the Grass (1961)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Rich kid Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and high-school beauty Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood) are going steady in 1920s Kansas, but though the torch of love burns hot and bright, Deanie resists giving up her virginity to Bud, whose sexual frustration drives him into the arms of other, “looser” girls. The fragile Deanie, meanwhile, is driven over the edge by her shrewish mother (Audrey Christie), and her own raging hormones.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Handsome and emitting the masculine musk that would soon turn him into a rakish sex symbol, Beatty makes an assured screen debut in Elia Kazan’s “Grass,” starring opposite an exquisitely lovely and tortured Wood, playing one of Hollywood’s most memorable sexual hysterics. (Reportedly, the two young stars had some sexual hysterics off the sound-stage as well.) Think Douglas Sirk or Tennessee Williams and you have some idea where Kazan’s wonderfully executed tale of young love, scripted by William Inge, eventually tumbles. Keep an eye out too for Phyllis Diller and a young Sandy Dennis, also making her big-screen debut.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • September 23, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Lesser-Known Coen + The Big Lebowski

    by John Farr

    John Farr’s salute to the Coen Brothers.


    Blood Simple (1985)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Suspecting his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) of cheating on him, Texas bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya) hires shlumpy, unscrupulous private dick Visser (C. Emmett Walsh) to murder Abby and her lover Ray (John Getz), one of Marty’s employees. But Visser decides to rig the job and double-cross Marty, leading to a devious turn of events that implicates the innocent lovers in murder.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Filmed on a shoestring budget by Joel Coen and his producer brother Ethan, this heart-pounding homage to 1940s film noir was instantly hailed as a classic of American indie cinema. Featuring Barry Sonnenfeld’s innovative camerawork and murky lighting, “Simple” not only tells a dark, disturbing tale of murder, passion, and back-stabbing meanness, it introduces the marvelously talented McDormand and features a brilliant performance by Walsh as a sleazy, audaciously amoral gumshoe. Inspired by the novels of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, “Blood Simple” is a gutsy, dark-comic debut thriller by the directors of “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski”.


    Miller’s Crossing (1990)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Leo O’Bannion (Albert Finney) is a crime boss with a big problem: his girlfriend’s brother Bernie (John Turturro) has cheated the head of the rival Italian gang, who wants Bernie dead. Leo lets his love for Verna (Harden) interfere with his business sense, and resolves to protect Bernie, even if it means starting a war. This decision puts Leo’s trusted lieutenant Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) on the outs with his mentor, but Tom steadily works to put things right behind the scenes.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A sharp, innovative send-up of everything from “The Public Enemy” to “The Godfather,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s brilliant “Crossing” has enough surprising twists, gnarled plotlines, and double crosses to fill several noir movies. Byrne is excellent as Tom, a loyal, boozing mobster whose inveterate gambling and torrid affair with the boss’s girl (Harden, in her debut), eventually land him in hot water with Finney’s Leo. Coens fave Turturro also has a brilliant turn as the weaselly Bernie. Evocative, clever, and beautifully played, “Crossing” is an under-rated homage to the gangster movies perfected by Warners in the 1930s.


    The Big Lebowski (1998)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Super laid-back ’60s dropout Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) enjoys hanging loose and getting high with his two bowling pals, cranky Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and easygoing ex-surfer Donny (Steve Buscemi). But his groovy-loser L.A. lifestyle is about to undergo a massive makeover when some thugs looking for a millionaire named “Jeff Lebowski” bust into his Venice bungalow and drag him into a tangled kidnapping scheme.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Ace filmmaking team Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo”) took more than a few pages from Raymond Chandler’s seedy L.A. noir novels to create this absurdly comic caper masterpiece. Bridges is riotous as the unflappable aging hippie who finds himself embroiled in double and triple extortion plots-think Phillip Marlowe on a bag of weed-while superb sidekicks Goodman and Buscemi get to sling around a lot of ripe witticisms. Also great is John Turturro, playing a vulgar-mouthed champion bowler named Jesus, and Julianne Moore, fetching as an “erotic artist.” In typical Coen fashion, the camerawork is wildly offbeat, the dialogue sharp, and the performances goofy and intriguing. Don’t miss this kooky homage to the weird world of noir.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • September 16, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Teachers We’ve Known

    by John Farr

    If you ever had a special teacher these films are for you.


    Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Told mainly in flashbacks, “Chips” traces the life of a beloved schoolmaster who serves over fifty years in an English public school. Reminiscing about his personal life and long career, the shy, unassuming Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat) also recalls his unexpected courtship and marriage to his stunning and spirited wife Katherine (Greer Garson).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A nostalgic paean to Old England and a deeply affecting story of honorable service, “Chips” succeeds admirably, mainly due to British actor Donat’s touching performance. Donat broke “Gone with the Wind”‘s Academy Award sweep in 1939, stealing the Best Actor statuette from under Clark Gable’s nose. In addition, beautiful English ingénue Garson became an overnight star in the small but pivotal role of Chips’s enchanting wife. Though sentimental by today’s standards, this is a grand and moving classic for the ages.


    To Sir, with Love (1967)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this triumphant urban drama, Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a determined teacher out of his element in a tough London high school. Initially facing apathy and resistance from his students, Thackeray ditches the lesson plan and speaks directly to their inner characters, transforming his unruly charges into hopeful–and grateful–young people.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Made the same year as “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” James Clavell’s marvelous film-a huge hit in 1967-succeeds largely because of its lead actor. Shattering age-old stereotypes about race in all his roles, Sidney Poitier exuded nobility, strength, intelligence, and humility. Never with a chip on his shoulder, never self-pitying, he commands respect-Thackeray’s students call him “Sir”-showing anger only when provoked by others’ ignorance. “To Sir With Love” is a lasting testament to that impressive strength of character, and a demonstration of how it can be cultivated in others.


    To Be and To Have (2002)

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Shot in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, this documentary portrays the magical innocence of children and the loving dedication of one teacher, Georges Lopez. Set to retire after 35 years, Lopez instructs, engages, and inspires several grades of schoolchildren in the course of a school year, touching all their lives.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Any parents out there should quickly lay their hands on the sublime “To Be,” an intimate and heartwarming study of hands-on education in a tiny classroom. What would be a daunting task for most of us is, for Georges Lopez, the application of a natural gift to a highly rewarding purpose. Georges’s innate connection with the 12 children under his care is humbling, and the wistful expression on his face at the end of the school term will put tears in your eyes.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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