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?”
“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.