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  • July 7, 2009

    A Scouting Life: On the Edge of Vegas

    by Sam Hutchins

    Roy's Motel Cafe, south of Las Vegas

    Roy's Motel Cafe, south of Las Vegas

    That same first day we saw Roy’s, a spectacular old half-abandoned gas station in the desert.  It’s the place my friend Jesse had hipped me to, and he was right: it was a great location.  Roy’s had a googie-style sign and an attached café.  Only one bullet hole in the window and in pretty good shape for what it was and where it was. I couldn’t possibly imagine finding a more perfect place for Kar Wai to tell a story in and my instincts are pretty solid.  After rooting around and taking pictures there for a while we moved on to find even more fruits of the desert.

    There were small clusters of buildings every hundred miles or so, clinging close to the desert floor.  We found one such settlement labeled Amboy and another called Essex.  They each consisted of a few buildings like a post office, a gas station and a café with a few out buildings.  The structures were in good condition albeit weathered, and looked like they could easily have been open for business.  Yet they weren’t, and there was not a soul around.  So this is what America will look like after the Plague.  These places were eminently photographable but we could not spend too much time with them.  Given our druthers we each would have been happy to spend hours shooting, but they were not practical for our film.  Roy’s was a perfect location, almost as though it had been built, operated, shut down, abandoned and left to suffer the elements just so we could find it and film it.

    Abandoned settlements

    Abandoned settlements

    The first time we came upon one of these clusters of buildings we were half a mile beyond it by the time I had stopped the truck.  In part due to the way the buildings were built so close to the earth and surrounded by scrub brush but more so because of the speed at which we were travelling.  You see, I love to drive, especially under the right conditions.  We were on two-lane highways in the middle of the desert.  The roads were dry and in decent condition, consisting of long straightaways broken up by gently sloping curves that could be seen from miles away.  Better yet, we only saw another vehicle every few hours or so.  I was definitely testing the limits of our vehicle.  It accelerated quickly for such a big SUV and cruised comfortably at speed.  Stephane and Darius were happy to let me do the driving and were pretty caught up with themselves.  Neither one paid any attention to what I was up to behind the wheel.  Also, you quickly become acclimated to speed when in a moving vehicle for so long.  I gradually took us up to 90, 100, eventually 110 mph.  I held it there for a while, feeling my adrenaline rise and my nerves tingle from the speed.  I pushed it a little harder, nudging the needle towards 115.  The truck started to vibrate noticeably at that point so I backed off and pegged it at a steady 110.

    The desert blows past you at that speed, and it was fast enough to keep me focused on the road.  I wasn’t particularly worried about law enforcement where we were travelling.  If there was an incident that far out you’re easily waiting a few hours for a response to 911.  Plus, I am a friend to the police.  In my job you work pretty closely with cops, and I genuinely like most of them I’ve met.  Enough so that a few have actually become friends of mine.  Over time I have acquired an extensive collection of PBA cards and badges.  For those who don’t know, a PBA card is something police are issued to hand out to friends and family.  It’s pretty much a get out of jail free card up to a point.  They’ll generally get you out of speeding tickets and similar petty offenses.  Having one won’t help you out of a real jackpot but it doesn’t hurt to let whoever has pulled you over know that you are considered trustworthy by other members of the law enforcement community.  I was carrying almost a dozen such cards from various agencies and jurisdictions as well as a few actual badges, but those are stories for another day.  For now all that matters is that I was able to speed with impunity and enjoyed the hell out of doing so.

    Eventually we hooked up with old state route 95 and shot straight north towards Vegas.  It is a more commercial route and the driving turned from pleasure to chore.  I went from driving as I pleased on an empty road to being hemmed in by an endless succession of trucks doing 90.  The road began climbing up out of the desert floor and through rising foothills.  It was definitely time to be aware, just as I was getting a little road-weary and the light was starting to fade.  I wanted to press straight through to Vegas but lost the vote, so we stopped.

    It turned out to be a good decision.  We pulled off at a truck stop-diner-casino just over the mountain from the outskirts of Vegas.  It was nice to have a cup of coffee, and my companions were completely taken by the fact that the diner had so many slot machines.  I’ve been to Vegas dozens of times, so I’m used to the prevalence of gaming opportunities, but Stephane and Darius were seeing it for the first time.  They were thinking profound thoughts about the death of the American Dream; I was fuelling up on caffeine.  We met an unbelievably sweet waitress who was a little fond of Stephane.  After initial confusion based on his accent and generally scattered manner she started flirting with him pretty hard.  It ended the best way possible, with the three of us eating free slices of apple pie al a mode.

    As we stretched and scratched our way back to the ride it occurred to me that I had never driven into Vegas before.  Surprising, really, as I used to spend a lot of time out there.  As a single guy it made for a great long weekend destination.  Warm, sunny, easy to get to and as much trouble as one wanted to find.  Many of my friends live in Los Angeles. Vegas had been a great place to hook up with them.  Takes only two calls to arrange, one to JetBlue and one to Caesars Palace.  But I had never driven any farther than from McCarren Airport.  Arriving after a long day in the desert was a different thing entirely.

    Before we embarked on the final run into town I quietly switched the cord over to use my iPod as the music source.  Stephane had done a decent job of picking tunes all day but now it was my turn.  I put on the Joe Strummer/Johnny Cash cover of “Redemption Song” and put it in gear.  It was as perfect as I expected.  The light was almost gone and night was coming on strong.  We soared over the mountains and faced the golden flashing lights of Vegas as my two favorite musicians guided our journey.  Darius insisted we listen to the song several times in a row as it brought us home.   For the first time that day the three of us were completely in tune with one another and the universe.  Not a bad first day at all.

    ….

    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.

  • July 6, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: The Triplets of Belleville

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed The Triplets of Belleville, you might also enjoy these great films:


    M. Hulot’s Holiday

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Before Inspector Clouseau, there was the gifted actor/director Jacques Tati and his creation, Monsieur Hulot: a kind eccentric who, in his physical interactions, appears out of step with the modern world. This first Hulot film lampoons the conventions of the French as they travel en-masse to the seaside during one sweltering summer. Predictably, Hulot’s presence livens things up considerably.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    The first fabulous Hulot picture where sound and dialogue are mere accents to the observance of mundane, everyday activity. Tati’s brilliance lies in showing us just how, with Hulot’s special touch, these rituals and routines can be put off kilter. The result: a masterpiece of subtle visual humor and an homage to the forgotten conventions of silent film comedy.


    Mon Oncle

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Unemployed Parisian M. Hulot (Jacques Tati) lives in a baffling, ultra-modern world, especially when he gets lost in the gadget-packed, whatsit maze of his sister’s house. Sweetly naive, the clumsy bohemian escorts his nephew, Gerald Arpel (Alain Becourt), home from school each day, only to court disaster when he wanders through the Arpels’ mechanically enhanced home.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    France’s answer to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, comic genius Jacques Tati leads us on an uproarious trek through the futuristic 1950s in “Mon Oncle,” his first color feature. With hardly any dialogue, Tati orchestrates one hilarious pratfall sequence after another, involving everything from wild gizmos to click-clacking high heels, and even a downbeat dachsund. Like Chaplin, Tati was a perfectionist, and the Oscar-winning “Mon Oncle” is exactly that: A perfect collision of madcap slapstick and social satire, with a Tramp-like heart.


    Playtime

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    M. Hulot (Jacques Tati), a Parisian bewildered by modern technology, spends one hectic morning attempting to keep an appointment with M. Giffard (Georges Montant) in a towering, ultra-modern office building filled with automaton-like workers. Meanwhile, a group of American tourists including Barbara (Dennek) disembark at Orly airport and take a bus to their hotel. He and she eventually meet in the hustle and bustle of a glitzy, shimmering new supper club, once Hulot has navigated the whirring, humming cityscape that entraps him.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Preceded almost ten years earlier by “Mon Oncle,” this marvelous French comedy continues the misadventures of Tati’s Chaplin-esque everyman, M. Hulot. The most dazzling and technically accomplished of his films, “Playtime” is a light satire on the mesmerizing and disorienting effects of technology. Filmed in 70mm on a vast set-an extant metropolis that Parisians dubbed “Tati-ville”-“Playtime” is a jaw-dropping spectacle that certainly reflects the director’s wistful regard for simpler times. Still, the carnival-like sequence in the nightclub and the symphonic traffic jam that close the film feel warm, fun, and somehow exquisitely human.


    Traffic

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    This jittery, genre-crossing drama follows three interwoven storylines: the efforts of Mexican narcotics cop Javier (Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro) to bust up the Obregon cartel; the parallel work of San Diego DEA agents Ray Castro and Montel Gordon (Luis Guzman and Don Cheadle), whose arrest of a drug-trafficking kingpin forces his pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to deal with underworld associates; and the ironic ignorance of newly minted U.S. drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a man strikingly unaware that his privileged, high-school-age daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) has become a free-basing cokehead.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Scripted by Stephen Gaghan from an acclaimed BBC miniseries, Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning “Traffic” is a hard-hitting, superbly stylized exposé of the war on drugs. Visually slick and masterfully directed, the film works beautifully as an ensemble drama of interconnected vignettes, and as a wake-up call to parents, educators, and clueless officials, highlighting the insidious ways illegal narcotics infiltrate the culture-and the mostly ineffective means we have of rooting them out. An exhilarating reality check that’ll keep you hooked.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • July 6, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Gigot

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed Gigot, you might also enjoy these great films:


    The Hustler

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) is a charismatic California pool shark with a wide streak of arrogance to match his considerable skill. After he loses big to the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), Eddie hits the skids and falls for fellow lost soul Sarah (Piper Laurie). Trying to hustle his way back to the top of his game, he entrusts his future to oily promoter Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), who promises him riches and fame. But will Gordon deliver if Eddie does?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A gritty, atmospheric picture about the tense world of high-stakes pool, Rossen’s “The Hustler” features some of Newman’s best work-to-date. “Fast Eddie” may be a young virtuoso with a pool cue, but his maturity hasn’t caught up with his moves, and he learns some hard lessons in pool and life from Minnesota Fats, played to cool perfection by the late, great Gleason. Scott also stands out as a ruthless backer, and Piper Laurie does a sad, sensitive turn as a lonely woman on the fringes who falls under Eddie’s spell. Though Newman was Oscar-nominated, he’d have to reprise the role twenty-five years later (in “The Color Of Money”) to win the statuette. I prefer this, his original outing.


    A Guide for the Married Man

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Gene Kelly’s comedy has the married Paul Manning (Walter Matthau) getting a crash course on the finer points of adultery from also married veteran adulterer Ed Stander (Robert Morse). The lessons Ed imparts are acted out in sequences featuring a long line of guest stars, including Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Art Carney, Phil Silvers, Wally Cox, Lucille Ball, and Jayne Mansfield.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    One of the more side-splitting comedies of the 1960s, dated and politically incorrect in the extreme, which only makes it funnier today. Director Gene Kelly (yes-he was also a dancer) deserves kudos for taking the most delicate of subject matter and toeing the line of good taste like an expert tightrope walker. Both Matthau and Morse are a riot together, but some of those cameos take the cake: in particular, look for the Reiner, Ball and Carney sequences. Also, dig that catchy title tune by The Turtles-like the rest of the movie, it’s quintessential sixties.


    Inherit the Wind

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    In this courtroom drama based on the landmark Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s, defense lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and fundamentalist prosecutor Matthew Brady (Fredric March) face off when schoolteacher Bertram Cates (Dick York), is put in jail for teaching evolution in tiny Hillsboro, Tennessee, with the arrest instigated by his girlfriend’s disapproving father, Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Kramer’s spellbinding film features a deft performance by Tracy as the rumpled, deceptively plain-spoken Drummond (modeled on Clarence Darrow), matched by March’s larger than life, virtuoso turn as Matthew Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan). Just sit back, pretend you’re sitting in that humid courtroom, and watch two old pros at work. You’ll re-live history. Also look for Gene Kelly in one of his only serious, non-dancing roles as a cynical journalist based on H.L. Mencken.


    An American In Paris

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Gerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is an impoverished painter plying his trade in the City of Lights. When a beautiful French girl (Leslie Caron) sets the artist’s heart aflame, he’s beside himself. Only problem is, his close friend Henri, a nightclub singer, is in love with her too.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Set to an incomparable Gershwin score, this exquisite film still mesmerizes. Gorgeously photographed by John Alton, and invigorating from first song to last, “American” swept the 1951 Oscars, thanks to the winning talents of producer Arthur Freed, star Kelly, and director Minnelli. The climactic ballet sequence, performed to the title tune by Kelly and Caron, is one of the most dazzling musical set-pieces ever captured on celluloid.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • June 29, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: 32A

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed 32A, you might also enjoy these great films:


    The Commitments

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Group of young working-class Dubliners share a love for American soul music- and pull together a band to perform their favorite hits. And guess what-they’re good. Tracing the band’s genesis puts us in the home of band leader Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) whose immediate family looks bewildered at all the activity and whose Dad (Colm Meaney) only has ears for Elvis.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    An exuberant, funny, feel-good musical comedy from director Alan Parker. Granted, you have to pay attention to get all the dialogue through all the thick Irish accents and colloquialisms, but you’ll still be able to share the fun and laughs. And when the music starts, all barriers come down, as the group pulls off toe-tapping renditions of some immortal R&B classics. The band audition scenes are priceless.


    The Snapper

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    When unmarried 20-year-old Irish gal Sharon (Tina Kellegher) informs her parents that she’s pregnant, and even refuses to name the irresponsible seed man, the unexpected happens: The large, closely knit family takes it all in stride and tries to be supportive, especially her proud, big-hearted father Dessie (Colm Meaney). But when the neighborhood gossips start wagging their tongues, it all gets too personal for Dessie, and Sharon begins to wonder if moving out isn’t the best thing for everyone.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Written by Roddy Doyle (“The Commitments”), who adapted the script from his own Tarrytown novel, Frears’s “Snapper” lets us cozy up with an eccentric bunch. Like any big family, the Curleys are constantly bickering at each other, but Frears quickly establishes just how tight everyone is, too—especially Dessie and Sharon, who talk turkey while sharing pints at the pub. “Snapper” zeroes in on the special nature of this father-daughter relationship, with Meaney in excellent form as a kindly, slightly overprotective dad, and Kellegher equally good at uproarious girl chatter, deep mortification, and even late-night anxiety. A lovely and bittersweet slice of Irish life.


    Once

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    An Irish singer-songwriter with a lingering broken heart (Glen Hansard) meets a spunky Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) while busking on the streets of Dublin and discovers that she has a special musical talent. The two become warm friends and collaborators, but love proves more complex and elusive.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    John Carney’s gorgeously spare drama has a homemade feel that fits perfectly the story of two people with some emotional baggage who nevertheless find a way to connect through music. Real-life bards Hansard (of the Irish band, The Frames) and Irglova (an artist in her own right) write beautiful songs together, and their performances as actors and singers in “Once” couldn’t feel more natural, or tug at your heartstrings any more insistently. Kudos to Carney (Hansard’s former bass player) for having the courage to tell such a blissfully simple story.


    Welcome To The Dollhouse

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Dorky, bespectacled seventh grader Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo) is the most viciously harassed adolescent in her middle school, where she’s spurned by the cool crowd and menaced by thuggish Brandon (Brendan Sexton), who enjoys threatening “Weiner Dog” with rape. Home life is also grim: Her older brother is a bookish whiz, her younger sister a button-cute ballerina, while Dawn barely registers on her family’s radar. What’s a geeky girl to do?

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    A harrowingly accurate, darkly hilarious look at that time of life most of us would prefer to forget, Solondz’s portrait of gawky pre-adolescence visits all the landmarks of childhood hell: peer abuse, sexual awkwardness, and the general sense that people are the source of all misery. Matarazzo is fantastic as the ostracized, alienated tween who suffers the insults and indignities of her peers with stoic resignation. Sexton (“Kids”) also registers well as Dawn’s cruel, glowering classmate. “Dollhouse” isn’t for younger kids, but teens and grown-ups will appreciate its bitingly funny blend of pathos and punishment.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • June 26, 2009

    A Scouting Life: A Sense of Menace in the Desert

    by Sam Hutchins

    Outside Twentynine Palms, Mojave Desert, California

    Outside Twentynine Palms, Mojave Desert, California

    Continuing on, we passed through Twentynine Palms. Seeing signs for the Joshua Tree National Park, we briefly considered a detour, but it was already getting on into the afternoon so we skipped it. From the look of the map it looked like we were heading into the desert soon, and we did. Twentynine Palms is actually a decent size town, fueled largely by a massive Marine Corps base just outside city limits. It’s also one of those western towns that just ends. Never ceases to amaze me when I see that. You’re on the main drag, with seemingly countless gas stations, bars and gun stores. Turning onto a side road you travel a few similar blocks, pass some houses, and then the city just stops. You’re in the wilderness. Makes me wonder what it’s like to live in that last house on the edge of town. Don’t know that I could handle it. Sure, the view would be great, but how do you sleep at night knowing you’re the closest food source for any wildlife that requires such? Then again, whoever that guy living in the last house in town is he probably would think I was crazy for living in New York City.

    Just a few miles out of town we saw an adobe roadhouse. I didn’t particularly like the looks of the joint but it was likely our last shot at lunch for quite some time. Unsurprisingly there were several meth-head types and other sorts of scary frontier types sucking down dollar-fifty beers at the bar. I gave my standard spiel about scouting and introduced myself around, playing the role of hail-fellow-well-met. Quite unusually no one really seemed to give a shit. We were free to shoot pictures as we pleased. The place was sort of interesting-looking but not great. Snooping around the place it appeared to be a pretty heavy biker bar and I was happy we had not stopped there in the evening. The place carried a tangible sense of menace.

    The bartender was one of those women who look like they are 38 going on 60, definitely some rough living there. She seemed fairly annoyed that we wanted hamburgers and had to be talked into making us some. When she reluctantly agreed, she came out from behind the bar and walked out the door. We sat and watched as she crossed the yard to a nasty old trailer and banged on the side with her open hand. She did so until a gorgeous young blonde emerged, stretching and pretty clearly just rolling out of bed for the first time that day. They returned to the bar with the younger of them shuffling wordlessly into the kitchen to make us some lunch. It took a few moments to figure out but eventually the resemblance between the two women registered. They were mother and daughter. That lithe young thing was going to become the used-up bartender with the hacking cough now pouring us cokes and cracking dirty jokes in due time. I wanted to tell her to run, get out while she could, but I didn’t suspect the sentiment would be well-received.

    At first, my road buddies Stephane and Darius seemed oblivious to the bad vibes I was getting but eventually it registered with them as well. For such sensitive guys they can be a little oblivious at times. By the time our food came we were all eager to finish fast and get on our way. I’m not sure if living in the extreme conditions of the desert warps people, or if previously warped people are drawn to live in harsh conditions like that but there is an unquestionable edge of strangeness to most people we met living out there. Until you’ve travelled in similar places the film “Near Dark” doesn’t make much sense. Once you have, it feels more like a documentary.

    The old mine.

    Deposits from the old mine.

    Pressing on, we hit the gold mine. Literally and figuratively. We found a stretch of desert road running through land owned by a mining operation. The waste of the extraction process left what appeared to be a crust of salts and other minerals baked into the desert floor and piled along the roadside. It was quite striking visually and we spent a good deal of time shooting pictures. It would prove to be attractive to Kar Wai as well, and we revisited it with him later on. Certainly toxic to some degree, it nonetheless was such an odd-looking spot on the earth that it begged to be filmed. Between the wind farm in the morning and the mineral flats in the desert it was a productive day so far. If we could keep this pace, finding two good locations for Kar Wai each day, we would have an abundance of riches to return with. I took down the mining company’s information so I could contact them for permission to film there later and we moved on down the road.

    ….

    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.

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