by Sam Hutchins
A few weeks earlier I had sat in my office and worked out an itinerary. Not a particularly easy task as our goals were so unclear. Kar Wai had attempted to explain what he wanted us to find for him without success. Truth be told, he clearly was still working story ideas out for himself. He knew that he wanted to make a road movie; he knew that he wanted to follow Norah Jones as she travelled cross-country. Beyond that he was looking for our assistance. I was happy to provide it.
My original plan was set up to see as many different parts of the country in as short a time as possible. I set up a complicated itinerary that had us starting in LA and heading east. Every three days or so we would dump our rental truck at an airport, fly to a different region of the country, and start another leg of the trip. I thought it was the smart way to go about it. Darius and Stephane had braced me the other night and expressed their unwillingness to continue on the route I had laid out. I had mixed emotions but didn’t fight too hard. Though I had spent weeks arranging the ideal routes through America they had a foolproof counter-argument. Simply, we had a great truck and were well-settled into it. They were right, too. The Armada was holding up well and we had all staked out our space. Everyone’s IPod, cigarettes, sunglasses and camera had their established nook; starting over would have caused innumerable arguments. Distance grants perspective, of course, but at the time not having to fight about which cup holder was mine was more than enough reason to keep driving.
Prior to this trip I spent nearly a year working in New Orleans and have that city dialed up as well as anyone. I took weekend trips out west into Cajun country; I was wired in for a hundred mile radius. I was the next thing to a local. Still you know what I didn’t know? Louisiana borders Texas. Wow, embarrassing, I know. Thing is, western Louisiana goes pretty far west. I had no occasion to explore it when I was based in New Orleans. I had no reason to study the maps as my itinerary had us ending in Dallas and flying to Denver to spend some time in the high desert. Once our plans were discarded, however, it was the three of us and a map and due east of us was Louisiana. So we rolled on, putting miles behind us as quickly as possible.
The landscape changes pretty dramatically as you cross from Texas into Louisiana. As you move east the foliage becomes increasingly full and lush. The last of the desert falls off behind you and starts feeling more like low country. The Gulf of Mexico and its swamplands and estuaries factor into the equation. Humanity is less and less apparent as you move away from Houston but are still far away from approaching a city of any size. More than anything it felt as though we were transitioning from the southwest to the south. I was glad of it. I felt optimistic about our chance to find someplace worth scouting. The back roads snaked through the edge of the swamps, punctuated by the occasional paper mill and not much else.
I had run through my rolodex the day before, calling everyone I knew in the area looking for leads. One of my contacts came through and called me with information about a place called D.I.’s. Apparently D.I. was a crawfish farmer who ran a restaurant out of his ancient weathered barn in the middle of the swamp. Everything about it sounded great. Supposedly it was the real thing, not a tourist trap of any sort. I loved the idea of it, feeling it provided a vastly different milieu from anything else we had seen. Better yet, the directions my friend PJ gave me indicated that it was just off Gator road. Exciting.
We pushed hard through the swamps, feeling better and better about where we were headed. Travelling with people in such close quarters everything becomes infectious, more so when you are hungry to find something good. Every clue we saw led us in the right direction.
“Look at that old farmhouse!”
“These trees look great with the Spanish moss; we can do driving shots here!”
“Maybe we can shoot something with her in the swamps!”
By the time we actually crossed Gator Road we were like kids on Christmas morning. We turned a corner and there it was, D.I.’s authentic Cajun Restaurant. It sat almost perfectly amidst the landscape, set off on its own in the midst of vast fields carved out of the low swamp. One problem, however. Instead of the old weathered barn we were expecting we were looking at a large, recently built aluminum sided monstrosity. The place was a perfect example of recent, cheap construction. One would be hard pressed to find something uglier or less interesting to film. A subsequent conversation with D.I. himself revealed this gem:
“Oh, no, you would have hated the old place. Beat up, ramshackle barn. Needed a paint job. Nothing but an open kitchen and a bunch of old picnic tables. My nice new place is so much better for your movie.”
In other words, exactly what we were looking for. To compound matters, we got stuck taking the extended tour. D.I. and his wife were as nice as you could hope for but I was disappointed and eager to get back to our search of Cajun Country. After laboring through en extended family history and being pressured into buying a CD of his grandson, Briggs the Wee Cajun accordion player, we were back on the road.
“What ees the plan for tonight?” Stephane wanted to know.
“We should spend as much time as possible scouring this area and wind up in Lafayette for the night.”
Lafayette was close by, and I figured staying there would give us plenty of local scouting time. D.I.’s might not have been the right place but I was sure we would find an old gas station or general store just around the next curve in the road, or the one after that.
“Lafayette? Non, we must go to New Orleans. We need a nice night out for a change.” Darius piped in.
“But we’re hours away. Driving there means we have to quit scouting here and head east. That’ll take us right out of this area.”
Once again I was outvoted. It’s not often I’ll argue against a night on the town in New Orleans, but I really wanted to scour western Louisiana for locations. Once the decision was made, however, I bought into it fully. I let Stephane take the wheel and push us eastward while I got on the phone and planned a night of recreation in one of my favorite cities.
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.