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  • June 5, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Plotting the Journey across America

    by Sam Hutchins

    Darius Khondji (Director of Photography) & Wong Kari Wai

    Darius Khondji (Director of Photography) & Wong Kari Wai

    Wong Kar Wai seemed to be wrapping his head around the story. I would have to hope so, as we had been putting in lots of time. We mainly worked nights, driving all over the city. Travis Bickle had nothing on me. We drove mostly city streets adjacent to elevated subway tracks. Every once in a while Kar Wai would come to life and excitedly tell me to stop so we could pull over and talk our way into a late night dive. For the most part, though, I just drove – drove and drove and drove, all night long. We would go for hours of silence together, Kar Wai with his head tilted back, staring somewhere in the distance. He was seeing but not looking, if that makes sense. I often peeked to make sure he wasn’t napping behind those sunglasses, but he never was. Just finding the thread. He snapped out of it one late night somewhere around College Point.

    “Coney Island. We need to go back to Coney Island.”

    Eventually I’d get used to his sudden changes of direction, but this was the first time I was seeing it. He really did lose himself in his thoughts to the point that he didn’t know what state he was in. He’d start thinking the story through, something would occur to him, and he would immediately want to go someplace I had shown him. Unfortunately the directives often came in the form of “Go to that window, the one with the orange light”. With the right questions you might eventually figure out that he was talking about the strip mall across from Rotier’s Hamburgers in Nashville where you parked your car before dinner the night before. Even if you were in Memphis by then, you turn around and get back to Nashville so he can work things through. This first time, however, he only wanted to take a drive down the Van Wyck.

    Back to Coney Island we went. I was still hoping to convince Kar Wai and crew to work in New Orleans. It has such characters, such history, and such decadence. Kar Wai loves outcasts and the dissolute. The tired hooker, the junkie musician, and the compromised housewife really live there. They were his type of people. However, it seemed like we may never leave New York. Coney Island it was, then.

    A window where Norah Jones' character spots her lover with another woman.

    A window where Norah Jones' character spots her lover with another woman.

    The car had barely stopped before Kar Wai leapt out and strode down Surf Avenue. Darius Khondj (the DP), Stephane, and I hurried to catch up. Kar Wai stopped and pointed at a second floor window.
    “Norah is here on the street. She looks up there and sees her lover with another woman. She has a decision to make. She feels the best way to get someplace is to walk in the opposite direction sometimes.”

    Wow. The fan in me appreciates it. I see it as a good point of departure, but what does it mean? All three of us decided we liked the premise and told him so. Then, of course, the pragmatist in me kicks in.

    “So where does she go from here?”

    “She has to go west. She can’t go east,” he said as he waved his hand toward the ocean. Fair enough. Still leaves a lot of choices. “You guys should go out and find a restaurant where she works. Find a few. I think probably she ends up in Los Angeles.”

    And that was it. The end of our night rides. We started meeting in the office during the days and trying to get our heads around the plan. Kar Wai and Darius had lengthy technical discussions about how to shoot the film. Kar Wai had an impressive knowledge of even arcane cameras and ways to use them. I was only on the fringe of those conversations, and many took place without me present, but I loved every bit to which I was privy. Here were two master filmmakers practicing their craft. Despite Darius’ impressive body of work, he gladly embraced the lessons he was receiving and brought much of his own to the table. For his part, Stephane vanished to the hotel where he spent long hours working through story concepts with Kar Wai. I was doing my best to come up with a plan for the trip.

    Darius, Kar Wai, and Jackie testing cameras at the lover's window.

    Darius, Kar Wai, and Jackie testing cameras.

    As much as I like to be a key part of the process, I wasn’t getting a lot of time with Kar Wai. I get it; we all have a role to fill. One has to keep ego out of it, and this was a very different method of filmmaking. This was typically the point in the process where I work closest with the director, but Kar Wai had other priorities. He was deep into it with Darius and Stephane both. The little guidance I was able to get was secondhand through Stephane. This came in the form of statements like, “We should go to Memphis.” To be honest, I didn’t entirely trust Stephane. I had no doubt that any suggestions Kar Wai gave that didn’t jibe with Stephane would not make it to me. One day Stephane came in excitedly waving a book, telling me he had the answer to my questions. He had been given a book by Kar Wai that had photographs of exactly what he wanted us to scout for him. It was a nice, high-quality photo book from Rizzoli. The book contained gorgeous pictures of plates of food from diners all across the country. Close-ups, pictures of pieces of pie and western omelets from unidentified restaurants.

    Sometimes I spin my wheels a bit as a job starts. If I flattered myself I’d say it’s my own version of the reverie Kar Wai goes through, but I can’t honestly give myself that much credit. This was as bad as it gets. No guidance whatsoever. I spent several days staring at the wall trying to wrap my head around the task. I did some preliminary work, such as going to the Hagstrom Store and buying detailed topo maps of about half the states, favoring the South as that was my gut at the time. I browsed several travel bookstores, seeking out a wide range of volumes, including Frommers city guides, rough guides, the Sterns guide to great obscure road foods, books on the great roads to drive in America, and the others even more obscure. Still, it took a while to click for me. As always, I woke up one morning and felt the fear. It always happens like that. As soon as I was worried I dove into it to an obsessive level.

    I get a little OCD when I’m in the zone, to the point where I cannot eat or sleep until I solve the problem. I was there, and I went at it hammer and tongs. I skimmed every book, did extensive web research, and called everyone I knew across the country. I was a man obsessed. Within a week I had plotted a course leaving New York and taking us in multiple segments cross the country. I had us driving blue line highways a few days at a time, ending at an airport where I knew things got boring and jumping a flight to the next interesting piece of land. It gave us about five short flights zigzagging the land over three weeks. The itinerary mixed it up between interesting geographic areas, promising restaurants, and cities with character. I was incredibly proud of the work until I showed it to Kar Wai and he responded, “No. Start in California and come back.” I went back to work on a west-to-east itinerary.

    ….

    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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  • June 4, 2009

    Producer Ted Hope Discusses the Future of Finding Film Audiences

    Last week, independent film producer and blogger Ted Hope (American Splendor, 21 Grams, Adventureland) spoke to filmmakers at the New York Foundation for the Arts about a new film culture and infrastructure driven by creators and audiences alike. “We must accept that being a filmmaker means taking responsibility for our films all the way through the process. Building the new infrastructure is the first step towards real media independence” — that’s the gospel according to Ted. Learn more about what he means this lecture, which Reel 13 attended and recorded:

    For more about achieving real media independence, read Ted Hope’s blog: Truly Free Film.

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  • June 1, 2009

    A Scouting Life: A Cast of Characters Converges

    by Sam Hutchins

    Darius Khondi, Jackie, and Wong Kar Wai.

    Darius Khondji (DP), Jackie (Producer), and Wong Kar Wai.

    There is a tradition of great artists treating every aspect of their lives as a part of their work – people who are so driven by the creative urge that the individual and the work become one and the same. It can lead to personal tragedy, as in the case of Yukio Mishima. He was so consumed by his story that it ended with him eviscerating himself; ultimately it was the statement he needed to make. More likely it can wreak havoc on the lives of those around the artist, as happened with Wagner. His was a life spent taking advantage of his patrons to the point of financial ruin in the service of his compositions. I doubt he ever felt guilt or remorse. The consequences did not matter as long as he was able to make his music. His operas are still performed and appreciated across the globe and no one remembers or cares that people went bankrupt and lives were ruined to finance his lifestyle. A more current (and less tragic) example is Fellini. Much as Fellini had done, Kar Wai surrounds himself with a rotating cast of characters who service his creative impulse in varying fashions. It was my pleasure and sometimes punishment to serve as a character in his life story for a time. His world is populated by colorful individuals, each of whom serves some purpose in his process.

    I’ve already written about Jackie. She is a very petite Chinese woman who seems very much like a Dr. Seuss character. Perpetually smiling, she has a head of hair that resembles a cross between cotton candy and pulled taffy, with tufts sticking out every which way. Her wardrobe consists of brightly colored sweat suits and oversized children’s sneakers. In time I would learn that she was highly intelligent and a bit ruthless behind that cartoonish façade; her family had shadowy holdings in the Macao casinos and other somewhat suspect industries. She is one of Kar Wai’s longest collaborators: she is his producer. Jackie has a penchant for organizing big dinners and late night drinking binges. It wasn’t unheard of for her to wind up slipping you a little tongue at some point in the evening but she was also razor sharp and no one to be trifled with.

    Both Kar Wai and Jackie made frequent references to William. His arrival was long anticipated and much remarked upon. I was able to discern that he was Kar Wai’s production designer and his editor. Not a combination of roles I had ever heard of. With time I would come to know him as Kar Wai’s most trusted creative ally. He was very quiet with a gentle, easy smile. The two were almost like brothers, with William playing the more passive, reflective role. At this stage in the story, however, he was just a rumor whose arrival was delayed while he finished other vague projects Kar Wai had started in Hong Kong.

    I’ve mentioned Stephane previously. He was a bit of a cartoon character himself. Short, rumpled, he dressed as sort of a cross between an intellectual and a French rock and roller. One of those guys who perpetually wears five days of stubble. He speaks with a heavy accent and is full of energy and whimsy. I was rather shocked to discover that he had two sons and a wife in Paris. He gave the impression he had lived on the road his whole life. He initially comes across as a bit of a goof but late at night when a steady hand is needed on the wheel he steps up every time and takes it home. Stephane was such a key part of the process that it was shocking to discover that his acquaintance with Kar Wai was fairly recent in nature. His official title was Creative Producer. It may as well have been imp, muse, or alter ego.

    Chris Doyle cast a lengthy shadow over the group. Anyone conversant with Kar Wai’s work knows the legend. A dissolute Aussie and legendary drinker, he had worked his way across Southeast Asia before settling in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong. He had photographed most of Wong Kar Wai’s movies prior to some sort of violent falling out on 2046. Kar Wai smiles all the time but his smiles have many meanings. When he spoke of Chris his smile was one of genuine love. Apparently Chris didn’t even keep an apartment that anyone knew of. He worked long hours on set then retired to any of a number of shithole back-alley bars or brothels where he drank himself into oblivion. Someone was sent to drag his sodden form back to set so they could shoot again the next day. Kar Wai is an instigator and a guy like Chris is his ideal companion. Highly talented and able to shoot incredibly lovely pictures, he is also a hell raiser, troublemaker and source of conflict and entertainment. He was quoted as describing the making of 2046 thusly: “It feels like… it’s like a hairball in a dog’s stomach.” I think he broke Kar Wai’s heart even though the master gave no indication that was the case.

    Chris was replaced by Darius Khondji. A tall Iranian expat now settled in as a Parisian, he was just as much a character as the rest. Rather handsome in an exotic way, he is the true definition of a lover. Everything about him is driven by emotion and heart. He is easily distracted, fascinated by everyone he meets and everything he sees. Darius can get in a passionate, heated argument over the relative quality of an oyster. And quality was certainly of import to him. He is accustomed to a certain lifestyle and unwilling to compromise in that area. The man knows what he likes and insists on it. He has an incredibly good eye and a hunger for life. A fine replacement in every respect.

    Darius arrived in New York and really set the wheels in motion. He joined us in scouting the origins of Norah’s character in New York. We looked in every imaginable corner of the city and surrounding area for a location in which to start her story. It was a strange and interesting time. Scouting is not the most traditional job to begin with but we pushed it to extremes. Instead of working in a cubicle I found myself hopping fences to shoot photos on active train tracks as the sun rose over the polluted Meadowlands swamps overlooking New York. Explaining the presence of myself, a few Hong Kong nationals, a Frenchman, an Iranian and several cameras to a highly dubious railroad policeman became a matter of course to me. All this and we hadn’t even started cross-country yet.

    ….

    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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  • May 26, 2009

    A Scouting Life: The Dangerous Hours

    by Sam Hutchins

    Jackson Heights, Queens

    Jackson Heights, Queens

    As we were getting in the car a subway pulled out of the station and passed over our heads on the tracks.

    “Where does that go?” Wong Kar Wai asked.

    “Through south Brooklyn and into Manhattan eventually,” I answered.

    “We should follow it. Let’s look at places under the tracks.”

    Not surprising. Directors are often drawn to elevated subway lines. Understandably so: they are a great visual. The problem invariably is the sound. It’s not an issue if you are shooting a short scene, but I had no idea what we were going to shoot in whatever restaurant we did find. Nor did anyone else for that matter. When I brought up possible sound concerns I once again got that Cheshire cat smile of his.

    “You’ve seen my films. Don’t worry about sound. I like the noise the trains make.”

    Even knowing his work as well as I did it was hard to dismiss lessons that have been ingrained so deeply over the years. Scouting with him really was unique in every way. Not just regarding sound, either. It’s incredibly rare that you spend the kind of time with a director that I did with Kar Wai. Typically you bring directors photographs of several location choices, they pick a few, and then you go look at them together. Driving around searching for possible locations is something I do alone. In this case it was helpful for us to drive together for many different reasons. Kar Wai wasn’t just looking for locations; he was looking for a story. He was also familiarizing himself with the culture. I cannot imagine going to China and making a film intended for a Chinese audience, yet he was fearlessly working in our culture.

    Still, I suggested that I come back and do the driving alone. Kar Wai was not having it. I also pointed out that lots of restaurants were closed; after all it was pushing midnight. He countered that he needed to scout at night to really get the essence of a place, which does make sense. His films largely take place at night, in the types of places that are open in the dangerous hours. The man is a poet of the floating world. So we drove.

    Eventually we wound up in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood where differing South and Central American cultures coexist in close quarters. Even late, street life was still hopping there. Kar Wai had been slipping into a bit of a reverie but perked up at the vibe the area was putting out. Soon enough he made us pull over.

    The place that caught his eye was a Dominican restaurant under the train on Roosevelt Avenue. It was a long, narrow space with lots of windows. Truly ugly fluorescent light poured out of the windows onto the sidewalk. The place was filthy. Disgustingly so. The walls were dirty, and trash lined the sidewalk. The windows were streaked with layers of grease. Now I’m no shrinking violet, not by a long stretch. I’ve shot in bowery flophouses without batting an eye, but this place made even me pause.

    “You sure?”

    “Look at it. It’s perfect.”

    And it was, for him. I left the others outside and went in to do my thing. There were a couple of old timers eating late, a woman behind the counter, and what looked to be some sort of she male-in-progress chatting with her. Great. I approached the woman working there.

    “Excuse me, miss, I…”

    “She doesn’t speak English,” said the transsexual.

    “Oh. Maybe you can help me.” I went into my normal spiel about wanting to take some pictures and consider using the place in a film. It’s not uncommon for people to disbelieve me when I first approach them. This was a rare situation where I was the one having trouble accepting what was happening.

    Anyone who labors under the illusion that the film business is glamorous needs to walk in my shoes for a mile. Standing in a grease pit of a Dominican restaurant late at night while an overweight and extremely unconvincing tranny helps you communicate with the owner is probably not what most people think of when they envision the filmmaking process. While my new friend was chatting rapidly with the counter woman in Spanish, Kar Wai came inside. He took one look at the scene in front of him and got a huge smile on his face. He loves that stuff. He held up his camera and I nodded assent for him to start shooting pictures.

    “She’s not the owner. Come back during the day and you can talk to him,” the tranny said.

    “Fantastic. I really appreciate your help,” I said.

    “No problem. Here, take my number, I’ll help you speak to the owner, too.”

    “Thanks, that’s very nice, but I have a scout who speaks Spanish, I’ll have him come back here,” I lied.

    “Okay, but take it anyway, you know, if you want to call me for anything else.”

    “Take her number, Sam, she can help us,” Kar Wai said. Wow. He was turning out to be some sort of instigator. I took the number and we moved on. Kar Wai and Stephane laughed about it the whole way home.

    ….

    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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