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  • June 15, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: The White Countess

    by John Farr

    You might also enjoy these great films:


    Shakespeare Wallah

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Lizzie Buckingham (Felicity Kendal) is part of a traveling Shakespearean troupe, the Buckingham Players, trying to eke out a living performing for less-than-enthusiastic villagers in postcolonial India. When their caravan breaks down, wealthy playboy Sanju (Shashi Kapoor) steps in to help, and the sparks fly. But Sanju has already been claimed by Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), a Bollywood actress with no intention of letting him go.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    This charming early effort by the acclaimed Merchant-Ivory team, penned by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is a gorgeous elegy to the waning of British influence in India, represented here by the growth of the Bollywood film industry. Based in part on the real-life experiences of Kendal’s own family, Ivory’s film was scored by Satyajit Ray, shot by his lensman Subrata Mitra, and impeccably played by a lively cast. Jaffrey, however, nearly steals the show with an over-the-top performance as the arrogant, jilted starlet.


    Howard’s End

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Meticulous adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End depicts transitions in the British class system in the early 20th century. It traces the evolving relationship between Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), a restrained and conservative industrialist, and Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) — a poor, yet plucky younger woman.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Few filmmakers capture period detail like James Ivory. Here, Hopkins is the personification of upper-class British reserve, while Emma Thompson is radiant in an Oscar-winning performance. Vanessa Redgrave portrays Hopkins’ dying wife with poignancy, and Helena Bonham Carter is suitably fiery as Thompson’s modern sister. Literate, human drama of the first order.


    Morgan!: A Suitable Case For Treatment

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Morgan Delt (David Warner), a mentally unbalanced young artist obsessed with apes, really goes off the deep end when his beautiful, only slightly daffy spouse, Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave), asks for a divorce. Determined to have her back, Morgan resorts to bizarre and desperate measures to keep her from marrying priggish art dealer Charles (Robert Stephens).

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Redgrave made her film debut in this wildly inventive black comedy by Czech director Reisz. Her magnetic performance as Leonie-continually torn between her more conventional side and the unhinged part of her nature – netted her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. “Morgan!”‘s exuberant pacing and anarchic spirit make it one of the swinging sixties’ most delightfully loony cult films. Also, Warner is terrific in the lead.


    Georgy Girl

    WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

    Georgina, known as Georgy (an Oscar-nominated Lynn Redgrave), is an ugly duckling at loose ends. Her father is a manservant whose married, middle-aged employer (James Mason) wants her as his mistress. Meanwhile, her gorgeous roommate Meredith (Charlotte Rampling) treats her carelessly, but Georgy basks in her glamour. Finally, there’s Jos (Alan Bates), Meredith’s sometime boyfriend, who beds the beauty but seems to prefer Georgy’s company. Somehow, this plump, sweet girl must make sense of her disordered life and figure out where she belongs.

    WHY I LOVE IT:

    Distinctive black comedy has Georgy, a free spirit with a self-image problem, surrounded by somewhat pathetic, bizarre characters: Meredith’s beauty can’t conceal the soul of a witch; Jos is a loveable, overgrown child; and Mason’s character seems like a rather lonely, leering fellow, though endowed with real affection for Georgy. Still, the film’s ambiguity is intended- and it’s a large part of its charm. A fascinating, highly original ride, with terrific performances and a vivid sense of London in the swinging sixties. Catchy title tune by The Seekers.


    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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  • June 9, 2009

    A Scouting Life: The Importance of Being Punctual

    by Sam Hutchins

    JFK International Airport

    JFK International Airport

    The die was cast; we were set to embark. An ambitious, detailed itinerary had been built. Darius, Stephane and I would depart for LAX and begin making our way back to New York City over the course of the next month. Kar Wai would join us at some point along the way, and Jackie might as well. We planned to drive mainly on blue line highways, the primary route of auto transit prior to the interstate highway system. They should take us to the out-of-the-way, forgotten spots that Kar Wai favored so. It was a great adventure that we were setting out on. Honestly, if I could create a dream job this would probably be it.

    My concerns were legion, of course. Scouting even in areas you know can be hit-or-miss. No one can know the entire country, no matter how good you are. I had done my homework and prepared us as well as anyone could. I even had a trick up my sleeve, having pre-scouted a few promising sounding locations outside of LA over the phone. My good pal Jesse Lehrman is one of the top still photo/fashion scouts on the west coast. Jesse hipped me to a known desert gas station called Roy’s that lies between LA and Vegas. The photos he sent me looked great. Apparently there are other rundown cantinas in the area as well, scattered around the desert outside Twentynine Palms.

    My biggest concern was actually my travelling companions. I was about to spend a whole lot of time in a car with two guys I hardly knew. First impression is that they were, well, French. Don’t get me wrong: the French are a magnificent people. They have a long and storied history. The foods, wines, literature are all as good as can be found anywhere. I have so many things that I love about them. That being said, they can also be massive pains in the ass. The French are by nature an argumentative people, and at that particular point in history, they were awfully down on America. Probably with good reason, but that’s a story for another blog. For all of Stephane’s impishness and Darius’ passion they were ultimately unknown quantities as travelling companions.

    I had a fair amount of equipment to tote along. In addition to my 20 lbs of topo maps covering a good part of the country, I had my laptop, cameras, cell phone, iPod, and all the requisite cords and cables. There was also the matter of clothing. We were planning to cover the country from roughly the Southwest up to the Northeast in winter, so we intended to pass through a wide range of climates. I managed to fit everything in a standard airline carry-on, my computer case, and one tote bag. The colder climes were covered by the heavy leather jacket I carried on my back. My companions, however, were not so good at packing light.

    When we met at the office prior to departing I was shocked at all they brought. Stephane wasn’t as bad; he only brought a battered leather suitcase, a large duffel bag, a laptop case and a couple camera cases. Half my size and twice the baggage. Darius, however, might as well have been in the turn of the century boarding an ocean liner for a round the world tour. He had so much luggage we had to hire a second car to get us all to JFK. To be fair, he had no plans to return to Paris, so he was carrying his wardrobe for roughly the next six months. That being said, I suggested he winnow things out a bit and store the extra luggage at the production office. He was having none of it, insisting that he needed everything at hand. I was not pleased at the thought of hauling all that stuff cross-country with us. We had a tight schedule with numerous airport connections and that load wasn’t going to make it easy.

    Our two-car caravan left for JFK, one car for us and another for the luggage. Didn’t leave on time, of course, as my two companions were dawdling around the office well past the appointed departure. One thing to know about me is that I am punctual to a fault. Actually that’s not true; I’m early. Especially when it comes to work and travel. When travelling for work I’m even worse, it gets borderline obsessive. I have surprised directors I was due to pick up at 9 for a scout by being out front when they walked their dog at 7:30. Just part of who I am and how I do the job. I have ended relationships with otherwise lovely women due to their constant lateness; it is not something I can abide. Faced with coworkers who rank higher than me on the organizational chart I have little recourse.

    It got worse at the airport. In addition to helping the guys with their extensive baggage, they did everything possible to avoid going to the gate. I did have a little chuckle at the desk when the clerk kept referring to Stephane as Stephanie. I saw how it bothered him and filed that away for future use. Another wrinkle was Darius’ passport with dozens of international destinations stamped in it. In a recently post-9/11 world, stamps indicating you were just visiting Iran are not particularly helpful. Once the bulk of the luggage was checked in I started race-walking to the gate. Not my boys, though. Stephane was browsing magazines and Darius was in a Brookstone having an in-depth discussion as to the merits of various gadgets that charge your electronics. I was as polite as possible about moving them along but they exhibited a distinct lack of concern.

    Ultimately I left them. Time was short and I did not want to miss the plane. I made sure they both knew the gate we were assigned and busted my hump to get there. Darius started to say something about being patient but I pretended not to hear him so as to avoid additional delay. I arrived at the gate and checked in as they were making the final boarding call.

    At least we were flying business class. Travel is difficult enough. Flying cross-country in coach is a drag. I tried to relax in my comfy half-bed, half-seat but was too anxious about my partners making the flight. I was already trying to plan for their delayed arrival at LAX when they both ambled onto the plane. They hadn’t even found their seats when the stewardess sealed the door and started bugging them about getting settled.

    “You see,” said Stephane, “We had plenty of time. I think you worry too much.”

    “Thank God you found me,” replied Darius, “I had no idea what gate we were in. Sam, you really need to make sure I get to these places. I could have missed the plane.”

    ….

    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 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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