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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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  • May 22, 2009

    A Scouting Life: At the End of the Country, Coney Island

    by Sam Hutchins

    Nathan's, Coney Island

    Nathan's, Coney Island

    We wound up making many scouting trips to Coney Island, and indeed did our first day of filming there. Makes sense if you know the Wong Kar Wai’s work. It really is his type of place. His movies feature locations that are older and a little beat up. Places with history. I wouldn’t necessarily say he believes in ghosts, but he does believe that places are imbued with the spirits of those who passed through them. Coney Island is all that and more. You have the wide-open ocean buttressed by the remnants of New York City’s playground. A playground of yesteryear, now gone to seed. The rides, games and food stands are all dated and barely hanging on. The only recent addition is the freak show, which feels like a good fit in Kar Wai’s world.

    This particular night, however, was Kar Wai’s first time seeing Coney Island. It was early evening in the offseason, so most of it was shuttered up and battened down. Nathan’s was the only place that showed signs of life. For my part, I was getting accustomed to Kar Wai’s scouting process. It was indeed unique, like everything else about him. Every director has his own way. You learn to feel them out and find your comfort zone. Some want you to take the lead and give them an in-depth guided tour of whatever place you happen to be. Others prefer you fade into the background and only re-emerge when questions arise.

    Kar Wai was both cerebral and mercurial. There were many extended periods of silence and lots and lots of movement. Stephane and I mostly trailed close behind and snapped pictures of whatever he seemed to be looking at. The man is tall and completely caught up in his own head. He would stop and stand silently for long stretches of time, his gaze focused on nothing discernable. Then in a flash those long legs would be pumping and he’d be tearing off down the boardwalk without a look back. I can only wonder what thoughts were bouncing around inside his head; he clearly had a lot going on in there. In any case, it was clearly incumbent on us to keep up with him. As absorbed in his thoughts as he was he could have walked in one side of a burning building and out the other without smelling the smoke.
    We circled the area several times, to the point where both Stephane and I were breathing a little heavily. Not Kar Wai, though. The guy is a machine. Once he sufficiently had the lay of the land he turned his attention to us. He indicated several food stands he would like to see open, possible places for Norah’s character to work.

    “So you think she might work out here as opposed to a place in the city?”

    “I don’t know. I want to consider both.”

    “Are there specific features of either location that you prefer?”

    “In the city I like the idea of her being in a small space, surrounded by structures. Maybe a diner under the raised subway tracks. I like the feeling of her being trapped in a corner. Out here I like the wide-open space over the ocean, and the fact that it is the very end of the country. If she starts here there is only one direction for her to go.”

    All right then. I should scout for a place that was claustrophobic or wide-open, deep in the city or out on the shore. It’s actually entirely common for a director to be all over the ice like this early in the process. There is much more to locations work than just the literal. One of our most important functions is to help the director focus his vision, and at the beginning of a project they are often pulled in vastly divergent directions. Most directors have already made the film in their minds before they hired me. When I start taking them out they have to reconcile their vision with what’s really out there. This often takes them to entirely different concepts than the one with which they started. Kar Wai only had the bare bones of a story, but every story begins someplace and that was what we were looking for.
    Clearly we were in the right neighborhood. Kar Wai loved the rickety old rides, the once-bright but now faded colors, the whole milieu. There were some very shady looking hotels that piqued his interest. I would need a little time to talk my way into those places. They were either SRO’s filled with old drunks or hot-sheet hotels used for prostitution; either way it would take some finesse to gain entry. There were a few food stands on the boardwalk that were of interest. He was fascinated by the “shoot the freak” attraction, where you pay for the privilege of shooting paint balls at a kid made up as a mongoloid. We found a shot on a side street with the famous Cyclone roller coaster framed up in the background.

    “We need to get that lit up at night.” He said and kept moving.

    We circled the area again and again. I was starting to get the hang of his method. Kar Wai is a man of very few words, which makes it difficult. The temptation is to fill the silence with words in an attempt to draw him out. After a few questions were completely ignored it became clear that I needed to wait him out. He wasn’t being rude by not replying to me; he was simply lost in his own mind. I was learning that the best gauge of his interest in a place was how much time he spent standing silently in front of it.

    Gregory & Pauls, Coney Island

    Gregory & Pauls, Coney Island

    One place he kept returning to was a food stand called “Greg and Paul’s” that sat on the boardwalk directly adjacent Astroland amusement park. I didn’t entirely understand what made it better than the rest, but it was certainly worth taking a look at.

    “Can we look inside?”

    “I’ll have to track down the owner. Hopefully we can open it up.”

    “Tonight?”

    By this time it was pushing midnight. It was January and we were in Coney Island. The wind was whipping down the boardwalk and we had not seen another person for several hours.

    “No, I’m going to need a few days.”

    “Okay, we come back tomorrow and look at it. This is very good. Also, the hotel.”

    ….

    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 20, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Go Where the Character Takes You

    by Sam Hutchins

    Mott Street, Chinatown, New York City

    Mott Street, Chinatown, New York City

    We started the next day early… with a late lunch (an early scout for Kar Wai meant starting in the mid-afternoon). Don’t get the idea that he was lazy, though; nothing could be farther from the truth.  James Brown used to be called “The hardest working man in show business,” but only because he hadn’t met Wong Kar Wai. If we started our work day with a lunch in the mid-afternoon it meant we were scouting until the middle of the night, if not all the way to dawn.  Kar Wai would then return to his hotel and write for several hours. He is one of those people who only need a few hours of sleep a night, filling the remaining hours with productive time. No single person could hope to maintain the pace he does, thus he had learned to break his days into shifts, exhausting those who scouted with him before starting anew with his writing team.

    No live shrimp or other exotica for this lunch, thank heavens. We did eat in Chinatown, though, as would prove true for most of our meals. We all know someone who likes to brag about going to “real” Chinese restaurants where they were “the only white guy”.  Well I got to be that guy, and it wasn’t such a great thing. I’m unapologetically American; it’s the culture I was raised in and who I am. “Real” Chinese food means none of the fried, sweet, or otherwise tasty stuff we know as Chinese cuisine in this country. Authentic Chinese food is healthier, simpler and much more subtle than the stuff we order in. It also sometimes features animal organs, chicken feet, or, you know, live shrimp. Wherever we ate, Kar Wai would order for me, which he liked to do. On my part, however, it was a good day if I was fed something that didn’t unsettle me. A great meal was one where the food was somewhat tasty.

    Working as we did also took some adjustment on my part. A commonly used phrase in the film business is “having had”.  As in, you show up for work already having had your breakfast, coffee, what have you. “My Blueberry Nights” was scouted in a much more European fashion. Meals, shopping and other errands were incorporated into the work day. It was filmmaking as an all-encompassing lifestyle, not a job you did before going home to your personal life. It wound up being the best way to make the film we were trying to make; particularly due to the way Kar Wai’s work gradually evolves. The most apt description is that he gives birth to a film. It does not spring to life fully formed from his head but instead requires nourishment and stimulation to become the thing that it is. We were living as filmmakers, not working as them. Not the easiest thing for an analytical, task-oriented person to come to terms with.

    It was a very productive lunch, however, as information started to emerge about what story we were telling. Perhaps it was because of his increased comfort level, but for whatever the reason, Kar Wai began to really discuss the film, or at least as much as he had worked out of it so far.

    “You know Norah Jones, the singer? She is a waitress. This is her story.”

    Well, that certainly caught me off guard. Of course I was aware of Norah, but not overly conversant with her music. To the best of my knowledge she had never acted before. A little research later on indicated that no: she had not.

    “I thought about making the film all in New York but they tell me it is too expensive. Then I thought maybe New Orleans but I am not sure. They said you know New Orleans?”

    “Yes, I have worked and lived there. I very much love that town.  Lots of great places to shoot and stories to tell there.”

    “Stephane does not like New Orleans.”

    Wow, I had no idea he had so much influence on the project. I had learned that they had never worked together before, which surprised me a great deal given the apparent scope of his involvement in the film.  Kar Wai had referred to him as the “creative producer,” which seemed to be a combination of sounding board, model, advice-giver, and general muse. Sucks that he doesn’t care for New Orleans, though. Not only would I love to return there to work, what amazing material there is for a story there.

    “New Orleans is a place of death and decay, it is not for lovers,” Stephane added.

    It took a while for me to adjust to the French flair for the dramatic. I did come to appreciate it, though.
    “Some day I’ll make a New Orleans movie, but not right for this time. Once I realized it was not New York and not New Orleans I figured, ‘why not make it a journey?’ That is what any story is anyway, so why not find her story as she does, and make her discovery our discovery as well.”

    I still was working in a pretty deep fog, but at least I was catching the occasional fleeting glimpse of a shoreline in the distance. Kar Wai’s process was certainly an interesting one. Typically, when my phone rings, it is a call from someone with a story to tell, and my job is to help them tell it. That might mean jumping on a plane to New Orleans, or Philadelphia, Rhode Island, New Mexico, wherever the best place to work might be. You go where the story takes you. This time we weren’t even starting with a story, but only a character. We were all going to find her story together. It was a little intimidating. After all, this was Wong Kar Wai — he’s a genius. I sat entranced, unable to look away when I first watched Chungking Express. Each successive film he made improved upon the last, and he started out doing amazing work. As strange and uncertain a process it was so far, I gladly signed on for the ride.

    It was late afternoon as we emerged onto Mott Street and left for Coney Island.  I hadn’t the slightest idea why we were going there, but I was not concerned. Every journey starts someplace.

    ….

    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 18, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Diners

    by Sam Hutchins

    B and H Diner, Lower East Side, New York City

    B & H Diner, Lower East Side, New York City

    While it varies from picture to picture, Location Managing at its best is intensely collaborative and creative work. This was clearly going to be the case working with Kar Wai. Location is everything in his films. He doesn’t shoot on soundstages; it’s all about the verisimilitude with him. This was something he has in common with another director I have worked with: Woody Allen. They are both of a mindset that it is better to shoot practical locations whenever possible, which runs counter to the traditional thinking among filmmakers. Generally, a director prefers the controlled environment of a stage to the potential chaos and unpredictability of shooting on the streets. For both Kar Wai and Woody the opposite is true. They prefer the working environment created by shooting amidst real life.

    Knowing a director’s aesthetic is critical; it’s the first thing a location manager must figure out. Usually you have a script to create a dialogue around. Not so with Kar Wai. He does not work with one, and on My Blueberry Nights, we didn’t just lack a script to work with, we lacked even the outlines of a story. It was still fermenting in Kar Wai’s mind, and it was my task to draw as much of it from him as possible so we could start scouting in earnest. Adding to the difficulty were our cultural differences. My facility with the Chinese language was nonexistent, but his English was quite good. That wasn’t it; it was more about the vast differences in the western and eastern mindsets. I didn’t understand that at first, and struggled a little with my failure to connect. It became apparent over time that we came from vastly different environments. I wanted a fixed destination to get to; he wanted to wander a bit and let the path find him.

    “Diners” is what Kar Wai said the following afternoon when I picked him and Stephane up. Jackie apparently was not going to be directly involved in the scouting process. I still had no idea what her role in the process was — or Stephane’s for that matter. This was going to be a process of building from the ground up. At least “diners” gave me a starting point.

    “I assume you mean more traditional, weathered, ‘character’ type diners as opposed to newer, kitschy, retro types?” I was met with a blank stare. Okay, this was going to be difficult. We were on the west side, so I swung by the Empire Diner, a classic silver prefab that has been cleaned up a bit.

    “No, not this.” Okay, then. I then took them to a few similar diners, some cleaner and some more weathered, but all diners in the classic sense. Not even the slightest sign of interest on his part.

    “Do you mean ‘diner’ in the classic sense, you know, like these stainless steel buildings, or maybe just any small restaurant?”

    “Any place with a good window. Small is okay, I don’t care how small. I can squeeze a camera in anywhere or shoot the whole thing from outside, don’t worry about too small.”

    Baby steps. At least we were making some progress. I may not have a script, or the slightest idea of the story he wanted to tell, but at least I now knew we were looking at small restaurants that opened up to street life. What I was discovering was that he didn’t know what he wanted to say yet. We drove all over town with Kar Wai mainly remaining silent. He was just beginning to write in his head as we went along. This was both fascinating and frustrating. I had never worked in anything remotely like this fashion.

    We spent several hours driving around looking at restaurants. Kar Wai spent much of the time in deep contemplation, lost in his own thoughts. Whenever I saw a place I thought might be suitable I pulled over and waited for him to acknowledge it and comment one way or another. Sometimes it took as long as ten minutes for him to notice that the car had stopped moving, and then he’d emerge from his reverie. Invariably, he would look, consider, and then shake his head “no” before leaning back and checking back into his mental space. I was getting a little impatient when he startled me by suddenly calling out.

    “There, that’s it! Pull over please.” We were actually in my neighborhood, on Second Avenue just below St. Mark’s Place. The place he was interested in was B and H Dairy, one of my favorite places to have borscht and challah bread. But small, so impossibly small. I know he said that small was okay, but even so, I could not imagine how we could shoot in there.

    We had a good look at the place and snapped some pictures. Apparently, Stephane was along as some sort of model as Kar Wai had him pose for pictures in front of the place. Odd, but no more so than anything else so far. After thoroughly shooting the place, and Kar Wai reassuring me that it was physically possible to film there, we moved on.

    “Like that place. Not exactly like it, but somewhere that feels like that place. It should be emotionally similar. Maybe close to an elevated train. Someplace like that.”

    I was working with my idol, one of the most talented and creative living filmmakers, but what an enigma he was. In my career I had never before been tasked with scouting a location based on its emotional resonance. I was still wrapping my mind around that one when I got the next curveball.

    “Tomorrow we should go to Coney Island.”

    ….

    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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