by Sam Hutchins
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.
“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.