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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.”


    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.”



    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.

  • 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.



    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.

  • 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.”



    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.

  • May 15, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Plate o’ Shrimp with Wong Kar Wai

    by Sam Hutchins

    When you work on a studio film things are pretty straightforward. There are staff accountants, lawyers, and executives with whom to consult. There are policies and procedures to follow. It’s still a lot more loose than working in traditional industries, but at least there is some semblance of normalcy. Not so when making an independent film. You have to be careful with the independents because things can get really strange.

    Earlier in my career I walked away from certain gigs that just got a little too weird. One colleague did a film with Able Ferrara where he was told on the first day that the only office rule was “no shooting up in the bathroom.” Apparently someone overdosed while locked in there on the last film and caused a lot of difficulty. The solution they worked out was to allow people to do drugs openly at their desks. That is an extreme, of course, but how normal is it to interview for a job in a downtown loft at ten o’clock at night? I knew going in that working for Wong Kar Wai was going to be a unique experience.

    That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear from Kar Wai’s people the next day. I was admittedly anxious for the call. It was exciting, and I woke up early. Waited all day with no word. As the evening came and went I realized they would be calling late. I was in bed by the time the call came. It was eleven o’clock at night. Jackie, the Chinese woman I had met the night before, was on the line. She summoned me back to the loft in Tribeca.

    I arrived to find them waiting on the street for me: Jackie, Wong Kar Wai, and a short, goofy looking Frenchman named Stephane. They handed me keys to a car and told me to drive them to Flushing. Cool. Flushing is the real Chinatown in New York, out in Central Queens. I hadn’t been there in years but knew how to get there. We drove out in relative silence. They directed me to one of the hundreds of Chinese restaurants just off Main Street. As we walked into the restaurant Jackie squealed with delight.

    “Jackie’s favorite, Hong Kong hot pot. You like hot pot?” Kar Wai asked me.

    “Never tried it.”

    “You like Chinese food?”

    “Yes, the American kind. I’m eager to have some authentic stuff with you.”

    “You will like.”

    At first glance Kar Wai seemed like a nice enough guy. His English was much better than Jackie’s, and he was making an effort to engage me. We sat at a table with a burner built in to it. Kar Wai ordered in Chinese, of course, and things started happening rapidly. A waiter placed a pot of water on the burner to heat up.  Plates of various ingredients appeared on the table in front of us. Nothing I could identify at all. While we waited for the water to boil, we went to a weird little rolling cart containing various liquids and spices.  Jackie helped guide me through the process of creating my own sauce.  The only thing I could identify was sesame oil.

    “Do you like shrimp?” Kar Wai asked.

    “I love shrimp.”

    Kar Wai pointed with his chopsticks at two plates. One piled high with shrimp, the second on top of the first to keep the shrimp from escaping — they were still alive.  Wow, never saw that before. I knew the entire meal was an extension of the job interview, so I went for it. Forgoing the chopsticks, I snatched a shrimp and tossed it in my mouth. I’ve never felt anything as unpleasant as a live shrimp trying to crawl out of my mouth. I chewed on it to stop it from moving and felt its shell crunching between my teeth. It was really hard to keep down, but I managed by chasing it with a big swallow of Tsingtao beer. At least we were drinking.

    The table cracked up as I washed the shrimp down. What the hell? Were they making fun of me? Kar Wai gently put his hand on my arm.

    “No, do like this.” He plucked a wriggling shrimp with his chopsticks and dropped it in the boiling water. How embarrassing. They laughed again at the look on my face, but in a good natured way. They added a few more shrimp to the pot, then some unidentifiable sliced vegetables and spices. So that’s how you do it. Unfortunately, the cooked shrimp still had the shell on it and wasn’t much different than the live specimen, other than the absence of twitching antennae in my mouth.

    What little conversation there was centered around the food and how to eat it. We drank a lot of beer. Stephane was an enthusiastic eater, but I definitely got the impression that he was eating more to please them than out of enjoyment of the food. No judgment from me, though — I was doing the same thing, just with less vigor.

    The plates kept coming. Other than some small peppers, I could not identify what was on any of them. No matter. We cooked them in the hot pot and tossed them back. After an extended back and forth with the waiter, a plate was brought out containing some sort of thinly sliced organ meat. Kar Wai insisted it was a rare delicacy that I must try. In for a penny, in for a pound, right? I threw it in my mouth. Not bad, but spongy and very chewy. I couldn’t break it apart and had to choke it down whole.

    “How you like?”

    “Not bad. What was it?”

    “Yak penis.”

    He surprised me by flinching and pushing back from the table quickly. It took a minute for me to realize that I had clenched my fist and drew it back. It was an unconscious reaction on my part. I would never have actually hit the man; he was my idol. Nevertheless, I did have the impulse, and it played right into the cowboy image a lot of the world has of Americans. Fortunately, Jackie broke the tension.

    “More beer.” She smiled and filled my glass. Kar Wai moved back to the table. In my entire acquaintance with him it was the only time I saw him uncomfortable.

    “Very good to eat. Makes you horny.” He put away a few slices of boiled yak cock himself before barking at the waiter to make the dishes vanish.

    We drank a substantial amount of beer before settling up and driving back to Manhattan. Still hadn’t talked about the film at all, but I was pretty confident I had passed their tests. I got my real answer when we got back to their loft. After parking the car, we prepared to go our separate ways. Jackie took me by the arm.

    “Tomorrow we go scout?”

    Okaaaaay, sure. Still no idea what the story was about or where it took place, but I could roll with the punches as well as anyone. As I started to leave Jackie leaned in and gave me a quick kiss. On the lips. Slipped me the tongue. Whoa, didn’t see that one coming. Nothing serious, just a quick flash of wetness, but it was no accident. This really was going to be an interesting job.



    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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