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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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  • 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.

    ….

    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 13, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Sam Hutchins’ Blueberry Nights

    by Sam Hutchins

    Wong Kar Wai, Director

    Wong Kar Wai, Director

    Working as a movie location manager can be arduous, but there are days when I can’t believe I get paid to do what I do. The job allows me creative input in the production process and provides a front row seat to the making of some wonderful films.

    A few years ago, however, I had fallen into a rut. For most of my career I alternated between interesting low-budget independents and well-paying studio gigs. Then money became more of a priority, and I got used to having it. I left the smaller films behind and did a long stretch of studio pictures. I did several romantic comedies in a row.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with romantic comedies. Just like food, though, a steady diet of the same meal becomes tiresome after a while. When for the fourth time I found myself scouting for a movie about a plucky young woman who worked in fashion/magazines/television for a demanding/glamorous boss and had to rely on her charm to get into the trendy restaurant/exclusive concert/championship game to win her man, I began to question my existence. It was all the same. I needed a break from the perfect romantic worlds I helped create.

    One day, while lamenting my state of ennui with a production manager friend of mine, I got more of a break than I could have imagined.

    “I might have something interesting for you,” my friend said, “But I really don’t think you’ll work for the money they have.”

    “Try me. You might be surprised.”

    “It’s a Chinese director making his first American film. Let me see. I have his name here somewhere. Yeah. It’s a guy called Wong Kar Wai.”

    What? Seriously? Wong Kar Wai? I could not believe what I was hearing. I had a shot at working with the most talented, enigmatic filmmaker alive?

    “I’ll do it.”

    “Wait, Sam, there’s no money involved.”

    “I don’t care. I’ll do whatever it takes to make it work. How do I get the job?”

    My friend gave Wong Kar Wai’s people my resume and strongly recommended me. The thought of it made me giddy. This was exactly what I needed and then some. I have worked with incredibly talented filmmakers over the years, but here was a chance to work with the man whose work I respected most.

    I didn’t wait long. That same evening my friend called.

    “They want to meet you. I know it’s rather late, but can you get down to Tribeca tonight?”

    “They want to meet now? It’s ten o’clock at night.”

    “I’ll set something up for tomorrow then.”

    “No, I’ll do it. Where do I go?”

    I was sent to a loft downtown. Unusual as the film business is, interviewing for a job this late was strange even for me. A very fat and jolly Frenchman greeted me. “Hallo. I am Jean Louis. You are Sam, oui?” Jean Louis didn’t wait for an answer. He turned and left me standing there. He entered a kitchen on the far side of the loft where several people were speaking in mixed French, Chinese and an occasional bit of English.

    Not knowing what else to do, I stood and waited. After a while a tall Chinese man came over.  He wore sunglasses indoors… at night. Somehow he pulled off the look. He also wore a welcoming smile. I recognized him from photos.

    “I am Kar Wai. I understand you want to work with us?”

    “I very much want to. I think your films are amazing.”

    “You know my work?”

    “I’ve seen almost everything you have done. I love your films and would be honored to be a part of one.”

    He stood and looked me over for a painfully long time. Finally he flashed a mysterious smile and returned to the kitchen. What the hell just happened? It was the shortest and strangest interview I ever had. I figured I blew it. What an incredible let down. I turned and signaled for the elevator. As I waited, I sensed someone at my side. I turned to see a short Chinese woman wearing a tracksuit. Her wild hair stood up all over her head. She looked like a Dr. Seuss character. When she spoke, it was in heavily accented English.

    “Dinner tomorrow. I call you.”

    ….

    STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF ‘A 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 13, 2009

    New Reel 13 Blogger: Sam Hutchins presents ‘A Scouting Life’

    Sam Hutchins, movie location manager

    Sam Hutchins, movie location manager

    Exciting news here at Reel 13. Sam Hutchins, a veteran location manager and movie scout, will be posting dispatches from his always unpredictable scouting life, as well as interviews and discussions with the unsung workhorses of the film community like himself.

    Sam has been working in film production in various capacities for twenty years. He began his career as an overnight security guard on the set of “Working Girl.” From there he worked his way up to parking coordinator, then movie scout, and since 1995, location manager.

    For those of you that make films, you know the trials and tribulations of the production process seem endless. Especially on the front lines: the neighborhoods, blocks, and bars in which films are shot on location. Sam’s stories shed light on how to learn a location, connect with the right people, and ultimately maintain the set when the cameras roll.

    You can read Sam’s older posts at his former home on tumblr, but starting today, Sam will share his stories right here on Reel 13. He begins with a recent indie he worked on: Wong Kar Wai’s English language debut, My Blueberry Nights, starring Jude Law and Norah Jones. And if Sam’s first post is any indication, his trip across America shooting with one of modern cinema’s true visionaries promises to be a strange and surprising journey. Enjoy!

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