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  • August 11, 2009

    A Scouting Life: A bar packed with heavily armed, paranoid, and seriously drunk men

    by Sam Hutchins

    Our first few days were exciting and fruitful, but soon afterwards things slowed down. That’s the thing with scouting: you have good days and bad days. I’ve been through the bad days and know that you just have to keep grinding it out. Darius and Stephane had not experienced them before and didn’t understand. Typically a producer and cinematographer start scouting after I have been out on my own for a while and come up with several selections. They aren’t scouting per se; they are looking at locations I have already scouted. This was their first experience going out cold and seeking locations. This country is a big place, and we spent the next few days ambling around the southwest without seeing anything interesting.

    I should clarify that we actually saw lots of interesting things, just not the locations we were seeking. We did get to see endless open desert landscapes and roads stretching to the horizon, and we took pictures of it all. I ate the best chicken fried steak I’ll ever have. We drove through west Texas towns that were empty because everyone was at the rodeo. I impressed one of my companions by scoring some pot from a desk clerk at a motel in El Paso. We saw sunrises and sunsets, beautifully decrepit trailers, mesas, cacti, and packs of appaloosa horses running on the plains. Just not any good locations.

    We also started to get on each other’s nerves. Darius was only happy if he got to choose the music. Whenever I plugged in my iPod he would gradually turn the volume down lower and lower until it wasn’t worth listening to. Stephane started griping about Kar Wai not being with us. I snored too loud when I caught the infrequent nap in the back seat. We all smoked way too many cigarettes. The tension in the car was becoming palpable.

    We were in our third straight day without seeing anything even remotely right as a location. It was starting on late afternoon and breakfast was the last time we’d seen any signs of human life. The beauty of the landscape kept it from feeling overly ominous but not by much. Beautiful red stone mesas and rock formations were strewn about, breaking up the chaparral of the high desert. The empty road stretched to the horizon.

    When you live your life surrounded by humanity the absence of people can be a little frightening. Spend enough time in such barren landscapes and you start wondering if the apocalypse happened and no one remembered to tell you. The complete lack of any sign of humanity gets downright worrisome. We were somewhere on the Arizona/New Mexico border and we were very alone. Darkness was creeping up on us quickly. I’ve spent a few nights camped in the desert but my companions had not and certainly weren’t going to start now. Sometimes you start to wonder if the road might just run out. Silence was ruling the day in our truck.

    Coming to a T intersection in the road, we had a choice to make. Even with the detailed topo maps I had acquired, we were lost. The roads we were on were so isolated they weren’t on any map. The right thing to do would have been to ask Darius and Stephane which path they thought we should take. I had waited on their indecisiveness often enough already that I was in no mood to do the right thing. Hauling the wheel over suddenly I took the turn with the tires squealing. I had hoped a quick decision would forestall any debate. Not likely.

    “You sure this is the right way to go?” Stephane asked.

    Unless you have spent a lot of time in a car with someone it’s hard to understand how the little annoyances can build up. Part of it was cultural as well. I love so much about the French. These are the people who gave us Flaubert and Rimbaud. What is better in life than sitting at a café in Paris having good Bordeaux, some oysters, and a nice little salad? They gave us absinthe. I challenge you to stand in front of a Monet and say something negative about Gaul. However, until you have listened to a pair of Frenchmen spend 13 straight hours in an SUV arguing whether it is a one day drive from Paris to the Mediterranean or better done in two you do not know what frustration is. As a race they live to discuss, debate, and disagree. Fortunately, I didn’t have to argue in support of my decision as we saw a building on the side of the road with a few trucks out front.

    The Witches Well looked like a roadhouse anywhere else in the country, only in Arizona style. Food, a drink or two and a little local guidance sounded like a great thing to me. We had found an oasis, or so I thought. It turned out to be one of those times where you realize you made a mistake the second you walk in the door. I actually stopped and was about to bail when I saw what was going on inside. Unfortunately my two companions were hard on my heels. They pushed right past me, jabbering away in French as they headed straight for the bathroom.

    Although there had only been a few vehicles outside the place was pretty crowded. There wasn’t an empty stool in the place, and every one was filled with a heavily armed American Indian. They wore western dress, although a few had small feathers or other tribal accents on them. Without fail they wore side arms and a number of them had rifles slung over their backs. The room had dropped into utter silence when we entered, and although no one had turned to look I could still feel every eye in the place on me. Definitely not cool, not cool at all. The smart move would have been to smile, apologize and slowly back out the door. I couldn’t leave my friends behind, though.

    “Now just who the hell would you be and what do you want?” The bartender asked. He was the only one in the room who didn’t appear to be wearing a sidearm. Instead, his pistol sat right on the bar back next to the cash register. A double barrel shotgun leaned against the wall next to it.

    I carefully explained that I was there to scout a movie and would like to talk to him about it. Now a few heads turned to take a look.

    “Bullshit. Who really sent you?”

    Oh my. This was serious. What the hell had we just walked into here? There was a vast empty desert outside to dump corpses in and I was all too aware of that. My companions chose this moment to emerge from the bathroom, still arguing loudly in French. They stopped short when they saw the situation. Thank God for small favors.

    I wasn’t afraid as much as I was aware of every molecule in the room. I had already processed the fact that this might be it for us. Every dust mote hanging in a beam of sunlight stood out individually to me. No matter how you play it, when your reality involves a bar packed with heavily armed, paranoid, and seriously drunk men the resolution can be problematic.

    “Tell him we’re scouting a movie.” Stephane said in his heavily accented English. I wouldn’t have been completely surprised if someone had just shot him on the spot. Had I been armed I might have considered it myself. I turned back to the bartender to do some serious selling.

    “I’m telling the truth. We’re driving cross country from LA to New York scouting locations for a movie we’re making. I’ve made movies for twenty years, this is what I do. I can prove it. I don’t know what your deal is here but if you aren’t interested we can walk out the door right now, no hard feelings. I don’t want to cause any trouble.”

    As I spoke some of the men at the bar started muttering under their breath. I didn’t catch any specifics but I didn’t get the sense they were saying anything very friendly. Time to really pour it on.

    “The thing is, we’re looking for a bar exactly like this to film in. We pay lots of money when we do that. You aren’t interested, we can move along. We’ll find someplace else. It’s up to you.”

    “What’s up with your friends over there? What kind of shit language they talking?”

    “They’re okay,” I lied. “I’ve known them for years. They’re just French. They’re producing the movie, its French money. The French love America. They love the west. They love this place.”

    This brought the house down. Everyone at the bar laughed. Even the bartender. It was that “laughing at you” laughter, not the “laughing with you” kind.

    “You’re damn lucky Billy isn’t here. He hates the fucking French.” The guys at the bar nodded in agreement and chuckled. It seemed the moment had passed and the tension broke slightly. I did know that I didn’t want to meet Billy, though.
    “Give me some ID.” I handed over my driver’s license. He looked it over carefully. I gave him a business card and told him he could call and check me out with the New York City Mayor’s Office. He ignored that suggestion.

    “Okay if my friends take some pictures?” He gave it a long moment before giving me the OK. This caused some more grumbling from the crowd at the bar. I looked over at Stephane and Darius. Normally they would be chomping at the bit to shoot the place but for the moment neither of them had moved a muscle. I was scared that if they didn’t start shooting it would seem suspicious.

    “Okay guys,” I said in my most casual voice, “let’s get some pictures. Probably better if we avoid this area, though,” I broadly indicated the area where all the customers sat. Basically most of the bar.

    There was a connecting room with a pool table in it. Suffice it to say that they went to the farthest corner of that room and shot an extensive photographic record of the far wall, facing away from the bar. I really would have loved to have shot some good pictures of the interior myself but my attentions were better focused on the bartender.

    “You have to excuse us for being a little careful.” He opened up, “We get it from both sides here. The Feds hate us and look for any reason to take my license. Those bastards from the American Indian Movement been trying to shut us down for years. We’re the closest bar to the reservation and they got a problem with what we do here. Matter of fact just last month they got their courage up and loaded up a couple cars full of braves. Drove right up the road there. I didn’t want no trouble but my sons weren’t having it. They got up on the roof and put a dozen bullets in each car.” He chuckled at the memory. “You betcha they figured out how to put those jalopies in reverse real damn fast. Good shots, my boys. Youngest one is only thirteen and he can put a bullet through a nickel.”

    I told him I wanted to buy a round for the bar. At this point all the customers had turned back to their whiskey but it was clear plenty of attention was still quietly being paid to us. Stephane and Darius were done pretending to shoot photos and were trying to look small in the corner of the room.

    “They won’t drink with you. If you buy a bottle and leave it on the bar they’ll have it after you leave.”

    “Fine with me. I’ll buy one for them and why don’t you give me a bottle of Jack Daniels to take with us.”

    As he rang me up I finally noticed all of the bullet holes in the walls. I guess I was too nervous to really see before but they were everywhere. I had to ask.

    “Are those bullet holes? Was that from the AIM guys?”

    “Nah, those pussies never got a round off. No, you come back later tonight and someone in here will get mad and throw a couple shots around. If it gets too wild I fire a few in the ceiling and things calm down. “A quick glance up confirmed that he was telling the truth.

    “You’d best be on your way. Some of my customers still don’t like you.” I didn’t need to be told twice. The three of us went right for the door. As I left I heard over my shoulder.

    “Filming a movie, huh? Bullshit.” I didn’t stay to argue the point.

    The really funny thing is that a few months later, after I returned to New York, the phone calls started. Every few weeks I’d get a drunken voice mail from the guy at the Witches Well asking when we were coming to film there.



    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.

  • August 10, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Gary Cooper = American

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed Meet John Doe, you might also enjoy these great films featuring Gary Cooper:

    Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936)


    Simple country boy Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits an immense fortune from a wealthy distant relative he doesn’t even know, and must then navigate a sea of handlers and hand-out requests to make sense of his new life as multi-millionaire. But those who think they can manipulate this tuba-playing rube are soon in for a rude awakening.


    Quintessential Capra charmer is one of Cooper’s most appealing comic forays, as his plain-talking homespun personification of rural America out-foxes all those smug and greedy city-slickers. Arthur is also terrific as Babe Bennett, the hard-nosed lady journalist who first ridicules, then falls for Longfellow, much to her own surprise. One of the screen’s authentic classics, this is pixilated comedy at its very best. Beware the Sandler re-make.

    Sergeant York (1941)


    Incredible but true story concerns wild, hard-drinking Tennessee country farmer and crack shot Alvin York (Gary Cooper), who finally gets religion through a freak accident. When called to serve in the First War, his faith tells him to become a conscientious objector, but ultimately Alvin is forced to go overseas to fight. There, his marksmanship and gallantry help him kill, wound or capture over 100 German soldiers virtually single-handedly, making him the most famous and decorated enlisted man in the army.


    Hawks’s timely patriotic biopic of this virtually forgotten hero provided Cooper with another seminal role (he won the Oscar, beating out Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane”, among others), and helped to prepare our nation for the next impending world conflict. Prolific character actor Brennan (Oscar-nominated as well) excels as Alvin’s plain-spoken pastor, and ingénue Leslie makes an adorable love interest. A truly amazing story, unfolding on-screen with Hawks’s customary subtlety and skill. Don’t forget to salute this Sergeant.

    Pride of the Yankees (1942)


    Romanticized portrayal of Yankee Lou Gehrig’s life and career makes baseball a metaphor for our country’s noblest defining traits: determination, humility, and raw courage as Gehrig faces a rare and fatal disease (soon to be named after him), with the same grace and finesse he displayed as a ballplayer.


    Potent inspiration for a country newly at war, the film still holds up with lots of patriotic flavoring. and the pungent, inspiring atmosphere of a simpler time and place. The magnetic Cooper was never better, and we even get a glimpse of Babe Ruth playing himself in this picture. A sentimental chestnut that never grows stale, reflecting a time when heroes were real.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • August 3, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: John Sayles’ Best

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed Lone Star, you might also enjoy these great John Sayles’ films:

    Matewan (1987)



    United Mine Workers union rep Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) has his hands full organizing a cohesive group in the small West Virginia town of Matewan, as they comprise white, black, and Italian factions unaccustomed to interacting outside the pit. But when the Stone Mountain Coal Company-which owns the stores and homes of its workers-announces a lowering of wages, Joe’s message to the Appalachian miners is simple: there is strength in numbers. As the strike begins to spread, the iron-fisted owning interest gears up for a violent, full-fledged showdown.


    One of the best films of the 1980s, John Sayles’s evocative “Matewan” takes us back to the 1920s, and the primitive, perilous lives of coal miners in West Virginia. Flavorful, meticulous recreation of time and place is enhanced by powerful performances, particularly from Cooper and a majestic James Earl Jones playing a miner called “Few Clothes” Johnson. With legendary lenser Haskell Wexler providing sumptuous visuals, and a cathartic climax involving the bloody, historic shootout that put Matewan on the map, this may well be Sayles’s finest hour.

    Eight Men Out (1988)


    Re-creation of one of baseball’s darkest moments: the fixing of the 1919 World Series where members of the Chicago White Sox were bribed by gambling interests to throw games.


    Writer/Director Sayles creates rich period flavor, and his script does full justice to this tragic story. His cast of rising young actors are uniformly strong, including John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, David Strathairn and D.B Sweeney.

    The Secret Of Roan Inish (1994)


    After her mother dies, plucky young Fiona (Jeni Courtney) goes to live with her grandparents. They dwell right across from their prior island home, Roan Inish, which the family abandoned a few years earlier, when, at high-tide, Fiona’s baby brother Jamie drifted out to sea in his wooden cradle. Soon Fiona is hearing tales about “selkies”–seals that turn into humans–and rumors that the island is still occupied. Could little Jamie still be alive?


    Set on the West Coast of Ireland in the late 1940s, John Sayles’s splendid “Secret” tracks one youngster’s attempt to uncover a mystery that sheds light on her family’s history and the fate of her little brother. This intimate, deliberately paced fable casts its spell gradually, but leaves you feeling snug and satisfied. The film benefits from lush cinematography by Haskell Wexler, and first-rate turns from Courtney as Fiona and Mick Lally as kindly grandfather Hugh. If you love the water and believe in magic, watch this small gem of a movie.

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

  • July 29, 2009

    A Scouting Life: Terror Suspects

    by Sam Hutchins

    Hoover Dam

    Hoover Dam

    As much as I loved Vegas, leaving it always left me feeling empty. Going there is a conscious choice to avoid reality; departing is a forced reconciliation with it. This time was different, however, as we had forged such a bond the night before. We arrived as three individuals and left as a group. A much nicer departure than before.

    Driving east from Vegas, you have two choices: northeast or southeast. Utah or Arizona, not great options either way. I have no love for either state, nor did I see great potential for the type of people and places Kar Wai needed in either place. We headed towards Phoenix simply as it would keep us in the southern latitudes and wasn’t Utah. The road takes you past Lake Powell and the Hoover Dam, both of which are at least interesting for a student of American history.

    Not much to report on this leg as even the two-lane back road we took was crowded with RV’s and pickup trucks towing boats. Nothing more banal than that. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the surroundings and newly formed bonds of friendship. So much so that I allowed myself to make a mistake at the Hoover Dam.

    Approaching the dam there are signs everywhere stating what you cannot do. No parking, no pulling over, no videotaping here, no photography there. It was the work of a control freak gone wild. Even though it was recently enough post 9/11 that security concerns were still reasonable, this was a bit much. As I was processing all this, Darius suddenly grabbed my shoulder.

    “Here, here, pull over.” I knew better but I did so anyway. We eased into a little turnoff right at the edge of the dam. Electrical transformers and towers loomed over us, silently harnessing the might of Mother Nature. We parked directly under a sign that forbade cars from stopping.
    “I’m not sure this is a good place for us to stop.”

    “Pfft. You Americans are so uptight. Let Darius get some shots,” chimed in Stephane. I acquiesced. Admittedly, I started snapping away as well. The sky was a stunning shade of blue and we were amidst the majesty of man and nature both. It was quite seductive. Even so, I should have seen the Fed coming.

    “Freeze! Put the cameras down and keep your hands where I can see them!”

    He wasn’t kidding. Son of a bitch hadn’t actually drawn his gun, but his hand was on it and he was ready to. I immediately set my Leica on the pavement and grabbed some sky. Stephane lowered his camera and looked at the National Park Policeman with a nasty sneer. Darius kept rolling tape of the dam in that amazingly oblivious way of his, not reacting in the slightest.

    “Hey, I’m serious!” he started towards my cameraman. I could only see this ending with Darius being maced and beaten. Stephane spoke sharply to him in French, which was both good and bad. Good as it caught Darius attention and caused him to lower his camera; bad as it immediately fixed us as dangerous foreign terrorists in the eyes of this officious little prick of a cop.

    Mind you, I am a friend of law enforcement. Enough so that I dislike the bad ones all that much more, and we had found one. I carry a badge myself and can usually flash it and walk away from situations like this one with no hassle. Not this time, my friend. All my police connections were trumped by my companion’s foreign passports and accents, particularly Darius’ recent visa stamp from his trip to Iran.

    As proud as I can be of my country, this was a shameful episode. I suppose it is a function of living in New York City, but it is easy to forget how unsophisticated the better part of this nation can be. It boggles the mind that in the twenty-first century the act of being a Frenchman taking pictures is cause for suspicion and detainment. Hasn’t this guy heard of the Louisiana Purchase? General Lafayette? The Statue of frigging Liberty? We spent a few hours being checked out, questioned and suspected. After a great deal of explaining on my part we were set free.

    The encounter gave the three of us a great deal to talk about. We debated the American character, the balance between obeying rules and taking risks in the attempt to get great pictures, and the prevalence of guns in our country. My French friends were horrified by them. It wasn’t even lunch and we had already had an adventure. As the conversation flowed, so did the road. Past the dam we encountered wide-open landscapes and soon met even more gun-toting Americans.



    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.

  • July 27, 2009

    Best Movies by Farr: Early Woody

    by John Farr

    If you enjoyed Annie Hall, you might also enjoy these great early Woody Allen films:

    Take The Money and Run (1969)


    Ever since he was a boy, wimpy milquetoast Virgil Starkwell (Woody Allen) has had a compulsion to steal, only to bungle it horribly at the crucial moment. Now grown, Virgil has capitalized on that childhood promise and become a pitifully ineffectual career criminal whos gone from getting his hand stuck in the gumball machine to flubbing his own hold-up notes.


    Presented as a mock documentary complete with narration by radio ham Jackson Beck, Allen’s hilarious directorial debut is nuttier and loaded with more gags than his later, more sophisticated New York films. But that’s exactly why it works: The laughs are goofy and often puerile, and for all the zippy one-liners that don’t quite elicit a full-belly guffaw, Allen piles on with cutting satire (focused mostly on footage of presidents Nixon and Eisenhower). You’ll have a lot of fun watching this manic genius at work in one of his earlier comedic efforts.

    Bananas (1971)


    Hoping to rekindle their romance, neurotic New York product tester Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) follows the girl of his dreams, idealistic activist Nancy (Louise Lasser), to the tiny Latin American nation of “San Marcos,” where she’s assisting rebels attempting to overthrow General Vargas (Carlos Montalban). Nancy wants nothing to do with Fielding, who is received as a dinner guest by the wily, scheming Vargas. After the rebels capture Fielding, circumstances lead him to become, unwittingly, the dictator of the country.


    Allen’s hilariously wise-mouthed shlub tosses off an arsenal of tart one-liners in “Bananas,” a madcap slapstick comedy that pokes fun at Fidel Castro, tabloid TV (Howard Cosell has a starring role, lampooning himself), the C.I.A., Jewish mothers, and unrequited love. A crazed homage to Don Quixote and the Marx brothers, “Bananas” was Allen’s second film, and the first over which he exercised complete creative control. Sylvester Stallone even has a cameo as a mugger. Go “Bananas”!

    Sleeper (1973)


    Greenwich Village store owner Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) reluctantly enters the hospital in 1973, needing treatment for an ulcer. Cryogenically frozen by his surgeon when the procedure fails, Miles reawakens in a bleak future world ruled by an unseen Orwellian Leader. Forced to disguise himself as an android to evade police, Miles eventually teams up with Pollyanna-ish greeting-card writer Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) and joins the underground resistance.


    An absurdist parody of sci-fi movies, Allen’s “Sleeper” deftly mixes witty one-liners and nutty sight gags to lampoon the absurdities of contemporary society. Allen reaches Buster Keaton-esque comedic greatness here-battling a giant pudding, surviving an Orgasmatron, morphing into Blanche Dubois-and has a naturally funny, gentle rapport with Keaton, the perfect foil. With Allen’s own Dixieland score providing a manic tempo for all the pratfalls and arch social commentary, “Sleeper” is one of the writer-director’s looniest and most hilarious efforts.

    Love and Death (1975)


    Set during the Napoleonic Wars, noted intellectual and coward Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) adores the beautiful Sonja, but she only has eyes for Boris’s mind. Sonja finally agrees to marry him, then enlists Boris in a daring scheme to assassinate Napoleon. Of course, all these shenanigans only serve to confirm the utter futility of human existence-but hey, it’s better than being dead!


    Director/writer/star Allen hits dizzying comedic heights in this zany spoof of Russian literature. Diane Keaton continues to build on her distinctively ditzy persona as the idealistic but scattered Sonja. Populated with assorted other colorful types, the film’s sustained hilarity makes it fully worthy of repeat visits. (Don’t miss that side-splitting scene at the opera where Boris makes goo-goo eyes at the buxom countess!)

    Visit Best Movies by Farr for more great DVD recommendations.

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