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  • June 1, 2009

    A Scouting Life: A Cast of Characters Converges

    by Sam Hutchins

    Darius Khondi, Jackie, and Wong Kar Wai.

    Darius Khondji (DP), Jackie (Producer), and Wong Kar Wai.

    There is a tradition of great artists treating every aspect of their lives as a part of their work – people who are so driven by the creative urge that the individual and the work become one and the same. It can lead to personal tragedy, as in the case of Yukio Mishima. He was so consumed by his story that it ended with him eviscerating himself; ultimately it was the statement he needed to make. More likely it can wreak havoc on the lives of those around the artist, as happened with Wagner. His was a life spent taking advantage of his patrons to the point of financial ruin in the service of his compositions. I doubt he ever felt guilt or remorse. The consequences did not matter as long as he was able to make his music. His operas are still performed and appreciated across the globe and no one remembers or cares that people went bankrupt and lives were ruined to finance his lifestyle. A more current (and less tragic) example is Fellini. Much as Fellini had done, Kar Wai surrounds himself with a rotating cast of characters who service his creative impulse in varying fashions. It was my pleasure and sometimes punishment to serve as a character in his life story for a time. His world is populated by colorful individuals, each of whom serves some purpose in his process.

    I’ve already written about Jackie. She is a very petite Chinese woman who seems very much like a Dr. Seuss character. Perpetually smiling, she has a head of hair that resembles a cross between cotton candy and pulled taffy, with tufts sticking out every which way. Her wardrobe consists of brightly colored sweat suits and oversized children’s sneakers. In time I would learn that she was highly intelligent and a bit ruthless behind that cartoonish façade; her family had shadowy holdings in the Macao casinos and other somewhat suspect industries. She is one of Kar Wai’s longest collaborators: she is his producer. Jackie has a penchant for organizing big dinners and late night drinking binges. It wasn’t unheard of for her to wind up slipping you a little tongue at some point in the evening but she was also razor sharp and no one to be trifled with.

    Both Kar Wai and Jackie made frequent references to William. His arrival was long anticipated and much remarked upon. I was able to discern that he was Kar Wai’s production designer and his editor. Not a combination of roles I had ever heard of. With time I would come to know him as Kar Wai’s most trusted creative ally. He was very quiet with a gentle, easy smile. The two were almost like brothers, with William playing the more passive, reflective role. At this stage in the story, however, he was just a rumor whose arrival was delayed while he finished other vague projects Kar Wai had started in Hong Kong.

    I’ve mentioned Stephane previously. He was a bit of a cartoon character himself. Short, rumpled, he dressed as sort of a cross between an intellectual and a French rock and roller. One of those guys who perpetually wears five days of stubble. He speaks with a heavy accent and is full of energy and whimsy. I was rather shocked to discover that he had two sons and a wife in Paris. He gave the impression he had lived on the road his whole life. He initially comes across as a bit of a goof but late at night when a steady hand is needed on the wheel he steps up every time and takes it home. Stephane was such a key part of the process that it was shocking to discover that his acquaintance with Kar Wai was fairly recent in nature. His official title was Creative Producer. It may as well have been imp, muse, or alter ego.

    Chris Doyle cast a lengthy shadow over the group. Anyone conversant with Kar Wai’s work knows the legend. A dissolute Aussie and legendary drinker, he had worked his way across Southeast Asia before settling in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong. He had photographed most of Wong Kar Wai’s movies prior to some sort of violent falling out on 2046. Kar Wai smiles all the time but his smiles have many meanings. When he spoke of Chris his smile was one of genuine love. Apparently Chris didn’t even keep an apartment that anyone knew of. He worked long hours on set then retired to any of a number of shithole back-alley bars or brothels where he drank himself into oblivion. Someone was sent to drag his sodden form back to set so they could shoot again the next day. Kar Wai is an instigator and a guy like Chris is his ideal companion. Highly talented and able to shoot incredibly lovely pictures, he is also a hell raiser, troublemaker and source of conflict and entertainment. He was quoted as describing the making of 2046 thusly: “It feels like… it’s like a hairball in a dog’s stomach.” I think he broke Kar Wai’s heart even though the master gave no indication that was the case.

    Chris was replaced by Darius Khondji. A tall Iranian expat now settled in as a Parisian, he was just as much a character as the rest. Rather handsome in an exotic way, he is the true definition of a lover. Everything about him is driven by emotion and heart. He is easily distracted, fascinated by everyone he meets and everything he sees. Darius can get in a passionate, heated argument over the relative quality of an oyster. And quality was certainly of import to him. He is accustomed to a certain lifestyle and unwilling to compromise in that area. The man knows what he likes and insists on it. He has an incredibly good eye and a hunger for life. A fine replacement in every respect.

    Darius arrived in New York and really set the wheels in motion. He joined us in scouting the origins of Norah’s character in New York. We looked in every imaginable corner of the city and surrounding area for a location in which to start her story. It was a strange and interesting time. Scouting is not the most traditional job to begin with but we pushed it to extremes. Instead of working in a cubicle I found myself hopping fences to shoot photos on active train tracks as the sun rose over the polluted Meadowlands swamps overlooking New York. Explaining the presence of myself, a few Hong Kong nationals, a Frenchman, an Iranian and several cameras to a highly dubious railroad policeman became a matter of course to me. All this and we hadn’t even started cross-country yet.



    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 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.



    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 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.

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