A Scouting Life: A Cast of Characters Converges

June 1, 2009 | 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.

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