A Scouting Life: A Cruel Joke

April 8, 2010 | Sam Hutchins

We rolled on and on. Beautiful, desolate country. Hours of nothing but the landscape. It was hard to tell from the map, but I feared we might wind up driving pretty deep into the night before we found a place to crash. We were all getting rather hungry too, lunch having been mostly beef jerky. Just as the sun was setting we saw evidence of humanity beginning to appear. First a beat-up old trailer, then an ancient roadhouse. As we pulled up to the first place we had seen in several hours, Darius spoke up. “Are you sure this is the best place to eat?” he said.

I slowly scanned the vast, empty horizon before answering as evenly as possible. “I think this is going to be our best bet.”

Kar Wai smiled, but then again he always does and no one ever knows what it means.

We were at a spot called Middlegate station. Built as a stagecoach stop in the 1850’s, it later served as a stop on the Pony Express. It was the next stop after Major’s Station, actually. Hard to believe, but what had been a relatively long day of driving for us was once done on a galloping horse. Those riders must have been tough sons-of-bitches. At least they didn’t have to put up with the emotional tension that was slowly building in the truck.

The place was full. Modern cowboys crowded the bar, drinking, eating and watching a large television. A pair of blueberry pies sat cooling on a wire rack. I pointed them out to Kar Wai, but he wasn’t interested. Rightly so, I suppose. Although slightly more interesting than Major’s Station, Middlegate was too isolated. At least Major’s had the resources of nearby Ely to support us while filming there. It did beg the question of where the cowboys filling Middlegate came from. The next town was still another 50 miles to the west. It was like “Cheers” but for Unabomber-types.

We found a table in back and sat for another in a series of increasingly unpleasant meals. Stephane, for all his faults, was a good guy. He had been hired for what was basically a dream job. Working as a producer of documentaries and commercials in Paris, he had somehow caught Wong Kar Wai’s attention. For unknown reasons, Kar Wai had taken him on as inspiration and muse. Kar Wai made a point of referring to him as the “Creative Producer.” He served as a stand-in for our pictures, which is odd considering he is just over five feet tall. He helped Kar Wai with his English dialogue, which is odd, as he had a limited command of the language. The two mens’ sensibilities seemed to be almost directly opposite: Kar Wai’s zen calm compared to Stephane’s wacky anarchic energy. Perhaps this contrast was what had appealed to Kar Wai initially, but he seemed to be having second thoughts. He was treating Stephane terribly.

“We will all sit here. Except Stephane. Why don’t you eat in the car.”

A harmless enough joke it would seem, but everyone was competing for the master’s attentions so it was actually quite cruel in a quiet way. The hurt flashed across Stephane’s face as Kar Wai turned his attentions to Darius. Those two were getting quite close. Hurtful as that may have been to Stephane, it was ultimately more important for the film that the director and DP get along. Still, it could have been handled so much better. We ate quickly and in relative silence before getting back on the road.

Stephane took a shift behind the wheel, expressing his mortification and anger by testing the limits of the truck and his luck at avoiding police. Fine with me. He’s a good driver when he pays attention and it was a long way to Reno. Also it allowed me time to attend to my work. Piloting this scout was pretty much a full-time job to begin with, but I had a number of other responsibilities. I had found and hired good local scouts in Memphis, Detroit, Vegas and Los Angeles, and was supervising their work, and also had a small staff scouting and preparing to start filming back in New York. Cell service was still nonexistent, but I was able to lose myself in the hundreds of scouting photographs I had yet to review. I looked through them, deciding which were worthy of being shown to Kar Wai. It was tricky work sorting them out given his mercurial nature and unpredictable taste. Soon darkness enveloped us as we sped along, the glow of my laptop illuminating the interior of the truck.

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