A Scouting Life: Basin and Range

March 25, 2010 | Sam Hutchins

Kar Wai had been reaching out to his network of contacts, asking for any ideas on smaller, down-at-the-heels casinos. I was in no position to discourage him, but in my experience getting tips from anyone other than a fellow location scout/manager is a waste of your time. There are so many factors that go into making a location work that you invariably wind up being sent someplace useless. Not to say you should not always keep an open an inquisitive mind, of course, but know going in not to expect much. This is all the more true for ideas you get from the producer and/or director’s acquaintances. It’s always the director’s best friend who insists you scout Lincoln Center when the script calls for an intimate jazz club. You are obligated to follow through, however, so it’s only after wasting half a scouting day that you can report that the location fee is $100,000 and the first availability is sometime in October of 2025.

In this spirit we lit out for the Nevada-Utah Border. Someone in Kar Wai’s circle had sworn that there was an amazing casino straddling the line between the two states. I was highly doubtful, but what the hell. Why not have a look? We already had our accommodations for the night arranged in the historic Hotel Nevada when we loaded up the truck and headed out.

I must admit that we traveled through some of the most beautiful land I have seen in this country. The trip was through the mountains, essentially moving from one high desert basin to another. Being at such an altitude, I started to feel like I was closer to God. Whether it was the clouds, the majestic stone, or just the thin oxygen-deprived air, it was a tangible feeling I could not shake. I wanted nothing more than to wander out alone in the scrub brush and have a chat with the Man upstairs. Maybe strip naked and confess my sins. Alas, the closest I came were the multiple stops we made to photograph the landscape.

I was also excited at the prospect of Kar Wai working in such wide open spaces. While his stories cover a very broad range, his aesthetic is rather narrowly defined. He shoots urban decay. His locations are old, cramped spaces in the rotting hearts of cities. His colors are electric and washed in neon. The closest I came to matching his standard look was in Brooklyn at midnight. Now we were in the middle of nowhere, nothing but nature as far as the eye could see. We were surrounded by primary tones. Everything here was some shade of tan. How would he film the landscape? What relationship will his characters have with their surroundings? The questions thrilled me.

At one point when planning the scout I researched filming in Monument Valley. What a coup it would be to bring Kar Wai to the scene of John Ford’s greatest work. After extensive digging I discovered that getting to the really good parts took extraordinary measures. You had to track down one of a small handful of Native American guides who knew the area and do a day’s hike just to get to where the good locations begin. As great a thing it would have been to make happen, this was not the crowd to take that walk. Now, however, it seemed like we might have found areas that were quite beautiful in their own right to shoot. Valley after valley opened before us, with massive herds of antelope charging across the plains to greet us. Truly a lovely spot on the earth.

It was easy to find the casino we were looking for. It sat far off in the distance, the first sign of humanity we had seen in hours. As advertised, it did sit on its own with nothing else as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately it was also criminally ugly. Such a wasted opportunity. Nothing but a series of connected pre-fab buildings and outlying trailers. Once inside, we found it even less appealing. Formica, suspended ceilings, and slot machines ruled the day. We shot a few pictures before taking our leave.

Back in the parking lot, Kar Wai had Stephane, Darius and I pose for a series of pictures. The whole thing was done so unexpectedly and casually that I was surprised to find later that they are some of my favorite pictures of myself. The sky got a little dark and cloudy as we drove back towards Ely and the Hotel Nevada, but broke nicely just as the sun set. At the start of the journey my French friends had insisted that the journey was just as important as the destination and it seems that they were right about that.

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