A Scouting Life: Emotional Resonance

November 30, 2009 | Sam Hutchins

Shortly thereafter Darius and Kar Wai exited the hotel and hopped in the truck. I was relieved to see them both emerge sans suitcases. Clearly there were problems getting the picture off the ground. Most of my experience was working for the major studios; what I did know about independent films was that financing was often an issue. I loved Kar Wai’s work but I was not putting up the money to finance it. I can’t imagine committing large sums of money to a director who works without a script or a clearly defined story, yet Kar Wai refuses to do it any other way. I wouldn’t be surprised if this thing fell apart at any time. For now, however, it appeared that we were still moving forward.

“Everything OK guys? What happened to Stephane?”

“He went back to New York.”

Remind me never to play poker with Wong Kar Wai. We started out cruising the near West Side. It was in some ways harder to scout a town I knew so well than a strange city. Too much emotional resonance involved. As I struggled with what I ought to show him, Kar Wai pointed and told me to stop. We were at a great old dive, a 24-hour hot dog stand in a shitty neighborhood called Steve’s. I had ended many late nights of drinking in the spot but honestly never would have thought to take him there specifically. In retrospect it was a perfect location for him. We entered and sat at the counter.

“What would you usually have here?”

“A couple chili dogs with cheese, onions and mustard.”

“OK, I’ll have that.”

“Kar Wai, we don’t usually eat these at ten on a Sunday morning.”

As usual I received that blank stare in return, so I ordered up for both of us. Darius, who appreciated the finer things in life, looked at us like we were pissing on the carpet. He settled for a cup of black coffee. We sat and enjoyed our breakfast alongside a couple guys from the Coast Guard and a middle-aged heavyset woman from the adjoining housing projects. Kar Wai smiled the entire time. As we left he turned to me.

“A place that feels like this is good. This is the feeling we should look for.”

My God, I’ll never be able to figure this guy out. Directors give you many different clues when you scout. Phillip Noyce tells you what lens he’s shooting and where he wants to put the camera. Donald Petrie looks for the best place to play the comedy. Mike Nichols cares about the appropriate class level. Those are tangible, measureable things. Scouting based on the proper emotional resonance of a place is a different matter entirely. As soon as I thought I had a handle on Kar Wai he would say something that just lost me.

Leaving Steve’s we headed down to The Flats, which is the industrial area bordering the Cuyahoga River on the edge of downtown Cleveland. It was one of the rare times I knew I was showing him something he would like and I was right. The towering highway overpasses, the dirty gray factories and various detritus left behind by the steel industry framing the downtown skyline were ideally suited to his work. My only concern was that there was no actual restaurant or bar to set scenes in. After thoroughly exploring the area he chose a spot on the side of the road that he liked.

“Kar Wai, what kind of scene would we set here?”

“Those trucks that pull up and serve food, would one ever park here?”

“Sure, they park in places like this to feed the guys who work at the mill.”

“Can we get one of those?”

“Yeah, we can rent one and put it here.”

“Good. Very good.”

As we were shooting the area a local Sherriff’s Deputy pulled over and checked us out. 9/11 and the advent of homeland security really had changed things. Fortunately I carry enough PBA cards and know the right things to say. As he pulled out another car pulled in, this one driven by what seemed to be a steelworker or possibly security from the steel mill.

“What you guys doing?”

“Sorry, sir, we’re just scouting for a film…”

“I can see that. Who is the director?” Not what I expected to hear.

“You wouldn’t know him, he’s a Chinese…”

“Holy shit, is that Wong Kar Wai?” Definitely not what I expected to hear. The guy hopped out and we all had a nice chat. The world really is a small place sometimes. Standing under an overpass hard by the steel mills on a Sunday morning we meet someone conversant with Kar Wai’s work. Go figure. As we finished our chat and our photography the snow began to come down hard. Time to head back to the hotel.

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