A Scouting Life: Mojave

June 3, 2010 | Sam Hutchins

I awoke the next morning in a room I didn’t recognize, with a hangover and no idea how I got there. The same could be said for a good part of my adult life. Some mornings were of course much harder than others. Waking up in Vegas is always the worst. Partly because the nights in Vegas are crazier than most places, but also because those nights don’t always begin in Vegas, or with the intent to get there. The blackout curtains that all the hotels use compound the disoriented feeling. Helpful though they may well be, they completely shut out any sense of place upon gaining consciousness. Still, I’m mostly glad the casinos have them.

This particular morning I was aided by contextual clues. The breeze was salty and warm, and I eventually realized that the sound I heard was waves crashing on shore. Salt air, sea breeze, Los Angeles. More specifically, Santa Monica. Huzzah! The pieces gradually fell into place. I worked my way backwards through the night and was relieved to find that I didn’t recall doing anything spectacularly embarrassing, nor were there significant gaps in my memory. Copious amounts of soju had not led to tragedy. Good deal. The clock read 8:00AM, and the note I had helpfully left propped on the nightstand indicated that I was due in the lobby at 9. Another fine morning.

We all enjoyed a nice breakfast, and I certainly wasn’t the only one hoping we were going to enjoy a lazy day on the boardwalk. Kar Wai did not share this viewpoint unfortunately, and his was the only vote that counted. He expressed a desire to scout in the desert. The thinking was that we might be able to find a replacement for Roy’s Gas Station, our chosen location for the third act of the film. While I profess no particular local expertise, I don’t leave my house without thorough preparation. Before scouting the desert outside of Los Angeles I had consulted with several colleagues conversant with the area. Top men in the field (and one woman). The consensus was that Roy’s was the perfect spot for us. That being said, I learned a long time ago that to be the best you need to work both the smartest and the hardest. The smart part of me had done the research and found Roy’s. The hard-working part of me knew the right thing to do was to go out and hit the ground in person to make sure we had the absolutely best possible location.

So we went. Though we had only spent a day apart, it was enough to set the reset button on our relationships. The little quirks and peccadilloes of my partners had come to be intolerable at some point. Now they seemed almost charming. I had missed Kar Wai’s protracted silences and mysterious pronouncements. Seeing Darius wander distractedly into harm’s way no longer angered me. Instead I gently took him by the elbow and steered him out from in front of a moving car while he fiddled with his camera. When Stephane interrupted a conversation relevant to our scout to demonstrate his ability to balance a bottle on his head I could only smile. Hopefully they were equally tolerant of my faults.

Also, though unspoken, we all understood that the end of the road was near. It’s hard to believe, but this months-long scout that took us across the country and back had begun with a phone call. Shortly thereafter I was in a truck with two, and then three, strangers setting out in search of an American story. We never knew from one day to the next where we were headed. Whenever we assumed something Kar Wai threw a monkey wrench into the plans. It was still entirely possible that Kar Wai would tell us to push through the desert and continue driving east. I didn’t think that would happen, though. It felt like this part of our journey was coming to a close.

We wound up in a place called Ludlow, California. It was essentially a wide spot in the road amidst the Mojave Desert. There was a small coffee shop, a few gas stations, a motel, and an ice cream stand. The coffee shop was somewhat interesting in a very eclectic way, but nothing overly special. Darius was admonished by the waitress when he began shooting pictures. Apparently the ownership didn’t care for that. In his fumbling way Darius attempted to make it better by explaining that we were location scouting. This made the staff even crazier as filming was forbidden for some reason. After this they watched us like hawks.

As reliably as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, telling a filmmaker that something is off-limits drives them insane with the need to possess it. It really wasn’t all that great as a location. Had nothing been said we would have snapped a few shots and been on our way. Instead it was now imperative that we must clear this place. I pointed out to my companions the fact that we were close enough to L.A. that the proprietors must be familiar with the business and want no part of it. Besides, we already had a vastly superior alternative that we liked and that was ready and expecting us. My final plea was to point out the ugly storm clouds rolling in. All for naught, of course. I left the guys with their pie and tea while I got to know the locals.

A quick bit of digging revealed that the entire town was owned by one family. They simply had no use for the film business, having been approached countless times and most likely done wrong at some point along the line. I learned this, met the family, and concluded their lack of interest as being sincere and intractable in short order. They were polite about it but unmovable. Still, returning too quickly after leaving with such reluctance was bad form. It didn’t matter that I knew it was not happening as a location, the others needed to know I had made the greatest effort possible to clear it. So I found myself reclining in the truck listening to some music while parked out of sight of the diner. As The Clash played “Straight to Hell,” I cranked up the AC and watched the skies darken. Fat raindrops ended their lives as splatters on my windshield. As their frequency increased to a steady drumming I raised my seat and put it in gear. Time to leave the desert behind and get back to the ocean.

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