One gets accustomed to working long hours when making a film. Your average shooting day is between 12-14 hours, although they can easily go as long as 18 hours or more. You have no control over it, everyone stays until the day’s work is done. That’s just the “shooting” day from the time the crew is called in until the camera is wrapped for the day. Working in locations you are there before and after the shooting crew so your day is commensurately longer. My longest “day” on set was 27.5 hours. I am no stranger to hard work, and I do not shy away from it.
There’s a pretty standard way that films are made, with the scouting/preproduction days being much less demanding to start out. Prepping a film is still difficult but compared to the actual shooting period it’s like having a “normal” job. The intensity steadily builds, with the pressure being greatest just before filming begins. Once you hit the first day of shooting it’s more a slog to get through it than anything else. After a film wraps things quickly deflate as you clean up all the messes you left behind and prepare to turn over the film to the postproduction team. Essentially an extended bell curve.
Not with Wong Kar Wai, however. We started out working extremely hard and never let up. Our scouting days often ran 15-16 hours and he did not believe in weekends. As hard as I have worked in the past, nothing compared to this. Filmmaking is an industrial art, combining creativity and commerce almost equally. The compensation can be very good, but no one does this exclusively for the money. If that’s your motivation you are better served working in finance. No, you have to really love film to do this sort of work.
When I took the job I was excited by the opportunity to work with Wong Kar Wai. He was and still is one of my cinematic heroes. The films he makes are truly amazing things. As universally acclaimed as the stuff is, that doesn’t necessarily mean he has much of a budget to work with. I knew it would be a low-paying gig going in. I cut my normal rate to do the film and did so happily. The bigger sacrifice I made was making a seven day deal. This is highly unusual for good reasons. Normally my pay is based on a five day work week, with overtime rates rising sharply after that. By agreeing to work as needed I gave up all my overtime, which can be a significant sum.
Overtime is put in place to keep Producers from exploiting the people making the film too egregiously. The normal process of making a movie almost demands that people are abused a little bit, the hope is to minimize the need for this. When I made the serious financial concessions that I had in order to work with Kar Wai, the tacit agreement was that efforts would be made not to take advantage of me. Like they say, an unwritten agreement is worth the paper it’s written on. Simply put, I was busting my ass.
From our initial meeting months back I had worked seven days a week, a bare minimum of twelve hours a day and usually longer. I never slept in the same bed twice. No idea where the next meal would come from, or where I would be in the next hour. Dozens of states, cars, airports. Thousands of miles. Tens of thousands of miles. Months since I’d had time to myself, most of that period spent packed in a truck with Stephane, Darius and Kar Wai. Every choice was a group decision, and my group included a legendarily mysterious Chinaman and a couple of Frenchmen who loved arguing just for the sake of disagreement. A weaker person would have snapped long ago. As it was I was perhaps too weary to explode. I was beat. We all were. Except for Kar Wai.
I have worked with some crazy people. The business attracts them. Many a time have I sneaked into a production office early on a Saturday to get some quiet time at a desk and found the place full of people doing the same. All of us have crashed under desks, in cars, in campers or on any random floor just to grab a few winks before getting back to work. I’ve seen writers not leave an office for a week straight, and I know one particular producer who hasn’t slept since 1982. Still, no one comes close to working as hard as Kar Wai does. After scouting all day he would spend the time we used for sleep to get some writing done. There is simply no quit in him. It was scary.
The sheer magnitude of the exhaustion hit me as I sat in a cheap motel outside Reno. I had just woken up and was making the usual preparations for the day. Check us out of the hotel; gas up the truck and clean it out a bit; look at the maps and try to outguess Kar Wai as to which direction he wanted to go; locate the nearest Starbucks and skim the local papers for any interesting happenings. Having done this I thought through the state of the job. It was gradually taking shape.
We knew Norah’s character was starting in NYC. I had a scout looking at cafes there, and I knew we might do something in Coney Island. From there we would either head to Cleveland or Detroit. We had scouted both cities and had a good idea of what we would shoot there. Then Memphis, Vegas, Ely, the California Dessert and likely ending on the Santa Monica Pier. Unless of course we found something else that interested us on the way. I had tentative verbal agreements with a dozen establishments across the country. Scouts were working in several cities. I was trying to organize all the information and keep everything together while also keeping our current scout headed in the right direction.
Kar Wai occasionally gave us pages he had written. Not a script per se, but short stories, poems, fragments. One was about an ultra-marathoner whom Norah would see running in various spots throughout her journey. I had initiated conversations with the New York Road Runners Club about shooting one of their races. Another was about her meeting a guy who pushed all of his possessions in a shopping cart and slept with her in the desert. One involved a drunken cop killing himself over love and another would feature Natalie Portman as a gambler. The more I thought about the vast amount of work yet to be done to make this film happen the more my head hurt. Eight in the morning on the outskirts of Reno, my day was just starting, and I passed out from exhaustion in the truck waiting for the others to join me. At that point even ten or fifteen minutes of sleep came as a sweet relief.