A Scouting Life: Plotting the Journey across America

June 5, 2009 | Sam Hutchins
Darius Khondji (Director of Photography) & Wong Kari Wai

Darius Khondji (Director of Photography) & Wong Kari Wai

Wong Kar Wai seemed to be wrapping his head around the story. I would have to hope so, as we had been putting in lots of time. We mainly worked nights, driving all over the city. Travis Bickle had nothing on me. We drove mostly city streets adjacent to elevated subway tracks. Every once in a while Kar Wai would come to life and excitedly tell me to stop so we could pull over and talk our way into a late night dive. For the most part, though, I just drove – drove and drove and drove, all night long. We would go for hours of silence together, Kar Wai with his head tilted back, staring somewhere in the distance. He was seeing but not looking, if that makes sense. I often peeked to make sure he wasn’t napping behind those sunglasses, but he never was. Just finding the thread. He snapped out of it one late night somewhere around College Point.

“Coney Island. We need to go back to Coney Island.”

Eventually I’d get used to his sudden changes of direction, but this was the first time I was seeing it. He really did lose himself in his thoughts to the point that he didn’t know what state he was in. He’d start thinking the story through, something would occur to him, and he would immediately want to go someplace I had shown him. Unfortunately the directives often came in the form of “Go to that window, the one with the orange light”. With the right questions you might eventually figure out that he was talking about the strip mall across from Rotier’s Hamburgers in Nashville where you parked your car before dinner the night before. Even if you were in Memphis by then, you turn around and get back to Nashville so he can work things through. This first time, however, he only wanted to take a drive down the Van Wyck.

Back to Coney Island we went. I was still hoping to convince Kar Wai and crew to work in New Orleans. It has such characters, such history, and such decadence. Kar Wai loves outcasts and the dissolute. The tired hooker, the junkie musician, and the compromised housewife really live there. They were his type of people. However, it seemed like we may never leave New York. Coney Island it was, then.

A window where Norah Jones' character spots her lover with another woman.

A window where Norah Jones' character spots her lover with another woman.

The car had barely stopped before Kar Wai leapt out and strode down Surf Avenue. Darius Khondj (the DP), Stephane, and I hurried to catch up. Kar Wai stopped and pointed at a second floor window.
“Norah is here on the street. She looks up there and sees her lover with another woman. She has a decision to make. She feels the best way to get someplace is to walk in the opposite direction sometimes.”

Wow. The fan in me appreciates it. I see it as a good point of departure, but what does it mean? All three of us decided we liked the premise and told him so. Then, of course, the pragmatist in me kicks in.

“So where does she go from here?”

“She has to go west. She can’t go east,” he said as he waved his hand toward the ocean. Fair enough. Still leaves a lot of choices. “You guys should go out and find a restaurant where she works. Find a few. I think probably she ends up in Los Angeles.”

And that was it. The end of our night rides. We started meeting in the office during the days and trying to get our heads around the plan. Kar Wai and Darius had lengthy technical discussions about how to shoot the film. Kar Wai had an impressive knowledge of even arcane cameras and ways to use them. I was only on the fringe of those conversations, and many took place without me present, but I loved every bit to which I was privy. Here were two master filmmakers practicing their craft. Despite Darius’ impressive body of work, he gladly embraced the lessons he was receiving and brought much of his own to the table. For his part, Stephane vanished to the hotel where he spent long hours working through story concepts with Kar Wai. I was doing my best to come up with a plan for the trip.

Darius, Kar Wai, and Jackie testing cameras at the lover's window.

Darius, Kar Wai, and Jackie testing cameras.

As much as I like to be a key part of the process, I wasn’t getting a lot of time with Kar Wai. I get it; we all have a role to fill. One has to keep ego out of it, and this was a very different method of filmmaking. This was typically the point in the process where I work closest with the director, but Kar Wai had other priorities. He was deep into it with Darius and Stephane both. The little guidance I was able to get was secondhand through Stephane. This came in the form of statements like, “We should go to Memphis.” To be honest, I didn’t entirely trust Stephane. I had no doubt that any suggestions Kar Wai gave that didn’t jibe with Stephane would not make it to me. One day Stephane came in excitedly waving a book, telling me he had the answer to my questions. He had been given a book by Kar Wai that had photographs of exactly what he wanted us to scout for him. It was a nice, high-quality photo book from Rizzoli. The book contained gorgeous pictures of plates of food from diners all across the country. Close-ups, pictures of pieces of pie and western omelets from unidentified restaurants.

Sometimes I spin my wheels a bit as a job starts. If I flattered myself I’d say it’s my own version of the reverie Kar Wai goes through, but I can’t honestly give myself that much credit. This was as bad as it gets. No guidance whatsoever. I spent several days staring at the wall trying to wrap my head around the task. I did some preliminary work, such as going to the Hagstrom Store and buying detailed topo maps of about half the states, favoring the South as that was my gut at the time. I browsed several travel bookstores, seeking out a wide range of volumes, including Frommers city guides, rough guides, the Sterns guide to great obscure road foods, books on the great roads to drive in America, and the others even more obscure. Still, it took a while to click for me. As always, I woke up one morning and felt the fear. It always happens like that. As soon as I was worried I dove into it to an obsessive level.

I get a little OCD when I’m in the zone, to the point where I cannot eat or sleep until I solve the problem. I was there, and I went at it hammer and tongs. I skimmed every book, did extensive web research, and called everyone I knew across the country. I was a man obsessed. Within a week I had plotted a course leaving New York and taking us in multiple segments cross the country. I had us driving blue line highways a few days at a time, ending at an airport where I knew things got boring and jumping a flight to the next interesting piece of land. It gave us about five short flights zigzagging the land over three weeks. The itinerary mixed it up between interesting geographic areas, promising restaurants, and cities with character. I was incredibly proud of the work until I showed it to Kar Wai and he responded, “No. Start in California and come back.” I went back to work on a west-to-east itinerary.

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