A Scouting Life: Venturing into the American West

June 24, 2009 | Sam Hutchins
Darius Khondji taking stills.

Darius Khondji taking stills.

We made it to LA without incident, and the flight was actually rather pleasant. One very nice thing about my business is flying first class. There is simply no way you can go back to coach once you get used to a seat that reclines into a bed, not to mention the unlimited free whiskey. Given those circumstances I actually hate to land. Another good thing about being in the air was not worrying about either of my companions wandering off and getting lost. Safely confined in the plane, I didn’t have to worry about losing them, as would clearly be the case when earthbound.

After collecting our ridiculous cache of luggage we trammed it to hertz and picked up a great big SUV. We were making a low budget film, so of course the initial thought had been to cram us into some sort of sedan. All three of us had rebelled at this, and I actually tried to get us the biggest truck possible. Knowing what the road is like there is great advantage to travelling in a Ford Expedition or something similar. I love the environment as much as anyone, but not to the point of travelling thousands of miles shoehorned into a small car. Ultimately we compromised on a Nissan Armada, which appeared to be the most spacious option without going up to one of the real monster size rides. Good thing we held out. Once our luggage was loaded we three were a snug fit.

It was late so we checked into a hotel near LAX and got ourselves settled. Darius and Stephane were meeting a potential production designer, but I was not needed, so I chose to grab some sleep. In retrospect, it is rather funny that this fellow’s interview was as unusual as mine, meeting two weird Frenchmen in the bar of an airport hotel close to midnight. For my part, I found it hard to sleep as excited as I was. The thrill of starting an epic journey kept me up for quite a while, with me eventually falling asleep to the late rerun of Sportscenter.

Just before parting company with my travel companions, I made a valiant effort at starting out bright and early.

“What do you say, guys, meet in the lobby at eight am, checked out and having had?”

“Aving ad? What does this mean?” asked Stephane in that goofy accent.

“It means having had breakfast. At eight tomorrow morning we should meet here in the lobby having already eaten breakfast and turned in your room key, ready to travel. We have lots to see.”

From the look on their faces I might as well have just kicked their dogs and insulted their wives. Obviously this was an uphill battle. In the end we compromised on a 9AM leave time. At a quarter after nine the next morning they ambled into the lobby and insisted we eat breakfast before leaving. For me, a scouting breakfast is a bagel and a coffee scarfed down while driving. For them apparently it was more like a casually eaten bowl of fresh fruit, yogurt and granola. I suppose there are worse problems to have in life than meandering through a lengthy breakfast, but I was already wondering how anything gets done in France.

My spirits soared once we were on the road, though. Navigating due east out of LA there was nothing but open road and the entire country laid out before us. We took the 10 east through a few hours of suburban LA sprawl as we started getting to know each other better. My only issue was their occasional lapses into speaking French, but that was an understandable thing. For the most part it was a pleasant bit of fast highway driving under a sunny blue sky. Although quite well-traveled, I am born and raised in the northeast. It’s easy to forget the beauty and majesty of the American West. Jumping off the highway at Palm Springs I was struck by the surrounding vista. Driving the desert road with massive mountains rising on the horizon sent my soul soaring. What an amazing sight to behold.

Turning north towards Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, we encountered the first wind farm I had ever seen. Enormous windmills rose like aliens from the desert floor. Ignoring the many “no trespassing” signs posted, we did our first bit of off-road four-wheeling. Damn good thing we had the SUV after all. No regular sedan would have made those moves. We pulled over and got out to shoot some pictures. It quickly became apparent that shooting video was a pain in the ass. We had brought a professional grade camera and it was rather cumbersome. Darius shot a few clips using Stephane as an actor but soon packed up the video rig for the last time on the trip. We instead shot lots of stills, taking in the amazing views. Not bad for our first pullover, definitely an amazing and otherworldly spot. If our trip proved this easily bountiful we were going to have some amazing stuff.

Darius and Stephane

Darius and Stephane

I had given a lot of thought to how Kar Wai’s films would play in an environment like this. His work is so urban and confined, and he loves industrial decay layered with streaks of electric neon colors. Frankly I just couldn’t see it until this very moment. Standing on the burnished sand of the desert floor, mountains obscured by the haze under these giant looming alien-looking machines it all clicked for me. I could see one of the loners he so loves portraying looking lost in their surroundings as the blades of the windmills slowly whomp-whomp-whomped away overhead. Yeah, man, this was it. This felt right.

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