A Scouting Life: Diners

May 18, 2009 | Sam Hutchins
B and H Diner, Lower East Side, New York City

B & H Diner, Lower East Side, New York City

While it varies from picture to picture, Location Managing at its best is intensely collaborative and creative work. This was clearly going to be the case working with Kar Wai. Location is everything in his films. He doesn’t shoot on soundstages; it’s all about the verisimilitude with him. This was something he has in common with another director I have worked with: Woody Allen. They are both of a mindset that it is better to shoot practical locations whenever possible, which runs counter to the traditional thinking among filmmakers. Generally, a director prefers the controlled environment of a stage to the potential chaos and unpredictability of shooting on the streets. For both Kar Wai and Woody the opposite is true. They prefer the working environment created by shooting amidst real life.

Knowing a director’s aesthetic is critical; it’s the first thing a location manager must figure out. Usually you have a script to create a dialogue around. Not so with Kar Wai. He does not work with one, and on My Blueberry Nights, we didn’t just lack a script to work with, we lacked even the outlines of a story. It was still fermenting in Kar Wai’s mind, and it was my task to draw as much of it from him as possible so we could start scouting in earnest. Adding to the difficulty were our cultural differences. My facility with the Chinese language was nonexistent, but his English was quite good. That wasn’t it; it was more about the vast differences in the western and eastern mindsets. I didn’t understand that at first, and struggled a little with my failure to connect. It became apparent over time that we came from vastly different environments. I wanted a fixed destination to get to; he wanted to wander a bit and let the path find him.

“Diners” is what Kar Wai said the following afternoon when I picked him and Stephane up. Jackie apparently was not going to be directly involved in the scouting process. I still had no idea what her role in the process was — or Stephane’s for that matter. This was going to be a process of building from the ground up. At least “diners” gave me a starting point.

“I assume you mean more traditional, weathered, ‘character’ type diners as opposed to newer, kitschy, retro types?” I was met with a blank stare. Okay, this was going to be difficult. We were on the west side, so I swung by the Empire Diner, a classic silver prefab that has been cleaned up a bit.

“No, not this.” Okay, then. I then took them to a few similar diners, some cleaner and some more weathered, but all diners in the classic sense. Not even the slightest sign of interest on his part.

“Do you mean ‘diner’ in the classic sense, you know, like these stainless steel buildings, or maybe just any small restaurant?”

“Any place with a good window. Small is okay, I don’t care how small. I can squeeze a camera in anywhere or shoot the whole thing from outside, don’t worry about too small.”

Baby steps. At least we were making some progress. I may not have a script, or the slightest idea of the story he wanted to tell, but at least I now knew we were looking at small restaurants that opened up to street life. What I was discovering was that he didn’t know what he wanted to say yet. We drove all over town with Kar Wai mainly remaining silent. He was just beginning to write in his head as we went along. This was both fascinating and frustrating. I had never worked in anything remotely like this fashion.

We spent several hours driving around looking at restaurants. Kar Wai spent much of the time in deep contemplation, lost in his own thoughts. Whenever I saw a place I thought might be suitable I pulled over and waited for him to acknowledge it and comment one way or another. Sometimes it took as long as ten minutes for him to notice that the car had stopped moving, and then he’d emerge from his reverie. Invariably, he would look, consider, and then shake his head “no” before leaning back and checking back into his mental space. I was getting a little impatient when he startled me by suddenly calling out.

“There, that’s it! Pull over please.” We were actually in my neighborhood, on Second Avenue just below St. Mark’s Place. The place he was interested in was B and H Dairy, one of my favorite places to have borscht and challah bread. But small, so impossibly small. I know he said that small was okay, but even so, I could not imagine how we could shoot in there.

We had a good look at the place and snapped some pictures. Apparently, Stephane was along as some sort of model as Kar Wai had him pose for pictures in front of the place. Odd, but no more so than anything else so far. After thoroughly shooting the place, and Kar Wai reassuring me that it was physically possible to film there, we moved on.

“Like that place. Not exactly like it, but somewhere that feels like that place. It should be emotionally similar. Maybe close to an elevated train. Someplace like that.”

I was working with my idol, one of the most talented and creative living filmmakers, but what an enigma he was. In my career I had never before been tasked with scouting a location based on its emotional resonance. I was still wrapping my mind around that one when I got the next curveball.

“Tomorrow we should go to Coney Island.”

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