I am happy to inform you that my blog has moved to a new venue. From now on it will be published on the website of WNET/Channel 13. For those unfamiliar with the station it is the New York City home of PBS. I am truly honored to be joining such distinguished company and thank them for the recognition. My hope is that I live up to the incredibly high level of content they already provide and perhaps add something equally impressive of my own.
No new post today, although there is much more to tell. I am in the process of arranging a new, exciting, and somewhat prestigious new home for my blog. I’ll share details as soon as the particulars are ironed out.
When you work on a studio film things are pretty straightforward. There are staff accountants, lawyers and executives to consult with. There are policies and procedures to follow. It’s still a lot looser than working in more traditional industries but at least there is some semblance of normalcy. Not so when making an independent film. You have to be careful with the independents because things can get really strange. Earlier in my career I walked away from certain gigs that just got a little too weird. One colleague did a film with Able Ferrara where he was told on the first day that the only office rule was “no shooting up in the bathroom”. Apparently someone had overdosed while locked in there on the last film and caused a lot of difficulty. The solution they worked out was to allow people to do drugs openly at their desks. That is am extreme, of course, but how normal is it to interview for a job in a downtown loft at ten o’clock at night? I knew going in this was going to be a unique experience.
Therefore I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t hear from anyone the next day. I was admittedly anxious for the call. This was exciting, and I woke up early. Waited all day with no word. As the evening came and went I realized they would be calling late, but no word. I was in bed by the time the call came, it was eleven o’clock at night. It was Jackie, the Chinese woman I had met the night before. She summoned me back to the loft in Tribeca.
I arrived to find them waiting on the street for me. It was Jackie, Wong Kar Wai, and a short goofy looking Frenchman named Stephane. I was handed keys to a car and told to take them to Flushing. Cool. Flushing is the real Chinatown in New York, out in Central Queens. I hadn’t been there in years but knew how to get there. We drove out in relative silence. They directed me to one of hundreds of Chinese restaurants just off of Main Street. As we walked in Jackie squealed with delight.
“Jackies favorite, Hong Kong hot pot. You like hot pot?” Kar Wai asked me.
“Never tried it.”
“You like Chinese food?”
“Yes, the American kind. I’m eager to have some authentic stuff with you.”
“You will like.”
At first glance Kar Wai seemed like a nice enough guy. His English was much better than Jackie’s, and he was making an effort to engage me. We sat at a table with a burner built in to it. WKW ordered in Chinese, of course, and things started happening rapidly. A pot of water was placed on the burner to heat up. Plates of various ingredients began to appear on the table in front of us. Nothing I could identify at all. While we waited for the water to heat up we went to a weird little rolling cart containing a lot of different liquids and spices. Jackie helped guide me through the process of creating my own sauce to dip the food in. The only thing I could identify there was sesame oil. The rest was foreign to me.
“Do you like shrimp?”
“I love shrimp.”
Kar Wai indicated a plate with his chopsticks. Actually it was two plates. One piled high with shrimp, the second on top of the first to keep the shrimp from escaping, as they were still alive. Wow, never saw that before. I knew the entire meal was an extension of the job interview so I went for it. Forgoing the chopsticks I snatched up a shrimp and tossed it in my mouth. I’ve never felt anything as unpleasant as a live shrimp trying to crawl out of my mouth and I hope I never do again. I chewed on it to stop it from moving and felt its shell crunching between my teeth. It was really hard to keep down but I did, washing it down with a big swallow of Tsingtao beer. At least they were drinkers.
The table cracked up as I washed the shrimp down. What the hell, were they making fun of me? Kar Wai gently put his hand on my arm.
“No, do like this”. He plucked a wriggling shrimp with his chopsticks and dropped it in the now boiling water. How embarrassing. They laughed again at the look on my face, but in a good natured way. They proceeded to add a few more shrimp, some unidentifiable sliced vegetables and spices to the pot. So that’s how you do it. Unfortunately the cooked shrimp still had the shell on it and wasn’t much different than the live one, other than the lack of twitching antennae in my mouth.
Dinner proceeded as such. What little conversation there was centered around the food and how to eat it, other than a few extended jags of chatter in Chinese between Kar Wai and Jackie. We did drink a lot of beer. Stephane was an enthusiastic eater, but I definitely got the impression that he was eating more to please them than out of enjoyment of the food. No judgements there, though, as I was doing the same thing simply with a bit less vigor.
The plates just kept coming. Other than some small peppers I truly could not identify what was on any of them. No matter, we cooked them in the hot pot and tossed them back. After an extended back and forth with a waiter a plate was brought out containing some sort of thinly sliced organ meat. Kar Wai insisted it was a rare delicacy that I must try. In for a penny, in for a pound right? I threw it in my mouth. Not bad. Spongy, and very chewy. I couldn’t break it apart and had to choke it down whole eventually.
“How you like?”
“Not bad. What was it?”
He surprised me by flinching and pushing back from the table quickly. It took a minute for me to realize that I had clenched my fist and drawn it back. Jackie broke the tension.
“More beer.” She smiled and filled my glass. Kar Wai moved back to the table. In my entire acquaintance with him it was the only time I saw him act uncomfortable.
“Very good to eat. Makes you horny.” He proceeded to put away a few slices of boiled yak cock himself before barking at the waiter to make the dishes vanish.
We drank a substantial amount of beer before settling up and driving back to Manhattan. Still hadn’t talked about the film at all, but I was pretty confident I had passes their tests. I got my real answer when we got back to their loft. After parking the car we prepared to go our separate ways. Jackie took me by the arm.
“Tomorrow we go scout?”
Okaaaaay, sure. Still no idea what the story was about or where it took place but I can roll with the punches as well as anyone. As I went to leave she leaned in and gave me a quick kiss. On the lips. Slipped me the tongue. Whoa, didn’t see that one coming. Nothing serious, just a quick flash of wetness, but it was no accident. This really was going to be interesting.
Working as a Location Manager had always been a dream job for me. Like many people, I was simply in love with movies. Somehow I had found myself working on them and having amazing experiences doing so. The process afforded me creative input and gave me a front row seat to the making of some wonderful films. Though the work can be very arduous at times I had many days where I could not believe I was getting paid to do what I did.
Lately, however, I had fallen in a bit of a rut. For most of my career I had successfully alternated between interesting lower budget independents and well-paying studio gigs. Life goes on, though, and one gets comfortable. Money becomes more of a priority and you get used to having it. I left the smaller films behind and did a long stretch of studio pictures. By happenstance I did several romantic comedies in a row.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the genre. Just like anything else, though, a steady diet of one thing becomes tiresome after a while. The fourth time in a row I was scouting for a plucky young woman who worked in fashion/magazines/television for a demanding/glamorous boss and had to rely on her charm to get into the trendy restaurant/exclusive concert/championship game to win her man I began questioning my existence. It was all the same. I needed a break from the perfect romantic worlds I had been helping create. I got more of a changeup than I could have imagined.
It came in the form of a conversation I had with a friend who works as a Unit Production Manager. I had been lamenting my state of ennui with her and seeking advice.
“I might have something interesting for you, but I really don’t think you’ll work for the money they have.”
“Try me, you might be surprised.”
“Okay. It’s a Chinese director making his first American film. Let me see, I have his name here somewhere. Yeah, it’s a guy called Wong Kar Wai.”
What, seriously? Wong Kar Wai? I could not believe what I was hearing. I had a shot at working with the most talented, enigmatic filmmaker alive? The man is an unqualified genius.
“I’ll do it.”
“Wait, Sam, there’s no money involved.”
“I don’t care. I’ll do whatever it takes to make it work. How do I get the job?”
She agreed to give them my resume and strongly recommend me. I was giddy with the thought of it. This was exactly what I needed and then some. I have worked with incredibly talented filmmakers over the years but here was a chance to do one with the man whose work I respected more than anyone else’s.
I didn’t have to wait long. That same evening I got a phone call from my friend.
“They want to meet you. I know it’s rather late, but can you get down to Tribeca tonight?”
“They want to meet now? It’s ten o’clock at night.”
“I’ll set something up for tomorrow then.”
“No, I’ll do it. Where do I go?”
I was sent to a loft downtown. Unusual as the film business is, interviewing for a job this late was strange even for me. I was greeted by a very fat and jolly Frenchman.
“Halo. I am Jean Louis. You are Sam, oui?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but turned and left me to stand there. He returned to a kitchen on the far side of the loft were several people were speaking in mixed French, Chinese and an occasional bit of English. Not knowing what else to do, I stood and waited. After a while a tall Chinese man came over. He had the sunglasses on, indoors, at night. Somehow he pulled the look off. He also wore a welcoming smile. I recognized him from the pictures.
“I am Kar Wai. I understand you want to work with us?”
“I very much want to. I think your films are amazing.”
“You know my work?”
“I’ve seen almost everything you have done. I love your films and would be honored to be a part of one.”
He stood and looked me over for a painfully long time. Finally he gave me an enigmatic smile and went back to the kitchen. What the hell just happened? I figured I blew it. Well that was the shortest and strangest interview I ever had. I turned and signaled for the elevator. What an incredible let down. Waiting, I sensed someone at my side. I turned to see a short Chinese woman in a track suit, with wild hair sticking out all over the place. She looked like a real life version of a Chinese Dr. Seuss character and spoke in heavily accented English.
There’s one particular moment where it all comes together for me. After months of careful planning and preparation everything is in place. You’ve done the hundreds of different things required to successfully shoot a scene, doing not just what was asked but also anticipating any possible problems or complications and solving them in advance. I look at the job as somewhat akin to the work a good stage manager does. You want to treat a location like it was a theatre, setting it up in the most user-friendly fashion. With proper support your Director and talent should be able to take the stage and tell their story as easily as possible. Unlike a stage manager, however, you are creating your virtual theatre in the midst of the crazed ballet that is street life in New York City.
That magic moment happens just after call. You’ve set it up the best you could, spending months getting it right. The art department has done their final tweaks and the trucks are being unloaded. You meet the Director, DP, Assistant Directors and a few other necessary personnel at the position of your first set-up. The Assistant Director asks you if they have the street and you tell them that they do. The word goes out on the walkies and the lock-up is in place. The police cars pull out and block the dozens of intersections, diverting traffic. PA’s start turning away pedestrians. What were crowded city streets empty out and transform into a working set. You wander off a distance and stand alone, watching it happen. That’s where it all comes together for me. For that brief moment it’s all your doing. It’s as close as I’ll get to standing on the 18th tee at Augusta with a three stroke lead. It is good.
The moment passes, though, and there is much to do. We set about getting it done. Initially it was just another day at the office, assuming your office is a big chunk of city street where you are preparing to blow up a gasoline truck. On my way in to the set earlier I had noticed that the Cotton Club was open for business for the first time since we started our preparation. One of my guys had discreetly checked it out and reported that although it was lit up and open it was also empty. Of course it was. They didn’t normally open so they wouldn’t have any customers; they were just laying the groundwork for an eventual lawsuit claiming loss of business. Of course I had pictures of the building shuttered up and dark on every single night of the preceding month. Those morons weren’t the only ones preparing for court.
No matter how good a plan is or how carefully you implement it, you can count on someone fucking it up in the stupidest possible way. We weren’t a half-hour into our day when this happened. I got a semi-frantic call on the walkie summoning me to the traffic barricade closest to the Cotton Club. I travelled the several blocks to get there as fast as I could.
I arrived to find a beat up yellow school bus stopped at the barricade. It was being held there by one of the traffic officers we had hired. As I got closer I almost choked. The Reverend himself had shown up. He had graduated from the sweat suits and gold chains he wore while whoring for the cameras in the 1980’s to a nicely tailored suit. I guess racial hucksterism and extortion pay well. He was giving hell to the traffic agent who had stopped them. If you’ve ever argued with an agent over a parking ticket you know that it gets you nowhere. It was actually pretty funny hearing the Reverend screaming that the agent was “Uncle Tom” and “Steppin Fetchit, growling for a bone from his white master”. Ferchrissakes, this guy can turn a traffic stop into the Draft Riots.
Unfortunately the agent was completely wrong. I had given all the agents very specific instructions to allow free access to anyone asking to pass the barricade to go to the Cotton Club. The Reverend saw me approach and turned his rhetoric towards me.
“White boy, what you gonna do here? You telling me, a black man, what I can and cannot do in Harlem?”
“No, sir, not at all. You going to the Cotton Club, go right ahead. Have a lovely evening, I hear it’s a nice place.”
The Reverend’s mouth was already open, waiting to heap further invective upon me. Clearly my answer caught him off guard as his jaw pumped a few times while processing my accommodation of him. He choked back whatever he was planning to say, turned back to his bus full of accomplices.
“You see, the cracker’s afraid of us!”
Whatever. I took the traffic agent by the arm and once again gave him very specific instruction about allowing access to the Cotton Club. He gave me the same dead-eyed, dull stare he had given the Reverend.
I watched the school bus pull into the Cotton Club parking lot and begin to empty out. Our Security Coordinator sidled up next to me to watch them disembark. I hadn’t even realized he was watching me deal with the Reverend. He is good, and discreet. He shook his head at what we saw. The bus was full of old women from the Reverend’s congregation in Brooklyn. How sad. I was again surprised by what I heard next.
“One of the sisters from my mosque attended his services last Sunday. Reverend promised the ladies a free chicken dinner if they came tonight.”
We looked at each other and couldn’t help but chuckle.
Even funnier, the Cotton Club folks were clearly perplexed by the façade we had erected between their property and our set. It was quite comical watching them mill around, examining the wall and scratching their heads. After some huddling and thinking they formed a circle behind the wall and started marching and chanting. They had brought pots and pans to bang on, and the Reverend led chants on a megaphone. They went through the normal routine, giving us the old “No peace, no justice!” and the like. No more than fifty feet away the set went on operating as normal. Some crew members had drifted towards the protestors to get a good look. The noise the protestors made was bothersome of course, but did nothing to interrupt our work as we were shooting a scene without dialogue.
Crossing over to the set proper, I went back about my normal work activities. Things were still tense but the pathetic and ineffectual nature of his protest ratcheted it down a notch. If that was the best he had we were in good shape.
A little later my Security Coordinator pulled me aside.
“We’re about to have a problem.”
He took me by the arm and walked me down the street a little distance.
“Look over at the auto repair shop. See the tall brother in the red jacket?”
I clocked him as casually as possible.
“He’s with the Reverend, and he aint no old lady. Rev has him and a dozen others like him sneaking up on your set.”
Holy shit, it really was going to go down.
“You want, we can take snatch him and walk him up the block. I’m pretty sure we have eyes on all of them. I can convince him he aint welcome around here.”
I came damned close to giving him the green light. It certainly would have been satisfying to have my guys bitch slap the guys who had been leaning on me. Hell, I wanted to do a little of the ass-kicking myself. It wasn’t the right thing to do, however. Doing so would have us stepping outside of the law, which I could not do as a responsible employee of the studio. More importantly it would expose my security to potential harm and I didn’t want to be responsible for that. Most of all, however, it would bring me down to the same level as the people we were up against. I chose to be better than them.
“No, keep your distance. Just make sure we have eyes on them in case it goes down.”
He gave me a long look. I know he had the same temptation I did to knock some heads. We propped each other up with our eyes and held off. Shortly thereafter the Reverend made his big move.
The protestors charged onto our set. They formed a circle and began chanting in the middle of the street. Our Assistant Director didn’t miss a beat. Raising his bullhorn to his lips he called out:
“Annnnnd that’s lunch. Crew is broken for one hour. Catering is two blocks up on your left, follow the signs.”
Just like that the street emptied out. The vast majority of the crew stopped their work and walked away. All that was left were the Reverend and his protestors, surrounded by the NYPD, our security personnel, and some production staff. A few crew members lingered as well, enjoying the show. The protest stuttered a bit as they were suddenly in an empty street, performing without a crowd.
They made one last-ditch effort to cause trouble. The old ladies from the church weren’t doing a lot, hell most of them seemed to have no idea why they were even there. The hardcases he had brought in were another story altogether. They were experienced at creating havoc and started doing their best. One walked over and started grabbing handfuls of food from the craft service table, daring someone to try stopping him. Whatever, enjoy the free sandwich. I didn’t give a shit and made sure he wasn’t interfered with. Another guy came close to inciting violence by shoving a young and fairly amped-up PA. The kid took the bait and shoved back starting a brief scuffle. My security guards quickly wrapped up the production assistant and marched him clear of the situation. Their best efforts to stir it up were thwarted by the fact that every one of them was shadowed by several large and entirely serious men from my friend’s mosque. The Reverend’s thugs may be used to mixing it up but even they knew it was wise to keep in line.
The Reverend stood amongst his congregation looking a little lost. The NYPD moved their men a little closer, far enough not to be an immediate provocation but near enough to be seen. They informed the Reverend that he was getting the courtesy of owning the street for another ten minutes, after which point he would be posting bail. He gave it some thought and waited every second until the deadline before loudly declaring victory. He marshaled his crowd and led them away to their next battle, where they were exacting justice from a table heaping with food in the Cotton Club. The chants of “No peace, no justice” faded as they wandered into the Cotton Club. We reconvened the crew after lunch and went about our real work shooting our film. I am eternally thankful that as a company we decided not to acquiesce to those crooks.