For roughly a quarter century—from Take the Money and Run in 1969 to, say, Bullets Over Broadway in 1994—Woody Allen was among America’s most fascinating and iconic filmmakers. His early comedies were a revelation; his more mature works (in particular Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Hannah and Her Sisters) were among the best films of the period. Frequently casting himself in central roles, he mined a vein of humor that was emphatically Jewish yet accessible to a wide audience. And if his occasional homages to great European directors such as Bergman (Interiors and Another Woman) and Fellini (Stardust Memories and Alice) weren’t entirely successful, they nonetheless deepened the intellectual reputation of an oeuvre also known for its allusions to art, literature, and philosophy. Alone among major directors, he seemed to be speaking almost intimately to his audience, playing repeated variations on the same character, a man who was a recognizable variation on Allen himself.
Though Allen, now 81, has maintained his frenetic pace of one feature film a year since 1982, his more recent output has been generally, yet gently, judged a disappointment. His best films of the past 20 years—Match Point, Blue Jasmine—are solid but overrated, perhaps because so many of us dream of a return to his early form. (A. O. Scott of The New York Times, who accurately described Match Point as Allen’s “most satisfying film in more than a decade,” then couldn’t resist hyperbole: “a Champagne cocktail laced with strychnine.”) The rest run the gamut from middling—Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris—to genuinely bad: Scoop, Whatever Works, To Rome With Love. While the former have a habit of garnering plaudits anyway (Midnight in Paris won an Oscar for best original screenplay), the latter are often politely ignored in discussions of the overall quality of his work.
The upshot has been that Allen’s stature as an important filmmaker (unlike his personal reputation) has proved surprisingly sturdy—despite the withering self-assessments he offers every so often. In an interview during the filming of Match Point, he described himself as “functioning within the parameters of my mediocrity,” and went on to note that if he were ever to make another great film, it would be “by accident.” False modesty? Some, no doubt. But we would do best to take his words at face value.
For years the evidence has accumulated: Allen is an astonishingly lazy director. Often this fact gets a positive spin, as when he is described as “an actor’s director”—code for the reality that he offers his performers little or no guidance and tries to complete every scene in as few takes as possible. Here, again, Allen is bluntly honest. “I’m lazy and an imperfectionist,” he explained in a 2015 NPR interview. “Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese will work on the details until midnight and sweat it out, whereas for me, come 6 o’clock, I want to go home, I want to have dinner, I want to watch the ballgame. Filmmaking is not [the] end-all be-all of my existence.”
The most recent grist for this assessment comes from Eric Lax, an Allen acolyte, whose fourth book on the director, Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking, is essentially an indictment framed as an encomium. Focused on the making of 2015’s Irrational Man, a film seen by few and liked by fewer, it functions as a third-person diary of a directorial indifference so extreme that one would expect it to have eroded the Allen brand by now. So how and why does Allen still enjoy his current level of prestige? Lax’s otherwise tedious account is a good occasion to explore that mystery, the key to which is something of a paradox: Allen’s reputation depends in no small part on the very indolence that undermines so many of his films.
Despite the art in his title, Lax reveals Allen’s moviemaking technique as something more akin to an assembly line. From beginning to end, the enterprise is designed to maximize efficiency, all but inevitably at the cost of quality. Screenwriting, casting, shooting—at almost every stage of the process, Allen performs, to judge from Lax’s account, a fraction of the labor customarily expected of a director. How else could he keep up a filmmaking pace that smacks more of neurotic obsession than of intensive dedication? (When the character he plays in To Rome With Love is told, “You equate retirement with death,” the line lands close to home.)
Allen’s oft-quoted dictum that “80 percent of success is showing up” seems to apply to almost every aspect of the endeavor. This lassitude is enabled by an arrangement that is virtually unique among major directors: Allen is answerable to no one on his films. Though they are distributed by major studios (most recently Amazon Studios), those studios play no role in their production. Allen arranges his own financing, and investors sign on with barely any idea of what they’re investing in. (As he explains, “I’ve never given anybody who’s done one of my films more than three or four lines” of description.) Allen’s longtime producer (and sister) Letty Aronson, and his editor, Alisa Lepselter, offer advice throughout, as do the cinematographer and others on set. But that advice is always Allen’s to take or leave.
Start to Finish, well over half of which consists of a scene-by-scene account of the 32-day shooting schedule of Irrational Man, sheds limited light on Allen’s writing process. But another of his longtime producers, Robert Greenhut, marveled in Woody Allen: A Documentary, “I’ve never seen anybody write so fast.” Allen once boasted that he rewrote a central character in Match Point in “about an hour” after changing her nationality from English to American—scarcely a sign of thoughtful revision. And anyone who has watched recent Allen films knows that he leans on the crutch of voice-over to an extraordinary degree. On this count, too, he is his own most astute critic: Lax quotes him saying, “Don’t ruin it by making the characters talk to the audience because that distances you from the intense reality of it.”
When it comes to casting, Lax’s description of Allen’s method is unintentionally comical. His longtime casting directors, Juliet Taylor and Patricia DiCerto, will propose actors, show him footage, and
if he likes what he sees, there is a quick face-to-face interview, “quick” meaning about one minute … [The actors] are not told what part they are being considered for or anything about the film. Each interview is an almost verbatim repetition of the last … [Allen] is standing toward the middle, comes over, shakes hands, and says a version of, “Hi, I’m shooting a film starting in July. We thought you might be right for one of the parts, and today I just want to see how you look.” Usually the actor stammers out something reasonably appropriate. Then Woody thanks the actor and he or she leaves.
Those wondering how Andrew Dice Clay came to appear in Blue Jasmine, visibly straining to act, have their answer.
Other corners are comparably cut. Allen’s editor sometimes has to live with technical imperfections in the footage because he hasn’t shot enough takes for her to choose from. He selects his music from the decidedly limited range of his own personal taste—jazz, classical, American standards—because he “does not like working with a composer.” And so on.
Allen’s laziness becomes most glaring as the shoot approaches and then unfolds. In Lax’s telling, Allen is disengaged prior to the shoot, sometimes leaving his collaborators (location scouts, costume designers, etc.) to spin their wheels. “Woody has paced himself to be at top strength when the filming begins” is how Lax puts it, “often to the frustration of those who want only to do their best work on his behalf but cannot always get his attention to make a choice on what he wants.” As for the shoot itself, Allen has confessed, “I don’t do any preparation. I don’t do any rehearsals. Most of the times I don’t even know what we’re going to shoot.” Indeed, Allen rarely has any conversations whatsoever with his actors before they show up on set. Those with smaller parts will not even have seen the full script, merely their own scenes. (Parker Posey showed up for her first Irrational Man shoot not knowing whether it was a comedy or a drama.)
On the set, Allen typically offers his actors no direction before the camera rolls. If he is unhappy with a performance, though, he will weigh in with recommendations. In addition to limiting the number of takes on any given shot, he strongly prefers “master shots”—those that capture an entire scene from one angle—over multiple shots that would subsequently need to be edited together. In the past, Allen budgeted sufficient time and money to go back and reshoot scenes: 1987’s September and 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, for example, were both extensively reshot. But he stopped doing that about 20 years ago, according to Lax. Allen now tries to stay as close to the allotted schedule as possible, in part because his financing agreements stipulate that any budget overage come out of his own fee for writing and directing.
In a passage in Start to Finish, Allen seems genuinely astonished when his editor tells him that the director David Fincher frequently does 30 or more takes of a single shot: “Really? … Well, his movies are terrific.” Allen’s rather different approach was crystallized by Liam Neeson in a 2014 interview in which he spoke about his experience working on the 1992 picture Husbands and Wives:
“Not a lot of takes, right?”
“Oh no, no, no.”
“Because he wants to be done by six o’clock every day.”
“Oh, we were out at four in the afternoon. It was fucking great.”
Neeson’s delight offers a crucial clue to the endurance of Allen’s reputation. Filmmaking can be a grueling process, and Allen has settled upon an alternative business model that serves the interests of all involved. The limited time and effort that he expects not only of himself but of his cast surely helps him continue to attract topflight talent to his films, despite paying his actors just over the Screen Actors Guild minimum. He is one of the few genuine household names—and internationally recognized figures—working in cinema, and appearing in one of his movies checks off a useful career box. Especially for younger actresses eager to signal their desire to work with serious material, the experience is an ideal credential. Think of Scarlett Johansson (who appeared in three Woody Allen pictures from 2005 to 2008) and Emma Stone (who was in two in 2014 and 2015, including Irrational Man).
The minimal commitment that appearing in an Allen film entails is a highly relevant consideration for a time-strapped actor. Lax himself notes the contrast with Mike Leigh—another director of small, art-house films—who rehearses his actors for weeks before shooting even starts. For Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Stone and her co-star, Ryan Gosling, rehearsed for four months before the cameras rolled. Among other chores, they practiced singing, dancing, and, in Gosling’s case, piano. The fact that Stone’s Irrational Man character plays piano is less central to that movie’s plot, but Allen didn’t expect her even to fake it. He simply shot her recital with the piano blocking her hands. Similarly, in Match Point, Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a retired tennis pro who once almost beat Andre Agassi. But the scenes of him on court give every indication that tennis lessons were not required. He looks as though he’s never lifted a racket before in his life.
Such shortcuts result in a feedback loop of cinematic prestige: Allen is considered an important director in part because so many big stars still want to work with him. Meanwhile, his perceived importance as a director draws those stars for the short period it will take to film a movie and acquire their Allen credential. The accumulated prestige also rubs off on his investors, some of whom have even gotten bit parts. And their risk of a financial loss is low. Allen’s films almost always recoup their modest budgets—here, the actors’ willingness to work at a deep discount is essential—and now and then one strikes gold. (Midnight in Paris made more than $150 million on a $17 million budget.) The fact that so few of them wind up being any good barely enters into the director-actor-investor equation.
Given that Allen’s movie-a-year schedule extends well back into his prime, one might wonder what explains such a precipitous decline in quality since the 1990s. Presumably age, however healthy and fit he remains, has something to do with it. His shoots are typically shorter now than they were in his earlier years. (The shoot for 1973’s Sleeper lasted a full 101 days.) Ambition simply isn’t on the agenda. When asked whether his films would benefit from more time and effort, he has consistently maintained that they are as good as they can be and no amount of additional work would improve them. Moreover, it is hardly unusual for a director’s later work to grow somewhat stale, particularly when the director’s preoccupations—death, philosophy, older men sleeping with younger women—remain as constant as Allen’s have.
But once again, Allen himself is ready with the most astute diagnosis. “I’m not a curious person,” he noted in that 2015 NPR interview. “I’m not curious to travel … I’m not curious to see other places, I’m not curious to try new things.” During the fertile years in which he forged his reputation, he pursued themes very close to home, with films that were set almost exclusively in his native New York City and frequently dealt with the fields of comedy or show business. More recently, he has worked in locales—London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona—he evidently knows only from the perspective of an unenthusiastic tourist. Match Point was knocked for its unfamiliarity with London; To Rome With Love looks as though it was shot with a copy of Fodor’s in hand.
Early in his career, Allen was often his own star, and his distinctive patter—the phobias and neuroses and literary references—worked effortlessly in a way that it does not when it emanates from the mouths of his various surrogates since then. And the filmmaker who these days has so little contact with his actors used to have his female stars close at hand: Between them, his longtime love interests Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton, and Mia Farrow starred in 22 out of 23 consecutive films during his heyday.
So it is perhaps good news that Allen’s next film, Wonder Wheel, is set in 1950s Brooklyn, where he spent his youth. In fact, the movie takes place on Coney Island, where his long-ago Annie Hall character, Alvy Singer, claimed to have grown up in a house beneath the roller coaster. His 48th movie—scheduled for release on December 1, Allen’s 82nd birthday—will be the first one he has released during awards season since Match Point more than a decade ago. No one will be more pleased than I if the film turns out to be a return to prime form for Allen. But even if Wonder Wheel is a triumph, it will likely be, as Allen himself has suggested, a happy accident.
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