with Woody Allen
by Lucy Cooper
For the actors, working on a Woody Allen movie is not nearly as
relaxed as Woody think it is. But he's been there before. Over thirty
times. Lucy Cooper reports from New York.
Actors have a cushy job. They carry on about the 'creative demands'
of their work, performance anxiety, the trauma of media attention
and so on, but really we have a lot trouble feeling sorry them.
Really, life for them is all adoring fans, two-hour workdays, and
exorbitant paychecks, right' Not if you're acting in a Woody Allen
film. Having spoken with the stars of his latest film, The Curse
of the Jade Scorpion, I emerged with a profound new respect for
anyone who's ever dared to hit the set with Woody. And then actually
made it to the final cut.
The film is a crime comedy, set in New York (needless to say) in
1940. Allen stars as CW Briggs, a somewhat 'passed-it' insurance
investigator who, along with the insurance firm's tough new efficiency
expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald, played by Helen Hunt, is put under
the spell of the Jade Scorpion by hypnotist Volton (David Ogden
Stiers). The pair becomes the unwitting perpetrators in a robbery
case Briggs himself is investigating, and all manner of mayhem and
For the actors, however, the whole experience of making The Curse
of the Jade Scorpion, or any Woody Allen film for that matter, sounds
pretty harrowing. To begin with, they have to actually meet the
man behind the "mythology", to use Allen's word. He's
made over thirty films since 1965, that's about one a year, a career
path unparalleled in contemporary cinema. When I spoke with Dan
Aykroyd (who plays smarmy insurance boss Chris Magruder in the film)
about Allen's cinematic career, he simply asked: "Who else
does what he does' He's an auteur in the classic, classic sense".
Twenty-two Academy Award nominations, four wins. And he's intensely
private - a heavy combination for any actor to reconcile before
that fateful initial meeting.
Elizabeth Berkeley, the film's classic coy secretary, Jill, remembers
being beside herself before meeting Allen for the first time: "My
agent said to me: 'Listen, Elizabeth, maybe it'll just be five minutes,
he just wants to see you in person, talk a little bit, see where
you're at, so don't be offended if it's just five minutes', and
that's what it was...I was definitely nervous, my stomach was shaking".
But the 'lucky' ones manage to transform this kind of momentary
interlude into a part in Allen's next film. Even once they're cast
in the film, though, and everything's confirmed, they're never given
a complete script. Allen, who also wrote and directed Scorpion,
thinks it's better they don't: "They get their ten pages or
their fifteen pages or seven pages and, just like in real life,
we don't know what's going on across town, happening in other places,
they don't know what's happening in the story. And that's good when
they act because they can't play the role falsely knowing what they
shouldn't really be knowing, they give a truer performance".
Even Helen Hunt, who appears throughout the movie and so had to
be given an entire script, had it taken back a couple of hours later
when she had finished reading it.
In fact, the actors are not even given the context of their performance.
Stiers says he knew so little about his character Volton that he
had actually attributed him an accent appropriate to his Middle
European name. It wasn't until he arrived on set that Woody informed
him that his character was actually from Brooklyn, saying "he
played the Catskills, don't get crazy".
And then there are the rumors. Berkeley remembers hearing "so
many different things from so many different actors that have been
in his movies - 'be careful', 'don't worry', 'he won't talk to you',
'he won't give praise'". Helen Hunt also recalls similar warnings.
Now add the further intimidation of everyone on set seeming to be
practically family. Allen himself has seen how scary it is for actors.
"[When] they come into the situation they think: "Oh,
it's going to be people that have worked together for years, and
it's like a well-oiled machine". Stiers, for example, has now
made five films with Allen. He's made it to the inner circle, it
would appear, which must at least be a comfortable place for him'
Apparently not, according to Stiers, because while Allen does use
some actors over and over, "he goes through them, too - Tony
Roberts did a number of movies, and Diane Keaton did a number, and
he seems not to go through people, but there's an evolutionary process".
And we haven't even made it to the set yet.
On set, there are no rehearsals. Allen simply blocks for camera
and shoots. He calls for "emergency acting", as Stiers
puts it. "Woody loves the raw, 'sleeves-up', 'ok-here-we- go-let's-go-for-it'
it'". He tells the actors on his films that they're "completely
unbound by the script, they can adlib as much as they want, they
don't have to do it the same way twice".
Allen says (and I quote him at length to capture his very "Woody"
phrasing): "I never work with actors, I just hire them. It's
the truth. You know, I hire terrific people. Who have I worked with
over the years' Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Judy Davis, Helen Hunt,
Tracey Ullman, Goldie Hawn, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh. I mean
I've worked with these wonderful people who were great before I
knew them. They come in, they're great. They do their part great.
I don't speak to them much. I have very little to say to them. And
they go. And everybody thinks that I'm handling the actors. But
I'm not. I'm saying, you know "Change the script. Do what you
want. Wear want you want. Walk where you want". You know, and
they're saying "Oh, thank you".
Really? So much flexibility leaves plenty of room for mistakes.
What happens to actors who screw-up' Stiers says Allen will "very
quietly come over to you and [give a vague instruction] and walk
away, and you're left to somehow paste that onto what you're doing
and make it look as organic as possible". Or they get fired.
Allen says "I've fired some actors, but usually when I fire
them it's been my fault - that I cast the person because I thought
they could do the role, and then when they can't do the role, I'm
not skilful enough to get it out of them... If the actor can do
it, they can do it, if they can't do it, they can never do it".
Oh, and the pay's not great. As Helen Hunt puts it: "One of
the beautiful things about having been lucky enough to make an extraordinary
amount of money is that you can... do a Woody Allen movie and feel
like you can afford to do it".
So after all of that, why are actors still fighting for even the
tiniest role in one of Woody films? The answer is unanimous and
simple - the guy's a genius and his films are great. Dan Aykroyd
calls him "massively talented", Elizabeth Berkeley describes
him as "the dream director that every actor dreams of working
with". Helen Hunt says that "he writes great parts for
women, he just does, and so the fact that I got to chew on one is
a dream come true".
But is it worth the trauma? David Ogden Stiers sums it up nicely:
"Everybody tells me that every actor wants to work with Woody,
but I suspect there are people who would simply not be compatible
with his process". If you can possibly handle it, though, you
do. While his filmmaking process is as trying as it is clearly an
amazing thing to be part of, the actors seem to think it brings
out the best in them. Stiers believes making a film with Allen requires
"an alertness that isn't quite human" but when it's 'for
the money', you tend to rise to stuff". Elizabeth Berkeley
describes it as "very liberating, but it's also terrifying
at the same time... in a good, creative way". Hunt finds it
keeps her focused: "Fear makes you really pay attention, 'cause
you really don't want to suck in a Woody Allen movie, right?"
Allen remains somehow charmingly oblivious to the torments of his
actors; his modesty is such that he doesn't understand the anxiety,
he doesn't really get that it's a big deal to work on one of his
films. In fact, he thinks the above-mentioned elements of his filmmaking
process make for a "relaxed atmosphere". He just doesn't
take any of it too seriously: "The movie for me is never the
first priority. I'm not a dedicated artist where I'd kill for the
movie. They used to say Chaplin would be the first one on the set
in the morning, he'd be thinking, and he'd be the last one to leave
after it was done. I'm not like that at all. I come in a little
bit late in the morning, I never make it exactly on time. I have
no idea what I'm going to shoot that day. They show me at the time.
People are not rehearsed, I want to get home for lunch so I can
have lunch with my family, I want to get home at six o'clock. If
I'm shooting late and it's six o'clock and there's a basketball
game that night, I stop, you know, because I don't want to be late
for the game".