There's something oddly familiar about meeting Woody Allen. He's played that compulsively jokey character for so long, it's easy to confuse the role and the person. They are not the same, of course. The real Allen doesn't hide behind one-liners, which makes him both less entertaining and more accessible. In fact, he's shy and almost earnest, even about his phobias.
Take, for example, today's shoot just across the Hudson River from his beloved Manhattan. The quickest way here would have been through the Lincoln Tunnel, but because Allen hates tunnels, he was driven miles out of the way across the George Washington Bridge. On screen, Allen's character would have made a mountain out of this anxiety. In person, his attitude seems to be if you share it, fine. If you don't, that's OK too.
Between shots, Allen sits in a trailer and talks about his newest movie, "Everyone Says I Love You." He has plenty to say on this subject and almost nothing to say about his current project, which, as usual, is closed to the press and is as yet untitled. He's got his trademark get-up on: black framed glasses, brown corduroys, black shoes, gray sweater. His eyes are red-rimmed, and he's got a little stubble.
"I don't have to work today," he says, meaning he doesn't have to act. "That's why I didn't shave. It's a treat day for me. I can just get up, shower and come here."
He had a few treat days while making "Everyone Says I Love You." Though he acts in it--he plays an expatriate novelist unlucky in love--a lot of screen time is given over to other characters, played by Julia Roberts, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Drew Barrymore, Tim Roth, Edward Norton, Lukas Haas, Natasha Lyonne, Natalie Portman and Gaby Hoffman. It's a typical stellar Allen cast engaged in typical Allenesque celebrations and confusions about love. What's atypical is that they express these emotions in song. "Everyone Says I Love You" is a musical.
"I'd always wanted to do some musical things," Allen says. "I could do them tentatively in 'Bullets Over Broadway,' and then we had some choreography in 'Mighty Aphrodite,' and then I figured, 'Why not do that musical you always wanted to do?' I remember many years ago saying to Marshall Brickman, when we were collaborating on 'Annie Hall,' 'What if the characters just sang at a certain point?' And he said, 'Maybe. I don't know how people will take to that.' "
Allen, who turns 61 today, has seldom concerned himself with how people will take to this or that. In the case of "Everyone Says I Love You," audiences face several obstacles. First they have to overcome their resistance to musical conventions--characters bursting into song whenever their hearts or heads are overflowing. Then they have to overcome their expectations that the performers know what they're doing--here, none of the singers can sing and none of the dancers can dance. Julia Roberts drones a version of "All My Life." Allen himself mumbles out "I'm Through With Love." Edward Norton dances with two left feet to "My Baby Just Cares for Me."
"I wanted to do a musical where it was like my parents at their anniversary, where they just dance and your heart goes out to them, but they can't dance," Allen says. "There are times when you're in the shower or your car or at a party and you just sing because you feel good or rhythmical or exuberant or sad--I guess you wouldn't sing if you're sad, except in a musical. But people do sing privately. It's an expression of emotion, and I wanted the actor or actress to act the scene and then, when it came to a certain point, sing the thing rather than just go on with the dialogue. I didn't want to get Pavarotti and Frank Sinatra. I didn't even mention to the actors that it was a musical when I cast them. If that person could sing, fine. If that person couldn't sing, that was fine too."
An example of the former was Goldie Hawn, who was so good that Allen had to take her aside and say, "Take it easy. This is not supposed to be Radio City Music Hall or Las Vegas." On the other hand there was Tim Roth. Apparently music coordinator Dick Hyman called up Allen and expressed reservations about Roth's singing abilities, which, given the vocal limitations of the other actors, is saying something.
"Tim Roth was amazing," Hyman says. "I didn't think he was able to handle it. He learned much better than I gave him credit for."
It was Hyman, incidentally, who had to notify the actors what they were in for. According to Allen, Hyman called them up and said, "I want to get together with you and just rehearse your song a little bit." And the actor would say, "What do you mean, 'my song'?" Allen snickers when he tells this story.
Perhaps Hyman and the actors had the last laugh, though.
"Woody himself approached the music with some trepidation," Hyman says. "I think his was the first thing we did. I think he wanted to see if he was comfortable with it."
In some respects, "Everyone Says I Love You" is not so different from Allen's other movies. He does very little cutting--especially in the musical numbers--and he encouraged the actors to improvise on the script. This approach, and Allen's application of it--he doesn't give actors much direction or engage in much on-set banter--has become famous through the years. In fact, a simple question about what actors expect from him elicits a monologue about what everyone expects from him.
"They probably think from having read newspaper items that I'm weirder than I am," he says. "They probably think I'm reclusive, uncommunicative. I think they're surprised to find that I'm not, or at least not anywhere near to the degree that they anticipate.
"You read these things--I just read Walter Bernstein, who wrote this book about his blacklisting experiences, and in it he mentioned that [director] Marty Ritt wanted to hug Woody but Woody doesn't like to be touched. That's just not true. It's not that I solicit people touching me, but I don't care if someone hugs me or pats me on the shoulder or something. Michael Blakemore, writing in the New Yorker, wrote an account of me working on a play with him, and he said that he had a cold and I wouldn't go within a certain amount of feet of him. I stayed away from him and kept my coat up over my face like a spy. So someone reading about me reads, 'He's reclusive, he doesn't talk, he doesn't like to be touched, he's hypochondriacal.'
"People think God knows what when they meet me, and then they find that I'm completely lower middle class and not at all eccentric in that way. I'm polite to everybody. I work. I work with the same people for years. I go home. I practice my clarinet. I go to a basketball game fairly regularly. Watch movies. Get up and go back to work the next day. It's a very ordinary life."
He debunks some other Woody Allen myths: Actors are not clamoring to get into Woody Allen movies (in fact, he could not interest a star to play a male lead in his current film, so he is forced to play it himself). He does not hate Hollywood (his annual absence from the Oscars simply reflects his lack of interest in such affairs, his distaste for travel and his unwillingness to skip his Monday night jazz gig at Michael's Pub).
While all this sounds defensive, Allen says it without rancor, almost as if he's making a philosophical point. Certainly part of the subtext here is the avalanche of press that accompanied his 1993 battles with Mia Farrow over the custody of their three children. (A spokeswoman for Allen said that since then, he hasn't seen his and Farrow's adopted children Dylan and Moses and 10 months ago voluntarily gave up his visitation rights to son Satchel.) His reputation was hurt by her (unproved) allegations that he sexually abused one of them and by his admission that he was seeing--and continues to see--one of her adopted daughters, Soon-Yi Previn.
Because it's widely assumed that much of Allen's life goes into his movies, his subsequent films have been read with all this in mind. For example, in last year's "Mighty Aphrodite," his character is a loving father of an adopted child and is seduced by the kid's (much younger) biological mother. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote a column calling the movie an exercise in spin control, that he was trying to rehabilitate his image.
"That's completely foolish, because my image needs no rehabilitation," Allen says. "It's the public that needs rehabilitation, the press. 'Mighty Aphrodite' was an idea that I had 15 years ago whose time came to do. The movies that I've made have been what I could think of that spring--I'm usually writing in the spring, spring to summer. . .This film that I'm doing now, I play a very nasty kind of shallow, awful character. It's whatever I think of, but people like to make these things up."
He also takes issue with the underlying assumption that his life and art are one.
"I've said a thousand times to people," he says, "right from 'Annie Hall,' Diane Keaton and I didn't meet that way, we didn't break up that way, that wasn't our life together, I don't come from that part of Brooklyn, my father did not run a concession stand at Coney Island. When 'Manhattan' came out, this didn't happen. I wrote both of those pictures with Marshall Brickman. Half the ideas were his ideas. Now, I'm not saying there's never any relationship, because there is. When I play a writer or a comedian or a sports fan or something, that reflects my real life, but they think all these movies are direct autobiographical things. No matter how many times I tell them that it's not, they just don't want to hear it."
Obviously his films reflect his own very widely known tastes. The music in "Everyone Says I Love You," for example, is taken from his favorite period of American song, roughly from the teens to the early 1950s. He says he knows nothing about contemporary music and never considered using it. As he was writing the script, he would hit moments that he thought could be expressed musically and then come up with a song that he thought might fit. Then he would check the lyrics to see if he remembered them correctly.
(One unforeseen result of this working method is that he didn't account for the music in the film's running time. His first cut was 3 hours and 20 minutes, so he had to eliminate whole sequences and characters, including those of Tracey Ullman and Liv Tyler.)
However dated these songs might seem, he insists that the sentiments behind them are not.
The scenario in "Everyone Says I Love You" is personal too, though not in a literal way. The story is about an extended family--extended in the modern sense, through marriages and remarriages--whose members fall in and out of love. Alan Alda and Goldie Hawn are married, and Allen plays her ex-husband, who is treated as if he is part of the family.
"It's one of those relationships that you never used to find where I grew up but is now a not uncommon thing when two people get divorced," Allen says. "When I grew up and people got divorced, they were exchanging gunfire. Now they remain the best of friends, they're always seeing the kids, they vacation together.
"And that's happened to me with Diane Keaton, for example. She and I lived together for a few years and have remained the best of friends. I've remained close friends with Louise Lasser, my second wife, and even friends with my first wife, who doesn't live anywhere near me.
"The families that I see on the Upper East Side of New York, where I live, are composed of a husband who'd been married before, a wife who'd been married before, kids they've had together, kids that came from both their marriages, spouses that they both still like."
Of course, this arrangement might be a lot rarer in other parts of the country. A recurring criticism of Allen's work is that it seldom ventures very far from the manners and concerns of neurotic, well-to-do East Side New Yorkers. Although he contends that such people have the same problems everyone else has, he does acknowledge that his movies are more popular in Europe (that's where they make their money). In fact, he personally is more popular in Europe.
"It's amazing to me, because here I've never been anything," he says. "As far back as my nightclub act, the owners in Vegas would book me, thinking, 'Oh, this guy has been on the Johnny Carson show and he's got a movie coming out, he's going to be great.' And they'd be moving around the potted plants to make the audience look less empty. So I've never been a significant draw in this country, except in a few big cities."
He doesn't believe his custody fight and other troubles lost him any of his audience--"My grosses remain the same. They were never good, and they're not good now"--though why some of his movies don't do better mystifies him. He understands that a movie as esoteric as "Shadows and Fog" isn't going to make money, but he sees no reason why "Husbands and Wives," "Manhattan Murder Mystery," "Broadway Danny Rose" or "Bullets Over Broadway," all of which got good reviews, suffered the same fate.
"On balance, this one loses, this one makes a few bucks, most of them break even," he says. "In a certain sense, because it's low-key, I survive easier than those people who have a couple of big hits and then don't follow them up. They don't get financed again, but I get financed. There's a kind of feeling, 'Oh, it's not going to be a big hit financially, but if it works, it'll be interesting or worthwhile.' "
And what are his expectations for the $20-million "Everyone Says I Love You"? "My guess is that it will do what I usually do, no more, no less," he says.
Meanwhile, regardless of how well the movie does, there's another one to finish and another one to write. He says he will continue to make movies as long as he is physically able to and someone is willing to put up the money. He can maintain this regimen despite scandal, passing fashions and advancing age because, as he puts it, "I get up and work and know where everything is, and I take my walk and come back and work." It's a very ordinary life.