Shooting stars with Woody

By Mike Goodridge, Evening Standard 29.08.06Woody Allen shoots are notoriously mysterious affairs. The director likes to keep his films shrouded in secrecy until they are completed. Few of the crew have actually read the entire script. And journalists are rarely, if ever, allowed on set.Yet here I am, in the sleepy town of Hoo, Kent, watching the man in action. And he’s not happy.”It’s too sunny,” he frowns. He likes the flat light that we have over here. “The weather’s been very unpleasant this time.”Hollywood’s finest have come to Hoo, on this wiltingly hot day, to shoot scenes from Allen’s 37th movie, as yet untitled. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell are standing around chatting, impressively quiffed and smoking heavily.A few locals squint their eyes and wonder if the unassuming, casually-dressed men standing on the marina really are the world-famous film stars they look like. They look even more bemused as the quintessential New Yorker and Oscarwinning comedy legend Allen walks past them with a pair of headphones looking oversized around his slender neck.When the first assistant director shouts that they are ready, Farrell spits out his cigarette, loads up with two six-packs and a CD player, and follows McGregor towards the camera. Allen stands quietly by. He doesn’t use a monitor, just watches as the two stars walk down the gangplank to the boat. And he never says “Action”. “I’ve never said Action in my life,” he says laughing.Nor does he say “Cut”. To end the take, he merely asks “OK?” softly and then shuffles up to the two actors to give them more directions for another take. It’s a very calm and collected set, no hurly burly, no histrionics. Possibly because Allen allows his actors a good deal of freedom.”I almost never have to say anything [to McGregor and Farrell],” he says, when I get a chance to chat to him in between takes. “I generally tell them to go where they want, stand where they want, wear what they want, and they do; and 98 per cent of the time what they do is correct.”Although I’m allowed to watch, there are heavy restrictions. I’m not allowed to speak to either of the co-stars. And nobody’s allowed to tell me about the plot. This is quite possibly because they don’t know themselves. All I know is that the film revolves around two brothers who turn to crime and become enemies. I also discover that it’s a melodrama more in the style of Match Point than the silly comedy mystery Scoop, which he shot last summer. Given the panning Scoop received in America, this is probably a good thing.The director has also found a new ing?nue. Stand aside Scarlett Johannson, meet Haley Atwell. She’s English and, at 24, older than Scarlett, but she still has the angular looks and sparkling charisma that appealed to Allen in the young Johansson. She graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Drama a year ago and has already made a name for herself here with a stint at the RSC, a role in Prometheus Bound in the West End and a choice part in The Line of Beauty on the BBC. Allen chose her from a tape he was given from a casting director in London before the television series had aired, flew her to New York, auditioned her and offered her the role on the spot.The dark-haired beauty is still reeling from her good fortune, so much so that she probably blurts out more of the plot than Allen would approve. “I play Angela Stark,” she says. “She’s a very driven, ambitious girl who has a working-class background but has come to London to make a name for herself. She is seductive and incredibly confident. She knows the effect she is having on Ian, Ewan’s character.”Atwell, who will star alongside Billie Piper in ITV’s Mansfield Park adaptation next year, admits that they’re all somewhat in awe of Allen. The director, in turn, seems extremely respectful of his cast. “Ewan and Colin are such perfect and exciting actors,” says Allen, sitting on a bench in between takes. “I didn’t really know their work very well before. I had seen Ewan in Guys and Dolls in the theatre here and in Young Adam but Colin I didn’t know at all. Colin came in and said hello and 20 seconds later, I knew I had to have him in the film.”Allen first came to the UK two years ago to make Match Point. He had exhausted traditional methods of finance in the US – or at least he was not prepared to work with the Hollywood movie studios who insisted that they had a say in how the films were cast and made. Allen demands that the company invests in his vision with zero interference in the process.”The companies willing to work with me in that way are European,” he says with a hint of resignation. “And I would rather make films abroad and be completely free than have to go through the process that American film-makers go through, where they have to be partners with the people who are putting the money up.” Allen’s track record is good, but not impeccable. While for many years, discerning film-lovers around the world longed for their annual fix of his wellobserved musings on the meaning of love and life such as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes And Misdemeanors, the past decade has seen a creative slump in his output. Films such Anything Else, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Small Time Crooks garnered Allen some of the worst reviews of his career.With Match Point, however, he enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. The change of scene in England evidently agreed with him and refreshed his creative juices. His sister Letty Aronson, also his full-time producer, certainly believes that her brother has become more sociable with his cast and crew since he started making films in the UK.”It’s been a liberating experience working in England,” she says. “Because he’s not in New York, he doesn’t go home for lunch and hangs out with the group more. We had Scarlett [Johansson] working with us on the first two films and she was very outgoing and friendly. And he likes being in London. He hires a house. His wife and kids are here and he likes the restaurants. And the weather.”His newly laid-back attitude might explain the invitation to the set. It’s the most he’s ever exposed himself to the media while a film is still shooting. Really the only surprise is just how workmanlike the production is compared to some larger affairs with all the hoop-la that big budgets and primadonna directors entail.As I watch Allen finishing up more takes with McGregor and Farrell, the plot of the movie might still remain hazy, but the long-kept mystery of his shooting style has been cleared up.He doesn’t shout or even raise his voice. He is professional and gentle, maybe even a little shy. In the spirit of openness, I decide I might as well try my luck and ask about his next film which will shoot in Barcelona, only because a Spanish film company has offered to finance it.But I don’t get much out of him. He merely explains that he means to edit this picture very quickly in two weeks. “And then I’ll start to work on the Barcelona film.”Allen takes off and I ask Aronson how he will cope with the summer heat and bright light of Catalonia. “I know,” she says. “It’s going to be very sunny and hot. He’s going to have to write something that lends itself to that climate. Or else set it all indoors.” to Roberta and Trish for the link!