Amazon Gets A Woody, Allen Thinks It is A Mistake

woody-allen_2324414bWoody Allen has admitted he made a “catastrophic mistake” signing up to create a TV series for Amazon’s online video service.

The 79-year-old was commissioned to write and direct the six-part untitled show earlier this year.

“I’m doing my best with it, but I should never have gotten into it,” he said at the Cannes film festival.

“I thought six half-hours would be a cinch, but it’s not. It’s very hard. I’m not good at it, I’m floundering.”

He added: “It could be a cosmic embarrassment. I just hope I don’t disappoint Amazon.”

When it was announced in January Allen was making the series, the Annie Hall director made similar self-deprecating comments about the project.

“I don’t know how I got into this – I have no ideas and I’m not sure where to begin,” he said.

The TV series – the first Allen has ever created – is due to be available to Amazon Prime subscribers in the US, UK and Germany next year.

“Technique is something you learn. You know what it is? It’s like throwing a ball or playing billiards or playing the piano, where all of a sudden you come to a point where you can do it.” —Woody Allen

Early on, Allen admits, crafting a distinctive filmmaking style was not among his primary concerns. “If the movie was funny, it was successful,” he later said. “If it was not funny, it wasn’t. And I could always be funny. That I had control over. So everything was subjugated to the joke. The films were a series of jokes.”

In that equation, aesthetics were decidedly secondary. “I never had any ulterior motive in terms of style or content or breaking new ground or anything like that,” he said in 1976. “The only interest to me was making people laugh.” And in straight comedy, the preferred style is no style—to sell the joke, you look right down the barrel of it, instead of dazzling the audience with cinematic curlicues.

That started to change in 1972, with Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex. At the time, he pinpointed its Italian cinema parody as “the most fun I’ve had with anything,” since, for the first time, “I didn’t have to think about anything except what is the best shot I can make with the camera. I didn’t have to worry if it was dark or if it was moody, or if someone was half shadowed or half blocked, because it contributes to the joke—I’m satirizing that style of shooting.” It wasn’t just the Italian sequence; each segment, be it the starkness of the sci-fi scene, the fuzzy game show parody, or the “women’s pictures”- inspired warmth of the bestiality vignette, has a look and style that contributes to the gag without undermining it.

From that point on, he would alter his thinking. His growth as a filmmaker was borne out of his growth as a writer. If the early pictures were haphazardly filmed dramatizations of his nightclub act and prose pieces (“gags and sketches and monologues, with bodies attached to the jokes,” according to early biographer Myles Palmer), subsequent screenplays that were as interested in character and narrative as laughs- per-minute allowed their director equal latitude.

During rehearsals for Play It Again, Sam, Allen told director Herbert Ross that he was handing over the film because “this is a story with plot and character, and I couldn’t do that.” But he would come to reconsider (perhaps after observing how Ross made the material work on screen), and the turning point came when he made Annie Hall five years later. It was his first collaboration with cinematographer Gordon Willis, the key figure in what Allen later called “my maturity in films,” and it features our first glimpses of what would become his signature style.

Most obviously, the picture found Allen playing out entire scenes in long “master” shots. The standard Hollywood playbook, particularly in comedies, is to shoot “coverage”—that is, to shoot the scene several times, from several different angles, in mediums and close- ups. “When I worked with the editor of Take The Money And Run,” Allen recalled, “he said, ‘always take a lot of coverage, because then we can do everything we want here, in the editing room.’ So, on Bananas and Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex and Sleeper I did a lot of coverage all the time—for security. But then I stopped. It seemed silly to me.”

Woody-Allen-at-Cannes-201-007That simple explanation makes sense to anyone who’s been on a film set; it does seem as though you spend forever doing the same thing, over and over, ad nauseam.

And while, as his editor explained, it does allow limitless options and the capability to shape and reshape a scene after the fact, it also robs scenes of their natural rhythm and fluidity. Those qualities are preserved by Allen’s long, unbroken takes, which will often cover an entire scene and go on for several minutes of screen time. It’s a touch that has only made the filmmaker seem more idiosyncratic compared to the increasingly frenetic, ADD-inspired rhythms of Hollywood product. Where a film like Transformers has an average shot length of three seconds, films like Bullets Over Broadway and Alice average a cut every forty seconds.

This shooting strategy places considerable pressure on the actors. In a six-page dialogue scene, any fumble means the whole take is blown and must begin anew. But “the actors love them,” Allen says. “They get a chance to do five minutes of material, or seven minutes of material, or three minutes of material, instead of one sentence and cut, and then turn the camera around.” It also speeds up the process considerably—Allen has said, not entirely in jest, that he shoots this way out of mere laziness (“I don’t have the patience or concentration. I can’t stand listening to it so much”), though he does grant that the “cover everything and give it to the editor” approach “often lacks personality and doesn’t have any individual imprint.”

Woody developed another of his “individual imprints” in Annie Hall—the surprisingly radical idea of a frame that actors move in and out of freely, rather than one that captures their every move. It occurred accidentally; while shooting one of the Alvy/Annie dialogue scenes, Allen went to Willis with a concern. “I said to Gordie, ‘Hey, if we shoot Keaton this way, I’m going to be offstage when I do my joke,’” he recalled. “And he said, ‘That’s okay, they can hear you.’” It was a simple realization for Woody, but revolutionary. (“In every movie there’s at least one scene where nobody’s on and there’s just talking,” he’s said. “I throw one in always in honor of Gordon.”)

Annie Hall also marked the beginning of Woody’s exploration of color temperatures and palates. He used three different visual textures for the film: clean, crisp color for the present day; aged yellow for the memories of his childhood; and a sun-bleached starkness for Los Angeles. In subsequent films, whether working with “Prince of Darkness” Willis, Bergman favorite Sven Nykvist, frequent Antonioni collaborator Carlo Di Palma, or versatile Iranian Darius Khondji, Allen has migrated toward a warm, autumnal look. “I just like warm colors. It’s a personal taste,” he explained. “I like deeply saturated, warm films, in the sense of what Matisse felt, that when you look at a painting, it should be like sitting down in an easy chair; a picture should be a comfortable chair for your eyes.”

When he parted ways with Willis after Purple Rose, he felt his education was complete—“It’s like when you leave your parents’ house; now you’re grown up and you go out and do your own thing.” His confidence as a filmmaker was secure, and during that fertile period of the 1980s that followed, as he turned out masterpiece after masterpiece, his preferences became more firmly entrenched, the filmmaker developing what he would self-effacingly call “certain clichés” that pop up throughout his filmography: “People are walking down the block toward the camera and then they get close to the camera and then the camera begins to dolly. That’s one.” Another familiar Allen “cliché” is to have the camera on the opposite sidewalk going parallel as people are walking along the other side of the street.

These visual and aural cues help to give Woody Allen movies their recognizable look and feel. “If I was satirizing my movies,” he said, “I would do the black-and-white titles and some sort of jazz music, Duke Ellington, say, and then probably have somebody talking to the audience and then do broad stuff about the meaning of life.”

He jokes, charmingly, about such crutches, but in doing so, he downplays the degree to which he has continued to experiment with camerawork (the harrowing handheld photography of Husbands And Wives) and editing (the jagged jump cuts of Deconstructing Harry) well past the point at which his calm, “well made” style seemed established. Yet he maintains in interviews that, all things being equal, his style is relatively unimportant. “What the audience comes away with emotionally, spiritually, is the content of the film,” he told Stig Björkman. “The characters, the substance of the film. The form of the film is just a simple, functional thing.”

This cavalier attitude and the casualness of his long master shots, combined with the wit and skill of his dialogue (fostering a perception that he is a writer first and director second) causes Allen’s sophisticated filmmaking style to be taken somewhat for granted. “It’s funny,” Woody Allen: A Documentary director Robert Weide told me. “I had already seen Tall Dark Stranger two or three times, but then I watched it on an airplane without the sound, and when you watch his movies without the sound, you realize how complex these shots are.” Allen may pooh-pooh the notion that he is a stylist, but he’ll also grant that “there are certain filmmakers that, no matter what their subject matter, you can tell it’s their film. There is some kind of philosophical or emotional sensibility, some kind of thing that permeates the material, and you just feel that it’s one of their pictures.” In Woody Allen At Work, Charles Champlin puts a finer point on it: “Allen has matured into an auteur in the truest sense of the term, a writer/director whose films (even those he has co-written with others) carry his unmistakable signature on every frame.”

The director is promoting his 46th film – Irrational Man – at the Cannes film festival.

Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, it tells of a philosophy professor who is deeply depressed until he perks up at the thought of committing a murder. Discussing the film’s plot surrounding life’s choices, Allen was typically bleak at its press conference, saying: “Life has its own agenda, and it runs right over you. “We’re all going to end up in a very bad position sooner or later. The same position, but a bad one – and the only way out of it, the only thing you can do as an artist, is to explain to people how life is worth living and has a meaning.”

Will the Woody Allen style translate onto the small screen? Allen thinks it was a mistake. Is that part of his self loathing charm or will it truly be a night of visual torches?

Comments are closed.