Quiet on the set and elsewhere with Woody Allen
“Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking” (Knopf), by Eric Lax
If we had been allowed to watch God create the heavens and the Earth, we probably wouldn’t have stuck it out for all six days. The act of creation can be slow and tedious when you’re a bystander.
The idea behind “Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking” sounds exciting: Observe as one of the best writers and directors goes from blank page to theater-ready film. In this case, it’s “Irrational Man,” released in 2015 and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone.
The resulting chronicle by author Eric Lax is a unique handbook for how movies are made, at least when one person makes all the decisions and that person is Woody Allen. Most interesting are the chapters about writing, financing, casting, choosing locations and other necessary nuts and bolts.
Yet “Start to Finish” is hobbled at times by reality: Filmmaking can be boring. Preparation and execution of one scene becomes like any other, the technical challenges concerning light and sound and the artistic ones about performance eventually turning routine.
Lax mostly overcomes the keeping-it-real problem by filling “Start to Finish” with bits of information and reflections about Allen’s long creative life and his point of view. Among them:
— Allen’s script is not scripture; he makes changes if in the midst of shooting a better idea presents itself. He also allows his cast a degree of departure from written dialogue as long as the words sound natural.
— Actors don’t audition for Allen; he chooses them based on what he’s seen and the advice from his longtime casting director, then meets with them for a few a minutes to confirm his instinct.
— Only men have rejected roles because the pay is so low; women know that their roles are priceless in the male-dominated world of filmmaking (he’s directed women to Oscar nominations 13 times with six wins).
— Allen will risk his relatively modest fees to add a day to the shooting schedule if he decides it serves his story.
— While not unkind to his cast and crew, he’s not interested in their personal lives and doesn’t engage them in such talk; he’s there to work.
— Allen avoids ordering an original score, preferring to use existing music that he personally selects from his own library and matches to the mood he wants in a scene.
— He has two demands when staying at a rented house during a shoot: a treadmill for his daily use and a shower that provides a full stream of hot water.
— Allen practices with his clarinet during long setups, sitting in the backseat of a car with the windows rolled up.
It’s fair to question whether “Start to Finish” would be more compelling had the movie itself been memorable. As it turned out, “Irrational Man” came and went with little interest from audiences and mixed reviews from critics. Actually, that reinforces the premise of Lax’s book; success or failure at the box office or approval of critics isn’t the point here.
Like it or not, conflict behind as well as in front of the camera makes for a better story. Allen’s demand for a professional set and his power over the project result in a quiet chronicle. But Lax rewards students of cinema with a clear-eyed view of the craft and a sharp portrait of one of its most creative minds at work.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky). ___