Tiffani astonished for starring in Woody movie
Life reflects art in more ways than one in Woody Allen's latest romantic comedy "Hollywood Ending." The movie inside the movie becomes the forum for down-and-out director Val Waxman to reclaim more than just his fading career. It's a chance for the downtrodden artist to rekindle his passion for his work. His dilemma? The golden opportunity is being championed on his behalf by the most unlikely cheerleader—Val's ex-wife Ellie.
It's also a chance for the dejected and rejected Val to have one last shot at reigniting any residual passion that might still be lingering between him and Ellie. His issue? Hal, thestudio head who holds the purse strings to Val's comeback, is Ellie's lover and bossŠand the man she chose over Val.
Allen offers, "Val is a highly temperamental and neurotic film director, a hypochondriac who is a talent, but in a sense is 'over' because of his demands. Nobody wants to work with him. When he finally gets a chance at a comeback to reclaim his past glory, he realizes the only one wanting to work with him is his ex-wife, but there's all this unsettled business between them. So it's a comeback, but at what price?"
In the end, Val so loves his art and misses the limelight that he's willing to take a chance with the devil he knows—a sacrifice Allen suspects any struggling director would suffer when confronted with the same option.
Meanwhile, the same rule applies to the producer determined to make her pet project happen with the right director for the material. In this case, the producer is Val's ex-wife Ellie, and the devil she knows is Val. Now, she just has to convince her current lover, the studio head, that her ex-husband is the right man for the job.
Téa Leoni, who stars as Ellie, says her attraction to the role was simple: the opportunity to work with Woody Allen. She jokingly describes Ellie as "a hidden romantic with a passion for shoes," and says that she enjoyed the twist of being an actress playing a producer having to coddle difficult talent. "Movie producers and studio executives are people too," she jokes. "Truthfully, having worked with very passionate producers in my career, I may have referenced them at times in playing Ellie."
The current man in Ellie's life is the studio head, Hal, played by Treat Williams. "Hal's a nice guy, but he's strictly a businessman," Williams offers. "He understands the world from that perspective, so he has neither the time nor the patience for a neurotic, indulgent artist like the one Woody plays."
Leoni and Williams were the only two actors given a full script. "The thing about Woody is that it is all on the page, and in my case, I knew the character pretty well because I had the luxury of a full script," Williams says. "The trick with Woody is to just take his lead. He's very quiet and very shy. He doesn't talk to you a lot and actors aren't always sure how to read that."
Nevertheless, the ice usually breaks quickly, as Williams recalls. "The first day, we were shooting this scene where we were all in the limousine and I couldn't get it right. I thought, 'Okay, this is over. I'll be looking for another job tomorrow.' After about five takes of me not giving him what he wanted, I said, 'This is very hard,' to which Woody said, 'Yes, it is hard. That's why some people drive taxi cabs, and we get to do this.' Very matter of fact, just like that. With Woody you do as many takes as it takes, no more, no less. Aside from his being a great filmmaker, I think that's one of the reasons actors love working with him."
Debra Messing, who plays Lori, Val's girlfriend and an aspiring actress, had worked with Allen before in "Celebrity," so she was all-too-familiar with the director's penchant for keeping the full script out of the hands of all but a select few but that didn't stop her from trying. "I tried to bribe anyone who had a copy of the script, starting with Téa, but it never worked. I even flirted with one of the 'transpo' guys to get a plot point." Messing laughs.
Leoni admits to taking full advantage of having the upper hand. "I had so much fun creating misinformation about my fellow cast members and their characters in the film to completely confuse them and make them paranoid."
Messing notes that her frustration over never knowing the full plot was a small price to pay for the opportunity to work again with Allen. "When he asked me to do this part, it was a no-brainer. What was I going to say, 'No?' This is an artist who has had a hand in defining what comedy is in America. For me, it was a dream come true."
Like Messing, Tiffani Thiessen walked into a cold reading, clueless about her character, actress Sharon Bates. "I'll never forget that reading; it was an amazing experience," Thiessen remarks. "You come into the room and look over and see this amazing genius sitting there, this legend."
Months after completing her role, Thiessen admits, "It was all very exciting, but to this day, I still don't know what the movie is about. That's just how Woody works."
Another exciting aspect of making the movie for the young actress was the chance to work with Téa Leoni and Debra Messing, not to mention George Hamilton. "He was so charming; I can see why women fall for himŠand it has nothing to do with his tan," Thiessen teases.
Despite being a veteran of numerous film comedies, George Hamilton had never worked with Allen before "Hollywood Ending." "All these years I've been in the business and had never been in a Woody Allen film, but it was worth the wait."
Hamilton plays a studio executive, whose name we know is Ed, but about whose job we can only guess. "I think it's hilarious that he's in all these meetings, but we have no idea what he does—except that he's a 'yes-man,'" Hamilton comments. "I kept wondering if my character was some kind of statement about how Woody feels about studio executives."
Another longtime film veteran who counts "Hollywood Ending" as his first collaboration with Woody Allen was Mark Rydell, though Allen offers it was not for lack of trying. In fact, he had wanted to work with Rydell for years and had broached him on the subject several times before, but timing was always a problem.
Despite having never worked together, the two had much in common, including their New York upbringing, their careers as actor/directors, and their mutual passion for jazz music. Rydell adds that he and Allen have something else very much in common. "I told Woody that we have 100 years of analysis between us," he quips.
Rydell plays Al Hack, Val's loyal longtime agent. "The thing about Al Hack is he's a bit sleazy but he's so loyal, he'd do anything to save his client," Rydell says. "I like that kind of loyalty—one of those throwback agents who's smarmy but loveable just the same, and loyal to the end."
A highly regarded director in his own right, Rydell says he found Val's commitment to his art an exaggerated send-up of Allen himself as a director. "Woody doesn't sell out, so Val is kind of true to form for him. I would sell out but I can't find a buyerŠokay, that's an Al Hack line.
"We actually do have very different approaches as directors," Rydell adds. "I rehearse for weeks and he doesn't rehearse. He would give me a four-page scene and he would say 'Okay go.' It was like playing gut poker. He just puts you on the set, and it's sink or swim."Allen is confident his actors will swim. "He always says he's not a great director, but a great caster," says Rydell. "He really does set the tone in putting people at ease."
Putting actors at ease is one of Allen's strengths, notes producer Letty Aronson. "I think it's because Woody is just very considerate and can always understand the other person's point of view. He always wants to make sure they are comfortable. His desire is to keep everything natural, especially the performances, which is why he doesn't like a lot of rehearsing. He wants to see what the cast will bring to their performances."
The same rule applies with the talent on the other side of the camera. For German cinematographer Wedigo von Schultzendorff, easing into Allen's style was something of a challenge because, he acknowledges, romantic comedy was not his forte. He recalls, "Helen Robin (co-producer) saw my work on 'The Thirteenth Floor' and called me. Woody likes foreign D.P.s and he wanted to see something new and exciting. It was very funny because I had done these horror films, and he kept saying 'no negative, no dark. This is romantic comedy; people have to glow!'"
The cinematographer also had to adjust to Allen's overall shooting style. "He tries to do everything in one shot, so you go from this wide shot, where you see the room in 180, and then you track in for a close up. I had to create this whole choreography with the lighting," von Schultzendorff explains. Like von Schultzendorff, "Hollywood Ending" marked the first Allen film for costume designer Melissa Toth. "This was a big break for me, so I went into it very nervous, wanting to please the man. But after a while you realize he really is completely trusting you and that's very addicting," Toth says. "It was a creative challenge for me because it was a movie inside a movie, which called for wardrobe from two different time periods."
Toth adds, "They wanted a fresh look to everything and Woody also prefers earth tones over anything black or dark blue. Téa had a ton of clothes, mostly on the lighter side, and a lot of cashmere. Debra's character was a bit of a tart, so I could really play with her wardrobe. On the other hand, Woody wears his own clothes. He said, 'I don't need any costumes.' On one day, he would say 'Just bring me that oatmeal sweater from my closet,' and the next day it would be 'bring me the cream of wheat one,'" the costume designer notes, laughing.Toth especially admired the unspoken shorthand between Allen and his longtime production designer Santo Loquasto. "It was great. They've worked together so long, they barely need to talk about anything. It's just this wonderful natural rhythm between the two," she says.
For Loquasto, the nine-week shoot revisited many of Allen's favorite New York haunts. "But this was different from the last few films because the tone for these sets was more sophisticated—sort of that romantic privileged New Yorker look, but not over-the-top privileged," he qualifies. While Allen's previous film, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," was set in the early 1940s, Loquasto says the time frame for the movie inside the movie was "sort of a nondescript period of the '40s. It was fun to do the movie inside the movie, playing up the studio designs."
The historic Kaufman Astoria Studios and the Hellerstein Studio on 26th in Chelsea were the sites for the fictional Galaxy Pictures studio and production offices. Val's apartment was set in a refurbished Chelsea duplex on 21st Street. The plush Los Angeles home of Hal, the studio head, was actually a house on Long Island. Loquasto reveals, "We had all the palm trees shipped in from Florida and had to build up the area around the terrace. It was amazingly successful, and even the weather cooperated. When you are shooting a New York stand-in for a Beverly Hills locale, you do need perfect weather. We got lucky on a beautiful, sunny day."
Unlike the production designer in the movie, spoofed in a cameo appearance by Isaac Mizrahi, Loquasto used existing New York locations for much of the film. Shooting took place in Central Park; the Plaza Hotel, where Hal meets with Val to talk about the movie; Balthazar's Bar; and the Carlyle Hotel's Bemelman's Bar where Ellie first meets Val to discuss the offer. For the movie inside the movie, Loquasto says, "I really enjoyed creating some of the vintage New York scenes best—the night club, the tenement, the brothel—all very fun to do."
The movie within the movie becomes the common ground where the theatrics of the personal lives behind the camera usurp the drama being played out before it. It's also the chance for Allen to tweak his ilk. One of Hollywood's most prolific auteurs, the writer/director/actor seems to be having fun in the age-old industry battle of art versus commerce. Known for being enormously secretive about his own work with studio executives and even talent until the final cut, Allen plays Val's protective zeal to the hilt, with a comic twist that leaves the director as much in the dark. Allen says, "The thing about Val is that all of his neuroses comes back to him in the making of this film. What director can't relate to that?"