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Woody Allen in San Francisco: The Making of 'Blue Jasmine'
For his 45th film, the writer-director surrounded himself with faces old and new -- the cast includes Allen rookies Cate Blanchett and Andrew Dice Clay and such veterans as Alec Baldwin and Sally Hawkins -- in service of a fish-out-of-water romance that evokes both Tennessee Williams and Bernie Madoff.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's November stand-alone.
Blue Jasmine, the 77-year-old auteur's first film shot in the U.S. in four years, because San Francisco has been his favorite city outside of New York ever since he did stand-up comedy at the Hungry I during the 1960s. "It was strictly an indulgence because I could walk the streets, eat at the restaurants and wake up every morning looking at the bay," Allen said in a message delivered at the film's San Francisco premiere.
Virtually no filmmaker has as much freedom to make the movie he wants, where he wants, as Allen, who for more than a decade has been turning out a feature a year on modest budgets (Jasmine came in at a little less than $18 million), with no distribution set up in advance, based on his script and his unique vision as a director.
"Woody has 100 percent creative control," says his sister and producer, Letty Aronson. "Studios just don't work our way, and we don't work their way."
But New York-based Sony Pictures Classics, which has distributed Allen's past five movies, is just fine with the way he works. SPC first saw Jasmine in October 2012 and immediately acquired domestic distribution. "Woody has certainly had a box-office resurgence in the States," says SPC co-president Tom Bernard. "There's a whole new audience that has been building for Woody since Midnight in Paris [in 2011], many of whom had never seen a Woody movie before."
It was SPC's idea to open Jasmine in July, which turned out to be perfect counterprogramming in a summer of superheroes, aliens and action flicks. Allen agreed but exercised his final approval of everything having to do with the movie and objected to SPC's first pass at a marketing campaign. SPC co-president Michael Barker recalls that Allen insisted on recutting the theatrical trailers to eliminate any hint it might be comedic, even though the cast included such noted funnymen as Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. "It was important [to Allen] not to mislead the audience," says Barker.
Finding and delivering the truth is at the heart of Allen's work, whether it is in the dialogue, the realistic locations, selling the picture or getting real-life performances from his cast.
"He's brutally honest," says Cate Blanchett, who plays the title role, a woman who goes from great wealth and status to near poverty when her husband's financial shenanigans are uncovered, forcing her to move in with her sister in San Francisco. "The thing about Woody is that absolutely nothing is sacred [except finding the truth]. He's a very pragmatic, in-the-moment filmmaker. If he thinks something can be changed to make it better, he will change it."
Unlike much of the other cast and crew, who repeatedly have worked with Allen over the years, this was Blanchett's first experience with the director. She loved his script and quickly adjusted to his style — which meant nearly no direction on how to play the role, aside from the words on the page. As Baldwin puts it, "The only direction we got from Woody was 'louder' and 'faster.' "
In the weeks leading up to production, Blanchett spent her evenings performing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and her days working with Sally Hawkins, who plays her sister, Ginger, in the movie. "Sally and I had that time together to talk about who the sisters were," recalls Blanchett, "where they'd come from, what the backstory was — not that it's ever mentioned [in the movie]."
Allen declined to be interviewed for this article because he won't do anything that might be construed as awards-season campaigning, but he has talked about how this movie began. "His wife, Soon-Yi, told him a story about a friend of a friend," says Aronson. "She was on top of the world, and then her husband got arrested for doing illegal things, and all of a sudden they took everything from her and she had no place to live."
Aronson insists her brother "never gave a thought to Bernie Madoff," though she admits there are similarities to his story, just as the lead character in some ways is similar to Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire — a role Blanchett played on the New York stage in 2009.
"The rhythm of Woody's writing is entirely different to the rhythm of Tennessee Williams'," says Blanchett, "But, yes, all of those things are out there."
Allen began work on Jasmine as he was winding down his 2012 movie To Rome With Love. He wrote it, as he has for years, on his manual typewriter in his offices on Park Avenue in New York City, where he also edits his movies.
With Blanchett onboard, Allen worked with his longtime casting director, Juliet Taylor, to find actors to bring his script to life. He had worked with Hawkins on 2007's Cassandra's Dream and asked her to do a brief audition as Ginger, Jasmine's working-class sister.
Hawkins went to Allen's office, where he mainly wanted to be assured the British actress could handle the American accent. "It's so discreet, humble, a modest editing suite. The hustle and bustle is outside if he wants it, but inside there is sacred silence," says Hawkins of the office.
"Woody always tries to add something fresh," adds Aronson, which led to the out-of-left-field casting of Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's ex, Augie. After Allen saw him in a guest role on HBO's Entourage, he cast Clay in the comedian's first movie in 12 years. "The first thing I said to Woody is, 'I just want you to know that Andrew is in the room, not Dice,' " recalls Clay. "I know a lot of what he knows is my stage persona."
Clay, like Blanchett and Hawkins, calls being in an Allen movie an honor — which is a good thing, considering it pays less than their usual fees and offers few of the usual perks. Says Aronson, "We're lucky to get actors who will work for the amount of money that fits in our budget."
As on all of Allen's recent films, it fell to Aronson and fellow producer Stephen Tenenbaum — who started his association with Allen as his business manager 30 years ago — to raise the financing from private investors and sell rights in major territories (and arrange, for this film, to have Focus International sell rights in smaller countries). "Within a week after the announcement in the trades that Woody is shooting his next movie," says Tenenbaum, "we started getting emails and calls from distributors in major countries. We often make deals without having to describe the movie or name the cast. They're buying a Woody Allen movie."
Costume designer Suzy Benzinger, working on her fifth Allen movie, was given about a month and only $35,000 to costume the cast and extras, including the designer duds that Blanchett would need. "When I saw this script and our budget," says Benzinger, "I really started to panic."
She pulled it off by borrowing clothes from top designers including Valentino, Carolina Herrera, Fendi, Ralph Lauren and others.
For the rest, Benzinger bought clothes off the rack and in some cases shopped at a Salvation Army store in San Francisco. Halfway through the production, Hawkins came to ask her a question: "You did wash this first?" Benzinger laughed and assured her the secondhand clothes had been washed before she dressed the actors.
Allen's movies utilize real locations because it saves money and makes the scene feel more authentic. Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who first worked with Allen on Vicky Cristina Barcelona, recalls the difficulty of shooting several scenes in a Mission district house that became Ginger's cramped apartment, and others in a dentist office that only could be done in a long shot.
But Allen didn't want the "travelogue" version of the city. "Woody Allen always wanted to avoid the postcard sights," says Aguirresarobe of the film, which marked his first shoot in the U.S. "The camera has no other merit than describing these places with some realism."
Allen surprisingly allowed his lead actors to make minor script changes, to make the words sound right for the character as long as it didn't change the meaning of the scene. "He's very humble in that way," says Baldwin. "He'd say, 'Say what you want to say along the same lines if you don't like something.' I would immediately think, 'No, I want to make this work, and it will work.' There was no censorship, no pressure. You weren't going to be judged. But you rarely could come up with anything as good as he did."