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If the making of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris were itself a Woody Allen movie, it would start something like this: After a tastefully understated title card — simple white lettering on black — and against a jazz arrangement of, say, Cole Porter‘s “I Love Paris,” the camera slowly zooms in on a window at the Hotel Ritz Paris, where Allen is looking out over the Place Vendome. In voiceover, we hear his thoughts: “I have a tendency to romanticize Paris,” the writer-director confesses. “When the lights come up and it’s almost midnight, everything looks so pretty.” Somewhere here, he knows, there has to be a movie.
Cut to: Back in New York, Letty Aronson, Allen’s younger sister and his primary producer since 2001, has just finished reading his latest screenplay, the fanciful tale of a modern-day Hollywood screenwriter who finds himself, suddenly, magically, wandering through the Paris of the 1920s, brushing shoulders with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Who is going to come to see this film?” she asks her brother. “I don’t think a lot of people even know Gertrude Stein and certainly not Man Ray. I just feel it’s for a real niche audience.”
Cut to a sunny day in Los Angeles: Owen Wilson is closing the script that Allen has sent over for him to read. In an accompanying letter, the director explains the movie he is planning is going to be very romantic, and he wants Wilson for the lead. Wilson is puzzled, though. He isn’t quite sure how all the time-travel stuff works and wonders who Allen is going to find to play iconic figures like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. “It all just seems sort of far-fetched,” he says to himself, yet he’s intrigued.
Cut to: Marion Cotillard at her apartment in Paris as she takes a call from Allen, whom she’s never met. He has a part for her in his new movie, he explains, that of a woman in the Parisian demimonde who’s romanced by both Hemingway and Picasso. They talk for more than an hour, and when the call ends, she turns to some friends who are visiting and exclaims, “Oh, my God, I’ve been talking to Woody Allen — that was Woody Allen’s voice!”
Cut to: Several weeks later. Allen is now back in the City of Lights. Production on the film is due to start in a few days, but first he and his cinematographer Darius Khondji, accompanied by a couple of camera assistants, are wandering the streets, capturing shots of the city that will be used in the opening montage. Allen is delighted by the overcast sky and the wet pavement — it’s just the look he wants. But then a fresh wave of rain pours down. Both men are drenched, but Khondji realizes, “Woody didn’t care at all that we were wet. He was just completely happy because it was the right feeling for the film.”
Serendipitously, so. Allen has perfected an almost clockwork approach to filmmaking — since 1969, when he directed his first feature, Take the Money and Run, he’s completed 41 more films at a remarkably consistent rate of almost one a year. But his latest film has broken out of the pack. Having brought in $56.3 million domestically and $145.2 million worldwide, it’s his top-grossing movie ever. (The 1977 Oscar-winning Annie Hall collected $38.3 million domestically, the equivalent of about $143 million today.) Midnight — an enchanting fantasy in which Wilson finds himself transported back to the movable feast that was Paris in the ’20s, only to learn that nostalgia for the past isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — has given Allen new currency.
Allen fell in love with a title, Midnight in Paris. But for the longest time, he couldn’t decide what exactly would happen at midnight, until he stumbled upon the idea that a car could pull up and whisk him into the past.
“To me, the torture is getting the idea, working the idea out — its general plot, structure and story,” Allen says of his process. “But once I know that, I can write a screenplay in two, three weeks. It’s the difference between writing it and writing it down. It becomes pleasurable for me and flows easily because I’ve done all the spade work beforehand.”
Even though, in this particular story, his protagonist would be encountering some of the artistic giants of the 20th century, Allen didn’t need to research the period. “I didn’t have to. I did read them when I was younger,” he says. “Characters like Hemingway, Picasso, Salvador Dali. They are so vivid and have such pronounced styles, I didn’t have to do any research at all. I could write it off the top of my head.”
As for his sister’s doubts that there was an audience ready to make their acquaintance, Allen wasn’t concerned. “I knew that I knew Gertrude Stein, and I’m not the most literate person,” he says. “The movie would be for those people who do know her. I never think about the audience. If Letty had been correct and only a minuscule amount of people would have been interested in Paris in the ’20s, that would have been fine with me too.”
But first there was another problem. Since the movie was, in part, a period piece, Aronson couldn’t see how it could be filmed under the modest budgets with which Allen comfortably works. And so the script was set aside for several years, until France introduced a tax rebate for international productions in 2009. That allowed Aronson to bring the budget down to $18 million, and with funding from Spain’s MediaPro, which had struck a deal to finance three of Allen’s pictures, beginning with 2010’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the movie was ready to move forward as the filmmaker’s summer 2010 project.
As it took shape, Allen’s longtime casting director Juliet Taylor suggested offering the Texas-born Wilson the lead role. Although he would be a departure from the director’s usual choice of onscreen alter ego — typically an actor playing an East Coast neurotic — Allen liked the idea and even reworked the character of Gil for a better fit. “Owen’s persona, his sound, is so much more rooted out West or in California. He looks like he’d be at home surfing. So I had to change it,” Allen says. “But I think that was a help to me because I made him a successful California character, a guy with a house and swimming pool. It sharpened the poignancy of wanting, in the face of all that commercial success, to really do something that was comparable to what those bohemians in Paris had accomplished.”
Wilson himself was somewhat bemused by Allen’s fascination with his West Coast lifestyle. “He talks about me always being at the beach. I think he thinks I live at SeaWorld,” Wilson cracks.
For Gil’s difficult and demanding fiancee, Inez, Allen says he had Rachel McAdams in mind as he was writing. And when he pitched her the part, he told her, “It would be much more interesting for you to play this kind of character. You don’t want to go your whole life playing these beautiful girls. You want to play some bitchy parts. It’s much more interesting for you.” When it came time to cast Adriana, the muse who bewitches Hemingway, Picasso and Gil, he says, “I did need a French actress, and Marion came to mind very quickly. With great good luck, she was willing to do it.”
While at the theater in New York, where he’d gone to see his friend and sometimes leading lady Scarlett Johansson in A View From the Bridge, Allen discovered Corey Stoll, who was also appearing in that play, and invited him to read for Hemingway. The actor, who has since gone on to be nominated for a Spirit Award for his performance, relates, “He handed me a couple of pages of Hemingway dialogue. It burned through my fingers, I was so excited to see Hemingway on the page. I had no idea what it was for, but he gave me some direction and that was easy.”
By now, the project was moving forward in the efficient, businesslike way that characterizes Allen’s productions.
Even though half the movie takes place in the past and includes added forays into the Belle Epoque and Versailles, production designer Anne Seibel knew she was operating under tight limits. “The challenge was to find locations and transform them,” she says. Since the famous Moulin Rouge has been extensively modernized, she found an old ballroom that could be retrofitted with a minimum of effort. And for Stein’s salon, she copied the original, down to the famous paintings on the walls, but notes, “It was more creating the mood of the period than reproducing the exact chair.”
Meanwhile, Khondji had discussions with Allen about shooting the 1920s sequences in black-and-white, but they eventually decided to go with color, giving the past a warmer, richer glow than the contemporary scenes. “Normally, Woody likes images that are very, very red, on the warm side,” he says. “And I like gold very much. So I colored it during the shooting, I gelled the lights and used old lenses for the period pieces.”
Allen, who doesn’t indulge in long rehearsal periods, called his actors together for the first time just a few days before filming began. (Wilson, who’d just recorded some of his voice work for Pixar’s Cars 2, arrived in Paris with restaurant recommendations from the Pixar staff who had worked on Ratatouille.) They all brought along a certain set of expectations about what it would be like to work on a Woody Allen movie.
“I thought he would be different, but he was actually very talkative on the set,” Cotillard says. By contrast, Wilson found that “maybe I was a little shy myself. And he’s a reserved person, so for the first couple of weeks we didn’t talk a great deal, but as I got more comfortable, we started to kid around more.” He was particularly amused watching Allen play with his iPhone. “His daughter told me all he knows how to do is check the weather,” the actor relates. “And he’d been saying stuff like, ‘It’s 100 degrees in Cairo today.’ ”
When it came time to work, Allen didn’t stand on ceremony. Moving briskly along — the shoot took just 35 days over seven weeks — he’d frequently tell the actors to use their own words, to “make it more natural.” And, says Stoll, “for the big group scenes, he’d figure out the traffic patterns, but then he’d want it to be messy. That was his most common direction: ‘Make it messier, make it more like life.’ “
Through it all, Wilson was just about the only actor on the set who knew everything about how the two halves of the movie — the period scenes that were shot first, followed by the contemporary section — fit together.
Allen and Wilson may have made for unlikely collaborators, but, says Cotillard, “Woody Allen in a way found in Owen his kind of spiritual son. It was like it was meant to be. Owen fits so perfectly in Woody’s universe, it was really organic and made total sense.”
And any doubts that audiences wouldn’t get the movie’s conceits began to melt away as soon as Midnight was unveiled as the opening-night film of the Cannes Film Festival in May. By then, Sony Pictures Classics already had acquired North American rights and quickly moved to open the film to take advantage of the momentum. It’s been playing in theaters, entertaining audiences, ever since.
Cut to the present: “It’s always nice,” Allen, who resolutely maintains his distance from all the awards hoopla that now surrounds the film, says of its rapturous reception. “I make them for the fun of making them. I work at a comparatively low budget and make the films for my own enjoyment and hope that other people like them, and so it’s always nice when they do. And in this case, people have embraced the movie. I must say, I’m now well beyond it. I’ve finished another movie already, and I’m preparing a movie for next summer. So for me, Midnight in Paris was something I did a few years ago. But nothing pleases me more than knowing people have gotten pleasure out of it. That’s always a nice bonus.”
ECHOES OF EARLIER ALLEN FILMS: Having directed 43 movies, the prolific filmmaker can be forgiven if he sometimes repeats himself.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) The tempestuous relationship between artists and their muses — Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are a recent example — is a subject to which Allen has repeatedly returned.
Everyone Says I Love You (1996) Allen and Goldie Hawn dance together along the banks of the Seine in this casual musical — the first time the director shot part of one of his features in Paris.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) Blending fantasy and comedy has resulted in some of Allen’s most heartfelt work. Here, Jeff Daniels plays a matinee idol who steps out of the screen and into the arms of Mia Farrow.
Annie Hall (1977) Allen loves targeting insufferable know-it-alls, like the guy he and Diane Keaton encounter in a movie line. Michael Sheen’s character gets the same treatment in Midnight.
What’s New Pussycat? (1965) On his first visit to Paris, Allen wrote and c0-starred in this sex comedy. Unhappy with directors Clive Donner and Richard Talmadge, he vowed to direct his future scripts.
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