Because any director must have the confidence to think on his or her feet and answer about 20 questions every minute, it’s hard to imagine that anyone as anxious as “classic” Allen would survive in the midst of all that chaos. But the “real” Allen does more than survive. He displays a remarkable sense of calm when at work, a confidence and security that are the antithesis of his public image, and both the crew and the actors take their cues from him.
Every actor I spoke to on the London set of “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” and every actor I interviewed who’s worked with Allen over the years, from Diane Keaton to Owen Wilson (and dozens in between), all speak of Allen as a low-key, unflappable director. A veteran cinematographer once told me the only directors he knew who got exactly what they wanted acted like fascists on the set and ran over anybody who got in their way. Allen proves him wrong.
Since histrionics are the last thing you’ll find on Allen’s set, he even questioned whether it was worth my while to film him at work. “My sets are boring,” he warned me. “Nothing exciting ever happens, and I barely talk to the actors.”
Yet some sort of alchemy does take place, because, more often than not, the end result with Allen’s films can be quite remarkable. (At the age of 76, he finds himself the recipient of four more Oscar nominations for his most recent release, “Midnight in Paris” — an accolade that seems to impress everyone but Allen.) For a guy who “barely talks to the actors,” Allen seems to repeatedly bring out their best. Under his tutelage, those actors have been nominated for 16 Academy Awards and have brought home the coveted statuettes six times.
So what’s his secret? As the saying goes, it’s complicated.
The comfort level that actors find on an Allen film might play a role. Josh Brolin refers to the set as “very blue-collar,” meaning it lacks the self-importance, the preciousness of many movie sets run by less accomplished directors. For instance, Allen does not retreat to his trailer while the crew is setting up the next shot. In fact, he has no trailer, which tends to diffuse any complaints an actor may have about his or her own accommodations. Between takes, Allen remains accessible to cast and crew as he sits in any nearby chair, talks to his assistant or his producer (who is also his sister), reads the paper or practices his clarinet until he’s needed again. “It’s a great loafer’s job,” he confessed to me. “Much less stressful than if I were running around delivering chicken sandwiches in a deli somewhere.”