You don’t have to be a Woody Allen fan to enjoy the new Eric Lax book “Start to Finish” (Knopf) – it’s one of the most informative and entertaining accounts of the making of a movie that I’ve ever read.
Lax has been writing about Allen for more than 40 years and clearly has earned the filmmaker’s trust. He has observed the making of many Allen movies and wrote a fine biography in the early 1990s.
The new book is ostensibly about the making of Allen’s 2014 feature “Irrational Man,” but it opens up to cover many of the 47 movies the prolific writer-director has made since his 1969 debut film “Take the Money and Run.”
Lax takes us from the script writing phase through the raising of production funds, the hiring of actors and cameramen — all the way to the color correction and sound mix.
The book makes it clear that Allen is the last of a breed of truly independent filmmakers who demands – and gets – complete control of his productions from start to finish. He is in the tradition of artists such as Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman who never faced any interference in the creation of their work.
In Allen’s case, the filmmaker has earned his independence with a phenomenal track record of critical acclaim and Oscar recognition. He also works on the tightest of budgets and has it written into his contract that if he goes over budget that money will be deducted from his own fees as writer and director. The stars who work for Allen know that they will only be paid scale – a little more than $1,300 a week – but the roles are so good that many of them have won Oscars over the years.
In the first chapter, “The Script,” we see that Allen has been able to maintain his one-movie-each-year pace by building up a stockpile of ideas and partially written scripts that he can draw on. Some movie ideas – such as the 1993 film “Manhattan Murder Mystery” – were started and then put in a drawer for decades before Allen got back to them.
The filmmaker was juggling “Magic in the Moonlight” and “Irrational Man” after he completed “Blue Jasmine” in 2012. He decided to make the lighter film (“Magic”) first to balance the seriousness of the Cate Blanchett hit.
“The Money” chapter is particularly interesting, showing how Allen has had to scramble a bit over the past decade or so after losing his home bases of United Artists in the 1970s and Orion Pictures in the 1980s and 1990s. Allen hasn’t been able to work with major studios because they won’t allow him to make his films without their input. Lately, he’s formed alliances with foreign financiers and worked overseas, and the forthcoming “Wonder Wheel” (below) was underwritten by Amazon.
The independent companies that Allen worked with during the first several decades of his career, Lax writes, have now been acquired by “corporate Hollywood, which prefers gambling $100 to $200 million on a picture in the hope of it garnering $1 billion or more in ticket sales (and) is not interested in financing let alone giving total control of a project to a filmmaker with even a comparatively tiny budget, even if it was very profitable. The stakes are too small. What amounts to a blockbuster (final gross) for Woody Allen is just a good weekend’s take to them.”