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Woody Allen vs. Mike Leigh: One Hires Stars, Other Makes Them

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 26, 2010 at 6:37AM

At this stage of the game, there's no point in interviewing Woody Allen (age 74) or Mike Leigh (age 67) about their movies, because we know exactly what they're doing.
Thompson on Hollywood
Thompson on Hollywood

At this stage of the game, there's no point in interviewing Woody Allen (age 74) or Mike Leigh (age 67) about their movies, because we know exactly what they're doing.

Woody Allen writes a screenplay, and because he's Woody Allen, he casts it with the best actors available, who make it possible for him to raise foreign coin--and to shoot in exotic locations like London, Paris and Barcelona. Allen was one of many filmmakers showing films at Cannes (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger stars Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins and Naomi Watts) who is in his declining years as a major auteur. During the press festival press conference--Allen was on and funny, despite looking droopy--he talked about how he wrote his characters and then cast them with the best actors he could find.

It hit me that especially these days, his ability to do that is what makes the movies work. Check out the final ensemble for Allen's latest romantic comedy Midnight in Paris, about a family traveling on business: Kathy Bates, Carla Bruni, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams and Alison Pill. Put Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and sparks will fly. Imagine that movie without them, or Match Point without Scarlett Johansson, and what have you got? What keeps these films fresh and watchable? The actors bring fresh life to Allen's worn ideas.

Leigh, on the other hand, is neither in decline nor reworking anything: with Another Year (picked up by Sony Pictures Classics) he is at the height of his powers. That's because his process remains the same. And it works every time. He's like Pixar. Each new movie is original, entertaining, masterful and emotionally moving. That's really hard to do consistently, every time. It means that Pixar and Leigh have their process down: they know how to make their films really good.

Leigh starts with no script but a story idea. He works with his actors individually and in different groups for improvisatory workshops where they explore his basic premise and research and define their characters until they become them. They work out the story, often not knowing key plot elements that come as a surprise on set, and Leigh eventually writes it up and they shoot it. It's so organic that the resulting movie rings true. And the extraordinary performances of Lesley Manville in Another Year, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, Brenda Blethyn in Secrets & Lies, Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake, David Thewlis in Naked, or Jim Broadbent in Topsy Turvy are the inevitable end result.

This article is related to: Directors, Festivals, Woody Allen, Cannes

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.