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

by Anne Thompson
May 26, 2010 6:37 AM
8 Comments
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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.

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More: Directors, Festivals, Woody Allen, Cannes

8 Comments

  • brian | May 29, 2010 10:54 AMReply

    yeah, life sure is great, up here on the Upper East Side - we spend most of our time watching our Woody DVD's, waiting for his next movie, planning our next trip to France, and watching the hordes dashing off to the multiplex to see Avatar 3. . . . ! 'fun' is good enough for me, Anne! more than you can say of a lot of the recent/current fare, so Woody rules, OK?!

  • Christopher | May 29, 2010 10:51 AMReply

    Thank you so much for this article, Ms. Thompson. As an aspiring filmmaker, I've been thinking a lot about the role of methodology in developing and executing one's film. I've always had a hunch that some kind of methodological approach enhances creativity!

    Now I need to find my approach, which will only happen by doing! :)

  • Anne Thompson | May 28, 2010 11:03 AMReply

    I quite liked You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger--it's fun. But I'd hardly put it at the top of the best of Woody Allen list, which is quite long. What was the last film he made that I'd put on that list? Deconstructing Harry, 1997.

  • rgm | May 28, 2010 2:45 AMReply

    Aren't you missing the point. Allen is not being trashed. This is simply an observation about two, current, but very different styles of making films. Both directors are terrific in their own way. Both have substantial and often excellent bodies or work behind--and I fervently hope--ahead of them.

  • rgm | May 27, 2010 12:40 PMReply

    Excellent analysis.

  • Brian | May 27, 2010 5:43 AMReply

    The other "brian" says, "there are many fans who would much rather watch one of his films than 10 Avatars." Yeah, and they all live in France and Manhattan's Upper East Side. Everybody else has been going to see AVATAR ten times.

    Personally, I miss the early funny Woody and the low-budget action Cameron and don't give two hoots for either one today.

  • paul | May 27, 2010 3:41 AMReply

    Most ignorant article I've read in a long time! Allen has given excellent films in the past (please give me a break and remember his great collaborations with Keaton, Farrow, Weist, Davis) and he continues to surprise us with films like Match Point (a great existential drama even without Johanson's sexuality), anything Else (you don't excactly call Jason Biggs and Ch. Ricci "the most famous actors available", or Vicky Cristina Barcelona. He's not always on top form but when he is, he's one of the best. he's 74 and has made not few great movies for 40 years now. Give the man a break and let him make the films he likes. We don't expect from Woody to change the form of cinema now. I have these expectations from the new generations of screenwriters and directors

  • brian | May 27, 2010 3:27 AMReply

    Isn't it odd, that the greatest actors are very happy to appear in Allen's films [for very little money] despite his 'worn ideas' as you put it, Anne? This seems to be 'trash Woody season' and one thing is certain: there are many fans who would much rather watch one of his films than 10 Avatars. His body of work is truly remarkable - fortunately he is critic-proof, and we are quite happy if he looks 'droopy' at 74 - carry on, Woody!

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