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Woody Allen, film director ... up close and personal


Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking

By Eric Lax


353 pages, $28.95

It may seem like an odd time to release a you-are-there book about the making of a film by Woody Allen.

It certainly would have been more interesting to read such an account from the early days of his career, or even during the period in which he made greats like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” to say nothing of Allen’s scandal-drenched early-to-mid-1990s efforts.

However, there is some logic to the timing of “Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking” by Eric Lax. Its subject occupies a peculiar, utterly unique place in current cinema. Allen writes and directs a film each year, always star-driven, always noteworthy. Quality varies, as does box office.

This year’s Woody work (Wood-working?), “Wonder Wheel,” debuted to a mix of raves and pans at the New York Film Festival. Whatever the reviews, the cast — led by Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake — should inspire a reasonably successful run. In addition, Allen has been in the news tangentially because of his controversial (somewhat misquoted) comments on the ongoing Harvey Weinstein horror story.

There is only a brief mention of “Wonder Wheel,” on the last page, in “Start to Finish.” The focus here, from, err, start to finish, is the production of Allen’s 2015 dramedy, “Irrational Man.” Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, it drew a mixed response from critics and a ho-hum reaction from audiences. (This critic found it highly enjoyable, especially Stone.)

“Irrational Man” is a bit of an oddity, and it’s an unexpected choice for such a book. Allen’s follow-up, “Café Society,” saw Bruce Willis suddenly replaced by Steve Carell; to be a fly on the wall for that would have been tremendously interesting.

Alas, we are flies on the wall for the making of “Irrational Man,” and that’s fine. Author Eric Lax has written about Allen several times before, in 1975’s “On Being Funny,” 1991’s “Woody Allen: A Biography,” and 2009’s “Conversations With Woody Allen.” Lax has an innate understanding of how Allen works, and quite frankly, there’s probably no other author who could be granted this level of access.

And make no mistake, this is a seriously up close and personal book.  When Allen writes the script at his Manhattan townhouse, Lax is there. When Allen studies photographs of possible locations for the Boston-set film, Lax is there. And when Allen shows up for day one of production in “cream-colored trousers” and a “beige long-sleeved cotton shirt with a frayed collar,” Lax is there.

The on-set sequences are, for longtime Allen fans, almost riveting. Those with only a passing interest in his work will not be so enchanted.

But there is one specific section in “Start to Finish” that will intrigue wide audiences. In fact, it has already made headlines. It’s a 12-page section involving the great scandal of Allen’s life. This, of course, is his affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his longtime partner, Mia Farrow, with whom he had three children. In addition, Farrow accused Allen of sexual abusing the couple’s adopted daughter, Dylan.

Lax explains that while “Irrational Man” — then called “The Boston Story” — was being made, he “was given new information about the case from a member of the Farrow family who lived in the house at the time and tells a different version of what to date has largely been a one-sided story. I include it here not to rehash the unpleasant past but because it might reshape the prism through which so many view Woody’s work.”

What follows are the words of Moses Farrow, one of the actress’s adopted children. Born in 1978 and adopted  by Farrow in 1980, Moses was adopted by Allen in 1991.

The story he tells Lax is one of a calculating, domineering, even abusive mother. It’s a stinging account, one directly at odds with the open letter from Dylan Farrow in the New York Times on February 1, 2014.

“It is a heartrending letter,” Lax writes, “all the more so because undoubtedly she believes every word of it.” But the author’s opinion on the accusations against Allen is clear. He ends this section with a quote from former investigator Linda Fairstein: “I have no reason to believe this event happened.”

Lax deserves credit for not avoiding the issue, and for delving into it so deeply. Considering his past work with Allen, it would not have been surprising to see him skip it entirely. But its placement in a book that until then was focused on a single film’s production is jarring. Quite frankly, it’s hard to get one’s mind back on the making of the frivolity of “Irrational Man”’s production afterwards.

However, just like Allen, Lax plows ahead. The shoot ends, and post-production begins. And it’s all of interest, especially a breakdown of how Allen chose the film’s music.

“Start to Finish” is peppered with anecdotes, and one highlight involves Harvey Weinstein, and Allen’s 1996 musical, “Everyone Says I Love You.” “When I did the musical, Harvey Weinstein [whose company, Miramax, bought the distribution rights] was mortified,” Allen tells Lax. “He had paid a lot of money for it, and when he saw it, his heart sank. Usually they can hide their disappointment, but he was sobbing.”

Indeed, financing is always a point of interest when it comes to Allen’s films. “Irrational Man” was the last of the director’s movies to be released by Sony Pictures Classics. Allen had a long and mainly fruitful run with SPC; his two biggest recent hits, “Midnight in Paris” and “Blue Jasmine,” were released by the studio.

As Lax explains, after Allen directed a series (the underrated “Crisis in Six Scenes”) for Amazon, the company snagged the rights to his next two features, “Café Society” and “Wonder Wheel.” Amazon paid Allen “millions more than he had been receiving from conventional distributors.”

Whatever the results, a Woody Allen project is a prestige project, and studios pay handsomely to be involved. As Allen tells Lax, Amazon is offering the director’s producer “everything he asks for. They want it to happen so much that they are amenable on every point.”

The Amazon move comes at the end of “Start to Finish.” “Irrational Man” is set for release, and Allen has already moved on to his next project. As he has for decades, the writer-director is back in his usual post-editing mode, “fully clothed on his bed, his face pressed close to the page, writing a script in longhand.”

This, the final line in the book, is a fitting conclusion for an in-depth profile of an artist who has never, ever stood still. Clearly, that has been true of his films, and his personal life. No matter what has happened, Allen has turned to his work. “Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking” is an essential chronicle of how its subject approaches that work. And whatever one thinks of Woody Allen, it’s an undeniably captivating read.

Christopher Schobert is a veteran News contributing reviewer.

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