Woody Allen in San Francisco: The Making of 'Blue Jasmine'
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's November stand-alone.
Blue Jasmine, the 77-year-old auteur's first film shot in the U.S. in four years, because San Francisco has been his favorite city outside of New York ever since he did stand-up comedy at the Hungry I during the 1960s. "It was strictly an indulgence because I could walk the streets, eat at the restaurants and wake up every morning looking at the bay," Allen said in a message delivered at the film's San Francisco premiere.
Virtually no filmmaker has as much freedom to make the movie he wants, where he wants, as Allen, who for more than a decade has been turning out a feature a year on modest budgets (Jasmine came in at a little less than $18 million), with no distribution set up in advance, based on his script and his unique vision as a director.
"Woody has 100 percent creative control," says his sister and producer, Letty Aronson. "Studios just don't work our way, and we don't work their way."
But New York-based Sony Pictures Classics, which has distributed Allen's past five movies, is just fine with the way he works. SPC first saw Jasmine in October 2012 and immediately acquired domestic distribution. "Woody has certainly had a box-office resurgence in the States," says SPC co-president Tom Bernard. "There's a whole new audience that has been building for Woody since Midnight in Paris [in 2011], many of whom had never seen a Woody movie before."
It was SPC's idea to open Jasmine in July, which turned out to be perfect counterprogramming in a summer of superheroes, aliens and action flicks. Allen agreed but exercised his final approval of everything having to do with the movie and objected to SPC's first pass at a marketing campaign. SPC co-president Michael Barker recalls that Allen insisted on recutting the theatrical trailers to eliminate any hint it might be comedic, even though the cast included such noted funnymen as Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C.K. "It was important [to Allen] not to mislead the audience," says Barker.
Finding and delivering the truth is at the heart of Allen's work, whether it is in the dialogue, the realistic locations, selling the picture or getting real-life performances from his cast.
"He's brutally honest," says Cate Blanchett, who plays the title role, a woman who goes from great wealth and status to near poverty when her husband's financial shenanigans are uncovered, forcing her to move in with her sister in San Francisco. "The thing about Woody is that absolutely nothing is sacred [except finding the truth]. He's a very pragmatic, in-the-moment filmmaker. If he thinks something can be changed to make it better, he will change it."
Unlike much of the other cast and crew, who repeatedly have worked with Allen over the years, this was Blanchett's first experience with the director. She loved his script and quickly adjusted to his style — which meant nearly no direction on how to play the role, aside from the words on the page. As Baldwin puts it, "The only direction we got from Woody was 'louder' and 'faster.' "
In the weeks leading up to production, Blanchett spent her evenings performing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and her days working with Sally Hawkins, who plays her sister, Ginger, in the movie. "Sally and I had that time together to talk about who the sisters were," recalls Blanchett, "where they'd come from, what the backstory was — not that it's ever mentioned [in the movie]."
Allen declined to be interviewed for this article because he won't do anything that might be construed as awards-season campaigning, but he has talked about how this movie began. "His wife, Soon-Yi, told him a story about a friend of a friend," says Aronson. "She was on top of the world, and then her husband got arrested for doing illegal things, and all of a sudden they took everything from her and she had no place to live."